Piotr Piotrowski, “In the Shadow of Yalta” (Book Review)


In the Shadow of Yalta. Art and Avant-Garde in Eastern Europe 1945-1989, the long-awaited English translation of Piotr Piotrowski’s 2004 book, boasts of a well-chosen title not only for its descriptive qualities, but also because it refers to the rather dark and indistinct history of a particular portion of Eastern Europe: the area falling under the Soviet regime following the Yalta Agreement in 1945. Piotrowski begins his story in 1948, the year that Stalin tightened his grip on the territories in question and, with the stroke of a pen, brought all ongoing cultural developments and debates to a devastating halt.

Though a thorough examination of the output of artists facing political upheaval, Piotrowski’s book must also deal with the issue of the geography of Eastern Europe, which constitutes one of the theoretical undercurrents of the book and frames his entire discussion. The challenge of creating a clear-cut definition of Eastern Europe is apparent throughout the book and, furthermore, is not so easily dispensed with; pure geography does not work adequately, as political realities rarely accorded with geographical boundaries.  For instance, the former Yugoslavia is widely considered to be part of the region but was, in fact, politically-speaking, non-aligned and affiliated with India and Egypt rather than the Soviet Union. Piotrowski, however, correctly senses the importance of including Yugoslavia in any history of the region, either cultural or political.  Austria, on the other hand, is not included in his book, even though it was under Soviet occupation until 1955, and held strong historical and cultural ties to the former territories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The book is organized chronologically while the various contemporaneous cultural trends are sorted out in different thematic sub-chapters. The transitional period between 1945 and 1948, what Piotrowski calls “the Surrealist interregnum,” constitutes the first part of the book and is followed by the second major unit “Modernism and Totalitarianism,” which takes the reader up to 1968. This section examines Art Informel geometric abstraction, “Un-Socialist Realism,” and the emergence of mixed media and conceptual works at the expense of the classical medium of oil painting. Part three, “The Neo-Avant-Garde and ‘Real Socialism’ in the 1970s” surveys the conceptual tendencies, art movements, and outstanding artists of the decade, walking the reader through the major artistic centers of the region. It focuses on political dissent and the rich varieties of artistic responses to oppression.

Telling a comprehensive narrative of the visual arts in post-World War II Eastern Europe is an enormous challenge that makes Piotrowski’s undertaking nothing short of heroic. Countries with different histories, languages, and cultural traditions were thrown into the same historical and political cauldron after 1945 and it seems unlikely that there was a single artist or cultural agent anywhere between the GDR and Bulgaria who could have claimed to possess an integrated “Eastern European” consciousness. The geographical ambiguities of the area had far-reaching effects.  Indeed, the term “East European art”  does not originate in Eastern Europe at all,(For this argument, see Éva Forgács, “How the New Left Invented East-European Art,” Centropa, v. 3, No. 2, May 2003, 93-104.) a fact that makes Piotrowski’s chapter on regional art history all the more admirable.

The heterogeneity of the region and the variety of developments and life stories bring about logistical dilemmas: Can artists who once lived in Eastern Europe but immigrated into a Western country still be counted as Eastern Europeans? Or does the term pertain only to that part of their careers that unfolded in their country of their origin? These questions arise as a result of the conflict between a geographically ambiguous experience and an overly-defined and homogeneous political context; artists who were even temporarily relieved from the pressure and threats faced by their colleagues at home could not be said to have had the same Eastern European experience. Physical presence in the region is an important factor because, as Piotrowski points out, one of the most crucial experiences within Eastern Europe was the array of limitations on self-expression, restrictions on the public exhibition of art, and the relative impossibility or difficulty of passage from Eastern Europe to other parts of the world.

While the structure of the book lends itself gracefully to Piotrowski’s discussions of the theoretical and political undercurrents that he sensibly identifies in East European art, it nevertheless allows for certain distortions, for example in the treatment of Hungarian art., The author adopts the view that there existed a “Hungarian Pop Art” parallel to the English and American trends. There is, however, no consensus about the truth of this conclusion among Hungarian art historians. The claim that Pop Art existed in a society unfamiliar with consumerism and lacking in both consumption-driven popular culture and a commercial  art market – in the absence of which no criticism of those trends could develop – might have alerted the author to be more critical of such an argument. “Hungarian Pop Art” referenced such international icons as Marilyn Monroe or Joseph Beuys rather than local household names or other neo-avant-garde artists reflecting on their isolation from the rest of the culture. How could such an open, all-inclusive, trivia-loving, and market-thrilled trend as Pop Art have developed in an oppressed and closed-off country? How could remote allusions to Western icons and methods be understood as a full-fledged local version of that trend?

A book like In the Shadow of Yalta inevitably causes disagreement among its readers as to what is left out; Piotrowski is one of the best-informed scholars in this field and yet his choices are not always balanced. It remains to be seen if a completely objective, even-handed overview of the East European art scene is even possible. Nonetheless, it cannot escape notice that while Polish, Hungarian and East German art are discussed in great detail, accounts on Yugoslavian, Romanian and Bulgarian art are comparatively superficial. Such an imbalance may well reflect the reality of artistic production in the region but does not completely fulfill the promise of the title. The quality of the publication itself leaves much to be desired; most particularly the book sorely suffers from the lack of an editor who might have caught misprints, and would have cut such clear errors as the phrase “the populist ideology of Béla Bartók”.

Furthermore, Piotrowski neglects to mention the stunning achievements in textile art of the 1960s and ’70s as well as the fascinating history attached to these developments. Sincetextiles were not endorsed as representative high art by State authorities, artists received less attention from censors and, by the ’70s, textile art had become one of the most inventive, innovative, and radical mediums in most East European countries.  Their surge in popularity can be attributed not only to the lack of censorship, but also to the worldwide development of textile art and to the international exposure made possible by frequent biennials, triennials, workshops, and solo exhibitions. This international interest integrated the textile art of Eastern Europe into the fabric of Western art like no other movement in the region at that time. It was in the medium of textiles that the careers of artists like the Pole Magdalena Abakanowicz, the Romanian Ana Lupas, the Hungarian Margit Szilvitzky and Zsuzsa Szenes, to name but a few, were launched.

I sorely missed mention of some of the central figures of the 1960s and ‘70s Hungarian art world such as the painters Ilona Keserü, László Méhes, and the sculptor István Haraszty, all of whom seem to have been eliminated to make way for Endre Tót, an interesting but relatively minor figure of the period.  While it is certainly necessary to put the fine arts into the broader context of the visual arts, if the great theater work of the Polish painter and theater artist Tadeusz Kantor is discussed in detail, then Hungarian alternative theater groups led by Péter Halász and István Bálint, László Najmányi and Tamás Fodor respectively, which played key roles in the Budapest neo-avant-garde in the late 1960s and early 1970s, also deserve to be mentioned. The same goes for the Lódź Workshop of Film and the exclusion of the Béla Balázs Studio, where Hungarian artists, including Tamás Szentjóby, Dóra Maurer, Miklós Erdély, Ágnes Háy, and Péter Donát made their experimental films.

While Piotrowski correctly identifies the artists and art groups of Eastern Europe, his use of the term “neo-avant-garde” as synonymous with “post-modern” is somewhat confusing. Given the wide variety of literature and sharp debates on this issue, it would be safe to say that use of the term “neo-avant-garde” differs in Western and Eastern contexts. In the West, the neo-avant-garde was the product of a paradoxical development – namely “that the story of art within the new politics of the 1960s [was] one of considerable ambivalence as artists attempted to reconcile their stance of opposition with increasing support for their activities in a new and aggressive global marketplace (…) and the ambivalent fascination felt by audiences for the work of dissident artists”, as Thomas Crow described it.(Thomas Crow, The Rise of the Sixties, New York: Abrams, 1996, 12-13.) The post-World War II generation accused the classic avant-garde of institutionalization and selling out, giving up its critical position for the power and status warranted by the museums and the market. The neo-avant-garde was critical of this position as well as of actual institutional power. In Eastern Europe, by contrast, the position of the historical avant-garde remained the same.  As Hungarian art historian Géza Perneczky explained, in the absence of money, success, and institutional acclaim, the avant-garde remained in opposition with its symbolism remaining unfailingly relevant.(Géza Perneczky, “A fekete négyzettől a pszeudo kockáig. Kisérlet a kelet-európai avant-garde tipológiájának megalapozására” (“From the black square to the pseudo cube. An attempt to laying the groundwork for a typology of East European art”) Magyar Műhely, Vol. 16, No. 56/57, Dec. 1978, 27-45.) The new generation of the 1960s had the same revolutionary spirit and faith in the redemptive power of the classic avant-garde art while testing the political boundaries in the 1960s and ’70s.

Present throughout the book and most explicitly in the epilogue is Piotrowski’s argument that globalization and the World Wide Web exist as agents of the power of the West that in fact colonizes the rest of the world. He suggests that the firm de facto presence of other regions, particularly Eastern Europe with its full geographic reality, might at least reveal the truth about this state of affairs: “Since the virtualization of space is becoming an instrument of the center’s dominance, the introduction of a geographic dimension deprives the center of its theoretical alibi and reveals the center-based character of globalization and multiculturalism.”(Piotr Piotrowsky, In the Shadow of Yalta. Art and the Avant-Garde in Eastern Europe 1945-1989, London: Reaktion Books, Ltd.,  2009, 420.)  While this point is often voiced in critical theory and in writings about Eastern Europe, it should be noted that East European art historians including Piotrowski consistently tell the history of classic modernism in Eastern Europe in terms of Western developments – Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Dada, Surreralism, and so on. The second section of Piotrowski’s book adopts precisely this method, using terms such as neo-avant-garde, pop art, gender, the body, the critique of consumerism, intertextuality, colonization, or globalization – and ultimately judging the culture of Eastern Europe according to these Western criteria. For better or for worse, Piotrowski’s discussion of East European art has been adjusted to the ongoing mainstream discourse on Western art. Until a distinct East European critical vocabulary emerges, this strategy incorrectly affirms that the art and culture of Eastern Europe has been derivative of that of the West throughout its entire cultural history.

Perhaps in an effort to assert a non-Western identity, groups such as Neue Slowenische Kunst in Ljubljana (discussed in the epilogue) have come to use the language of totalitarian symbols in order to drive home a point about the East European experience. While not a subtle language, the message is clear.  Culturally, there was nothing that the West could have done to help the political and economic reality of Eastern Europe. A glaring example is an episode I witnessed in Vienna during the 1987 exhibition Expressive: Central European Art since 1960, a show important enough to be mentioned by Piotrowski. At the time, the term “Central European” was new, a novel concept for the Austrians, so the hosts pronounced it gingerly as a proof of recognition instead of the more condescending “Eastern European.” Neat and tidy in three piece suits and seated behind a long table covered by a well-ironed cloth, they encouraged the artists to make requests: What kind of help could they use best? What could the hosts do for them? Grants, fellowships, organizational issues? Climate control in exhibition rooms? A solo show, anyone? After a long silence the Polish artist Jerzy Bereś, unshaven, wearing a stained polo and somewhat inebriated, stood up and started to speak in Polish. “Give him a mike – where is a mike? Pass it to him!” But once Bereś got started, he was no longer interested in the mike. Finally, the translator communicated the loud and angry monologue to those behind the table: “The Russians!” Bereś shouted. “Get the Russians out of here!” Political freedom was not on the list of assistances offered by the hosts, and the well-intentioned meeting came to an abrupt and hopeless end. Truth spelled scandal. The abyss between the East and the West was unbridgeable, even under the new name of Central Europe.

Piotrowski’s book is dense with information and, while reading it, one realizes that the history of post-World War II East European art simply cannot be squeezed into one volume. Ultimately, the book is an ambitious attempt at objectivity that nonetheless presents some of the key events and artworks of the period selectively.  All things considered, Piotrowski’s book is a major contribution to scholarship on Eastern Europe and is a treasure trove of facts, organized and sorted out in a way that has not been done before. It is a groundwork that many later publications will build on.

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