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Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History

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Breaking the Rope

MajaFowkes5 November 2019

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

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

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

(Maja & Reuben Fowkes)

Socialist Art

MajaFowkes5 November 2019

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

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

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

(Gregor Taul)

Milan Grygar Unplugged

MajaFowkes5 November 2019

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

(MRF)

Czech Art Differently

MajaFowkes5 November 2019

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

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

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

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

(Maja & Reuben  Fowkes)

Hop Field Art

MajaFowkes5 November 2019

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

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

(Corina Apostol)

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Impermanent Collection

MajaFowkes5 November 2019

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

(Asja Mandić)

 

Speculative Futures

MajaFowkes5 November 2019

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

(Maja & Reuben Fowkes)

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

(Constanze Fritzsch)

Brno: Art Was There

MajaFowkes5 November 2019

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

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

(Ieva Astahovska)

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

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

(Juliane Debeusscher)

Archiving Valoch

MajaFowkes5 November 2019

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

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

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

(Tomasz Załuski)

Popularising Pištěk

MajaFowkes5 November 2019

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

(Maja & Reuben Fowkes)