Empty Plots – Art and Environment in Latvia in the 1970s

Architecture, Collage, Eastern Europe

This short essay was written for a publication accompanying the Visionary Structures exhibition at BOZAR, Brussels, opening in January 2015.

In the early 1970s Environment occupied a central place in the lexicon of art and design on both sides of the Cold War divide. It was not, of course, a newly-coined term: more than a decade earlier American artist Allan Kaprow had described the settings of his early happenings as ‘environments’, spaces which entangled spectators in multi-sensory experiences.[1] Kaprow and many others in the years which followed made works of art into which the visitor could step. Happenings, installations, Supergraphics, artistic interventions into the ordinary fabric of the city or the countryside, temporary architectural structures and monuments all came to be described as ‘environments’ (often using the English term[2]).

Although not new, the term seemed to gain a special hold on the imagination when electronic communications technology and new sciences like cybernetics augured new kinds of responsive environments. At the same time, these high-tech utopias were shadowed by growing anxieties about humanity’s negative effects on the natural world. This is certainly the case in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc where artists creating ‘environments’ also faced a second constraint, namely that of the Party-State’s control over space. Despite trumpeting the collective ownership of all resources including space itself, state-censorship, surveillance and a paranoid approach to any form of unlicensed social gathering meant that the creation of works of art which formed environments – in the sense suggested by Kaprow – always risked official condemnation. In fact, the countryside became a particularly attractive setting in which to create temporary experimental environments in in the early 1970s because – in part – it offered some degree of escape from control and surveillance.

Andris Grīnbergs’ ‘The Wedding of Jesus Christ’, 1972

Andris Grīnbergs’ ‘The Wedding of Jesus Christ’, 1972

Key escapes of this kind include Andris Grīnbergs’ ‘The Wedding of Jesus Christ’, a two-day happening during which he married his partner Inta Jaunzeme in the Latvian countryside in 1972, as well as the better known activities of the Collective Actions group, cofounded by Andrei Monastyrsky in Moscow in 1976. Their ‘Journeys to the Countryside’ followed a general pattern: twenty or thirty participants would be invited by telephone to leave the city by an appointed train. On arrival, they would walk to remote field to be presented with a modest intervention into the landscape. In Appearance (1976), the first of these actions, the group were met by two men who distributed plain cards with the following inscription, ‘Documentary confirmation that _____ was a witness of Appearance which occurred on 13th March 1976’.[3] As artist Jānis Borgs recalls, one of the reasons ‘why there was no street art’ in the Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic until the late 1980s was because of the obdurate grip of censorship, at least until the Kremlin declared the policy of Glasnost (Openness).[4]

Jānis Osis design for the Celebrations exhibition, Riga, 1972 (LCCA archive)

Jānis Osis design for the Celebrations exhibition, Riga, 1972 (LCCA archive)

Early explorations of the idea of environment in Latvian art include a 1972 exhibition entitled ‘Celebrations’ held in the exhibition hall of the Institute of Scientific Technical Information and Propaganda in Riga. This event belongs to the longer and, as yet, unwritten history of scientific institutions forming welcoming environments for experimental art in the Soviet Union. In these settings, groups like Dvizhenie in Moscow and Prometei in Kazan synthesised art and technology to produce immersive, kinetic and abstract art works. In this way, forms of modernism which were prohibited by official art institutions thrived. In 1972 the elegant interiors of the historic Stock Exchange in Riga were filled with a framework of small interconnected bays conceived by Jānis Osis. Artworks by a new generation of modernist artists interested in testing orthodoxy illuminated these bays with light or sound or flooded brightly coloured stripes around their corners. There was little distinction between the art and its setting. In one section, the floor seemed to move and pulse under foot – here was a artwork which suggested interaction. ‘Celebrations’ was evidence that new forms of contemporary art like Op and Kinetic Art could be accommodated in an official exhibition which had been organized to serve a propaganda function (its title inferring the celebration of the formation of the Soviet Union fifty years earlier). But much depended on the strategic designation of the work: this section of the ‘Celebrations’ exhibition was categorized as ‘Interior Design’, a label which afforded artists greater intellectual and formal freedom than the conventional categories of art. An imprecise label like ‘artistic construction’ suggested usefulness, even if the nature of that utility was hardly evident to visitors in the gallery.

Valdis Celms, Anda Ārgale and Māris Ārgalis, design for multimedia 'Lighthouse', 1978

Valdis Celms, Anda Ārgale and Māris Ārgalis, design for multimedia ‘Lighthouse’, 1978

Kinetic art formed a contact zone for ambitious art, architecture and design in Latvia. In 1978 designer Valdis Celms, architect Anda Ārgale and artist Māris Ārgalis, proposed that a ‘Lighthouse’ be constructed on the AB Dam on the Daugava river creating a new landmark for the capital in an otherwise anonymous section of the city. A ‘Centre for the Audiovisual Arts’, the tower was to feature a programmable, rotating video screen on which live events and propaganda could be broadcast across the city. Undeniably future-oriented (and exceeding the limits of Soviet technology at the time), the scheme was, at the same time, indebted to the propaganda stands and kiosks equipped with light panels and loudspeakers conceived by Gustavs Klucis in Lenin’s Russia. Never seriously considered by the authorities, this was nevertheless, an important project for the artists, one on which Celms worked for a number of years. In 1983 he completed a three-dimensional model of the lighthouse.

Jānis Borgs, 1978 (LCCA Archive)

Jānis Borgs, 1978 (LCCA Archive)

The Lighthouse was first presented in ‘For One’s Own City’, a 1978 show which was organized in St. Peter’s Church in the centre of Riga to combine the creativity of artists and architects. Under the auspices of this exhibition, artist Jānis Borgs proposed departing the gallery by installing a clock on an empty plot in the city. His design was also indebted to Klucis’ ‘Dynamic City’, a montage from 1920 which combined a series of dynamic geometric forms with photographs of Lenin and pylon laid over a circular form suggesting the globe. Combining dynamic abstract geometry with Bolshevik symbols, Klucis’ image was a demand for world revolution. More than half a century later Borgs’ clock – reviving the aesthetics of the Soviet avant-garde – was to be a kinetic object set against a painted Suprematist supergraphic on the blind ends of the plot. In the Soviet Union where abstract art was still under prohibition, the avant-garde of the 1920s was yet to be rehabilitated. Only splinters of the history of the avant-garde were available to its citizens, and sometimes only then on the pages of magazines and books from the more liberal of the ‘fraternal’ nations of the Eastern Bloc like Poland. The wholesale rediscovery of the Latvian avant-garde of the 1920s was yet to happen.

Moreover, the utopianism of this design lay in its unlikelihood of being realized in the stagnant conditions of the Soviet Union under General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev (this is what Theodor Adorno once called ‘negative utopianism’[5]). As such it might be considered an early form of what later became known as ‘Paper Architecture’ – a practice found across the Bloc but most strongly associated with young architects in Eastern Europe under communist rule who used visionary schemes as political commentary in the 1970s and 1980s.[6] Artists and architects associated with the Tallinn School, for instance, produced an exceptional body of paper architectural schemes through the course of the 1970s which often used the vocabularies of Constructivism and Suprematism somewhat ironically: Leonhard Lapin designed, for instance, an ‘Anti-International Monument. Tower (Stable) for Artist Valdur Ohakas’ Donkey’ in 1974, alluding perhaps to the primitive techniques employed in the construction of the first Soviet monuments – another form of Potemkin architecture.[7] Just over a decade later Hungarian artist Gabor Bachman and architect László Rajk, with dissident writers György Konrád and Miklós Haraszti designed a visionary ‘Strikers House’ (1985) as a monument to the repressed Solidarity Trade Union in Poland in the Constructivist style. Both Lapin’s project and the Hungarian scheme were laced with irony. By contrast the Latvian engagement with the Soviet avant-garde still seems to possess a genuine desire for utopia.

Pollutionists montage, late 1970s.

Pollutionists montage, late 1970s.

Ārgalis, Borgs and Celms – along with Kirils Šmeļkovs, Kārlis Kalsers and others – were also members of the Pollucionistu (the Pollutionists) group which in the late 1970s created a remarkable and extensive body of images which commented on the failures of late Soviet system to meet not just its promises of utopia but also its loud claims on beauty and utility. Walking through Riga, the Pollucionistu photographed new panel-construction estates and nineteenth century housing; side streets and back alleys; as well as the slow progress of repairs to the city’s streets. Their interests were neither in the historic landmarks of the city nor the ostentatious monuments to Soviet order which formed the conventional points on an official guided tour. Instead, it was the slow unmanaged entropy of the Soviet environment which drew their cameras.

Pollutionists montage prepared for Literatura un Māksla, late 1970s.

Pollutionists montage prepared for Literatura un Māksla, late 1970s.

The group would bring their images to informal discussions in private apartments, often animated by Ārgalis’s penetrating reading of art theory and history. Celms and Borgs reworked these black and white images as montages or drew on their surfaces in the manner of Dada works. Often absurd, their images had limited circulation as grainy illustrations in Literatura un Māksla, a weekly paper issued by the artistic and literary unions in Latvia. Gentle humour eased the passage of these images through the censor’s office: nevertheless, viewed together, the images created by the Pollucionistu constitute a sharp critique of Soviet management of the urban environment. By the early 1980s, the activities of the group drew the attention of the KGB and, facing dark insinuations and intimation, dissolved itself.

It is remarkable that Borg and Celms could be making montage works that self-consciously aspired to the irreverent qualities of Dada and yet at the same time were proposing utopian schemes like the Brīvības Street clock or the Lighthouse Audiovisual Centre. This was not, however, a matter of ‘Double Think’: both orders of image were hinged by a desire to radically improve the environment. Not anti-Soviet or explicitly political, they nurtured a desire for an alternative to that which was offered by Soviet reality. The late 1970s also marked the high-water mark of techno-utopianism in the Latvian Socialist Soviet Republic just as the tide turned to a new aesthetic which drew attention to entropy and stagnancy (one of the themes which the Pollucionistu recorded).

Andris Breže (with Andra Neibuerga and Valdis Ošiņš)  ‘Journey to the Countryside’, 1984

Andris Breže (with Andra Neibuerga and Valdis Ošiņš) ‘Journey to the Countryside’, 1984

A landmark exhibition, ‘Nature. Environment. Man’ planned by artist Ojārs Ābols but mounted after his death in St Peter’s Church in Riga in spring 1984 featured artworks not only by modernists like Celms but also those of a new generation of artists who addressed environment in very different terms: Indulis Gailāns’ ‘Fence Action’ was, for instance, a timber, whitewashed fence to which enigmatic messages scrawled on paper were nailed whilst Andris Breže (with Andra Neibuerga and Valdis Ošiņš) installed a putrefying Moskvich 401 car in which ghostly plaster figures were taking a ‘Journey to the Countryside’.[8] Grass grew under its bonnet. In a new-found orientation to the past and to the countryside, these works anticipate the politics of ecology, memory and national revival which were to shape Latvian intellectual life in the late 1980s.

Indulis Gailāns’ ‘Fence Action’ , Riga, 1984

Indulis Gailāns’ ‘Fence Action’ , Riga, 1984

The ecclesiological setting, as well the new-found interest in the entropy, brought ‘Nature. Environment. Man’ close to a series of exhibitions and happenings organized in Warsaw in 1983 and 1984. When artists in Poland boycotted official institutions in protest at the repression of Solidarity Trade Union, the Catholic Church provided alternative public spaces for dissenting culture. One particularly important space during the mid 1980s was a disused and ruined church on Żytnia Street which hosted a number of theatrical performances by banned avant-garde companies like Teatr Ósmego Dnia (Theatre of the Eighth Day) and works by prominent artists like Jerzy Kalina and Jerzy Bereś in group exhibitions with titles like ‘Znak krzyża’ (The Meaning of the Cross, June 1983) and the more open-ended ‘Obecność’ (Presence, June 1984). Whilst the Catholic church in Poland enjoyed an exceptional degree of autonomy and Ā, the sacred and historic setting served a new generation of artists interested in the subjective qualities and often suppressed conditions of memory. This also drew Latvian art closer – in approach – to the post-modern sensibilities which were shaping art practice around the world. History – so long the primary theme of most official art in the Soviet Union – was being rescaled to the dimensions of the family, the church and the home.

[1] Allan Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, ed. Jeff Kelley (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003).

[2] See for instance Aleksander Wojciechowski, ‘Environment w sztuce Polskiej’ in Projekt (March 1976) pp. 17-32.

[3] See Matthew Jesse Jackson, The Experimental Group: Ilya Kabakov, Moscow Conceptualism, Soviet avant-gardes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010) pp. 134-5.

[4] Borgs interviewed by Ieva Astahovska in Helena Demakova, The Self. Personal Journeys in to Contemporary Art: 1960s-80s in Soviet Latvia (Riga: Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Latvia, 2011), p. 67.

[5] Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (London: Routledge, 2004) p. 176

[6] See Deutsches Architektur Museum, Paper Architecture. New Projects from the Soviet Union (New York: Rizzoli, 1990); Alexey Yurasovsky, Post-Soviet Art and Architecture (London: Academy Editions, 1994).

[7] See Kurg and Laanemets’ essays in Keskkonnad, projektid, kontseptsioonid Tallinna kooli arhitektid 1972-1985 (Environment, projects, concepts. Architects of the Tallinn School 1972-1985) (Tallinn, 2008).

[8] Daba. Vide. Cilveks 1984-2004 (Riga: LMS, 2004)

Pop Effects in Eastern Europe under Communist Rule

Collage, Eastern Europe, Modernism, Uncategorized

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.












Autonomy. The cover designs of Anarchy 1961-1970

Collage, Graphic Design

The political philosophy of Anarchism attracted some extraordinary and perhaps unlikely British adherents. They included Alex Comfort, an expert on the science of aging and author of the bestselling The Joy of Sex;  Herbert Read, the poet and critic who wrote incisively about modern art; and Colin Ward, an architect whose ideas about the importance of self-organisation led him to write about many everyday things including children’s play and garden allotments. Far removed from the cartoon-cliché of bomb-wielding terrorists in thtumblr_locn2tEtWH1qzzsdjo1_1280-661x1024e late nineteenth century or the Kings Road punk, these anarchist intellectuals were cerebral figures who used their skills with words to argue for what Comfort called the ‘maximization of individual responsibility and the reduction of concentrated power — regal, dictatorial, parliamentary: the institutions which go loosely by the name of “government” — to a vanishing minimum.’ They may have rallied against the oppressive reach of the state and the ‘inflation’ of professionalism, but ‘the Establishment’ was keen to benefit from their skills: Comfort was an academic at University College London; Read was given a knighthood in 1953; and Ward was to spend the 1970s as an education officer with the Town and Country Planning Association.

Ten years earlier, in March 1961, Ward had been the founding editor of Anarchy: a journal of anarchist ideas. This small format monthly was created to publish the kind of long and philosophical essays which not could be carried by its sister title, Freedom, an inky weekly newspaper that was then already seventy-five years old. Ward commissioned Rufus Segar to design his new periodical. Segar was working at the time for the Economist Intelligence Unit creating charts, maps and other info-graphics for business, education and government. Moonlighting with Ward, he designed more than 100 of Anarchy’s 118 covers – all of which are reproduced at 1:1 scale in Daniel Poyner’s new book Autonomy. The cover designs of Anarchy 1961-1970 (Hyphen Press).

Eschewing formulas and standard devices, Segar’s designs were diverse and often ingenious responses to the themes of each issue. Rarely meeting his editor, his brief often arrived on a postcard. Occasionally an illustrator was commissioned (Martin Leman’s Paolozzi-like collages of man-machines stand out). But more often than not Segar produced his own pithy drawings or worked with the images he had close to hand like clippings from newspapers, official reports and even family photographs. Like the best advertising of the day, the cover images, were animated by sharp copy. The solitary pair of transparent spectacles in a pile of rose tinted glasses on the cover of Anarchy 74 is catalysed by the accompanying question, ‘How realistic is anarchism?‘

Segar’s techniques sometimes approached what Umberto Eco was later to call ‘semiotic guerilla warfare’. Anarchy 79 (1967), for instance, was dedicated to the boiling ferment underway in the dictatorships and failing democracies of Latin America at the time. The cover takes the form of a sketch with correspondence to Segar from Ward, news clippings as well as handwritten directions to a designer and the printer. These are more than technical instructions. A cutting from an official Ecuadorian newspaper demanding that the poor are swept off the streets to keep tourists happy is accompanied with handwritten marginalia; our ‘translator … says that the tourist is always wrong, if he goes to the temples, he has no social conscience.’ On the back page, Segar instructs the designer to visualize the demographic explosion underway in the region: ‘Do a diagrammatic map of Latin America’. This, of course, is message to himself, the other Rufus Segar at his Economist Intelligence Unit drawing board. Interviewing Segar, Poyner tried to get the designer to talk about his double life as anarchist and design technocrat. The answer is unrevealing: ‘I found my forte in charts, maps and diagrammes.’

But of course designers are rarely the best interpreters of their own work. And, in fact, Poyner turns to the one of the most skilled deciphers of design, Richard Hollis, who supplies a technical analysis of Segar’s approach to typography and printing in an essay entitled ‘Anarchy and the 1960s’. Poyner also includes a characteristically brilliant 1987 essay by the late Raphael Samuel reviewing an anthology of essays from Anarchy. Disappointingly, this structure keeps form and content largely separate. Graphic design historians have spent many words trying to establish the relationship of style to ideology. In the élan of Cuban poster designers working for Castro’s revolution, for instance, Susan Sontag saw ‘a culture which is alive… and relatively free of the kind of bureaucratic interference’. So what was the relation between the libertarianism of British anarchism and Segar’s designs? Was his eschewal of a credo or a singular style a claim on freedom? This was what Herbert Read had in mind when he wrote ‘it is always a mistake to build apriori constitutions’. Was Segar’s sharp-witted bricolage technique a political declaration (as it was for the Situationist International, his contemporaries on the continent)? And if, as Samuel suggests, British anarchism faltered just at the moment when it was most needed, the revolutionary year of 1968, should the same charge be leveled at Segar’s designs? To judge from the images in this book, they would stand up well to this kind of scrutiny.

Roman Cieślewicz, Changement de Climat, 1976-77

Collage, Eastern Europe, Graphic Design

In the 1970s Cieślewicz turned his scalpel on the magazines which had given him employment in Paris in the 1960s. In a number of commissioned and self-initiated series, he mixed contemporary commercial images with reproductions of historical paintings. Renaissance artists Durer, Uccello and Bronzino as well as David all feature. He called the resulting works ‘photocollages’.

In 1978 Marcin Giżycki saw in these images ‘a new climate of a poetic reflection of the intermingling of two world, that of tradition and of the present, of permanent values and consumer goods. There is something here of a gaze of a man who, having left the Louvre, entered La Fayette’s department store.’

This 1977 film was made using these images (with camerawork by Phillip Stollsteiner and Emmanual Meynard, and sound by Francois Libault). Simple and effective, Cieślewicz used a rostrum camera and sounds captured from television and everyday life to express his anxieties about the future. It includes an extraordinary  image of the World Trade Center towers laid over a prone knight from Uccello’s painting ‘The Battle of Romano’ (1438-40). Reversing gravity, the steel and glass towers are launched into space talking the dead warrior with them.