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Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History



East European Art in a Global Perspective

By confrontations, on 28 August 2022

By Tomasz Załuski

The first group seminar at UCL was devoted to the positioning of East Central European art history within a global perspective. The introductory talk was given by Maja and Reuben Fowkes, who proposed a methodological reflection on the current state of the discipline and indicated some of the main problems it must address now in order to critically reinvent itself.

Among the most urgent issues were: a search for new models of relating local and regional art histories which would be different from simplistic schemes of both hierarchical verticality and horizontality; a necessity of decolonizing the canons of Western-centric art history and, at the same time, challenging the production of nationalist narratives of the discipline, this double gesture to provide a way of guarding decolonial critique of Western canons against its interception and appropriation by right-wing populism in East Central Europe; critical revisioning of the history of the very Western-centric canon in terms of posterior historicization and exclusionary purification of an originary intrinsic heterogeneity and multiple emergencies of global art tendencies; a question of avoiding the primacy of the political history in the art historiography and turning to other historical aspects and factors – cultural, social, economic, technological, etc.; and finally, pluralising art under Socialism by transcending simplistic dichotomies like these of the official vs the unofficial or Modernism vs Socialist Realism. The talk echoed many discussions concerning the question of historiography of East Central European art that we had been having during the previous Confrontations meetings and it testified to a strong need, often expressed within the group, of distancing from certain existing assumptions and models of the discipline.

The next speaker was Tamar Garb, who presented a complex case of Ernest Mancoba, a black artist born in South Africa who moved to Europe and spent there the rest of his life participating in the modernist movement, which included being a founding member of the CoBrA group. By pointing out to his long-term erasure from the history of the group but also to certain contemporary attempts at ghettoizing his work as an example of “South African art” and reclaiming him for the cultural politics of post-apartheid South Afrian nationalism, Garb seemed to be making the case against a simplistic decolonisation which could turn a justified and necessary critique of Western universalism into making a way for particularist ideologies. Instead, she proposed to focus on Mancoba’s quest for a transformed, expanded and non-Western-centric universalism and cosmopolitan identity which would allow for a free combination and synthesis of elements drawn from different artistic traditions and cultural regions. In doing so, she invited us to study how non-Western-Europeans reclaimed the very idea of universalism for themselves – and thus for all.

Michał Murawski shared with us his thoughts on how the recent phase of Russian military aggression in Ukraine could impact the study of East Central European art, especially when it is conceived from a leftist perspective which tries to remain faithful to certain spirits of Socialism, Marxism and the idea of Global East. Following the analysis of Polish feminist researchers Agnieszka Graff and Elżbieta Korolczuk, who pointed out that it is the question of non-heteronormativity, queer and transgender which is at the center of the ongoing war, Murawski claimed that the emancipatory tradition of Marxism and certain sociocultural events in the history of actually existing Socialisms might be used as critical tools against Russian conservative neoimperialism.

The final talk of this session was given by Polly Savage, who explored the question of different forms of adeherence to Socialism in Africa with a particular focus on Mozambique and reconstructed certain cultural connections artistic millieus of the country maintained with various socialist countries. She presented examples of aesthetic and stylistic transfers which were received and adapted in Mozambique, and she analysed cases of local artists going to the Soviet Union for the purposes of artistic education. Her research was a fine example of retracing transregional artistic networks of co-operation within Global Socialism.

The 1980s…And What Came After

By confrontations, on 28 August 2022

By Maja and Reuben Fowkes

The programme of the Confrontations meeting in London brought new perspectives to our ongoing discussions of the art of the 1980s in Eastern Europe, by offering a view of the last decade of socialism from outside the region. More specifically, presentations by Marysia Lewandowska and Fedja Klikovac revealed the complexities of artistic border crossings in an era that alternated between cultural and political stasis and epochal transformation.

In her art practice, which across film, installation and interventions deals with the relation between public realms and private ownership in a variety of museum and archival settings, Marysia Lewandowska does not dwell on her own biography. We were therefore privileged that she took the opportunity of her presentation for the Confrontations group to talk about some of the less tangible connections between her personal history of emigration from Poland in 1984, taking a three day trip on an ocean liner in the company of fellow citizens fleeing the repressions of martial law, and the evolution of her artistic interests since settling in the UK. The group was in listening mode as she recounted the origins of the Women’s Audio Archive, a project that she launched in 2009 based on recordings of encounters in the artworld and academia taped during the 1980s. The archive is a record of the language and cultural specificities of the western artworld during a decade that saw the dissolution of the certainties of the Cold War era, but also the emergence of alternative positions and perspectives reflecting different histories and identities. Lewandowska’s abiding interest in the public realm, and the defence of public knowledge against privatising tendencies, come to the fore in her efforts to make the Women’s Audio Archive completely accessible and free of copyright restrictions. It is in the call to keep knowledge, culture and art free from state and market control that the autonomy-loving stream of Polish and East European neo-avant-garde thinking resurfaces in a different space and time, while the practices of self-instituting and self-archiving could also be traced to the art history of the region.

East European practices of self-instituting could also be a relevant point of reference for the career of Fedja Klikovac, who hosted the group in Handel Street Projects, a gallery which used to inhabit temporary spaces around London, but now has a permanent home on a residential street in Islington. He shared with us the prehistory of his curatorial and gallery activities, leading back to the time he spent as a participant in the distinctive ecosystem of the Yugoslav artworld in the 1980s. Born in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro that at the time was known as Titograd, he studied art history in Belgrade in the late 1970s and was part of the vibrant international and alternative art scene around the Student Cultural Centre (SKC). His artistic career, which saw him exhibit in pivotal exhibitions such as Yugoslav Documents in Sarajevo in 1989, came to an end when he emigrated to London in 1992 following the outbreak of war. Actually it would be more accurate to say that his creativity took new directions, such as running the medievalmodern gallery in Marylebone in the early 2000s, based on the concept of inviting artists to make work in dialogue with medieval artefacts.

Also on view in Handel Street Projects was a display of works by Olga Jevrić, the renowned Yugoslav sculptor, whose first solo presentation in the UK was organised by Klikovac in 2019. The Confrontations group had seen Jevrić’s work in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, and the artist’s singular sculptural oeuvre, above all her abstract works from the mid-1950s that fused metal and concrete into irregular forms, is also now represented in the collection of Tate Modern. This is indicative of the expansion of institutional collecting to encompass a greater range of periods and movements in East European art history, looking beyond the golden age of the neo-avant-garde in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Both Klikovac and Lewandowska’s presentations made vivid the presence and often still invisible influence of East European art history on the institutions and practices of the British artworld and academia, while suggesting fleeting parallels between the economic geographies of the UK and Eastern Europe, which during the 1980s underwent different but related versions of de-socialisation and re-marketisation.

Expanding Socialist Realism

By confrontations, on 28 August 2022

By Magdalena Moskalewicz

In this seminar with three invited guests: Juliette Millbach, Aliya de Tiesenhausen, and Kate Cowcher, we discussed the global implications of Soviet imperialism in the field of art, including Moscow-centered pedagogical models and iconography as well as the international circulation of Soviet-specific imagery across the Global South.

 Juliette Millbach presented on the career of the official soviet painter Arkady Plastov (1893-1972), whose works glorified the collectivization of the countryside embodying the authorized, party-line conception of Soviet rural life.

Aliya de Tiesenhausen problematized the Soviet-era depictions of Kazakhstan that contributed to the stereotype of Central Asia as a vast and mostly uninhabited land, with easily available natural resources (Kazakhstan was the 4th global producer of cotton). Interestingly, as de Tiesenhausen pointed out, while imperial powers typically shy away from openly representing their extraction of resources from their colonies, the Soviet Union’s activities in Central Asia were the subject of art—as in the case of the 1931 painting “Cotton Harvest” by the Tashkent-born and Kyiv-educated painter Alexander Volkov.

Alexander Volkov, Cotton Harvest (1931)

Kate Cowcher discussed the careers of Eshetu Tiruneh and Tadesse Mesfin, two Ethiopian artists who in the 1970s travelled to Moscow to receive Soviet-style art training as a part of a friendship agreement between the two countries. While the artists’ previous work engaged with the imagery of the 1973 famine, conveyed in a realistic and powerful way, the two painters now returned as masters of polished academic style. Cowcher argued compellingly that they became products of late Brezhnev-era art education that had little to do with their earlier revolutionary zeal.

Most fascinatingly, we learned that the legacy of the Soviet-style socialist realism in Ethiopia and Kazakhstan has had a lasting effect on both countries’ art scenes, as evidenced in their contemporary art—that either engages critically with Soviet histories and symbols (Kazakhstan) or continues the extremely detailed and polished painterly style (Ethiopia).


Rough Poetry

By confrontations, on 28 August 2022

By Juliane Debeusscher

Among the exhibitions we visited, “Postwar Modern. New Art in Britain 1945-1965” offered a fresh set of reading keys to the exceptional cultural ferment of these two decades in Britain, against a backdrop of post-war reconstruction, the disintegration of the British colonial empire and the ever-present atomic threat. The exhibition’s curator and head of visual arts at Barbican, Jane Alison, accompanied us at the outset and introduced the exhibition, which pays tribute to the intense vitality of this new art she describes as “rough poetry”, borrowing the expression from the architects Alison and Peter Smithson in reference to brutalism. The first room, which brings together works by three artists differently marked by emigration and colonial experience (John Latham, Eduardo Paolozzi and Francis Newton Souza), is a perfect introduction to the exhibition’s overall attempt to take into account the geopolitical and migratory dynamics of the period and how they may have resonated in artistic practices.

I particularly appreciated the willingness to highlight the contributions of artists whose experiences of exile, emigration and settlement in a country undergoing reconstruction are emphasised, as well as the choice of thematic nodes that bring to the fore large-scale social and political situations, likely to enter into dialogue with other contexts, and the very specific responses of the artists, grounded in local practices and narratives. The strong focus on women is also significant, as is the attention given to a register of intimate and domestic relationships. “Postwar Modern. New Art in Britain 1945-1965” is undoubtedly a major contribution to the reading of these decades from a more pluralistic perspective that captures the diversity of British society and the cultural practices that developed during this period. In the context of the Confrontations project, it enriches the artistic panorama of the post-war period in Europe, of which we have had numerous insights during our previous encounters, and provides an opportunity for further comparative exercises.

Notes on Tate Modern’s collection and the mechanisms of acquisition

By confrontations, on 28 August 2022

By Magdalena Ziółkowska

The meeting with Tate Modern curators: Juliet Bingham (Curator of International Art), Natalia Sidlina (Adjunct Curator for Russian Art) and Dina Akhmedeeva (Assistant Curator) concerned the strategy of expanding the Tate collection with artists originating from Central and Eastern Europe, the presentation of new acquisitions within the framework of existing exhibition modules and the mechanisms of selection or valorization of artistic propositions.

Walking in the collection’s display organized according to notions such as “in the studio”, “media networks” or “performer and participant”, the visitors do not know the history of individual objects, neither the history of their appearance in the collection. This is often a long process based on many years of research with the participation of specialists from individual countries, following the art market, as well as gathering financial resources for a specific purchase. The expansion of the Tate Modern collection is structured according to the geographical sections and the line of committees dedicated to them. Their members provide not only the finances for particular acquisitions but have also an advisory voice and make decisions. Symbolic and artistic capital are here married with financial capability. In the case of such significant collections like Tate Modern or Centre Pompidou, it is always worth taking up the subject not only of the criteria of selecting individual artists (geography, presence in the canon), but of the particular vision and idea that defines the chosen directions of its development. There are few desirable names for many European collecting institutions such as Mirosław Bałka, and we heard it being recalled more than a few times. But what does it mean to have an installation or a sculpture by Bałka in the collection today? And what did it mean 20 or 30 years ago? Should the biggest institutions have a complete range of the most outstanding artists in their collections? Wouldn’t that unify them or end in mimicry, and take away their uniqueness?

On the one hand, the extraordinary installation of Romanian artist Ana Lupas – The Solemn Process from 1964/2008 – is finally appreciated on the worldwide scale and is exhibited in the collection. On the other hand, however, we can repeatedly say “it is definitely very late”. Western institutions are laboriously doing their basic art history homework in relation to artists from behind the Iron Curtain. In this regard, it is true to say that smaller art centres have an advantage over multi-venue institutions in terms of timing of action, decision making processes, and perceptiveness to the challenges of today’s world as reflected in artists’ works and attitudes. When we used to look at great museums we looked to them for the canon, appreciation and timeless values. Is that true today as well? The experiment about which Jerzy Ludwinski wrote in the mid-1960s – that institutions should collect attitudes or actions, acting as “sensitive seismographs” to catch the most interesting phenomena – seems highly desirable today. The question is whether the funders/sponsors of individual works in the collection such as Tate Modern would find a continued desire to support them if the symbolic capital changed its location to a less canonical position.

The Logic of Collecting

By confrontations, on 28 August 2022

By Pavlína Morganová

Christine Macel’s presentation was one of the public events of Confrontations sessions in London. This well attended guest lecture at UCL’s Institute of Advanced Studies was a great opportunity to meet the chief curator of the Centre George Pompidou and director of 2017 Venice Biennale. Macel talked openly about the museum’s collections and the works which represent art from Eastern and Central Europe. She revealed some of the strategies, but also frustrations, connected to the acquisitions process. She even showed a list of artists, which the museum is targeting. One could read names, such as Milan Grygar, Karel Malich, Václav Boštík, Vjencislav Richter, Goran Trbuljak, Stano Filko, Milan Knížák, Katalin Ladik, Anna Kutera, Ewa Partum, Jarosław Kozłowski, Endre Tót, Tamás Szentjoby, Maria Pinińska-Bereś, Mirosław Bałka, Katarzyna Kozyra, Milica Tomić or IRWIN. (Pavlína Morganová)

Responding to Macel, Professor Briony Fer from UCL questioned the role and agency of art museums in a cultural sphere that is ultimately shaped by geopolitics and market forces. Although the collecting strategies towards Eastern Europe of the two institutions were not directly confronted during the presentations, there was a sense that Tate Modern pursues a more systematic and rigorous approach, relying on an infrastructure of advisory committees, while the Pompidou is more ad hoc but potentially faster moving in responding to the changing art historical landscape of the region.

Contributions from the floor also raised issues around the implications of the war in Ukraine for curatorial and collecting policies towards a region that is undergoing geopolitical redefinition. Members of the Confrontations group tested the boundaries of the expansion of institutional collecting by asking whether there is or would ever be room for works of socialist realism in the collection displays of the history of modern art. The discussion broached further questions around the comparison of the general state of research into East European art in the United Kingdom and France, and the extent to which academic and museological structures are conducive to research into the art of the region.  (Maja & Reuben Fowkes)

Century of the Studio

By confrontations, on 28 August 2022

By Maja and Reuben Fowkes

The exhibition A Century of the Artist’s Studio 1920-2020 at Whitechapel Gallery set itself the goal of surveying the modern history of artist studios as “crucibles of creativity,” adopting the overt curatorial strategy of setting up “striking juxtapositions of under-recognised artists with celebrated figures in Western art history.” It was this premise that appeared immediately problematic to the Confrontations group, who grappled on their visit with the contradiction between the global reach of an exhibition assembled from more than 100 works by over 80 artists and collectives from “Africa, Australasia, South Asia, China, Europe, Japan, the Middle East, North and South America,” and the continuing dominance in practice of the so-called “modern icons.”

We encountered the show in the company of a representative of the curatorial team at the Whitechapel, Candy Stobbs, and a member of the exhibition advisory committee, editor in chief of Third Text Richard Dyer. The two main thematic threads of the exhibition were “The Public Studio – Artists Together”, looking at the studio as a factory, exhibition space or collective workspace, and “The Private Studio – Artists Alone”, considering the studio as a home, refuge, laboratory or site of political resistance. It was certainly due partly to lack of space that the potentially rich associations of these categories with the history of artist studios in Eastern Europe were barely explored. For example, although Edward Krasiński was a logical inclusion in the show, the display of a blue line at 130cm across half a door could not convey the scale and significance of his conceptual interventions into his studio in a communist era apartment block in Warsaw.

As Richard Dyer explained to us, what began as a western-oriented survey expanded over the course of curatorial research in new geographical directions. However, the question that the exhibition implicitly posed but left unanswered is how the complex histories of the artist’s studio could be approached comparatively and from a global perspective in such a way that its entanglement in place or system-specific economic, social and political processes could be made visible. From the evidence of this exhibition, it seems that as soon as the anchor of Western art narratives is loosened, then the task of articulating the multiplicity of even an apparently straightforward notion such as the artists studio becomes both more challenging and potentially much more rewarding in the long run.

East European Art in the UK

By confrontations, on 28 August 2022

By Maja and Reuben Fowkes

The final afternoon of Confrontations was given over to discussion of the changing place of Central and East European art in the UK, with guest lectures by David Elliott and Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius, concluding with a public panel discussion with Lina Džuverović, Alicja Kaczmarek and Vlad Morariu as guest speakers.

Curator David Elliott focused in his presentation on two moments in exhibition history, the pivotal survey After the Wall: Art and Culture in Post-Communist Eastern Europe, which he co-curated with Bojana Pejic in 1999, and Balagan, an exhibition that a quarter of a century later explored the chaos and confusion of the subsequent path of transition as suggested by the one word title. This felt like a timely moment to revisit After the Wall, an exhibition that was formative for understandings of Eastern Europe as an artistic region, and to hear about its minor coda, pointing to the destabilisation of the geographical categories of the post-communist era of high globalisation.

The presentation by Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius, lecturer at Birkbeck and author of Imaging and Mapping Eastern Europe, took the form of a personal perspective on the evolution of academic interest in East European art in the UK. Rare archival images of conferences and gatherings of researchers on the region dating back to the pre-digital era of the mid-1990s underlined the embodied quality of exchanges amongst members of the informal network of scholars of Central and Eastern European art, and were reminders of the loss of colleagues such as Piotr Piotrowski. The title of Kasia presentation was she explained a partial corrective to the tendency to constantly enumerate how much work still needs to be done in terms of research into specific artists, as well as in asserting the position of our region in wider narratives and debates. She chose to focus instead on everything that has already been achieved, from scholarly publications and exhibition history to the activity of research networks such as Confrontations, in deepening knowledge and understanding of East European art.

The public panel on East European Art in the UK saw insightful presentations by UK-based curators, academics and institution builders with close ties to the region. Lina Džuverović reflected on the challenges she faced as a curator at Calvert22 in the early Twenty-Teens in bringing the work of prominent East European artists, including Sanja Iveković and IRWIN, to London audiences.

Alicja Kaczmarek, founder and director of Centrala Space, a cultural organisation based in Birmingham that provides a platform for artists from the region, presented the results of the In-between Spaces research project into the Inclusion and Representation of Central and East European artists in the UK Creative Economy. Among the key findings she shared was that artists from the region are underrepresented in art galleries, exhibitions and festivals, in comparison to artists from Western Europe and North America, and that as migrants from Eastern Europe they experience a complex form of racialisation in the UK based on negative media portrayals. Vlad Morariu spoke about the Collection Collective, of which he is a member, and its speculative exploration of the possibility to short-circuit the structure of the art market by constructing a contemporary art collection that is owned and managed collectively by its members.

The panel discussion underlined the overlap between issues around the representation of the region in art historical and museum accounts and the everyday challenges faced by East European artists in gaining visibility in the UK artworld. It also demonstrated the existence of a transnational community of scholars, curators and artists, who through their work and acts of solidarity, continue to raise the profile of East European art and artists across global geographies.

The Return of the Tug of Art History

By confrontations, on 28 August 2022

After the two year delay caused by the pandemic, it felt important for the Confrontations group to come together in person one more time within the context of our Connecting Art Histories research initiative, to bring what has been a transformative experience for both the participants and the project leaders to a fitting conclusion. The bonds of friendship and trust that crystallised over the course of our collective journey to the sites and centres of East European art history are a tangible reality that we are sure will continue and grow after the official ending of Confrontations. Once a book is published or an exhibition opened, it takes on a life of its own independently of the author or curator, and the same is true of the best research networks, which create the conditions and inspiration for new and unforeseen collaborations to emerge. Support from the Getty Foundation and UCL gave us as project leaders the possibility to realize a state-of-the-art initiative on East European art history and we were fortunate to have been joined in this endeavour by a truly remarkable group of postdoctoral scholars, who were able to appreciate and benefit from the programme we put together.

Among the comments during our group evaluation on the last day of the London meeting was the observation that “theoretical context was very much embodied in artworks, not just as thinking in our brains but materialised,” and this was indeed what we had hoped to achieve by bringing the discussion of art history out of the seminar room and into the museum, the studio and the street. Another was that horizontality was not just approached as a theory for the writing of a decentred art history of Eastern Europe, but “actually structured the events, discussions and format of group activities,” which confirmed for us the rightness of our decision to organise the seminars as a dialogue between peers, dispensing with the nomenclature of keynotes and favouring circles over rows to promote lively and inclusive debate. The comment that being part of Confrontations “strengthened our East European perspective, which before had been mostly unconscious”, led on to the acknowledgement that without this experience we “would never have started teaching courses in Central and East European art history,” which should be considered as one of the “real institutional facts of the project.”

The ambition of “sensuous scholarship” to “activate the body of the scholar” was symbolised in Confrontations by the practice of the Tug of Art History. When no consensus can be reached about one of the intractable problems of East European art history, the group takes up position on either end of a rope to measure the balance of forces and degree of passion for and against the controversy in question. In Zagreb we took sides over the politicisation of abstract art under socialism, in Prague feelings ran so high that we broke the rope, while in London the desire for a fair tug led to an even distribution of embodied intellectual power. Or it could be that opinions were delicately balanced over the issue of whether East European art is now part of global art history? This opened a floodgate of sub-questions around the difference between posing the question “now” and during the “then” of the Cold War or the historicised postcommunist past; the varieties of the “global” and the implications of being “part of” such transnational reconfigurations of the artistic field; and the shifting parameters and territories of the “East European” and its competing near others. The spirit of Confrontations resides in this willingness to ask the difficult questions and unravel their consequences, to follow the connecting threads across borders and temporalities and to intervene precisely in the continuous remaking of East European art history.

Naming East European Art

By confrontations, on 30 June 2021

The third in this series of Confrontations online seminars held on 23 June 2021 dealt with the recurrent question of the choice of terminology in naming artistic phenomena in Eastern European art. The central issue of what is to be gained, and what lost, in using art labels developed in the context of Western art history to refer to art practices and trends that emerged in the specific and different conditions of Actually Existing Socialism was explored with reference to a range of terminological variations associated with particular art geographies. The potential for multi-directional terminological borrowings emerged in discussion as a strategy to complicate the writing of comparative art history, by pluralising and rendering more heterogenous accounts of global art movements.

In their introduction, Maja and Reuben Fowkes brought up the ‘suitcase model’ of art transfers, pointing to the frequency with which the spread of artistic paradigms to Eastern European art scenes has been explained in art history through artist travel to Western art centres, often by literally referring to the exhibition catalogues of new art trends that they brought back in their luggage.  Taking pop art as a case in point, the complexity of the actual development of Eastern European versions of global art movements was explored, from the impossibility of reducing pop influences to a single source and the extent to which East European pop responded to changing social and technological conditions, to the ways in which artists turned the language of pop in critical or anti-capitalist directions. They also showed how recent survey exhibitions, both in the region and internationally, have sought to varying degrees to expand the understanding of pop art by reframing it as a global rather than Western phenomenon.

This week’s guest speaker was Miško Šuvaković, whose reflected on the methodologies of East European art history, including analysing with hindsight the approach taken in his co-edited book Impossible Histories: Historic Avant-Gardes, Neo-Avant-Gardes, and Post-Avant-Gardes in Yugoslavia, 1918–1991, which was published in 2003. He noted that while at the time the histories of the neo-avant-garde were ‘impossible’ because they were almost completely ignored, today the situation is reversed. He also explained that the focus on Yugoslavia rather than national art history met the expectations of the publishers, whose wanted a book ‘about New York, not the Bronx.’ By drawing attention to the way in which the authorities balanced Soviet and United States influence by alternating between visiting exhibitions from the two blocs, he emphasised through his presentation the hybridization of artistic phenomena in the Yugoslav art space.

Confrontations team member and leader of the seminar Alina Serban set out to explore how after the demise of the communist world in Eastern Europe, the writing of its own art history was fuelled by the desire of local and international scholars to find umbrella terms, some retrospectively applied, that would offer a readable translation of the processes of art-making in the region. She drew attention to the danger that by adopting the universality of Western idioms, in order to create a theoretical common ground, specific national traditions and self-historicizations could be overlooked, arguing for the coexistence of a multiplicity of readings of art terms. The question of balance also came to the fore here, between interpretations that take into account local conceptualisations and the those that enable the art of the region to become part of a global art historical discourse.

Among the Confrontations participants, Gregor Taul’s response pinpointed a series of terms that were current in the Soviet Baltics, but that have mostly fallen out of use in the post-communist period. These included the notion of the ‘synthesis of the arts’, which was regularly called for in party meetings, and ‘monumental decorative arts’, which had different connotations to public art, and ‘environment’, which carried also the sense of site-specific art. Dessislava Dimova’s intervention focused on conceptual art, and contrasting attitudes to the term in Bulgaria in the 1980s and early 1990s, pointing out that a lot of artists ‘refused to recognise their art through such terms’ and developed alternative formulations such as ‘end forms’ or ‘new forms.’ The debate then turned to how the discussion around so-called Western terms is changing, as new terms emerge outside of Western art centres and travel in all directions and the old terms are reshaped to encompass the plurality of non-Western art practices, while making visible their interconnections.

Artists’ Unions under Socialism

By confrontations, on 16 June 2021

The second of the online meetings organised for the Confrontations group held on 9 June 2021, the seminar on Artists’ Unions dealt with one of the key institutional structures of socialist artworlds. In their introduction, Maja and Reuben Fowkes laid out some of the decisive moments in the labyrinthine infrastructural histories of artists unions under socialism: the transformations of the immediate post-war period, the consolidation of communist power across the Eastern Bloc circa 1948-9, and the readjustments in the wake of Stalin’s death. They traced the effects of these turning points on socialist artworlds through the case of the Hungarian Artists’ Union, discussing the significance of its reduction from a from a mass organisation on the model of a trades union to a guild-like association of between 100 and 300 members under party control, but also its role as a liberalising force and representative of artists’ interests during the course of de-Stalinization, since by the mid-1950s the union was already campaigning on behalf of its members to the Ministry of Culture to demand the restoration and building of galleries, an increase in the number of art publications, more studios and foreign exchanges with Western countries, as well as a monthly stipend for painters. Further questions raised included the extent to which the new layers of socialist art bureaucracy established around 1960, such as the founding of the Studio of Young Artists, reflected a shift to more arms-length methods of political management, the strategies devised by artists to negotiate the structures of Actually Existing Artworlds of Socialism and the extent to which parallels can be identified with the role of artists unions in other East European countries, notwithstanding the specific historical context of the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet rule.

The guest lecture by Caterina Preda was based on her extensive research into the archives of the Romanian artists’ union, whose neglected institutional histories are vividly symbolised by an image she shared of a cupboard overflowing with disorderly dossiers. She also drew attention to the tendency of the artists’ union to adopt the quantitative methods of industrial or agricultural production under five year plans to measure artistic production in numbers of artworks per year. Attempting to quantify artistic production using such starkly materialist parameters seems slightly comic, but is it really so different from the statistics produced by the capitalist artworld to measure the rising value of artworks at auction? Emphasising the role of the artists’ union as an intermediary between artists and the state, she also laid out the complexity of the relationship between the artists’ union as such, and parallel and overlapping institutions with a more direct role in the commissioning of artworks. The question was raised as to whether the role of the artists’ union in promoting a nationalist version of socialism from the 1960s was specific to the Romanian case, or whether a renewed focus on national cultures was characteristic of the process of de-Stalinization across the Eastern Bloc. It also became clear from the discussion that further research is needed to establish the extent to which during the last decade of the socialist system such state art structures were able to function with relative autonomy.

Member of the core team of Confrontations and leader of this session, Tomasz Załuski, questioned in his intervention into the discussion certain ‘stereotypical assumptions’ about the functioning of artists’ unions. Namely, it is widely assumed that they were part of a regime of artistic control, created an opportunistic social contract with artists who collaborated in exchange for symbolic and material gains, and that they were characterised in their artistic outlook by traditionalism and conservatism. He proposed instead that a closer examination of in particular the Polish case reveals the pragmatism of artists’ unions in defending their members’ interests, the ‘positivity’ and ‘normality’ that such structures created for artists to work within, and their role as ‘agents of modernization.’ Rather than a one-sided view of the role of artists’ unions, he suggested that they should be positioned between the poles of ideology and pragmatism, autonomy and submissiveness, and conservative and progressive values and practices.

Amongst the responses by Confrontations research group members, Juliane Debeusscher brought up the complex situation around the role of East European artists’ unions in enabling the participation of artists in the exhibition and competition of the Joan Miró Prize in Barcelona in the 1970s. Asja Mandić spoke about the particular case of the Yugoslav artists’ union, which was established in 1947, after the founding of the artists’ unions of several of the federal republics of Yugoslavia. Playing a significant role until 1951, when the pendulum swung back towards decentralisation, the Yugoslav artists’ union notably produced four issues of the magazine Umetnost, whose pages reveal the trajectory of the search for a common artistic identity. Johana Lomová drew attention to the differences in the balance of female and male membership in applied arts and fine arts unions, raising the issue of the extent to which the relative exclusion of women from the more prestigious branches of the fine arts reflected the influence of patriarchal mentalities and power structures. Corina Apostol asked what kind of theoretical approach is called for in the study of the archives of socialist artists’ unions. Magdalena Moskalewicz shared further insights into the Polish artists’ union and its role in, for example, producing the national survey shows of the Stalinist period. She also put forward the notion that in contrast to countries like Hungary, there was no ‘doublespeak’ in the Polish artworld after 1955, when the official and unofficial artworlds coalesced. What became clear over the course of a lively afternoon of online discussion was how far the history of the artist unions of particular countries still awaits systematic research, as well as the potential of comparative approach in establishing the significance of their institutional forms and their complex relation to other bureaucratic bodies of the socialist artworld.

Exhibition Diplomacy

By confrontations, on 28 May 2021

The Confrontations group came together on 26 May 2021 for the first in a series of three online sessions focusing on themes and topics that cut across the geographical and temporal boundaries of Eastern European art history. Since we last met in Poland in early February 2020, when the global pandemic had yet to make itself felt in most countries, our twenty-strong international group of post-doctoral researchers and academics has come together for a number of public events and more social get-togethers. This meeting was an opportunity for more intensive critical and comparative discussions, as a stepping-stone for another live seminar pencilled in for the autumn.

The topic of the seminar was Diplomatic Exhibitions, considered as a branch of cultural diplomacy that flourished during the Cold War and approached by the participants from a distinctly non-West-centric perspective. Maja and Reuben Fowkes introduced the thematic focus and pointed to two decisive moments in the Cold War history of exhibition diplomacy. In the early post-war period, the United States despatched to Eastern Europe, and then abruptly recalled, the propagandistic exhibition Advancing American Art, while the advance across the exhibition halls of the Eastern Bloc of exhibitions of Soviet Socialist Realism signalled the temporary retreat of more pluralistic art styles. At the end of the 1950s, during the first wave of détente, the Cold War mechanisms of cultural diplomacy were formalised, with the Americans sending a mix of contemporary abstraction and historical realism to Moscow to foster mutual understanding, while the Polish exhibition at the first and only biennial of socialist countries indicated a reversal of artistic influence between Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

The guest speaker at this meeting was art historian Mária Orišková from the University of Trnava, Slovakia, with a paper titled ‘From Hanoi and Havana to Paris and New York: Czecho-Slovak Cultural-Diplomatic Exhibitions during the Cold War.’ Making the distinction between the ‘Trojan horse’ strategy of ‘soft power’ and the more ‘altruistic’ approach of cultural diplomacy, her presentation illuminated the variety of exhibition trajectories of Czech, Slovak and Czechoslovak art in the post-war period. These ranged from the export of more marketable ‘national treasure’ shows to Western museums to more distant exhibition journeys to express ‘communist co-belonging’ with decolonising and revolutionary movements in the global South, based on the potential of a shared socialist vision that transcended other forms of difference.

Member of the core team and leader of the session on Diplomatic Exhibitions, Pavlína Morganová, then responded to Orišková’s paper, making the point that the ‘art war started in Prague in 1947.’ She contrasted the indifference to the poorly-attended exhibition Advancing American Art with the dozens of polemical responses to the exhibition of Four Soviet Painters that followed shortly afterwards, during the relative freedom of the period before the communist seizure of power in 1948. It was at such early Cold War exhibitions that the model of the diplomatic exhibition, with its political speeches and carefully curated displays, was established.

Further responses from members of the Confrontations group included a case study presented by Agata Pietrasik of Polish participation at the First Paris Biennial of Youth in 1959, in which the inclusion of abstract works, including an axial figure by Jan Lebenstein, gave rise to dramatically different critical responses in Poland and internationally. Daniel Véri spoke about the Great Book Theft of 1959 that saw hundreds of publications from an exhibition of French book illustration in Budapest disappear. Hana Buddeus shared insights into an even earlier example of exhibition diplomacy through the obscure history of the exhibition Stalingrad-Prague held in 1945, with Czech artists involved in the exhibition design, which included a destroyed German tank. Ieva Astahovska’s contribution dealt with the exhibition history of the show Twenty Realists from Soviet Latvia during the 1970s. Sandra Bradvić took the opportunity to ask Mária Orišková a wider question about her work on the curatorial histories of Eastern Europe, to which our guest speaker replied by drawing attention to the many formats of exhibitions and their multiple intersections across cultural diplomacy and curatorial concepts, complicating the nation-centric art historical narratives of modernism.

Travelling Methodologies

By editorial, on 8 March 2020

Maja and Reuben Fowkes

The third session of Confrontations saw participants journey between two cities in one country, Warsaw and Łódź, breaking the pattern of visiting pairs of art centres in neighbouring countries, namely Zagreb and Ljubljana in April 2019, and Prague and Bratislava the following September. This gave the group the opportunity to delve more deeply into Polish art history and to observe the differences between the state of art infrastructures and atmosphere of the art scene in the capital and in an important regional centre. In the contrast between the self-referential narratives of national – in this case Polish – art history and the informed transnational perspective developed by the Confrontations group, the contours of a novel methodology for the art history of Central and Eastern Europe could be discerned. A collective close reading of an early text by Piotr Piotrowski on Polish the art of the 1980s was the starting point for a crescendo of intensive discussion of the challenges of comparative art history. On the one hand, how did the rise of the Solidarity movement and the period of martial law in the early 1980s differentiate the course of artistic development in Poland during the decade, changing also perceptions of the political transformations around 1989? On the other hand, what do regional parallels reveal about the dynamics of the generational shift that accompanied the eclipse of the neo-avant-garde, the rise of neo-expressionism and the vogue for post-modern aesthetics and attitudes?

Dismantling the Master Narrative

By editorial, on 8 March 2020

Alina Șerban

The new edition of Confrontations brought us back to the starting question: How to write history on the local ground? This time the question was addressed in the Polish context during an intensive week spend in Warsaw and Lodz, where several proposals were formulated. The opening seminar, hosted by the Zachęta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, reflected upon some methodological issues concerning the writing of Eastern European art history which opened a series of “debates” surrounding the reading(s) of national histories from a comparative and transnational perspective. This challenging operation appears to be even more demanding to the local art historians since such methodology dismantles the need for a homogeneous master narrative, allowing minor narratives to interfere, to divert and sometimes to completely change our gaze upon well-known stories of the postwar art.The group seminar led by Maja and Reuben Fowkes focused on the problematic: What does it mean to have a comparative art history and how to write it? They proposed to start from an analysis of several statements written by the Polish art historian Piotr Piotrowski starting with the 90s, all pointing to the necessity of rethinking the framework for considering the historical object and its temporalities. This means to follow actively the interactions and means of transfer, to review the inscribed dichotomies of recent art histories by allowing, in a horizontal manner and spirit, to create new synapses between specific narratives, to enlarge the map by including not just the canonized western positions, but also to introduce other zone of exchanges, other poles, within the Eastern European region and beyond. The re-reading of Piotrowski’s texts reconfirmed some of our current concerns in the field of East European art history, but also unveiled some absences. It was evident when analyzing his arguments that several potentialities lay within, and that several doors opened.

Affective Art History

By editorial, on 4 March 2020

Dessislava Dimova

Luiza Nader, associate professor at the Institute of Art History at the University of Warsaw, talked about Wladyslaw Strzemiński’s series of works on the Holocaust, through the perspective of her methodology of “affective art history.” Strzemiński, considered the father of the Polish avant-garde, took part in revolutionary life in Russia and returned to Poland in the 1920s where he was active in many artistic fields and wrote important theoretical texts, most notably conceptualizing the system of Unism. The series of collages called “To my Jewish Friends” was produced between 1945 and 1947 and consisted of juxtapositions between newspaper cut-outs and ink drawings on paper. The two elements of the collages seem strikingly disconnected formally and the drawings could be hardly seen to represent a rational statement about the documentary images, on which they supposedly comment.

While Strzemiński was neither a participant nor a direct witness of the actual events of the Holocaust, he was an “observer” and in these works he dealt with the collective memory and response to the Shoah. Luiza Nader’s interpretation of Strzemiński indirect memory process, focused on the term “empathy” as part of her larger project of an affective reading of the history of art. In it affect is considered not simply as an emotion, but as a concept bridging intellectual, physical and emotional response. Nader develops her method of affective history of art as an “affirmative” approach, aiming to seek a way out of the impasse of negative categories such as catastrophe and trauma, which continue to dominate our political and cultural discourses.

Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation or…

By editorial, on 3 March 2020

… why Self-Organization can no longer be seen as an Alternative Art Current

By Sandra Bradvić

The Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation was founded in 2012 in Warsaw by Marta Wróblewska, Krystyna Łysik, dr Magdalena Ziółkowska, Wojciech Grzybała with the goal to develop, popularise, and contextualise the knowledge of Andrzej Wrólblewski’s life and work (b. 1927, Vilnius – d. 1957, Tatry Mountains).

The impressive work the founders have done since the inception – like providing organizational and academic support for all those interested in the research on the life and practice of Andrzej Wróblewski; extending conservation supervision; initiating and organizing of exhibitions and other educational formats; completing the archive; and publishing activities – reads like a public contract of a national institution. The Foundation further very thoughtfully holds all proprietary copyrights to almost all works created by Andrzej Wróblewski, which has enabled it to release the reviewed scholarly publication Avoiding Intermediary States (Hatje Cantz, 2014), which since stands for the main reference source with regard to the proper and standardized use of the artist’s work titles, which alone is a pivotal accomplishment.

It is precisely because the Wróblewski foundation is not a state institution, but a personal initiative which has though set very high professional working standards –supposedly the sphere of competence assigned to major national institutions–, which makes such an endeavor even more remarkable and why it can even be considered a role model, not only for the ‘alternative’ art scene and not only but especially for post-communist/post-socialist states, whose ‘official’ institutions –as it is well known–, still happen to struggle with finding the right concepts and methodological approaches as to how to create and mediate new narratives of their own art history.

To take an example, one could look at Bosnia-Herzegovina, where in 2011 seven major cultural institutions had to close their doors to the public. The reason: their unresolved legal status after the collapse of former Yugoslavia in 1991. A lack of substantial financial support on the one hand, but also the lack of ideas to envision new possible structural models, most of them got lost in transition from one to the other socio-political system and remained caught in the legal limbo until this very day.

Wojciech Grzybała

So the relevant question in this context would seem to be: can institutionally independent and self-organised artistic and curatorial collectives any longer be seen as an alternative current, when their counterpart, namely the art institutions, have largely become dysfunctional and inefficient as a site for the creation and establishment of working standards, as well as of their visionary structural, organizational and conceptual changes? No, I would claim.

The Wróblewski Foundation, while being concentrated on one artist only, yet at the same time demonstrating a wide range of activities and a far-reaching visibility and international recognition of both the work of Andrzej Wróblewski and of the foundation, seems to prove it.


Non-Public Collection Paradox

By editorial, on 3 March 2020

Ieva Astahovska

Our visit to Starak Family Foundation was both a direct continuation and quite sharp contrast to the previous meeting with founders of Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation: from a voluntary run institution that dedicatedly takes care of Wróblewski’s creative legacy, but doesn’t possess any art works and even doesn’t have its own office space, we came to a semi-public art collection venue, run by private collectors Anna and Jerzy Starak, who own one of Poland’s largest pharmaceutical companies.

In its public part, entitled Spectra Art Space, we visited the exhibition by painters Maria Jarema (1908–1958) and Andrzej Wróblewski (1927–1957) Substantial Realism. Both artists, living and working at the same time and place, in their final years had very different relations to the political regime and its demands in art, socialist realism, and finally the shift to much freer expression. Yet in this exhibition that is structured in thematic flows “Maternity, Modern Woman, Love, War” Jarema’s mostly abstract, associative and ambiguous compositions that were not shown during the 1950s and Wróblewski’s realist paintings – some of them surreal, others poignant, but all very intimate –, form not a juxtaposition but a parallel view of the after-war epoch that bears both war traumas, and also a longing for humanity.

We had also an exclusive possibility to see the non-public part of Starak Foundation’s art collection that is partly displayed in its office building and includes classics of Polish postwar modernism. Quite paradoxically – or maybe it’s not so strange in today’s neoliberal times? – it was the only place during our program in Warsaw where we could see the original works by such significant Polish modernist authors as Władysław Strzemiński, Henryk Stażewski, Erna Rosenstein, Wojciech Fangor and others. This permanent display left rather an odd impression – art works arranged between stylish designer furniture, indoor plant beds, glass walls and on the most different flat surfaces – seemed to serve for its owners and viewers for something between decoration and fetish. One can observe increasing role of private collectors also in many other East European art scenes, and inevitably it brings also subjective tastes and different understandings of art and its displays.

Polish Socialist Realism

By editorial, on 3 March 2020


Maja and Reuben Fowkes

A group seminar at Zachęta National Gallery of Art was an opportunity for presentations dealing with Polish art of the 1950s, generating intensive discussion of the local modalities of Socialist Realism and the career trajectories of individual artists.

Magdalena Moskalewicz addressed the historiography of Polish Socialist Realism through the story of painter Aleksander Kobzdej (1920-1972), a celebrated hero of Socialist Realist painting who transformed himself into a modernist abstract painter during the post-Stalinist Thaw. She drew attention to the ambivalence of the local scene towards an artist whose international visibility was based on his willingness to adapt to changing official tastes in art.

Agata Pietrasik’s discussion of Socialist Realism in Poland set out to challenge assumptions that the style was simply imposed from outside and above by an oppressive regime, complicating the picture by considering the agency of individual artists, as well as the relation of the doctrine to local art discourses and traditions. She also raised the issue of the longevity of paradigms as well as institutional structures established during the Stalinist period.

Magdalena Ziółkowska shared with the group her research into Andrzej Wróblewski’s visit to Yugoslavia in 1956, revealing the personal and intellectual as well as historical and political dimensions of his three-week stay in the company of art critic Barbara Majewska. Going beyond attempts to identify the stylistic influence on the artist of the journey – manifest in his subsequent use of colour, expressive forms and the appearance of themes that were absent in his earlier work – she placed their visit in the context of the rapidly evolving relationship between the cultural policies of Poland in the era of de-Stalinisation and the socialist modernism of third way Yugoslavia.

Cold Revolution

By editorial, on 3 March 2020

Tomasz Załuski

Joanna Kordjak, a curator working at Zachęta – National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, gave a talk about the project “Cold Revolution. East European Societies in the Face of Socialist Realism” she co-authors and co-organizes with Jérôme Bazin. It features a conference, which took place at the end of January, and an upcoming exhibition scheduled for October 2020. Its main purpose is to present the social transformations of the 1950s – such as industrialization, development of an industrial working class, urbanization and depeasantification, collectivization of agriculture, elimination of old elites, egalitarianism, social mobility and collective ownership of the means of production – through the perspective of a comparative, transnational, entangled history of architecture, visual arts and design in several East European countries: Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania.

This comprehensive project is to cover a wide range of thematic issues: complex chronologies of Socialist Realism, its pre- and post-histories, changing geographies of cultural exchanges during the 1950s (not only ones within the Socialist Bloc, or between the countries of the Bloc and Western Europe, but also between Eastern Europe and extra-European countries), visual celebration of labour and workers, proletarisation of art and design, development of cultural infrastructure and movement of workers as art creators, the heterogeneity of socialist societies – social structure of the peasantry and the working class, internal divisions within both groups and their mutual relations and, last but not least, the question of gender roles and national minorities. The conference and the exhibition clearly aim at making another step in the ongoing process of shifting the historiography of Socialist Realism from the paradigm of political history and questions of aesthetics to a complex interpretative framework of socialist modernizations – and it seems they stand a good chance of succeeding.

Socialist Exhibition Histories

By editorial, on 3 March 2020

Magdalena Ziółkowska

The lecture of Dr. Gabriela Świtek (Head of the Department of Documentation at Zachęta – National Gallery of Art) was dedicated to the history of Central Bureau of Artistic Exhibitions that functioned between 1949–92 as the main central organizer of travelling exhibitions of visual arts and architecture. For more than half of the century CBWA created the apparatus for national and international politics of exhibitions and conferences, promoting various movements and artistic tendencies, organizing individual exhibitions of Polish and international artists.

The research project initiated by Gabriela Świtek, in collaboration with University of Warsaw, aims at founding an online database dedicated to all archival sources of the exhibitions organized at the CBWA and introducing new methodologies in the field of the history of exhibitions’ history. In socialist Poland the “exhibition” was an important medium of cultural exchange between countries of the Bloc and the West, distributing the political vision of state culture, as well as establishing canons that influenced the local artists and critics. The role of this long-term interdisciplinary project is to analyze selected examples of exhibitions in relation to the broader context of the cultural politics, the connections of the pre-war avant-garde tradition and post-war modernism, as well as deconstructing ideological frameworks attached to them.