Central and Eastern European Art since 1950

Maja and Reuben Fowkes, Central and Eastern European Art since 1950 (London: Thames and Hudson, 2020), 232 pp.

When Piotr Piotrowski published his now-famous art historical surveys In the Shadow of Yalta. Art and the Avant-Garde in Eastern Europe 1945-1989 and Art and Democracy in Post-Communist Europe, the art of the region was only superficially known to broader audiences. It was mostly presented in group or solo exhibitions, and via several monographic studies, and it never acquired the kind of celebrity that ”non-conformist” art from the former Soviet Union enjoyed.  In line with other theorists focused on post-colonial critiques of art history across the globe, Piotrowski used the comparative method to introduce the art produced in Central and Eastern Europe not as a derivative, but as a particular type of art, contextually shaped by sometimes antagonistic socio-political forces, while enriching the art historical vocabulary with terms such as ”horizontal art history” or ”spatial art history”.

Central and Eastern European Art since 1950 is an overview of the art in Eastern Europe that complements Piotrowski’s analyses almost ten years after their publication in English. Meanwhile, other monographic studies and broader analyses focused on the aesthetic and political autonomy of art and on specific media such as performance art have filled in the gaps in the Western-based artistic canon of late modern and contemporary art. For instance, Klara Kemp-Welch’s Antipolitics in Central European Art, Amy Bryzgel’s Performance art in Eastern Europe since 1960, or Armin Medosch’s New Tendencies. Art at the Threshold of the Information Revolution (1961-1978), as well as collective volumes such as Performance art in the Second Public Sphere, edited by Katalin Cseh-Varga and Adam Czirak, or Art in Hungary 1956- 1980: Doublespeak and Beyond, edited by Edit Sasvari, Hedvig Turai and Sandor Hornyik, respectively, have expanded our previously limited knowledge of the art in the region, adding to the excellent books focused on nationally defined neo-avantgarde practices or on individual artists published in English by authors such as Ieva Astahovska, Andrea Bátorová, Boźena Czubak, Maja Fowkes, Daniel Grúň,  Agata Jakubowska, Emese Kűrti, Pavlina Morganova or Alina Șerban. Works by artists associated with the Polish, Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, Croatian, Serbian and Romanian neo-avant-garde are now part of the permanent collections of Western museums such as MoMA or Tate. Art historiography itself has also turned towards a more dynamic analysis of the artistic contacts and interactions that shaped artistic practice during Socialism, and of the institutional conditions and exhibition practices that facilitated its growth. We could mention here recent contributions such as Klara Kemp-Welch’s Networking the Bloc, Beata Hock’s and Anu Allas’ edited volume Globalizing East-European Art Histories or Tomas Pospiszyl’s An Associative Art History: Comparative Studies of Neo-Avant-Gardes in a Bipolar World, or the publication Art beyond Borders. Artistic Exchanges in Communist Europe (1945-1989), edited by Jerôme Bazin, Pascal Doubourg Glatigny and Piotr Piotrowski.

Maja and Reuben Fowkes’ survey takes into account these changes in the cultural field by carefully integrating mentionings of important art institutions and exhibitions as part of the contextual information required to understand the well-chosen artistic examples they present throughout the book. The institutional background provided replaces in concrete terms the often diluted political contextualisations that can be found in previous analyses. For instance, the impact of the ”New Tendencies” exhibition series for promoting art based on new technologies and scientific discourse within the broader category of ”abstract art”, the influence of the 1968 ”New Sensitivity” exhibition in promoting neo-constructivism in Czechoslovakia, the influence of theoretical symposia and plein-air gatherings during the 1960s for the development of experimental art forms, as well as performative interventions and process-based events are only some of the relevant art exhibitions mentioned in the book.(Other significant examples of relevant art exhibitions during the 1950s are the 1957 Spring Exhibition which signalled the recuperation of surrealism and abstraction in Hungary, or the Second Exhibition of Modern Art held at Zachęta Gallery in Warsaw in the same year which indicated the relaxation of aesthetic norms after the hegemony of socialist realism in the 1950s.)

These examples provide the necessary contextual information to understand how certain artistic trends developed locally. Such attentive, albeit brief analyses are also relevant since the performative, collaborative and often counter-cultural aspects of many of the artistic events taking place in the late 1960s and 1970s in Eastern Europe are often indistinguishable from their particular social, cultural, and political production context. They help the reader understand both the expansion of art towards the private sphere through self-institutionalizing gestures, and the disruption caused in the public space by these interventions of discursive artistic gestures. The usual suspects of art historical narratives, such as the Balatonboglár chapel, Foksal or Akumulatory 2 galleries or the Zagreb Cultural Student Center are complemented by lesser known, and more decentralized, art spaces such as the Wrocław’s Pod Mona Lisa Gallery, the Brno House of Art, Poznań’s odNOWA gallery, or the Subotica-based artist group Bosch+Bosch.

Platforms for international artist connections such as the Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts or the Belgrade International Theater Festival highlight the international artistic connections that are mentioned as often as possible when discussing the events the authors select as being relevant for their narrative. Such a complementary history of important art exhibitions, which, with few exceptions, was missing from Piotr Piotrowski’s books, is more than salutary, since many of the self-organised artist events during socialism became the very context of artistic production, while on other occasions they facilitated the circulation of artistic ideas across national borders. Another key addition in the survey is the short, but nevertheless significant account of the importance of art education in the region, as well as the inclusion of experimental film.

The desire to break away from canonical artists or art venues in order to produce a more inclusive narrative is also obvious in the selection of artists, which of course also needed to include those artists and artworks that are often found in multiple other narratives or art collections of Eastern European art during Socialism. Refreshingly, unavoidable names such as Geta Brătescu, Stano Filko, Györgi Galántai, Gorgona, Tomislav Gotovac, Ion Grigorescu, Sanja Iveković, Tadeusz Kantor, Július Koller, Julije Knifer, Milan Knižák, Jiři Kovanda, Jarosław Kozłowski, KwieKulik, László Lakner, Natalia L.L., Ana Lupaș, Dora Maurer, Paul Neagu, OHO, Ewa Partum, The Group of Six, Peter Štembera, Krzysztof Wodiczko, Jana Żelibská, Tamás Szentjóby, Balint Szombathy, Sándor Pinczehelyi, Goran Trbuljak, or Endre Tót are complemented by lesser-known artists such as Marian Zidaru or Aurel Vlad. Even so, although Zidaru and Vlad surely support the authors’ argument for the expansion of neo-expressionist painting during the 1980s, their selection of relevant Romanian artists or art projects does omit many other artists whose late neo-avantgarde practices were just as crucial, given the incongruences and asynchronicities among the institutional and political artistic contexts of Eastern European nations during the 1970s and 1980s.

It is a pity that crucial contextual observations become scarce in the last chapters dedicated to art after 1989, where contextual analysis is often being diluted by general remarks about the artists’ particular reactions to contemporary social transformations and, to a lesser extent, about the mechanisms of the contemporary art market or the global expansion of large-scale exhibition projects. Besides the emergence of more powerful local institutions, the global “exhibitionary complex” established during the 1990’s was equally formative of the establishment of geographically descriptive categories such as “Eastern European Art” and for identity politics of the 1990s. Therefore, a more precise account of some important moments in this respect—such as the Balkan-themed exhibitions and the large scale retrospectives of the early 2000s, a more detailed account of the rise of Manifesta, or a comparative analysis of the fraught context in which new institutions such as contemporary art museums appeared during the 2000s—would have added depth to the contextual background the authors are otherwise patiently reconstructing throughout the book, explaining each time changes that occurred on both the spatial axis, at the national level, and on the diachronic axis.

The narrative, structured chronologically by decades, focuses less on the political effects and ideological underpinnings of art under and after Socialism than on its aesthetic regime and, sometimes, on the broader cultural (philosophical or scientific) background of the chosen artworks. On the one hand, this is a refreshing move away from the over-politicized art historical discourse that risked to transform art itself into a mere derivative of the political sphere. Still, politics is never expelled from the narrative: it lurks in the background, often presiding over a whole chapter, such as the one dedicated to the 1970s dubbed “Practicing Impossible Art.” Yet it is at the same time never obtrusive, and it mainly reveals itself through the way it constrains the institutional mechanisms of art. On the other hand, such aesthetic autonomy comes with a price: the in-depth comparative analyses of artists and frequent theoretical commentaries that punctuated Piotrowski’s account (especially those concerning methodology) are unfortunately missing from the present survey. As a result, the narrative on occasion slips inevitably into a linear accumulation of artistic projects and products.

Clearly, the book intends to be mainly informative rather than analytical, and in doing so, Maja and Reuben Fowkes have clearly succeeded. They manage to condense a dazzling number of artistic examples into a pocket-size book meant to be used not only by scholars and curators who specialize in art from Central and Eastern Europe. Their analyses of artworks are precise and highlight only information that is vital for orientation and understanding. The book is balanced, well-informed and concise. It subtly engages the more recent tendency of epistemic decolonization by pointing to the local traditions and artistic terminologies employed by artists themselves to describe their art (“explosionalism,” “contextual art,” “Hapsoc,” etc.). It is also attentive to the effects of globalization on the contemporary circulation of images and artworks in the last decade, proposing a convincing theoretical framework for understanding contemporary art as a field of experiential and political uncertainty.

That being said, and despite the intelligent positioning and excellent historiographic skills of the authors, there are several questions related to the very project of such a comprehensive survey that are left unanswered. The most comprehensive among these concerns the author’s choice to present art from the region as a coherent, more or less monolithic compound. In their effort to paint the portrait of a Central and Eastern European art inextricably linked with Socialism—its constraints, its outright critique and rejection after 1989, and its recollection as a critical form of nostalgia in the 2000s—they are forced to resort to the same lateral move across national art historical narratives and art scenes that obliged Piotrowski to acknowledge an a-synchronic and heterogeneous artistic development among the national art fields that compose Central and Eastern Europe. For Maja and Reuben Fowkes, too, the aesthetic characteristics of the most significant art produced in the region point to transnational similarities that help stabilize the otherwise unfixed conceptual category “Eastern European art.”

The authors acknowledge that Central and Eastern European artists contributed to the decentralized paradigm of contemporary world art by bringing a specific Socialist ethos to their international contacts during the Cold War, or by recalling the legacy of Socialism after 1989, thus provide a stable local identity to art practices that were otherwise often similar to their Western counterparts. Yet while Central and Eastern European Art since 1950 offers a large number of illustrative examples for this fact,   by selecting for their survey mainly those well-known artists who were either collected or exhibited by the global capitalist art system after 1989, the authors implicitly submit to an intellectual market place that has managed to transform the idea of Socialism into little more than a domesticated critical tool of our contemporaneity. As we know, many of the now-famous artists from the former Socialist block were snubbed at the time by curators such as Harald Szeemann, while after 1989 their work endured partisan readings that were prone to exoticize their criticality. Fortunately, Maja and Ruben Fowkes’ reading corrects many of these interpretive fallacies. In order to become even more convincing, it might be complemented by more comparative research that would reveal how exactly the bilateral transmission of ideas and aesthetic forms across the Iron Curtain, as well as their interaction with art from non-Western geographical regions, affected not only art historical epistemology, but also the trajectory of art in the world’s major art centers. That, of course, would be a more demanding task, and one that the authors certainly could not take on in their overall excellent introduction to Central and Eastern European art. They left it open up to future researchers, much like Piotr Piotrowski did in his time.


Cristian Nae
Cristian Nae is associate professor at the National University of Arts ”George Enescu” in Iași, Romania. He is senior advisor for  the project Periodization in the History of Art and Its Conundrums. How to Tackle Them in East-Central Europe (New Europe College, Bucharest), supported by the Getty Research Institute's Connecting Art Histories initiative. His writing has appeared in Journal of Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe (2019),  and in edited volumes published by de Gruyter (2020, forthcoming). He is editor of the book (In)Visible Frames. Rhetorics and Experimental Exhibition Practices in Romania 1965-1989 (Idea, 2019), and curator of Unfinished Conversations on the Weight of Absence, the Romanian exhibition in the 58th Venice Biennale (2019).