Books: Modernism behind the Iron Curtain and in wartime Paris

The progress of Modernism in the Communist States and the response of the French Avant-garde to World War I are examined in these two books


Though numerous early twentieth-century East European moderns who emigrated to the West are well known, such as Brancusi, Kupka, Gabo...and Berenson, what of those who stayed in the homelands, such as Czechoslovakia, described in 1938 by a British Premier as “far away” and of which “we know little” (presumably because they were not painted imperial red on the maps)?

With Mr Mansbach’s prize-winning book to hand such ignorance is rapidly banished as it reveals the currents of Modernism from the Baltic to the Balkans that accompanied the “national awakening” that occurred with the post-World War I collapse of the Hapsburg and Romanov empires.

From Estonia and Latvia in the north, down south and west to the land of the South Slavs (“Yugoslavia” being the word coined for this area and in use from 1929), taking in Poland, Lithuania, Czech and Slovak lands and (possibly the odd ones out) Hungary and Romania, each area gets a brisk historical introduction covering the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and then a roll call of the leading artistic figures and of the groups they formed or joined.

Many names lost in the hegemonic Soviet historiography after World War II come into view again with Mr Mansbach’s poly-national focus in which he pays attention to each artist without ever forgetting that, for ingenue readers, context is crucial.

Yet, ironically, while stressing the often fervid atmosphere and differences between national Avant-gardes before (as in the case of the Baltic Republics) Stalin “liberated them from their independence” in 1940, the pictorial impression of the book is that, while an astonishing variety of styles flourished—from realism, morbid Symbolism Cubist-Expressionist medleys to Constructivist projects—it is hard to differentiate between the national outputs. Of course, this was part of Modernism’s nature, but swathes of work deriving from the 1912 “Salon Cubism” of Gleizes and Metzinger in Paris (perhaps better called “Saloon Cubism”) gets faintly depressing—a 1920s re-run of the ubiquitous “Naturalism” of the previous century. By contrast, Constructivism has a flair and passion here often lacking in Bauhaus and De Stijl efforts and altogether reinforces the opinion sometimes encountered that graphic art, posters above all, was the most inventive undertaking for such politicised and revolutionary societies.

The number of colour plates is adequate, unusually for Cambridge, although the generous supply of black and white images is of limited use when showing colour-based Expressionist works. The readable text is supported by informative notes. Perhaps a second volume on architecture, photography and film will follow?

Mr Cottington’s examination of the social and cultural milieu of Cubism in France before and during World War I is a dispassionate and lucid work on the forces of nationalism, indeed chauvinism, that reanimated France’s socio-political standpoint from about 1905. Perhaps no French author could maintain such detachment when considering Barrès and Maurras—the essential partisan’s partisans. Even now, their high-flown rhetoric (hardly matched by deeds) is momentarily stirring...and dangerous. Mr Cottington’s focus on societal aspects is a welcome corrective to formalist or structuralist solipsism, from which Cubism long suffered.

The country’s internecine conflicts are highlighted in the aesthetic battles between Avant-garde and reactionaries in Poincaré’s resurgent “radical Republic” from 1912 (transforming earlier Dreyfus case paranoia and defeatism into an urge for revanche—“the Hegemony of Patriotism”—and almost fatalistic preparation for war). Cubism was often considered a “foreign” style, alien to the “idea of France” Maurras and Barrès proposed—one reason being its production by the Spaniard Picasso and promulgation by the German Kahnweiler!

Collage is considered as a mediation between the aesthetic and the popular, using splices of newsprint relating to events such as the 1911-12 Balkan Wars. This parallels the Picasso of Rosalind Kraus’s Picasso papers. In “Cubist painting and the discourse of the nationalism”, perhaps the tour-de-force chapter, these two contenders for the cultural soul of Belle Epoque France are emphasised by counterpointing Dreyfusian antagonisms and Le Fauconnier’s “classical Cubism”, Bergson’s intuitive creativity and the last alpine bear to be hunted near Annecy in 1893, commemorated in Le Fauconnier’s “Les montagnards” of 1912. In this kaleidoscopic richness ( only adumbrated in this review) is another well illustrated volume worthy of prizes.

Steven A. Mansbach, Modern art in Eastern Europe: from the Baltic to the Balkans, ca. 1890-1939 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999), 400 pp, 400 b/w ills, 48 col. ills, £40, $65 (hb) ISBN 0521450853

David Cottingham, Cubism in the shadow of war: the Avant-garde and politics in Paris, 1905-14 (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1998), 256 pp, 40 b/w ills, 19 col. ills, £30 (hb) ISBN 0300075294

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Behind the Iron Curtain and in time of war'