X Close

Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History



Milan Grygar Unplugged

By confrontations, on 5 November 2019

Finding time in his hectic schedule, the chief curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Michal Novotný opened up the National Gallery for the Confrontations group on a Monday evening and gave us a wide-ranging talk in the cavernous space of the Milan Grygar retrospective. Born in 1926, with an enduring interest in contemporary music and its transposition into musical notation, Grygar’s spatial scores appear on canvas, as sculptural installations and as video works. The curator fielded searching questions from the participants on a variety of pressing topics, such as the ideal age for an artist to have a solo show in the National Gallery and the challenges of mounting shows in the enormous spaces of the Trade Fair Palace. He also shared with us the backstory of his Re-Orient series of exhibitions about East European artistic identity, the fourth instalment of which we were to see in Bratislava.


First Republic

By confrontations, on 5 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)

Impermanent Collection

By confrontations, on 5 November 2019

After National Gallery’s permanent exhibition “1918-1938: First Czechoslovak Republic”, which gave a very good insight into the art produced in this time period including the representation of the wider cultural framework that influenced production, distribution and reception of the art, we visited the exhibition “1930-Present:Czech Modern Art“ with a gallery curator Adéla Janíčková. Intended to present progress and development of nation’s art— singling out important figures of the interwar avant-garde, the unofficial art of the 1950s, neo-avant garde, i.e., neo-constructivist tendencies, action art, new sensitivity to postmodernism — this permanent exhibition gave us a somewhat fragmented and homogenic view of a very complex history. There was a lack of narrative between official and unofficial art (also no Socialist Realism in the display) as well as the information on the socialist time or the social, cultural and political context that shaped these practices (in comparison to the First Czechoslovak Republic exhibition). In fact, this exhibition layout was indicative that the National gallery is in some kind of transition, suspended between past practices and future possibilities. For us, however, it successfully set the scene for the next event “Questioning National Collection”, the discussion dealing with issues on how to represent national identity as well as plurality and diversity of identity through its permanent displays.

(Asja Mandić)


Socialist Realism Beyond Humour

By confrontations, on 5 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)