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Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History

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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)

First Republic

confrontations5 November 2019

We had the opportunity to visit the exhibition  1918–1938: First Republic at the National Gallery in Prague in the company of co-curator Jitka Šosová. Through a vast number of artworks, this exhibition presents the artistic life of the interwar period, during the First Czechoslovak Republic. The curators have chosen to present the artistic production of this period concentrating on one aspect: the institutions. This well-defined approach makes the extensive material readable, creating a clear narrative of this period. The exhibition provides a refreshing, new look at interwar art in Czechoslovakia, offering new understandings, especially compared to traditional, stylistic narratives.

For me, the most interesting part however was not a specific institution but the introduction to the exhibition, featuring different charts: one showing the geographic setting with the numbered halls relating to the art centres, another highlighting the multi-national composition of the population, varying from region to region, and finally a chart providing a comparative periodization of the eighteen (!) institutions showcased at the exhibition.

 

The curatorial concept attempts to be as geographically inclusive as possible, dedicating one room to each major artistic centre, namely Brno, Bratislava, Zlín, Košice, and Užhorod. Nonetheless, thirteen parts are still dedicated to Prague. One, without a thorough knowledge of the different art scenes, only wonders whether this thirteen to five ratio in favour of Prague represents the overwhelmingly dominant role of the capital, or it is rather – at least partly – due to the composition of the collections at the National Gallery that the curators had to build upon? Whichever is case, the 1918–1938: First Republic remains a magnificent contribution to art history; one can only hope that the somewhat outdated floor dedicated to the post-war period will receive a similarly refreshing treatment in the close future.

(Daniel Véri)

Institute of Art History

confrontations29 April 2019

Still in Zagreb, next morning we visited the Institute of Art History, where the group met with art historian Sandra Križić Roban for a seminar on the history of the Institute and the art history journal, Život umjetnosti, of which until recently she was the editor in chief.She emphasised the role of particular individuals in determining and building up the profession of art history after the Second World War, while discussion also shifted towards the confrontation between EXAT51 and Edo Murtić over their designs for a mural in the Ritz Bar nightclub in 1953 as epitomising the struggle between competing streams of modernism in Yugoslavia after the Stalin-Tito split of 1948.  We also had a tour around the building, one of the most representative achievements of socialist-era architecture and design, which opened in 1961 as the Moša Pijade Workers and Peoples University.  The tour even took us into the basement of the institution, a trapdoor into a past world and a reminder that the infrastructure of the present is built upon the material world created by socialist modernity.
(MRF)