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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.

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).