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A cultural history of comparative art practices and receptions in Cold War Europe (1945-1991)

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - GYSIART (A cultural history of comparative art practices and receptions in Cold War Europe (1945-1991))

Reporting period: 2020-02-01 to 2021-01-31

GYSIART is aimed at outlining a comparative cultural history of art practices and receptions in Cold War Europe, with a special emphasis on the two German republics, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and Italy. The project aims to expand its field of investigation to a polycentric and inclusive European focus area: a crucial question is that of whether the European dimension was ever considered as a common ground - be it of political, social, artistic or speculative nature - for multilateral art practices within the divided continent. The main cases are provided by multicultural interactions in the field of visual arts. Rather than as manifestations of state policies imposed from above, such interactions have been considered as empirical adaptations and reactions from below. The research intends to investigate to what extent art professionals intentionally adopted and assimilated, to their own advantage, the visual codes and stereotypes of the cultural Cold War. In this framework, art practices have been analyzed not in “spite of” the cultural Cold War, but “because of it”, thus showing its productive effect on the artistic field within divided Europe.
Within the research project, selected art professionals played a pivotal role as main actors and narrative clusters. Data on every player were collected from multiple sources (archive records, memoirs, essays, catalogues, exhibition reviews) and divided into the following categories: Acquisitions, Artworks, Chronology, Exhibitions, Literature (by and on), Press articles (by and on), Popular response. This filing strategy enabled a horizontal, comparative approach to the records, highlighting common threads and idiosyncrasies amongst artistic practices. Data collected during the outgoing period in the United States have been extensively integrated and implemented with data retrieved in the incoming period, and more specifically during the secondment in Germany. As the very epicenter of the Cold War in Europe, Germany, and more specifically Berlin, boast an incomparable collection of sources on this specific subject. Invaluable unpublished records were found at the archives of documenta in Kassel and at the Academy of Arts in Berlin, while primary and secondary sources were collected at several research institutions in Berlin, including the State Library, the Art Library and the Collections of the German Historical Museum. Data collected in Germany highlighted, among others, the early stages of Gabriele Mucchi’s art writing, teaching and exhibiting activities in East Germany. A realist painter and communist activist, Mucchi was a key figure in the artistic debate of the GDR, where Italian "Realismo" played a key-role within the process of self-determination of a German and socialist art. I focussed on his persona and oeuvre as an eloquent example of cross-border partnership across divided Europe and as a significant case for the study of the Cultural Cold War.
Among the scientific results achieved, I published articles in academic journals focusing on single players (Renato Guttuso, Lothar Lang, Gabriele Mucchi, Lev Nusberg, Ernst Neizvestny, and Harald Szeemann). These articles have been further contextualized and implemented within the monograph “Arte sovietica alla Biennale di Venezia, 1924-1962” (published in 2020 with Mimesis). The book analyzes the exhibitions displayed in the Soviet Pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale against the background of the Italian cultural policy and the international Cold War, where multilateral relations with divided Germany, the Eastern bloc and non-aligned Yugoslavia played a primary role. The volume sheds light on the critical reception of socialist art in the international arena of the Biennale, highlighting the role of the Venetian enterprise as stage for international diplomacy, ideological persuasion and artistic showcase. The dissemination outcomes highlighted cross-border interpersonal connections and shared values, as well as ideological misconceptions and local adaptations, as significant cases of cultural transfers across divided Europe, thus contributing to the core concept of the GYSIART project: the productive impact of the cultural Cold War on the art practices within divided Europe.
A key aspect of the present study consists in shedding light on the pragmatic outcomes of the cultural confrontation fed by the ideological competition. As a consequence, artists were not considered as political targets, victims or tokens of State agendas, but rather as active committers. Without giving up their integrity and consistency, they were able to tune their artistic practices and communication strategies to the given circumstances and take advantage from the opportunities provided within divided Europe, where differences produced not only restrictions and confrontations, but also mutual fascination and dialogue.
The research fosters the understanding of communities and individuals across divided Europe. It showed to what extent an historical period, traditionally considered as affected by bias, bans and mutual isolation, generated artistic production and cross-border transfers of knowledge. Given the general interest towards Cold War narratives and imageries in the popular culture, this action attracted the interest of a wide audience (students, scholars, art professionals and public at large), while providing key tools to better understand the impact of this recent period of European history on contemporary society. Mutual understanding among artistic and scholar communities throughout Europe will be the main focus of my future institutional activity within the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Heritage at Ca’ Foscari, through my recent appointment to both delegate for the Erasmus Exchange programme and member of the Research Committee. Within this framework, I intend to develop and enhance cross-border partnerships within European research projects, including the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions.
Poster presenting the GYSIART project
Italian artist Renato Guttuso
Cover of the monograph "Arte Sovietica alla Biennale di Venezia (1924-1962)
Soviet artist Ernst Neizvestny_Photo by Igor Palmin