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Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History

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Exhibition Diplomacy

confrontations28 May 2021

The Confrontations group came together on 26 May 2021 for the first in a series of three online sessions focusing on themes and topics that cut across the geographical and temporal boundaries of Eastern European art history. Since we last met in Poland in early February 2020, when the global pandemic had yet to make itself felt in most countries, our twenty-strong international group of post-doctoral researchers and academics has come together for a number of public events and more social get-togethers. This meeting was an opportunity for more intensive critical and comparative discussions, as a stepping-stone for another live seminar pencilled in for the autumn.

The topic of the seminar was Diplomatic Exhibitions, considered as a branch of cultural diplomacy that flourished during the Cold War and approached by the participants from a distinctly non-West-centric perspective. Maja and Reuben Fowkes introduced the thematic focus and pointed to two decisive moments in the Cold War history of exhibition diplomacy. In the early post-war period, the United States despatched to Eastern Europe, and then abruptly recalled, the propagandistic exhibition Advancing American Art, while the advance across the exhibition halls of the Eastern Bloc of exhibitions of Soviet Socialist Realism signalled the temporary retreat of more pluralistic art styles. At the end of the 1950s, during the first wave of détente, the Cold War mechanisms of cultural diplomacy were formalised, with the Americans sending a mix of contemporary abstraction and historical realism to Moscow to foster mutual understanding, while the Polish exhibition at the first and only biennial of socialist countries indicated a reversal of artistic influence between Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

The guest speaker at this meeting was art historian Mária Orišková from the University of Trnava, Slovakia, with a paper titled ‘From Hanoi and Havana to Paris and New York: Czecho-Slovak Cultural-Diplomatic Exhibitions during the Cold War.’ Making the distinction between the ‘Trojan horse’ strategy of ‘soft power’ and the more ‘altruistic’ approach of cultural diplomacy, her presentation illuminated the variety of exhibition trajectories of Czech, Slovak and Czechoslovak art in the post-war period. These ranged from the export of more marketable ‘national treasure’ shows to Western museums to more distant exhibition journeys to express ‘communist co-belonging’ with decolonising and revolutionary movements in the global South, based on the potential of a shared socialist vision that transcended other forms of difference.

Member of the core team and leader of the session on Diplomatic Exhibitions, Pavlína Morganová, then responded to Orišková’s paper, making the point that the ‘art war started in Prague in 1947.’ She contrasted the indifference to the poorly-attended exhibition Advancing American Art with the dozens of polemical responses to the exhibition of Four Soviet Painters that followed shortly afterwards, during the relative freedom of the period before the communist seizure of power in 1948. It was at such early Cold War exhibitions that the model of the diplomatic exhibition, with its political speeches and carefully curated displays, was established.

Further responses from members of the Confrontations group included a case study presented by Agata Pietrasik of Polish participation at the First Paris Biennial of Youth in 1959, in which the inclusion of abstract works, including an axial figure by Jan Lebenstein, gave rise to dramatically different critical responses in Poland and internationally. Daniel Véri spoke about the Great Book Theft of 1959 that saw hundreds of publications from an exhibition of French book illustration in Budapest disappear. Hana Buddeus shared insights into an even earlier example of exhibition diplomacy through the obscure history of the exhibition Stalingrad-Prague held in 1945, with Czech artists involved in the exhibition design, which included a destroyed German tank. Ieva Astahovska’s contribution dealt with the exhibition history of the show Twenty Realists from Soviet Latvia during the 1970s. Sandra Bradvić took the opportunity to ask Mária Orišková a wider question about her work on the curatorial histories of Eastern Europe, to which our guest speaker replied by drawing attention to the many formats of exhibitions and their multiple intersections across cultural diplomacy and curatorial concepts, complicating the nation-centric art historical narratives of modernism.