Rethinking Europe: Artistic Production and Discourses of Art in the late 1940s and 1950s.


Concept: Arnold Bartetzky, Marina Dmitrieva, Barbara Lange and Tanja Zimmermann


The repercussions that Europe’s political reorganization after World War II had on the world of art are characterized in a term by Piotr Piotrowski: “Shadow of Jalta”. Following 1945, the scopes of artistic action were transformed and shaped by new national borders, different political systems with unstable alliances, and varying conceptions of how art should engage in the pacification and restructuring of the region. However, artists did not merely react to this situation; rather, they actively participated in rebuilding Europe by employing genuinely artistic means, challenging political decisions, and thus contributing to the negotiations about the issues of what “Europe”, “European culture”, and “nation” actually mean.

 

Recent debates have shown that a mapping of post-war art should be based neither on political nor on stylistic criteria alone, as doing so involves the danger of repeating ideological patterns of the cold war. The entangled diversity of post-1945 art production would therefore not be recognized and fully acknowledged. Hence, the conference Rethinking Europe aims at the development of a critical approach to art of the late 1940s and 1950s that takes into account the complex political framework as well as Europe’s unique position within a global context. In our conference we will address this subject matter from four different angles.

1. Traditions and Innovations

In the aftermath of World War II, the rebuilding of the destroyed continent and the artistic dealings with the devastations caused by war, genocide, Fascism, as well as Soviet communism were grounded in the ambiguous conviction that Europe was deeply entrenched in a tradition of civilization that needed to be restored. In accordance with modernist concepts, art was supposed to establish a peaceful society that would employ its technological knowledge to the benefit of mankind. This ideal, however, was heavily impaired by the actual political differences that eventually led to the emergence of diverse and controversial narratives. In Panel 1, we shall dissect these narratives and discuss the means and strategies (for instance, experiments with artistic media and materials) used by post-war artists to turn these dispositions into a productive dialogue. Moreover, we will specifically address how artists dealt with the heritage of Jewish culture and consider the mechanisms involved in the artistic engagement with Europe’s colonial history.

2.  Matters of Form

In the course of reorganizing the post-war art scene, aesthetic and media-critical controversies from the first half of the twentieth-century were taken up again. These debates had revolved around issues of individual freedom in relation to society as a whole as well as the role that art should play within society. Depending on the respective political system, diverging goals were now associated with these considerations and various artistic possibilities emerged to debate and realize said goals. Yet despite the obvious differences within these debates, a link can be noticed between the vision of a utopian future on the one hand and the recourse to a harmonizing and reassuring past (as exemplified by involvements with folk art, the use of seemingly primal materials, or experiments in artistic production) on the other. Panel 2 focuses on such phenomena, seeks to broaden the debate on ideologically informed concepts of mimesis, and evaluates the impact art and cultural histories had on negotiations concerning matters of form.

3. Entanglements

The end of World War II and the restructuring of Europe not only opened up novel opportunities for exploration and exchange. On the contrary, the new political landscape also disrupted established ties and traditions, forcing artists to search for novel ways of artistic exchange. In addition, the consequences of emigration and flight (prior to 1945 and afterwards) as well as the end of colonial relations altered both the European and the global art scene. Europe’s entanglement with other regions of the world, thus, was deepened and accelerated at the same time, making it all the more difficult to give a simple answer to the question what a “European identity” might actually comprise. Panel 3 shall focus on international communication, travel, information media, the formation of artist groups, and exhibition activities. Overriding question will be how artistic exchange was continued, (re-)established, and cultivated after the end of World War II. We will examine how networks of cultural and artistic entanglements emerged that transcended national and fixed territorial orders.

4.  Impulses and Perspectives for Further Research

The conference’s effort to contribute to the development of a new perspective on European post-war art is related to current debates about identity that include issues of politics of memory as well as international border politics. With regard to future research and theory formation, Panel 4 shall reflect on debates concerning cultures of remembrance and contemplate further models and concepts that could be applied in order to arrive at a better understanding and reappraisal of European art from the late 1940s and 1950s.