Pop Effects in Eastern Europe under Communist Rule

PA8In September 1974 Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid exhibited four works at an exhibition of nonconformist art in Moscow, which had been reluctantly permitted by the authorities. Two weeks earlier, the artists had had an artwork – a double self-portrait as Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin – destroyed in the notorious demolition of the ‘Bulldozer Exhibition’, another open-air display of nonconformist art.[1] The state-sponsored violence (conducted by loyal workers outraged at the anti-Soviet art, according to official reports) had caused a storm of international protest and so a second exhibition was hastily organised. Komar and Melamid’s canvases in this second show appeared to be heavily damaged showpieces of pop art: they included versions of one of Andy Warhol’s 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans 1962 and Robert Indiana’s The Confederacy: Alabama 1965.

Komar and Melamid, Post-Art
Komar and Melamid, Post-Art

Works from their ‘Post-Art’ series, the canvases appeared as if they had been salvaged by citizens of the Soviet Union from some kind of catastrophe that had befallen capitalist America. Interpreted in these eschatological terms, Komar and Melamid’s works could be aligned with official analyses of history in the Soviet Union. In the early 1970s, Nikita Khrushchev’s 1961 ringing promise to ‘catch up and overtake the West’ was still being repeated by the Kremlin (even when it was widely known that the Soviet Union was dependent on importing US food stuffs and machinery).[2] Nevertheless, Komar and Melamid’s ‘Post-Art’ hardly represented orthodoxy: art in the Soviet Union during the Leonid Brezhnev era (1964–82) was to provide ringing, uplifting images of Soviet progress.

Pop art was an unmistakably foreign phenomenon to both its champions and enemies in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. A number of Soviet commentators – including prominent aestheticians – wrote book-length studies of pop art in the 1960s and early 1970s.[3] Their objection to pop art belonged to a broader critique of what ideologues called the ‘decadence’ of the West, a word that signalled the abandonment of the uplifting role of culture in favour of base and selfish pleasures. As such, pop art presented a pronounced version of what Soviet critics detected more generally in modernism. Their high-minded critiques were also underscored by deep-set anxiety about the effects of mass culture in the Soviet Union. As the state invested in television, pop music and limited forms of consumerism, to satisfy the growing expectations of Soviet citizens, patrician ideologues worried about what they saw as their pernicious effects.

Even if the Soviet engagement with pop art was predominately antagonistic, it testifies to the fact that the works of Andy Warhol or Robert Rauschenberg as well as pop art from Western Europe was known, at least indirectly, through their reproduction in books and magazines. These materials often arrived ‘off set’, via the ‘fraternal’ nations of the Eastern Bloc where, by comparison, more liberal cultural policies were in place. Many Soviet artists and critics testify to having read illustrated magazines such as Projekt (Poland) and Umění (Czechoslovakia) to extract information about developments in the West.[4] Well-travelled and well-informed writers like Jindřich Chalupecký in Czechoslovakia and Urszula Czartoryska in Poland wrote articles and books on contemporary art that detailed the activities of the Independent Group in London or the Sonnabend Gallery in New York.[5] Their analyses were remarkably free of the heavy hand of official ideology and might even be read indirectly as a critique of Soviet culture. In his 1965 book, Umění dnes (Art Today), Chalupecký, for instance, characterised pop as social critique, writing: Too often art disguises the truth: here, instead, it is revealed. This is the theory and the practice of anti-art. [Daniel] Spoerri only fixes a random piece of ordinary reality in his ‘snare pictures’ (a table with the dishes after a meal, a shelf with spices); Wolf Vostell uses the direct methods of Pop Art – such as reproduction of news photographs – to make a shocking critique of modern society.[6]  Czech readers may well have interpreted Chalupecký’s words as a rebuttal of the seemingly unshakeable Soviet tenet of realism in the arts.

Opportunities for the citizens of Moscow’s satellites in Eastern Europe and former Yugoslavia to see works of art by Western pop artists first hand also occurred, albeit infrequently. The first exhibition of pop art in the region, featuring screenprints by Jim Dine, Allen Jones and Andy Warhol among others, was held in Belgrade and Zagreb (both in former Yugoslavia) in 1966 with sponsorship by tobacco concern, Philip Morris International.[7] Three years later the Smithsonian Institution organised a larger touring show of American art after 1945 entitled The Disappearance and the Reappearance of the Image, which featured works by Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg and Claes Oldenburg. It travelled to various Eastern European cities including Prague (former Czechoslovakia) (remarkably twelve months after Warsaw Pact forces repressed the reform movement there). These US displays belong to the long and well-recorded history of attempts to use modern art and design to broadcast ‘American values’ during the Cold War.[8] Interest in pop in Eastern Europe also took in its Western European variants. Strong French connections in Poland brought the works of Alain Jacquet, a representative of nouveau réalisme, to the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, Poland, where he had a solo exhibition in May–June 1969, and to the Foksal Gallery in Warsaw, where he arranged a performance of ‘Le Tricot de Varsovie’, which involved the production of a large soft sculpture in situ.

The effect of these various encounters with spectacular works of pop art on artists from Eastern Europe is clear. A number of young artists went through a pop phase. Hungarian painter László Lakner, for instance, who has admitted a debt to Rauschenberg, started doubling and fragmenting his careful renderings of documentary photographs and masterpieces of art history.[9] Instead of using the mechanical process of screen printing, Lakner painted these photographic details by hand. Later, in the 1970s, he was to extend his interest in documents in conceptual and photorealist works.

Tomislav Gotovac, My Jazz Day 1964. Printed photographs, newspapers, painted paper, cigarette butts, razors, glue / hardboard. Galerie Frank Elbaz /
Tomislav Gotovac, My Jazz Day 1964. Printed photographs, newspapers, painted paper, cigarette butts, razors, glue / hardboard. Galerie Frank Elbaz /

In former Yugoslavia, Tomislav Gotovac – later well known as a performance artist and filmmaker – made numerous collage works throughout the 1960s using advertisements, packaging and pages from magazines from the West and, as Yugoslavia underwent its own consumer revolution, from local sources too. Leonhard Lapin, the central figure in nonconformist art in the former Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, was one of the founders of a short-lived pop alliance called ‘Soup 69’ (another reference to Warhol) at the end of the 1960s.[10] For these and other artists, pop was often a brief experiment in careers that were later made in performance, conceptual art, experimental film or other artistic practices that established deeper footings in the artistic cultures of Eastern Europe in the 1970s. Pop provided an introduction to the practice of appropriation, a rebuttal of the shibboleths of modernist art: self-expression, originality and individuality. This was what made this embryonic and fleeting engagement with pop at the end of the 1960s an important watershed: the revival of modern art, and of abstract painting in particular, after the death of Stalin and the so called ‘Thaw’ of the mid-1950s had been strongly motivated by humanist principles, not least intellectual and artistic freedom.[11] Ten years later new questions about the effects of the mechanised image seemed to press on the minds of artists in Eastern Europe.

This interest ran through happenings, performances, environments and experimental films as well as early forms of conceptual art in Eastern Europe.[12] In fact, those categories that have been used to describe art in the West – such as pop art – have often been rejected by both artists and critics in Eastern Europe as inadequate and distorting labels. In 1971 János Major made a conceptual artwork in which he combined a small photograph of the tombstone of an otherwise forgotten man called Lajos Kubista with a 17-point text that begins:

1. Cubist Lajos was interred at the Farkasrét Cemetery in Budapest

2. Cubism was born in Budapest

3. No ism was born in Budapest

4. Victor Vasarely was born in Hungary

5. Op-art was not born in Hungary

6. Nicolas Schöffer was born in Kalocsa

7. Kinetic art was not born in Kalocsa

8. Theodore Herzl was born in Budapest

9. Zionism was not born in Budapest

10. The father of the nuclear bomb, Leó Szilárd was born in Hungary, died in the USA

11. Pop-art was born in the USA, its influence extended to Hungary … [13]


Major’s doleful text emphasised the alienness of many international currents in modernism, even those that had Hungarian-born pioneers. His point could be extended to other Eastern Bloc cultures too. Moreover, critics – particularly those writing about the Soviet Union – have often denied the existence of pop art in Eastern Europe under Communist rule because consumerism never succeeded there.

Ilya Kabakov, Pipe, Stick, Ball and Fly 1966, Ceramic relief, enamel and oil on plywood. Ludwig Forum für international Kunst
Ilya Kabakov, Pipe, Stick, Ball and Fly 1966, Ceramic relief, enamel and oil on plywood. Ludwig Forum für international Kunst

Of the brilliant early works by Russian artist Ilya Kabakov, which feature casts of mundane objects from Soviet life seemingly set into blank surfaces (such as Pipe, Stick, Ball and Fly 1966), Matthew Jesse Jackson writes, they ‘resembled constructions such as Warhol’s Brillo Boxes: ambiguous, three-dimensional eruptions that coalesced with their surroundings whilst remaining tenuously distinct from them … This work has nothing in common with films, advertisements, magazine covers, television programs, and comic books – the raw material of Western Pop art – but a great deal to do with the desolate Soviet consumerscape.’[14]

The fact that Eastern European citizens confronted shortages and queues in their daily lives is undeniable,[15] but that does not mean that they were unaware of the existence of consumer goods. In Eastern Europe under Communist rule, this knowledge could be both a matter of fantasy and of frustration. Consumer goods and images acquired from the West – particularly clothes, cosmetics, foodstuffs and LP records – gained special significance. Mundane in their original, capitalist context, such things came to carry a heightened importance not only because of their rarity but also because the unfamiliar materials and seductive forms of Western consumer goods could trigger fantasies about capitalist civilisation. Gotovac’s early pop collages – featuring pin-ups and branded goods from the West – are full of libidinal desire. Frustration that was felt strongly by many citizens in the former Yugoslavia and the Eastern Bloc was the product of the gap between expectation (opened up by Soviet promises to ‘catch up and overtake the West’) and experience. In fact, many countries in Eastern Europe underwent their own consumer revolutions at the end of the 1960s in which ‘soft sell’ advertising, brightly packaged and branded consumer goods, new kinds of shops such as supermarkets and fashion boutiques as well as ‘lifestyle’ magazines promised ‘socialist consumerism’.

March 1967 issue of Ty i Ja (You and I) magazine published in Poland.
March 1967 issue of Ty i Ja (You and I) magazine published in Poland.

In the recursive fashion characteristic of pop in the West too, many film posters, magazine covers and LP sleeves featured serial images that were dressed in the flattened forms and bright colours of pop art.

The response to the spread of commodity aesthetics across what Polish art historian Mieczysław Porębski called the ‘ikonosfera’ (iconosphere) was not uncritical.[16]

A work in Natalia LL's Consumption Art series, 1972–5, see www.nataliall.com
A work in Natalia LL’s Consumption Art series, 1972–5, see http://www.nataliall.com

Feminist artist Natalia LL in Poland produced a body of works that she called ‘Sztuka Konsumpcyjna’ (Consumption Art, 1972–5 – films and photographic series in which a model toyed with a hot dog, a banana and a runny pudding in a highly sexual manner, exaggerating the techniques of arousal employed in advertising. In former Yugoslavia, Sanja Iveković addressed the way in which the authorities sought to balance socialist politics with free-market economics. The ‘Ekonomsko Propagandni Program’ (Economic Propaganda Programme) broadcast daily on Radiotelevizija Zagreb was, in effect, state-sponsored advertising of domestic and, sometimes, international products. In Sweet Violence 1974 Iveković recorded one of these broadcasts on a television overpainted with black bars, a simple gesture that alluded to illusory freedoms offered by consumerism. Both Iveković and Natalia LL were preoccupied with the effects of the media – the Polish artist being interested in distinguishing authentic sexuality from its reified forms and Iveković in understanding how private life is haunted by the commercial image. Such differences aside, these works belong to a New Left critique made on both sides of the Iron Curtain, namely that East and West were coming increasingly to resemble each other. A few years earlier Raoul Vaneigem had written in his book, The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967):


The cultural détente between east and west is not accidental! On the one hand, homo consomator buys a bottle of whiskey and as a free gift the lie that accompanies it. On the other, Communist man buys ideology and gets as a free gift a bottle of vodka. Paradoxically, Soviet and capitalist regimes are taking a common path, the first thanks to their economy of production, the second thanks to their economy of consumption.[17]


So was there a distinctly Eastern European pop art? Can the phenomenon only be understood as ripples of what Czartoryska called a ‘wave’, which originated in the West?[18] Pop was, as she observed in 1965, a form of art that in its original setting passed comment on the incessant demands of mass media images on their audiences not through direct and explicit critique but through repetition, multiplication and concentration (‘their creativity is a kind of dramatic intensification of sensation’[19]). Viewed in these terms, the chief claim on the title of Eastern Bloc pop must surely belong to Sots-art. A compression of two terms (Sotsrealism/pop art), Sots-art was coined by the Russian duo Komar and Melamid to describe their own artworks in 1972. In this year they began creating works that treated the mass slogans and political images that formed a ubiquitous backdrop to life in the Soviet Union as art. Early Sots-art works included Our Goal-Communism 1972, a plain red banner painted with a slogan in white block letters and signed by the artists. Another in the series, entitled Quotation 1972, simply replaced the letters with tidy white blocks arranged in a grid bracketed with quotation marks. This was a code, seemingly without a message. Nevertheless, it made a point that was articulated a few years later by the Czech dissident writer Václav Havel describing a Communist Party poster: ‘The real meaning of the … slogan has nothing to do with what the text of the slogan actually says. Even so, this real meaning is quite clear and generally comprehensible because the code is so familiar.’[20] Other Komar and Melamid works approached ideology as a commodity, as if illustrating Vaneigem’s words above. In 1974 the duo created a series of ersatz products: hamburgers ground from a copy of Pravda (itself a performance and Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky Flavoured Vodka (the latter featuring Isaak Brodsky’s 1936 much-reproduced portrait of the Soviet writer on the label). Alongside the painter Eric Bulatov, Komar and Melamid were the first artists to rework the codes and symbols of Soviet propaganda. Often exercises in appropriation, their early works have a kind of cool, ironic tone that is lacking in the sardonic combinations of Western adspeak and Soviet imagery characteristic of much later Sots-art.

Sándor Pinczehelyi, Sickle and Hammer 1973
Sándor Pinczehelyi, Sickle and Hammer 1973

Sots-art was not exclusively a Soviet phenomenon (although it was longest lived there). In Hungary in 1973 Sándor Pinczehelyi created Sickle and Hammer, a self-portrait holding the central symbol of Soviet authority (and, as the tools of the workers, its claim on legitimacy) (see fig.5). Some versions are overprinted in a wash of red. Aleš Erjavec has described this work as an attempt at demystification: ‘The Hammer and Sickle have lost their original meaning as mere tools and have been completely appropriated by the symbolic universe of political ideology. It is now up to the artist to revert them back to their non-symbolic, quotidian reality, producing by this procedure an artistic effect.’[21] Pinczehelyi’s straight-faced stance was read as both loyalty and dissent: ‘Everyone sensed irony at that time’, recalled critic László Beke, ‘a man positioned in a heroic stance with a hammer and sickle, yet the police were unable to accuse him of subversive activity.’[22]

The ambivalence of irony has allowed critics to read other works produced in Eastern Europe as critical commentaries on power.

Otašević’s triptych To Communism, Lenin’s Way 1967
Otašević’s triptych To Communism, Lenin’s Way 1967

Young Yugoslav artist Dušan Otašević’s triptych To Communism, Lenin’s Way 1967 featuring the Bolshevik leader is a case in point. Lenin gestures to a five-point red star on the left-hand panel while another, on the right, has a traffic sign marked with the symbol for ‘no right turn’. Produced in the year when much of the world was reflecting – often critically – on the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution and Lenin’s image was being widely reproduced, Otašević’s telegraphic aesthetic perhaps alluded to the enervation of the revolutionary spirit. Other works of this period include his Comrade Tito, White Violet, Our Youth Loves You 1969, a combine made from timber and aluminium panels with a vividly-coloured portrait of the Yugoslav leader as a Second World War partisan, under an ‘empty’ red star. Kitsch, and seemingly composed in the manner of amateur propaganda displays, Otašević’s portrait lacked the aura of heroism and ideological sanctity that characterised almost all Yugoslav representations of Tito. Weighing up the political character of these and other works by Otašević, Branislav Dimitrijević has characterised them as ambivalent reactions to the ways in which socialist ideology and Western consumer culture were becoming entwined.[23]

The extent to which pop art in the West constituted a critical practice has preoccupied many critics and historians. Although pop works produced in Britain and the USA in the 1960s once seemed to have critical and anti-authoritarian potential, they were subsumed easily within the gallery system. Writing of the work of celebrity artists such as Warhol, Jean Baudrillard in 1970 made his reading of pop and consumption clear: it was the end of the modernist avant-garde, a ‘total integration’ of the artwork into the political economy of the commodity-sign’.[24] Sots-art used many of the same procedures as pop, not least the appropriation of the official imagery that was central to the propaganda apparatus. Yet such works could hardly be absorbed in the same manner. Those made by Komar and Melamid, Pinczehelyi and Otašević maintained a cool distance when power required eagerness; and offered ambivalence when official culture called for commitment.

[1] See Laura J. Hoptman and Tomáš Pospiszyl (eds.), Primary Documents: A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art Since the 1950s, New York 2002, pp.65–77.

[2] Jutta Scherrer, ‘“To Catch Up and Overtake” the West: Soviet Discourse on Socialist Competition’, in Katalin Miklóssy and Melanie Ilic (eds.), Competition in Socialist Society, London 2014, p.11.

[3] See, for instance, Mikhail Alexandrovich Lifshitz and Lidija Jakovlevna Rejngardt, Krizis bezobrazija. Ot kubizma k pop-art, Moscow 1968; Viktor Sibirjakov, Pop-art i paradoksy modernizma, Moscow 1969; M. Kuz’mina, ‘“Pop-art” in the Anthology’, Modernizm, Moscow 1973.

[4] See, for instance, Iurii Gerchuk, ‘The Aesthetics of Everyday Life in the Khrushchev Thaw in the USSR (1954–1964)’, in David Crowley and Susan Reid (eds.), Style and Socialism, Oxford 2002, pp.81–96.

[5] See Jindřich Chalupecký, Umění dnes, Prague 1966; Urszula Czartoryska, Od Pop-Artu do Sztuki Konceptualnej, Warsaw 1972.

[6] Chalupecký 1966, p.126.

[7] See Boris Kelemen (ed.), Pop Art, exh. cat., Galerija Suvremene Umjetnosti, Zagreb, March 1966.

[8] Michael L. Krenn, Fall-out Shelters for the Human Spirit: American Art and the Cold War, Chapel Hill, North Carolina 2005.

[9] Lakner described witnessing Rauschenberg’s works in the American Pavilion at the Venice Biennial in 1964 as being like a blow to the head. Lakner cited by Péter Sinkovits, ‘Progresszív álmok: beszélgetés Lakner Lászlóval’, Új művészet, vol.16, no. 4 2005, pp.4–7.

[10] See Sirji Helme, Popkunst Forever. Eesti popkunst 1960. ja 1970. aastate vahetusel, Tallinn 2010.

[11] Piotr Piotrowski, In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-garde in Eastern Europe, 1945–1989, London 2011, pp.61–105.

[12] See Claus Groh, Aktuelle Kunst in Osteuropa, Koln 1972.

[13] János Major cited by Anik Cs. Asztalos (Éva Körner), ‘No isms in Hungary’, Studio International, March 1974, pp.105–11.

[14] Matthew Jesse Jackson, The Experimental Group: Ilya Kabakov, Moscow Conceptualism, Soviet Avant-Gardes, Chicago and London 2010, pp.69–70.

[15] See David Crowley and Susan E. Reid, ‘Introduction’, in Pleasures in Socialism. Leisure and Luxury in the Eastern Bloc, Evanston, Illinois, pp.3–51.

[16] Mieczysław Porębski, Ikonosfera, Warsaw 1972.

[17] Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, trans. John Fullerton and Paul Sieveking, London 1979, p.36.

[18] Urszula Czartoryska, ‘“Kronika” Andy’ego Warhola’ (1965), in Pisma Urszuli Czartoryskiej: perspektywy historyczne, ed. Leszek Brogowski, Gdańsk 2006, p.155.

[19] Czartoryska (1965) cited by Jerzy Kossak, in Dylematy Kultury Masowej, Warsaw 1966, p.97.

[20] Václav Havel ‘The Power of the Powerless’ (1978), in John Keane (ed.), The Power of the Powerless. Citizens Against the State in Central-Eastern Europe, trans. Paul Wilson, London 2009, p.15.

[21] Aleš Erjavec, ‘Introduction’, in Postmodernism and the Postsocialist Condition: Politicized Art Under Late Socialism, Berkeley, CA 2003, p.37.

[22] Beke cited by Klara Kemp-Welch, in Antipolitics in Central European Art: Reticence as Dissidence under Post-Totalitarian Rule 1956–1989, London 2014, p.163.

[23] See Branislav Dimitrijević, ‘DIY POP: Artistic Craftsmanship of Dušan Otašević’, in Dušan Otašević – popmodernizam/popmodernism. Retrospektivna izložba 1965–2003, exh. cat., Muzej savremene umetnosti, Belgrade October–December 2003, p.112.

[24] Jean Baudrillard cited by Hal Foster, The Return of the Real: The Avant-garde at the End of the Century, Boston, MA 1996, p.128.













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