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Homeland DecayUmělec 2009/1
Milena Dimitrova | review | en cs de es
The impulse for this article was provided by the magazine’s publisher as we were discussing the books I'd been reading, in search of a general overview of modern art and the modernist avant-gardes of central and Eastern Europe.
My search ended in failure: these books caused only confusion. They did not provide orientation. For one, many countries in southeastern Europe were hardly discussed in any of the works, whether they restricted themselves to Central-East Europe or not. In spite of my own diploma work on Bulgarian Modernism,
I nonetheless found it a hard task to create even a mental picture for myself of southeastern Europe. For another, the individual works from the countries that managed to make their way into the books hardly differed at all from the classic canons of west European modernist and avant-garde artwork. One could well ask whether this was the result of a deliberate selection or simply the available material, since quite often the clearly stated goal of the writings was to promote the universal character of the European avant-garde in toto.
But this is how it appears, as if the art of this era from Eastern Europe were primarily an echoing of tendencies from the west. Or, whatever does not resemble an echo turns out to be nationalistic or backwards-looking. Several publications do try in spite of this to revise the general impression through giving examples of many avant-garde movements that had local origins in eastern Europe, such as Dadaism in Romania. Yet even in this “revisionist” art history, chief importance is ascribed retroactively, to their meaning for the West.
What is thus left forgotten and eliminated from the discussion are the specific socio-cultural themes and situations extant in the regions themselves.
One central theme of artistic discourse in the early 20th century in Eastern Europe was the roles of the universal and the national within art. These discussions were particularly strong in Estonia and Lithuania, as well as Bulgaria and Romania, even as much as in Poland and the other states of central Europe as they were beginning to be conceived as separate entities.
Specific for these countries is that during the 19th century they could not take part in the building of national states, but rather remained caught inside large empires (Russia, the Ottoman Empire, Austro-Hungary, Prussia).
Culture and art played, within this context, an important role for the development and support of a national identity, as well as for modernisation. As a result, discussions focused on whether it was most necessary to create a cosmopolitan-universal or a national art, whether to work on internationalism or the building of a national identity.
For representatives of the universalist current, an art that followed the model and the formal vocabulary of the artistic centres of the time was viewed as the most apt goal. Yet even within domestic artistic creation, it was possible (in ideal circumstances) to embrace progressive means of expression taken from western avant-garde tendencies.
Universalism was not invariably posited in opposition to the search for a national style: the two positions seemed thoroughly compatible, since for the newly created national states in this region, both cosmopolitanism as well as national consciousness held key roles.
As well, the art of “homeland” was likewise oriented towards the formal vocabulary of western modernism and avant-gardes —or at least this was the wish of many theoretical standpoints of the age—and hence did not automatically contradict ideas of a universalist bent. On one hand, progressive means of expression were taken in from abroad, while on the other they were changed through blending and adaption with local methods and themes, particularly in combination with traditions from icon painting and folk art. Assimilation and transformation are comparable with both of the traditional typologies of translation: the one harmonizing the text with the structure of the target language, the other leaving the peculiarities of the foreign language fully evident. What today can be found, above all, in the books concerning modernism and the avant-garde is entirely the universalist tendency, the rapprochement with a Western formal language, which itself is the focal point of an equally universalistic practice of art history.
Of particular interest in this article are those tendencies in the art-historical interpretation of the avant-garde and modernism of Eastern Europe, using several of the major publications treated in chronological order, along with the questions and difficulties that arise from taking such a universalist standpoint in the discipline of art history.
„Bad“ publications (faithful to (western) arthistorical conventions and the canon)
Among the earlier publications from the West regarding Eastern European avant-gardes and modernity, issued after the fall of the Iron Curtain, are the four-volume catalogue for the exhibition Europa Europa from 1994 and Steven Mansbach’s “Modern Art in Eastern Europe” from 1999. Previously, only a few attempts had been made in this area in the 1960s and 1970s.
Both in “Modern Art in Eastern Europe” and in “Europa, Europa,” the stated goal is to revise conventional art history. In drawing attention to the universal character of avant-garde and modernist artwork—as expressed through the similarity of works from East and West—the avant-gardes of Eastern Europe, once regularly dismissed as provincial or dilettantish, require a re-evaluation. Yet simultaneously, the stance of universalism, or at the very least a universalistic interpretive tendency, is increasingly discredited since the arrival of post-colonial discourse on the scene. What is “universal” is always defined in the imperial centre of power, and paradoxically functions and is articulated only through a logic of inclusion and exclusion. Standing as its central feature is the view that the universal can only be articulated as an answer to that which it has deliberately shut out. Only from a position of absolute hegemony can it be determined what is universal, what is included and what is excluded. Or, rather, what is taken as valuable and assumed into the canon.
As a result, for Mansbach the only form of translation still of interest is that which remains true to the wider idiom of the ‘avant-garde’ in the West. Whatever is transformed by contrast into a local idiom is always marked as less interesting. In this connection, he states regarding Romanian modernism:
“Thus, the pleinairism of Grigorescu and the gentle realism of Luchian never crystallized into a Romanian school, movement, or national idiom. Even as these styles were adopted by the country’s most accomplished painters, they were always recognized as essentially foreign (primarily French), and, indeed, that was a dimension of their great appeal: Romanian art became validated more through its assimilation than through its transformation of progressive modes from abroad. In this essential respect, as will become clear, the pattern of reliance on the “foreignness” of the nation’s artists was projected into the twentieth century.”1
It is the equivalent of taking a radically ahistorical view to limit discussion to merely one of these conjoined aspects of the art of the time. One result of this course of action is that entire geographical regions are mixed into a single nebulous area. Consequently, we find such instances as, in “Modern Art in Eastern Europe,” the absence of Bulgaria being explained by the lack of sufficient material from, and the similar situation in, Macedonia and Albania. The author refers to “Europa, Europa,” where Bulgaria is equally absent, and uses as the example applicable to all three countries the artwork of Macedonia, which is itself discussed only in the larger chapter on Yugoslavia. The logic of inclusion and exclusion of this universal approach, and the tendency to the de-historicisation inherent in the search solely for what can be interpreted as universal, are both clearly in evidence in this example. And the likeliness that a particular geographical area will be entirely left out increases in direct proportion to the interest expressed in universalistic interpretive standpoints.
„God“ publications (relativists)
A more complete scope of reference, one likewise including the previously noted theoretical discussions, would contribute much to a historical consciousness permitting a better understanding of Europe as a whole. This is also the tendency found in later publications on eastern European art that decided to concentrate predominantly on east and central Europe as a specific region. In 2002, a study appeared entitled “Between Worlds: a Sourcebook of Central-European Avant-gardes 1910-1930,” which managed to make use of the increased offering of translated source materials to allow for a treatment of the theme anchored in the cultural history of the region.
Here as well, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia and Latvia are all missing, in this case through a limitation of the theme to central Europe. And as well, it is set down from the very title that the interest is focused on the avant-gardes. However, it must be said that in the one chapter entitled “National Traditions” that precisely these earlier discussions that took place on the way towards the internationalization of the avant-garde are integrated, along with the publication of a selection of primary sources. Following chapters then turn towards a consideration, based on the source material, of aspects of the social and political origins of avant-garde art that, as Peter Weibel writes elsewhere, were until recently suppressed during the climate of the Cold War.2
In 2004, Robert Born published “Die Kunsthistoriographien in Ostmitteleuropa und der nationale Diskurs” (Art Historiography in East-Central Europe and National Discourse). This collection concentrates on the national discourses in the art history of east and central Europe. What becomes amply clear in this publication is how tightly bound up with the ruling political and ideological situation art history is in this region. We find theses asserting the ‘local’ to be a mere construct, and the geographical method in art history to be ‘historically loaded’ and particularly tempting for national or even nationalistic patterns of thought. But at the same time, there are theses presented in opposition to the contemporary tendency (so often well-intentioned) to render everything “Europeanized” and to strain all categories of nation out of the focus of view. Such a juxtaposition of contradictory standpoints is often observed in current collections of texts on East European art. And it must be stressed as well that frequently East European art makes an appearance in contemporary theory and criticism with respect to the discussion on the universal and the national, though now linked to the concepts of “local” and “global.”
Similarity and imitation
Still more questions—some perhaps even more difficult—present themselves when confronting the need to interpret the widely spreading tendencies of the avant-garde (in equal measure in the West as in the East) beyond the categories of the national. A universalist approach is also, in this respect, problematic, since next to the achievements of the centers of artistic production, it may well appear that whatever was produced in the peripheral regions does (in spite of all similarities) seem provincial or the dilettantish. Only with an appeal to the widely differing context and content can these seeming “provincialisms” be revised to allow the work to be subjected to new evaluation.
Against these methods of proceeding, Piotr Piotrowski offers the objection that a universalization of language—in other words that the contentions and the formal vocabulary of the art of East Europe are Western—is a strategy for the reception of geographically “different” cultures. One essential matter that is presumed here is the translatability or interchangeability of languages: in other words, a genuine trap. 3
Postcolonial discourse and cultural hegemony
In terms of examples, today a kind of instrumentalization is also observable for artwork critical of Communism that emerged in the former East Bloc.
By contrast, the method of artistic geography stresses the recognition of differences and not of similarities:
“A revisionist geographer of East Central Europe should reveal what is different or “other” from the “western idiom,” instead of coming up with the requirement of learning it as a necessary condition of being marked on the artistic map of the world.”4
In the discussions that now circulate around the historiographic representation of modernist and avant-garde art, and equally the contemporary art of East Europe, there is a tendency to strive towards concepts of the general post-colonial discourse. For the “universal view of art history,” which in this case is the Western view, establishes a cultural hegemony (recalling Gramsci’s idea). This means that whatever is shut out always strives, from this moment on, to be included in the universal canon, and embodies a kind of “self-colonizing gesture ” (Kiossev) in assuming the language of the universal, largely because the alternatives are so unattractive. And this is as valid today to a quite large extent as it was earlier.
It is, nonetheless, conceivable to not reject the universal standpoint and, if we keep in mind simultaneously the problem of hegemony and the tendency to de-historicize, to achieve quite interesting results through these differing interpretive strategies. Just as has been the case with the English language—once entirely a tongue of hegemony and now mixed up with so many foreign elements derived from such a diverse array of languages that it has truly been transformed and re-ordered—these individual cases are greatly removed from their original source.
Benson, Timothy O., Between worlds. A sourcebook of central-european avantgardes 1910-1930, Cambridge, 2002.
Piotr Piotrowski: "Framing of the Central Europe,” in: 2000+ ArtEast Collection. The Art of Eastern Europe. A Selection of Works for the International and National Collection of Moderna Galerija, Ljubljana, Innsbruck : Orangerie Congress, Wien-Bozen: Folio Verlag, 2001.
Robert Born, Alena Janatková, Adam S. Labuda: Die Kunst-historiographien in Ostmitteleuropa und der nationale Diskurs, Berlin, 2004.
Rezension von Christopher Hermann von: Robert Born, Die Kunsthistoriographien in Ostmitteleuropa und der nationale Diskurs, Berlin, 2004: www.arthistoricum.net
Mansbach, Steven A.: Modern art in Eastern Europe : from the Baltic to the Balkans, ca. 1890–1939, Cambridge, 1999
1 S.A. Mansbach: The "foreignness" of classical modern art in Romania, in: The Art Bulletin, Sept, 1998
2 Peter Weibel, Der Kalte Krieg und die Kunst, in: Zurück aus der Zukunft. Osteuropäische Kulturen im Zeitalter des Postkommunismus, Frankfurt, 2005.
3 Piotr Piotrowski: “Framing of the Central Europe ”, in: 2000+ ArtEast Collection. The Art of Eastern Europe . A Selection of Works for the International and National Collection of Moderna Galerija, Ljubljana, Innsbruck, 2001, S. 21.