Those of you who know me (which I assume to be the vast majority of my readers; I have no illusions about attracting thousands of strangers to this site) will mostly have at least some vague notion that I’ve been working on my PhD in Art History at the University of Pittsburgh. My reasons for that are perhaps best left unexamined, but boredom with office temp work as a means of supporting the fiction-writing habit did figure into it. In any case, my advisor thought I would do better to pursue my interest in the Czech surrealist Toyen than to try to write yet another dissertation on the Weimar Republic, and this has worked out very well. Toyen and the interwar Czech avant-garde seem to be of perpetual interest to me, even if it could be argued that I’ve bought into the mythologization of the First Republic as a golden age. But—what the heck, just because the First Republic wasn’t actually perfect (what is?) doesn’t mean it wasn’t awfully interesting.
So… the dissertation itself looks at the construction of gender and eroticism in the work of Toyen (Marie Čermínová). I use the word “construction” because Toyen creates her own version of these things (as do we all, to some extent) and why/how is her version different from what other (mostly male) surrealists came up with? (I am trying not to sound painfully academic here, and not really succeeding, as it is, after all, a PhD dissertation.) Perhaps I should give in to academic language here and give the abstract I wrote for the Fulbright-Hays DDRA grant (which is funding me this year):
“This dissertation situates the life and work of the artist Toyen (1902-1980), a founding member of the Prague surrealist group, within the larger discourses of modernism and feminism/gender studies. In particular, it will explicate Toyen’s construction of eroticism and gender within the contexts of early twentieth century Czech feminism, the interwar Prague avant-garde, and Prague and Paris surrealism. As a case study of one artist working within a specific avant-garde movement, this project contributes to critical re-evaluation of surrealism, the Central European contribution to modernism, and the role of female artists in the avant-garde, thereby critiquing the reductive East-West binary that currently shapes English-language discourse about Central and Eastern European art.”
I hope that wasn’t too painful for most of you, and satisfies to some extent the desire some of you have expressed to hear more about my research. Each fall PhD students all across North America write rafts of grant proposals in the hope of getting someone or other to fund their research (assuming that their departments are not funding them eternally), and some of us actually succeed in getting the funding; the three proposals I turned in last fall were abnormally successful and resulted in three offers of funding (FLAS, Fulbright, and Fulbright-Hays DDRA), of which I had to pick only one, namely Fulbright-Hays. Many people have heard of Fulbright, but few have heard of Fulbright-Hays DDRA, which is a related but less broadly defined program that only funds PhD candidates who plan to teach and whose research is focused on certain parts of the globe. Thus, this year there are seven Fulbright Students in the Czech Republic and somewhat more Fulbright Scholars plus some Fulbright Teachers, while there is one Fulbright-Hays professor (Bruce) and I am the only Fulbright-Hays DDRA here. Fulbright and Fulbright-Hays are administered by separate governmental entities, but the Prague Fulbright office does provide some services to Fulbright-Hays recipients, such as inviting us to orientation and events.
Now: my partners in crime, or, that is, the other grantees. I confess that I didn’t really get to know the Fulbright Scholars and Teachers at orientation, because we only shared parts of the process. The Scholars and Teachers are not required to know Czech or to be experts on the Czech Republic, but merely have some reason for wanting to work with Czech colleagues on projects. (This is not to say that it is easy to get one of those Fulbright grants; I am really very ignorant about their side of things.) The Fulbright Students, however, generally have to have a decent command of the language and to have an interesting project to pursue here. This year two of the Student slots were reserved for Teaching Assistants, of whom I only met one, Justin. The other students are Alex, Dawn, Hubert, Jesse, and Vivian, and I expect them to appear regularly on this blog. By some miracle, we are all arts/humanities types, so we have closely related interests.
Alex has her MFA from American University (where I obtained my MA) and is studying Czech puppet animation, notably the work of Jiří Trnka. She is acquainting herself with various puppet animators and has an affiliation here with FAMU (the film school).
Dawn is completing her PhD at University of Toronto, on a contemporary German-language Czech author whose name I have forgotten. In a past life she was a flautist.
Hubert is a composer and has just finished his PhD at UC Berkeley, so his project is to compose something here and have it performed. His affiliation is with HAMU (the music school).
The reason Jesse has already appeared so frequently in this blog is that we already knew each other, having been in Czech class together last summer. We met at the picnic table at school the first morning, ended up in the same class, and spent the next month roaming around Prague and lunching with our classmates Ross, Martin, and Grisha. Jesse is a musicology student at University of Michigan and is writing his dissertation about Moravian cimbalom bands.
Vivian received her BA from Harvard and is working on a project relating to the nineteenth-century artist Brožík. I gather it has a historical fiction component, which sounds intriguing.
Bruce is the other Fulbright-Hays recipient. He teaches history at Calvin in Michigan and is working on a Czech-Slovenian architectural project at the moment. Or perhaps not really at the moment, as his wife Megan just gave birth to their fourth child and I’m sure his thoughts are more on that this week.
I think that is enough for now about all of us. The archival life calls. (As do the unfinished grant proposals for next year, but more faintly.)