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Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History

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Library Seminar

MajaFowkes5 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

MajaFowkes5 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

MajaFowkes5 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!

MajaFowkes5 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

MajaFowkes5 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

MajaFowkes5 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

MajaFowkes5 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

MajaFowkes5 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)