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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter IV. Aesthetic modernism and collective identities

The Czech modern

Traduction de Kathleen Hayes

Texte intégral

1Title: Česká moderna (The Czech modern)

2Originally published: Prague, Rozhledy, 25 October, 1895

3Language: Czech

4The excerpts used are from Jaroslava Janáčková and Marie Lukešová eds., Kniha textů: česká literatura od počátků k dnešku, vol. II, Od romantismu k symbolismu 19. století, (Prague: Nakladatelství Lidové noviny, 1999), pp. 619–622.


5The 1890s in Bohemia were characterized by far-reaching changes in political life as well as in the arts. These changes emerged in the wake of fast industrialization, economic boom and social differentiation in society. In the political sphere the liberal nationalist Young Czech Party reached the foremost position, to the detriment of the moderate liberal conservative ‘Old Czechs.’ Nonetheless, other political ideologies, from anarchism and socialism to agrarian movements and political Catholicism, were gaining support. The new generation organized itself in the so-called progressivist movement comprising mainly students, no less nationalist then their fathers. They sought, however, more insistently the democratization of public life which was often inspired by socialist ideas and the iconoclasm of the ‘realists’ grouped around Tomáš G. Masaryk. Their youthful radicalism clashed with the police and state administration, which found its climax in the trial of the so-called Omladina group in 1894 that ended up in the short-term jailing of many of the future leading politicians, journalists and writers. The cultural sphere was opened to all different kinds of fin de siècle artistic streams such as Art nouveau, Symbolism, Decadence, which were visible above all in architecture, plastic arts, and literature. Very divergent in nature, ideological inclination and artistic expression, ‘the generation of the 1890s’ had one common feature which was their repudiation of the old-fashioned patriotic art of the ‘national awaking,’ which considered serving the national movement as the sacred task of the artist.

6Instead of the unifying idea of art as a tool for national emancipation, they demanded freedom of artistic expression. This led to a blossoming of often short-lived groupings and cultural projects trying to react in their own right to the general feeling of crisis and loss of orientation. Their criticism in literature was directed against both the 1880s literary movements, the ‘national school’ led by Eliška Krásnohorská, which embodied the principle of the purposefulness of art, and the group around the journal Lumír headed by Jaroslav Vrchlický, whom the youngsters rejected for his alleged inclination to pure formalism. With the exception of the Decadents, however, the principle of individualism did not mean a refusal of the social engagement of the artist but rather the opposite. As one can see in the manifesto below, even though the young generation refused to promote the ‘national idea,’ it still shared the notion of an ‘addressee’ of art and was convinced of the usefulness and the educational role of art in the national community.

7Among many groupings that appeared over the course of the last decade of the nineteenth century, the most expressive and influential program was presented by the so-called ‘Czech Modern,’ whose manifesto was published in 1895 in the journal Rozhledy, a prominent tribune of the ascending literary generation. The author of the first draft, the poet Josef Svatopluk Machar, formulated the manifesto in connection with the European modernist literary movement and in direct reference to Hermann Bahr. Important additions, though, were made by the future leading literary critic František Xaver Šalda. Of the twelve signatories, some were literary critics and writers (Šalda, F. V. Krejčí, Machar, Antonín Sova, Otakar Březina) while others represented ‘realist’ and ‘progressivist’ politics and journalism (Václav Choc, Eduard Koerner, Josef Pelcl, František Soukup). It was, however, literary critique that played the leading role. For them, the main principle in artistic creation was that of ‘individualism,’ that is the freedom of expression and the right for personal opinion that was to be the only true precondition for the creation of genuine art. They stressed the role of criticism, for they regarded their own time as a moment of fundamental cultural change in which ‘critical activity,’ equal to any other artistic expression, would help bring the ‘new’ to the world. At the same time, the ‘literary modern’ was in their eyes a complementary spiritual phenomenon to the ‘political modern,’ understood as a program of moderate socialist humanism. Thus the individualist starting point, valid in both arts and politics, was coupled by a respect for social needs. The manifesto criticized the political style of the nationalist Young Czech Party, whose politicians supposedly sought power solely for their own benefit and ignored issues such as education, the rights of women, and other social questions. The ‘Czech modern’ condemned nationalism as well as other particularistic options in arts, refusing to asses the artistic work from the point of view of its ‘Czechness.’ In politics, on the other hand, they refused parties that represented particular social groups. The only arbiter in evaluating artistic production was originality, whereas national character was a natural given. Similar to Masaryk, they perceived politics to be a service to people promoting welfare and social cohesion.

8The ‘Czech modern,’ due to the divergent political convictions and predilections (rather than the aesthetic inclinations) of its members, broke down immediately after their manifesto was published. It also aroused many critical reactions that either condemned the radical rhetoric of the manifesto— above all the total rejection of the older generations—or, conversely, its non-concrete, abstract formulations. Nevertheless, the ‘Czech modern’ was very soon understood to be the most important attempt towards an aesthetic and civic synthesis of the ‘1890s generation.’ It was also regarded as one of the milestones of modern Czech culture, determining, in a way, the cultural and partly political agenda of the first decades of the twentieth century. As such, it has been a significant point of reference in Czech literary and social history up until today.


The Czech modern

10Banded together in a united front by the typical representatives of the old ways, compelled to defend its convictions, freedom of speech, the right to engage in ruthless criticism in the most intense and most passionate struggle that Czech literature has ever known, a group of the young generation has accepted the literary name that was hurled at it in contempt: Czech Modernism.

11It was reproached for lacking good manners because it did not quietly join the older trend, because it does not acknowledge the old icons as sacred, because it scorns the authorities, because it does not respect the old fetishes: its revolutionary spirit was pilloried. These reproaches are just; it is proud of them. It feels that an unbridgeable abyss separates it from the older generation. It has rejected the well-traveled road and goes its own way. It will continue to hold to the principles that its people have advocated in different ways for several years now. The principles are the mortar that unites it.

12In criticism, we want what we have fought for and what we have won: to have our convictions, freedom of speech and ruthlessness. Critical activity is creative, artistic and scholarly work, an independent literary genre equal to all the others. We want individuality. We want it in criticism and in art. We want artists, not echoes of foreign tones, not eclectics, not dilettantes. We do not respect the multicolored interweaving of borrowed ideas and styles, rhymed political programs, imitations of folksongs, versified trinkets of folklore, gray flag-wagging and realistic flat objectivity.

  • 1 Important founding figures of the ‘national school’ in Czech arts and literature: Josef Mánes (182 (...)

13Individuality above all, bursting with life and creating life. Today, when aesthetics finds refuge only in secondary-school textbooks, when battles over the utility of art are ludicrously anachronistic, when everything old collapses into rubble and a new world begins, we ask of the artist: be yourself! We do not put any emphasis on the Czech character: be yourself and you will be Czech. Mánes, Smetana, Neruda1, those purely Czech artists par excellence, for a good half of their lives were considered to be aliens who expressed themselves in Czech. We do not acknowledge nationality maps. We want an art that is not a luxury item and does not succumb to the changing whims of literary fashion. For us, modern is not what happens to be in fashion: the day before yesterday realism, yesterday naturalism, today symbolism, decadence, tomorrow Satanism, occultism, those ephemeral watchwords that always equalize and homogenize literary works for a few months and are aped by the literary fops. Artist! Put your blood, your mind and yourself into your work—you, your mind and your blood will live and breathe in it, and it will live through them. We want the truth in art, not a photograph of external reality, but that honest inner truth, whose only norm is its vehicle—the individual.

14In this concerted endeavor for the new and the better, literary modernism and political modernism meet. Both of them spring from the same dispositions.

15The present generation grew up with dismal prospects. Swept along by its attraction to commotion and life, it blindly swore allegiance to the flag of the party that seemed to usher in a new epoch in the history of the nation. This trust bore bitter fruit. Instead of intellectual sustenance, it was given platitudes and more platitudes—while in the parliaments, at the rallies and in the party, there were daily proclamations about the high cultural level of the Czech people, public education, the demands of the era and rivaling the cultured nations. […] Our fathers took up the legacy of the older party, the Old Czechs. We readily acknowledge that the Old Czechs achieved much in their work as educators. The Young Czechs either buried or sponged off the talents of the Old Czechs. Their work, however, will be remembered as a lean period in Czech cultural history.

16We awoke and began to look after ourselves. We worked many years; today, we step forth in serried ranks.

17Politics? We cannot believe that it should be, on the one hand, a kind of Machiavellian science, full of trafficking, trickery and masquerading and, on the other hand, a stage where applause, popularity, flowers, the kisses of bridesmaids and the enthusiasm of the nation are won.

18Politics is difficult, strenuous work and nothing but work. Quiet work. Politics is not about getting oneself elected to Parliament. In politics, one does not begin to work only having won the mandate. One does not engage in political work only in Parliament.

19Just as we want individualism in literature, we also demand it in politics. Let politics be pursued only by whole, refined individuals. Let the measure of their individuality be in direct proportion to the degree of their self-denial: nothing for themselves, everything for the cause.

20In politics, we want to be above all human beings in the full sense of the word. All the rest follows from this. It follows from this that we look in a totally different way, positively, at the nationality question, a question galvanized and stoked by the governments that formulated it and invoked it in every war, in every bloodletting, just as religious sentiment was manipulated in similar cases in the Middle Ages. We are not afraid for our language. Our nationality is so secure that no power on earth can take it away from us. The preservation of our nationality is not an end in itself for us, but the means to higher goals. Therefore we condemn the brutality that is perpetrated by the Germans under the battle cry of nationalism, just as we would condemn it if it were perpetrated by Czechs. We likewise condemn the political parties that stoke the nationality question for the benefit of governments, thereby destroying the best powers of the nation. We will seek an understanding with our German countrymen; not at conference tables, not diplomatic alliances in parliaments, but an understanding on the field of humanity and—of the stomach. We are prepared for the eventuality that the old parties will use this very question to whip up the masses against us. We will withstand this onslaught. An idea that is founded on integrity will not be trampled underfoot, shouted down or voted down.

21As for the social question, we want ‘to be above all human beings.’ Do we include the workers in the nation? Even when they proclaim that they are international? Yes. Nationality is not the patent of the Young Czechs or the Old Czechs. Parties disappear, the nation remains. The present Young Czech delegation represents the Czech bourgeoisie and a portion of the farmers. It declares this openly. The proposal of universal suffrage was a move intended to embarrass the government. Now it is a waif whose own father does not dare to acknowledge it.

22The bourgeoisie is the same all over Europe. Emancipated by the French Revolution, it soon forgot about the bitter fate of the oppressed. Uniting with the feudal lords and the farmers, who went through a similar school, it has taken a stand against the calloused pleading hands of the white slaves.

23We want universal suffrage, not because we believe that it will change their sad condition, but because their fresh strength will lead the present parliamentarianism ad absurdum, something we long ago stopped expecting from the Young Czech delegation. Although it proudly calls itself the people’s party, it has forgotten its mission and conformed according to the mood and conditions of the day; instead of criticizing, it negotiates; instead of working, it declaims.

24We demand political work which will aim to spread affluence and social contentment to all spheres and classes. We demand the protection of all those working and suffering under the oppression of the powerful of this world. On principle, we demand access to cultural and social life for women as well.

25Everywhere, on principle in politics as well, we declare ourselves to be against the parties that are conceived along military and ecclesiastical lines. Parties in this old sense are for us an instrument that is just as oppressive and crushing as governments. We value whole individuals higher than an abstract mass. Let the parties be an instrument of social progress, rather than an obstacle to it. To educate the people means to raise the individual to a full and vital degree of self-confidence and to destroy the sluggishness of apathetic adherence, all that easy cowardice, irresponsibility, lack of discernment and lack of principle, the belief that an idea, a mind, has no value in itself, but that only lazy bodies and voting hands are counted!


1 Important founding figures of the ‘national school’ in Czech arts and literature: Josef Mánes (1820–1871), Romantic painter of portraits, landscapes and historical paintings; Bedřich Smetana (1824–1884), composer best known for his cycle of symphonic poems Má vlast (My homeland) and his operas; Jan Neruda (1834–1891), journalist, writer and poet, prominent representative of nineteenth-century Czech realism.

© Central European University Press, 2010

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