Jeremy Howard, “East European Art 1650-1950” (Book Review)

East European Art 1650-1950. Jeremy Howard. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006., 258 pp.

“The aim here,” states Jeremy Howard in his introduction, “is a redefinition of what may be considered the art of eastern Europe.” Ambitious enough, one might think, but he goes on to proclaim that the book should “at least partially, deconstruct some of the prevailingnotions and myths of what comprises European art per se.”(Jeremy Howard, East European Art 1650-1950, (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 1. Original emphasis retained.) Clearly, the author has set out to write a work of some considerable scholarship. Yet he attempts a challenging task, to map out 300 years of art history across the varied geographical and cultural landscape called Eastern Europe.(Such breadth of enquiry is not unusual for the Oxford History of Art series: for example, their volume on art in China spans the Neolithic to the present day. Craig Clunas, Art in China, (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). 256 pp.) As Howard points out there is relatively little English language review on East European art from this period, and as such the volume’s publication is overdue.

The question perhaps for such a survey is to find an appropriate focus, a viewpoint from which to structure discussion. Howard takes as his starting point two of the dominant empires of the period in question – Austrian and Russian – and the influence of the Academies of Vienna and St Petersburg upon the development of art across their respective territories. This approach allows the author to explore interrelationships between the fortunes and political machinations of various states, as well as the artists practicing under their jurisdiction. Howard’s enquiry ranges across art forms: painting, sculpture, architecture, the applied arts, photography, and performance are all examined. He writes with some considerable skill, interweaving the endeavors of numerous artists and their patrons into a narrative which is genuinely informative, whilst retaining a lightness of touch in the telling which propels the reader forward into the text.

The other main aspect is Howard’s project to redress the balance in favor of under represented cultures of art and to fill gaps in existing knowledge on the subject. Thus the reader gains the impression that the author is putting the case for the overlooked, the forgotten, and ignored figures of art history. The principal expression of this approach is to devote two chapters to women artists, comprising nearly half the book. This in itself is an important and valuable contribution to the body of writing available on this subject. It also highlights Howard’s unconventional stance: not only has he largely eschewed traditional divisions along lines of nationality or artistic movements, but also attempted to unseat the forces of patriarchal hegemony along the way. That the author is quite explicit in these aims is admirable, and the end result is a richly complex history replete with discoveries, at least for this reviewer. Shifting the focus to women also allows the text to delve into areas beyond the purview of the aforementioned academies, a necessary step as until the early twentieth century women artists had little or no access to state academic training.

In addition to well known icons of the Soviet era such as Vera Mukhina’s Worker and Collective Farm Labourer (1937), Howard looks at artworks by women who are not so conspicuous, even when their works are just as recognizable: notable is the Bronze Horseman monument to Peter the Great in St Petersburg (1766-82), created by Marie-Anne Collot and Étienne-Maurice Falconet for Catherine the Great. Another is Nineteenth century Serbian painter Katarina Ivanovic, described as “eastern Europe’s first in situ woman history painter.”(Howard, 109.) Her role as an art collector was also significant: the donation of Ivanovic’s collection is credited with helping to establish Belgrade’s National Museum.

Howard’s emphasis on the under-examined also means that, for example, discussion veers away from Austria to look at Slovakia and Hungary. He also analyses key artists and works across history included in the St Petersburg orbit, seeking to demonstrate progression rather than disjuncture from the early days of the academy’s foundation to the avant-gardes of the fledgling Soviet Union.

The impact the of the academies, both in appointing distinguished academicians from Western Europe and developing diverse artistic talents, is demonstrated amply. Examples are the famous “mad” sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt and his “character heads” (c.1770-83), produced in what is now Bratislava; the neoclassical St Petersburg Bourse, designed by Jean Thomas de Thomson (1810); Howard’s comparison of Mikhail Tikhanov’s seminal painting, The Execution of Russian Patriots by the French in 1812 (1813) with Goya’s The Executions of the Third of May, 1808 (1814); Alexander Rodchenko’s photomontage Comrades Stalin, Voroshilov and Kirov on the White Sea-Baltic Canal (1913). Such eloquent works convey the abundance of forms of expression that emerged throughout this period.

Much of the pleasure of reading this book is derived from the author’s continual discussion and analysis of specific artworks. His classic art historical approach leaves little room for theoretical speculations or generalizing. Indeed one is sometimes left with the impression that Howard would have liked to introduce more art to the reader, were it not for lack of space. Nevertheless the underlying thesis remains constant throughout: that through exploring the supposed margins of art history we can reevaluate the status and significance of European art as a whole, and, by extension, European civilization.

If there is one shortcoming, it is the relative lack of information on the influence on art of the third powerful imperial force which occupied much of South East Europe during this period, as well as immediately beforehand: the Ottomans. After all, nine years before the foundation of the Viennese academy Ottoman armies had laid siege to the city. Indeed, the author acknowledges that the cultures of lands newly ceded to Austria by the Ottomans were part of a dynamic that changed the conditions of art production. This point is expanded upon somewhat in the final chapter, an epilogue of sorts which covers the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, drawing together cultural threads which are not discussed at length elsewhere, including art in Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, and Greece. It can be said, of course, that the Ottoman Empire was in decline from the 1700s onwards, but then arguably by the 1900s so were those based in Vienna and Moscow: certainly all three disappeared in the aftermath of the First World War.

While Howard touches upon developments in Istanbul and art in the Balkan region, he acknowledges that his attention lies mostly elsewhere. The founding of an art academy in Istanbul was comparatively late, and the Ottoman Empire does not quite fit the scenario which Howard develops of art academies reflecting increasingly secular, rationalizing empires applying ideas from the Enlightenment. The author’s aim is to describe an essentially modern arc of development in art across Eastern Europe, as the academies guide art away from its ecclesiastical and folkloric origins towards state and market led roles. Seen from this perspective, Ottoman art can be seen as pre-modern, literally epitomizing the Byzantinist and orientalist tendencies Howard explains as largely antithetical to the ideologies of the competing Christian empires.(Howard, 22, 53.). Ironically the iconography of Byzantium was reinstated in the late nineteenth century as Orthodox cathedrals were built in nations emerging from the diminished Ottoman zone of control.(Howard, 199-207.)

In fairness it should be said that the author shows awareness of Ottoman art,(See, for example, the author writing on Ottoman influences in Jeremy Howard, ‘From Baghçesary Salsabil to Bakhchisarai Fountain: The Transference of Tatar Triumph to Tears’, in Jeremy Howard (ed.) By Force or By Will: The Art of External Might and Internal Passion 177-190 (St Andrews: St Andrews University Press, 2002).) and he is sensitive to the processes which transform culture: the connectedness, confluences, and hybridity that effect change, create new languages, forms, and genres; what Howard terms morphology. (Howard, 2.) It may also be pertinent that a forthcoming volume in the same series on Islamic art could cover this area in some detail.(Irene Bierman, Art and Islam, (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).) So this relative absence can be seen as consistent with Howard’s declared aim to steer away from ground already covered, or in this case being explored by a colleague.

As one might expect, the volume is blessed with plentiful high quality illustrations, mostly in color and interspersed throughout the text. Thus the reader may see the qualities of the works under discussion, and appraise them on their own merits. A detailed bibliographical essay is provided and is very useful, as it gathers together much of the English language writing in the field, in entries grouped according to geographical region. The author’s commentary laments the paucity of material in English on the topic, and questions the credentials of many earlier texts, which are frequently characterized as caught in the ideative currents of their respective eras. One could interject here that the author’s own views may be similarly colored, if it were not for the disarming humility with which Howard admits the inevitable omissions and gaps present in this volume.  After all, East European Art is not intended as comprehensive, but rather as a particular viewpoint on a heterogeneous and complex organism.

With the recent translation of Piotrowski’s In The Shadow Of Yalta,(Piotr Piotrowski, In the Shadow of Yalta. Art and Avant-Garde in Eastern Europe 1945-1989, (London: Reaktion Books, 2009). 498 pp.) which looks at the period 1945-1989, and Irwin’s earlier East Art Map,(Irwin (eds.), East Art Map: Contemporary Art and Eastern Europe. (London: Afterall Publishing, 2006). 527pp.) which extends into the art of the post-Communist transition, East European Art 1650-1950 is a complementary representation of the art of the previous three centuries. The book is designed as an introduction and will no doubt find its way into libraries, art schools, and art history departments across the Anglophone world. One test of the effectiveness of such a text is whether or not a reader with some knowledge beyond that of the layman will learn something new from reading it. For this reviewer, Howard’s writing ably succeeds in passing that hurdle. I can only hope that others gain similarly from reading this book. It may yet fulfill the author’s ambition to shed light on areas of artistic activity hitherto neglected by Western art discourse.