‘Consumer Art’ and Other Commodity Aesthetics in Eastern Europe under Communist Rule

Eastern Europe, Sexuality, Uncategorized

 

This essay was written for a book which was published by Centrum Sztuki Nowoczesnej in Warsaw in January 2017.

 

lokal_30_natalia_ll_consumer_artIn 2015 works from Natalia LL’s ‘Consumer Art’ (1972-5) series featured in Tate Modern’s exhibition, The World Goes Pop. Here, Natalia LL’s reflections on desire and satisfaction were placed in in the company of Komar and Melamid’s ‘Post-Art’, as well as works by Yugoslav artists (Boris Bućan’s 1972 ‘Art’ canvases of corporate logos and Dušan Otaševič’s 1967 portrait of ‘Lenin, Towards Communism on the Leninist Path’).[1] Putting attention on Pop in Eastern Europe under communist rule, as well as Latin America and East Asia, the curator of the show, Jessica Morgan, set out not only to extend the phenomenon beyond its conventional geography, but also to find new critical perspectives on Americanisation, consumerism, and the mass media image. In an essay introducing the exhibition, she writes

Countering the mainstream impression that pop art operated as a simple adaptation of the techniques and images of consumer culture, global pop mined the media as a critical, material source for artists exploring the effects of everyday culture. Pop – and this of course can also be said of the more ambivalent work of Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol too – was rarely just an affirmative aestheticisation of commodity culture or consumer behavior but employed the language of advertisements and marketing, the language of the magical commercial environment as identified by McLuhan, to turn establish communication strategies into political opposition, satiric critique, subversive appropriation, and utopic explorations of collective and individual identity.[2]

The World Goes Pop was an attempt to revise what might be called the master-narrative of pop art which has placed a narrow emphasis on the Anglo-American experience (despite the merits of exhibitions ‘Les Années Pop 1956–68′, organized by Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2001). In fact for some art historians the identification of works of art from Eastern Europe as ‘Pop’ is been a category error or, at best, evidence of ‘second rate’ art.[3] Piotr Piotrowski, in one of the more sophisticated discussions of the question, points to the problem of embracing popular culture when it was in such short supply in Eastern Europe and when artists had accepted a mission of sustaining high cultural values: ‘They felt that they had a mission to defend art, not to discredit it, since they knew that the latter was a goal of the power, the regime originating with the Soviets’.[4] In other words, how could Eastern Bloc societies produce the strangely paradoxical compound, authentic pop art?

Putting aside the problem of authenticity of an aesthetic which enjoyed the ironies of ‘elevating’ the imagery of popular culture for a moment, this question is somewhat undermined by the simple material fact of various forms of pop art practices in Eastern Europe. A number of young artists went through a pop phase at the end of the 1960s. 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. 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. 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’ (a reference to Warhol) at the end of the 1960s.[5] 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.[6] Ten years later new questions about the effects of the mechanised image seemed to press on the minds of artists in Eastern Europe.

Natalia LL’s ‘Consumer Art’ films and photoworks made between 1972 and 1975 can, I think, be viewed in similar terms. Models, sometimes topless, lick, play and, eventually eat different food stuffs. Bananas, bread sticks and sausages are treated like phalluses; whilst jelly and cream perhaps suggest body fluids. Sexualising food and emphasising orality, they offer a provocative commentary about the elision of desire and need. This was, of course, a theme explored by many pop artists in the West. In 1962 article in which British artist Richard Hamilton, for instance, reflected on the sources ‘$he’, his 1957 study of a woman and a refrigerator employing images and techniques of American advertising:

The worst thing that can happen to a girl, according to the ads is that she should fail to be exquisitely at ease in her appliance setting – the setting that now does much to establish our attitude to a woman in the way that her clothes used to. Sex is everywhere, symbolised in the glamour of mass-produced luxury – the interplay of fleshy plastic and smooth, fleshier metal.[7]

Like much pop, Hamilton’s work eschews sharp judgment of mass media images, and is better understood as a kind of primer into their techniques and sensibilities. In a similar fashion, might Natalia LL’s ‘Consumer Art’ (1972-4) series be understood as a kind of dispassionate deconstruction of the relations between commodities, sex and women’s bodies formed in advertising of the period? Viewed in this way, might they be a visual expression of arguments about the alienating effects of ‘the female fetish’ found in the writings of prominent feminist Germaine Greer at the same time? In 1970 she wrote:

The gynolatry of our civilisation is written large on its face, upon hoardings, cinema screens, televisions, newspapers, magazines, tins, packets, cartons, bottles, all consecrated to the ruling deity, the female fetish. Her dominion must not be thought to entail the rule of women, for she is not a woman but a doll: weeping, pouting or smiling, running or reclining, she is a doll.[8]

Such contemporary precedents and parallels notwithstanding, I should acknowledge East/West differences too. No ringing libertarian feminist voices could be heard in Poland in the early 1970s.[9] (And in fact, as Agata Jakubowska has shown, the ‘Consumer Art’ series was first discovered by Western women art critics’[10]). Natalia LL’s works also seem to have different emphases than the better known works of Anglo American pop like Hamilton’s ‘$he’. Their wetness, for instance, is unsettling: it is a kind of excess which most pop works shy away from, preferring the cooler, dryer aesthetic of packaging, of logos, and of branding. Sex was as carefully managed in pop as it was in mass advertising, usually appearing as a set of controlled codes or gestures: here, in Natalia LL’s works, the act of consuming is carnal and fleshy, perhaps overly so. Equally, in those occasional moments when Natalia LL’s model’s eye catches the camera or when she laughs, perhaps a little self-consciously, the deadpan aesthetic of pop disappears and the gap between simulated and real pleasure opens up.

So what is to be made of the problem of the pop image in societies which were, reportedly, marked by their failure to produce consumer bounty? After all, pop art itself is a form of commodity aesthetics. Writing of the work of celebrity artists like Andy Warhol, Jean Baudrillard in 1970 made his reading of pop and consumption clear: pop art was the end of the avant-garde myth of subversion and the ‘total integration’ of art into consumerism, writing: ‘If the consumer society is trapped in its own mythology, if it has no critical perspective on itself, and if that is precisely its definition, there can be no contemporary art which is not, in its very existence and practice, compromised by and complicit with that opaquely self-evident state of affairs’.[11] Frederic Jameson said something similar a few years later when he wrote ‘Andy Warhol’s work in fact turns centrally around commodification, and the great billboard images of the Coca-Cola bottle or the Campbell’s soup can, which explicitly foreground the commodity fetishism of a transition to late capital, ought to be powerful and critical political statements. If they are not that, then one would surely want to know why, and one would want to begin to wonder a little more seriously about the possibilities of political or critical art in the postmodern period of late capital.’[12]

Adapting Jameson’s point but accepting the logic of his critique, his question can be extended to ask what did it mean to ‘explicitly foreground … commodity fetishism’ in Eastern European societies which had announced the eradication of this particular instrument of alienation as one of their goals? After all, the Kremlin built its declaration to ‘beat and overtake the West’ on the rational management of supply and demand, not the irrational manipulation of consumers. Admittedly, this was a stop-start-stop world; promises were made and occasional boosts in production achieved; crisis would then follow. Nevertheless, the 1960s and 1970s saw the growth of ‘socialist consumerism’ across the Bloc and Yugoslavia;[13] a phenomenon found largely, if not entirely in the realm of images rather than things. But perhaps this distinction does not matter much. What defines a modern consumer society is not access to consumer goods but knowledge of them. In this regard, the role of advertisements, magazines and other forms of publicity is key. They – alongside branding and design – form a particular order of ‘commodity aesthetics’ or what, in German, Wolfgang Haug called ‘Warenästhetik’. In order to understand advertising and its effects, Haug argued in his 1971 book, Kritik der Warenästhetik, it is necessary to consider how it intersects directly with the realm of human needs and the domain of sensuality: ‘The transformation of the world of useful objects into commodities triggers instinctual responses, and the functional means by which not only the world of sensual objects but also human sensuality itself is remoulded again and again.’ This is its own form of manipulation, ‘whoever controls the product’s appearance can control the fascinated public by appealing to them sensually.’[14]

ReklamaIn the 1960s and 1970s the citizens of the people’s republics might have been unable to consume many branded consumer good, or everyday luxuries like cars, washing machines and fashionable clothes but they were aware of the aesthetic codes which accompanied modern consumerism. ‘Socialist consumerism’ across the Bloc and Yugoslavia was a phenomenon found largely, if not entirely, in the realm of images rather than things (or, in Marxist terms, as exchange values rather than as use values). Post-stalinist states, for instance, created agencies and professional guides for the production of ‘socialist advertising’ which would manage popular expectations or, in Haug’s terms, desires. The first International Conference of Advertising Workers (Mezinárodní konference reklamních pracovníků), held in the International Hotel in Prague in December 1957, laid down three cornerstones of socialist advertising:

Ideovost (political enlightenment)is theeducationalroleof advertising.Enlightenedtradepoints outusefulfeatures and benefitsof the goods for sale and, in this way, expressesthe socialist state’s care forworkersand consumers.

Pravdivost (truthfulness) of advertising lies in the fact that all information about quality and character, as well as uses can be demonstrated.

Konkrétnost (concreteness) of business advertising means speaking to consumers in clear and persuasive language. In this context, formalism in artistic expression as well as slogans, which undermines the clarity and understandability of advertising is not acceptable.[15]

The point was socialist advertising should be different. It should resist the fetishistic hold that advertising in the West has on its viewers. Rational and honest advertising would overcome the hollow illusions of the commodity by educating consumers about the correct attitude towards things.[16] In the event, very little print, television and cinema advertising produced in the people’s republics can be explained in such ideological terms. Whilst print advertising and product packaging often lacked the sophistication of their western counterparts, they sought the same kind of effects.

Moreover, one of the defining features of the post-Stalin years, was the steady creep of commercial imagery into the ‘ikonosfer’, much of it from the West. Polish and Hungarian film distributors made arrangements to screen many of the most popular products of the American and Western European film industries in their cinemas.[17] Popular magazines increasingly featured advertising and fashion spreads. In the case of one of the most vivacious publications of the 1960s in Poland, Ty i Ja LR this was created by the title’s own designers but adapted from French sources. Eastern European states also provided shop windows for Western consumer goods in the form of so called ‘hard-currency shops’ like the Tuzex chain in Czechoslovakia and Pewex in Poland. Western consumer goods were put on sale for Western currency in an effort to extract Western currency from its possessors, whether citizens or foreigners. These shops were often criticized for their obvious ideological contradictions: With writer in Nove Slovo announced ‘Tuzex fosters petit-bourgeois fetishism and worship of goods of Western provenance’ whilst another in Tribuna asked ‘Is not Tuzex a way to confuse people, to convince them that “West is Best”?’[18]

What the Tribuna writer alluded to was a particular form of fetishisation which occurs in Eastern Europe. According to Marx, the worth of commodities is determined by the social relations of their production. But the existence of the exchange system in capitalism makes the production process remote and misperceived, and, as such, it ‘masks’ the commodity’s true worth. This masking was reinforced by the conditions of the Cold War. Far from destroying the phantasmagorical form of the commodity, one could say that the division of East and West actually amplified it. Consumer goods and images acquired from the West – particularly clothes, cosmetics, foodstuffs, and LP records – acquired special significance in the East, precisely because of their provenance. Mundane in their original, capitalist context, such things came to carry heightened significance in the East, and not only because of their rarity: the unfamiliar materials and seductive forms of Western consumer goods could trigger fantasies about capitalist civilization.

RewistaThis is explored in ‘Personal Search’ (1972), a Polish movie directed by Witold Leszczyński i Andrzej Kostenko telling the story of the arrival of a group of travellers – a mother and son accompanied by a cousin bearing a strong resemblance to Brigitte Bardot – at a customs office on a border post between Poland and, strangely, Switzerland.[19] Driving a FIAT sports car, these travellers have come from the West accompanied by a cornucopia of consumer goods – luxury foods, chic clothes and glittering trinkets. To cross the border into a world where such minor luxuries are in short supply, they have to strip these things of their exchange values: in other words, they have to turn commodities into personal possessions. So they divest the products of their glossy packaging and scuff them to give them a patina of use before packing them into their car. The opening titles roll over a bonfire of discarded consumer packaging.

But their labours are insufficient: the customs officer and his young colleague suspect the returnees of smuggling. The film then turns into a psychological drama; a tense battle between officialdom and the prosperous travellers fought with flirtation, hollow flattery, veiled threats and bribes. In an inflationary cycle which starts with a plastic cigarette lighter and culminates in the sexual ‘gift’ of her niece to the younger guard, the woman seeks to avoid the scandal that would follow from the ‘Personal Search’. This cycle is only brought to an end by the arrival of her high-ranking husband in his official car. From then, the film moves towards its dramatic climax.

The film’s most striking cinematic innovation takes the form of television advertisements which intrude unexpectedly into the narrative. When the young customs official opens the boot of the car, the screen fills with a French advertisement for ‘invisible’ ‘huit’ brassiere filmed on a Mediterranean beach. The footage is apparently an answer to his question ‘What is this?’, asked when he fingers the packages of underwear which fill her suitcase. [film shots]Later, a bottle of Cointreau, the French aperitif shared by the customs officials and their unwilling guests, becomes the magic elixir at the heart of a 30-second commercial from French television filmed in the style of a James Bond movie. In this way, the tense chess match between the officials and the tourists is broken – momentarily – by the clichéd suspense provided by this mini-espionage drama. These are hardly conventional uses of montage, particularly in the context of socialist Poland. In his classic conceptualization, Eisenstein in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s had argued that montage was ‘dialectical’, capable of marking the clash between the forces of progress and reaction shaping the world. Leszczyński and Kostenko’s movie has far closer kinship with Godard’s ‘collage’ films.

The French ads are not the film’s only lessons in consumer aesthetics. The cinematography reproduces many of the clichés of advertising too. Early on in ‘Personal Search’, a long tracking shot follows the young woman through the countryside at dawn to bathe au naturelle. At the end this ‘Eve’ catches the glance of the camera/viewer in the mirror. In another shot, the juice of a freshly-peeled orange is dripped on to her lips whilst she sleeps. Conflating sexual and consumer desire, both scenes could have been taken from a primer on advertising written by Madison Avenue psychoanalyst in the 1960s. But, of course, they were not. These scenes were filmed in a country – the People’s Republic of Poland – which had declared its commitment to the liberation of its citizens from alienation. The seductive but hollow French advertisements and the vigilant operations of a customs post guarding the entrance to the socialist world should, according to the official creed of Marxist-Leninism, maintain the sharp differences between West and East. But Poland was undergoing its own consumer revolution. A new leadership which took power in 1970 had promised a ‘double Poland’ (druga Polska): double the productivity, double the consumer goods, and, eventually, double the debt to the West. The film ends by passing sharp judgment on the regime – the material luxuries which the elite had appropriated, as well as the strange phenomenon of ‘socialist consumption.’

The label ‘Second Poland’ pointed – inadvertently – to the phantasmagoric aspect of a ‘new’ Poland made in the image of Western modernity. In its pursuit of growth, the People’s Republic was to become a double, a simulacrum of countries the West. ‘Personal Search’ – made at the time when Gierek was formulating his ambitious vision for Poland – seems to anticipate this emerging programme of simulation. In a moment of filmic tension, the car which has delivered the trio to Poland attracts the attention of the eagle-eyed customs officer. It is a new, ‘bahama’ yellow FIAT ‘mille cinquecento’ (And the camera, like his eye, lingers over the car’s glittering marques). It seems that the trio are attempting to import a new foreign car, an illegal act. The nature of this offence is, however, rendered ambiguous by the official love affair with FIAT conducted the communist authorities in Eastern Europe. In 1965 the Polish government – like the Kremlin one-year earlier – had signed the first of a series of deals with the Italian car manufacturer to make copies of its products under license in Warsaw. Gierek accelerated the policy by establishing new factories in Tychy and Bielsko-Biała to manufacture FIAT’s cars in large numbers. Owning a FIAT was not only a legitimate ideal in the Second Poland: it was a ‘socialist achievement’.

The key thing is that critique here is not a celebration of consumerism (critique à rebours). In fact, Konstenko and Leszczyński’s film sustains a long-standing distrust of the fetishistic hold of things on their users. This was a Marxist conception which I think alludes to the anti-communist and anti-capitalist reflexes of many intellectuals in the East. Never explicit in its political address, ‘Personal Search’ offers an ambivalent approach to commodity aesthetics which mirrored the ambivalence of the Polish authorities. As I’ve already hinted, Natalia LL’s ‘Consumer Art’ works cannot be explained as an orthodox critique of the alienating effects of commodity aesthetics, nor do they seem to point to prohibition or asceticism. In their attention to pleasure and, in particular, to unrestrained orality, they eschew moral frameworks for consumption.

Chytilová_s ‘Daisies_A similar claim could be made for Věra Chytilová’s ‘Daisies’ (1967). In this extraordinary movie made in Czechoslovakia, two young women, sharing the same name and seemingly the same persona, embark on a spree of gluttony in Prague, funded by the gullible old men who expect (but never receive) sexual favours in return. In fact, the two women only seem interested in food, though not necessarily in eating. Although the film does not have a clear narrative structure, it reaches a crescendo in an excessive and spectacular destruction of a banquet. [film shots] The two woman dance on a table laid with luxurious food and alcohol, destroying everything under their stiletto heels. In between these bouts of excess, the young women sunbathe on the banks of the Vltava and play bored games in the bedroom. Like ‘Personal Search’, some of Chytilová’s techniques seem to be directly drawn from Godard: sound and images are often discontinuous; still images are cut into the action, sometimes appearing so briefly that they barely register; and scenes are are shot with coloured filters. Chytilová’s embrace of collage is important too. The eschewal of narrative was also a rejection of the tendentiousness which Soviet culture after Stalin seemed to treat as the sine qua non of progress. The idea that all actions should point to a radiant future made narrative clarity a requirement of all Soviet films at least until the 1970s. Of course Czech new wave cinema had already shaken off its Soviet shackles in the 1960s. But her use of collage also eschews the Bildungsroman narrative structures of films made by contemporaries like Jiři Menzel (‘Closely Watched Trains, 1965 for instance). The idea that an individual should confront the absurdity of the world or shape his or her own fate – motivating ideas after Stalinism – shaped many of the most celebrated the New Wave movies and documentaries made in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s.

Chytilová’s duo are anti-heroines. The director does everything to inhibit our identification with them – yet they remain fascinating. Choreographed by the soundtrack, their actions are exaggerated, comic even. A reviewer writing in Film Quarterly in 1968, observed: ‘It seems that the greedy little creatures are specimens of the capitalistic (or, for that matter, socialist) drive for acquisition, the rage for appropriation; the connoting factor that they are “schnorrers” or “spongers” brings in the idea of social or economic parasitism.’[20] Might these two girls in their fashionable dresses, and with their voracious and insatiable appetites, their amorality, their selfishness, their gluttony, be Chytilová’s way of passing judgment on the consumer spectacle? After all, in one scene they run out of food and eat advertisements on the pages of German and French magazines. This might have been reason to interpret Daisies as a critique of the West. However, Czech commentators understood the film in local terms. One deputy in the National Assembly, for instance, protested the waste of food during the film’s production ‘at a time when our farmers with great difficulties are trying to overcome the problems of our agricultural production.’[21] But the Czech viewer would be justified in asking just whose meal was being destroyed here? In fact, one reading is that the girls reveal and destroy the privileges which the gerontocratic elite had reserved for itself. ‘Daisies’ is about pleasure. And the question of where pleasure was located was important in Eastern Europe in under communist rule: was pleasure something given or something taken?

Neither ‘Daisies’ nor Natalia LL’s ‘Consumer Art’ series express the cool ambivalence and ambiguity which characterised so much pop in the West in the 1960s – a ‘disinterested engagement’ with consumerism and mass media images. In fact, they raised the rare prospect of a kind of feminist politics of female pleasure in the people’s republics. Perhaps the deployment of food in both works is important here: in spoiling and toying with it, these young women announce their disinterest in questions of need – a central plank of Marxist ideology.[22] In the case of Chytilová’s heroines, the focus of their desires is on luxury, whether in the form of banquets or Western European advertising. In so doing, they make an excess of what was already excessive. Perhaps more radically, Natalia LL’s models engage with ordinary foodstuffs, depriving them of their use values. Bananas may have been rare in the PRL (as numerous interpreters of the Consumer Art series have been keen to remind their readers[23]), but the other foods – sausages, paluszki (bread sticks) and jelly – were not.

GG

Germaine Greer

Selected for their shape and texture, they are conscripted to speak about pleasure not sustenance. In focusing on desire, albeit in different ways, Chytilová and Natalia LL’s films were remarkably aligned, albeit unconsciously, with the writings of Germaine Greer in London: ‘Ultimately the greatest service a woman can do to her community is to be happy;’ she wrote, ‘the degree of revolt and irresponsibility which she must manifest to acquire happiness is the only sure indication of the way things must change if there is to be any point in continuing to be a woman at all.’[24]
 

 

 

[1] In the same year, Natalia LL’s ‘Consumer Art’ was also shown in ‘International Pop’, an exhibition organized by the Walker Art Centre (11 April-29 August 2015) and in Ludwig Goes Pop’ at Mumok, Vienna 12 February – 13 September 2015 – note from editor.

[2] Jessica Morgan, ‘Political Pop: An Introduction’ in The World Goes Pop (London, 2015) 17

[3] ‘By definition, Pop could blossom only in highly industrialised societies, and therefore there has been no direct pendant to this movement in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe or the communist China’. Marco Livingstone, Pop Art: A Continuing Story (London, 2000) 141.

[4] Piotr Piotrowski, ‘Why were there no great Pop Art curatorial projects in Eastern Europe in the 1960s’, a lecture prepared for publication on http://balticworlds.com/ – a scholarly journal from the Centre for Baltic and East European Studies (CBEES) Södertörn University, Stockholm (19 November 2015) – accessed 09 April 2016.

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

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

[7] Richard Hamilton, ‘An exposition of She’, in Architectural Design, XXXII, No. 10 (1962) p. 485.

[8] Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch (London, 1970) 60

[9] On this, see various essays in Bojana Pejić (ed.) Gender Check. Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe (Vienna, 2009),

[10] Agata Jakubowska, ‘The Attractive Banality of Natalia LL’s “Consumer Art” (1972–1975)’ Nordlit, nr. 21 (2007) p. 243.

[11] Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society. trans Chris Turner (London, 1998) p. 116

[12] Fredric Jameson Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke UP, 1991.

[13] See ‪David Crowley, Susan E. Reid, eds., ‘Introduction’ to ‪Pleasures in Socialism: Leisure and Luxury in the Eastern Bloc (Evanston, Il., 2010) pp 3-53; Patrick Hyder Patterson, Bought and Sold. Living and Losing the Good Life in Socialist Yugoslavia (Cornell University Press, 2012); Paulina Bren and Mary Neuberger, Communism Unwrapped. Consumption in Cold War Eastern Europe (Oxford, 2012).

[14] Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Critique of Commodity Aesthetics: Appearance, Sexuality and Advertising in Capitalist Society (Minneapolis, 1986) 17.

[15] The proceedings of the conference were published in Reklama (1958) cited by Daniela Nebeská, Hospodářské Reformy N. S. Chruščova thesis submitted to Vysoká škola ekonomická v Praze (2012), pp. 71-2.

[16] Marx’s writing on the fetishistic relations characteristic of commodities under capitalism were invoked by Hungarian critics of ‘Goulash Socialism’. See G. Gömöri, ‘Consumerism in Hungary’, Problems in Communism, vol. 12, no. 1 (1963), p. 64.

[17] See Dina Iordanova, Cinema of the Other Europe: The Industry and Artistry of East Central European Film (London, 2003) 28.

[18] Both authors writing in 1974 and cited in J. L. Kerr ‘Hard-currency shops in Eastern Europe’ (27 October 1977), RAD Background Report/211 commissioned by Radio Free Europe Research

[19] This discussion is derived from my introductory essay in the booklet published to accompany the DVD release of Andrzej Leszczyński and Witold Kostenko’s film by Piktogram/Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej in an anthology entitled Satisfaction. Sztuka konsumpcyjna w socjalistycznej Polsce lat 70, Warsaw in 2009.

[20] Claire Clouzot, ‘Daisies by Vera Chytilova’ in Film Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Spring, 1968), p. 36.

[21] Josef Škvorecký, All the Bright Young Men and Women: A Personal History of the Czech Cinema (Toronto, 1971) 110.

[22] An observation kindly made to me by Agata Jakubowska.

[23] Not least Jessica Morgan in her introduction to The World Goes Pop (London, 2015) 25.

[24] Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch (London, 1970) 282.

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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.