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In the Shadow of Piotr Piotrowski: Small Histories for a Global Perspective

Henry Meyric Hughes
p. 17-31
Translation(s):
Dans l’ombre de Piotr Piotrowski : des micro-histoires pour une perspective internationale
Networking the Bloc: Experimental Art in Eastern Europe 1965-1981
Klara Kemp-Welch, Networking the Bloc: Experimental Art in Eastern Europe 1965-1981

Cambridge : MIT Press, 2018, 468p. ill. en noir et en coul. 24 x 19cm, eng

Index

ISBN : 9780262038300

Global Art and the Cold War
John J. Curley, Global Art and the Cold War

Londres : Laurence King, 2018, 288p. ill. en noir et en coul. 25 x 18cm, (Global Perspectives), eng

Bibliogr. Index

ISBN : 9781786272294

Globalizing East European Art Histories: Past and Present
Globalizing East European Art Histories: Past and Present

New York : Routledge, 2018, 220p. ill. en noir et en coul. 26 x 18cm, (Research in Art History), eng

Bibliogr. Index

ISBN : 9781138054325

Sous la dir. de Beáta Hock, Anu Allas

La Réalité en partage : pour une histoire des relations artistiques entre l’Est et l’Ouest en Europe pendant la guerre froide
Mathilde Arnoux, La Réalité en partage : pour une histoire des relations artistiques entre l’Est et l’Ouest en Europe pendant la guerre froide

Paris : Centre allemand d’histoire de l’art, 2018, 212p. ill. 21 x 13cm

Index

ISBN : 9782735124411. _ 12,00 €

Préf. de Jacques Leenhardt

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  • 1 Born in Budapest in 1931, died in Bratislava in 2013.

1In 1991, the Slovak art historian and critic, Tomáš Štrauss,1 then living in exile in Germany, edited a book on art in East Europe, in which he and his fellow authors drew attention to the deep ignorance in which the ‘Western’ art world had remained, since the division of Europe after 1945, of the rich artistic legacy of East and South-East Europe. He pointed to the prevalent belief that socialist realism had outlived Stalin by more than a few years, and that cultural life throughout the Eastern ‘bloc’, as it was then known, had been uniformly stagnant and dull.

2An explanation for this may be sought in the cultural polemics of the Cold War, beginning with the division of Europe into opposing political camps (communist and capitalist, with the neutral, or non-aligned, states to one side). The history of modern and contemporary art was being written in the West, by universalising histories of the West, such as Werner Haftmann’s Painting in the Twentieth Century (1953-54), exhibitions in Venice and Kassel, selective Council of Europe exhibitions (1954-) and one-off events, such as the aptly named Westkunst (Cologne, 1981), to which Klaus Staeck’s ironising poster, ‘Ostkunst = keine Kunst!’, provided a fitting accompaniment.

  • 2 Hock, Beáta. “Introduction-Globalizing East European Art Histories. The Legacy of Piotr Piotrowski (...)
  • 3 Piotrowski, Piotr. ‘Framing of the [sic] Central Europe’, 2000 + Arteast Collection: The Art of Eas (...)

3Things only began to change in the 1990s, when there was a growing awareness of the need to take account of art in the ‘other half’ of Europe. First, it needed to be written, but in the process, it also needed to be integrated into European art history, as a whole; and then, as if this wasn’t enough, to be fed into a global narrative that would be conditioned, first by a postmodernist perspective, and then by the findings of postcolonial theory. The rediscovery of Central, East and South-East Europe initially had something to do with mitteleuropäisch nostalgia, but a better point of reference was, surely, to be found in the parcelling out of European states into zones of influence, decided upon in Yalta. The research of the late Polish art historian, Piotr Piotrowski, and his key reference work, In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-garde in Eastern Europe, 1945-1989 (2009) has provided the orientation for a younger generation of scholars, several of whom pay him tribute, in an edited selection of papers, Globalizing East European Art Histories, which grew out of the last professional meeting that he convened before his untimely death in 2015. As Beáta Hock states, in her introduction, Piotrowski’s notions of ‘horizontal art history’, ‘close other(s)’ and ‘provincialising the centres’ now form part of the vocabulary for scholars who have entered the field, and a first generation of ‘postsocialist’ writing in the region.2 In his own (earlier) description of the approach, he wrote: ‘The experience of different Europes were by no means common, or the meanings of their cultures analogical. The art of Czechoslovakia, Rumania, and Hungary was developing in different semiotic and ideological spaces from the art of Italy or France, while the universal perspective understood as a methodological instrument prevents the discovery of the particular meaning of cultures and disrupts all attempts at defining their regional, ethnic, and local identities.’ The task, therefore, was: ‘[…] not to reproduce the imperialist and hierarchical interpretative models, but to revise the paradigms, to change the analytical tools so that they would allow us to discover the meanings of cultures of “other” geographical regions.’3

4ock’s East European ‘histories’Hock’s East European ‘histories’ make for an original contribution to cross-cultural, transnational and global perspectives on the production and reception of contemporary art, from which that region has been unaccountably relegated to the margins. After some introductory contributions of an historical nature, including Kristóf Nagy’s valuable account of the pioneering activities of the Soros network in the 1990s, they vary in range from Maja and Reuben Fowkes’ attempt to delineate a planetary perspective for East European art, which would avoid the pitfall of national histories, to Anu Allas’ presentation of a case for evaluating the East European (neo-) avantgardes on their own terms. Specifically, Allas examines the relevance of Fluxus for Milan Knížák and the Aktual Group in Prague, with their rather different agenda, whilst Agata Jakubowska writes a revisionist account of the impact of feminist ideas in communist Poland.

  • 4 https://acaprisme.hypotheses.org/

5Klara Kemp-Welch and Mathilde Arnoux are two of the young scholars who openly acknowledge the influence of Piotrowski and his ‘horizontal’ approach. Both have had access to personal testimonies, as well as fresh sources of archival information, including personal archives of French critics Raoul-Jean Moulin, writing for the communist daily, L’Humanité, and Pierre Restany, whose politics was further to the right. Both have also made good use of the largely untapped resources of the Archives de la critique d’art, in Rennes, which hold all the papers of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA), including those from its ground-breaking Congresses in Poland (1960) and Czechoslovakia (1966), in which these critics took part.4

  • 5 Lippard, Lucy R. Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, New York: Pr (...)
  • 6 Unconcealed: The International Network of Conceptual Artists 1966-1977. Dealers, Exhibitions and Pu (...)

6Kemp-Welch’s book, which is fast-moving and readable, and furnished with a wealth of photographic documentation, focuses on the ‘parallel culture’ (Václav Havel) that developed in certain socialist countries away from the media and any form of commercial promotion. Its scope is largely confined to the experimental art of the neo avant-gardes in ‘East Central Europe’ (Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary), with a time-frame of 1965-1979. This broadly overlaps with comparable developments in the West that have already been examined by others in some detail, including Lucy R. Lippard,5 early on, and the late Sophie Richard.6

  • 7 Kemp-Welch, Klara. “Introduction: A Useless Game”, Networking the Bloc: Experimental Art in Eastern (...)
  • 8 McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding the Media: The Extension of Man, New York: Mentor, 1964

7‘Immaterial’ art in East Europe – whether self-generated, or influenced by Fluxus, ‘Concept Art’, performance, or indirect channels of information – developed in the claustrophobic environment of collectivised societies. Thus, Kemp-Welch devotes considerable space to the novel ways that artists devised, for by-passing the well-oiled mechanisms of patronage and manipulation. These included building effective networks for the exchange of ideas and ephemera, such as samizdat [самиздат] and small press publications, through travel, personal contacts and the ordinary postal services. She borrows Bruno Latour’s colourful metaphor for this, of an ‘actors’ network’, for artistic propositions that were ‘the cables, the means of transportation, the vehicles linking places together’ and a way of ‘launching tiny bridges to overcome the gaps created by disparate frames of reference’.7 Her interview with Jean-Marc Poinsot offers an insight into one of the ways in which this worked in practice, through the effective medium of the envoi [mail art], which formed the subject of the latter’s pioneering book (1972) and exhibition for the VII Biennale de Paris (1971). The route of the envoi led ultimately to a web of self-sustaining, multilateral contacts, involving, among others, the East German author, Klaus Groh, whose Aktuelle Kunst in Osteuropa (1972) became a standard point of reference for mail artists seeking to break out of their isolation; and to two artists in Poznan, Jarosław Kozłowski and Andrzej Kostołowski, whose ‘NET’ (incorporating a list of addresses provided by Groh) developed almost into an embodiment of the kind of digital community that Marshall McLuhan’ had imagined.8 She also provides an account, through her interview with the Hungarian art historian, László Beke, of the independently organised summer encounters in a chapel beside Lake Balaton, where artists from Budapest and neighbouring countries would meet to form a temporary community and stage events, exhibitions and actions.

8As the narrative makes clear, opportunities for artists to exhibit abroad were limited at the best of times, and generally confined to members of the official unions. Bilateral intergovernmental cultural exchange agreements with ‘capitalist’ countries were strictly regulated and the beneficiaries were usually confined to members of an artist’s union. However, the rare Westerners who were willing to persevere and offer genuine forms of engagement were able to accomplish much. Thus, the independent cultural entrepreneur, Richard Demarco, was able, under the umbrella of ‘Edinburgh Arts’, to organise significant seasons of experimental performing and visual art from West Germany (1970), Rumania (1971), Poland (1972) and Yugoslavia (1973), in collaboration with the authorities at both ends, which led, in turn, to lasting relationships and individual exchanges. Tours for visiting specialists, under the terms of bilateral cultural agreements, could also sometimes be diverted to enable artists from the West to take part in workshops and symposia in slightly more relaxed countries, such as Poland, Hungary and, of course, Yugoslavia. In such cases, their work might be hand-carried or created in situ, in the informal spaces that had sprung up in cultural centres or private apartments, or on university campuses.

  • 9 Arnoux, Mathilde. La Réalité en partage : pour une histoire des relations artistiques entre l’Est e (...)

9The centre of gravity for Mathilde Arnoux9 and her young international team of researchers shifts slightly westwards, to France and West and East Germany, in addition to Poland; the time frame expands to the period from 1961 to 1989; and her subject extends beyond the reception of the neo avant-gardes to that of derivations of socialist realism and the grey areas in between. Arnoux’ main concern is to explore ideas of reality as it is perceived and as it might be, or become: ‘à chacun son réel’! She explores some of the factors that impeded a proper understanding in the West of the specificities of artistic production at different times, in different countries. In particular, her study encompasses the breakdown of the outdated abstraction-figuration dichotomy (notions of individual freedom versus collective engagement) and its mutation into a more complex set of reactions by artists in a given context.

10The application of postcolonial theory means looking more closely at the realities of officially supported art, as well as the more or less tolerated alternatives to it. Even the depictions of life under ‘really existing socialism’ were inflected by national aspirations and traditions – as evidenced by the selective readings of Neue Sachlichkeit, for example, in East Germany or the instrumentalisation of an “engaged” artist, such as John Heartfield. Once transposed elsewhere, however, the “reality” of a work of art could take on an entirely different meaning for the viewer, and this is at the back of a close, and carefully researched, analysis of the overlapping concerns in the late 1960s of artists and theorists associated with the Foksal Gallery in Warsaw and Daniel Buren and his associates in “BMPT”, near the origins of institutional critique. Identical works of art could also evoke varying responses, according to their context or the viewer’s conditioning.

  • 10 Fogarasi, Andreas. Vasarely Go Home, Leipzig: Spector Books, 2014

11Arnoux’s five case studies are complex and open to different interpretation, but all serve to underscore the divergencies between socialist countries at any given moment and between individual artists’ relations with officialdom and authority. A delightful small publication, Vasarely Go Home,10 which was produced to accompany the touring retrospective that was recently shown at the Centre Georges Pompidou, provides a good illustration of the vagaries of fashion and scope for misunderstandings. Victor Vasarely, whose artistic roots, as a former student of Sándor Bórtnik, reached back to the constructivist movement in the 1920s, moved from Budapest to Paris in 1930 and became a leading exponent of the kinetic art movement championed by the Denise René Gallery in the 1950s. By the 1960s and ‘70s, his work was ubiquitous in the West, in part because of his ability to ensure it could be applied to every form of consumer good and the wider environment – after which, it began to look tired, from over-exposure. Up to that point, abstract art had largely been prohibited in Hungary, on account of its ostensible association with Western values. However, the Kadar regime was cautiously seeking to bolster its commercial and political relations with the West and tried to establish a linkage between reawakening national aspirations and the recuperation of its modernist legacy. Vasarely and one or two, like him, who had gone into emigration before the revolution of 1956, were perfect candidates for re-adoption, on terms which were set by the government. His surprise retrospective at the state-run Mücsarnok gallery, in Budapest, provided a shock and a revelation to the wider public and split the artistic community down the middle. Those artists who were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt were impressed, less with the work itself, which already seemed dated, than with the fact that it was exhibited at all, whilst others were sceptical about the compromises that must have been needed to bring this about. At the official inauguration, the neo-avantgardist, János Major, whose work was neither promoted, nor tolerated, but banned, according to the vague classification established by the authorities, staged a simple protest of his own that amounted to a performance, by affixing a small sign with the message “Vasarely Go Home” to the reverse of his jacket lapel and showing this discreetly to friends, who could be trusted not to land him in trouble. This is remembered as a meaningful action in its own right, cementing a community of initiates and leaving no physical trace; and for exposing the hypocrisy of the officials’ attempts to instrumentalise the artist’s reputation for political ends – i.e. presenting a liberal face to the outside world and exposing the work out of context to domestic audiences, who were totally unprepared for it. The artist, Andreas Fogararsi, who edited this publication managed to track down numerous photographs of the event from other sources, including colour stills from a film that had been made for the television at the time, and a range of personal testimonies.

12John J. Curley’s account of Global Art and the Cold War offers a shift of perspective away from East Europe onto a global plane, but attempts nonetheless to incorporate elements of a new form of narrative. This seems to be addressed primarily to a general or undergraduate audience, and what it lacks is the close attention to detail and deliberately focused localism that characterises the foregoing publications and constitutes their proper claim to attention. Thus, in his single reference to Piotrowski, he refers to the latter’s phrase about politicians’ use of “tactical liberalism”, when applied to the geometries of the group Exat 51 (not “Exit 51”, as written there), in the newly de-Stalinising Yugoslav federation on the early 1950s, when this phrase might better be applied to the Hungarian government’s attempted appropriation of Vasarely’s work in 1959, recounted above. Curley sets outungarians’ to construct a global history of art for the entire period covered by the Cold War from 1945 to around 1990, when the USA and the USSR were the dominant powers, competing for ideological supremacy in Europe and military, economic and political supremacy in the rest of the world. Curley resorts to the conventional trope of a conflict between the two “master narratives” of abstraction and figuration for the first part of his account, but things become more interesting around 1960, with the advent of new art forms and relations of art to life. However, practically everything – too much – is seen through the prism of the Cold War, and this creates an imbalance between the recognised achievements of some of the more or less significant artists and the examples that he chooses, to illustrate a thesis. Some of the individual pictorial analyses work well and could serve as a valuable basis for discussion. The inclusion of examples from other parts of the world, including China and South America, is thoroughly welcome, although the process of integrating them convincingly into the broader narrative has some way to go.

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Notes

1 Born in Budapest in 1931, died in Bratislava in 2013.

2 Hock, Beáta. “Introduction-Globalizing East European Art Histories. The Legacy of Piotr Piotrowski and a Conference”, Globalizing East European Art Histories: Past and Present, New York : Routledge, 2018, (Routeledge Research in Art History), p. 1

3 Piotrowski, Piotr. ‘Framing of the [sic] Central Europe’, 2000 + Arteast Collection: The Art of Eastern Europe. A Selection of Works for the International and National Collections of Moderna Galerija Ljubljana, Ljubljana: Moderna Galerija Ljubljana, 2000, p. 17. Eds. Zdenka Badovinac and Peter Weibel

4 https://acaprisme.hypotheses.org/

5 Lippard, Lucy R. Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, New York: Praeger, 1973

6 Unconcealed: The International Network of Conceptual Artists 1966-1977. Dealers, Exhibitions and Public Collections, London: Ridinghouse, 2009. Eds Sophie Richard, Lynda Morris

7 Kemp-Welch, Klara. “Introduction: A Useless Game”, Networking the Bloc: Experimental Art in Eastern Europe 1965-1981, Cambridge : MIT Press, 2018, p. 10

8 McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding the Media: The Extension of Man, New York: Mentor, 1964

9 Arnoux, Mathilde. La Réalité en partage : pour une histoire des relations artistiques entre l’Est et l’Ouest en Europe pendant la guerre froide, Paris : Centre allemand d’histoire de l’art, 2018

10 Fogarasi, Andreas. Vasarely Go Home, Leipzig: Spector Books, 2014

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References

Bibliographical reference

Henry Meyric Hughes, « In the Shadow of Piotr Piotrowski: Small Histories for a Global Perspective », Critique d’art, 52 | 2019, 17-31.

Electronic reference

Henry Meyric Hughes, « In the Shadow of Piotr Piotrowski: Small Histories for a Global Perspective », Critique d’art [Online], 52 | Printemps/été, Online since 27 May 2020, connection on 15 August 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/critiquedart/46132 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/critiquedart.46132

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Henry Meyric Hughes

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