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Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History

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Socialist Art

MajaFowkes5 November 2019

After Pavlina’s fruitful introduction to the various Confrontations exhibitions throughout the socialist period in Czechoslovakia and beyond, we continued the morning session with a lecture on socialist art by Tomáš Pospiszyl, Czech critic, curator and art historian. In 2018 JRP Editions published Pospiszyl’s monograph An Associative Art History: Comparative Studies of Neo-Avant-Gardes in a Bipolar World which aimed to locate East European postwar art in global history. Speaking at his home institution – Pospiszyl is a lecturer at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague – he gave a most amiable overview of the tasks for the study of East European art during the socialist era.

The presentation started on a positive note: East European art history has enjoyed much success during the last 15 years, nearly every important artist has had a catalogue published (in English) about his/her oeuvre, private and public collections have shown great interest in this field. However, at times this has come with a cost of assimilating western concepts to East European art. By emphasising neo-avant-garde tendencies or the semi-official artistic culture of the so-called grey zone, art historians have left behind blind spots in recent art histories, especially in terms of the most common official visual culture of the socialist era. In other words, we don’t know much about socialist art.

In order to encourage his colleagues to pick up the topic, Pospiszyl proposed dozens of ‘tasks’ (e.g researching the creation of socialist reality by socialist artists, analysing institutional conditions, looking into the relationship between high and low/mass culture under socialism) and urged fellow researchers to share the knowledge. I presume that the majority of the audience welcomed Pospiszyl’s urge to study the official art of the socialist era, but it seems to me that most of the listeners were reluctant to agree with the strictly socio-economically defined concept of socialist art. As always, it’s recommended not to go from one extreme to another.

(Gregor Taul)

Interrupted Song

MajaFowkes5 November 2019

What does Czechoslovak Socialist Realism look like? Alexandra Kusá, director of the Slovak National Gallery in Bratislava and curator of the 2012 exhibition “Interrupted Song: The Art of Socialist Realism 1948-1956” showed us a number of atypical examples, both in content and form. We saw a Stalin at a museum, looking at a baroque painting; another one listening to a classical music concert; a double portrait of two men swimming together in a visibly homoerotic embrace. Other pieces, though typical in their topics characteristic for Socialist Realism — they were painting and sculptures depicting scenes of factory work or crop gathering — used surprising visual language, either indebted to the great masters like Giotto and Piero della Francesca, or even clearly referencing “debased” modern art styles, such as cubism!

The challenge posed by the Czechoslovak Socialist Realism, however, is grounded not only in iconography or stylistic considerations. Just like with the more general history of art from the communist period, there is a degree of difficulty with discussing what was actually Czecho-Slovak about this art.

Even though Czechoslovakia was a single country for almost five postwar decades, with a single state Artists Union serving all practitioners in the federation, the scenes in Prague and Bratislava remained largely separate. And especially after the split of 1993, there seems to be general pressure to consider the cultural history of Czechia and Slovakia independently from each other. Kusá admitted to us that this issue, and related tensions, stalled her work on the project for an extended period of time. Finally, she decided to deal with this issue in a conceptual manner: In a book Perusena Pesen: Vytvarne Umenie w Casoch Stalinskej Kulturnej Praxe that she published in 2019, she included examples of artworks from the Czech part of the federation among those made by Slovak artists, but had all those objects captioned in the Czech, rather than Slovak, language. “There were fights with the copy editor, but I won!” she told our group.

(Magdalena Moskalewicz)