East European Art Peripheries Facing Post-Colonial Theory
One of the main challenges of recent art historical studies seems the come from globalization. Whether its response is convincing or not is another question, but it looks like art history tries to deal with this problem, and one of the points of reference for this scholarship, actually the key one, is post-colonial studies. This way of thinking, coming mostly from history, literature, and philosophy provides most important concepts to the so-called global art history. Analyzing a global art history is another question for a different occasion.1 Here, just let me mention that it is a complex issue, related among others to rethinking modernism, its decentralizing, a question of a pluralism of modernisms, a new geography etc.2 The real point of departure of this paper is that a couple of East European scholars are very enthusiastic to use post-colonial studies in their own research on these European peripheries.3 I am not going directly to argue with that rather occasional than systematic research. What I would like to do here, instead, is just to say that if Eastern Europe, one of European peripheries that will be the real subject of this paper, wants to find out its place in this intellectual context it should attempt to discuss the question how post-colonial studies could or could not shape this research.4 At the end of this paper I would suggest that art geography, or critical art geography might be more effective in such a study than post-colonial theories. I am not going to say that post-colonial theory is useless while studying European peripheries, and cannot share some concepts with our subject matter, e.g. such as imperialism, racism, exclusions, repressions etc.; what I am saying instead is that the post-colonial matrix, while applying to European peripheries research, including Eastern Europe, would simplify the issue and could not touch the real problem. Let me also add that what I am going to say comes from an art historical position, from an experience of visual art so to speak, and not from general cultural history, literature, etc. Although we can see a general historical background of all cultural activities, that is still a big methodological difference while talking on literature on the one hand, or visual art history on the other.
I will present my position by drawing four arguments and one case study.
Let me begin by noting that post-colonial studies are developing mostly in literature, or philosophy, which in fact is a kind of literature as well. The most important concepts and analytical methods used to be originated there, and as such not always do they fit in our discipline, i.e. visual art history. The most interesting discussion of post-colonial theory was written by Rasheed Araeen, the editor-in-chief of the Third Text. In his epilogue for The ‘Third Text’ Reader under the very striking title “A New Beginning,” Araeen raised fundamental doubts about the concepts and ideology of post-colonial studies, formulated–paradoxically–from the post-colonial perspective.5 First of all he distinguishes a post-colonial condition from post-colonial studies. While the former is the political, intellectual, social, cultural, etc., situation mostly found in the West, i.e. in former colonial metropolises, and could be a subject for multidisciplinary research done from as many as possible perspectives, the latter according to him is an ideological discourse couched in the language of academia.
Let’s start from fundamental, and at the same time quite obvious remark: literature operates with language, which in its nature is national, or ethnic (which of course is not the same). Literature, including modern literature, is always mediated by language, whether it would be a language of the colonized, or the colonizer. Participation in modern culture, universal, cosmopolitan “imagined community,” thus, is always mediated by language, or languages, i.e. “indirect” in its nature. Metaphors, concepts, constructions and narratives are somehow translated on particular languages, having their own ideological burdens. In art, especially in the so-called high art, but not only, we also have similar traditional burdens, which used to influence our understanding of modernity, or modernism (this is not the same of course), but participation in visual and artistic culture, or “international style,” allegedly universal, seems to be more “direct,” than in the case of literature. We have been taught to believe that the human being sees more universally, than he or she reads. It is of course a sort of construction. Araeen, however, criticizes the “hybrid subject” or “culture in between” (e.g., literature written in a language of diaspora, i.e. not in the native language of particular writer), which are fundamental concepts of post-colonial studies, identified as buffers of tensions between the colonizer and colonized, and notes that (visual) artists who were supposed to be in exile, such as Brancusi (Romanian), Wifredo Lam (Cuban), or Picasso (Spaniard) and others coming from different continents, were actually not émigrés, since they did not recognize themselves in terms of diaspora, rather they acknowledged their situation as the privilege to be in a cosmopolitan community creating new culture; they felt that they were a part of larger modern and universal art milieu, that they created new international art, whether they came from Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe, or from somewhere else in the world. According to Araeen the so-called “being in exile” was a result of their desire to be in the center of the new artistic world, in Paris, and not to be forced to be “in between.” This is something, Araeen continues, that “the post-colonial cultural theory does not understand or does not want to understand” (“A New Beginning,” 340). Of course, he does not ignore post-colonial studies as such; on the contrary–he sees it as one of the most important perspectives in the way to understand the post-colonial condition, the core of the contemporary world. What he is doing instead is just a critical approach to some of its methodological concepts and practices.
For us, art historians, this is a very important contribution to rethink the complexity of European peripheries, stressing both a distinctiveness of art from other cultural production, and its particularity in relation between the center and peripheries in the old continent. Not only the above-mentioned Lam, Picasso, or Brancusi, but others, too, could be the subject of such a study.
The main concept of post-colonial studies, and at the same time the main problem, is the question of Eurocentrism, or rather its critique. Without such a critique globalizing Eastern Europe will not be possible, since the way to make East European art global goes via Europe, not against it. For post-colonial scholars, instead, Europe is the negative rhetorical figure. Post-colonial scholars used to homogenize culture of the old continent. Frankly speaking they can perform such a simplification, since for their purposes detailed differentiation of inner-European issues, including inner-colonization, does not have much sense. Europe for them is “simply” the Dutch, Belgian, English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish colonizer. They do not care so much about Moldavia, Lithuania, Slovenia or Slovakia, and the latter are very often confused to each other; they do not care about Poland which does have its own Eastern colonization history;6 nor Russia with Western colonization. Italian colonial history is a little bit grotesque, and Scandinavian countries did not have such an experience at all, not to mention Ireland, which was the subject of British colonial imperialism—an imperialism sometimes even more severe than that imposed on India, since it definitely was not the “jewel in the crown.” The quite inverted problem shows Greece, one of the sources of European civilization, which was not the colonizer, rather the colonized country. Indeed, Greece was colonized by the so-called oriental Empire, i.e. Ottomans’ Turkey. In one word: there was not one Europe: it was both the colonizer, and colonized, imperial and occupied, dominating and subordinated. For us, thus, studying European pluralism, a critique of the homogenizing vision of Europe such as the one produced by post-colonial studies, seems to be crucial. Their concept of Eurocentrism turns out to be a little bit problematic—at very least, not so useful for research into European peripheries.
A couple of consequences should be drawn from above, since the next crucial concept of post-colonial studies, namely the “other,” also looks problematic. For British colonizers the Indians and Native Americans are obviously “others,” just as Arabs were or are for the French, or Amerindians for Spaniards. Of course, it’s a sort of simplification. The relationship between the self and the other is not the same in Asia, as in–let’s say–Latin America. As Walter Mignolo argues, America was conceived of by Europe not in terms of “difference,” but of extension, as the daughter of Europe, its promised future, and not, as in the case of Asia or Africa, as the past. He calls it Occidentalism, which–contrary to Orientalism–means the above-mentioned extension, not otherness.7 That was at the beginning. The situation started to be even more complicated when Latin American countries gained their independence. The main groups of people who supported it and identified themselves with America, Mignolo argues, where Creoles and intellectuals born in America from Spanish descents, and not indigenous Amerindians (Local Histories/Global Designs, 130, 137). So now, if we look forward, we see that for Latin Americans the other could be both Spaniards, former colonizers, and Amerindians, former colonized; what’s more–in the course of decades of the twentieth century, when Latin America was (and still is) the subject of North America’s neo-colonial strategy–the U.S. could appear as the other as well. If we, however, turn our attention to art and culture, we would see close relations between South America and Western Europe, especially France, both before and after World War II, which wouldn’t be called the real other in that case. Anyway, coming back to the issue, which is to say, Central and Eastern Europe, West Europeans—Czechs, Hungarians or Poles—are not really “others”; rather, they are “not-real-others,” or “close-others,” so to speak,8 at least if we compare them with Amerindians, Arabs, Africans etc. The same goes for the other side: Slovaks or Bulgarians would not call Austrians, Germans, or Spaniards the “other,” which would not be the case with Indians or Africans. The “close other” lives and thinks in the same episteme, in the same system of perception and understanding of the world, the same cultural models, traditions, religion, etc. This is a fundamental difference. West European art centers are, for the artists from Prague or Zagreb, not exactly, or not entirely, external, as they are, for example, for artists from Shanghai. Thus, the Parisian avant-garde (cubism, for instance) was not the same at the beginning of the 1920s in Lvov as it was in Calcutta. Marginal European countries, in the East, South and North, or even West (Portugal), were not the countries where “art history had no history,” as Andrea Buddensieg once said of Rasheed Araeen (from Pakistan).9 That is to say, European peripheries (including Central-Eastern Europe) did participate in the development of art history as an academic discipline; South-East Asia did not. Therefore, the supposedly analoguous syncretism in the reception of cubism does not hold in Krakow, or Riga, as it did in Calcutta.
Let me briefly develop the last example and compare it with the situation in East-Central Europe, i.e. the exhibition of the Bauhaus artists in Calcutta in December 1922, and its impact over Indian art, analyzed by Partha Mitter some years ago,10 on the one hand, and the situation in Galicia, the province of Austro-Hungarian Empire, later independent Poland, just after World War I,11 on the other. The Bauhaus exhibition in Calcutta, which consisted of art works of Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Lyonel Feiniger, Johannes Itten, George Muche, Gerhardt Marcks, Lothar Schreyer, etc., was a sort of founding moment of modern art there, which helped to develop the Bengal School artists, including one of its leading members, Gagenendranath Tagore, into a part of international modernism, and at the same time to join that Bengal school to what Mitter called “global primitivism,” or “virtual cosmopolitanism.” Its point of departure was the Western avant-garde and its critique of (Western) materialism, which was supposed to make way for a spiritual rebirth of humankind. Western avant-garde artists, as Partha Mitter argues, referred to the Eastern knowledge in order to achieve their goals. It was not the colonial strategy, as was the hegemonic impact of the Western academic model of art on India; rather, the universal prospect of “global critical modernity” was based on the spiritual unity of human beings. As it developed, Indian art following the Calcutta exhibition stressed the local discourse of “primitivism,” including Bengal rural culture. Sometimes, however, the situation concerning “global primitivism” was more complex. As Andrea Giunta has noted referring to the strategies of modernity in Latin America, we would observe the “appropriation of appropriation,” made in a subversive way of course, as in the case of one of the most famous Cuban artist, Wifredo Lam, who turned to the so-called primitive, or native, art not directly, but via cubism. That is to say, his appropriated cubism, mediated his interest in native Cuban art when Lam came back to the island at the beginning of the 1940s, after living for years in Paris.12
That was not, however, the case of India. Here we would do better to speak about mediation, rather than appropriation. Even after 1947, when India declared its independence, the rural cultural references in modern art, a sort of local mediation of modernity, did not disappear. On the contrary, as Rebecca M. Brown argues, it was one of the important components of Indian identity expressed by modern art. This complex issue she calls “the modern Indian paradox,”13 and the result is that Indian artists did not draw a “radical conclusion” (in the Western sense of the word) from artistic revolution of the beginning of the twentieth century, as for example Russians did, and were not so much interested in pure abstract art, neither before nor after 1947, including the famous Progressive Artists’ Group, at least up till the beginning of the 1960s, when the Group 1890 emerged on the art scene. The problem, however, is that the source of this impact came from a culture of the colonizer, even if the art was critical of the colonizer.14 Cubism, the artistic heart of these processes, at least at the beginning, even if it was not recognized as the art of the colonizer itself, since in fact it helped to develop a critique of colonialism by joining with local folk tradition, still was seen as the art from outside, as art from the other culture.
Such a conclusion would not apply in the case of Austrian Galicia, former and later Poland. Lvov, then the capital of the province, was the scene of the first manifestation of modern art, or avant-garde if you like, almost ten years before Calcutta exhibition. The exhibition “Futurists, Cubists, and Expressionists” took place there in 1913. It was organized with the cooperation of Der Sturm Gallery in Berlin, and Wassily Kandinsky, Alexander Jawlensky, Oskar Kokoschka, Bohumil Kubišta and others were shown there. It coincided with the interest in cubism seen in some artists in the region, in Krakow, however, rather than in Lvov. One thinks of Tytus Czyżewski, Gustaw Gwozdecki, and Zbigniew Pronaszko, who were later the initiators of the Formists group. Quite interesting might be that their first exhibition in Krakow (named at that time “Polish Expressionists”) was accompanied by folk glass painting referring to genuine, indigenous local culture, thus stressing their “Polishness.” Up till now I can say that we see a process similar to that in India some years later—a sort of mediation of modern art by local visual tradition and practice, especially among those artists who referred quite clearly to it in their own art production, at least at that time. Obviously it was a manifestation of the national identity through modern form, and such a form had of course ideological meaning. In short it claimed to be both modern and national, which was very important in the wake of regaining independence by Poland just at the end of the World War I. When it happened, when a Polish independent state was set up and stabilized in the course of few years, the artists simply left this local mediation of modern art. The point is that modern art was not perceived as a symbol of–let’s say–a close colonizer, but rather as a symbol of modernity coming from the cultural capital, Paris. It is a general view. However, if we come closer we can see the situation more complexly, maybe less in Krakow, but in Pozna?, another Polish province of the close colonizer, Germany, or Prussia to be precise. I am referring here to the Bunt (or Revolt) group, formed by Stanisław Kubicki, radical Polish-German artist, closely associated with Der Sturm and Die Aktion, and later with Die Kommune and Progressive Künstler groups, who came to Poznań from Berlin in 1917 and organized the first Bunt exhibition there in 1918. It met a very hostile reception in the city, since modern forms associated with expressionism at this time were definitely identified as German, as of the colonizer (or close, or neighborhood colonizer so to speak), and the relations between Germans and Poles were quite hostile in the entire province, and in the city in particular. It was a different situation than that in Krakow or Lvov, since the close colonizer, or neighborhood colonization strategy was different. Nevertheless, modern art forms were in the course of the post-WW I decade seen as the “self,” rather than the “other,” especially in the avant-garde milieu, even if they were seen in the framework of political competition.
Now the third question: who really was the colonizer, and who was the colonized? The question “who is who” is definitely more problematic in East-Central Europe than in India, and it does not apply to the issue of the status of the colonizer only: overseas colonizer in India’s case, and–as I’ve said–the close, or neighborhood colonizer in Eastern Europe. However, even such a roughly sketched distinctions are simplified. We can say that German or Prussian colonization, a sort of “Drang nach Osten,” was colonization per se, in terms of culture, education, and other “soft factors,” which came together with the “hard factors,” such as politics and economy. As far as Russia is concerned, the situation would not be so simple, since the western part of the Russian Empire seems to have been more economically developed than other parts. Likewise culture, in terms of symbolic capital, did not come entirely to that part of Poland from St. Petersburg; rather, it arrived from the West, especially from Munich and Paris. Even more, that was the same trajectory in terms of Russian metropolises, which also were under strong Western influences. Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine were definitely occupied, or exploited, rather than colonized in the traditional sense of the word. I agree, however, with Ewa Thompson, that the colonial discourse was inscribed in Russian great literature, even more: from some points of view we can say that it is, at least partly, colonial literature, but it does not mean that in historical practice culture was a tool of colonization, as it was in the former case, Prussia’s. It explained why the Poznań audience was so hostile to Kubicki, and the Warsaw one did not protest against (actually later, after the Soviet war in 1920) Russian constructivism, which in fact appeared in different time and context.15 Whatever we would say about Tsarist or Prussian colonial strategy, each of which differs from the other, it is different from that of Austria, or of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In that case I would like to draw you attention to Czech lands.
Bohemia, or the Czech Kingdom, frankly speaking lost its independence in 1620. What is important is that at the beginning of the twentieth century it was a province of the Habsburgs’ Empire. However, unlike Galicia, it was very developed and advanced in terms of industry and education, more advanced than the capital, Vienna, and its neighborhood. Politically speaking of course Bohemia was under Austrian domination, but it would be hard to say that it was the same in terms of culture, even if we agree that the region was heavily Germanized. Of course, the Czechs wanted to recover their own national tradition, especially in the nineteenth century, but how it was attractive to the local intelligentsia at the beginning of the twentieth century is an open question. We know, however, that cubism appeared at the time as a very attractive tool for constructing a modern Czech identity, one that was regional rather than national, which is to say, understood in terms of cultural geography rather than ethnicity. Czech cubism emerged as very popular style, or cultural manifestation, among the city dwellers, professionals, intellectuals and business people, in one word among the metropolitan class of Prague, as the alternative to both: folk, or peasant tradition, and Viennese fin de siècle culture. If colonization means the culture of the colonizer overshadows that of the colonized, it was not the case of Prague, at least not at that moment. Czech cubism, thus, referring to the world cultural metropolis, Paris, was not perceived in Prague as the other; on the contrary–it was recognized as the self of European high culture, actually modern culture as the product of modern, highly civilized society. This is the background of the future of Prague, later the capital of Czechoslovakia, one of the most democratic countries between the World Wars, and at the same time one of the modernist cultural capitals of Europe.16
After 1945 the question who was the colonizer and who was the colonized in East-Central Europe, in the Soviet Bloc dominated by the USSR, is even more interesting and far away from the “classical” colonial and post-colonial paradigm. Definitely, the Soviets after 1947-48, by seizing full power in Czechoslovakia, as well as in Poland and Hungary (although, in fact, in two latter countries they already held it before), and by introducing hard Stalinist cultural policy, including Socialist Realism as the mandatory style and theory in the region, did open a way for a sort of colonization. At that moment everything is clear: there was the colonizer (the USSR), and the colonized (East-Central European countries). However, after Stalin’s death, and especially after Khrushchev’s so-called secret speech in February 1956, the situation began to be more complicated. Generally speaking the colonizer was gradually withdrawing its interest in colonizing art and culture and opened what came to be known as a thaw. In some countries, including the German Democratic Republic and the USSR itself, Socialist Realism remained the official art language, which did not mean that it was the only style that could be practiced and exhibited even in those places. But in other places, especially in Poland, Socialist Realism disappeared completely, since the communist authorities simply did not support it. On the contrary, as the famous exhibition of the twelve socialist countries (Art of Socialist Countries) in Moscow in 1958 showed, Polish communists preferred to show abstract, or semi abstract (indeed: modern) art at the most official art exhibition in the Eastern Bloc.17 They were, of course, criticized by other participants, including the Soviet officials, and even mocked by the press, but at the same time, Polish curators (actually, the officials as well) showed their independence from Soviet cultural policy. The point is, therefore, that the alleged colonizer gave up its colonizing strategy and turned out to be “just” the military occupant and economic exploiter. At least, it was such a situation in Poland after 1956. Thus, let’s ask what was the decolonizing strategy here? Quite simple: looking to the West, and bringing new modern art forms from there, especially from France and its informel painting. It was so popular and so much supported by the authorities that the opening of the Second Exhibition of Modern Art in Warsaw in 1957 (showing almost only abstract art) was attended by high-ranking communist officials. We can say, on the other hand, that it was another cultural colonization. If that was the case, it looks like one colonization was replaced, or displaced, by another one, but the latter was welcomed very much, and seen as liberation. To some extent it was like in Calcutta in 1922, in that the art of colonizers (academism) was replaced by its critique (cubism). This is not, however, a correct analogy since in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and some years later Hungary, it was a different geo-political trajectory: culturally speaking the East (USSR) was replaced by the West, but the East–this time speaking in terms of politics–was still the dominant political power in the region. The situation is even more complex since France itself was the object of another cultural colonizing strategy, as Serge Guilbaut has argued.18 French culture, especially film production, was a victim of the Marshall Plan, which was as much economic aid as cultural supervision.
If we now look at this situation from the global perspective, since the Cold War was a global phenomenon, indeed, we can see these processes were even more complicated. The Cold War was a competition between the West and East, so to speak the First and the Second worlds, but one of the targets of this cultural competition was the Third World. In terms of art it was a competition between two universalist myths: abstract art, and Socialist Realism.
V (Case Study)
As a case study of center-peripheries relationship in Europe let’s take Kazimir Malevich’s art story. The artist never went to Paris, although he wanted to.19 His only trip to the West, or generally speaking abroad, was in 1927. He was supposed to reach Paris, then still seen as the capital of world modern culture. On his way, he stopped in Warsaw for one month and in Berlin for two months, then returned to Russia, and did not continue to France. Only in 1957 were his works shown in Paris for the first time, namely in the framework of the exhibition Précurseurs de l’art abstrait en Pologne at the Denise Réné Gallery.20 This desired trip shows what exactly Rasheed Araeem had in mind while talking about Paris. Although radical avant-garde art after World War I had been developing in different parts of Europe, including and in particular the Soviet Russia, when radical visual forms became a project of the new post-revolutionary—i.e., communist—world, the artists still saw Paris as the right place to be.
Definitely, Malevich is not a peripheral artist in terms of his significant role in a mainstream history of modern art. On the contrary, he was one of the key and most important founders of avant-garde and modern art in the world. However, he was not an artist (nor is any artist, indeed) who came from nowhere. As Andrzej Turowski explains in his groundbreaking book (unfortunately, available at the moment in Polish only) Malevich in Warsaw, Malevich was a Russian artist, born in Ukraine, to a Polish family.21 According to Turowski this background had a formative, or at least important function in Malevich’s whole life and art, and this complex relationship is the real issue I refer to here. Ukraine, the place where Malevich was born, suffered from long neighborhood colonization, first Polish, then Russian, and later Soviet. Ukraine national and cultural identity has been always constructed against one or two colonizers, and it did not have such a pre-colonial golden-age point of reference as India had. Nevertheless, there were some attempts to create a modern art milieu in Kiev around and after World War I, attempts which were both modern and Ukrainian. As Miroslava Mudrak has written that milieu was Panfuturism, an artistic and literary movement, which developed into Ukrainian constructivism and culminated in the publication of the journal New Generation (1927-1930).22 Although Malevich had not so much in common directly with these events, it was in the New Generation where he was able to publish his writings while facing trouble in Moscow after falling into disfavor with the Soviet authorities. Also in Kiev he gave one of his last lectures, and the last publication (when he was still alive) appeared in this city as well, in the Avant-Garde Almanac; even more: the exhibition of his works was also planned in Kiev, and if it had been realized, it would be the last one in the USSR before years of silence, but unfortunately it did not come to pass.23 This Malevich-Ukrainian relation should not be perceived as coming back from the capital of the Empire to the colonized peripheries, which happened to be the place of his birth; rather, it was a practical response to trouble he was facing in the metropolis. It simply seems that the peripheries were more free than the metropolis, at least at that time and in that place.
The Polish story, however, according to Turowski, is more complicated than the Ukrainian. Being a Russian artist, thinking and writing in Russian, Malevich identified himself with the Russian art milieu. Dreaming of going to Paris, as his fellow artists did, he considered at the same time settling in Poland, in the country of his family, where actually some members of his large family, including his brother, used to live at that time. This project was supported by his Polish friends, especially Władysław Strzemiński and the circle of Polish constructivists, but for administrative reasons it was never implemented. The precise reasons remained unclear because many archives were destroyed during World War II. Of course, we do not know what would happen if Malevich had relocated to Poland, and how it would have changed his artistic profile, if at all. What we know is that it definitely would have changed the context of his art, as it did that of Strzemiński’s, who also left revolutionary Russia at the beginning of the 1920s (illegally), and was probably thinking to go West—that is, to Paris, too… (Malewicz w Warszawie , 125). Context, however, is the point here.
Paris used then to be the myth of modern art, rather than the real scene of radical avant-garde in Europe. If Cubism was a sort of lingua franca of modern art before World War I, however, the heart of its radicalism moved out to the East. The artists did not want to fulfill demands of the revolution, or revolutionary leaders–they wanted to create them, actually to create the new society, and they perceived themselves as more radical than politicians. In my opinion that was the core of the avant-garde in the exact meaning of the word. Malevich was one of them, even though he did not join the radical wing of the avant-garde, namely the Productivists. Anyway, Paris and the modern art originated from this mythical capital of modernism, based on cubism as a historical point of departure, were not the “other” for him and his fellow-artists. On the contrary, they were something like a part of the self, or the place of their own ancestry. They combined, especially Malevich, this tradition with other traditions, more local and quite complicated, as Turowski argues. However, the catalyst, accelerator or formative factor of that art was geo-historical context. The conclusion, thus, will be not that the post-colonial relationship between the “other” and “self” might be the methodological approach to European art history, but rather that the geo-historical context of particular art production is the key. Although I am not going to ignore post-colonial studies as possible way to analyze European peripheries, wherever they might be, I would rather propose geo-historical prospect as the basis; I claim for art geography, critical art geography in fact, which generally means that art is not given by the “soil and blood,” as traditional German Kunstgeographie used to say, but is constructed by historical circumstances, understood, in this particular case, however, as operating within the same episteme. The question of a critical geography of art, as I once pointed out, is the question of the relationship between different European places, particularly between West and Central and Eastern Europe, which could be of course applied to the other, non-European places, and is in fact the question of the power of the center and the margins. It is somehow a discourse of space relations, and the space (and its relations) are not of course transparent.24
This way of thinking, let me briefly repeat my previous study, are deeply rooted in Irit Rogoff’s and Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann’s research.25 The crucial approach to the issue seems to be both to understand geography though the question of a place, rather than space, and to historicize it in order to get a dynamic structure between the place and time, geography, or even topography so to speak, and history. Kaufmann, whose studies seem to be very useful in historical research practice, described the “place” in terms of nations (or ethnicity), regions, cities, metropolises, etc. Although my own interest in geography of art is a little bit different—not a migration of objects, stylistic influences, cultural radiations of the centers, diffusion of artistic ideas etc., but rather comparative studies between different art-historical places are my scholarly agenda—nevertheless, to develop such an approach I would say that the context generally speaking understood as the intersection between time and place in its diachronic and synchronic dimension, should be always taken into account. Such a context consists of political, cultural, social, ethnic, sexual and many other references, both real and desirable, seen in the framework of the specific situation in particular place, as well as historical background. Since we are talking about place, it would be quite important to relate the particular place to other places, in terms both of the real nomadic movements (emigration, migration etc.) as well as of desired ones. The key question would be, however, to understand that all those references are not given by blood, soil, landscape, climate, etc., but are constructed by particular circumstances, strongly determined by politics.
To illustrate how it would work let me return to the comparison between Władysław Strzemiński and Kazimir Malevich. The former, while living in Smolensk, was around the latter in the framework of UNOVIS created in Vitebsk 1919, but soon left Soviet Russia illegally for Poland in 1921-22. His first home city was Vilnius (which then belonged to Poland), where he participated in the Exhibition of Modern Art organized by Lithuanian artist Vytautas Kairiukstis, whom he met probably for the first time in Moscow. Malevich remained in Russia, and only in 1927 for the first and last time travelled to the West, stopping–as I have said–for a few weeks in Warsaw. His attempt to possibly settle there failed, and after visiting Berlin he returned to Russia. What happened with those two artists? Strzemiński, who frankly speaking never shared Malevich’s metaphysical theory, but was close to his radical visual language, developed his art into the concept of Unism, which aimed at unifying the surface of the canvas by eliminating any possible visual tensions, on the one hand, and into a spatial analysis (together with Katarzyna Kobro) rooted in Malevich’s Planits and Architektons. Malevich, on the other hand, gave up his radical art, Suprematism, in the mid-1920s, while the atmosphere around the avant-garde begun to be hostile in Russia. By the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s, he somehow went back to the figurative painting that preceded his abstract art, including “peasants” as its subject matters. How his art would develop, if he could leave the country for good, we will never know. What we know is that painting (which is, frankly speaking, fascinating) was a sort of a game that he played with the Soviet government, under circumstances definitely not favorable for abstract art. Strzemiński was free in Poland in the 1920s and 1930s, and was able to do what he wanted. No political game was necessary there at that time; however, he repeated almost the same strategy, picking up similar subject matter at the end of the 1940s, when communism was introduced in Poland, and Socialist Realism began to be not only favored by the party and state officials who were responsible for the cultural politics of artistic style, but also mandatory as the only art it was possible to show to the public. In both cases this political game failed. Communists did not trust the former avant-garde artists, and had different expectations; finally both artists died in poverty and obscurity: Malevich in 1935, Strzemiński in 1952, at two different moments in the history of the same political system, namely Stalinism.
The point, therefore, is: if we think about global art history, postcolonial theory would not be the (only) methodological approach to make it, since the peripheries of the art world are not only postcolonial. The postcolonial scholars who are involved in writing global art history ought to realize that they have to leave their own position, or at least not see it as the privileged and the only point of departure from which to rewrite art history, simply because global art history is broader than a history of former colonies. It has to embrace the other peripheries, as well as the other centers.
The present practice of global art studies based on post-colonial theory faces several problems. One of them is its exclusivity, or priority of former colony-metropolis relation as the key to understand the world. For these theorists, and for their own projects, this is probably an effective approach, since a deconstruction of the colonial-decolonial-postcolonial complex relation is crucial, but this is not global. In the course of history we have had not only different types of colonization, but also different peripheries that experienced a different relation to the center (to the metropolis or metropolises). If postcolonial relations, understood in terms of transcontinental relations might enjoy a privilege to be a universal key to global art history we will finally face another hegemony, and other exclusions, this time as a sort of reverse of the former ones. Global art history must be “horizontal,” deprived of any domination; must be open for both all peripheries and all centers, seen probably as peripheries as well, or at least on equal footing with the peripheries. Although, while studying all hegemonic positions, we can see similar problems with racism, exclusion, imperialism, exploitation, etc., not all peripheries used to define themselves in the same way, since their cultures developed in different epistemic frameworks in comparison to the center’s. Thus, if postcolonial studies cannot work as the only methodological approach to global art history, I would claim for art geography, or critical art geography, to be precise, a greater usefulness, as I suggested above. These sorts of studies are more heterogenic and less homogenic, more open and less exclusive, more plural and less hegemonic.
© Piotr Piotrowski, 2013/ 2014.