Central European Avant-Gardes: A Few Utopian Examples

We have discussed in previous posts the difficulties and complexities of delineating a fixed borderline between the East and the West, and the role Eastern and Central Europe play in this regard.

As Timothy Benson and Éva Forgács emphasize, the term East Central Europe started to be used as a political concept around 1918-19, when the map of the region was redrawn after the war, demarcating an “in-between” zone, or a “Between-Europe” that would separate the East from the West, describing a territory where new states were created or reinstated between 1820 and 1920. But at the same time, they argue, this term reflects to no small degree the cultural landscape of the avant-garde that was being developed at that time, and that was caught between the summons of the West via Paris as a centre of revolutionary artistic change, and of the East, via Moscow with its promise of social utopia and an art suited to technological progress (pp. 19-20).

For Peter Bürger, there are two principles at the centre of the diversity of movements and constellations that is the avant-garde: the attack on the institution of art and the revolutionizing of life as a whole – these are mutually dependant. The unification of life and art, that is the ultimate goal of the avant-garde, argues Bürger, can only be achieved if the avant-garde movements liberate the aesthetic potential from the institutional constraints which block its social effectiveness. Or, the attack on the institution of art is the condition for the possible realization of a Utopia in which art and life are united (p. 696).

And although Bürger rightly emphasizes the utopian social and political goals that are the prime markers of avant-garde movements, utopian predispositions and appeals are perhaps even more significant for the avant-garde and early modernist movements of Eastern and Central Europe. These movements have an especially pronounced political dimension in this region, as they were being developed and thriving in specific contexts of national and cultural birth and revitalization.

Miško Šuvaković points out that even the earliest manifestations of modernist and avant-garde currents in South Slav lands, including Micić’s Zenitism, “were developed and distributed in a multiethnic context and were, to a significant extent, galvanized by the project of a unified country (p. 12). The same could be said of many similar movements that were gaining political and artistic significance across the region in this time period.

The Central European avant-gardes of the 1910s and the 1920s were the first movements in these regions that functioned under historically new circumstances. On the one hand, they were developing under the sense of a national cultural revival that prevailed throughout Central Europe in the first decades of the 20th century, as artists were driven by idealism and optimism to translate western international movements (such as Art Nouveau and Symbolism) to their local circumstances, on the other hand, they were free from the authority of former empires in their new nations states to develop new strategies of communication and modes of aesthetic, social and political production (Benson and Forgács pp. 21-22).

One of the most prominent (utopian) features of the Central European avant-gardes was realized through the ideal of international cooperation and collectivism that especially marked the artistic and political movements of the region. “[M]ost already opposed to nationalism and conservatism, [these groups] were drawn to internationalism with messianic fervor” (Benson and Forgács p. 25). The international spirit of collaboration was most successfully realized through the publication of magazines and periodicals, and the organization of international exhibitions. Ljubomir Micić’s magazine Zenit published reproductions from all schools of art, providing information on all artistic movements and tendencies, covering the contradictions and controversies that shaped the avant-garde of the early twentieth century, alternately praising and condemning opposing artistic principles and thus, drew a lot of accusations of eclecticism. Another example would be the work of the Contimporanul group in Bucharest that organized an exhibition in 1924 that included artists from Poland (Mieczysław Szczuka and Teresa Żarnower), Germany (Kurt Schwitters), Czechoslovakia (Karl Teige), Hungary (Lajos Kassák) and Sweden (Viking Eggeling).

Naturally, most of these artists held to different artistic principles that also reflected on the manner in which they approached and understood utopia in their works. As we have discussed earlier, there are different approaches to utopia, that also depend on the shape (literary, political-theoretical or a practical) they take.

Micić, for example, did not share the idea of social stability under Communism, as he longed for another revolution, sparked by a utopian impulse. The two parties in his imagined war were the Slavs and the Latins, with the Slavs as the new Barbarians who had arrived to revolutionize the weary civilization of old Europe. The resolution of this conflict that concerns the whole humankind, that will eventually liberate the East and the West, the Slavs and the Latins, is however, the utopian Zenitist project that functions as a synthesis in which Western rationalism is the thesis and Balkan spiritualism is the antithesis. The goal is not a destruction of the European civilization and its values, but a rejuvenation – achieved through a “fertilization” with the “healthy Barbarian blood” of “young” Yugoslavia (all quotes from Zenit 21; also see Levinger p. 274). Therefore, Micić did not regard utopia as a concrete form of social organization, but rather as a function whose motivating power resides in art (Levinger p. 260). Bruno Taut, on the other hand, critical of such “utopian fantasies”, claimed “I no longer want to draw Utopias ‘in principio’, but absolutely palpable Utopias that ‘stand with both feet on the ground’” (see Benson p. 305), perhaps reminiscent of Bloch’s work on concrete utopianism.

Although often neglected, it is undeniable that Central European avant-gardes, caught between the duality of the regional and the global, multicentred and multinational, were an integral part of the evolution of modernism as it reached its zenith in the 1920s as an international cosmopolitan community (Benson and Forgács p. 17; p. 39). Central Europe might as well be a contested geo-political concept. At the end of the 1980s, reflecting on this topic, Yugoslav writer Danilo Kiš argues throughout 38 fragmentary chapters titled “Variations on the theme of Central Europe” that Central Europe is an equally fragmented concept, as its multiple nations share more differences than similarities.

This short piece (somewhat opposing Danilo Kiš’s stances) has tried to suggest the ways in which Central Europe can be seen not only as a (contested) political concept, but also as a (shared) cultural and artistic landscape that at the time of its “founding” turmoil, at the beginning of the 20th century, was marked by an utopian impulse for creating international cosmopolitan connections between the multiple nations/ethnic groups/languages/cultures of the regions, here investigated through its avant-gardes.

Iva Dimovska

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