Globalizing East European Art Histories: Past and Present

Globalizing East European Art Histories: Past and Present. Edited by Beáta Hock and Anu Allas (New York and London: Routledge, 2018), 220 pp.

It is an interesting time to be reviewing a book that calls for “globalizing” art history, when everywhere there are calls for art history to decolonize. Is there a thread between the desire to globalize the study of East European art and the demands for a broader decolonization of the discipline of art history and its institutions?(For a variety of approaches to decolonizing art history, see the questionnaire, edited by Catherine Grant and Dorothy Price, “Decolonizing Art History,” Art History 43:1 (February 2020): 8–66, Or do the ambitions for a global art history within which Eastern Europe would serve as a case study for thinking from the margins risk leveling cultural differences under a more expansive Eurocentrism? Before answering these questions, we must first consider the book on its own terms, and only then reflect on its potential place in this new reality.

book coverThe edited volume Globalizing East European Art Histories: Past and Present emerged from a multi-day conference convened in Lublin, Poland, by Piotr Piotrowski in 2014.(The conference “East European Art Seen from Global Perspectives: Past and Present” took place at the Galeria Labirynt, Lublin, Poland, October 24–27, 2014.) Piotrowski’s cross-regional work on the social and political aspects of modern and contemporary art in East-Central Europe over the last three decades strove to integrate art from the region into mainstream narratives of European art and has profoundly shaped the field.(In addition to his stand-alone articles and edited volumes, see In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-Garde in Eastern Europe, 1945-1989 (London: Reaktion Books, 2009) and Art and Democracy in Post-Communist Europe (London: Reaktion Books, 2012).) The Lublin conference sought to address the topic that occupied Piotrowski’s scholarly attention most urgently in his final years: a global approach to East-Central European art whose methodological intervention would go beyond local significance or tokenism and instead point the way toward a fundamental reconsideration of how art historical narratives are produced and cultural interactions understood.(Piotrowski’s clearest articulation of this program is summed up by his concept of “horizontal art history,” which he proposed in the essay “On the Spatial Turn, or Horizontal Art History,” Umění 56, no. 5 (2008): 378–383; he further elaborated on it in “From Global to Alter-Globalist Art History,” Teksty Drugie 1 (2015): 112–134, To include as wide a swath of materials and case studies as possible, the conference and resulting volume did not limit themselves to the so-called global contemporary and instead zoomed as far back as the early modern period, a decision that introduced complexity and opportunities to test a number of different interpretive models. With Piotrowski’s death in 2015, the task of editing the volume was assumed by Beáta Hock and Anu Allas; the nine revised and four additionally commissioned essays serve as a fitting tribute to Piotrowski’s resolute commitment to the cause of rethinking the implicit hierarchies and power relations that have long haunted (Western) art history.

The volume is organized into four sections: a methodologically-oriented section that offers alternatives to the national framework frequently employed in art histories of the region and three loosely thematic sections dealing with hybridity, the circulation of ideas, and contemporary artistic and curatorial praxis. As often happens with conference publications, the four sections are not strict and offer many cross-currents in approach, framework, and subject matter, including case studies of visual art and architectural practice, international exhibitions, curatorial projects, and institutional histories. In the introduction and her chapter on transnational approaches, Beáta Hock lays out the critical stakes of globalizing East European art histories. At its most fundamental level, the approach aims to replace traditional art histories rooted in geographic and temporal hierarchies that produce narratives of formal development based on “primacy, origins, influences, and diffusions” (p. 7) with studies of “circulations, transfers, global mobilities, and supranational tendencies” (p. 6), to which one could also add projections, identifications, and shared imaginaries.

Thus, one of the main challenges to traditional art history posed by this volume (and by global art history more broadly) is the rejection of the center-periphery model of ordering the world. Tomasz Grusiecki’s close reading of a 17th-century portrait of a Polish-Lithuanian nobleman in the collection of the National Arts Museum in Minsk uses visual evidence to show that the anonymous artist “draws no line between European and Ottomanesque traits” (p. 25). Rejecting the notion of autonomous cultural origins, Grusiecki invites us to see the visual culture of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as an “active agent of cultural entanglement” (p. 28), rather than the product of a geographically and culturally marginal zone of assimilation and imitation. Carolyn C. Guile, in her essay on portraiture in early modern Poland, likewise holds up the “fluid adaptation … of a multivalent visual culture” (p. 86) as evidence of a richer picture of cultural exchange than allowed by previous accounts of early modern Europe, which positioned Italy as the cultural center to Poland’s vernacular periphery.

By situating her examples in specific political histories of this borderland region, Guile vividly complicates any reading of Polish-Lithuanian relations with its own eastern neighbors. Thus an Ottoman-inspired style of dress could variously symbolize a Swedish-born king’s “Polishness” during a time of political uncertainty under territorial threat from Cossacks, or his eagerness to advance a Polish-Ottoman political alliance; while in another context, a similar costume could appear on a Crimean Tatar whose aid with a series of Polish military campaigns against Muscovy formed the basis of an inter-confessional alliance. By looking beyond the center-periphery model, both Grusiecki and Guile show how the Polish-Lithuanian borderlands gave rise to complex identities that incorporated aspects of political, religious, and cultural “others.”

Another thread that runs throughout the volume is the possibility of cultural transfer and the circulation of ideas across geographic distances and ideological divides. Contributions by Agata Jakubowska, Anu Allas, and Katarzyna Cytlak—in the “Global Communities and the Traffic in Ideas” section—tell stories of partial encounters, imaginary projections, and exchange. Jakubowska’s essay counters the notion that feminist art originated in the United States and “came from the West” (p. 137), or that feminist ideas were not available as an interpretive framework in Communist Poland on the cusp of the 1970s–80s. By carefully tracing the movement of feminist texts through translation, printed matter, and catalogs; contacts between Polish women artists and international curators and critics; and the exhibition of their works in feminist art shows outside of Poland, Jakubowska recovers the presence of feminist ideas in Poland. What is particularly interesting about this approach is not that it recuperates a lost golden age of feminist art in Poland. Rather, it gives back to the women artists (like Ewa Partum and Natalia LL, who labored in an environment generally hostile to feminism) a fuller picture of the ideas with which their works were meant to resonate—and the full weight of the resistance with which the Polish art scene met feminist thinking, given that scene’s Cold War-inflected preference for the ideology of individualism and artistic autonomy (pp. 145–146).

Meanwhile, Allas and Cytlak’s essays illuminate the ways that contemporary artistic subjects operating outside of mainstream Western capitalist contexts (Milan Knížák and the Aktual community in Czechoslovakia for Allas, and the Argentinean Centre for Art and Communication [CAYC] and El Periférico de Objetos theater troupe for Cytlak) positioned themselves vis-à-vis global artistic developments by participating in global neo-avant-garde imaginaries in a way that also spoke to local social and political conditions. A number of the authors take up the category of the “global” itself: Jörg Scheller’s essay on the transculturality or cosmopolitanism of certain Polish artistic tendencies around 1900 as a kind of globalism avant la lettre, and Maya and Reuben Fowkes’s use of Gayatri Spivak’s notion of the “planetary” (contra the “utilitarian and economic logic of the global”) to think about a variety of East European artists whose works engage with ecology and the environment.

Several of the essays in the volume address the influence of ideological frameworks on various forms of East European cultural production. Kristóf Nagy’s essay on the emergence of the Soros network of art centers points to the role played by the visual arts and non-state funded cultural initiatives as “indirect political intervention” (p. 54) in late Kádár-era Hungary. By institutionally supporting a cadre of cultural elites, Nagy argues, the Soros project effected a “subtle and continuous shift in power relations” (p. 56) away from local state functionaries to a liberal intelligentsia ready to capitalize on their access to international networks and participate in the global contemporary art scene after 1989. Sarah M. Schlachetzki’s deep dive into the pitched battles over two visions of modernist city planning in Breslau (Wrocław) in the first half of the 1920s reveals an analogous alignment with wider cultural politics along a local/global fault line—between the localism of socially planned housing and the corporatism of the American high-rise. These two essays illustrate some potential pitfalls of the book’s “globalizing” framework.

In the case of city planning, the problems of architectural modernity and the capitalist system have always been transnational, so it’s no surprise that a debate about building skyscrapers would appeal to ideas about managing the masses and proper urban development that were in global circulation at the time. It’s less clear how this fascinating example contributes to a new way of doing art and architectural history of the region. In the case of the Soros network, the global dimensions of the open society’s ideological project is undeniable and certainly worth considering, particularly as it signals an important explanatory connection between certain artists’ strong support for individualism and autonomy under state socialism (as was the case for most unofficial/non-state-sponsored/non-conforming artists across the Eastern bloc and the USSR) and their seemingly ready integration of Western-style art institutions and the global contemporary art world. What Nagy’s account of cultural hegemony leaves out, however, is the texture of that local art scene and a clear picture of the nature of its artistic production, particularly the “local canon” (p. 61) that fell by the wayside during the transition. In both cases, rather than producing a new way of seeing East European artistic practices, the “globalizing” framework obscures what is particular about each phenomenon under discussion.

Hock’s introduction covers an impressive amount of conceptual ground for anyone interested in the recent historiographical trends of East European art history. The volume would perhaps have benefitted from a more detailed discussion of the kinds of important institutional capacity-building projects—collections, digital resources, translations of primary and secondary resources, or academic research projects—that connect East European art to a global network of researchers and of which readers not primarily working in or on Eastern Europe may not be aware. (Several are mentioned in the footnotes.) More importantly, the geographic and chronological focuses of the volume as a whole are somewhat lopsided: nearly half of the chapters deal with material from the Polish lands, while the Balkans, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia/USSR, and the Baltics are either missing or mentioned only briefly. The editors explain that they refrained from seeking comprehensive coverage of the region so as not to “reify its supposed alterity” (p. 8), but in practice, it is a real lost opportunity, since any number of examples of art under “socialist self-management,” the cultural policies of the Non-Aligned Movement, Romanian dictatorship, or contemporary Ukraine (to name just a few arbitrary examples) would surely have provided opportunities to explore an even greater variety of methodological interventions.

Likewise, the chronological emphasis on postwar and post-socialist material with some early modern and early 20th-century material leaves little space for the 19th century, prewar modernism, and the interwar years—all periods of intense transnational activity for Eastern Europe. The editors chalk the decision up to Hock’s involvement with another publication on the topic of East-Central European modernism, but again, it is an important opportunity lost.(Beáta Hock, Klara Kemp-Welch, and Jonathan Owen, eds., A Reader in East-Central European Modernism, 1918-1956 (London: The Courtauld Institute of Art, 2019),

The project of globalizing East European art histories is undoubtedly an important one, since mainstream art history, from Giorgio Vasari to Clement Greenberg to many of the most recent survey textbooks, has always been marred by Eurocentric distortions. As the editors of this volume point out, art historians dealing with East-Central Europe find themselves in a strange and potentially interesting in-between place with respect to the project of global art history: How to provincialize Europe from the position of its own margins? How to deconstruct power while existing, however precariously, within its wider conceptual sphere of influence? This is the problem implicitly posed by the volume, and while the authors neither converge on one model of global art history nor uniformly succeed in addressing these questions directly, the collection serves as a useful series of starting-off points for further consideration of the global dimensions of East European art. Particularly notable is the essay by Alpesh Kantilal Patel, in which he turns to the idea of “minor transnationalism” to bring into conversation a video by the Asian American artist Tina Takemoto and an installation by the Estonian Jaanus Samma, both of which address the archival gaps associated with LGBTQI subjects and identities from the past.

So, when does the task of globalizing East European art histories reach its limit? When does the “local is global” framework cease to provide explanatory power? Take the Moldovan artist Tatiana Fiodorova’s performance I Go (2010), as described in Amy Bryzgel’s essay on East European performance artists whose works thematize identity and transnational movement in the context of globalization. In response to the rejection of her UK visa application, Fiodorova carried out a performance walk through Chișinău and past the UK embassy while in blackface and carrying a blue plaid raffia bag embroidered with the gold stars of the EU flag. Bryzgel’s essay reproduces a photograph of the smiling Fiodorova with the city’s mayor, but fails to comment on the way that the circulation of similar blackface souvenir images continues to perpetuate violently racist attitudes in both Eastern and Western Europe.

The simplistic analogy between the cultural racism of West European travel restrictions on East European migrants and refugees and the violent history of enslavement and continued racism against people of African descent, fails to enlighten. Instead of honing in on Moldova’s post-Soviet economic situation to complicate our understanding of Eastern Europe’s relationship to the European Union, migration, and the global labor market, Fiodorova’s gesture deploys blackface and the Gastarbeiter’s bag as signifiers of marginalized status without examining the material differences between an African migrant’s life-threatening constraints and the artist’s own condition of relative privilege. This unfortunate work demonstrates the danger of putting on the “global” as an easy label that grants one access to a discursive economy of marginalized subjecthood without interrogating the actual nature of neoliberal globalization and different subjects’ relationships to, and conditions within, it.

And here the difference between globalizing and decolonizing art histories comes into clearer view. Removing the structuring hierarchies in our thinking about art history (as this volume defines the work of globalizing) can draw out new conceptual connections between diverse practices and phenomena (such as the aforementioned piece by Patel). However, to do so without recognizing the violence of globalization’s neoliberal flows of labor and capital as unevenly distributed between West and East, North and South (strongly thematized by many of the artists in Joanna Sokołowska’s essay) undermines the critical force of this new model. Without an accounting of the power differentials and often violent histories that have brought us to the present moment (the work of decolonizing that is being called for now), Eurocentrism will continue to exert its force on our ways of thinking and being in the world. If we are to take seriously the editors’ claim that “the margin [is] a valuable, even privileged, epistemic location” (p. 7), then we must be able to recognize that privilege and use it.

Yelena Kalinsky
Yelena Kalinsky is an art historian and translator based in East Lansing, MI. She is the co-editor and co-translator (with Brian Droitcour) of Andrei Monastyrski: Elementary Poetry (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019).