Teige (Prague, 1900 – Prague, 1951) passe son enfance à Neveklov près de Benešov – son père, Josef Teige (1862-1921), était archiviste de la ville de Prague, topographe et historien du droit. Très tôt, il s'occupe de littérature et de beaux-arts (il expose dans le cadre d'une exposition collective dès ses seize ans). A partir de 1919, il étudie l'esthétique et l'histoire de l'art à l'université de Prague, il finit ses études en 1923.
A partir du début des années 20, il s'engage activement dans la politique de gauche, il devient membre du Parti communiste tchèque (PCT) nouvellement créé et gardera ces positions même lors du changement de direction du parti en 1929.
En 1920, il est un des fondateurs de l'Association artistique Devetsil.
A partir de 1921, il entre en contact avec divers représentants de la culture française (Ch. Vildrac, G. Duhamel, A. Breton, Le Corbusier, L. Aragon, P. Eluard et d'autres) avec qui il collaborera tout le reste de sa vie. Il est membre de l'Association pour le rapprochement économique et culturel avec la nouvelle Russie (1925-1937), du Front gauche (1926-1936) et du Syndicat des architectes socialistes (1929-1936).
Il est actif en tant que critique d'art et prend part à de nombreuses expositions en tant qu'artiste (graphisme, typographie, conception de livres, collages), théoricien et organisateur. A plusieurs reprises, il se rend en France (en 1922 pour la première fois) et en Russie (pour la première fois en 1925), il voyage en Allemagne, en Autriche, en Belgique, en Italie.
Entre 1929 et 1930, il enseigne la sociologie de l'architecture et l'esthétique au Bauhaus à Dessau.
A partir de 1934, il prend part aux activités du Groupe surréaliste tchèque (avec V. Nezval, K. Biebl, J. Honzl, J. Štyrský, B. Brouk et d'autres) en tant que porte-parole théorique. Lors des procès de Moscou, il critique la justice stalinienne et cause ainsi une dispute au sein du mouvement surréaliste tchèque (départ de V. Nezval).
Après mai 1945, il révise un certain nombre de ses points de vue et sa position de refus du schématisme de l'art soumis à l'idéologie communiste lui vaut d'être mis en marge de la vie culturelle.
A partir de 1948, ses projets de publication sont annulés, Teige est isolé et une campagne est menée contre lui, l'accusant de trotskisme et de « cosmopolitisme bourgeois ». Au court des dernières années de sa vie, Teige entre en contact avec la nouvelle génération de surréalistes (V. Effenberger, K. Hynek, V. Tikal, J. Istler, M. Medek).
Il meurt d'un arrêt cardiaque alors que le bruit court qu'il s'est suicidé.
Karel Teige: L'Enfant Terrible of the Czech Modernist
The importance of this book, a scholarly but beautifully produced examination of the work of Karel Teige, is paralleled by the emerging importance of Teige himself. One of the influential figures of international modernism, his work and art have been neglected due to its original publication in a minority language, as well as by the ideological barriers that for so long seperated Eastern from Western Europe. For a long number of years this artist / thinker / editor / typographer / architectural-theorist was like a lake into which many of the major rivers of international modernism flowed - a lake that in turn fed the culture of his native country.
Teige read voraciously and travelled widely to gain a first hand knowledge of the aesthetics of his time. He visited all the major Russian and European cities and not only studied cubism, surrealism, Russian constructivism and the aesthetics of the Bauhaus but fostered relationships with the major proponants of these art forms.
He published in the German expressionist journal Die Aktion, collaborated with Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, gave lectures at the Bauhaus, and knew personally artists working in Paris such as Constantin Brancusi, Pierre Albert-Birot and Man Ray. Even though his influence in his own country was considerable, Teige was truly a part of the international modernist movement.
In spite of this astonishingly intense involvement in the international aesthetic debates of his day any mention of Teige in the standard histories of modern art in the English language is hard to find. This book goes a long way towards filling this gap that has been left in the history of European modernist art and aesthetics.
Written mainly by Czech speaking scholars, the book is made up of a number of articles, each representing a different segment of Teige's life and work. To do justice to all the aspects of Teige's varied and prolific output is a feat in itself. In spite of the range of Teige's talents, all the different facets of his passionate interaction with the aesthetics of his day boils down to a single aim: to bring about an interface between the art and the politics that he believed in.
A modern tragedy
Although Teige never became a member of the Communist Party he was a committed Marxist all his life and to a large extent the story of his interaction with the society he belonged to is the story that is traced in this book. As Eric Dluhosch says in the foreword: "...and what about the past? Should we bury it, or judge it? Or simply tell its tale? It is the latter course that the editors have decided to pursue in telling the story of Karel Teige, a true child of the twentieth century..."
This is the story of a man who tried to change the world by subverting moral and artistic values in the cause of what he hoped would be a better society and who ended up being crushed by those who - at first sight - also appeared to be working for a better society. Such was the difference between Teige and the Communists that on his death in 1951 state officials confiscated all the manuscripts and writings that they could find in Teige's apartment.
The book is arranged in 14 chapters which trace the development of Teige's life and aesthetics through separate essays that delve into the various aspects of his work. The essays are preceded by an introduction by Kennth Frampton who sets Teige's work in its historical context and introduces Teige's vision.
Chapter one is an essay on Teige in the 1920s by Karel Srp. In this essay the progress of Teige's intellectual development is traced (with all its contortions) from his participation in the early Devětsil, which started with the fourteen signatures of a group of schoolfriends dedicated to the cause of modern art in the December of 1920. As the author points out, this development is fuelled by a belief in a dialectical progress towards the ideal vision of art in a Socialist society. Srp follows Teige through his various phases: through the cubism and expressionism of 1916-18 and through the luminescent style of "spiritual realism" of 1919-20. This was inspired by Jan Zravý, whose work the first Devětsil manifesto found too refined for a proletarian art.
Becoming the spokesman for Devětsil by 1921, Teige then developed the principle that "every new, fresh art is necessarily a reaction against the previous one". A new orientation that resulted from the visits to Paris in 1922 is described, together with details of the interactions with artists in the West; (Later on this new vision was to be thrown out with the label "formalism" attached to it and was superceded by forms of art that were more accessible and relevant to ordinary people.) In 1924 came Teige's embrace of constructivism and that same year the "picture poem" was developed with Jaroslav Seifert.
In an essay of this year Teige asserted the loss of the autonomy of painting; in Teige's circle this loss was replaced by the poster and the Devětsil picture poem. (This is explored in detail by Srp, with many illustrations).
Poetry and typography
The essays that follow this chapter on the early history are mostly dedicated to delving into the art forms that came out of Teige's formative years. These are developments of existing genre but all are accompanied in Teige by intense theorising.
Chapter 3 is an essay by Lenka Bydžovská on the avant-garde ideal of "Poiesis"- an absolute universal poetry which strove to fulfil a single goal. This, in Teige's words, was "to quench humanity's immeasurable thirst for lyricism". The development of this "new" art form is traced through all its forms and expressions, including the manifestos. In 1927 the Devětsil had brought out its monthly magazine ReD, which was edited and designed by Teige for three years.
Chapter 4 is a translation of the complete manifesto "Poetism", written by Teige. In this Teige's definition is engineered to embrace a wide range of genre - it is not literature, it is not painting, it is not an "ism," it is not "art" in the traditional sense, says Teige - it is everything:
Poetism is the crown of life; construction is its basis ---- Poetism is not only the opposite but also the necessary compliment of constructivism. It is based on its layout.
Typography is one of these genres and Teige's typography is dealt with in an essay by Polana Bregantová. It is clear from this essay that the significance of typography to the Czech avant-garde was huge. It was not merely a matter of producing attractive book covers but was an art form in itself undertaken with a deep sense of purpose. It was also a form of artistic expression whose aim was to enrich the reader. Many of the book covers included in this chapter demonstrate the development of both constructivism and surrealism as well as new forms of lettering and design.
Chapter 11 is an essay by Srp on the artistic and political developments surrounding Teige and the Devětsil in the 1930s - by which time it had become a "highly regarded art association gathering together writers, artists, architects, actors and musicians." This period, however, was one of conflict and turmoil. Among other things it saw the formation of a new group: the Left Front which maintained "a clear and unambiguous confrontational position directed against the ruling official ideology."
The following chapter, which is written by Vojtěch Lahoda, deals with the more private and less ideological side of Teige's work - the surrealist collages. As political conflict forced Teige to take more and more of a back seat in public life these collages became more and more important to him. The combination of the erotic with socialist ideals seems a strange combination. Lahoda sheds some light on this: "It may be said that Teige tried to realize in his collages the utopian idea of the metamophosis of the new man - that is, a social and ideally conceived communist transformation of such a man - going hand in hand with an erotically conceived metamorphosis of landscape and architecture."
Teiges important contribution to architectural theory is documented in three essays: one on Teige as the theoretician of the architectural avant-garde is by Rostislav Švácha; in another, Eric Dluhosch writes on Teige's minimum dwelling as a critique of modern architecture; while the third is devoted to an essay on Teige's troubled relationship with the CIAM - the international congress that met to promote modern architecture.
Chapters 4, 6, 9, and 14 are translations of Teige's own theoretical works: "Poetism"; "Modern Typography"; "The Minimum Dwelling and the Collective House"; " The Inner Model". These are translated by Alexandra Büchler. These essays demostrate Teige's importance as part of the international avant-garde and the centrality of modernist ideas to his own thinking. There is also a detailed chronology assembled by Rumjana Dačeva; a description of "Uncle Teige" by Miloš Aulický; a bibliography and a useful guide to Czech pronunciation.
A new view of modernism
This book, and not least the essays of Teige published in it, places Teige among those powerful figures of modernism who believed that their beliefs could change the world. For such people the world was ever new - a series of artistic discoveries that would bring about enlightenment and a better society. For Teige, working from his position of Marxist historicism, the poetism of the Czech Devětsil was the true culmination of the international avant-garde - the last step on the way through Charles Baudelaire and Guillaume Apollinaire with whom words and all kinds of visual material could become direct initiators of emotion.
The struggles for an ideal art form in Czech-speaking society is described in full colour in these essays. This description is worthwhile in itself because it lets us enter an unfamiliar world. Besides being a history of the work of Karel Teige though, it is also a wider history of the leftist avant-garde community that he was part of and the story of the struggles of this community to reconcile the art of the creative individual with the constraints of party ideologies.
The potential for fruitful comparisons between this world and the more heavily documented modernist movement of the West is immense. The parallels between Teige's ideas and the modernist theories of Adorno and Walter Benjamin are the obvious ones but there are many others. The strategy of the editors to commission articles that simply but deeply present the facts results in a presentation of the "raw material" for academics who want to pursue further work on Teige.
This book is sure to become a springboard for scholars who want to develop this potential of exploring the insights of Teige and the Czech avant-garde. It is also book that is accessible for a more general audience. It is superbly illustrated and set out and is model of design that mirrors Teiges own ideas on the importance of the book as a source of visual pleasure.
— Central Europe Review
Karel Teige’s Modern Architecture in Czechoslovakia (1929)
The end of the Century
Modern Czech architecture originated at the turn of the century. In Prague, as elsewhere in Europe, two conflicting trends, two divergent views, and two different centuries provoked a collision of generations: a historical confrontation between the eras of modernism and historicism, between the past and the present. It was a clash that portended a rich and fertile future. Something was born with the new century, and something died: a new era of Czech culture arose.
At the end of the last century, when a moldering provincialism was stifling Czech cultural life, a few courageous and assertive spirits — fiery advocates of the new — flung the windows open onto Europe. A blazing sun flooded well-aired studios to herald a new spring. The sun sped to its zenith across the deep blue sky, weaving its way among sails of white clouds; it made the world reverberate like a fugue of colored light. Shadows assumed blue and purple hues. Without a doubt this sun was truly impressionistic. The same sun that enveloped [Claude] Monet’s cathedrals with its glow and caressed the sensuously bathing or languorous women of [Pierre-Auguste] Renoir now pierced the open windows and shone above the red roofs of [Antonín] Slavíček’s country houses; it peered over the alleys in Luhačovice Spa and above the panoramas of Prague. And, in the quiet evenings, the moon so revered by the symbolists crept into the attics inhabited by poets and kissed the forehead of the author of Mstivá kantiléna [A Song of Vengeance; 1898]. [Jan] Preisler’s triptych Jaro [Spring] was an authentic symbol of this era as well as of his own: a burgeoning of all that gave birth to the new springtime of Czech art. Against the increasingly impressionistic landscapes of Slavíček, the unfortunate [Otakar] Lebeda, and [Miloš] Jiránek, a suggestive poetic accord of allegory endured. It was a lonely, melancholic, and expectant longing, an uncertain promise — an unrest, a caprice of subtle nuances, a mood (yes, that is the right word) of youth and art. It was an awakening of new art, a sacred spring.
Like Dutch modernism, Czech modernism was fortunate in that architecture assumed a leading role in the first years of the new century. Credit for this is due to the great founding personality of Jan Kotěra who became a leader of Mánes (the association that represented the vigorous new avant-garde). This is the same Kotěra who had been the leader of a whole generation of impressionists whom he eventually surpassed to become the precursor of a generation of constructivist architects.
The Nineteenth Century: A Retrospective
Liberating the architecture of the nineteenth century from the stylistic confusion of historicism was of paramount necessity. This doddering, infertile, and uncreative architecture, this spiritless antiquarianism and outmoded craft, this plagiarized reconstruction of historical styles had to be repudiated. Nationalism, the continuation of historicism, with its concomitant ethnic or folkloristic vogues (which condemned even the most talented painters to provincialism), erected mighty obstacles for healthy architectural design throughout the nineteenth century. In the same way, sentimentality in the methods and rules of historical preservation threatened urban development. While architecture vegetated in a historicist, provincial, and academic atmosphere, technology moved ahead with speed and vigor. Even in the early years of the nineteenth century, a remarkable technological tradition flourished in Czech lands. The first engineering school was founded in Prague in 1717, thirty years earlier than in Paris; in 1806 it became a polytechnic school, once again the first in Central Europe. The classicistic Empire style, which in the 1820s reigned as the official style, was characterized by high-quality construction sustained by a relatively advanced technological and engineering culture.
The vigorous industrial and capitalist development in Czech lands attests to a high level of civilization both during the Napoleonic era and later, under the empire. Industrial development was closely linked with the development of transport; as evidence of this progress, the first railway on the European continent was built in Bohemia by F[rantišek] A[ntonín] Gerstner, professor at the Technical University of Prague [Pražská technika]. The new line, sixty-three kilometers long, connected České Budějovice to Linz and was constructed between 1825 and 1828. Initially, the cars were drawn by horses. Another line between České Budějovice and Trojanov opened on 7 September 1827. The twenty-five kilometer Buštéhrad line that followed in the spring of 1830 was also horse-drawn at first. The line between Prague-Bruska and Vejhybka came next. A further extension to Lány, another twenty-seven kilometers, opened in the fall of the same year; in 1833 this line was extended another five kilometers, from Lány to Pině. Even so, the first steam-operated railway came comparatively late. In 1842 the state initiated construction of a steam-operated line from Olomouc to Prague and of the line from Prague to Podmokly on 26 April 1845. The former was inaugurated in 1845; the latter, in 1850. At this point, railway construction ceased for a full twenty years and resumed only in the 1870s.
The Empire style, the official style of 1800, was the harbinger of the new architectural thinking. It bore an affinity with the actual practice of architecture. It strove to impose a particular building type (this would prove beneficial from the viewpoints of economics, manufacturing, society, and aesthetics). It lacked ornament and displayed a preference for a simple classical line, combined with horizontalism that favored flat roofs. In addition, it manifested an understanding of technical progress, new materials, and construction. In short, it breathed a spirit of collectivism and materialism — and made the Empire style the authentic predecessor of those new architectural tendencies that would only come into their own a hundred years later.
Toward the end of the 1830s steam-operated factories supplanted manual labor; by the 1860s steam engines were commonplace. By this date the use of girders, crossbeams, and cast-iron piers had also increased, especially in industrial construction, where roofs of greater spans were being fitted with iron struts. Glass appeared as a surface material for the first time. Factory chimneys climbed sixty to eighty meters high; chimneys built before 1840 were constructed by specially qualified bricklayers from France and Belgium.
The Empire style proved sober, materialist, formally restrained, and free (in Bohemia as in Russia) of all academic veneer. It gave Prague and the countryside a number of buildings of elegant proportions and simple functional forms. Foremost among the buildings in Prague was the customhouse on Hybernská Street by J[iří] Fischer. This is one of the most beautiful buildings from the city’s past, despite the fact that it imitated the old mint in Berlin by [Heinrich] Gentz (much in the same way that the majority of new provincial buildings copied from contemporary Ideenmagazine [idea magazines]). Other prominent buildings include the Piarist Church [kostel Piaristů] on Na Příkopy by the same architect, the Kinsky summer palace by Jindřich Koch, and the Platýz apartment building by J[indřich] Hausknecht. Outside Prague, Kačina Castle near Čáslav, Částolovice Castle, and the spa buildings in Mariánské Lázné, Františkovy Lázně, Teplice-Šanov, and Karlovy Vary all deserve mention. Still, the most admirable works in the Empire style are the utilitarian structures — engineering works of bold iron construction. Notable examples include the suspension bridges in Žatec (1826), Loket (1834), Prague (1839-41), and Strakonice (1842).
Following the Empire period, the integration of construction and architectural form disappeared for many decades. This entailed the loss of forms typical of all great architectural eras: styles that represented truly integrated constructional systems — attuned to the requirements and manufacturing methods of their times rather than to mere decoration — faded away. With the passing of the Empire style — characterized by the noble uniformity of its utilitarian buildings, interiors, and furnishings — no further styles emerged; only academic or artistic vogues prevailed. The Empire style had achieved specific solutions and provided rational answers to the exigencies of its time, but the architecture that followed sought only to dazzle us with vacuous academic formulas borrowed from a dead past.[...]
— modernist architecture