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A Geography of Dispersion: Central Europe and the Symbolic Spaces of the Avant-Garde


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A Geography of Dispersion: Central Europe and the Symbolic Spaces of the Avant-Garde

Henrietta Dayton Ogden (1846-1903)
2012, oil on canvas, 26×21 cm

A Geography of Dispersion: Central Europe and the Symbolic Spaces of the Avant-Garde

Henrietta Dayton Ogden (1846-1903)

A Geography of Dispersion: Central Europe and the Symbolic Spaces of the Avant-Garde




Tyrus Miller
A Geography of Dispersion: Central Europe and the Symbolic Spaces of the Avant-Garde*

A massive exhibition of Central European Avant-Gardes occurred in Los Angeles, Munich, and Berlin between March 2002 and February 2003, with a lavish catalogue published by the MIT Press.[1] The catalogue contains essays on a wide and up-to-date range of topics and encompasses an impressive list of contributors, internationally known cultural historians, art historians, and art critics. In addition, accompanying the catalogue publication was a huge supplementary sourcebook of primary source materials, translated into English from German, Czech, Polish, Hungarian, Serbo-Croatian, Romanian, and Slovenian.[2] Mobilizing the resources of major museums, support foundations, research facilities, libraries, and individual scholars in several countries, this was more than just an item on the program of the Los Angeles County Musuem. It was an "event," the happening, the coming-to-presence of something or somewhere or someones called "Central Europe" in the curatorial and scholarly discourse of the United States and Western Europe.

In a review article on the exhibition catalogue and sourcebook that I published in 2003 in the journal Modernism / Modernity, I discussed some of the productive difficulties in defining the object of study "Central European Avant-Gardes," the fluctuating approaches and geographical boundaries evidenced in the various contributors' treatments of the topic, and the value for scholars of the avant-garde to engage with both the wider range of empirical sources and contexts and with the historiographic problems that arise out of the wide transnational, multilinguistic reach of the 2002 exhibition.[3] In surveying the wide range of uses and symbolizations of the map of Central Europe among the contributions, I developed two conclusions. First, that any historiographic use of this concept to discuss the art and culture of the avant-garde was a profoundly hermeneutical process of reactivating past meanings and projecting future ones. As I wrote, "The organizing trope of these two volumes—the metaphorical convergence of political, geographical, and cultural spaces under a complex, ambiguous designator ("Central Europe")—results from active cultural construction and rhetorical performances: a symbolic elaboration already underway in the historical period in question and continuing in and beyond the presentation of history by contemporary scholars" (Miller 564). Second, as was already suggested by the last quote, these volumes represent a sort of "performative speech act" (564) constituting and defining their object in the process of speaking about it. Current acts of displaying and discussing "Central Europe" ride ahead of the reference and significance of the term and reach out to publics to embrace or qualify or reject it.

In this essay I would like to elaborate and concretize these general theoretical observations, confronting them with some specific examples both from the artistic culture of the 1920s and recent scholarship on this period. What I wish to suggest, anticipating my conclusion, is that one of the prevailing historiographic frameworks used to define the specificity of Central European avant-gardes, that of nationalism vs. internationalism, particularism vs. universalism or local-national vs. European-cosmopolitan, needs much greater refinement if we are to understand the peculiar artistic expressions of Central Europe's "incomplete modernity."[4] We need more nuanced, more context-sensitive tools to avoid effacing the Central European avant-gardes' peculiar mixture of direct inclusion, parallel development, and divergence with respect to those avant-gardes that have received greatest treatment in historical scholarship: the avant-garde movements of Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Vienna, Zurich, or Milan. In particular, I will later be concerned to offer a differentiated typology of "internationalisms," suggesting that different conceptions of the avant-garde's "international" commitments often represent fracture lines internal to national avant-gardes all over Europe, and hence that the national/international, national/European orientations of the various avant-gardes are far more complex than a simple East/West division can comprehend. I will be distinguishing at least four types of internationalism that figure in differing degrees in the historical picture of avant-gardes in Europe. These include the internationalism of national rivalries and competition; the proletarian internationalism of the communist movement; an internationalism of urban networks; and at my paper's conclusion, a zero-degree internationalism of those who disappeared and of the stateless, above all, the victims of the Nazi Holocaust.

I would like to begin by considering a book that was a landmark study in English, Steven A. Mansbach's Modern Art in Eastern Europe: From the Baltic to the Balkans, ca. 1890-1939, published by the Cambridge University Press.[5] Mansbach, a scholar connected with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, received an impressive array of institutional support in his preparation of this wide-ranging, empirically rich study, including the prize of the Conféderation Internationale de Négociants en Oeuvres d'Art, the College Art Association, the Getty Grant Program, Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, the Fulbright Commission, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, the Freie Universität in Berlin, Title VIII program of the U.S. Department of State, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Soros Foundation. This was the first book in English to cover the range of countries and topics and works encompassed by the book—from the Baltics to the Balkans—and indeed remains one of the few books in any language to do so. It obviously draws compendiously on the work of regional scholars, presenting the materials in a comparative and synthetic form and setting against the background of broader historical and cultural developments. My interest here is in the way this important, exemplary work, bound to remain an authoritative textbook and source for some time to come, frames its material geographically and historiographically.

A look at the table of contents reveals that the organization is national and regional, in the sense that this would have had in the period of the nationalist agitations of the pre-World War I period and the period of independence prior to the war and before the Nazi occupations: the Czech lands, Poland and Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, "the Southern Balkans of the Former Yugoslavia" (Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, and Macedonia), Romania, and Hungary. Moreover, this national-regional framing is not merely a convenient heuristic device, but is thoroughly motivated by Mansbach's guiding historiographic conception. "In the present study definitions of time, geography, and subject are necessarily relative," he writes. "Even as the cultural traditions, social structures, and political and historical formations differed considerably within the region, they departed essentially from those of western Europe (and the United States)" (Mansbach 3, emphasis mine). This "essential" difference lies in the nature and role of nationalism. Echoing political theorists who postulate a "two nationalisms" model dividing East and West, Mansbach suggests that in the West, nationalist energies found political channels of expression and expended themselves in the discourse of politicians. "[The nations of the West have often been free to express their identities politically" (Mansbach 4), he writes; implicitly, this meant that nationalism didn't need the arts and there was no nationalism left over to take cultural expression. In the East, where political life was constrained, however, the arts were the crucial vehicle of nationalism:

From Estonia to Slovenia the makers of modern art most often emphasized national individuality rather than universality. They responded variously to a public demand for expressions of national self-consciousness through which an emerging nation might stake its claims to membership in a modern world. Such profession of national identity by means of avant-garde art was a culturalphenomenon as widespread in the East as it was rare in the West. (4)

In another passage, he suggests that in Eastern Europe cultural forms of "national awakening" were definitive and constitute the cutting-edge of geo-cultural difference with Western Europe:

Promoting cultural expression and preservation rather than the revolutionary political action and social reconstruction that occurred in the West—especially in Germany, Italy, and Scandinavia—informal groups of writers, poets, ethnographers, and musicologists originated the revival movements in countries from the Baltic north to the Adriatic south that then inspired visual artists to their own expressions of a distinctively national modern character. (4-5)

In his contribution to the 2002 Central European Avant-Gardes exhibition catalogue, "Methodology and Meaning in the Modern Art of Eastern Europe," Mansbach repeats this distinction, claiming that "As ethnographic reference has invariably been a building block of a modern national expression, allusions to historical myths, events, heroes, and folk styles are as common in Eastern avant-garde design as they are rare in Western progressive art."[6] In short, Eastern avant-gardes are nationalistic, folkloristic, and ontologically local; Western avant-gardes are internationalist, universalist, and cosmopolitan. The "essential" difference means, for Mansbach, that these "Eastern" avant-gardes dwell in a time of their own and in their own, nationally bounded space; they must be relativistically studied on their own terms.

Before discussing some specific examples that call this framework in question, I want to make a few preliminary observations. First is that in his actual discussion of individual artists, movements, and works, Mansbach is unable to sustain this radical relativism, for the simple reason that the contexts he is treating—and often describing in detail—is anything but nationally sealed. Artists go abroad, especially to Paris and Berlin; they read international periodical; they view the work of foreign artists, from Munch and Cézanne to Kandinsky and El Lissitzsky, in their own countries and participate in international exhibitions; they correspond with other artists and intellectuals abroad; and they develop indigenous cosmopolitan, universalist responses against the obligation to represent national themes and aspirations in their art. Some Central European artists in some periods and in some countries lean more to national particularities, others do not, but it is impossible to reduce this rich cultural productivity to a single measure and schism it from developments in the West on this basis. In his catalogue essay on "methodology" of art historical study of Eastern European avant-gardes, Mansbach offers a more subtle appreciation of the interaction of local and Europe-wide elements that gave shape to different national contexts:

an awareness of local geography—social, political, cultural, and personal—will enable one better to appreciate how these artists chose to be influenced by the "foreign" artistic forms they encountered directly through exhibitions or, more frequently, at second hand through periodicals. By means of an awareness of what was expected of artists in Eastern Europe and of the choices available to them, one might better comprehend how styles were appropriated and then adapted to correspond to domestic needs (which often included achieving external recognition).[7]

While this is unquestionably good historical method, it is not clear how this dialectic of local and cosmopolitan influences distinguishes Western and Eastern artists, particularly in an "essential" way. For example, one might follow this precept equally with the English "Vorticist" artist Wyndham Lewis, who apprenticed in Paris and Munich and whose main early patron was the American John Quinn, but who put his stamp on the London art scene of the 1910s. Lewis's polemical "continentalism" in the context of British parochialism in the modern arts, coupled with a quasi-nationalistic rejection of German spiritualism and Italian futurist antics, was a key part of the specific flavor of his avant-gardism. While this is analogously true for Central and Eastern European artists as well, it does not serve the point at issue: defining a deep, essential distinction between the Western and Eastern avant-gardes.

In sum, Mansbach seems not to account for how profoundly his actual material contradicts his historiographic thesis. It must at the same time be acknowledged that the roots of this erroneous thesis lie in a well-meaning attempt to acknowledge cultural difference, to take Eastern Europe on what are putatively its own terms, and not treat its avant-garde developments simply as a belated appendage of Western European developments such as cubism, expressionism, or futurism. The ultimate effect of this relativistic attempt at cultural acknowledgement, however, is to lead Mansbach to misrecognize how much Central or "Eastern" or "Southern" European modernity was negotiated in a complex relation of mimesis, rivalry, and rejection of Western Europe; and so, too, it leaves Mansbach's broadminded "Western" perspective unmarked, untouched by the messy existence of other voices, other ways of conceiving artistic culture, across the East-West divide. To use a terminology developed in contemporary anthropology, in the name of cultural recognition and respect, Mansbach denies quite modern, quite thoroughly European cultures their "coevalness" (Johannes Fabian) or "contemporaneity" (Marc Augé) in difference.[8]

I now turn to examples in taking up some of the individual propositions in this position, to see how they stack up against the evidence. I find myself quite skeptical about the idea that Eastern and Western avant-gardes are distinguishable by the commitment of the former to nationalism and the latter to cosmopolitanism. Unquestionably one can find close intersections of folk art and avant-gardism in the Latvian artist Romans Suta or the Ukrainian "peasant-futurist" Hanna Sobaschko-Shostak, although as the example of Wyoming-born painter Jackson Pollock, with his interest in American Indian motifs and early training with Mexican mural artist David Siqueros suggests, this intersection is not absent from even highly canonical Western avant-garde art as well. One could indeed cite the example of Zenit editor Ljubomir Micic' as a clear instance in which Yugoslavian avant-gardism and Serbian political nationalism are fused, as in his essay "Morocco and once again for the salvation of civilization. Imperialism is the bible of Europe and the Europeans," which denounces the Croatians' wartime collaboration with Austria, Germany, and Turkey in the attempt to crush Serbia and predicts that imperialist war will return to Serbia soon over the issue of Albania; this was in 1925.[9] Even in Micic's case, however, the issue is highly complicated. His journal Zenit published an international group of contributors, and often in the original language without translation, thus demonstratively militating against ethnic parochialism and specifically against the language policy of imposing a uniform "Serbo-Croatian" in the Yugoslav territories. But one would need only to turn to the radically anti-nationalist orientation of the Hungarian poet, editor, and artist Lajos Kassák or the cosmopolitan mobility of the Bauhaus-educated leader of the Ljubjlana and Trieste Constructivist circles, August Cernigoj, to recognize that Micic' can hardly be taken as more than one possibility in a wide-spectrum.

Here I would like to introduce my first type of internationalism, that of national competition in an international framework. In the case of the arts, one can take this national competition literally, in the case of prize-awarding international expositions. For example, in San Francisco's Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915, the Hungarian artist Béla Uitz, later a leading figure of the Communist avantgarde and an emigrant to the Soviet Union, won a prize in the graphic art category. My interest, however, is in the peculiar "symbolic geography" of Europe underlying such an event. To set the Central European participation in context, then, I will quote a lengthy passage in a contemporary account, Ben Macomber's The Jewel City: Its Planning and Achievement, Its Architecture, Sculpture, Symbolism and Music, Its Gardens, Palaces, and Exhibits, published in 1915:

The International Section, in Room 108 and in the Annex, is peculiarly interesting in that it makes easy a comparison of the characteristic fingerprints of each country represented. . . Unfortunately, because of the war, the gallery contains no special rooms for the art of England and Germany. Bothcountries are represented only by loan collections. . . . .

France, Italy, Holland, Sweden, Portugal, Japan, China and several of the South American countries have installed representative collections in the Palace; while the Annex, made necessary by the unexpected number of pictures from Europe, contains a large exhibit of Hungarian art, a Norwegian display, filling seven rooms, a large British exhibit, and a small group of pictures by Spanish painters, showing that the influence of Velasquez is still powerful in Spanish art. The Norwegian display is one of the largest foreign sections, quite as characteristic as the Swedish, and certain to arouse discussion because of its extreme modernism. The ultra-radical art of Edvard Munch, who is called the greatest of Norwegian painters, and to whom a special room is assigned, is sure to be a bone of contention among the critics. The work of Harald Sohlberg (medal of honor) and Halfdan Strom (gold medal), differing widely from Munch's, though hardly less modern in style, will also attract much attention. The omission of Munch from the honor list is really a tribute to his eminence. An artist who has won the Grand Prix at Rome and awards in every other European capital was deemed outside of competition here.

The Italian Futurists are well shown in the Annex, and for the first time in this country. The Futurist pictures hitherto seen in America have been French imitations of the Italian originators of the mode. A sample Futurist title, "Architectural Construction of a Woman on the Beach," may or may not indicate what these pictures reveal ...[10]

On the one hand, the international exposition represents a kind of delirious meltdown of the European map, in which countries such as Norway, Hungary, Spain, and Italy are in immediate proximity. At the same time, however, this virtual geography is nonetheless affected by the real competition and conflict of nations, as the absence of original entries from two principal combatant nations of World War I, England and Germany, demonstrates.

It is, however, on the border between East and West, the border that Mansbach so sharply draws, that I want to dwell for a bit, considering the crucial and problematic example of Futurism. There is from the start the troubling fact that Futurism was split between two authentic movements, one "Western," the other "Eastern"; one relatively concentrated, centralized, and highly nationalistic in Italy, the other existing in several cities including Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Tiflis and generally utopian-cosmopolitan, eventually left-communist in its politics. One finds in the Russian orbit such expressions of utopian globalism as this passage from Velimir Khlebnikov's long visionary poem "Goodworld," which evokes cosmic unity in the form of the mythic, prelapsarian speech of the world's major rivers:

Where the Volga will say "I,"
The Yangtze will add "love,"
And the Mississippi—"all of,"
Old Man Danube will add "the,"
And the Ganges's waters—"world."
Thus will the river idol
Outline the lands of green.
Forever, always, there and here!
For all, forever, everywhere—all!
Across the star will fly our call.
Above the world the language of love soars,
And into the sky the Song of Songs implores.[11]

By contrast, the Italian futurists, as is well-known, were highly nationalistic, militating for Italy's entry into World War I. Following the war, they became fervent participants in the fascist movement during its most activist phase. At the same time, however, they were also highly "internationalist" in their activity and outlook, publicizing and propagating the Futurist movement throughout Europe and in Russia as well. This seeming contradiction between nationalist and internationalist impulses, however, is no contradiction at all: it is definitive of internationalism: an "internationalism" that is the expanded field in which national competition is played out. Not merely a passive ethnocentrism, the form of nationalism that Futurism represented could not be satisfied with being confined within national boundaries: it was a nationalism with imperial dreams, addressing itself to an international audience, announcing Italy's aggressive re-emergence onto the European scene after centuries of decadence and weakness.

Further teasing out some of the implications of this for Mansbach's thesis of an essential difference of Western and Eastern avant-gardes, I would like to focus briefly on the relations of Italian Futurism to the Balkans, to the new Yugoslavia, and to the contested border area of Trieste-Gorizia-Istria. It is worth mentioning that the Yugoslavian territories—then under Hapsburg dominion—were anything but sealed off from access to Western avant-garde ideas: Marinetti's "Founding and Manifesto of Futurism," published originally in Paris in Le Figaro on 20 February 1909, appeared in Ljubljana and Zagreb simultaneously only a month later. Although Marinetti's celebrations of warfare are well-known, it is often assumed, given the Futurists' vigorous campaigning for intervention in World War I, that the war texts refer primarily to this war. However, one of Marinetti's most important exemplifications of his onomatopoeic and typographically radical "words-in-liberty" texts, Zang Tumb Tuuum, from 1914, depicts not a World War I battle, but rather the battle of Adrianapoli, between the Turks and the Bulgarians in 1912. We can see well exemplified the interaction of nationalist and internationalist discourse, inter- nationalism as the highest stage of nationalism, in Marinetti's diagrammatic "Futurist Synthesis of the War," which opposed such allied countries as Serbia, Belgium, France, England, Russia, England, Montenegro, Japan, and Italy to Germany, Austria, and Turkey.

Futurist Synthesis of the War - A Geography of Dispersion: Central Europe and the Symbolic Spaces of the Avant-Garde

Figure 1. Futurist Synthesis of the War

While such characteristics as "independence" and "ambition" are associated on the chart with Serbia or "intelligence" and "courage" with France (and likewise for all the allied countries), their enemies receive only a litany of insults ranging from German "sheepishness" and "constipation of industrial camelots" to Austrian "clotted blood" and "bedbugs--priests" to the dismissive ascription of "= 0" as Turkey's defining quality. The whole diagram of warring countries is traversed by a wedge, penetrating the bad German, Austrian, and Turkish alliance and marking a divide between "Futurism" and "Passéism." Attacks on symbols of a "passéist" Italy and publicity for international exhibitions, went hand-in-hand with agitation for definitive national claims on subjacent territories and cultures in the name of the Italian nation.

There is a fascinating document of the encounter between the Italian Futurists, by 1925, thoroughly in the camp of fascism, and the Serbian Zenitists, who were strong Serbian nationalists, pan-Slavists, and supporters of Soviet communism, all this in the name of an anti-European "barbaro-genius" of the Balkans. In 1925, in issue 37 of the journal Zenit, Branko Ve Poljanski recounts a meeting with Marinetti in Paris, following the Italian poet's lecture on the inextricable bond between Futurism and Fascism. Poljanski sets a rather hilarious scene of imperfect communication, with the Zenitists knowing only Serbian and German, Marinetti speaking French to the translator, who understood Serbian poorly, and who, Poljanski adds, probably wouldn't have really gotten it even if they had spoken in her mother-tongue. Here is their dialogue, as published by Poljanski:

POLJANSKI: Mr. Marinetti! I greet you as the founder of Futurism and as the man who first raised the flag and called the youth to rebel. I do this as representative of Zenitism in Paris. That is my duty. Even the founder of Zenitism and director of Zenit could in no way have any reason not to esteem you in this capacity. But as a propagandist of fascism you have lost our sympathy. We must protest against such a Marinetti.
MARINETTI: Thanks! But you have no reason for that either, because fascism is a call to struggle, and struggle is healthy and necessary.
POLJANSKI: The Zenists esteem your struggle, but if this struggle is fascistic, then we cannot work together, since the fascists put the Slovenian "People's Home" in Trieste to the torch and two men threw themselves alive out of the third floor through the flames to the street.
MARINETTI: getting heated. Communists had hidden themselves there. . .
POLJANSKI: Idle pronouncement! Even communists are human beings!
MARINETTI: Besides, for a long time the Zenitists have enjoyed our sympathy.
POLJANSKI: Nice! The Futurists too have enjoyed our sympathies, but in Istria the fascists terrorize innocent Croats and close our schools?
MARINETTI: Are you Serb or Croat?
Marinetti raises an eyebrow, his left eye flashes a little with astonishment.
POLJANSKI: Proof that our sympathies for you are really sincere is the fact that we have printed your work and that Mr. Micic' has always stuck up for you when you were attacked. We have organized conferences and Zenitist evenings, in which you too were honored. And what have you done for us? Have you written two lines about us?
MARINETTI: That's really difficult because of your language, which nobody understands. . .
POLJANSKI: What? God is also Serbian: there are Serbs everywhere--there are also Serbs and Slovenians in Italy. . .
MARINETTI: going uncertainly back and forth and becoming agitated: How many German poets are there too who because of their untranslatable language aren't translated in Italy. That I included Micic' and you in my last manifesto is nevertheless proof that I take account of the Zenitist.
POLJANSKI: But we aren't futurists, rather Zenitists. In our country there are only Zenitists. . .
MARINETTI: And as such I have called you up to struggle against the common enemy.
POLJANSKI: If the enemy is Europe, then forward! If the enemy is the old, bearded culture--we are ready.
DEPERO breaks in energetically: Lui dice! He said it!
POLJANSKI: We are joyful barbarians, we will make the beards of the wise go up in flames. We have to do something for humanity. The Zenitists are unpolitical people, since the politicians, along with their brothers, the Herr Professors, have condemned the world to death.
DEPERO: breaks in anew and even more energetically: Lui dice! Lui. . . Lui , , ,
Prampolini holds himself back prudently and stares.
MARINETTI: We Italians are also barbarians.
POLJANSKI: So it is! Bravo! Forward to the common struggle.
MARINETTI: Under these conditions Zenit will be translated and published in all our journals. Next year in Rome there will be a big international Futurist congress, to which the Zenitist will absolutely be invited.
POLJANSKI: But we aren't Futurists.
MARINETTI: Everyone will have the right to his own idiom.
POLJANSKI: I hear that with pleasure! And who will finance the congress?
Marinetti, the woman, a second woman, a man, Prampolini, Depero--laugh!!!
MARINETTI: Goodbye! Please send my greetings to your boss Ljubomir Micic'. I have great esteem for him and I much use for him.
POLJANSKI: Goodbye. Until Monday! . . .

The satirical overtones of Poljanski's account are unmistakable. But beneath the rather hilarious surface of this dialogue of the deaf is a more serious representation of a "minor" avant-garde in confrontation with a major one, in the context of serious nationalist rivalries. Poljanski throws in relief the dynamics of asymmetrical ignorance and non-recognition between the Serbian and Italian groups, and Marinetti's inclusive, internationalist gestures of generosity are exposed as masks of imperial annexation not without their analogies with fascist politics. Poljanski's repeated insistence that "we are not Futurists, we are Zenitists," thus is not simply stubborn Serb nationalist parochialism, but is itself a gesture of self-defense and resistance within an international field defined by national rivalries.

This resistant assertion of national particularity could co-exist with a second form of internationalism: proletarian internationalism. This hardly requires a great deal of explication, however, it often took the form of identification with either general forces of destruction or with the Soviet Union as a specifically anti-Western European alternative. In several Zenitist texts, for instance, Micic' praised "the greatest Slav--Vladimir Iliich Lenin." Yet he did not stop at this pan-Slavist ethnic identification: witness his poem "Made in England" (the original title is in English), included in his 1926 collection Anti-Europe. The poem celebrates the British General Strike of that year with the lines:

Today five million English workers roared
With an enormous curse on their lips
That means--in the course of the hours after midnight the sparks leapt
In the guts of England of the leeches of the world
The General Strike is first the appendicitis
Then the engine drivers only saw green signals
In this night of the first collisions green signals mean death
And the red ones
Only the red signals mean switching into the new life of the new day of the new mankind
In England's harbors in the East hungry bayonets flash
There rifles groan and cannons have gone wild
Wounded by the gleaming ray of the revolution

O workers pitmen sailors
Proletarians you faithful to the balkan blood revenge
Along with our greeting only a childish question
Why are your callouses not diamonds
Or dynamite?[13]

Though more utopian and less evidently gleeful at the sheer upsurge of violent conflict, so too Sándor Bortnyik's graphics for the special numbers of the Hungarian journal Ma, one of which included an expressionist head of Lenin above an excerpt from State and Revolution, expressed a similar, class- and politics-specific form of internationalism during the Council Republic in 1919.

A third form of internationalism, and one that I think is representative of some of the best recent scholarship and exhibitions of Central European avant-gardes, is that of the network of interrelated urban sites. This particular vision of the symbolic geography of the avant-garde and of an historiography appropriate to it informs studies by Andrzej Turowski, Krisztina Passuth, the "Shaping the Great City" show and catalogue of 1999, and the aforementioned Central European Avant-Gardes show of 2002.[14] I believe that this concentration on city-sites that generate distinct cultural environments, but ones that need not be nationally exclusive, offers one of the most productive approaches to the identity of Central Europe as a space of the avant-garde. Moreover, its latter-day use as a historiographic framework echoes a crucial part of the cultural imaginary of the various European avant-gardes themselves in the mid-1920s, during the period of stabilization, the period, in the words of the Berlin-based Hungarian critic Ernõ Kallai, of the "twilight of the ideologies" and a resurgence of "free-market democracy and relativism" among the artistic tendencies,[15] that is, a kind of post-modernist aftermath in what we normally think of as the heyday of high modernism. During this period, journals all over Europe, both Western and Eastern, began to consolidate links with one another—some substantial, with exchanges of work, mutual translations, and joint meetings, and others more virtual, projective, symbolic of a community still to be achieved in the future. But what is most interesting is to consider the appearance of a shared institution, a bit of paratext almost never considered important enough to make it into museum displays or catalogues: a page in which the titles of key avant-garde journals and the cities in which they are published stand side-by-side, as in this instance from the back cover page of the Hungarian activist journal Ma [Today], published out of exile in Vienna in the early 1920s. These networks, I would argue, represent a different geographical imaginary of an international avant-garde than that represented either by the national internationalism I discussed in relation to Futurism or Zenitism, or by the proleterian internationalism of the communist avant-gardes.

Cover of MA - A Geography of Dispersion: Central Europe and the Symbolic Spaces of the Avant-Garde

Figure 2. Cover of MA

I would like to conclude with a final, somewhat symbolic note about a last type of internationalism that is also part of the avant-garde legacy of Central Europe: the zero-degree internationalism of the expatriate and the stateless. Steven Mansbach, as I noted, argued that the artists of Central Europe, from the Baltics to the Balkans, tied their art to the project of national renewal, and it is against that overly exclusive backdrop that I wish to mention the case of the Estonian painter Karl Pärsimägi. After having fought in the war of independence in 1919, Pärsimägi enrolled in the newly-founded Pallas Art School in Tartu, joining the first generation of independent Estonian intellectuals. Studying and traveling, he absorbed influences both of French and German painting, adopting them to settings and subjects from his domestic existence and from the still largely rural or small-town Estonian countryside. In 1937, however, he moved to Paris, where he became involved in the French resistance movement. He was arrested in 1941 and deported to Auschwitz, where he was executed on 27 July 1942. Posthumously, however, during the Soviet occupation and annexation of Estonia, Pärsimägi faired no better. Branded a "formalist," he was kept from official display until the mid-sixties, when his work began to be recovered.[16]

One may certainly applaud the efforts of recently independent republics and post-communist countries to recover a heritage suppressed under communism—and hence, one can only welcome the spate of recent exhibitions of Ukranian modernism, modern art of the Baltics, Serbian modernism, Slovakian participants in the Bauhaus, and many others. It must not, however, become an occasion to efface this other history that I am taking Pärsimägi to represent. If Pärsimägi's art has a homeland, and that homeland is Estonia, it must be a reticulated Estonia wide enough to include the fractured, interlinked territories of Europe as coeval and effective parts of its national imaginary: an Estonia that is not only reclaiming its capitals of Tallinn and Tartu, but that also includes Budapest and Belgrade and Brno and Trieste as their kin; an Estonia that stands far more proximate to Berlin and Paris than its place on the Bay of Finland would suggest; and an Estonia that not so long ago was compelled to incorporate into its national destiny such far-away places as Siberia and Central Asia and such small Central European towns as Mauthausen and Terezin and Oswiecim.

* Tyrus Miller; A Geography of Dispersion: Central Europe and the Symbolic Spaces of the Avant-Garde, International Yearbook of Aesthetics, Volume 14, 2010, pp. 180-198.


[1] Timothy O. Benson, ed., Central European Avant-Gardes: Exchange and Transformation, 1910-1930 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2002).
[2] Timothy O. Benson and Éva Forgács, eds., Between Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930 (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2002).
[3] Tyrus Miller, “Rethinking Central Europe: The Symbolic Geography of the Avant-Garde.” Modernism / Modernity 10/3 (2003): 559-567.
[4] I refer here to the arguments, advanced in the context of the 1980s debate around "postmodernism," in Jürgen Habermas, "Modernity—An Incomplete Project," in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (Port Townshend, Washington: Bay Press, 1983) 3-15. For an excellent historical account of the intertwining of modernity and "incompleteness" in the Central European context, see Ljiljana Blagojevic, Modernism in Serbia: The Elusive Margins of Belgrade Architecture, 1919-1941 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2003).
[5] S.A. Mansbach, Modern Art in Eastern Europe: From the Baltic to the Balkans, 1890-1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999).
[6] Mansbach in Benson, Central European Avant-Gardes 296.
[7] Mansbach in Benson, Central European Avant-Gardes 303.
[8] Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthopology Makes Its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983); Marc Augé, An Anthropology for Contemporaneous Worlds, trans. Amy Jacobs (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1999).
[9] Ljubomir Micic', 'Marokko und noch einmal für die Rettung der Zivilisation. Der Imperialismus ist die Bibel Europas und der Europäer" in In unseren Seelen flattern schwarze Fahnen: Serbische Avantgarde, 1918-1939 (Leipzig: Reclam, 1992) 135-138.
[10] Ben Macomber, The Jewel City: Its Planning and Achievement; Its Architecture, Sculpture, Symbolism, and Music; Its Gardens, Palaces, and Exhibits (San Francisco: J.H. Williams, 1915).
[11] Velimir Khlebnikov, "Goodworld" in Snake Train: Poetry and Prose, ed. Gary Kern (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1976) 98.
[12] Branko Ve Poljanski, "Dialog Marinetti-Poljanski" in In unseren Seelen flattern schwarze Fahnen, 143-145. Translation is mine.
[13] Ljubomir Micic', "Made in England" in In unseren Seelen flattern schwarze Fahnen 158-160.
[14] Andrzej Turowski, Existe-t-il un art de l'Europe de l'Est? (Paris: Editions de la Villette, 1986); Krisztina Passuth, Les avant-gardes de l'Europe centrale (Paris: Flammarion, 1988); Passuth, Avantgarde Kapcsolatok Prágától Bukarestig, 1907-1930 [Avantgarde Connections From Prague to Bucharest] (Budapest: Balassi Kiadó, 1998); Shaping the Great City: Modern Architecture in Central Europe, 1890-1937, eds. Eve Blau and Monika Platzer (Munich, London, New York: Prestel, 1999).
[15] Erno Kállai, "The Twilight of Ideologies" in Benson and Forgács 615-616.
[16] See Heie Treier, Pärsimägi: Võrumaa-Tartu-Pariis (Tallinn: Eesti Kunstiakadeemia, 2003).