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Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) Announces New Formations: Czech Avant-Garde Art and Modern Glass from the Roy and Mary Cullen Collection

New Formations: Czech Avant-Garde Art and Modern Glass from the Roy and Mary Cullen Collection Offers a fresh introduction to seminal works that were hidden from the public eye during the Cold War era

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), presents New Formations: Czech Avant-Garde Art and Modern Glass from the Roy and Mary Cullen Collection (on view November 6, 2011–February 5, 2012), shedding light on a still under-known chapter of 20th-century art. The exhibition features more than 150 Czech avant-garde works amassed by Houston philanthropists Roy and Mary Cullen, including outstanding examples from the flowering of Czech Surrealism; rare artists’ books and avant-garde periodicals; and exquisitely molded and blown modern glass. The exhibition is curated by leading art historians based in Prague, Karel Srp of the Prague Municipal Gallery and independent scholar Lenka Bydžovská; Alison de Lima Greene, MFAH curator of contemporary art and special projects, has also contributed to the catalogue and organized this exhibition for Houston.

“This project builds and expands upon the MFAH’s nationally acclaimed 1989 Czech Modernism: 1900–1945 exhibition,” said MFAH interim director Gwendolyn H. Goffe. “However, there is still much to learn about 20th-century Czech art and its contribution to European modernism. The Cullens have shown imaginative flair and true connoisseurship in re-telling this story through their collection, literally a ‘New Formation’ of the international avant garde.”

“Roy and Mary Cullen have built several significant collections, ranging from Latin American modernism to contemporary Texas and Chicago artists,” Greene added. “Their commitment to Czech avant-garde came about by a happy coincidence. They were deeply impressed by our Czech Modernism exhibition. Equally important, however, was the Cullens’ first-hand experience of the Velvet Revolution. They were in Prague the day that Vaclav Havel was elected president in December 1989, an event which decisively ended over five decades of Communist rule. For the Cullens, this was a profoundly inspiring moment in history.”

Many of the artists introduced to American audiences by Czech Modernism in 1989 are represented in the Cullen collection, including Toyen, Josef Šíma, Karel Teige, and Jindrich Štyrský. However, New Formations will highlight significant artists overlooked by the earlier exhibition, including the Skupina 42 (Group 42) artists (František Hudeček, Bohumír Matal, and Alois Wachsman, among others), whose work captures the desperate spirit of World War II. Additionally, the Cullens’ exceptional collection of the radical feminist Toyen represents the full arc of her career, from her early book illustrations and abstractions of the 1920s and 1930s, to her passionately autobiographical Surrealist compositions, to her final years in post-war Paris.

The title New Formations is taken from the Artificielismus (Artificialism) manifesto, published in 1927 by Štyrský and Toyen. It aptly reflects the Cullens’ spirit of adventure and their commitment to charting this lost chapter of the avant-garde. “Czech artists were trapped in a 50-year time capsule, and nobody, I mean nobody, outside of Czechoslovakia knew what was there,” Mary Cullen has stated. “Czech art is still not fully integrated into the history of the 20th century [and] I really wanted to make sure that the collection tells the whole story as much as possible.”

Image: Toyen, Poselství lesa [The Message of the Forest], 1936. Oil on canvas. Collection of Roy and Mary Cullen. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

About the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Established in 1900, the MFAH is the largest cultural institution in the region. The majority of the museum’s presentations take place on its main campus, which is located in the heart of Houston’s Museum District and comprises the Audrey Jones Beck Building, the Caroline Wiess Law Building, the Glassell School of Art and the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden. The Beck and Law buildings are connected underground by the Wilson Tunnel, which features James Turrell’s iconic installation The Light Inside (1999). Additional resources include a repertory cinema, two significant libraries, public archives and a state-of-the-art conservation and storage facility. Nearby, two remarkable house museums—Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens and Rienzi—present collections of American and European decorative arts. The encyclopedic collections of the MFAH are especially strong in pre-Columbian and African gold; Renaissance and Baroque painting and sculpture; 19th- and 20th-century art; photography; and Latin American art. The MFAH is also home to the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA), a leading research institute for 20th-century Latin American and Latino art.

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