Prague art symposium makes art history

Kampa Museum of Modern Art

Artists, art historians and art lovers fill a cozy, attic meeting room on the top floor of the Kampa Museum of Modern Art. They are looking at slides of abstract Polish prints from the 1960s. Later they will watch experimental Hungarian films from the Bela Balazs studio in Budapest. They came here on Wednesday night - to begin a long overdue conversation.

Kampa Museum of Modern Art
This conversation - which is taking place in the form of a 5-day international symposium in Prague - is about the face, colour and shape of the recent history of East Central European art. The region's politics and history as well as its diversity - has resulted in a real absence of understanding of this region's 20th century art.

Vit Havranek is an art historian and curator based in Prague, who played a major role in getting this particular conversation started. He said the symposium is trying to bring artists and art historians from the region together to begin understanding each other as well as the nature of modern Central European art.

"To be at least informed, what is happening in Hungary or what is happening in Poland, and also what was happening in the 60s and 70s, because we have this kind of idea that it was the same everywhere ... but it wasn't in fact, especially in the 60s and 70s, the cultural and artistic development of the countries, there were really very different things happening in Yugoslavia or in Poland or in Czech Republic, also due to the political situation."

The symposium's talks, films and slide shows - attended by artists and art critics from across the region - and also by the general public - will try to begin to fill this void of a history of Central European art.

"There is just the absence of it in the general history of art. We would like to point out that the artists were very good also in the east, as well as in the west. It's not the border that makes it different - but the reception of the art makes it different, because there is no art market, so there is no this academic art history which would bring it into the general western context. So we have to do it by ourselves somehow."

Up until recently - it has been difficult to find information or resources on the history of 20th century Central European art as a whole. A project to bring the writings of art critics from across the region together into one book - is a weighty proposition.

But, the Museum of Modern Art in New York took on this proposition- and began work on an anthology of writings by art historians and artists from across Central Europe and Russia. The book - which took about four years to make and involved the work of more than 100 collaborators from across the region, is called Primary Documents. The book provided the some of the inspiration for this week's symposium in Prague.

Jay Levenson runs international programs for the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

"We thought it was important because for so many years the contacts were rather sporadic. And then things changed suddenly at the beginning of the '90s but there hasn't been much time to examine the entire period - the last five or six decades. So we thought it was important to have one place where people could get an overall sense of what was going on throughout the period. And since a lot of the work was conceptual, and involved the artists' experiences as well as what they produced, we thought the texts were important as well."

Tomas Pospiszyl, a Prague art historian, was one of the book's editors. He says there were some very particular challenges involved in writing a book on East Central European art.

"I don't think it's only the history but also different languages, because you have 14 different languages and only some of them are Slavic, so it was a very difficult process to go through all the translations, making sense of this avalanche of essays that we were receiving at the museum."

The symposium has just begun and runs until Sunday. Between now and then, film screenings, lectures and slide shows will continue as the people here have a lot of catching up to do.