interwar art

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The Ethnic Avant-Garde: Minority Cultures and World Revolution

During the 1920s and 1930s, American minority artists and writers collaborated extensively with the Soviet avant-garde, seeking to build a revolutionary society that would end racial discrimination and advance progressive art. Making what Claude McKay called “the magic pilgrimage” to the Soviet Union, these intellectuals placed themselves at the forefront of modernism, using radical cultural and political experiments to reimagine identity and decenter the West.

Shining rare light on these efforts, The Ethnic Avant-Garde makes a unique contribution to interwar literary, political, and art history, drawing extensively on Russian archives, travel narratives, and artistic exchanges to establish the parameters of an undervalued “ethnic avant-garde.” These writers and artists cohered around distinct forms that mirrored Soviet techniques of montage, fragment, and interruption. They orbited interwar Moscow, where the international avant-garde converged with the Communist International.

The book explores Vladimir Mayakovsky’s 1925 visit to New York City via Cuba and Mexico, during which he wrote Russian-language poetry in an “Afro-Cuban” voice; Langston Hughes’s translations of these poems while in Moscow, which he visited to assist on a Soviet film about African American life; a futurist play condemning Western imperialism in China, which became Broadway’s first major production to feature a predominantly Asian American cast; and efforts to imagine the Bolshevik Revolution as Jewish messianic arrest, followed by the slow political disenchantment of the New York Intellectuals. Through an absorbing collage of cross-ethnic encounters that also include Herbert Biberman, Sergei Eisenstein, Paul Robeson, and Vladimir Tatlin, this work remaps global modernism along minority and Soviet-centered lines, further advancing the avant-garde project of seeing the world anew.

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THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL - A cinematic adventure film novel about interwar Art Deco luxury.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Wes Anderson’s 8th film is that it is his most elaborate, delicate (yet occasionally crass) narrative and visual tapestry yet. Even upon the first viewing - with knowledge of Anderson’s previous films - the viewer can see a timeline of all the essential aesthetics and screenplay quirks from his past work to make one beautiful, grand production. The precise miniatures from Fantastic Mr. Fox, the focus on youth in an adult universe like Moonrise Kingdom and Rushmore, elements of comedic family drama à la The Royal Tenenbaums, part road movie like The Darjeeling Limited. So, I suppose there is the question - does Anderson bring anything new to the cinematic experience? And in short, yes, he does. But it is still very much within the realm of his way of expressing visual stories. 

I really believe that if Cahiers Du Cinema was still as influential as it was in France in the 1950s, where Francois Truffaut essays about Auteurs and the significance of recognisable mise-en-scene, Wes Anderson would be frequently written about, critiqued and celebrated. Anderson demonstrates such control over his work, yet his stylised worlds never feel forced. Self-aware maybe, but never forced. There is a naturalness to the way characters move, stutter their lines, look to the left then back to the right - it’s all pre-planned, I’m assuming, all meticulously rehearsed but never reaches the point where it feels like you are watching an organised stage play. And that freedom on the viewers behalf is the key ingredient that allows one to wrap themselves up tightly in Anderson’s handiwork. 

Much of the films screenplay spends time focusing on the delightfulness and creativity behind the creation of Mendel’s confectionary sweets (a fictitious bakery). The very film itself is like an incredibly layered cake, each character is an ingredient that all mix together to create layers of meaning and emotion, narrative and atmosphere. Quite a cliché metaphor if you will, but it is true. And this is where the Art Deco influence comes in. The Art Deco set design acts as the borders to which the adventurous, crazy multilayered screenplay acts within. The sharp geometric, angular shapes of the hotel suites, servants quarters, kitchen and dining rooms keep the secrets of the hotel guests hidden. The subdued lighting, smoking paraphernalia and bookshelves keep the hotel employees hidden but visible. True to Anderson’s previous work and Art Deco, each shot is so symmetrical that it can be sliced with a cake knife and stand perfectly by itself. The grandeur of the furniture and bold chrome colour palettes also add extra grandeur to the characters themselves. For example, Adrian Brody’s character Dmitri is gorgeously dangerous with his Dali-esque moustache and broad shouldered overcoat; but without the low dome ceilings inside his family home, his height would not allow him to appear as nearly as menacing as he does.  Willem Dafoe’s sneakiness as Jopling the private detective adds extra abstraction as Anderson frames him against high rise angular buildings, the camera resting on a low angle reminiscent of Peter O'toole in Lawrence of Arabia and darting in-between empty armour statues in an unlit room inside the local gallery. And that is just two examples out of many. Working inside the enormous set (or the idea of a large set) that is the Grand Budapest gives Anderson the chance to experiment with space in relation to each character, plus the viewers perception of each character. There is a difference between how the hotel staff operate and are confined by the hotel, how the hotel guests employ their use of space within their private rooms, how the main characters act when they are outside of their hotel-home, and how Ralph Feinnes’ character Gustave is just trying to create a bridge between all of these worlds. 

Yet as stated in this piece’s opening title, this is a film about those who enjoy luxury, and those who make sure the hotel luxury is up to the finest standard for the guests. This is a specific story, a peculiar story that appropriates significant historical events and European culture in favour of exploring the charming tales of the characters. Despite the large scale, sweeping saga narrative, Grand Budapest is not a deep, spiritual soul searching tale like in The Darjeeling Limited: Anderson’s characters do remain at a distance, but it still is all very welcoming and inspiring. I feel that this is also the only film where the use of narration features so prominently, which really does satisfy the idea that Anderson’s films can be read like books. In all of Anderson’s films, at some point there will be a shot of a pretty hard copy novel with the films title written in block letters on the front. Grand Budapest goes the extra mile to satisfy the idea of novelisation as fact within the fictional world, which is what makes Anderson’s film new. It is this characteristic that makes it a successful departure from his other films, another layer of realness within the fiction is added, so subtle and understated but it makes all the difference. Plus, this time the soundtrack consists entirely of an organised score rather than found tracks that already have cultural meaning attached to them. It is an intertextual work definitely, but not so much as before. Grand Budapest succeeds in standing by itself, it is confident enough to be not heavily reliant on exposing its influences and relation to global culture as Anderson’s past films.  

P.S - so many cameos to count from all Anderson regulars, but props for casting Fisher Stevens in a tiny role! What a cool surprise. 

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Jan Konůpek, Czech painter and graphical  artist of the interwar period

One of the graphic’s titled Tleni and was drawn in 1909, but I’m not sure which one, because I saw far more of his works in National Gallery in Prague and just written down the titles of the ones that I really loved. Any Prague citizens around here eager to go and check to Obecni Dum? :)