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The Sacred Cause

The Europe that was Lost – Thoughts on Central and Eastern European Modernism

Tom Sandqvist

«This book is about Modernism and Avant-Garde movements in Central and Eastern European art around the last turn of the century. It sketches a surrealistic, bewildering, irrational arena. At the same time, we are offered a differentiated view on the complex whole of the avantgarde scene in Eastern Europe. The author takes us to dark soirées, scandalous dada theatrical performances, drunken bouts with loudmouthed reformers. Subjectivity stands against rationality, ethnonationalism against internationalism. Yugoslavian zenitism, Czech poetism, Hungarian activism, and other less-known isms, are proposed in exstatic outbursts in shortlived magazines. The pace is hectic, the commitment enormous, and the sheer force of strongminded individuals overwhelming. All in all, the inversed perspective seems alluringly fresh, with Eastern Europe as the co-producer of ideological content, instead as the receiver, or, even worse, the passive reflection of Western thought. I am impressed by the tolerance of much of the audience before and after the First World War: To be a genius seems to be just a matter of course. Karel Teige in Prague, Ljubomir Micić in Zagreb, Lajos Kassák in Budapest, and Jacek Malczewski in Krakow were tireless propagators of avant-garde art – but also of nostalgic messianism. How did they get away with this, at times, monomaniac egoism, one wonders. Sandqvist finds the answer in that subjectivity was the remedy for avantgarde artists as a defence mechanism against the repressive society and destructive socioeconomical forces.» (Jan von Bonsdorff, Professor, Uppsala University)


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Essentially this book encompasses questions about nationalism, syntheticism and messianism in Eastern Central Euopean Modernism and Avant-Gardism around the turn of the last century. It ends with discussing the so-called “Jewish ques- tion” and the impact of 19th century nationalism. Cross your heart. Are we not all tarred with the same brush? How much do we actually know of the visual arts – and literature – of Central and Eastern Europe? Who were Lajos Kassák and Ljubomir Micić? Who was Witkacy, or Karel Teige? What did Jacek Malczewski and Jan Matejko do in Kraków? August Strindberg s´ most significant rival, the “Satanist” Stanisław Przybyszewski – did he really murder his mistress while one of his most ardent disciples shot his wife Dagny Juel, the famous Norwegian artist Edvard Munch s´ beloved? Who were in charge of the “subtropical soirée organized by white Negroes” in Warsaw immediately after World War I? Did Sarah Bernhard really find the Czech painter Alfons Mu- cha in an Hungarian gypsy camp? Why did Jaroslav Hašek work as a communist agitator in Samara in the Soviet Union before he was appointed commissar and chairman of the fifth Soviet army only to write his world-famous book about the brave soldier Švejk in a small godforsaken Czech village in total loneliness and gravely ill as a compulsive drinker? And who was the “barbarogenius” in Bel- grade who wished to “balkanize” the whole of Europe? Most of our common textbooks in the history of art and literature...

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