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Geometry as Crime: Concrete Art, Geometrical Abstraction, Minimalism and their strategies of surviving in Eastern Germany
As early as in the 1950s, the so-called “debate on formalism” as a suffocating tool implemented by the official cultural policy affected artists in the GDR severely. Especially in the field of visual art, this policy resulted in intimidating verdicts against abstraction of any kind. This was a difficult situation in particular for a generation of artists that had still been influenced and educated by avant-garde ideas prior to 1933 and silenced by the Nazi doctrines already. Now they were marginalized again and only a few of them bravely stuck to geometrical expression despite this hostile climate: no significant sales or shows were the price. The most famous example of course is Hermann Glöckner (1889 – 1987) who made his living as a decorative painter and had his first small show only at the age of 80. Glöckner lived in Dresden where, despite overall ideological restrictions, a small, almost subversive circle of art experts, supporters and like-minded fellow artists could develop. It is even legitimate to say that Dresden was – albeit more secretively – for GDR conditions a flourishing centre of constructivist or concrete art. My presentation will investigate: the role of courageous art historian Werner Schmidt; the surprising and somehow paradoxical niche for exhibiting “formalist” art on the premises of the nuclear research center Dresden-Rossendorf; a clever artists’ initiative with central figure Karl-Heinz Adler, where groundbreaking minimalist and geometrical art works came in the disguise of architecture; Adler’s little known artist friend Manfred Luther who uncompromisingly worked on his serial conceptualism like a recluse; and the influence of constructivist art and ideas from the much more liberal neighbouring country of Poland. Without wanting to diminish his merits, this paper aims to demonstrate that there was much more to “formalist” geometry than Hermann Glöckner.
From an Open Hand to a Closed Fist: Petr Štembera’s Artist Networks
This paper will focus on photographic documentation as a distribution tool for performance art and an effective substitute for a missing institutional framework, and highlight Petr Štembera’s activities in the 1970s which enabled him to become part of the international art scene. The reception of 1970s Czech performance art was influenced by a unique set of conditions. Typically, only a handful of friends attended the live events in Prague, while the art piece had to cross the border through documentation – only there did it find a broader secondary audience. The missing institutional base was therefore partially substituted by reproductions in foreign magazines and photographs distributed for exhibitions abroad. Correspondence networking not only affirmed the idea of an art which was primarily a communicated unit of information, or even a means of communication, but also made up for the lack of direct contact. Petr Štembera was one of the very few figures that sought to bring information from abroad into the closed country of Czechoslovakia and vice versa, bringing Czech art to attention beyond our borders. He would send photographic documentation to friends – artists and curators – who orchestrated his representation at many foreign exhibitions. As I intend to demonstrate with concrete examples, he helped to create a network, an alternative to institutions, which gave his activities the status of art. For that reason, it is not surprising that when performance art became an established and institutionalized part of the art scene at the end of the 1970s, he concluded that it was best to terminate these activities.
“An Intelligent, Complex, and Human Design Project”: Social Engagement in State Socialism during the 1960s
During the long 1960s (1956-1976), designers from the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow and Warsaw began to develop the profession of industrial design. Because since 1948 the United Worker’s Party ruled Poland under real socialism, the nascent profession found employment in state owned factories or conglomerates subservient to the command economy.A shift from heavy industry toward the production of everyday goods precipitated by de-Stalinization following the Poznan riots in 1956 created a need for designers. For this particular group, designers needed to become“skillful infiltrators” who as Krzysztof Wodliczko, a student at the Warsaw Academy in the 1960s, put it, aimed to “transform state socialism into an intelligent, complex, and human design project.” This essay examines the way these practitioners attempted to “infiltrate” state bureaucracy. Individuals from the two academies held privileged positions in key government institutions, namely, the Board of Design and Manufacturing Aesthetics, permitting them to sway policy concerning design. Because these peers believed in social engagement, they set out to steer production toward objects possessing comfortable forms and interfaces in order for individuals to find fulfillment in their environment. Privileging neither the top down, nor bottom up approach, this case study focuses on the role of designers in state institutions in order to show the way in which cultural producers compromised with the socialist system to affect the party’s cultural policy to their benefit.
"Art Has Become a Character Issue” Péter Donáth, and the Price of Independence in 1960s and 1970s Hungary
Péter Donáth’s artistic career is one of those that need to be retrieved from obscurity. Donáth’s body of work ranges from paintings to collages to conceptual works and writings. He was a conspicuous presence in the Budapest art scene of the 1960s and 1970s, and some art critics and historians like Géza Perneczky and Ottó Mezey repeatedly discussed his works which were shown at a few solo and group exhibitions. He cooperated with Péter Halász’s theater group at every step of their history including their last years before their forced 1976 emigration as an “apartment theatre.” From 1978 he worked as set designer for the then best Hungarian theatre company in Kaposvár. Donáth’s clearly oppositional stance to the political system and its ideology, not to mention its artistic restrictions, made him a naturally marginal figure. Being marginal was his choice, of course, but since he was one of the central figures of what later became the democratic opposition in Budapest -regular discussion evenings took place in his apartment – his marginalization had a strong political meaning. His works were also political, a sort of self-styled minimalism that exuded protest by shedding every accepted form of visual expression. His conceptual works were biting political satires, pointing out, for example, that petty-bourgeois kitsch and socialist realism were, to a great extent, identical. Donáth’s career was one of the models under the socialist era. Surviving for many years on day jobs he was as independent and unyielding as it was possible, viscerally unable to compromise, and knew that he paid a price for his independence. His works refrain from every acknowledged and accepted visual language. Chance, ruins, the fragmentation of culture to smithereens were his recurring themes, truthfully to what he witnessed.
Amateurism under Socialism
The etymological kinship of the word amateur with the Latin amator (one who loves again and again) makes it possible to view art as a widely accessible cultural practice. Without seeking perfection or competitive status, the amateur takes prolonged delight in the chosen activity, thus giving substance to the idea of the anti-bourgeois artist. Examining the art worlds of mid- to late Socialism necessitates considering so called “parallel spheres of action” – those that lie in between official and unofficial art. I will examine three artists-organizers and compare their cultural practice: Jiří Valoch, Milan Adamčiak and Július Koller. Each of them comes from a different field – while Valoch was poet and exhibition maker, Adamčiak a musicologist and action artist, Koller’s point of departure was painting. What connects them all is that they were engaged in amateur art. Július Koller’s programmatic amateurism is not merely a departure from the affirmative and conjunctural art of late modernism, instead he bases the continuum of the culture of life on a qualitatively different level in comparison with the approach of his avant-garde colleagues of the 1960s. The continuum of enlightenment activity which Koller called Confrontations (Antihappening), is not revolutionary, and indeed it is not even entirely oppositional. The reason is that Koller identified with the task of the cultural-enlightenment worker. Unobtrusively he thus penetrated the state system of cultural enlightenment, aiming to realize within it his own program of cultural synthesis and “confrontation with contemporary popular amateur work in visual art.”
Alternative Sites: East Germany’s Illustrated Magazines
Following the founding of the Zentrale Kommission Fotografie der DDR (ZKF) on 26 May 1959, East German art photographers were required to reproduce the motifs of socialist realism and to present East Germany not as it was, but as it could be. Those interested in circulating their work in ZKF-sponsored exhibitions submitted photographs that aligned with the organization’s needs; those wanting to document something other than the orthodox scenes and figures promoted by the ZKF found other venues to show their work. Some photographers did both. While attention has been paid to the private and underground gallery scene that began to flourish in East German cities in the 1970s, there has been little concern over the role that illustrated magazines played as alternative sites for East German art photographers to disseminate their work between the early 1960s and late 1970s, when photography was recognized as an autonomous art form in both Germanys and art photographers were given more opportunities to openly exhibit their work in the GDR. Distinct from the ZKF, which set out clear parameters for photographers in its monthly newsletters in Fotografie, illustrated magazines such as Sibylle: die Zeitschrift für Mode und Kultur (1956-1994) and Das Magazin (1954-present) were less rigid in their expectations of photographers. As I will demonstrate in this paper, these magazines, whose editorial and photography staffs were often comprised of young artists who trained at the Kunsthochschule Berlin-Weißensee, accepted proposals and allowed photographers the chance to explore new subject matter. In a tightly controlled society where artists’ activities were severely restricted by the ZKF and monitored by the Stasi, the latitude offered by these magazines, as I will argue, led leading East German art photographers, notably Arno Fischer, Sibylle Bergemann, Ute and Werner Mahler, and Helga Paris, to either seek out or accept their employment.
"A Taster of Political Insult": The Case of Novi Sad’s Youth Tribune (196871)
This paper examines a specific episode in the history of Novi Sad’s Youth Tribune, when the city’s so-called “New Art Practices” crossed into political engagement and provocation. Established in 1954, the Youth Tribune was founded during the “modest democratisation of Yugoslavia”, marking a shift from dogmatic socialism to “selfmanaging democracy”. During the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, it represented a lively zone of collaboration between writers and artists from the entire territory of Yugoslavia, with studentrun editorial boards that were in several ways decisive for the country’s alternative cultural scene. Having become a cultural catalyst, the centre came into conflict with the municipal socio-political organisations of Novi Sad, which favoured more traditional currents and sought to ensure that the space’s basic function remained “education and discipline”. In my paper, I follow the increased bureaucratisation of the Youth Tribune - the resistance to it, and the coercive consequences - along with the ultimate dilution of radical practices in Novi Sad, that forced its key players to appeal to an “Invisible Art”. Yugoslavia is frequently characterised as a country in which all were “at least verbally encouraged to participate in public debate” (Jović, 2009). But considering the unique and important case of the Youth Tribune reveals the consequences of a direct confrontation with the prevailing cultural apparatus, at a moment marking a return to the country’s political reliance on the basic principles of an authoritarian, centrist state.
The Dictator Visits the Studio: Enver Hoxha’s Letter to the ‘Monumental Trio’ and the Politics of Socialist Albanian Sculpture in the 1960s and 70s
On July 13, 1969, a letter from dictator Enver Hoxha was published on the first page of the weekly cultural periodical Drita. The letter was addressed to Kristaq Rama, ShabanHadëri, and Muntaz Dhrami—the most prominent sculptors in socialist Albania—and it contained a series of conceptual and aesthetic considerations bearing upon the creation of the massive Independence Monument currently being realized by the sculptors. Hoxha had recently visited the sculptors in their studio, and the letter summarized the dictator’s impressions from this visit, as well as clarifying suggestions he had made to the artists in person. A letter of response from the three sculptors was also printed. This exchange of letters was subsequently to serve as one of the key points in socialist Albanian cultural history—it represented the first time that Hoxha’s aesthetic commentary and intervention in the creative process were made public, and in the ensuing years it was held up as an example of the dictator’s concern with art’s importance and his beneficent role as cultural critic. This paper considers the way this letter exchange—and the studio visit that it made the public aware of—functioned to shape the narrative of art’s relationship to political power in Albania. It explores the kinds of agency that were attributed to the dictator, to state sculptors, and to the monumental work of art, and considers how the narrative surrounding the letter exchange served to conceptualize the process of creating public sculpture under socialism as inherently collaborative.
At the end of the 1960s, Czechoslovak art magazines published several pioneering studies on Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich, which not only introduced and communicated his visionary suprematism, but also served as an essential theoretical impulse for the current generation to rediscover Malevich and to identify themselves with him. Although the type of “Tatlinova iniciatíva” (“Tatlin's Initiative”), an anthology of texts by prominent Slovak literary scientist Oskar Čepan, had to be disassembled in 1971 and its manuscript was further circulated in the form of samizdat, Malevich’s ideas got deeply rooted in Slovak avant-garde as well as independent conceptual art movements. Similarly, a 1968 pioneering monograph on Buddha compiled by Egon Bondy, an inspiring and whimsical personality of the Czech underground, reverberated not only in quite introverted but also in the most spectacular events seeking to find ways within mystic experience influenced by Eastern spirituality. Research on connections between literature and visual art has shown that the distribution and reading of samizdat texts, foreign literature, but also officially published works not only contributed to creating the intellectual, knowledge and emotional background of the independent art scene, but also significantly influenced the focus of its programmes at the time.
Decorative Art as a Space of Personal Freedom: Creative Strategies within official Soviet institutions, 1960s – 1970s
A number of studies showed that Soviet decorative artists and designers were important agents of Soviet modernization after Stalin: they promoted “good taste” and “rational consumption” in accordance with the mass-housing campaign and Cold War competition. At the same time, the Soviet artistic sphere is often portrayed in terms of the dichotomy conformism vs. dissidence. However, both arguments have been recently challenge by a new generation of scholars, in particular art historians from the Baltic countries, who have investigated the diverse and potentially subversive artistic practices within official Soviet institutions. In the light of this new scholarship, my paper will show how Soviet decorative artists, acting as members of the Artists’ Unions and employees at factories, developed a critical discourse on the artist’s role in a socialist society. It will be argued that, from the position of state-sponsored art reformists and tastemakers, decorative artists arrived at the stance of advocating the imminent value and freedom of human personality. Some of these people became involved with the human rights movement, while others continued their pursuit of freedom in the sphere of creative work, remaining in officially approved institutional settings. The paper will also show how this critical stance continued even after the Soviet invasion in Czechoslovakia, in the time usually viewed as one of political and cultural stagnation. The case of decorative art should demonstrate that the “grey zone” between conformism and dissent was, in fact, quite colorful and vivid.
Exhibition as a Diplomatic Tool
In the Normalisation era exhibitions and art events often functioned as tools of diplomacy and foreign politics. Cultural diplomacy was not only practiced by the so called official art institutions but was an aim of self-organized initiatives in several cases. Artists expressed their social engagement and support for such international, mostly leftist issues as disarmament, anti-imperialism, as well as the democratization of the arts. The thematization of such topics sometimes provided a legitimizing cover for non-conformist practices, in other occasions was considered dangerous as proposing critical alternatives to the official treatment of these missions. The paper takes the activity of the Hungarian Institute for Cultural Relations in the ‘70s as a case study and on the basis of archival documents, press debates, exhibition documentation and personal recollections examines paradigmatic examples of cultural diplomacy and their local and international parallels on the overlaps of the official and non-official spheres. Presenting art events that had an international commitment to people’s education, Peace and the Civil Rights Movement, and the issues of Vietnam and Palestine, I will unpack the following questions: Through what official and non-official channels did artists get in contact with their colleagues within and outside Eastern Europe? What forms of cultural diplomacy was practiced between these countries? How was progressive/leftist political thinking and progressive/neo-avantgarde art connected to official and non-official cultural diplomacy and what contradictions did this give rise to? This proposal is part of the newest chapter of tranzit.hu’s long term research project Parallel Chronologies.
This paper looks at the movement New Tendencies in the years of its decline, between 1973, when a large exhibition and conference were held in Zagreb, and 1978, when only a small final conference was possible. The reasons for New Tendencies' demise were not direct repression through the state in former Yugoslavia, but a slow deterioration of conditions for artists and intellectuals. At the same time New Tendencies own internal dynamics was affected by what Marilyn Strathern called 'Cutting the Network'. Erstwhile allies and colleagues stopped referencing New Tendencies as a movement and institutional support was slowly withdrawn. At the same time what was called the 'new art practices' were seen as superseding the rational orientation of New Tendencies. New Tendencies had hoped to facilitate social change through a neo-Constructivist orientation in art that gets involved in shaping the environment. The new art practices, on the other hand, were much more directly political, engaging with the conventions of image production under state socialism and questioning bureaucratic rationality. Artists worked with and against the state ideology and the gap between ideology and everyday life; others, such as OHO escaped into the alternative realm of a commune. The paper looks at the parallel developments of New Tendencies and the new art practices. While at the time they were seen as antithetical, especially by radical young curators and artists, the paper teases out a longer concomitant development and cross-connections.
Bálint Szombathy, Lenin in Budapest (1972) photograph, b/w. image courtesy of and copyright Bálint Szombathy.
Jiří Valoch and the “Position” of Curator in Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1970s. The Official Curator and Unofficial Artistic Scene
Jiří Valoch (born 1946), artist, curator, theoretician and collector, has played a significant role in the Central-European scene since the beginning of his professional activity in the mid-1960s. In addition to his artistic work, he discovered and presented numerous artists that worked outside the main artistic centres, mediated up-to-date artistic ideas, initiated, participated in and organised many meetings of artists working across various tendencies. During the normalization era, Valoch moved simultaneously in three worlds – in the official one, including regular encounters with his “own secret policeman” (he agreed to be an official informer of the Czechoslovak Secret Police at the end of 1970s), in the so-called grey zone, and in the alternative scene. On the one hand, he, too, did not escape restrictions (he was for example banned from publishing in 1980); on the other hand, he was several times allowed to travel to Western Europe, a privilege enjoyed by only a very few chosen figures at the time. This contribution will be based on the analysis of the exhibitions he organised and the accompanying essays written by Valoch, and will examine how the kind of exhibition spaces and the kind of catalogue, brochure, and so on, determined, if it did, Valoch´s approach to his curatorial work and communication with his intended audience.
Olbram Zoubek, Sculptor in Public Service; A Case Study in Art Making during Socialism
Czech sculptor Olbram Zoubek (born 1926) for a large part of his audience embodies the cultural struggles of the second half of the twentieth century in former Czechoslovakia. His reductive figures created in the 1960’s contrast with socialist realism not only by virtue of their abstracted form, but also by their undeniable spiritual content. In 1969 he created iconic depictions of national hero Jan Palach and was persecuted by the newly installed neo-Stalinist regime. After 1989 he triumphantly returned to official cultural life, his sculptures and monuments entering prominent public spaces in several Czech cities. I would like to argue that the curve of Zoubek’s career, easily interpreted as a well-deserved victory over the restrictions of socialist culture, was in fact carved by the uniquely socialist conditions under which he as a sculptor worked. The paper will take a look at the economic side of the sculptor’s studio from the 1960’s to 1990’s. Olbram Zoubek utilized the massive support for public sculpture under socialism, creating a successful enterprise even in the ideologically changing landscape of Czech culture. Between 1967 and 1974 he created as many as seven different proposals for a sculpture in front of the Federal Assembly Building, reflecting various political demands. The sculpture was finally rejected, but paid for. Zoubek was forbidden from exhibiting in Prague for most of the 1970’s, but his art was often featured in public spaces in Prague’s newly built housing estates. Zoubek’s artistic boom after 1989 is also misleading, since the majority of these commissions were in fact ordered and financed well before then. This paper discusses the limits of the specific mode of production that was enabled by the socialist regime over elements of personal opportunism. The sculptor was restricted by censorship and self-censorship, yet he embodied a freely operating entrepreneur marketing his skills.
Negotiating Spaces: From Art to Pedagogy and Back to Nature
In the history of Romanian art in the second half of the twentieth-century, the case of SIGMA group from Timișoara, a city in the Western part of the country, represents one of the most fascinating and complex areas of research. The theoretical, scientific and pedagogical principles that are at the heart of SIGMA’s practice speak of a radical turn from the traditional (academic) understanding of the artistic process, as well as of a profound connection to a provocative teaching program, where the boundaries between educator and artist, teacher and student, between institutional space and nature, art object and its context are flexible. This paper does not attempt a comprehensive analysis of the history of the group and its multifold activity, nor does it focus on the different individual artistic personalities that were part of it, but rather attempts to introduce SIGMA as a case of an experimental micro-community that can be analyzed from the perspective of concepts such as second-public space or informal public sphere. SIGMA’s story is that of an ambivalent case where the transfer or mobility of ideas turned to its advantage the political situation of the moment and determined the emergence of an artistic community that marked a significant detour in artistic practice due to its synthetic approach, intermediality and process-oriented view on art.
Dark Angel, Secret Agent: Avant-garde Film Cultures, Artist Communities, and Networks of State Control in 1970s Socialist Hungary
Habitual narratives of avant-garde filmmaking in socialist Eastern Europe feature stories of limitless creativity and of bold resistance to repressive forms of authority. This history is often presented as separate from other modes of experimental artistic expression, including the spheres of the performing or visual arts. My paper considers the implications of an alternative history by looking at a key figure of post-war Hungarian experimental cinema whose life ties together various aspects of artistic production and cultural politics during the socialist era. The filmmaker and media artist Gábor Bódy was a crucial figure in the development of Hungary’s experimental media culture in the 1970s and early 1980s. While his multifaceted oeuvre inspired numerous fellow film directors, his significant administrative role and creative influence at the Balázs Béla Studio, the key platform for experimental moving image-making in socialist Hungary, also drove the BBS towards more inclusive, cross-disciplinary efforts that actively invited the participation of visual artists and musicians to produce filmic experiments. Alongside his tremendous role in shaping the cultural life of the country in the1970s, it was revealed post-1989 that Bódy was also active as a secret agent. Between 1973 and 1983, Bódy reported on dozens of fellow filmmakers and visual artists, some of them his close friends and collaborators. This paper addresses the ways in which his professional achievements developed alongside such concealed activities, and how his secret service connected filmic and artistic circles, in order to tie together various narratives, both official and hidden, of cultural production in socialist Hungary.
KwieKulik and the Political Economy of the Potboiler
The aim of the paper is to present the phenomenon of the artistic "potboiler” – craftlike works commissioned from artists by the socialist state in the 1970s People's Republic of Poland. My case study will be the KwieKulik duo (Przemysław Kwiek and Zofia Kulik). I will focus on the artists' attempts to cope with and criticise the potboiler artistic economy that was for them – as artists working in the field of processual, ephemeral non-object art – the only legal way to earn money. They used to send official letters of complaint to state authorities, criticising Państwowe Przedsiębiorstwo Pracownie Sztuk Plastycznych [State Enterprise of Visual Art Workshops], which was the monopolist institution responsible for commissioning works designed as tools in collective commemoration practices or as items of scenography for social and political rituals. KwieKulik managed to turn the political and economic necessity of producing potboiler works into a means of critical exposure of the conditions of the artistic production under socialism. What is more, their critique of the economy of the Polish socialist "artworld” slowly turned out to be a critique of state institutions and, therefore, a political critique of the socialist state itself. What made it all the more complex was the fact that they often did so in the name of certain socialist ideals.