The notion of the real has always been open to debate, especially among artists who have never attributed to it the same form. More than once has it served to defend opposing world views, even competing societal models.
To Each His Real is the title of the major research project being directed by Mathilde Arnoux at the Centre allemand d’histoire de l’art in Paris as part of the European Research Council’s Starting Grant Program. Taking France, the Federal Republic of Germany, the German Democratic Republic, and Poland from the 1960s to the late 1980s as the scale of study, an examination of the differing senses of the real on both sides of the Iron Curtain will patently become, at the cost of fresh effort, one of the ways of writing the history of art of that era.
That is the task François Michaud, curator at the City of Paris’s Museum of Modern Art, sets for himself when, taking the work of the Romanian artist André Cadere as an example, he responds in his own way to the new questions being raised.
Laurence Bertrand Dorléac
Too Much Reality?
The crossed destinies of France, Poland, the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic are not just a few examples, among others, of the divisions of the Cold War. As heirs to prewar European cultural life, the intellectual and artistic circles that flourished there during the postwar era continued to make quite numerous exchanges possible. Now, the field of study that, along with Mathilde Arnoux, we propose to follow forces us, first and foremost, to abandon once and for all the illusion of a world of the East wherein whatever occurs would be either merely a translation of Western inventions or a (positive or negative) reaction to the artistic trends that characterized our side of the Iron Curtain.
While reality had become problematic on account of the War and the revision of values imposed by the War, the response such an awareness entailed was necessarily individual in character, even though the age was one of collective world views. One is thus reminded of Witold Gombrowicz’s question at the beginning of his Diary, when he asks himself how it would be possible for him to reject Communism when a part of him seemed to be leaning in that direction. Everyone would now be called upon to define his or her position, as if the mere fact of existing in the world no longer sufficed. Existentialism–undoubtedly, the plural form would be more appropriate–makes this insufficiency into the principle for the modern condition: it is one’s action, and therefore one’s choice, that gives content to one’s individual existence. The rhetoric of engagement revives at each instant the basic options at stake in the dialectic of Master and Slave: live and be but one’s life or else risk one’s life and rise above it, rejecting submission, to which the act of merely continuing to live can perfectly well accommodate itself. What remains to be done, of course, is to translate the idea into deeds. Now, whatever one’s personal path might be–and that, it seems, is the ambition of a study of this sort that begins with individual cases–no absolutely faithful translation can exist any more than it could in the case of literature. After 1945, the forms of such a choice were obviously different, depending on whether one was situated in the West or in the East, but it seems that thenceforth it had to cross every artist’s path, even when, for the artist, it was ultimately a matter of refusing to choose. This choice, which was characteristic of the Cold War, basically replayed what the Europe of 1933 had begun to feel.
Let us turn toward an artistic figure it would be hard to think of at first, especially if one’s intention was to start from the notion of “reality.” I am speaking of André Cadere. A Romanian born in 1934 in Warsaw, where his father was then the ambassador, Cadere settled in Paris in 1967. There, he embodied a new type of European artist who was “international” on account of his nonstop travel until his death in 1978. He embodied a certain propensity for reformulating reality. Even as he always stuck close to it, he manipulated its elements to the point that his individual consciousness and his theoretical conception of his work attained a perfect correspondence. This was a demanding, ascetic path he followed–one of those paths that, retrospectively, appear at a certain moment to set the tone.
One of the questions one is tempted to ask then is about the particular evolution of the notion of the “surreal” in the East, or rather of the “paucity of reality,” as André Breton called it in the early 1920s. It is not a question of broaching the history of the postwar Surrealist movement–for, apart from France, it was Czechoslovakia more than the countries dealt with here that would be at issue. But, if one hazards mention of these words drawn from the particular context of Paris during the interwar period, that is because they seem to us to maintain a certain relationship with what some works and attitudes would later try to formulate in another context where a politicized reality appeared as a more or less unbearable constraint, as too full. The work of the Russian artist Vladimir Yankilevsky as well as the works of the Polish playwright and visual artist Tadeusz Kantor and of the French-language Czech novelist Milan Kundera offer some possible illustrations of this situation.
The objective of the research project being presented to this seminar is to Mathilde Arnoux is an art historian, research director, and head of the French-language publication service at the Centre allemand d’histoire de l’art à Paris. She published La peinture allemande dans les musées français, 1871-1981 (Paris: Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 2007) and has edited, in collaboration withe Thomas W. Gaehtgens and Friederike Kitschen, Perspectives croisées. La critique franco-allemande 1870-1945 (Paris: Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 2009).