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Timothy O. Benson, ed.

, Central European AvantGardes: Exchange and Transformation, 19101930 Central European AvantGardes: Exchange and Transformation, 19101930 by TimothyO. Benson Review by: Paul Betts The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 76, No. 3 (September 2004), pp. 671-672 Published by: The University of Chicago Press Stable URL: . Accessed: 23/01/2012 12:00
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Book Reviews


Central European Avant-Gardes: Exchange and Transformation, 19101930. Edited by Timothy O. Benson. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press; Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2002. Pp. 447. $59.95. It is not all that long ago that the concept of Central Europe was mostly the stuff of political adventurism and wistful cultural nostalgia. While the regional designation may be traced back to the Holy Roman Empire, it enjoyed a renaissance after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a new cultural ideal transcending geopolitical division. The Soviet Unions imperium over the region from the early 1940s on never completely snuffed out this cultural dream. Milan Kunderas famous essay from 1984, The Tragedy of Central Europe, is perhaps the best-known expression of the regions sense of loss and dispossession. In it, Kundera lamented how Central Europes once irrepressible cultural depth and diversity had been devastated by both Nazi and Soviet occupation, not least because he saw the regions Jews as the binding element in Central Europes rich and far-ung cultural heritage. No surprise, then, that the events of 1989 gave the concept of Central Europe a new lease on life, as the end of the cold war opened up the possibility of liberating both the present and past from cold war connes. In large measure the catalog of the exhibition Central European Avant-Gardes: Exchange and Transformation, 19101930 springs from this new dispensation. The show was organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the spring of 2002 and traveled to Berlin for several months after that. The catalog is composed of some thirty short essays penned by a clutch of international scholars and art historians on Central European cultures, cities, and avant-garde gures; it is handsomely illustrated with hundreds of reproductions chronicling the dizzying variety of artistic production from the period. Not that the shows concept is all that new. There were a number of exhibitions already in the 1950s and 1960s (many of which were mounted in Paris) dedicated to rescuing Central European culture from cold war marginalization. While these shows tended to stress cultural unity, more recent ones emphasized the regions diversity. The catalogs to the Italian show Futurismo & Futurismi (1985), edited by K. G. Pontus Hulten, and the show in Bonn in 1994, Europa, Europa: Das Jahrhundert der Avantgarde in Mittel- und Osteuropa, edited by Ryszard Stanislowski and Christoph Brockhaus, were milestones in this respect. In this spirit, the curators of the Central European Avant-Gardes exhibition strove to challenge the conceptual unity of the regions avant-garde. In the words of the shows principal organizer, Timothy O. Benson, the point is not to foreground one but many avant-gardes, interacting with one another yet each retaining its unique characteristics (p. 16). Notable too is the shows deliberate effort to shift the study of avant-garde activities from specic national(ist) contexts: the catalog is organized around fourteen regional cities, ranging from Weimar to Warsaw, Budapest to Bucharest, Zagreb to Ljubljana. But this is more than simply extending the cultural geography of modernism beyond the well-worn circuit of Berlin, Paris, and Prague. The larger task instead is to return these cities to the avant-garde web of early twentieth-century European modernism. As Benson put it: While this approach pushes to the forefront the phenomena of reciprocal inuence, and meaning as determined by immediate social and cultural setting (phenomena that have long mystied historians and theoreticians of culture), it opens us to a recognition that artists of the era had themselves arrived at: the avant-garde had become at once regionally diverse and irretrievably international (p. 16). On this theme the catalog features a few informative essays. Michael Henry Heims piece, Central Europe: The Linguistic Turn, neatly recalls the linguistic diversity of va Forga the region and how this shaped avant-garde activity; E css contribution, Be-


Book Reviews

tween Cultures: Hungarian Concepts of Constructivism, ably discusses Hungarian variations on one of the key artistic movements in the region, including some good material on La szlo Moholy-Nagys pre-Bauhaus beginnings and post-Bauhaus inuence on regional artists. Esther Levingers essay, Ljubomir Micic and the Zenitist Utopia, offers some suggestive observations about Balkan modernism. Likewise, Krisztina Passuths more general essay on Berlin and Pa l Dere kys piece on Vienna are useful and perceptive. A common thread in many of the essays is how larger Western European movements (futurism, dada, cubism) and Russian inuences (constructivism) were received and remade in smaller Central European urban hubs. There are also many interesting comments on long-obscure movements and gures across the region. Even so, there are a number of disappointing drawbacks. Chief among them is that the catalog is often quite difcult to read. The cumulative effect of all of these short essays is not only an appreciation of the utter diversity of modernism in the region but also a confused sense as to its myriad thematic connections. The short pieces on nationalism and modernity, for example, are too supercial to locate these movements in any sturdy conceptual framework. No doubt diversity is the shows main theme, but this doesnt mean that there are no patterns in the carpet. Indeed, there are a few potential interpretative keys strewn throughout the text that go largely unremarked. For example, there is mention at various points about the importance of periodicals (such as the Hungarian Ma and A Tett, as well as the wide circulation of French, German, and Russian journals) in disseminating avant-garde activities across the region. Too little attention, however, is directed toward how this new, visual medium of mass cultureprecisely because of the regions daunting linguistic diversityfunctioned as the real binding inuence for artistic production in early twentieth-century Central Europe, providing a new common visual vocabulary of modernism that could be easily reproduced, dispensed, and reworked locally. Its visual nature and links to international mass media made it a very different story from modernist literature in the region, and it should be treated as such. Second, Benson at one point makes a reference to Polish art historian Tomasz Gryglewicz, who is quoted as saying that it was precisely the disbelief in absolute progress in art that most distinguished the Central European avant-garde from its Western European counterparts (p. 50). This seems to me a suggestive perspective for reassessing what is so Central European about Central European art and culture, but, unfortunately, there are no real takers. It is also quite ironic that the most clear and cogent sections of the catalog are the ones that refer to the major Western European or Russian inuences, such as how Czech was Czech cubism, or how Micic was a kind of Slavic F. T. Marinetti. Andrzej Turowskis statement at the end of the catalogArtistic and stylistic processes in Central Europe lacked consistent continuity and identity. They referred to fragments of works, functioned in different discourses, and mixed up terms and concepts. It was a stylistics of indetermination (p. 372)may be true. But given that the subject in question is being studied from a distance of nearly a century, and given the slew of excellent new scholarship on Eastern European art and architecture, it seems that there could and have been more conceptual daring in interpreting these movements afresh. In the end, the beautifully illustrated catalog provides little in the way of novel interpretation: it thus serves as a missed opportunity to test some new hypotheses in reconsidering this rich eld of study. PAUL BETTS University of Sussex