We say the City – but we do not mean its houses and factories, its goods and its waste matter; what we mean is its millions of people – not their number (…); but rather these individual people, naked under their clothes, blood coursing under their skins, all those whose exposed heartbeats together would drown out the united voices of its machines.

Martin Buber (1878–1965), quoted in 1934

The story of the 20th century is inextricably linked with the phenomenon of the city, which has become the most characteristic environment of modern man. The dynamic industrial development that took place in Europe, the United States and then globally led to the creation of the city as a ‘domain in its own right’ whose inhabitants now live in complete dependence on the system that has been established within it. Society and its interpersonal relationships have, as a consequence, changed radically: people have become physically and mentally remote from their age-old bond with nature and, instead, become a convinced or, on the contrary, disillusioned part of technological modernity.

This relentless progress with its benefits and betrayals has been poignantly reflected in forms of artistic expression. If, during the 19th century, artists’ ideas focused chiefly on the landscape (whether as an idyll, a source of longed-for truths or as space for self-cognition), in the early 20th century the city became the most striking theme of young painters. The portrayal of the urban setting, especially in the work of the Expressionists, differs dramatically from the descriptive or lyrical scenes of preceding artistic generations: man and the city fuse into a single psychological whole and thus the city becomes an almost theatrically conceived metaphor for the inner life of humanity. In this light, the city comes across in 20th-century art as an imaginary ‘screen’ on to which is projected the insatiable desire for freedom, unfettered sexuality, criminal activity, moral degradation, though also – in spite of it all – tenderness, compassion and idealism as well.

The exhibition project The Heart of the City is composed of two parts following on directly from each other. The first part focuses mainly, though not exclusively, on the two decades that came after the founding of democratic Czechoslovakia in 1918. The second part will focus on the period from the 1940s up to the beginning of the 21st century. Through the eyes of 20th-century Czech artists represented by drawings and prints in the GASK collection, this exhibition explores the theme of the city from several viewpoints. We see the everyday activities of city dwellers interpreted both humorously and seriously. In the exhibited works, the urban context transforms into an all-embracing ‘human landscape’, a place of happiness and friendship though also one of alienation, humiliation and loneliness.

In Czechoslovakia, the 1920s were an era when the economy and culture flourished. During those years, many young artists reflected on their rapidly modernising society in book illustrations and in satirical cartoons. A celebrated focal point of the polemical atmosphere of that time was the café, which for many novice writers and artists became a ‘home from home’ and a stimulating junction of new ideas. The playful irony of café circles contrasts sharply at our exhibition with the socially critical print series depicting the poverty-stricken conditions of a significant part of the urban population. At this point, the daytime of successful (or at least promising) citizens is replaced by the hopeless night-time of beggars, drinkers and ‘fallen women’. The existential tension that we feel in these scenes then culminated in the 1930s as a result of the worldwide financial crash and the looming threat of German Nazism. By the early 1940s, the wartime city was, in the work of Czech artists, a quietened and abandoned terrain of lone walkers and apocalyptic visions.