Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 9, 2022
Maja Fowkes and Reuben Fowkes Central and Eastern European Art Since 1950 World of Art Series. London: Thames and Hudson Inc., 2020. 232 pp.; 156 color ills. Paper $24.95 (9780500204375)

At a 1993 festival in Timisoara, four years after protests in the city sparked a nationwide revolution that overthrew the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu and his Romanian Communist Party, the artist Dan Perjovschi tattooed the word “Romania” on his left arm. Ten years later, in Removing Romania (2003), Perjovschi underwent laser treatment to erase the national label from his skin. This process, the artist explains, did not so much remove the ink as disperse its pigmented molecules throughout his body. Traces of Romania remained embedded in his cells and tissue, invisible but ever present. On the one hand, Perjovschi’s Romania and Removing Romania indicate a sticky yet mutable relationship to categories of national heritage and identity. On the other hand, these artworks function like allegories for the problem of politics itself, or for the way contemporary artists in Eastern Europe have struggled to shake the tendency of scholars and critics to define art’s value in narrow political or politicizing terms.        

In Central and Eastern European Art Since 1950, Maja and Reuben Fowkes aim to correct this problem. Artworks featured in the book, they explain, “are intentionally not made subservient to larger ideological constructs but considered instead in terms of their distinctive place in art history” (8). To this end, the authors trace how artists have tested out, walked back, and reimagined the parameters of institutional and individual freedoms in search of alternative modes of expression and still-viable aesthetic forms. A strength of this introductory survey is the authors’ commitment to showcasing artworks like Perjovschi’s, which reveal degrees of complexity that cut through static claims to identity and politically overdetermined narratives of art in Central and Eastern Europe.

In 211 richly illustrated pages, the authors cover seven decades, countless artists and art movements, and numerous countries from the Baltics to the Balkans. Central and Eastern European Art is impressive in its scope and effort to represent artworks from across these diverse geographic and cultural contexts. But the book’s strengths also give rise to intersecting problems. While sidelining “the impact of political histories on Central and East European art” (8), the authors employ a comparative framework that emphasizes similarities between artistic styles and tendencies. This approach is useful for producing synoptic connections and reference points between vastly different countries and histories, but the capaciousness it fosters also comes at the expense of deeper specificity and nuance. Furthermore, to the extent that political history takes a backseat in the Fowkes’s survey, the criteria for what constitutes politics—and for what ought to be omitted or included in their study—are at times unclear. The book supplants inquiries into state socialism’s political and ideological strictures with forays into sociohistorical and theoretical arenas that overlap with or directly respond to socialism’s statist models and political doctrines. This includes institutional histories, Marxism, subversive artistic practices, and “contemporary concerns” (9), which are described as ecological, technological, feminist, posthumanist, and socialist. These interconnected categories broaden the authors’ definition of political history in a manner that mirrors the book’s vast geographic boundaries and renders nebulous its analytical scope. Put somewhat differently, at times Central and Eastern European Art reproduces rather than resolves Removing Romania’s central problem. Here again politics and political histories become paradoxically absent, elusive, and ubiquitous.

These issues don’t undermine the value of this much-needed book. Rather, they pull into focus how Eastern Europe’s political histories, with their distinctive stickiness and unshakability, pose unique problems and possibilities for artists and art historians. Recognizing the difficulty of suturing together the region’s art, culture, history, and politics, Zdenka Badovinac advocates for an approach to the writing of history that upholds multiple voices and perspectives. This multiplicity, however, contains its own pitfalls, legibility being one. “It is not enough,” she acknowledges, “to provide a variety of narratives, as if they make up a happy family or multiplicity. Rather, the kind of historicizing I advocate requires that we draw attention to the position of the narrator and to the institutional or geopolitical contexts in which they speak—and that we do so without further reifying the past.” (Zdenka Badovinac, “Histories and Their Different Narrators,” in Comradeship: Curating, Art, and Politics in Post-Socialist Europe, ed. J. Myers-Szupinska, New York: Independent Curators International, 2019, 159.) Badovinac refers to these narrators as agents of historicization, as writers of history whose distinct perspectives illuminate the kaleidoscopic complexity of East European art and of each author’s stake in its global standing.

In their introduction, the Fowkes loosely carve out the parameters of such a position. “This account,” they explain, “is biased towards experimental practices that, prior to 1989, often developed in tension with officially promoted agendas, as well as to those contemporary approaches that partake in the artistic exchanges of the global art scene” (9). But just as readily they acknowledge productive exceptions to these criteria: “Coverage is also occasionally extended to practices that had a more ambivalent position between national culture and the international arena” (9). It is amid these moments of exception in which political ambiguity and institutional complexity flourish, and in their writing on art after 1989, where the authors’ narrative seems most vital and their authorial prowess shines through most vividly.

Chapter 1 opens with one such point of deviation. Covering the period after World War II and through the late 1950s, the authors trace the development of surrealism, abstraction, and socialist realism. Their account is indebted to Piotr Piotrowski’s In the Shadow of Yalta (2009) but significantly builds on their predecessor’s work. Color reproductions of artworks, seldom accessible outside regional museums, provide valuable resources that are bound to generate new scholarship on this understudied decade. A notable example is Wojciech Fangor’s Figures (1950). The authors accompany the reproduction of this work with a succinct description of how the painting simultaneously critiques and upholds Polish socialist realism in a manner that captures ambiguities and uncertainties many felt toward the new socialist system.

Chapters 2 and 3, which focus on the 1960s and 1970s, respectively, introduce readers to leading neo-avant-garde artists and artworks. Here, however, the authors fall into the trap of multiplicity that Badovinac warns against. As these chapters move swiftly across a region on the precipice of radical transformation and its aftermath, they survey developments in performative and dematerialized artistic practices but gloss over the sociopolitical complexity of these decades and its significance for contemporary art. For instance, in the scope of one page (86), the authors cite fourteen artists from across Hungary, Romania, and Lithuania and discuss artworks produced during a period that spans a decade. While one can understand their reasons for doing so (in a brief survey, something has to give), certain artworks and artistic gestures, especially the subtle performative, site-specific, and dematerialized works these chapters discuss, risk obscurity without a deeper understanding of their political context and specific sense of place. The cursory treatment of Jiri Kovanda’s Untitled (1976) is a case in point.

The Fowkes hit their stride in chapters 5, 6, and 7, and it’s here that the significance of their project comes to the fore. Chapter 5 begins with the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. Rather than moving steadfastly forward toward triumphalist narratives of democracy to come, the authors tread slowly. The chapter lingers amid socialism’s memories and monuments and studies how artists in the 1990s examined their own roles and the roles of family members in the socialist state. Highlights include Nedko Solakov’s Top Secret (1989–90), in which the artist self-critically displays a drawer of index cards detailing his collaboration with the Bulgarian secret service in the early 1980s, and Anri Sala’s Intervista (1998), a film featuring footage of the artist’s mother professing party ideals as a member of Albania’s Communist Youth.

Chapter 6 examines the changes of the postsocialist era as shaped by the expansion of the European Union to include Bulgaria and Romania and by the 2008 financial crisis. The authors cite the establishment of new institutional networks—namely, the Soros Centers for Contemporary Art—and demonstrate how by the late 2000s artists in Central and Eastern Europe were deeply familiar with and had developed nuanced critiques of the shortcomings of neoliberal capitalism. Guided by self-critical and self-reflective tendencies developed in the 1990s, this emerging generation of artists interrogated capitalism’s shortcomings and sought to challenge its amnesiac erasure of socialism’s past. By the 2010s, the focus of chapter 7, the authors explain how waves of migration and economic instability exacerbated by the financial crisis and expansion of the EU impelled artists, including Jasmina Cibic, Katarina Šević, and Armando Lulaj, to seek out new critical models and collective solutions to an untenable political trajectory. For artists throughout the region, these alternative models span the socialist, technological, environmental, and posthumanist realms. 

From the shadow of state socialism, Central and Eastern European Art Since 1950 culls a vibrant, future-oriented account of contemporary art that is galvanized not by a thin hope for Western-style democracy but by a steadfast reevaluation of local histories, collective memories, and artistic traditions. That these final chapters are among the book’s strongest is due in part to the artists’ own self-critical and self-historicizing tendencies—to their role as agents of historicization, as Badovinac might put it. But the chapters’ strength is also due to the tight narrative the authors weave and the shrewd choices they make in guiding readers through the region’s changing economic, institutional, and artistic landscapes. And while the Fowkes leave the problems of politics unresolved, this indispensable survey does the hard work of charting new art historical terrains, providing readers with ample resources (including a rich and exhaustive bibliography) and insights to tackle this problem on their own.

Nicoletta Rousseva
PhD candidate, Department of Art History, University of Illinois, Chicago