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Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History

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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?

Dismantling the Master Narrative

editorial8 March 2020

Alina Șerban

The new edition of Confrontations brought us back to the starting question: How to write history on the local ground? This time the question was addressed in the Polish context during an intensive week spend in Warsaw and Lodz, where several proposals were formulated. The opening seminar, hosted by the Zachęta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, reflected upon some methodological issues concerning the writing of Eastern European art history which opened a series of “debates” surrounding the reading(s) of national histories from a comparative and transnational perspective. This challenging operation appears to be even more demanding to the local art historians since such methodology dismantles the need for a homogeneous master narrative, allowing minor narratives to interfere, to divert and sometimes to completely change our gaze upon well-known stories of the postwar art.The group seminar led by Maja and Reuben Fowkes focused on the problematic: What does it mean to have a comparative art history and how to write it? They proposed to start from an analysis of several statements written by the Polish art historian Piotr Piotrowski starting with the 90s, all pointing to the necessity of rethinking the framework for considering the historical object and its temporalities. This means to follow actively the interactions and means of transfer, to review the inscribed dichotomies of recent art histories by allowing, in a horizontal manner and spirit, to create new synapses between specific narratives, to enlarge the map by including not just the canonized western positions, but also to introduce other zone of exchanges, other poles, within the Eastern European region and beyond. The re-reading of Piotrowski’s texts reconfirmed some of our current concerns in the field of East European art history, but also unveiled some absences. It was evident when analyzing his arguments that several potentialities lay within, and that several doors opened.

Complexity

editorial3 March 2020

Gregor Taul

After a week of inspiring meetings and discussions we sat down for the closing session to phrase some of the overriding questions we had been so far trying to find answers to. The following list of inquiries, by no means conclusive, offers also a practical introduction to our last gathering in Paris and London: Where is transnational art history being done? What is the relationship between national and transnational art history? How to come up with meaningful terms for comparison? Are we looking for similarities or differences? Who has the right to write comparative art history? Do we actually need national art histories? How to avoid simplifications? How to avoid the appeal of the Other? How important are political events for comparative art history? What is the role of art museums and national collections in telling transnational art histories? Which museological approach is most up to date?

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)

Socialist Realism Beyond Humour

confrontations5 November 2019

During our trip to Prague and Bratislava we were confronted with different approaches to the artistic production of socialist realism. During our first session in Prague, Tomáš Pospiszyl presented us the theoretical premises of his new research project dedicated to the official art of the socialist era. The art historian emphasised that it is important to step outside art history’s comfort zone of modernism and neo-avantgarde in order to turn to practices that are aesthetically more challenging. The study of conditions of production of officially sanctioned art can also change our understanding of the practices that were contesting it.

The theoretical framework presented by Pospiszyl created a stimulating discussion and made us eager to confront the socialist realist art works in question. How bad could they be? At that stage, armed with arguments we were prepared to confront smiling faces of multiple Lenins and Stalins. However, the display at the National Gallery in Prague left us empty-handed as it turned out socialist realist art was removed from a small room dedicated to it in a previous version of the display. We were told that the arrangement was rather stereotypical in depicting socialist realism as failed, political kitsch.

In Bratislava, we saw a different approach to socialist realism. During her presentation, the director of the Slovak National Gallery, Alexandra Kusá presented to us her exhibition and book titled “Prerušená pieseň” (“Interrupted Song”) dedicated to the official art of the period between 1945 and 1956. The curator’s approach was distanced from any moral and aesthetic judgement on art of that time. However, as we soon discovered by breaking into collective laughter when confronted with some examples of badly executed socialist realist painting, it is hard to look at socialist realism from today’s perspective without any sense of humour. Yet, reaching beyond the comic effects of some art works, Kusá’s talk discussed conditions of art making under Stalinism, exposing motivations and social factors at work. The comprehensive catalogue constitutes a rich resource of images and documents relating to the period. It will be really interesting to see how this research will be articulated in the new display of the Gallery’s permanent collection.

(Agata Pietrasik)

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)

Southern Constellations

Tomasz Załuski29 April 2019

During our stay in Ljubljana we visited the exhibition Southern Constallations at Moderna galerija – Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova. This impressive show, curated by Bojana Piškur and based on her long-term research, presented the role of arts, cultural collaboration, exchange and diplomacy in the history of the Non-Aligned Movement. The movement was a political initiative, founded officially in the early 1960s, in which countries belonging to neither of the two Cold War blocks were involved. They were mainly Third World African and Asian countries but also Yugoslavia which pursued its “third way”. And it was from the perspective of Yugoslavia, quite obviously, as one of the non-aligned countries which had initiated the movement, that the exhibition approached the whole issue. The show combined historical documentation of different cultural exchanges and initiatives within the network of the non-aligned countries, along with some artworks from between the early 1960s and the late 1980s, and contemporary artists interventions.


For me, given the context of our Confrontations project and the issues we were dealing with during our visit to Zagreb and – especially – to Ljubljana, Southern Constellation really pinpointed the question of East European art history. It is significant that Moderna galerija, which has been playing an important role in the formation and development of studies on East European art of the second half of the XXth century (e.g. the exhibitions Body and the East, 1998; Interrupted Histories, 2006), seems now to be taking a different direction and trying to rediscover Yugoslavia’s participation in a global but at the same time non-Western network. I quess that one of the agendas behind looking for such a forgotten, “interrupted” history of another globality is to position one’s own local art production within the narrative of global art history on one’s own terms: to stress one’s specificity and difference with regard to Western globalisation by showing one’s connections to the “Third World”, “postcolonial”, “(semi)peripheral”, “Global South” etc. networks, but also, by the same token, to avoid the reduction of all Europe to Western Europe, not so uncommon in postcolonial studies. In this sense, the exhibition staged what seems to be a need for reinventing East European art history studies, especially ones that deal with the socialist period. Obviously, this need is not new, it has been with us for some time but it poses a task that is far from complete and yet to perform. It is a task of writing a history that still aims at establishing the specificity of a given local – national or regional – East European art phenomenon but shows it in its actual translocal connectedness, or transnational interdependency, not only within the Eastern bloc and across the West/East divide but also within other global networks next to it or beyond it. This can be, of course, applied not only to the art of Yugoslavia but also to that of other East European countries as well. After all, despite its participation in the Non-Aligned Movement, Yugoslavia was no exception here.

(Tomasz Załuski)