Reviews Art History outside the nationalist paradigm. Soros art centers in a global perspective

Globalizing East European Art Histories. Past and Present. Routledge Research in Art History Beáta Hock and Anu Allas (ed.), London: Routledge, 2018. 232 pages.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic Worlds 2019:2
Published on on June 19, 2019

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The thinking of the late Piotr Piotrowski (1955–2015), professor ordinarius of art history at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, continues to influence the work of a generation of art historians. His focus on the historiography of primarily Eastern European art of the 20th century included the development of concepts such as “horizontal art history” and “provincializing the centers” that are still pertinent, although in some cases they are re-theorized or even disputed. Globalizing East European Art Histories. Past and Present, edited by Beáta Hock, senior researcher at the Leibnitz Institute for the History and Culture of Eastern Europe, and Anu Allas, art historian and curator at the Kumu Art Museum in Tallinn, adds to the body of scholarly work on the transnational aspects of the art of Eastern Europe. The conference in Lublin, October 2014, that was the departure point for this volume appears to have been the last conference that Piotrowski contributed to before his untimely death in May 2015. One of the qualities of his anthology is its broad scope and ambition to histories the relation of art historical canons to art from Eastern Europe of the early modern period up to today’s art projects and the Antropocene era.

Nationally compartmentalized art history is the target in Beáte Hock’s important theorizing, important not the least by dealing with art from geographies that have been highly politically unstable throughout time and where today’s national borders are young phenomena. She scrutinizes earlier leading contributions to the field such as the American art historian Stephen Mansbach’s Modern Art in Eastern Europe (1999), which aimed to challenge Western-centered art history by approaching certain artistic movements and assessing individual artists and artworks in Eastern Europe, while at the same time making transregional comparisons. Hock’s point is that studies like Mansbach’s in practice still fall back on vertical ideas of diffusion and on traditional presumptions that creative innovation takes place in a few “centers” before spreading to peripheries in various ways. Mansbach’s appraisal of Eastern European artist’s inventiveness in combining styles from abroad appears problematic for Hock by making them appear helplessly dependent on Western European influences. This is a valid point and can be extended to a much wider discourse of scholarship of, for example, modernisms, avant gardes, or post-avant gardes and can be extended to socio-political areas such as the Nordic countries. Hock points out alternative projects like the ones of Béatrice Joyeux-Prunel and the artl@s team at ENS in Paris, where studies of networks through artist journals challenge canonical art history using concepts such as “will to cosmopolitanism” as the explanatory factor rather than different ideas of the creative sovereignty within centers like Paris.

Contributions on the early Modern period and the Polish-Lithuanian state (1569–1795) expand the topic. In Challenging the National Container, Tomasz Grusiecki suggests how to deal with such art, where European and Ottomanesque traits coincide formally, as he sees it, rather than clashing or signifying a conflict of expression. In a portrait of a Polish-Lithuanian nobleman, Portrait of Krzysztof Wiesiolowski (1636, anonymous painter, National Arts Museum of the Republic of Belarus, Minsk), the all’antica and allaturca remain in sync with each other, and the stylistic plurality is presented with integrity within the work. Seemingly imitative artifacts become more relevant to wider art historical concerns when these pieces are considered as part of a greater infrastructure of cultural entanglement that transcends regions and nations. This portrait, instead of reproducing different styles from cultural centers, is a result of a gradual process of creation and re-formulation of Polish-Lithuanian ways of life. This model proposes a shift in the purported peripheries away from dominant models of art historical explanation that over-emphasize linear causalities to one where the peripheries’ active participation in wider cultural processes is asserted. The anthology’s other contribution to art of the Polish-Lithuanian state contextualizes the historiography of this era as marked by the destruction of cultural property during the Second World War, recent political biases, and of course, again, the focus of much art history writing on nations in a case when the nation as such was not preserved after 1795. Anglophone art historians’ bias towards a vertical art history — where Polish art has been assessed through art in more studied regions such as Italy, France, and the Dutch region — has been counterbalanced with indispensable Polish scholarship, with the need to legitimize Polish art in the eyes of an outside readership, and with frequent comparisons to art within the Western canon. Carolyn C. Guile pertinently introduces the fruitful name “History of a form of intellectual disquietude” for this important research field.

Kristóf Nagy, in his study The emergence of the Soros network in Eastern Europe, contends along with Slavoj Zizek that the Hungarian investor and philanthropist George Soros is an old type of capitalist because his business and charitable activities remain separated. The Soros art centers that emerged all over Eastern Europe constituted an important factor for the post-Soviet art scene from the early 1990s, and in terms of decision-making regarding content they were quite independent from the funder. George Soros is quoted by Nagy as saying that he did not even like most of the art in the centers. Nagy chooses the concept of hegemony while discussing the relationship between the Soros Foundation and the Hungarian art scene in the 1990s. His text points to the delicate double reception of the Soros art centers as a catalyst for the integration of Hungarian and Eastern European artistic life with the Western paradigm, while also constructing new kinds of political, economic, and cultural dependencies. He points out how the figure of the Soros art centers as a part of the operation of “helping” Eastern Europe out of its belatedness has its roots in the Age of Enlightenment. Nagy reaches so far as to place the Soros art centers as instrumental in incorporating the Hungarian artistic scene into the uneven and hierarchic networks of the globalizing art world. He thereby connects with an emerging research field regarding the role of Soros art centers in the art of Eastern Europe that takes a more critical approach, perhaps, than that of the generation of artists, art historians, and curators who had their formative years in the 1990s. This position is an important contribution because it can be accused of being critical while coinciding with recent state developments in Hungary and the attacks on Georg Soros’s Open University.

Agata Jakubowska, in her thorough investigation of the circulation of texts and the mobility of some individual artists, rejects the notion that Polish feminist artists of the 1970s worked in a vacuum, lacking an audience with keys to feminist ideas. Artists like Natialia KK, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Krystyna Piotrowska, Izabella Gustowska, and Anin Bednarczik were part of exhibitions and projects with feminist themes or at least a clear reference towards the specificity of art by female artists. While feminism as a political idea and an ideological base remained alien in the general discourse, Jakubowska shows how, paradoxically, feminist concepts were clearly present and how many actors found them to be meaningful. Feminist art appeared synchronically but developed differently in different countries, although traveling ideas of feminism could still have impacts on the art in many different places.

Anu Allas discusses the concept of the neo-avant garde in connection with Czech artist Milan Knizak’s text Aktualuniversitata 10 lekci (Aktual University: Ten Lessons) stressing that the high level of performative value in manifestos and statements of artists from socialist nations should be given careful attention. Her understanding of Knizank’s position, made through a textual analysis, is one within an Eastern European neo-avant-garde. From there he initiates a conversation between inside and outside views that makes visible both the consonances and conflicts between different contexts. Katarzyna Cytlak’s essay discusses the reception of Polish theater directors Grotowski and Kantor in Argentina, thus using the concept of a colonial matrix of power on the Cold War margins and thereby widening the geo-political beyond that of nations and the East-West paradigm. Contemporary artists’ practices in exploring and addressing matters of global transfer, critical art geography, flow of cultural goods, and LGTBTQ identities within Eastern Europe and Asian America are in focus in the last section in chapters by Joanna Skolowska, Amy Bryzgel, and Alpesh Kantital Patel.

Globalizing East European Art Histories. Past and Present takes a stand towards the positioning of the East European region, not as a space of collective identity, but as a heterogeneous field with a certain historical shared geopolitical and epistemic position as the idea of temporal approaches that inherit and propose a certain belatedness, which is then projected towards Eastern Europe as a claimed periphery. What are needed today, as Bèata Hock rightly emphasizes, are methodologies of knowledge production that “consciously work toward a differentiated paradigm; that invent and implement context-bound concepts and terminologies in order to fully explore phenomena that are issuing from shared historical experiences and current local concerns.” Relating to Larry Wolff’s 1994 account of how Eastern European art was invented during the 18th century, the editors manage to uncover the relation between different historical situations within Eastern European art through a number of cases written by scholars and artists from different geopolitical positions. (These contributors could have been given personal presentations in order to make this even more meaningful for the reader, and one or two essays could have been just as effective if shortened.) This volume comes out as a rewarding, rich, and important contribution and academic reader, and the editors while collecting work dealing with art from a wide historical scope have been able to pursue fundamental and unsettling theoretical questions of the writing of art history outside the nationalist paradigm. ≈


1. See Charlotte Bydler, “Piotr Piotrowski in Memoriam”, Baltic Worlds 3—4 2015, pp. 12—13 and on, and Piotr Piotrowski, “Why Were There no Great Pop Art Curatorial Projects in Eastern Europe in the 1960s?” in Baltic Worlds 3—4 2015, pp. 10—16.


Globalizing East European Art Histories. Past and Present. Routledge Research in Art History Beáta Hock and Anu Allas (ed.), London: Routledge, 2018. 232 pages.