Amy Bryzgel / Visual Culture

Cold War Art

While on the surface it may appear that artists during the Cold War, East and West, were living worlds apart, common struggles for art’s autonomy united them.

Contemporary Art, East and West

As I teenager, I remember thumbing through the large-format Day in the Life of the USSR photographic album, which was published on the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution. Every page showed a day in the life of the average Soviet citizen – going to work, enjoying the outdoors, taking a bit of exercise. Even then, I imagined that the purpose of the book was to illustrate both the differences between East and West, as well as the similarities. After all, it was Sting who told us, around that same time, that ‘the Russians love their children, too.’

Much of what art historians do involves comparing and contrasting, so it should come as no surprise that, when the countries of the former Soviet Union and its Satellites finally opened up to the West, those in the art world started to do just that: compare. But sometimes, these comparisons only get us so far, because in the case of the former communist countries of Europe, we are not only comparing apples and oranges in terms of different socio-political contexts and historical backgrounds, but by grouping those myriad countries together as ‘the East,’ we step into an art historical minefield, as each individual country represents not only that region, but its own unique microcosm as well. So it is important to remember the background of the communist East, but the local one as well.

During the Cold War, the American Abstract Expressionism was pitted against Soviet Socialist Realism as an example of the different cultural capital produced by artists in the East and in the West, in a communist and capitalist society, respectively. Whereas Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings demonstrated that one nation was open, liberal and tolerant – so the story goes – the propagandistic imagery of Lenin and Stalin by Aleksander Gerasimov, for example, showed how the other was closed, prescriptive and repressive. This neat binary doesn’t hold up for long, however, and when we delve into the distinctive art worlds that flourished under the Soviet regime we see just how inaccurate it is.

It is a convenient truth to say that Soviet artistic production came under complete governmental control, as all artists did have to belong to the Artist’s Union, which gave them access to supplies and a studio. In exchange, artists agreed to produce works of art that supported the Soviet state and illustrated its dream of a communist utopia. After the death of Stalin, however, an underground of artists began to develop, and a new truth emerged. These non-conformist artists worked on official state-sponsored productions during the day, but used their own time to experiment with different styles and genres, such as abstraction, conceptual art, and performance. This underground was a relatively free space where artists could thrive, develop and experiment, so long as they kept their activity confined to the small inner circle of friends and colleagues that they trusted. Further annihilating this myth of the West as free and the East as restricted is a discussion of the effects of capitalism on artists in the West. In the 1960s and 1970s, artists in North America and Western Europe were also fighting an oppressive force of their own: the art market, which controlled who was accepted into the artistic canon and who was not. Thus while artists from Eastern Europe had the overriding ideology to contend with, artists in the West were fighting the commercial corruption of the arts.

In the East, the lines between what was tolerated and what was not were not always hard and fast. For example, abstraction was, in many cases, officially prohibited, however artists managed to conduct experiments with abstract and non-objective art by labelling it ‘design’ and exhibiting their work in venues such as applied arts museums or scientific institutes. While painting, in the domain of the Fine Arts, had to be figurative, design and pattern were considered customary in applied arts or the sciences. The degree to which artists experimented also varied from country to country, and from decade to decade, depending on the historical circumstances. For example, in the late-socialist era, Hungarian artists found ways to operate under the system of the ‘three T’s,’ whereby work was Permitted, Prohibited or Promoted (in Hungarian: Tűr-Tilt-Támogat), which meant that so long as works by some artists were prohibited, others could be permitted, and the least menacing promoted. Prior to the crackdown on the Prague Spring in 1968, artistic production in Czechoslovakia was relatively tolerant. The same can be said of Poland, that is until the institution of Martial Law in 1981. The 1980s in the Baltics, however, witnessed an increase in artistic experiment, as artists rode the wave of the independence movements that were occurring in the socio-political sphere.

When considering specific art forms it is interesting to note the different significance of those genres, East and West. For example, in the West, feminist art developed more or less in concert with the women’s and civil rights movements, as female artists sought to capitalise on the dialogue on inclusion in the public sector, using it as an opportunity to argue for a recognition of the female contribution to the arts, as well as claim a space for art by women in general. In some of her performances, Carolee Schneeman denied the hegemony of male dominated Abstract Expressionist painting, by smearing paint onto her own naked body. Her performances also featured orgiastic scenarios and blatant displays of female sexuality, which was taboo not only in art, but also in the public sector.

The socialist countries of Eastern Europe were theoretically completely egalitarian, with absolute emancipation for women. Consequently, there was no real women’s rights movement to speak of. In practice, however, women retained their traditional roles in the home, yet also were obliged to work, to help build communism. The absence of a feminist movement in Eastern Europe does not mean that there was no art that was critical of traditional gender roles, however, but rather that the resonance of those works of art was different. In some instances, it meant that the ideas of feminism and a deconstruction of gender roles filtered in to society through the arts, rather than originating in social movements. This was the case with the work of Polish artist Katarzyna Kozyra, whose controversial work with the female body in the 1990s sparked a discussion on gender and body issues in society, from within the realm of art.

Performance art was one genre that developed in North America and Western Europe as an escape from the commodified space of the gallery. Allan Kaprow, for example, created happenings that could not be bought or sold, thus removing his work from the market system. Likewise, female artists seized upon performance as a genre that did not have a male dominated historical tradition and canon behind it. In the East, however, performance art enabled artists to create works of art that left no tangible trace, no evidence of nonconformist activity. In a country where public space was heavily surveilled and private space was virtually non-existent, performance artists utilised their bodies to create works of art that were free from state control. The works of Czech artist Jiří Kovanda, for instance, were so subtle that only he and the photographer who captured his actions would know that they were artistic actions at all: accidentally bumping into someone on the street, standing with his arms outstretched on a main street for a few seconds, running away from a meeting in a town square. The genre developed on both sides of the so-called Iron Curtain, to similar ends, but for different reasons.

In actuality, this so-called Curtain was not impenetrable, but porous, and information did penetrate – in both directions. Artists in the East knew about Western artists from various sources: a copy of ArtNews left on the Moscow metro for those-in-the-know to pick up without being noticed; art journal subscriptions in dusty corners of academic libraries that intrepid artists found ways to access; or even artists who travelled to Eastern Europe, bringing their knowledge with them, such as Chris Burden, Ben Vautier and Dick Higgins. The international Fluxus network, for example, was instrumental in transmitting ideas, and Fluxus concerts took place in the 1960s and 1970s across Eastern Europe in Prague, Warsaw and Vilnius.

In the West, we are all too familiar with the images of Pop Art – Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans and silkscreens of Marilyn Monroe, Roy Lichtenstein’s comics, and Claes Oldenberg’s soft sculptures of hamburgers, cakes, and household items. In the East, artists also drew on the material culture of everyday life to create their own version of the genre – Sots Art. While Pop Artists used the products of mass consumerism for their material, Russian Sots Artists, such as Komar & Melamid or Aleksander Kosolapov, found their material in that which had oversaturated their society – ideology. Communist slogans, monumental propaganda, the images of Lenin and Stalin – these were the all-pervasive ‘brands’ that permeated the Soviet visual sphere, the Eastern equivalent of a Coca-Cola label or a Marvel comic. Sots artists used the visual language of Pop Art to draw attention to the fact that, in the absence of commercial mass culture, their supermarket shelves were filled with propaganda.

While on the surface it may appear that artists in the East and in the West were living worlds apart, common themes and struggles for art’s autonomy united them. While the perceived sources of art’s corruption were different, the mechanisms used to fight them were remarkably similar. It may seem obvious that artists from the East looked to the West for sources and inspiration, but the less acknowledged truth was that ideas penetrated the Iron Curtain in the opposite direction as well. Western artists who became aware of work being produced in the East were often equally impressed by what they saw. As with most things, it would be too reductive to speak of contrasts between East and West in terms that are black and white, and a closer look, to examine the particular nuances, can only help to illuminate the striking similarities and differences, East and West. ■

Performing the EastAmy Bryzgel is the author of Performing the East: Performance Art in Russia, Latvia and Poland Since 1980, and Lecturer of History of Art in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen. 

Top image shows Miervaldis Polis. Bronze Man. Performance in Riga, 1987. Polis is pictured walking through the park in front of the Riga Opera House during his jaunt as the Bronze Man. Courtesy of the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art, Riga.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s