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Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History

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Deterritorialising Modernity

editorial3 March 2020

Asja Mandić

After the group seminar and thought-provoking presentations in Museum Sztuki/MS 1, the group headed to the newest museum branch, MS 2 for a guided tour with Joanna Sokolowska who showed us the museum collection through the Atlas of Modernity exhibition.

The venue, located inside Manufactura, the former 19th century factory complex, now the city’s main touristic hub, associates the museum to the world of spectacle, entertainment and leisure culture of the post-industrial consumer society. Enveloped in the redbrick, it does retain the image of the mill factory, nevertheless the interior gallery spaces are somewhat conscious of the modern white cube. Atlas of Modernity reflects a similar mode. Modernity, the ideas about it and the experience of modernity in the 20th century art as well as its traces in recent artistic practices, as the main conceptual framework of this show, directs presentation of national as well as international pieces from the collection. Rather than providing an historical overview of modern art in Poland, the exhibition pinpoints several themes, like the points in an atlas or a map, among which are machine, progress, capital, revolution, emancipation, but also autonomy and the self. Arranged in a manner to correspond to this web of ideas or fragments of modernity, the works from various media, time periods as well as stylistic features, make very interesting juxtapositions.

This inspiring museum visit brought us back to some questions addressed in our previous discussions, such as relationship between socialism and modernisation, issues of socialist modernity… as well as to the notion that “socialism and modernity do coexist”. (Tomáš Pospiszyl)

Socialist Art

confrontations5 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)

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)