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Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History

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Naming East European Art

confrontations30 June 2021

The third in this series of Confrontations online seminars held on 23 June 2021 dealt with the recurrent question of the choice of terminology in naming artistic phenomena in Eastern European art. The central issue of what is to be gained, and what lost, in using art labels developed in the context of Western art history to refer to art practices and trends that emerged in the specific and different conditions of Actually Existing Socialism was explored with reference to a range of terminological variations associated with particular art geographies. The potential for multi-directional terminological borrowings emerged in discussion as a strategy to complicate the writing of comparative art history, by pluralising and rendering more heterogenous accounts of global art movements.

In their introduction, Maja and Reuben Fowkes brought up the ‘suitcase model’ of art transfers, pointing to the frequency with which the spread of artistic paradigms to Eastern European art scenes has been explained in art history through artist travel to Western art centres, often by literally referring to the exhibition catalogues of new art trends that they brought back in their luggage.  Taking pop art as a case in point, the complexity of the actual development of Eastern European versions of global art movements was explored, from the impossibility of reducing pop influences to a single source and the extent to which East European pop responded to changing social and technological conditions, to the ways in which artists turned the language of pop in critical or anti-capitalist directions. They also showed how recent survey exhibitions, both in the region and internationally, have sought to varying degrees to expand the understanding of pop art by reframing it as a global rather than Western phenomenon.

This week’s guest speaker was Miško Šuvaković, whose reflected on the methodologies of East European art history, including analysing with hindsight the approach taken in his co-edited book Impossible Histories: Historic Avant-Gardes, Neo-Avant-Gardes, and Post-Avant-Gardes in Yugoslavia, 1918–1991, which was published in 2003. He noted that while at the time the histories of the neo-avant-garde were ‘impossible’ because they were almost completely ignored, today the situation is reversed. He also explained that the focus on Yugoslavia rather than national art history met the expectations of the publishers, whose wanted a book ‘about New York, not the Bronx.’ By drawing attention to the way in which the authorities balanced Soviet and United States influence by alternating between visiting exhibitions from the two blocs, he emphasised through his presentation the hybridization of artistic phenomena in the Yugoslav art space.

Confrontations team member and leader of the seminar Alina Serban set out to explore how after the demise of the communist world in Eastern Europe, the writing of its own art history was fuelled by the desire of local and international scholars to find umbrella terms, some retrospectively applied, that would offer a readable translation of the processes of art-making in the region. She drew attention to the danger that by adopting the universality of Western idioms, in order to create a theoretical common ground, specific national traditions and self-historicizations could be overlooked, arguing for the coexistence of a multiplicity of readings of art terms. The question of balance also came to the fore here, between interpretations that take into account local conceptualisations and the those that enable the art of the region to become part of a global art historical discourse.

Among the Confrontations participants, Gregor Taul’s response pinpointed a series of terms that were current in the Soviet Baltics, but that have mostly fallen out of use in the post-communist period. These included the notion of the ‘synthesis of the arts’, which was regularly called for in party meetings, and ‘monumental decorative arts’, which had different connotations to public art, and ‘environment’, which carried also the sense of site-specific art. Dessislava Dimova’s intervention focused on conceptual art, and contrasting attitudes to the term in Bulgaria in the 1980s and early 1990s, pointing out that a lot of artists ‘refused to recognise their art through such terms’ and developed alternative formulations such as ‘end forms’ or ‘new forms.’ The debate then turned to how the discussion around so-called Western terms is changing, as new terms emerge outside of Western art centres and travel in all directions and the old terms are reshaped to encompass the plurality of non-Western art practices, while making visible their interconnections.

Artists’ Unions under Socialism

confrontations16 June 2021

The second of the online meetings organised for the Confrontations group held on 9 June 2021, the seminar on Artists’ Unions dealt with one of the key institutional structures of socialist artworlds. In their introduction, Maja and Reuben Fowkes laid out some of the decisive moments in the labyrinthine infrastructural histories of artists unions under socialism: the transformations of the immediate post-war period, the consolidation of communist power across the Eastern Bloc circa 1948-9, and the readjustments in the wake of Stalin’s death. They traced the effects of these turning points on socialist artworlds through the case of the Hungarian Artists’ Union, discussing the significance of its reduction from a from a mass organisation on the model of a trades union to a guild-like association of between 100 and 300 members under party control, but also its role as a liberalising force and representative of artists’ interests during the course of de-Stalinization, since by the mid-1950s the union was already campaigning on behalf of its members to the Ministry of Culture to demand the restoration and building of galleries, an increase in the number of art publications, more studios and foreign exchanges with Western countries, as well as a monthly stipend for painters. Further questions raised included the extent to which the new layers of socialist art bureaucracy established around 1960, such as the founding of the Studio of Young Artists, reflected a shift to more arms-length methods of political management, the strategies devised by artists to negotiate the structures of Actually Existing Artworlds of Socialism and the extent to which parallels can be identified with the role of artists unions in other East European countries, notwithstanding the specific historical context of the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet rule.

The guest lecture by Caterina Preda was based on her extensive research into the archives of the Romanian artists’ union, whose neglected institutional histories are vividly symbolised by an image she shared of a cupboard overflowing with disorderly dossiers. She also drew attention to the tendency of the artists’ union to adopt the quantitative methods of industrial or agricultural production under five year plans to measure artistic production in numbers of artworks per year. Attempting to quantify artistic production using such starkly materialist parameters seems slightly comic, but is it really so different from the statistics produced by the capitalist artworld to measure the rising value of artworks at auction? Emphasising the role of the artists’ union as an intermediary between artists and the state, she also laid out the complexity of the relationship between the artists’ union as such, and parallel and overlapping institutions with a more direct role in the commissioning of artworks. The question was raised as to whether the role of the artists’ union in promoting a nationalist version of socialism from the 1960s was specific to the Romanian case, or whether a renewed focus on national cultures was characteristic of the process of de-Stalinization across the Eastern Bloc. It also became clear from the discussion that further research is needed to establish the extent to which during the last decade of the socialist system such state art structures were able to function with relative autonomy.

Member of the core team of Confrontations and leader of this session, Tomasz Załuski, questioned in his intervention into the discussion certain ‘stereotypical assumptions’ about the functioning of artists’ unions. Namely, it is widely assumed that they were part of a regime of artistic control, created an opportunistic social contract with artists who collaborated in exchange for symbolic and material gains, and that they were characterised in their artistic outlook by traditionalism and conservatism. He proposed instead that a closer examination of in particular the Polish case reveals the pragmatism of artists’ unions in defending their members’ interests, the ‘positivity’ and ‘normality’ that such structures created for artists to work within, and their role as ‘agents of modernization.’ Rather than a one-sided view of the role of artists’ unions, he suggested that they should be positioned between the poles of ideology and pragmatism, autonomy and submissiveness, and conservative and progressive values and practices.

Amongst the responses by Confrontations research group members, Juliane Debeusscher brought up the complex situation around the role of East European artists’ unions in enabling the participation of artists in the exhibition and competition of the Joan Miró Prize in Barcelona in the 1970s. Asja Mandić spoke about the particular case of the Yugoslav artists’ union, which was established in 1947, after the founding of the artists’ unions of several of the federal republics of Yugoslavia. Playing a significant role until 1951, when the pendulum swung back towards decentralisation, the Yugoslav artists’ union notably produced four issues of the magazine Umetnost, whose pages reveal the trajectory of the search for a common artistic identity. Johana Lomová drew attention to the differences in the balance of female and male membership in applied arts and fine arts unions, raising the issue of the extent to which the relative exclusion of women from the more prestigious branches of the fine arts reflected the influence of patriarchal mentalities and power structures. Corina Apostol asked what kind of theoretical approach is called for in the study of the archives of socialist artists’ unions. Magdalena Moskalewicz shared further insights into the Polish artists’ union and its role in, for example, producing the national survey shows of the Stalinist period. She also put forward the notion that in contrast to countries like Hungary, there was no ‘doublespeak’ in the Polish artworld after 1955, when the official and unofficial artworlds coalesced. What became clear over the course of a lively afternoon of online discussion was how far the history of the artist unions of particular countries still awaits systematic research, as well as the potential of comparative approach in establishing the significance of their institutional forms and their complex relation to other bureaucratic bodies of the socialist artworld.

Tomislav Gotovac Institute

confrontations29 April 2019

After intensive discussions at MSU and pulling of the rope, we ended in the Krajiška street 29 in the former apartment of Tomislav Gotovac. Welcomed by Darko Šimičić, co-founder of the Institute and secretary of the artist’s archive, along with Zora Gotovac and daughter Sarah, we could follow Gotovac’s fascinating journey from experimental films, photostories towards performance art.

In the authentic settings of the artist’s apartment and the studio we were able to understand the birth of a visual artist using expanded media in the unique situation of Croatia since the 1960s. Gotovac’s case is one of the examples of artistic trajectories behind the Iron Curtain, influenced by politics, social change and personal standings. He was a key member of the Yugoslav neo-avant-garde and exhibited in 1976 for the first time after 15 years of continuous work. He created series of photographs, collages,  a number of experimental films and famous performances. The visit of the artist’s kitchen was an experience of its own – Gotovac’s Yugoslav Merzbau is an original and very personal collage in the space. And when Darko Šimičić pulled out of one of the closets Gotovac’s batman suite made by Zora Gotovac from underwear, we were hooked.
(Pavlína Morganová)

Pluralising Yugoslav Art

confrontations29 April 2019

A constitutive element of the Confrontations sessions are peer seminars at which the members succinctly present their research related to the particular focus of the programme and then respond to questions and comments from the others. The first such seminar was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb and was focused on the uneven terrains of Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav art history, with presentations by Ivana Bago on What is Yugoslav Art?, Asja Mandić on The Centre-Periphery Relations in Socialist Yugoslavia: Multiple Art Histories and Sandra Bradvić on Jugoslovenska dokumenta (Sarajevo, 1984-1989): From ‘off-space’ to ‘big-scale-exhibition’.Much discussion ensued over the relation between Yugoslav art history and that of the individual countries of the former socialist federation, and how to evaluate moves during the post-communist period to assimilate Yugoslav art to a wider East European account. Productive debate was also sparked over how the narrative of Yugoslav art history could be pluralised to include artists and communities who were excluded from the celebrated ‘second line’ traced in canonical accounts from EXAT51 through New Tendencies, Gorgona and the New Art Practice to the post-avant-garde formations of the 1980s.
(MRF)

Southern Constellations

Tomasz Załuski29 April 2019

During our stay in Ljubljana we visited the exhibition Southern Constallations at Moderna galerija – Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova. This impressive show, curated by Bojana Piškur and based on her long-term research, presented the role of arts, cultural collaboration, exchange and diplomacy in the history of the Non-Aligned Movement. The movement was a political initiative, founded officially in the early 1960s, in which countries belonging to neither of the two Cold War blocks were involved. They were mainly Third World African and Asian countries but also Yugoslavia which pursued its “third way”. And it was from the perspective of Yugoslavia, quite obviously, as one of the non-aligned countries which had initiated the movement, that the exhibition approached the whole issue. The show combined historical documentation of different cultural exchanges and initiatives within the network of the non-aligned countries, along with some artworks from between the early 1960s and the late 1980s, and contemporary artists interventions.


For me, given the context of our Confrontations project and the issues we were dealing with during our visit to Zagreb and – especially – to Ljubljana, Southern Constellation really pinpointed the question of East European art history. It is significant that Moderna galerija, which has been playing an important role in the formation and development of studies on East European art of the second half of the XXth century (e.g. the exhibitions Body and the East, 1998; Interrupted Histories, 2006), seems now to be taking a different direction and trying to rediscover Yugoslavia’s participation in a global but at the same time non-Western network. I quess that one of the agendas behind looking for such a forgotten, “interrupted” history of another globality is to position one’s own local art production within the narrative of global art history on one’s own terms: to stress one’s specificity and difference with regard to Western globalisation by showing one’s connections to the “Third World”, “postcolonial”, “(semi)peripheral”, “Global South” etc. networks, but also, by the same token, to avoid the reduction of all Europe to Western Europe, not so uncommon in postcolonial studies. In this sense, the exhibition staged what seems to be a need for reinventing East European art history studies, especially ones that deal with the socialist period. Obviously, this need is not new, it has been with us for some time but it poses a task that is far from complete and yet to perform. It is a task of writing a history that still aims at establishing the specificity of a given local – national or regional – East European art phenomenon but shows it in its actual translocal connectedness, or transnational interdependency, not only within the Eastern bloc and across the West/East divide but also within other global networks next to it or beyond it. This can be, of course, applied not only to the art of Yugoslavia but also to that of other East European countries as well. After all, despite its participation in the Non-Aligned Movement, Yugoslavia was no exception here.

(Tomasz Załuski)