New Formations: Czech Avant-Garde Art and Modern Glass from the Roy and Mary Cullen Collection
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
November 6, 2011 through February 5, 2012
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), presents New Formations: Czech Avant-Garde Art and Modern Glass from the Roy and Mary Cullen Collection November 6, 2011-February 5, 2012, shedding light on a still under-known chapter of 20th-century art. The exhibition features more than 150 Czech avant-garde works amassed by Houston philanthropists Roy and Mary Cullen, including outstanding examples from the flowering of Czech Surrealism; rare artists‘ books and avant-garde periodicals; and exquisitely molded and blown modern glass. The exhibition is curated by leading art historians based in Prague, Karel Srp of the Prague Municipal Gallery and independent scholar Lenka Bydžovská; Alison de Lima Greene, MFAH curator of contemporary art and special projects, has also contributed to the catalogue and organized this exhibition for Houston.
“This project builds and expands upon the MFAH’s nationally acclaimed 1989 Czech Modernism: 1900 – 1945 exhibition,” said MFAH interim director Gwendolyn H. Goffe. “However, there is still much to learn about 20th-century Czech art and its contribution to European modernism. The Cullens have shown imaginative flair and true connoisseurship in re-telling this story through their collection, literally a ‘New Formation’ of the international avant garde.”
“Roy and Mary Cullen have built several significant collections, ranging from Latin American modernism to contemporary Texas and Chicago artists,” Greene added. “Their commitment to Czech avant-garde came about by a happy coincidence. They were deeply impressed by our Czech Modernism exhibition. Equally important, however, was the Cullens‘ first-hand experience of the Velvet Revolution. They were in Prague the day that Vaclav Havel was elected president in December 1989, an event which decisively ended over five decades of Communist rule. For the Cullens, this was a profoundly inspiring moment in history.”
Many of the artists introduced to American audiences by Czech Modernism in 1989 are represented in the Cullen collection, including Toyen, Josef Šíma, Karel Teige, and Jindrich Štyrský. However, New Formations will highlight significant artists overlooked by the earlier exhibition, including the Skupina 42 (Group 42) artists (František Hudeček, Bohumír Matal, and Alois Wachsman, among others), whose work captures the desperate spirit of World War II. Additionally, the Cullens‘ exceptional collection of the radical feminist Toyen represents the full arc of her career, from her early book illustrations and abstractions of the 1920s and 1930s, to her passionately autobiographical Surrealist compositions, to her final years in post-war Paris.
The title New Formations is taken from the Artificielismus (Artificialism) manifesto, published in 1927–28 by Štyrský and Toyen. It aptly reflects the Cullens‘ spirit of adventure and their commitment to charting this lost chapter of the avant-garde. “Czech artists were trapped in a 50-year time capsule, and nobody, I mean nobody, outside of Czechoslovakia knew what was there,” Mary Cullen has stated. “Czech art is still not fully integrated into the history of the 20th century [and] I really wanted to make sure that the collection tells the whole story as much as possible.”
About the Exhibition
The exhibition opens with the publications of the Devětsil Artistic Association (1920-31), which briefly united the post-World War I Czech avant-garde. The brilliant artist and theoretician Karel Teige was the association‘s often contentious leader, and Toyen, Josef Šíma, and Jindrich Štyrský were among its pioneering members. Among the works on view will be the first Devětsil anthology, Jaroslav Seifert and Teige‘s groundbreaking collaboration On the Waves of TSF, and the complete run of ReD (Revue Devětsil), proclaimed by Teige to be the “last word of international modernism, modern restraint, and modern will: revolution.” The poet Vítězslav Nezval‘s celebrated Abeceda (Alphabet) will also be featured. The book was illustrated by choreographer and dancer Milča Magerova‘s physical interpretations of Nezval‘s poems based on the letters of the alphabet, and it remains among the most cherished statements of Czech art.
The second section of the exhibition focuses on the production of the Devětsil artists in relation to their Paris contemporaries, with an emphasis on the development of the uniquely Czech movements of Artificialism and Poetism; while the third segment uncovers the Czech avant-garde‘s fascination with erotic exploration. Among the featured works in this section is Štyrský‘s haunting collage for Emilie Comes to Me in a Dream, 1933.
The fourth segment of the exhibition documents the production of the Czech Surrealists in the 1930s, and features among other works Toyen‘s magisterial The Message of the Forest, 1936. The subsequent chapters address the war years, when Czech artists were forced to work underground, and Toyen‘s subsequent life in exile.
New Formations concludes with a glorious array of 30 examples of Czech modern glass, selected from the Cullen collection by noted scholar Jan Mergl. The Cullen collection provides an overview of Czech glass from 1900 to the end of the 1930s, showcasing a period of swift transformation from Art Nouveau to the clean lines of Czech Functionalism. And while the history of Czech glass in the 20th century is rarely considered in juxtaposition with that of the avant-garde, seen as a whole, the Cullen collection suggests a larger view of visual and material culture that is both provocative and refreshing.
A symposium devoted to the exhibition is planned for Saturday, November 5. Guest curators Karel Srp and Lenka Bydžovská will be among the invited speakers, as well as Matthew Witkovsky, curator and chair of the photography department at the Art Institute of Chicago, and Jindřich Toman, Professor of Slavic Languages at the University of Michigan.
About the Cullens
Roy Henry Cullen is president of RHC Operating Company, which specializes in venture capitalism, family accounting services, and real estate development. He is also president of The Cullen Foundation, dedicated to giving to the educational needs, health care and arts in Texas and continuing the legacy initiated by Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen during their lifetime. He is trustee emeritus at the Kinkaid School; lifetime board member of the Boy Scouts of America; and an honorary board member of Southwestern University.
Mary Cullen serves on the board of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and has served on the boards of the Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston and the Houston Grand Opera. She also served as a board member of the United States Olympic Committee.
In addition to Czech avant-garde art and modern glass, the couple collects Surrealism, Latin American art, the L.A. Beat generation, the Chicago Imagists, and Texas art.
Accompanying the exhibition will be a major, 320-page, hardcover catalogue documenting the remarkable depth and breadth of the Cullen Collection. Co-published by Yale University Press and the MFAH, the catalogue includes an introduction by Greene and essays from Srp, Bydžovská, and Jan Mergl, an internationally recognized expert on Czech glass. The catalogue also features an extended interview with the Cullens and hitherto untranslated artists‘ writings from this era of the avant-garde. The book will retail for $75 in the MFAH Shop.
Throughout the exhibition, tours for students and adults will be offered, and resources from the Kinder Foundation Education Center will also be available. Programming highlights are below:
- Saturday, November 5, 2011, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.: Scholars Symposium, including “The Czech Avant-Garde and the Book,” presented by Karel Srp, Curator, Municipal Gallery, Prague; “The Devětsil Union of Modern Culture,” presented by Matthew Witkovsky, Curator, Art Institute of Chicago; “The Language of Czech Photomontage,” presented by Jindrich Toman, Professor, Slavic Languages, University of Michigan; “Czech Surrealism,” presented by Lenka Bydžovská, Curator, Prague; respondents from Rice University and the University of Houston with audience Q&As; and a reception and exhibition viewing
- Thursday, December 1, 2011, 4 to 7 p.m.: Sketching in the Galleries invites adults and children of all drawing levels to drop-in, explore and sketch in the galleries, guided by an MFAH teaching artist
About the 1989 Czech Modernism: 1900 – 1945 Exhibition
In October 1989 the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, opened Czech Modernism: 1900-1945. This was not the MFAH‘s first exhibition to touch on this era; František Drtikol‘s photographs were the subject of a 1932 show organized by one of the artist‘s protégés who had settled in Texas. However, the oblivion of the Cold War era had largely erased the contributions of the Czech avant-garde from contemporary discourse, and when Anne Wilkes Tucker, MFAH curator of photography, started acquiring vintage prints by Jaromír Funke, Jaroslav Rössler, and Josef Sudek in 1979, these artists were all but forgotten. With the encouragement of Dr. Peter C. Marzio, who joined the museum staff as director in 1982, Tucker assembled a curatorial team with MFAH curator Alison de Lima Greene, independent curator Jaroslav Anděl, Willis Hartshorn at the International Center for Photography, and Ralph McKay, director of the MFAH film program.
Together they spent five years conducting groundbreaking research, resulting in a survey of over 350 works of art, documents, and films. Marzio acknowledged the reconstructive nature of the exhibition: ―To write new chapters in the history of creativity and to add artists to the pantheon of artistic leaders has been the mission of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, since it opened in 1924. Czech Modernism: 1900–1945 is a major effort in that tradition.‖
Within weeks of the Czech Modernism opening, the dissolution of Hungary‘s borders, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Velvet Revolution began to re-draw the map of Europe, a process that was well underway once Czech Modernism traveled to New York the following spring, where it was widely acclaimed. The New York Times devoted a full page to the exhibition, with Michael Kimmelman, Andy Grundburg, and Caryn James united in praise. While many subsequent exhibitions have added new research to the field, the MFAH‘s Czech Modernism continues to be a defining introduction.