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Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History

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East European Art in a Global Perspective

confrontations28 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

confrontations28 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

confrontations28 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

confrontations28 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

confrontations28 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

confrontations28 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

confrontations28 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

confrontations28 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

confrontations28 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.