X Close

Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History



The Return of the Tug of Art History

By confrontations, on 28 August 2022

After the two year delay caused by the pandemic, it felt important for the Confrontations group to come together in person one more time within the context of our Connecting Art Histories research initiative, to bring what has been a transformative experience for both the participants and the project leaders to a fitting conclusion. The bonds of friendship and trust that crystallised over the course of our collective journey to the sites and centres of East European art history are a tangible reality that we are sure will continue and grow after the official ending of Confrontations. Once a book is published or an exhibition opened, it takes on a life of its own independently of the author or curator, and the same is true of the best research networks, which create the conditions and inspiration for new and unforeseen collaborations to emerge. Support from the Getty Foundation and UCL gave us as project leaders the possibility to realize a state-of-the-art initiative on East European art history and we were fortunate to have been joined in this endeavour by a truly remarkable group of postdoctoral scholars, who were able to appreciate and benefit from the programme we put together.

Among the comments during our group evaluation on the last day of the London meeting was the observation that “theoretical context was very much embodied in artworks, not just as thinking in our brains but materialised,” and this was indeed what we had hoped to achieve by bringing the discussion of art history out of the seminar room and into the museum, the studio and the street. Another was that horizontality was not just approached as a theory for the writing of a decentred art history of Eastern Europe, but “actually structured the events, discussions and format of group activities,” which confirmed for us the rightness of our decision to organise the seminars as a dialogue between peers, dispensing with the nomenclature of keynotes and favouring circles over rows to promote lively and inclusive debate. The comment that being part of Confrontations “strengthened our East European perspective, which before had been mostly unconscious”, led on to the acknowledgement that without this experience we “would never have started teaching courses in Central and East European art history,” which should be considered as one of the “real institutional facts of the project.”

The ambition of “sensuous scholarship” to “activate the body of the scholar” was symbolised in Confrontations by the practice of the Tug of Art History. When no consensus can be reached about one of the intractable problems of East European art history, the group takes up position on either end of a rope to measure the balance of forces and degree of passion for and against the controversy in question. In Zagreb we took sides over the politicisation of abstract art under socialism, in Prague feelings ran so high that we broke the rope, while in London the desire for a fair tug led to an even distribution of embodied intellectual power. Or it could be that opinions were delicately balanced over the issue of whether East European art is now part of global art history? This opened a floodgate of sub-questions around the difference between posing the question “now” and during the “then” of the Cold War or the historicised postcommunist past; the varieties of the “global” and the implications of being “part of” such transnational reconfigurations of the artistic field; and the shifting parameters and territories of the “East European” and its competing near others. The spirit of Confrontations resides in this willingness to ask the difficult questions and unravel their consequences, to follow the connecting threads across borders and temporalities and to intervene precisely in the continuous remaking of East European art history.

Breaking the Rope

By confrontations, on 5 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)

Setting the Confrontations Agenda

By confrontations, on 29 April 2019

The first session of Confrontations kicked off with a circle of introductions of this select group of scholars of East European art history, coming together at the beginning of an ambitious programme of collective research. Hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb, the first gathering was an opportunity to introduce the agenda of Confrontations over the coming years, with the aim to uncover the contested histories of the art of the first and last decades of the socialist period across the diverse art scenes of Eastern Europe.   Anticipating from the outset the complexity and potential irreconcilability of certain positions in contested art historical evaluations, the participants were invited to confront their views through a symbolic Tug of Art History. The question that saw the group take the most opposing positions indicatively was whether abstract art could be seen as a propaganda tool of the socialist state. Intended as a gesture to establish a safe environment for the expression of discordant points of view, this group exercise was also an indication of the objective of Confrontations to activate the potential of ‘sensuous scholarship’ through an embodied art history in which researchers are immersed in direct experiences, exchanges and encounters with the objects of study in situ.        The first group seminar vividly illustrated the plurality and wealth of approaches in response to the task of proposing their own working definition of East European art history. As we went around the table, it was clear that everyone had interpreted the brief set out in advance by the convenors of Confrontations differently. In that sense, attempts to define our research area ranged from historicising the question of East European art, either relegating it to the pre-1989 state-socialist period or conceiving it as a post-1989 construct, to putting forward theoretical or linguistic distillations of the field. Also voiced was the notion that focusing on Eastern European art could be a strategic choice, in terms of pursuing particular ethical or decolonising agendas with regard to art history.