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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)

Socialist Realism Beyond Humour

MajaFowkes5 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)

No SR in the MSU

MajaFowkes29 April 2019

In light of our discussions, it was extremely instructive to have a tour of the incomparable MSU collection from curator and co-author of the display Tihomir Milovac. He shared his methodology of developing a ‘collection in motion,’ and the intricacies of approaches to abstraction in the oeuvre of EXAT51 artists and the Gorgona group.


He also sympathetically fielded critical observations on particular curatorial / institutional decisions about how to represent the art of socialist times, such as why there is no Socialist Realism on display. The diplomatic response was that the museum takes 1950 as a cut-off point and that the Gallery of Contemporary Art was founded and began collecting only in 1954, so had no interest in acquiring works in this style.
Curator Jasna Jakšić offered further illumination of the research possibilities of the collection and was of invaluable assistance in organising our time in the museum. Direct encounters with the artworks and their museological presentation created a rigorous setting for discussions and it was refreshing – and paradigm-expanding – to follow an alternative route around the collection that gravitated towards those art historical episodes that preceded and followed the heights of new art practice in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
(MRF)

Metelkova Group Seminar

MajaFowkes29 April 2019

After the insightful introduction to Slovenian art through the Modern galerija’s collection and a visit to the neighbouring International Centre of Graphic Art, which through its long-running biennial conveyed the intricacies of exhibition diplomacy in non-aligned Yugoslavia, the group headed to the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova (MSUM). The Confrontations seminars continued in a comparative spirit by examining the specificities of Croatian and Slovenian views of Yugoslav art history, as well as expanding the discussion further. Constanze Fritzsch spoke about Socialist Realism: A sublation of art into life as an abstract painter like Hermann Glöckner would have understood it?, complicating the established narratives of the distinctions between socialist realism and abstract art. Daniel Véri spoke about Conflicting Narratives: The Memory of the Holocaust in 1960s Hungarian Art, distinguishing between the restrictive format of official monumental commemorations and the more testing approaches to Holocaust memory in the work of experimental artists.

(MRF)