What are our genealogies?
Engaged figurations in pre-war Central Europe

  • What are our genealogies?

The starting point for this panel is the situation of leftist artists of the 1930s, who felt there was a failure of the avant-garde (due to its hermetic nature and social isolation) but at the same time drew on avant-garde aesthetics and formal solutions in their striving for a commonly understood language.

How was this paradox processed in Central Europe? How were the definitions of engaged art transformed? How did it deal with notions of regional and national identities? And how have the experiences of the 1930s been updated in the decades since?


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Magdalena Moskalewicz

PhD, is an art historian, curator, and editor, who specializes in art from the former Eastern Europe from the early avant-gardes until today. Her academic research mostly focuses on the art of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, while her curatorial practice examines the postsocialist condition and its parallels with postcoloniality. She is a faculty member at the School of the Art Institue of Chicago, where she teaches curatorial and museum studies as well as history of modern and contemporary art.



Julia Secklehner

is Research Fellow at the Department of Art History, Masaryk University, Brno. She holds a PhD in Art History from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and specializes in the history of art and visual culture in Central Europe. Her current research focuses on vernacular and regional modernisms and is part of the collaborative project Continuity/Rupture: Art and Architecture in Central Europe, 1918–1939 (CRAACE), funded by the European Research Council.


Agata Pietrasik

is an art historian, graduate of the University of Warsaw and Freie Universität in Berlin, where she wrote her PhD on the art of the 1940s in Poland, examining mutual relations between the aesthetics, ethics and politics of that decade. Her research interests include post-war modernism in Europe, representations of the Holocaust and WWII in the visual arts, and their contemporary political and social contexts. She has received grants from the German Academic Exchange Service DAAD and the Deutsches Forum für Kunstgeschichte in Paris, and is currently working on the project "How Exhibitions Rebuilt Europe: Exhibiting War Crimes in the 1940s" as part of the Getty/ACLS Postdoctoral Fellowships in the History of Art. A forthcoming book, titled “Art in a Disrupted World. Poland, 1939–1949”, will be published by the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw and the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw in Spring 2021.


Nadia Plungian

PhD, is an art historian and independent curator. She is based at the Moscow Higher School of Economics in Russia.


Julia Secklehner
Social realisms, new aesthetics: Engaged photography in interwar Central Europe

Interwar photography in Central Europe is frequently associated with the progressive experiments of avant-garde photographers such as Lászlo Moholy Nágy and Jaromír Funke. Yet especially in the 1930s, modernist photography also developed a strong base of socially engaged art, which set the human figure at its centre. Negotiating between avant-garde photographic practices, local particularities, and the demands of worker photography to construct realistic depictions of proletarian life, young politically engaged photographers such as Judit Kárász, Irena Blühová, Edith Tudor-Hart and Friedl Dicker-Brandeis dedicated much of their work in the 1930s to the visualization of the region’s marginalized groups. Well-travelled, well-read and internationally connected, these photographers exemplify a turn towards socially engaged figuration in Central European modernism, in whose development women played a significant role.

In light of their shared concerns to merge social engagement with modernist photography, my paper traces the genealogy of engaged figuration in interwar Central European photography in the work of photographers across the region. While responding to different local conditions, ranging from slums at the outskirts of Vienna to the rural poverty of eastern Slovakia, photographers such as Kárász, Blühová and Tudor-Hart were part of a broader network, represented by groups and events such as Sociofoto and the international exhibition of Social Photography in Prague (1933).

Exploring aspects of social documentary as well as activist photomontage as part of a transnational movement, I argue that photographers developed a specific form of engaged figuration in photography, which transformed models of creative experimentation into social statements. Bridging the gap between responding to local issues, such as rural poverty or the harrowing living conditions of minorities, and the adjustment of modernist photography for activist purposes, I show that they developed a visual vocabulary for socially engaged art, which was both universal in its claims and deeply rooted in local cultural and social conditions.



Agata Pietrasik
Picking Out Paths: Retrospective Routes via the 1930’s

The 1930’s constitute a period full of political and artistic tensions and contradictions. On the one hand, this time is generally considered as a moment of return to figuration, as Socialist Realism gained traction globally, both in the USSR and the US. On the other hand, the avant-garde experiment continued, even as individual artists and groups faced increasing persecution from the rising totalitarian regimes. As such the 1930’s were a moment when the political and social efficacy of art was put to a particularly difficult test and as a consequence the legacy of that time has often been recalled in similar moments of historical upheaval, for example Philipp Guston’s famed return to figuration in the 1960’s.

The art historian and critic Mieczysław Porębski hypothesized that the 1930’s ended in fact in 1946, and considered this timeframe as a crucial point of reference, shaping the paths of artistic tendencies for decades to come. Expanding on this approach, I will examine some of the tensions visible in the art of the 1930’s from the perspective of Polish history and map the points of convergence between the pre-war and the post-war. At the core of this enquiry lie questions of the political effectiveness of artistic practices, art’s relationship to the state and nationhood, as well as the emerging modes of sharing and disseminating artworks. Seeking for and allaying such fragile yet visible connections exposes obscured lineages and genealogies.



Nadia Plungian
Proletarian frescoes: Symbolist influences in early Soviet monumental painting

The presentation is devoted to the experimental monumental language in Soviet art from the 1920s into the 1930s, preceding the socialist realism of the late 1930s. The foundations of the new monumentality were laid by Pavel Kuznetsov and Nikolai Chernyshev, representatives of Russian Symbolism and professors of the monumental department at the painting faculty of the Moscow art and technical school Vkhutemas. Their students worked on a synthesis of the aesthetics of ancient Russian frescoes, early photomontage, and political posters.

Other events from that cycle: