MA in the History of Art

Central European Art and Culture 1918-1956: A Minor Modernism?

Study at the CourtauldStudy at the CourtauldStudy at the Courtauld

Course Description

Inspired by the particularly Central European features of Franz Kafka’s writing and identity as a German-speaking Jew from Austro-Hungarian Prague, Deleuze and Guattari stressed the significance of his lived experience of multiple cultural identification as a key quality of what they called ‘a minor literature’. Minor literatures, they argued in 1975, have a ‘high coefficient of deterritorialisation’; ‘everything in them is political’.  

This new special option examines the enterprise of modernism from the perspective of Central Europe, interrogating the unique characteristics of ‘minor modernisms’. The course embraces the dynamism of the ‘global turn’ in art history and the challenges of art historiography in a multi-ethnic region to combine the study of major ‘isms’ of art such as Dada, Constructivism and Surrealism with research on local artists’ associations and their particular aspirations. The timeframe 1918-1956 calls into question European modernism’s usual framing as an interwar phenomenon to consider how it reinvented itself in relation to the rise of national socialism, World War 2 and the division of Europe at Yalta, thereby challenging the vestiges of Cold War thinking in contemporary art history.

The identities of key cultural actors in Austria, Germany, Hungary and the Czechoslovak and Polish Republics often remained plural despite the formation of individual nation states after the collapse of the multinational Austro-Hungarian Empire. Exchange and transformation, as proposed in the landmark exhibition Central European Avant-Gardes: Exchange and Transformation (LA County Museum of Art, 2002), were thus hallmarks of Central European self-perception, and cultural production was closely bound up with patterns of migration, shifting borders, and the interchangeability of majority and minority positions.

Modernism in Central Europe explores the region’s diversity of cultures to discover the critical debates in aesthetics and politics they occasioned and how these relate to today’s concerns with transnationalism, class, gender, and ethnicity. The course is co-taught and interdisciplinary, cross-referencing to the popular press and magazines, literature, theatre, as well as alternative sites of social and cultural progressivism such as gymnastics clubs, and music as a contested field of national and cultural identification. Students will be encouraged to develop their own research topics and funding permitting, we will make a group study visit to Bratislava and Vienna.

Language and other requirements

Standard entry requirements. Reading knowledge of a Central European language (esp. Czech, German, Hungarian, Polish, Slovak) will be an advantage, but not a requirement