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Ivan Pfaff

S. K. Neumann a česká výtvarná avantgarda

The poet S. K. Neumann (1875-1947) was among the more sensitive figures of Czech art before 1923. However, beginning in 1936, he figured, in an extremely negative way, in the polemic between Czech critics and proponents of Stalin's cultural politics - particularly in the Stalinist campaign against 'formalism' in art. In a pamphlet titled Anti-Gide, published in May 1937, he set forth a representative model of Stalinist dogmatism in conceiving of compositional and formal approaches. Towards the end of 1937, he appeared in Tvorba (Artistic Creation), a communist cultural magazine, having penned 'Dnešní Mánes' (Present-Day Mánes), an essay in which he led an attack against the leading figures of modernist Czech visual art, with Emil Filla and Jan Zrzavý first and foremost among them. His guiding criteria here were 'a positive, healthy and truthful attitude towards objective reality which rejects all currents of decadent formalism' alongside 'the liberal superstition that a work of art should be judged solely on its artistic merits'. The total negation of all art which did not conform to agitational manipulation became his credo. His series brought a domestic variety of Nazi and Bolshevik campaigning against modern art en bloc into the Czech cultural community. Almost all of the Czech avant-garde's top ten artistic and literary figures repudiated Neumann's backward ideas, his dogmatic methods and particularly his obscure scandalisation of leading artists outright. Among his opponents, Karel Teige, a theorist of the Surrealist group from Prague, was the most radical and consistent, accusing Neumann of pilfering the idea of degenerate art from Nazism. The debate over Mánes lay bare the wide range of opinions held by leftist avant-garde artists. The most mature figures in Czech art rejected Neumann's views with disgust. In the fifties his condemnation of the avant-garde, his championing of the ostensible 'common people' and his thrashing of 'formalism' were welcomed as theoretical reinforcement in the regime's official persecution of the avant-garde. Nonetheless, with time the dynamics of independent thinking and creation proved stronger than the dynamics of perverted theories spinning off from political opportunism.

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