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Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History

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Breaking the Rope

By Maja Fowkes, on 5 November 2019

Picking up the threads of the conversations about East European art history from the first session of Confrontations, the focus of the initial seminar at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague was on attempts to locate East European art within global art history. This entailed discussing the legacy for East European art of the tripartite division of the Cold War, the relation of East European art to other global non-Western art regions and collectively analysing methodologies and curatorial approaches to reframing East European artistic identity three decades after the fall of communism.

Taking sides on the issues of whether belonging to the Second World during the Cold War was a privileged position for East European art, is East European art closer to the Euro-American axis or to the art histories of the global South, and how relevant is the decolonial project for the region, again saw the engagement of participants in a symbolic Tug of Art History. The impassioned position-taking on art historical dilemmas this time ended up breaking the rope.

Discussions that arose confronted the theorisation of decoloniality with the actual situation on the ground of East European art history. There were calls to pluralise decolonialisms, warnings about the dangers that the decolonial project could turn into nationalism and a desire expressed for political, ethical and microhistorical approaches that would allow for other narratives to emerge.

(Maja & Reuben Fowkes)

Socialist Art

By Maja Fowkes, on 5 November 2019

After Pavlina’s fruitful introduction to the various Confrontations exhibitions throughout the socialist period in Czechoslovakia and beyond, we continued the morning session with a lecture on socialist art by Tomáš Pospiszyl, Czech critic, curator and art historian. In 2018 JRP Editions published Pospiszyl’s monograph An Associative Art History: Comparative Studies of Neo-Avant-Gardes in a Bipolar World which aimed to locate East European postwar art in global history. Speaking at his home institution – Pospiszyl is a lecturer at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague – he gave a most amiable overview of the tasks for the study of East European art during the socialist era.

The presentation started on a positive note: East European art history has enjoyed much success during the last 15 years, nearly every important artist has had a catalogue published (in English) about his/her oeuvre, private and public collections have shown great interest in this field. However, at times this has come with a cost of assimilating western concepts to East European art. By emphasising neo-avant-garde tendencies or the semi-official artistic culture of the so-called grey zone, art historians have left behind blind spots in recent art histories, especially in terms of the most common official visual culture of the socialist era. In other words, we don’t know much about socialist art.

In order to encourage his colleagues to pick up the topic, Pospiszyl proposed dozens of ‘tasks’ (e.g researching the creation of socialist reality by socialist artists, analysing institutional conditions, looking into the relationship between high and low/mass culture under socialism) and urged fellow researchers to share the knowledge. I presume that the majority of the audience welcomed Pospiszyl’s urge to study the official art of the socialist era, but it seems to me that most of the listeners were reluctant to agree with the strictly socio-economically defined concept of socialist art. As always, it’s recommended not to go from one extreme to another.

(Gregor Taul)

Milan Grygar Unplugged

By Maja Fowkes, on 5 November 2019

Finding time in his hectic schedule, the chief curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Michal Novotný opened up the National Gallery for the Confrontations group on a Monday evening and gave us a wide-ranging talk in the cavernous space of the Milan Grygar retrospective. Born in 1926, with an enduring interest in contemporary music and its transposition into musical notation, Grygar’s spatial scores appear on canvas, as sculptural installations and as video works. The curator fielded searching questions from the participants on a variety of pressing topics, such as the ideal age for an artist to have a solo show in the National Gallery and the challenges of mounting shows in the enormous spaces of the Trade Fair Palace. He also shared with us the backstory of his Re-Orient series of exhibitions about East European artistic identity, the fourth instalment of which we were to see in Bratislava.

(MRF)

Czech Art Differently

By Maja Fowkes, on 5 November 2019

Giving insights into the history of the Confrontations exhibitions in Prague from the years around 1960 and the early 1980s, Pavlína Morganová began the group seminars at the Academy of Fine Arts. Among the specificities of the secluded spirit of the early Confrontations that she revealed was the rule that each artist was allowed to invite only a single visitor to the exhibition to avoid drawing the attention of the authorities, giving a fresh perspective on the question of audience numbers in exhibition making.

Hana Buddeus posed the question of what kind of art history could be reconstructed by taking account of the work of a photographer favoured by other artists to document their work through her research on prolific Czech photographer Josef Sudek. By analysing the content of these images, she demonstrated the fluidity in practice of divides between official and unofficial streams of artistic production.

Johana Lomová drew attention to the specific role played by the applied arts in socialist states. To this end she focused on a lesser known aspect of the work of Czech art critic Jindřich Chalupecký, later renowned for his advocacy of neo-avant-garde and experimental art, but who during the 1950s and early 1960s published almost exclusively on the applied arts and their contribution to Czechoslovak socialist society.

Juliane Debeusscher put forward the idea of an Eastern-Southern European connection as a heterogeneous area of cultural transfers and entanglements during the Cold war. Examining the trajectories of Jiří Valoch’s exhibition exchanges with Franco’s Spain during the 1960s, she argued for a more differentiated understanding of ‘non-socialist countries’ rather than a monolithic West, in order to account for the cultural specificities of authoritarian dictatorships.

(Maja & Reuben  Fowkes)

Hop Field Art

By Maja Fowkes, on 5 November 2019

Curator and art historian Marie Klimešová recounted to the group how her work progressed in the Czechoslovak art scene in the 1970s and 1980s, working outside official institutions and despite the challenges of the Normalisation period. She explained that her university courses at the Art Academy never went beyond Kandinsky and Brancusi for ideological reasons; nevertheless she was drawn to contemporary art and staged several exhibitions of “forbidden” artists (such as Jiří Sopko and Karel Nepraš), whose striking aesthetics, dark humor, and defiant spirit she admired.

One of her most impressive undertakings was a large-scale land art symposium held in 1983 at Chmelnice, in a hop field outside Prague and supported by the local Agriculture Cooperative. The artists, both Czechoslovak and from outside the country, included Magdalena Jetelová, Stanislav Zippe, Čestmír Kafka, Jitka Svobodová, Ivan Kafka, and Vladimir Merta. They made inventive use of the system of tall constructions made of 9 metre tall wooden poles that hop plants require in order to grow. The days long symposium created a sense of community among the artists, but unfortunately the works were destroyed almost immediately by the same members of the cooperative which hosted the participants on the demand of the authorities.

(Corina Apostol)

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First Republic

By Maja Fowkes, on 5 November 2019

We had the opportunity to visit the exhibition  1918–1938: First Republic at the National Gallery in Prague in the company of co-curator Jitka Šosová. Through a vast number of artworks, this exhibition presents the artistic life of the interwar period, during the First Czechoslovak Republic. The curators have chosen to present the artistic production of this period concentrating on one aspect: the institutions. This well-defined approach makes the extensive material readable, creating a clear narrative of this period. The exhibition provides a refreshing, new look at interwar art in Czechoslovakia, offering new understandings, especially compared to traditional, stylistic narratives.

For me, the most interesting part however was not a specific institution but the introduction to the exhibition, featuring different charts: one showing the geographic setting with the numbered halls relating to the art centres, another highlighting the multi-national composition of the population, varying from region to region, and finally a chart providing a comparative periodization of the eighteen (!) institutions showcased at the exhibition.

 

The curatorial concept attempts to be as geographically inclusive as possible, dedicating one room to each major artistic centre, namely Brno, Bratislava, Zlín, Košice, and Užhorod. Nonetheless, thirteen parts are still dedicated to Prague. One, without a thorough knowledge of the different art scenes, only wonders whether this thirteen to five ratio in favour of Prague represents the overwhelmingly dominant role of the capital, or it is rather – at least partly – due to the composition of the collections at the National Gallery that the curators had to build upon? Whichever is case, the 1918–1938: First Republic remains a magnificent contribution to art history; one can only hope that the somewhat outdated floor dedicated to the post-war period will receive a similarly refreshing treatment in the close future.

(Daniel Véri)

Impermanent Collection

By Maja Fowkes, on 5 November 2019

After National Gallery’s permanent exhibition “1918-1938: First Czechoslovak Republic”, which gave a very good insight into the art produced in this time period including the representation of the wider cultural framework that influenced production, distribution and reception of the art, we visited the exhibition “1930-Present:Czech Modern Art“ with a gallery curator Adéla Janíčková. Intended to present progress and development of nation’s art— singling out important figures of the interwar avant-garde, the unofficial art of the 1950s, neo-avant garde, i.e., neo-constructivist tendencies, action art, new sensitivity to postmodernism — this permanent exhibition gave us a somewhat fragmented and homogenic view of a very complex history. There was a lack of narrative between official and unofficial art (also no Socialist Realism in the display) as well as the information on the socialist time or the social, cultural and political context that shaped these practices (in comparison to the First Czechoslovak Republic exhibition). In fact, this exhibition layout was indicative that the National gallery is in some kind of transition, suspended between past practices and future possibilities. For us, however, it successfully set the scene for the next event “Questioning National Collection”, the discussion dealing with issues on how to represent national identity as well as plurality and diversity of identity through its permanent displays.

(Asja Mandić)

 

Speculative Futures

By Maja Fowkes, on 5 November 2019

An open seminar at the Academy of Fine Arts set out to bring together feminist, post-socialist and decolonial perspectives on post-war national art collections, with a particular focus on the case of the National Gallery in Prague. Participants in the panel included Daniela Kramerová, who had been involved in preparing a far advanced proposal for rehanging the modern and contemporary collection of the gallery that was eventually cancelled. She used the opportunity to present her working version in public and disclose the curatorial processes behind such a task, as well as the pressure exerted by the museum management. Julia Bailey, as a representative of the National Gallery, shared her delicate perspective as a non-native curator working on the Czech national collection, as well as attempts to bring in international experience of diversifying arts funding. Karina Kottová represented the views of the collectively founded Feminist Art Institution, encouraging the audience to imagine what a feminist approach would mean in terms of the praxis of the National Gallery, while also extending solidarity to unrepresented groups within the national canon, such as Roma artists. Finally Jan Skřivánek also contributed to the discussion of how to incorporate diverse art practise into museum collections and offer new interpretations of Czech art history through non-traditional exhibition displays.

(Maja & Reuben Fowkes)

The panel discussion ‘Questioning the National Collection’ demonstrated the difficulties and to some extent the failure to establish a discourse or narration of the post war period. It became obvious that the shadows of the present are overlapping with the past and vice versa. Once again, this panel discussion revealed the process of constructing history and history as a construction. It also showed that the construction of history reflects much more the present and its actual debates. Therefore, it draws much more a picture of the present than of the past.

(Constanze Fritzsch)

Brno: Art Was There

By Maja Fowkes, on 5 November 2019

In the middle of Confrontations seminar, on the way between Prague and Bratislava, we spent the whole day in Brno, that turned out to be not just a transit point between Czech and Slovak art scenes, but also an inspiring place to explore some episodes and protagonists of these scenes more closely. ‘Art is Here’ claimed the title of the exhibition at Moravian Gallery in Brno. After the large premises of the Trade Fair Palace, National Gallery in Prague, which even through its architecture revealed the complexities of dealing with the art history of the recent past, the Moravian Gallery in Brno was pleasantly approachable and appealing with unconventional details of the display design. For instance, in the modern and inter-war-avant-garde art section, under each painting, right on the wall is a black and white reproduction of the work in question – so that if works are out of the gallery premises, on loan or restauration, visitors can still see them.

Most striking was the diversity and uncompromising character of these nonofficial art scenes in spite of political pressure after 1968, and the connections Valoch had with Czech, Slovak and international artists. Each of the exposition rooms maps the different roles Jiří Valoch had – the ones of curator, organizer, artist, theoretician, networker or collector. For me the most telling was the room that introduces Valoch as a collector: a reconstruction of the situation in his flat that is overcrowded with artworks, commenting on Valoch’s very passionate engagement, where the boundaries between life and art are more than blurred.

(Ieva Astahovska)

The group’s visit to Brno revolved around the figure of the artist, curator, and theoretician Jiří Valoch, who played a central role in the development and promotion of experimental art from the mid-1960s onwards, in Brno itself and also in a broader context. Thanks to the curator Ondřej Chrobák, we were able to see how Valoch’s collection (consisting of documents, artworks and objects) is featured in the new permanent exhibition “ART IS HERE: New Art” at the Moravian Gallery-Prazak Palace. The discussions focused on the display, artists’ strategies to enable interaction in the context of political normalisation in Czechoslovakia, as well as Valoch’s less known facet as an art collector. As he was actively involved both in local organisations such as the Brno House of Arts and in international networks, Valoch’s activities were particularly emblematic of the overlapping or coexistence of the official and unofficial spheres, a subject that was at the heart of the discussions in this second session of Confrontations.

This was followed by another fascinating visit, this time to the part of the Jiří Valoch Archive that is conserved at the Moravian Gallery’s Governor’s Palace. The curator Jana Písaříková offered us an overview of the large amount of material held at the gallery, reflecting the artist’s connections and interests over more than four decades. One of the challenges the Archive currently faces is the need to design an organizational structure for materials from an artist who was never interested in self-archiving. There is no doubt that the whole complex is fertile ground still to be explored!

(Juliane Debeusscher)

Archiving Valoch

By Maja Fowkes, on 5 November 2019

For many decades Jiří Valoch has been a “living institution”. He combined different roles in his professional career: a poet, musician, visual and textual artist, art critic, theoretician and curator, artistic culture organizer, pedagogue, art collector and archive builder. He is also an exemplary figure for the “Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History” research project in so far as he managed, between 1960 and 1990, to create and animate a vast transnational network of contacts, exchange and cooperation, not only with partners from other countries of the Eastern bloc but also from Western and Southern Europe or Latin America.

The thing that bears the greatest testimony to Valoch’s networking activities is his vast archive of art documentation, letters, exhibition catalogues and books on art. Regrettably enough, the archive – along with his art collection – is now divided and deposited in a number of places, the most important parts being kept in the Moravian Gallery in Brno, the J. H. Kocman Archive and the National Gallery in Prague. At present, one can hardly imagine an actual institution which would reintegrate Valoch’s dispersed heritage, be devoted to commemorating his multifarious achievements and take them as a reference point for its own contemporary concept, mission and programme. Yet it is exactly such an institution – or an interinstitutional cooperation project – that would be the right site to present the totality of Valoch’s transnational networking activities, at least in the form of a temporary exhibition.

During our visit to the Moravian Gallery in Brno we also had a chance to see the Jiří Valoch Archive itself. It was an unforgettable experience: a long corridor-like room with rows of book cases and card boxes filled with all kind of archival items, with a characteristic smell of old paper and a feeling of hopelessness in the face of an unorderly overabundance of research material. As we were informed by the curator of the archive, Jana Písaříková, the gallery team are indeed at the very beginning of systematic ordering and tagging of the items and researching their content. The situation reminded us about other archives of East European art that are still being discovered or made available for exploration and, more generally, about how much primary sources research is still to be performed here. Contrary to some beliefs, we are not done with it and cannot simply proceed to a next stage of synthetic and comparative analyses. Both, it seems, must be done at the same time.

(Tomasz Załuski)

Popularising Pištěk

By Maja Fowkes, on 5 November 2019

A visit to the Brno House of Arts gave the Confrontations participants the chance to encounter an artistic oeuvre that sits uneasily within the dichotomies of official and unofficial art, as well as the divide between experimental and mainstream taste. A large-scale solo show of the work of Theodor Pištěk elicited mostly bemusement on the part of the group, encountering unexpectedly the sculpture and paintings of an artist who was educated in the Prague Academy of Applied Arts at the height of Socialist Realism, had a parallel career as a racing car driver, and is best known by the Czech public for his achievements as a costume designer in the film industry. Presented here were both his glossy and futuristic abstract canvases from the 1960s and his equally glossy, hyperrealist paintings from the 1970s and 1980s. These tableaus are filled with racing car drivers, unsettling depictions of exotic natives and pin up girls, as well as streamlined machines and other icons of the technological sublime; a fantasy world that posed no threat to the Normalisation regime, but still tugged at the sub-conscious of socialist citizens. Indicative of changing artworld criteria is the fact that a popular figure like Pištěk could get the full retrospective treatment in a hallowed venue of progressive and conceptual art, where Valoch worked as a curator from the early 1970s.

(Maja & Reuben Fowkes)

Library Seminar

By Maja Fowkes, on 5 November 2019

Further group seminars expanded the discussion away from Czechoslovak art histories, bringing perspectives from Bulgarian, Romanian, Estonian and Latvian art contexts.

Dessislava Dimova examined the practice of Vladimir Ivanov from the 1970s and 1980s to open up the debate around the supposed lack of modernist and neo-avant-garde traditions in Bulgaria, pointing to the interchangeability of abstract lines and human figures.

Corina Apostol focused on the period of the 1980s, problematising the porous divide between the official art of the late socialist period in Romania and the critical and artistic strategies that bridged activism, community art, performance and social practice.

Gregor Taul shared his research into Soviet monumental decorative art, in tracking down surviving murals and designs in often derelict public buildings and factories and returning to them a systematic art historical analysis, befitting historical works of public art that deserve to be preserved and restored rather than allowed to deteriorate and disappear.


Ieva Astahovska examined the trajectory of the notion of Baltic art as a distinct branch of East European art through international exhibitions and biennials, exploring its importance for the development of a post-Soviet regional identity.

(MRF)

Interrupted Song

By Maja Fowkes, on 5 November 2019

What does Czechoslovak Socialist Realism look like? Alexandra Kusá, director of the Slovak National Gallery in Bratislava and curator of the 2012 exhibition “Interrupted Song: The Art of Socialist Realism 1948-1956” showed us a number of atypical examples, both in content and form. We saw a Stalin at a museum, looking at a baroque painting; another one listening to a classical music concert; a double portrait of two men swimming together in a visibly homoerotic embrace. Other pieces, though typical in their topics characteristic for Socialist Realism — they were painting and sculptures depicting scenes of factory work or crop gathering — used surprising visual language, either indebted to the great masters like Giotto and Piero della Francesca, or even clearly referencing “debased” modern art styles, such as cubism!

The challenge posed by the Czechoslovak Socialist Realism, however, is grounded not only in iconography or stylistic considerations. Just like with the more general history of art from the communist period, there is a degree of difficulty with discussing what was actually Czecho-Slovak about this art.

Even though Czechoslovakia was a single country for almost five postwar decades, with a single state Artists Union serving all practitioners in the federation, the scenes in Prague and Bratislava remained largely separate. And especially after the split of 1993, there seems to be general pressure to consider the cultural history of Czechia and Slovakia independently from each other. Kusá admitted to us that this issue, and related tensions, stalled her work on the project for an extended period of time. Finally, she decided to deal with this issue in a conceptual manner: In a book Perusena Pesen: Vytvarne Umenie w Casoch Stalinskej Kulturnej Praxe that she published in 2019, she included examples of artworks from the Czech part of the federation among those made by Slovak artists, but had all those objects captioned in the Czech, rather than Slovak, language. “There were fights with the copy editor, but I won!” she told our group.

(Magdalena Moskalewicz)

Socialist Realism Beyond Humour

By Maja Fowkes, on 5 November 2019

During our trip to Prague and Bratislava we were confronted with different approaches to the artistic production of socialist realism. During our first session in Prague, Tomáš Pospiszyl presented us the theoretical premises of his new research project dedicated to the official art of the socialist era. The art historian emphasised that it is important to step outside art history’s comfort zone of modernism and neo-avantgarde in order to turn to practices that are aesthetically more challenging. The study of conditions of production of officially sanctioned art can also change our understanding of the practices that were contesting it.

The theoretical framework presented by Pospiszyl created a stimulating discussion and made us eager to confront the socialist realist art works in question. How bad could they be? At that stage, armed with arguments we were prepared to confront smiling faces of multiple Lenins and Stalins. However, the display at the National Gallery in Prague left us empty-handed as it turned out socialist realist art was removed from a small room dedicated to it in a previous version of the display. We were told that the arrangement was rather stereotypical in depicting socialist realism as failed, political kitsch.

In Bratislava, we saw a different approach to socialist realism. During her presentation, the director of the Slovak National Gallery, Alexandra Kusá presented to us her exhibition and book titled “Prerušená pieseň” (“Interrupted Song”) dedicated to the official art of the period between 1945 and 1956. The curator’s approach was distanced from any moral and aesthetic judgement on art of that time. However, as we soon discovered by breaking into collective laughter when confronted with some examples of badly executed socialist realist painting, it is hard to look at socialist realism from today’s perspective without any sense of humour. Yet, reaching beyond the comic effects of some art works, Kusá’s talk discussed conditions of art making under Stalinism, exposing motivations and social factors at work. The comprehensive catalogue constitutes a rich resource of images and documents relating to the period. It will be really interesting to see how this research will be articulated in the new display of the Gallery’s permanent collection.

(Agata Pietrasik)

Nothing Can Stop Us!

By Maja Fowkes, on 5 November 2019

I will remember the Slovak National Gallery in Bratislava as a space of stimulating intellectual exchange, punctuated by surprise and laughter. The two days of presentations and discussions at the Kornel and Nada Földvari Library on the Gallery’s first floor bear the mark of the disturbingly hilarious presence of a beautiful stuffed horse, poised next to the larger-than-life portrait of Mr. Földvari dressed as an “Indian.” Despite Földvari’s evident passion for the “Wild West,” the horse was not his idea, but was placed there as a nod to the stuffed giraffe dominating the entrance of the Natural History Museum since socialist times. This same giraffe was supposed to become an inhabitant of the Bratislava Zoo but died upon arrival, ending up as an enduring, and most popular, museum exhibit.

Things seemed to reach their logical conclusion on the second floor of the Gallery, where Nothing Can Stop Us, a retrospective exhibition of the Slovak pioneer of “new expressionism,” Laco Teren, opened with a sculpture of a laughing horse, or rather, an upside-down centaur, a creature with human legs and equine torso and head, sticking out his tongue at the visitors. Tongue-in-cheek indeed best describes this exquisitely installed exhibition, curated by Katarína Bajcurová, who gave us a tour. The blazing colors of Teren’s paintings and his humorous, cocky, end-of-history reshuffling of symbols of class struggle and socialism look like Laibach/Irwin on LSD, as if to suggest the need to not simply end, but to thoroughly launch ourselves out of history, laughing.

I guess our itinerant quest for Eastern European, socialist art in Confrontations is something of a hybrid of the two horses: one negotiating with the geocultural crossdressing and taxidermy of the socialist past, and the other exploding it in order to transform it into some as yet-unseen but exhilarating future. Nothing can stop us!

(Ivana Bago)

Introducing Syzygia

By Maja Fowkes, on 5 November 2019

We were joined by two members of the Syzygia group, Rudolf Sikora and Gabriel Hošovský, for a working dinner to reflect on the intergenerational and cooperative spirit of the Bratislava art scene at the end of the 1980s. Founded in 1986 by four younger artists and Sikora, the name Syzýgia derived from the astronomical term for contradictory phenomena, which stood here for the local conflict between modernist and postmodernist outlooks. Standing up against ideological control, their shows, originally held in the older artists’ studios, offered a neo-conceptualist riposte to the neo-expressionist trend in painting. Although the group stopped exhibiting together shortly after the revolution of 1989, their collaborative achievements are documented in a bilingual catalogue, which the editor Lýdia Pribišová introduced to the Confrontations participants.

(MRF)

Pop Variants

By Maja Fowkes, on 5 November 2019

With the permanent collection of the Slovak National Gallery currently closed for major reconstruction, we headed to the Gallery of the City of Bratislava for a direct if fragmentary encounter with works by canonical Slovak artists of the 1960s. We were joined by art historian Richard Gregor, who shared with the group his experiences of researching Slovak Pop Art and integrating his work within the changing international discourse around the movement, as it exchanges its West-centric assumptions for a global perspective. His insights into the Slovak side of the first Confrontations exhibitions in Bratislava also offered a more complex and reciprocal account of Czech and Slovak artistic relations in the early 1960s.

(MRF)

Made in 1989

By Maja Fowkes, on 5 November 2019

A visit to Gandy Gallery took us to the very end of the research period of Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History, since their current exhibition to mark the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution featured the work made in the year 1989 by women artists. This select group included Ilona Németh and Anna Daučíková from Slovakia and Lia Perjovschi from Romania. Marysia Lewandowska showed Empty Chair (1989), pictured below, which referenced two women who took part in the Round Table Talks in Poland in spring of that year, questioning the instability of representation and the role of women in historical events.

Slovak Lessons in Late Socialism

By Maja Fowkes, on 5 November 2019

Guest lectures by Slovak art historian Ján Kralovič and curator Mira Keratová gave the group the opportunity to become immersed in the specificities of the art histories of the late 1970s and 1980s in Bratislava and the life and work of artists whose careers traversed the period from Normalisation to the Velvet Revolution.

Mira Keratová focused in her presentation on Ján Budaj, an artist whose attempts to cross closed international borders brought him into contact with the secret police, religious groups and alternative communities in Slovakia and abroad. She also shed light on his influential role in the Velvet Revolution as a leading figure in the environmental and civic protest movements of the 1980s, including as a producer of samizdat publications and initiator of the group Temporary Society of Intense Experience.

Ján Kralovič took the group on a virtual journey from the 1970s to the 1980s in the alternative scene of Bratislava, sharing with us rare images of the ephemeral exhibition spaces set up in the homes of artists. The questions raised by the Confrontations participants included how official attitudes to rebellious artist collectives and non-official spaces changed between the 1970s and 1980s, with Kralovič pointing to 1986 as the threshold year, after which there was no longer a compulsion for experimental artists to take shelter from the authorities in under-the-radar apartment galleries.

(MRF)

Setting the Confrontations Agenda

By Maja Fowkes, on 29 April 2019

The first session of Confrontations kicked off with a circle of introductions of this select group of scholars of East European art history, coming together at the beginning of an ambitious programme of collective research. Hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb, the first gathering was an opportunity to introduce the agenda of Confrontations over the coming years, with the aim to uncover the contested histories of the art of the first and last decades of the socialist period across the diverse art scenes of Eastern Europe.   Anticipating from the outset the complexity and potential irreconcilability of certain positions in contested art historical evaluations, the participants were invited to confront their views through a symbolic Tug of Art History. The question that saw the group take the most opposing positions indicatively was whether abstract art could be seen as a propaganda tool of the socialist state. Intended as a gesture to establish a safe environment for the expression of discordant points of view, this group exercise was also an indication of the objective of Confrontations to activate the potential of ‘sensuous scholarship’ through an embodied art history in which researchers are immersed in direct experiences, exchanges and encounters with the objects of study in situ.        The first group seminar vividly illustrated the plurality and wealth of approaches in response to the task of proposing their own working definition of East European art history. As we went around the table, it was clear that everyone had interpreted the brief set out in advance by the convenors of Confrontations differently. In that sense, attempts to define our research area ranged from historicising the question of East European art, either relegating it to the pre-1989 state-socialist period or conceiving it as a post-1989 construct, to putting forward theoretical or linguistic distillations of the field. Also voiced was the notion that focusing on Eastern European art could be a strategic choice, in terms of pursuing particular ethical or decolonising agendas with regard to art history.

(MRF)