Piotr Piotrowski



Awangarda w cieniu Jalty. Sztuka Europy Środkowo-wschodniej w latach 1945-1989 [Avant-Garde in the Shadow of Yalta. Art in Central-Eastern Europe, 1945-1989]. Poznań: Rebis, 2005. English edition: In the Shadow of Yalta. Art and the Avant-garde in Eastern Europe, 1945-1989, London: Reaktion Books, 2009

East-Central Europe, i.e. Europe in the shadow of Yalta, is a historical discursive construct of a purely political character, which came into being as a result of World War II. This term refers to the territory between the "iron curtain" and the USSR - that part of the continent which in consequence of an agreement between the West and the USSR fell under the political control of the latter. The USSR itself did not fall under the "shadow of Yalta" since it remained one of the powers deciding about Europe's future, which is why - apart from other reasons - its art has not been taken into consideration in the present study. East-Central Europe is not what used to be called Central Europe (" Mitteleuropa "), though the latter remains in part one of its components: East-Central Europe consists of the eastern segment of the former Central Europe (without Austria, but with the eastern provinces of Germany) and the western segment of the former Eastern Europe. In short, East-Central Europe included the following countries which since the mid-1940s till 1989, under the terms of the Yalta treaty, remained more or less strictly dominated by the USSR: Czechoslovakia, the GDR, Poland, Hungary, and - to some extent - Bulgaria, where the avant-garde tendencies were, however, rather insignificant. Besides, the area includes two countries which for various reasons and with different consequences broke the "friendly" relations with the USSR: Yugoslavia and Romania.

The analyses which make up the book focus on the history of the art of the aformentioned countries, which is called - somewhat conventionally - the "avant-garde." It comprises what the Anglo-American tradition has been calling "modernism," as well as the neo-avant-garde and its later mutations.Geographically, emphasis is not distributed in a uniform manner: the historico-artistic analyses are more penetrating with reference to those countries where the postwar experience of the avant-garde was richer and more dynamic, and perhaps less so wherever it did not play an important role.

The present book is by no means a definitive monograph of the art of East-Central Europe - it is not a complete overview, but rather, as it seems, an analysis of some selected, arguably crucial, historico-artistic questions. Neither is it an account of the art of particular East-Central European countries, since it does not pass from one country to another. Instead, specific artistic problems, tendencies, attitudes, kinds of expression, etc. have been put together and compared within appropriate time frames to create a map of the region, an outline of its geographical dynamic. Thus, the diachrony of the art of the area has been constructed of several synchronic cross sections. On the other hand, in each synchronic segment art has not been approached as an automous domain, but on the contrary, as an activity involved in politics. The art of the countries under scrutiny has been analyzed in comparable historical frames, which does not mean, however, that those were politically identical. The communist system differed from country to country as regards its dynamic and intensity: while one country might have been entering a phase of liberalization, another might have been simultaneously taking a much stricter course. Under such circumstances, one and the same type of artistic activity must have acquired different local meanings.

The book has been composed as follows: after introductory remarks on artistic geography, the reader comes across an analysis of surrealism, observed, as it were, in the very heart of East- Central Europe, i.e. in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary, where in the short period between the end of World War II and the proclamation of Stalinism in culture some artistic developments were locally referred to as surrealist. The next step is an analysis of the artistic culture during the de-Stalinization of East-Central Europe, i.e. modernism appearing within the still totalitarian system which, however, depending the situation in each country, underwent the process of erosion. Various kinds of artistic practice have been taken into consideration in this context: the informel painting, neoconstructivism, figurative tendencies, and the rising art of the neo-avant-garde. What follows is an account of the neo-avant-garde experience: the body art and the conceptual art in the changing political situation of the 1970s, in the times of the so-called real socialism. Obviously, just as the "thaw," the latter process looked different in each country, still, all of them underwent changes which brought about de-ideologization of the regime, introduced some elements of consumerism, and, last but not least, political pragmatism. The final chapter is an epilogue - a description of the end of the communist system in East-Central Europe and the art which witnessed that end.

Translated by Marek Wilczynski

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