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Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History

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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.

Artists’ Unions under Socialism

confrontations16 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.

Travelling Methodologies

editorial8 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?

Breaking the Rope

confrontations5 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)

Archiving Valoch

confrontations5 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)

Setting the Confrontations Agenda

confrontations29 April 2019

The first session of Confrontations kicked off with a circle of introductions of this select group of scholars of East European art history, coming together at the beginning of an ambitious programme of collective research. Hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb, the first gathering was an opportunity to introduce the agenda of Confrontations over the coming years, with the aim to uncover the contested histories of the art of the first and last decades of the socialist period across the diverse art scenes of Eastern Europe.   Anticipating from the outset the complexity and potential irreconcilability of certain positions in contested art historical evaluations, the participants were invited to confront their views through a symbolic Tug of Art History. The question that saw the group take the most opposing positions indicatively was whether abstract art could be seen as a propaganda tool of the socialist state. Intended as a gesture to establish a safe environment for the expression of discordant points of view, this group exercise was also an indication of the objective of Confrontations to activate the potential of ‘sensuous scholarship’ through an embodied art history in which researchers are immersed in direct experiences, exchanges and encounters with the objects of study in situ.        The first group seminar vividly illustrated the plurality and wealth of approaches in response to the task of proposing their own working definition of East European art history. As we went around the table, it was clear that everyone had interpreted the brief set out in advance by the convenors of Confrontations differently. In that sense, attempts to define our research area ranged from historicising the question of East European art, either relegating it to the pre-1989 state-socialist period or conceiving it as a post-1989 construct, to putting forward theoretical or linguistic distillations of the field. Also voiced was the notion that focusing on Eastern European art could be a strategic choice, in terms of pursuing particular ethical or decolonising agendas with regard to art history.

(MRF)

MSUM+

confrontations29 April 2019

Moderna galerija director Zdenka Badovinac gave a first hand account of the institutional history of a museum that was instrumental in shaping the course of East European art history during the first post-communist decades, through exhibitions such as Body and the East and the founding of regionally-focussed Arteast 2000+ Collection. Curator Igor Španjol specifically introduced the series of four exhibitions revisiting the art of the 1980s that were recently staged by the museum.
Our final afternoon at MSUM+ also included a guest lecture by art historian Beti Žerovc, who generously shared insights into the importance of various deep historical, geopolitical and distinctly local factors in the course taken by Slovenian art, embedded at the crossroads of German-speaking and Slavic cultures.  We came together in a circle to evaluate the events and collective experience of the first Confrontations sessions in Zagreb and Ljubljana.
(MRF)