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

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - GYSIART (A cultural history of comparative art practices and receptions in Cold War Europe (1945-1991))

Reporting period: 2018-02-01 to 2020-01-31

GYSIART is aimed at outlining a comparative cultural history of art practices and receptions in Cold War Europe (1948-1975), with a special emphasis on the two German Republics, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and Italy. Starting from the bilateral art relations in the second half of the 20th century, a topic that I have investigated during my past research stays in Italy, Russia and Germany, 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 will be considered as empirical adaptations and reactions from below. I intend 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 in Europe will be analyzed not in “spite of” the cultural Cold War, but “because of it”, thus showing its productive effect on the artistic field. In order to assess their impact on the public opinion and society, I also examine the critical reception and popular response on the basis of art reviews and visitor comments.
The project is conceived as a multidisciplinary research through training and inter-sectoral mobility in Comparative Studies, History and Art History, to be conducted at the three academic institutions involved, respectively the University of California Santa Barbara (host institution), the University of Hamburg (seat of the secondment) and Ca’ Foscari University of Venice (beneficiary institution).
Within the GYSIART project, selected art professionals play a pivotal role as main actors and narrative clusters (Specific Object 1 - SO1 and Work package 3 - WP3, according to my proposal). The list includes so far Vojin Bakić, Renato Guttuso, Richard Hiepe, Lothar Lang, Gabriele Mucchi, Ernst Neizvestny, Lev Nusberg and Harald Szeemann. Data on every actor have been collected from multiple sources (archive records, memoirs, essays, catalogues, exhibition reviews) and accordingly divided into folders bearing the same name for every actor: Acquisitions, Artworks, Chronology, Exhibitions, Literature (by and on), Press articles (by and on), Popular response. This filing strategy enables a horizontal, comparative approach to the records, highlighting common threads and idiosyncrasies in the artistic practice, but also the operational framework, i.e. the network of institutions and personalities who contributed to the art circulation and popularization. Extensive archive research and data collection have been carried out in the following institutions: the Getty Research Institute (DDR Collection; Harald Szeemann Papers; Lothar Lang collection of East German art ephemera); the Institute of Modern Russian Culture (uncatalogued John Bowlt’s correspondence with artists and scholars from the USSR; “Dissidence” and “Soviet Art” papers); APICE Archive at University of Milan – seat of a secondment in June and July 2019, approved by the officer on May 28 2019 – (Gabriele Mucchi papers, and his activity in the German Democratic Republic); Archivio Storico delle Arti Contemporanee (ASAC), La Biennale di Venezia (display of the national pavilions at the Biennale). As main task of SO2 - WP4, I investigated the critical reception of the selected artists through a broad survey of periodicals issued in the focus countries. Journals from the general press include: «Die Zeit», «Der Spiegel», «Neues Deutschland», «Die Berliner Zeitung», «Danas», «Pravda», «Izvestiia», «Ogonek», «L’Unità», «La Stampa», «Corriere della sera». Journals from the professional art press include: «Kunstforum», «Das Kunstwerk», «Bildende Kunst», «Život umjetnosti», «Iskusstvo», «Inostrannaia Literatura», «Domus», «SeleArte», «Il contemporaneo», «Rinascita». Finally, on the basis of exhibition guest books, correspondence with art amateurs and readers’ letters sent to art journals, I was able to outline an overview of the popular, non-professional reception of the arts on show (SO3, WP5).
Among the scientific results achieved so far, I published two articles in two peer-reviewed journals: the first on the circulation and reception of Renato Guttuso’s work in Socialist Europe in “L’uomo nero”; the second on the correspondence between artist Lev Nusberg and curator Harald Szeemann in the “Getty Research Journal”. Both essays highlight personal connections and shared values, as well as ideological misconceptions and local adaptations, as significant cases of cultural transfers across the Iron Curtain, 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. Finally, I should mention my monograph “Arte sovietica alla Biennale di Venezia, 1924-1962” published in May 2020, which serves as methodological forerunner for the ongoing GYSIART monograph. The book represents the most relevant research product that I will need to submit in order to obtain a qualification within the Italian system (Abilitazione scientifica nazionale, latest deadline on July 11, 2020), hence to ensure, upon the end of the MSCA, a tenured position as associate professor at my current host institution (Ca’ Foscari University).
The research will foster the understanding of strategies and methodologies adopted by art professionals in divided Europe. It will show to what extent an historical period, traditionally considered as affected by bias, bans and mutual isolation, generated artistic production and cross-border transfer of knowledge. The communication of my research outputs is aimed at society at large. Given the general interest towards Cold War narratives and imageries in the popular culture (e.g. in TV series), this action is likely to attract the interest of a wide audience, providing interpretation tools in order to better understand the effects of this recent period of European history on contemporary society. Communication activities to a broader public will be implemented during the incoming period at Ca’ Foscari, through well-established formats such as the European Researchers’ Night/Veneto night.
The project proposal “On the Eve of Revolution: The East German Artist in the 1980s”, with my involvement as project researcher, will be soon under evaluation at the Getty Research Institute. If accepted, it will give me the unique opportunity, after the end of the MSCA, to pursue my collaboration with a renowned institution in the advancement of the fine arts, with a concrete possibility to ensure its partnership with my home university in Venice in the next years.
As a long-term career objective, I see the achievement of a status as independent, internationally recognized scholar, in fields such as Comparative art histories; Art history and Visual culture of European Totalitarian/Socialist countries; Cultural history of the Cold War; Exhibition Studies; Visual imagology, and in general as an activist of comparative European art historian within academic and non-academic sectors.
Poster presenting the GYSIART project
Italian artist Renato Guttuso
Soviet artist Ernst Neizvestny_Photo by Igor Palmin