The Czech Avant-Garde Literary Movement Between the World Wars

edited by Ondrej Sládek and Michael Heim

by Thomas G. Winner (Author) Ondrej Sládek (Volume editor) Michael Heim (Volume editor)
©2015 Monographs 200 Pages


The Czech Avant-Garde Literary Movement Between the Two World Wars tells the little-known story of the renaissance of Czech literary arts in the period between the two world wars. The avant-garde writers during this period broke down the barrier between the elite literary language and the vernacular and turned to spoken language, substandard forms, everyday sources such as newspapers and detective stories, and forms of popular entertainment such as the circus and the cabaret. In his analyses of the writings of this period, Thomas G. Winner illuminates the aesthetic and linguistic characteristics of these works and shows how poetry and linguistics can be combined. The Czech Avant-Garde Literary Movement Between the Two World Wars is essential reading for courses on modern Czech literature, comparative literature, and Slavic literature.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • Author’s Preface
  • Editor’s Note
  • Chapter One. Prologue: The Antecedents
  • Historical Background
  • The Antecedents of the Czech Avant-Garde
  • The Influence of Apollinaire
  • The Pioneering Role of S. K. Neumann
  • The Čapek Brothers
  • Dialectal Forms
  • Chapter Two. The Proletarian Movement and the Evolution of Poetist Theory
  • The Proletarian Culture Movement
  • The Birth of Devětsil
  • Early Poetist Theories
  • Proletarian Art and Poetism: An Initially Blurred Boundary
  • The Maturing of Poetist Theories: The Second and Third Manifestos
  • Chapter Three. The Poetist Practice of Vítězslav Nezval
  • The Early Poetry
  • The Amazing Magician
  • Telegrams on Wheels
  • The Acrobat
  • Poetism and Music
  • Poetism and Painting
  • Chapter Four. The Poetist Practice of Jaroslav Seifert
  • Seifert the Poetist
  • Chapter Five. The Poetist Prose of Vladislav Vančura
  • Vančura’s Early Prose
  • The First Novel
  • A Novel of Poetist Vitality: Capricious Summer
  • Chapter Six. The Relation of the Prague Linguistic Circle to Poetism
  • Language and Poetry
  • Chapter Seven. From Poetism to Surrealism
  • Some Semiotic Principles of Surrealism
  • Bibliography
  • List of Cited Works Translated into English: Selection, Compiled by Ondřej Sládek
  • Further Reading: Selection, Compiled by Ondřej Sládek

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Prologue: The Antecedents

When the rich artistic life of the 1960s burst upon the Czechoslovak scene during the brief period of cultural relaxation accompanying the Prague Spring, it appeared to the outside world as a sudden event that had been born ex nihilo. But it had a complex preparation in the Czech interwar avant-garde. The 1920s and 1930s were a period of splendid artistic creativity, providing the soil for such later artistic creations as the plays of Václav Havel, the prose of Josef Škvorecký, Milan Kundera, Ladislav Fuks, and Bohumil Hrabal, the poetry of Jaroslav Seifert and Vítězslav Nezval, the films of Miloš Forman, Jan Kadár, Elmar Klos, and Jan Němec, and the visual arts of Jan Kotík and Mikuláš Medek. The fertile period of the 1920s and 1930s with its buoyant artistic experimentation is the subject of this book.

We must look at the history of Czech culture, especially of its language and its literature, for clues to understanding the exuberant arts of the 1920s and 1930s. These arts were fertilized by the many levelled artistic past—the Czech Middle Ages, Czech Humanism, the Czech baroque, and Czech art of the nineteenth century. Twentieth-century Czech art was closely related to artistic currents in France, and was shaped by an intense dialogue between theoreticians and artists from Western and Eastern Europe. Additionally there were significant contacts with Germany and pre-Soviet and Soviet Russia during the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s.

This book examines the artistic developments of the “historical lands” of Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia, that is, the Czech-speaking region of the former Czechoslovakia which since 1993 forms the Czech Republic.

Western historians have long been acquainted with the interwar artistic avant-garde movements in southern, central, western, and northeastern Europe and in Russia, movements that include German Expressionism, French Dadaism, French Surrealism, German Bauhaus Constructivism, Russian and Italian Futurism in the verbal and visual arts, Cubism (primarily its French version), Russian avant-garde film, and Austro-German twelve-tone music. In striking contrast there is little known about the exuberant avant-garde movements that flourished in the interwar years in the Slavic countries of ← 17 | 18 → southeastern Europe and in Hungary and Romania. But the Czech avant-garde movement from the twenties until the German occupation in 1939 is far too significant to be ignored, even though it is but one part, albeit a most important one, of the complex mosaic of neglected European art movements in this period.

While two principal movements dominated the Czech interwar artistic scene, first Poetism and then Surrealism, my focus in this book is primarily on Poetism. I also look at the preceding programs of proletarian art and Socialist Realism which did not survive the revolution of Poetism. Poetism was a distinctive and unique Czech phenomenon, and from the early twenties to the early thirties was the dominant Czech artistic movement. It shared some characteristics with the visionary aspects of Russian Futurism and with certain French currents, especially Bergson’s Vitalism and the aesthetics of Lautréamont and Apollinaire. The Czech aesthetician, poet, architect and painter Karel Teige (1900−1951) was the inspirational ideological choreographer of this group. By the thirties, it was Surrealism that occupied the artistic stage, and contemporary Czech neo-Surrealism is indebted to the interwar surrealist movement. In 1934 the Surrealist Group (Surrealistická skupina) was formed, also led by Karel Teige who was to become the Breton of Czechoslovakia, and who remained a focal figure in the arts of the Czech lands until his premature death as a result of fierce communist persecution.

Historical Background

At the end of the First World War, the Czechs became independent, joining the Slovaks in the formation of the new Czechoslovak Republic. This naturally led to a stimulation of national pride, bringing about an intensification of the impassioned nineteenth century interest in indigenous roots. Inevitably there arose the question of the direction that the Czech language—split as it was between its written variant and that of everyday discourse—should take to satisfy the needs of the newly independent nation. The debate between the language purists on the one hand and avant-garde artists and the scholars of the Prague Linguistic Circle (Pražský lingvistický kroužek) on the other filled many pages of learned and popular journals and magazines. The character of the Czech language had been passionately debated since the eighteenth century, providing a distinctive orientation not found in the rest of Europe and a preoccupation coloring many of the issues discussed in these pages.

The Czechs were of course affected, as was most of Europe, by the social unrest that followed the war. It was a time of upheavals and disillusionment with the reassuring master narratives of the past. Three of the five major European empires had collapsed. A proletarian revolution had occurred not only in Russia, but also—albeit abortively—in Hungary and Bavaria. Change was also engendered by the radical transformations that had taken place in science and technology, including advances that dramatically shrunk ← 18 | 19 → time and space—the telegraph and telephone, the automobile, the airplane, and the express train. Freud’s revolutionary discoveries of the irrational and the unconscious, Einstein’s theories of relativity, and Marx’s critiques of capitalism attracted many. The lure of social utopian dreams was strong, and the Bolshevik vision of a just and egalitarian society where all would be relieved of drudgery was hard to resist. These currents destabilized traditional political, cultural, ethical, and sexual values all over Europe, as well as in America.

In the arena of the arts, these shattering new realities and the general atmosphere of skepticism which they engendered called for a fundamental reexamination of the artistic and aesthetic verities of the past. Thus the Dadaist movement swept over Europe, militantly repudiating the values of the past. Dadaism did not make a deep impact on Czech culture, however. Czech artists retained a fun loving Bakhtinian spirit, and the drastic and iconoclastic denial of all the arts that marked European Dadaists and the Russian and Italo-French futurists was too pessimistic.

Contributing to this Czech point of view was the distinctive history of Czech culture, especially that of the Czech language. While the French, German, and Russian avant-gardes had a well-developed century-old artistic and linguistic tradition to repudiate, the Czechs had been robbed of the heritage against which they might have rebelled (Müller 1978: 21). As a result of their defeat in 1621 by the Imperial forces in the Battle of the White Mountain, the Czechs had been deprived for a long period not only of their political independence, but also of much of their cultural and artistic life. While the baroque, a quintessentially counter-reformational artistic movement, blossomed following the Czech defeat, creating magnificent architectural objects and a superb lyric tradition, by the eighteenth century Czech literature was vulnerable to the intense Germanization efforts by the Viennese court. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, a Czech National Revival which paralleled the Herderian spirit and the national revival movements all over Europe began to resist the cultural imperialism of Vienna. The Czech language, long dormant, was now recodified and became again the basis of a literary tradition. This tradition, while it produced some exquisite romantic poetry, especially that of Karel Hynek Mácha (1810−1836), was, at least until the 1890s, predominantly politicized and valorized, directed toward the cause of national re-awakening and of stimulating a spirit of ethnic and linguistic identity. Accordingly, this Czech tradition of a nationally conscious literature played a role in the Czech drive for independence in 1918.

Furthermore, the peculiar historical fate of the Czech language did much to shape Czech culture, and does so to this very day. After the Czechs were vanquished in 1621, all aspects of Czech culture were threatened or nearly obliterated. The Protestants were persecuted and expelled from the country, the Czech aristocracy was decimated, and Czech books were burned. German and Latin replaced Czech in virtually all cultural spheres ← 19 | 20 → especially in the eighteenth century, leading to the virtual obliteration of Czech as a written language and the repression of much of Czech culture in general. During this period, especially during the reigns of Maria Theresa (1740−80) and of her son Joseph II (1780‒90), the Austrian empire followed a policy of intense centralization and Germanization, and Joseph’s educational reforms essentially Germanized all levels of the school system through the Bohemian and Moravian crownlands, down to the level of village elementary schools.

It was only in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century that the Czechs regained their written language after a long period during which Czech was regarded, even by some Czech intellectuals, as an insignificant tongue that endured primarily as the unwritten vernacular of the peasants and the urban proletariat, while the elite wrote in Latin and German and often spoke only German. Czech books were no longer printed. However, two types of Czech language survived during the eighteenth century: the archaic and conservative language of the courts, and a popular oral type, spoken primarily by the peasants and urban proletariat (cf. Havránek 1936: 80). The Czech language was recodified first by Josef Dobrovský (1753−1829) and later again by Josef Jungmann (1773−1847). It was sadly indicative of the unfortunate state of the Czech language of that time that Dobrovský’s fundamental Czech grammar was written not in Czech but in German (Ausführliches Lehrgebäude der Böhmischen Sprache) (Dobrovský 1809) and that many of the language reformers themselves had only an academic knowledge of the Czech language gleaned from the pages of the pre-1621 literature (cf. Havránek 1936: 84). Later, however, significant works appeared in Czech, including Jungmann’s works on the Czech language, Slovesnost (Verbal Art) (Jungmann 1820), Historie literatury české (History of Czech Literature) (Jungmann 1825), and the monumental Slovník česko-německý (Czech-German Dictionary) (Jungmann 1835−39).

Finally a new Czech written language was codified which served to introduce new problems since this new written language had little in common with the vernacular or even with the rich written language of Czech baroque poetry of the seventeenth century which had embraced many of the linguistic forms of the spoken code of the period (cf. Stich 1991: 60). Rather the codifiers looked for their new grammar to the writings of the Czech humanists of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The rebirth of the language of the so-called Golden Age of Czech culture invoked the memory of the powerful Czech state, when Czech was written and spoken by the royalty, the aristocracy, and the burghers. The choice of this period as a model also marks a rebellion against the counter-reformation which resulted from the Czech defeat. The language of Czech baroque poetry, which was much closer to the vernacular of the early nineteenth century than the written language of the Czech Golden Age, was overlooked because of anti-Catholic predilections of the reformers, particularly Dobrovský. Consequently, the choice of the linguistic principles of the fourteenth and fifteenth century as a model of the newly recodified ← 20 | 21 → language meant that there was a wide gap between this version and the language that was actually spoken by the peasants and the urban proletariat. There was thus a significant diglossia in which one functional dialect was reserved for speaking and the other exclusively for writing.

These two variants were written Czech (spisovná čeština), based as we have seen on the ancient forms of the language, and common Czech (obecná čeština), an interdialectal form of the spoken language, based largely, but not exclusively, on the dialect spoken in Prague1. These two dialects, written and common Czech, which each have their own lexical, morphological, and syntactical characteristics, were segregated by powerful cultural taboos2. Such a diglossia is unique in Europe, with the partial exception of modern Greek, where katharevousa, the literary dialect, is opposed to the spoken demotic. This opposition made issues of language use of pivotal importance, especially in the early twentieth century when writers first began experimenting with mixing these two idioms. Both Dobrovský and Jungmann wished to reform the newly codified Czech language so as to make it a fitting instrument for the revitalization of Czech culture. A cultural renewal, they held, required a modern and flexible Czech language with a lexicon appropriate for the demands of the new science, scholarship and publication activity. Consequently, heated linguistic debates marked the end of the eighteenth century and the nineteenth century. There were sharp controversies over lexical and grammatical questions, as for example whether Czech neologisms were to be formed by calques from German, by the use of Czech stems or of those from other Slavic languages. One consequence of this debate was the encouragement of a strong purist tendency which, with some interruptions, lasted through the 1930s, and still reverberates in the sometimes fierce discussions over the orthographic reforms of the 1970s, and even of more recent times3. ← 21 | 22 →

The fixation on language became especially intense in the period of the 1920s and 1930s, when these issues were debated by the Prague Linguistic Circle. The members of this Circle wished to investigate issues of poetic language, and insisted that poetics and linguistics not be separated. Its scholars had to consider the effect of the diglossia on the Czech verbal arts. The new functional linguistic approach of the Prague linguists was critical and sharply opposed to all purist tendencies.

The Antecedents of the Czech Avant-Garde4

The didactic spirit that had dominated Czech literature since the national revival began to subside in the 1890s and the patriotic and progressivist aspects of early and mid-nineteenth century Czech literature were supplanted by two basic tendencies. A realistic movement represented in poetry by the works of Petr Bezruč (pseudonym of Vladimír Vašek, 1867−1958), Antonín Sova (1864−1928), and Josef Svatopluk Machar (1864−1942), and a symbolist stream, often called rejectively “decadent”, represented by such authors as Jiří Karásek (1871−1951), Otokar Březina (pseudonym of Václav Jebavý, 1868−1929), and Otakar Theer (1880−1917). The adherents of the “realist school”, Bezruč, Sova5 and Machar described the work and life of the socially underprivileged in realistic terms and eschewed the traditional predilection for metaphoricity that had dominated Czech literature since Jungmann’s translations. The symbolists saw art as an activity of the few chosen ones, and gloried in richly metaphorical exploration of religious and mystical themes, and in pessimistic and subjective probing into their souls.

It was the realists who were the most important influence on the art of the 1920s, and one of their most significant representatives was Josef Svatopluk Machar. Machar saw the poet’s role as a socially active one. He chose themes set in the everyday forms of life; ← 22 | 23 → and he was perhaps the first Czech poet to jettison the elevated metaphorical and convoluted style traditional since Jungmann’s influential translations from Goethe, Milton, Chateaubriand and others, replacing it with a direct and simple style and even, at times, by the use of spoken forms of Czech as a foregrounding element in his poetry (cf. Pešat 1959: 55). This was unprecedented since the forms of common Czech had been excluded from literary Czech writing. Like the poet Stanislav Kostka Neumann (1875−1947) and the critic František Xaver Šalda (1867−1937), Machar identified with the labor movement and the social democrats, taking a critical stance toward Czech flag-waving nationalism and patriotism which he denigrated in his “Traktát o vlastenectví” (“Treatise on Patriotism”). For him, an inner and sincere patriotism must not be confused with official bombastic, jingoistic expressions.

My country is only something that is within me
here I do not trim my views to anyone’s commands
and I do not color them according to the fashion of the day.
And if I work for it [my country], then it is
for the kind of Czechness which I feel within me.
And if I ever should be proud of it, it will be
only my life of which I am proud.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (October)
Comparative literature Literary language Vernacular Czech literature
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 200 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Thomas G. Winner (Author) Ondrej Sládek (Volume editor) Michael Heim (Volume editor)

Thomas G. Winner was born in Prague. He left Czechoslovakia in 1939 to attend Harvard University, where he had won one of the coveted fellowships designed to get students out of Nazi-occupied Europe. He received his BA and his MA from Harvard and his PhD from Columbia University. He was a Professor of Slavic Languages and Comparative Literature at Duke University, University of Michigan, and Brown University. At Brown he directed the Center for Research in Semiotics. He was awarded an honorary degree from Masaryk University in Brno in 1995. In 1997 he was awarded the Dobrovsky Medal from the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, and in 1988 received the Laureate Memorial Medal on the occasion of the 650th anniversary of Charles University in Prague. His previous books include Kazakh Literature and Oral Art and Chekhov and His Prose as well as many edited volumes and over 160 scholarly articles.


Title: The Czech Avant-Garde Literary Movement Between the World Wars
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