Globalizing the Avant-Garde

Review of the conference organized by the European Network for Avant-Garde and Modernism Studies (EAM) in Lisbon, September 1–3, 2022

Since 2008, the roving biennial conferences of the European Network for Avant-Garde and Modernism Studies (EAM) have promoted the study of the avant-garde and modernism in Europe in a wide temporal and disciplinary framework, setting leading themes such as “High and Low“ (2010 Poznań), “Utopia” (2014 Helsinki), or “CRiSiS” in 2020. The mission statement and communications of the Network have always stressed the transnational aspects of avant-garde practices and indicated that Europe is to be considered in a global setting. It was nevertheless the 2022 conference in Lisbon that first explicitly addressed the global dimension of the avant-garde phenomenon. Although the founding congress (2008, Ghent) bore the title “Europa! Europa?,” the question mark at the end profoundly questioned the continent’s centrality in art historical narratives. Rather, the event sought to pluralize the European artistic landscape, drawing both culturally central and peripheral regions in the sphere of inquiry. Another way in which the question mark sought to complicate received views on the early 20th century was asking which and what Europe the continent’s various cultural groups had wanted to renew and revolutionize: how did the projects of the cosmopolitan avant- and the conservative arrière-garde differ or converge?

The eighth conference in 2022 took as its starting point the recognition that avant-garde and modernist artists have greatly contributed to the ever-increasing degree of global connectedness. Partly with a view to this—as well as to the transnational and cosmopolitan character of avant-garde aesthetics and practice—the Call for Papers for the conference already implicitly and explicitly challenged the relevance or indeed veracity of nationally framed narratives and (retrospectively) nationally anchored identities. The conveners also solicited reflections on the persistent Eurocentrism of both the European avant-gardes themselves and their canonized histories.(The program of the conference is available here.) This review aspires to reconstruct the sorts of methodological, theoretical, and empirical input or innovative propositions the presentations on Central and Eastern Europe utilized in response to the task identified in the congress’s title: globalizing the avant-garde.

Configurations to transcend the “national container”

Given the specific goal of this academic event, there were very few panels explicitly focusing on a single national context. The juxtaposition of papers was seldom based on a facile lumping of national or regional cultures together, but rather on some common theme. One might argue, for example, that in the case of the panel “Hungarian Foundations,” this shared intent was exploring the peculiarities of creating art in exile. Imre József Balázs’s talk featured post-World War II émigré writers (Árpád Mezei, József Bakucz, Imre Pán) and their strategies to produce works that were also accessible to their new foreign-language audience. Imre Pán, for instance, manipulated texts by French philosophers, turning them into poetic pieces. Balázs did not number this maneuver among Pán’s greatest aesthetic achievements, but rather highlighted it as a telling detail of the exiled artist’s condition—something that may not be of great relevance when viewed from the perspective of canonical national (in this case, Hungarian) art history. If so, transnationalizing historical accounts may amount to throwing into relief exactly such issues, which only gain importance in a non-national framing.

Finding ways to collaboratively publish not only with other exiled Hungarians but also with authors of other nationalities was another way that multilingual émigrés transcended the boundaries of national culture, argued Balázs. His co-panelist, Gábor Bednanics tracked how immigration to Vienna in 1920 turned self-taught Lajos Kassák into an artist of the international avant-garde through absorbing influences from artists based in renowned artistic centers. Now, a critical rethinking of art historiography has already revealed that focusing on influences when inscribing peripheral artists into a pre-given hierarchical disciplinary narrative is not the best methodological way to transnationalize that narrative. The Q&A for this panel nevertheless witnessed an instructive debate on whether Kassák, speaking only his native Hungarian, was at all capable of seeking international collaborations. Here, the view that he remained isolated due to this deficiency was countered by new research results demonstrating his links to the Freie jüdische Volksbühne.

Highlighting the transnational professional trajectories of individual artists or their ways of transferring cultural practices or visual elements across borders and continents was another avenue frequently explored, for instance in the panel, “The Avant-Garde and the Vernacular: Interrelations in Architecture.” Regina Stephan talked about Joseph Maria Olbrich and Erich Mendelsohn, who both transferred vernacular architectural forms from Tunisia and the Middle East to Northwestern Europe.

Ernesto Vendries Bray and Ulrich Knufinke discussed architects Leopold Rother and Zdenko von Strizic, who similarly originated from what we today call East-Central Europe. They, too, exhibited an impressive degree of intercontinental mobility and networking when disseminating the techniques of the European architectural avant-garde. While doing so, they took into serious consideration local ornamentation, as well as climatic and landscape conditions, as early as the 1920s and 30s.

Mobility and forced or voluntary migration were the explicit cornerstones of the double section “From Emigrant and War Refugee to International Avant-garde Artist.” With the aim to insert a non-core area into the known geography of the avant-garde, the panels focused on a number of artists of Lithuanian origin (or one-time residents of cities belonging to today’s Lithuania) who became notable figures in the international art scene throughout the past century, such as Marianne von Werefkin, Władysław Strzemiński, Aleksandra Kasuba, Jonas Mekas and Jurgis Mačiūnas / George Maciunas, among others. Two further sessions on the Nordic countries and on “Czech Matters,” respectively, followed a similar strategy of re-inscription. The latter panel, however, pretty much missed the aspect of globalization, falling back on nationality as a common denominator. Yet, Zuzana Říhová’s paper gave a twist to this insularity: she related how translations of Anglophone modernist literature throughout the 1940s often took place without a precise knowledge of English. This practice signaled Czech poets’ abstract desire for a foreign land and culture other than that of the German occupier. Other panels grouped talks with a focus on several different national contexts together in order to expand the well-known purview of a phenomenon such as Futurism through the inclusion of Australian, Argentine, Romanian, or Serbian artists.

I personally found the most conceptually fruitful (as in the most incisively performing the task of globalizing the avant-garde) sections to be those in which presentations on several national case studies were brought together to explore a shared problem or thesis. Such was the intention of the panel “Avant-garde with an Accent: Modernism’s Entanglements between the Global and the Local.” The speakers took “accent” as a metaphor for a non-dominant mode of cultural production emerging from the specific positions of migrant or minority artists or those relatively secluded in rural areas. Adri Kácsor discussed Hungarian communist migrant artists’ and theorists’ impact on Soviet culture in the 1920s. Kácsor argued that some of them (Béla Uitz, János Mácza/Ivan Mátsa) successfully mobilized their foreignness as a unique position from which to disseminate knowledge about the latest trends of the European avant-gardes, including aesthetic practices disapproved of in dominant Soviet discourses. Bart Pushaw invited his audience to contemplate the avant-garde visual strategies of three indigenous artists from the interwar Arctic (Appa from Canada, Steffen Møller from Greenland, and Charles Menadelook from Alaska). In that time of peaking assimilation politics and language enforcement, an accent could be a mark of shame, yet it could also function as a strategy of resilience on the part of native modernists. In such contexts, even stylistic conservatism could carry avant-garde attitudes, the speaker added. Julia Secklehner posed the question, “How can we think of a modernism that is not metropolitan?” and, in replying to it, she spoke of forms of a rural-inspired modernism in post-1918 Slovak art. Perceptively noting that the rural flavor, habitually interpreted as an expression of national identity, in fact drew on Slovak artists’ lived reality. Hence, blending the imagery of international surrealism and local folk traditions, as seen in Imro Weiner-Král’s oeuvre, for example, appears as an aesthetically consistent choice. Furthermore, one source of this blending turns out to be not so much a reliance on national identity, as on ethnic diversity.

Assertions like the one above work to dissolve facile stereotypes, such as the mechanical conflation of the vernacular, rural, and folkish with the national, and the association of the local or national with the nationalist. Diana Wasilewska, for example, readily relied on a narrative that directly links a strong attachment to national culture to right-wing convictions (in interwar Poland in her case), and hence was stunned to observe that “even young artists” and centrist journalists advocated this idiom. Jane Eckett in turn did not fail to recognize that cultural nationalism was imperative to newly independent states, like interbellum Lithuania or Poland, understandably framing the self-understanding of their citizens. Being exposed to foreign influences (for instance, through exile) certainly induced the gradual disruption of the cultural nationalist narrative, Eckett’s paper concluded.(As the author could not attend the congress, the paper was read by a co-panelist in her absence.)

Widening geographies, lateral networks, and shifting political grounds

The exploration of intercultural connections and supranationally emerging artistic styles as well as the portrayal of artists or art professionals as cosmopolitan multiplicators have long belonged to the most axiomatic disciplinary tasks of art history. Yet, the limitations and exclusions of art history’s supposedly international perspective needed to be exposed, and part of the recent globalizing urge is geared to deliver correctives. Art historical accounts of modernism, the avant-garde, and the neo-avant-garde have been not only largely limited to the Euro-Atlantic core, but also to events and personalities in the metropolises of this restricted landscape. Shifting the focus to (former) colonies and rural areas, situated at varying distance from the centers of modernist progress, broadens this limited view.

Tiit Hennoste’s talk grew out of an exploration of the fluctuation of Estonian futurism between avant-garde and “indigenous.” In doing so, he buttressed Harsha Ram’s thesis on the kind of strategies with which non-Italian Futurists set out to redefine the cosmopolitan tropes of modernity. Russian futurists, Ram asserts, shored up their own brand of Eurasian multiculturalism as a source of artistic innovation.(Harsha Ram, “Futurist Geographies: Uneven Modernities and the Struggle for Aesthetic Autonomy: Paris, Italy, Russia, 1909-1914,” in The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms, ed. Mark Wollaeger (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 313–340.) In Hennoste’s Estonian case study, it was the conscious use of non-standard (rural) dialects that served to disrupt conventional signification in Futurist texts. The panel “Shifting Futures,” in which this talk appeared, proved to be an exceptionally coherent one. The four presentations discussed modernist practice in semi-peripheral cosmopolitan contexts like Portugal or the Italian Futurists’ extended playgrounds in Egypt or Fiume.(In some national/linguistic contexts, including that of Anglo-American academia, the terms modernism and avant-garde are used almost interchangeably or viewed in a pars pro toto relation, as both look at, and think about, the world from a novel perspective, both reject conservative values and are oriented toward innovation and experimentation. While modernism tends to celebrate modern society, historical avant-garde movements within the context of modernism frequently express radicalized views on political and social change. This amalgamation is also made evident in the name of the network convening this conference.) In connection with the latter two territories, Giulia Beatrice and Ana-Maria Milčić showed how the Futurists’ vision of an international revolution was entrenched in Italian imperialism and a state-bound understanding of identity, and how Marinetti & Co. failed to engage with the ethnically and culturally mixed local communities; communities that were already inhabiting more fluid identities. Furthermore, the Q&A for this panel yielded spontaneous theorizing about the need to distinguish between organic and romantic nature when contemplating which nature the machine-loving Futurists (e.g. Marinetti) dreaded as a dark force or mad dog. Several other contributions and panels spoke to the center-periphery relation as a distinction between dominating metropolitan and rural, vernacular, indigenous, colonial, or aboriginal cultures.(The latter aspect, looking beyond Europe and represented by panels like “African Vanguards,” “An Oceanic Avant-Garde?” or “Indigenous Energies,” is necessarily downplayed in the current review with its own focus set on contributions on and from East-Central Europe.) In the panel “Uncivilized,” Marina Protrka Štimec interpreted Yugoslav Zenitism’s embrace of barbarism and primitivism as interwar bohemians’ refusal of Western civilization with its corresponding social rules and utilitarianism.

Theoretical or methodological deliberations were naturally much expected from the two keynote talks, and both fulfilled the promise, albeit in distinctly different ways. In his speech “The Globalization of the Avant-Garde: A User’s Manual,” British artist and art historian Paul Wood pondered over various definitions and understandings of the avant-garde across time, concluding that 21st-century Eastern European activist art produced in self-proclaimed illiberal democracies may just be the contemporary incarnation of the politically engaged strand of the historical avant-garde. Wood also engaged in a lengthy polemical response to Sascha Bru’s book The European Avant-Gardes, 1905–1935: A Portable Guide (2018), reflecting on the “emerging orthodoxy of post-colonial criticism and identity politics” throughout.

While practically all the references Wood cited during his survey credited white Western authors only, one cannot blame him for losing sight of recent debates around the idea of a global art studies. The title of his monograph Western Art and the Wider World (2013) may, however, disclose an aspect of the problem he seemingly has with recent innovative scholarship—and the problem most of his audience had with his keynote address. Taking into account the “wider world” apparently only makes sense for Wood for the purpose of rectifying the legacies of colonialism. This is of course a respectable intention, part of it is nevertheless erroneous. If the rest of the world is only worth considering in relation to (the vices of) the West, we are facing the reproduction of global narratives that are still Eurocentric. Intriguingly enough, Wood himself meant to similarly expose a fallacy, the way in which current advocates of identity politics often get caught up in an uncritical acceptance of the global spread of neoliberal capitalism, failing to grasp the material dimensions of neocolonial relations. His tangible example for “cultural washing” was Kara Walker’s installation in the Tate Modern (Fons Americanus, 2019), which explores the violent racial politics of the British Empire. During the production of the large-scale sculpture-fountain, the use of non-recyclable materials and harmful substances was, for the most part, avoided. At the same time, the piece was commissioned by Hyundai, a company known for unscrupulously obliterating local fishing communities when setting up a new factory requires it.

The second keynote by Ming Tiampo, titled “Pluriversal Avant-gardism: Unworlding, Reworlding, and Worlding the Avant-Garde,” fleshed out the type of theoretical-methodological exercise that each (art) historian of non-core world regions ought to undertake if they want to avoid simply submitting to the modernist (Western) canon and the knowledge received with it.(My own grappling with the issue is laid out in the chapter “Constructing and Bringing Gendered Identities into Representation,” in Beáta Hock, Gendered Creative Options and Social Voices: Politics, Cinema and the Visual Arts in State-socialist and Post-socialist Hungary (Stuttgart: Steiner, 2013), pp. 15–45.) Tiampo’s tackling of this “homework” was all the more so engaging as the Asian contexts she outlined—India, Japan, China—arguably share several features with Eastern Europe’s status in the art historical canon. The Progressive Artists’ Group in mid-century Bombay, for example, came of age in a peculiar constellation of colonialism in which a full-scale rejection of the colonizer’s culture was not viable. The specter of self-colonization apparently also haunts Asian artists and thinkers, only it is expressed differently: whatever your legal freedoms might be, you exist socially and epistemically under the constant hunch that “you’d been born as a slave.” Regarding one’s own local modernism as a phenomenon implicated in larger global flows, rather than being some sort of idiosyncratic or isolated national/regional specificity was another lesson worth taking with us to Eastern Europe. The way the speaker described “cultural mercantilism”(For a full discussion see Tiampo’s writings on Gutai: Decentering Modernism (Chicago University Press, 2011) or “Cultural Mercantilism: Modernism’s Means of Production,” in Globalization and Contemporary Art, ed. Jonathan Harris (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), pp. 212–224.)—an immoral exercise of power to exclude non-Western artists from the modernist narrative, which plainly impoverishes this narrative—resonates, again, with East-Central European resentments. Thinking art history transversally allows for bringing into meaningful relation locations that have not been in observable contact, and thus makes space for appreciating less obvious connections and lateral networks.

Tiampo illustrated a sovereign way of breaking with the dominance of Euro-American ways of thinking and the primacy of such forefathers through an anecdote. This story describes a creative gesture also typical of Eastern European conceptual artists. Ushio Shinohara, notorious for his “imitation art” in the early 1960s, made a copy of Robert Rauschenberg’s Coca-Cola Plan (1958) and presented his copy to Rauschenberg when the American visited Japan some years later. Rauschenberg clearly interpreted this gesture as an homage and responded with delight, “My son, my son!” He was less pleased, however, when Shinohara admitted that he had actually made ten such copies. The Japanese artist thereby both undermined the value of Coca-Cola Plan as an original, and disclosed Rauschenberg’s insistence on his status as the original individual artist. He defeated Rauschenberg on home turf, so to speak.

Beáta Hock
Beáta Hock, Ph.D. is currently Senior Researcher of the department “Entanglements and Globalisation” at the Leibniz Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe (GWZO), Leipzig. Her areas of research and teaching include East-Central European art and art history, feminist cultural theory, and the cultural dimensions of the global Cold War. These subjects have been addressed in Hock’s monograph Gendered Creative Options and Social Voices (Stuttgart, 2013) and in Doing Culture under SocialismActors, Events, and Interconnections (Comparativ, no. 4), a journal issue she edited in 2014. The perspectives of global history generally inform Ms. Hock’s research output on the art and cultural history of Eastern Europe, including the co-edited volume Globalizing East European Art Histories: Past and Present, 2018). In the academic year 2015–16 Beata was visiting professor at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London; in the Winter semester 2021/22 she was Käthe Leichter Visiting Professor in Gender Studies at the University of Vienna. From 2022 she is project lead of Linking Art Worlds: American Art and Eastern Europe in the Cold War and Since, a travelling seminar series jointly supported by the Getty Foundation and the Terra Foundation of American Art. Beata works as independent curator; her latest co-curated exhibition Left Performance Histories was on view in Berlin’s nGbK in 2018.