Avant-Gardes in Transition, Part I

Avant-Gardes in Transition, Part I: Avant-garde strategies

Session chair: Annika Öhrner, Dep. of Art History, Uppsala University.

E-mail: [email protected]


The myth of return: National romanticism and the Swedish avant-garde art

Vibeke Röstorp, Sorbonne-Paris IV.

E-mail: [email protected]

According to the traditional interpretation of Swedish art history, the period 1889-1908 has been considered as one with strong nationalistic values resulting in a massive homeward journey of the Swedish artists after years of living and studying in France.  This interpretation has recently been re-examined, and proved to be wrong (Röstorp, 2011). In fact the presence of Swedish artists in France never decreases during these years, the departure of certain Swedes was balanced by the arrival of others.

The home comers and their theoreticians quickly vulgarized the idea that the Swedish « avant-garde artists » were to be found among them, thus automatically categorizing the artists who actually stayed in France during the 1890’s and the first years of the 20th century as being part of a more classical « arrière-garde ». The insistence by which this myth of return has been spread and the lack of criticism towards it has led to a marginalization of the artists living, working or exhibiting in France around 1900.

Consequently, the expatriated Swedes were excluded from national art events – even those organized in France – partly due to political reasons. For instance, the nationalistic “Federation of Swedish artists” seized control over the 1900 Universal Exhibition, which led to severe discriminations of the artists present in France.

Furthermore, art historians over the years have been neglecting that some of the most prominent so-called National Romantic artists, had continuous relations with France even after returning home. Concerning the Swedish artists living in France, they were obviously not all conventional artists. In fact a large number of the most important and even some of the ground breaking Swedish artists worked in France during these years.


Transgressing borders and styles: Berlin as the center of the international avant-garde during the interwar period

Isabel Wünsche, Jacobs University, Bremen.

E-mail: [email protected]

The discourse on the avant-garde, particularly in the English-speaking academic world, has traditionally focused on Paris in the period before World War II and New York in the postwar period. More recent studies on the avant-garde movements in Central and Eastern Europe have opened up the field to a broader discourse and taken a more diversified look at the European avant-garde.

One of the most vibrant centers of the international avant-garde during the interwar period was Berlin.  A dynamic metropolis, fraught with political as well as social tensions, Berlin offered an inspiring social space that not only shaped the artistic production of the avant-garde and the cultural exchange between east and west but also provided a home to a large cultural and artistic diaspora. Among the artists active in Berlin in the 1920s were Alexander Archipenko, Henryk Berlewi, Béla Czóbel, László Péri, Iwan Puni und Arthur Segal.

However, because of its postwar status as outpost on the frontier between east and west, the essentially “western” orientation of the Cold War narratives, and a predominantly formalist approach to avant-garde art, discussions of the 1920s art scene in Berlin have not extended beyond Herwarth Walden’s Der Sturm and Berlin Dadaism.  Influential organizations such as Die Novembergruppe and Die Abstrakten: Internationale Vereinigung der Expressionisten, Kubisten und Konstruktivisten have received little or no scholarly attention although they served as important platforms for the artistic exchange of avant-garde artists from various national and cultural backgrounds representing a variety of stylistic orientations and artistic expressions.

This paper examines Berlin’s role as a center of the international avant-garde in the 1920s.  Particular emphasis is placed on the lively cross-interaction among the various art movements, i.e., the intensive collaboration of the second generation of Expressionists with the Dadaists and Constructivists, as well as on the productive cooperation between visual artists, designers, architects, and musicians.


The Travelling Concept of Avant-Garde and the Art Field in Helsinki of the 1910s

Marja-Terttu Kivirinta, Department of Philosophy, History, Culture and Art Studies – Art History, University of Helsinki.

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Framing the concepts of Modern and Avant-garde art, my paper is focusing on the Art Field in Finland of the 1910s. This was the period of breakthrough of modern art market, as well as of responses to the stimulus of European modernism, mainly from Paris but also from Germany and the Nordic countries. At the time Finland was still an autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire, and therefore many Russian avant-garde artists were working periodically in the eastern part of Finland, and some of their works were exhibited in Helsinki.  Nevertheless it is challenging for my paper, as has been claimed, that there is no history of avant-garde art in Finland. Some scholars have argued that the Art Field was too nationally orientated to be a part of the Avant-garde discussion.

I study the Helsinki Art Field of the 1910s from national, gendered, political, and class-related perspectives. My argument is that conceptions of the international and transnational constructed the Art Field in a particular way, as a result of Finland’s political needs to form a nation-state that was independent from Russia. At the same time the World War I made the art market prosper. Some people were eager to buy Modern art, even though what they bought was mostly a kind of “classical” Modernism. Some of the few dealers in Helsinki had the power to influence artists as well as the critics. There were also struggles among artists and art organizations over power positions.

The theoretical approach derives from Pierre Bourdieu, especially his ideas about Art Field in the Field of Power and his concept of positions, dispositions and position taking. In the paper I am making feminist readings, related to the British researcher Beverly Skeggs’ Bourdieu criticism and her approach to the concept of class. The paper also relates the concept of Avant-garde to Mieke Bal’s idea of “travelling concepts”. The questions are: How were the concepts of the Modern and the Avant-garde understood in Paris, in Stockholm and in Helsinki respectively? What stimulus was gained from international exhibitions? Was there, for example, any conceptual dialogue in connection with the Baltic Exhibition of Malmö in 1914 where Finnish, Swedish and Russian art was shown together? Most of the artists in the Russian pavilion worked in Munich, e.g. Wassily Kandinsky whose paintings had also been exhibited in Helsinki in 1914, along with other Russian and German (Avant-garde) artwork.


Organic avant-garde? Surrealist collage revisited

Camilla Skovbjerg Paldam, Department of Aesthetics and Communication – Art History, Aarhus University. E-mail: [email protected]

Since Peter Bürger’s canonized Theorie der Avantgarde, 1974, avant-garde has been defined as fundamentally “un-organic”. Bürger uses montage as the point of departure for this definition of avant-garde, emphasizing the fragmented character of montage due to its inserted reality fragments (Bürger 1996, 98-111). However, surrealist collage generally consists of surprising semantic compositions rather than of formal aesthetic ruptures. Rather than displaying each separate element the surrealist collages emphasize how the elements merge and connect, and sometimes it is even impossible to see how and where the elements are inserted. Does this mean that surrealist collage is based on illusionism, sublimation, coherence and aestheticization? And does this exclude surrealist collage from avant-garde? Or should the concept of avant-garde be widened to embrace more organic works as well? And what would such an expansion mean to the critical potential of avant-garde, which in avant-garde theory often is contingent upon fragmentation and de-sublimation.

In Theorizing the Avantgarde, 1999, Richard Murphy for instance defines the ‘historical’ avant-garde in terms of both de-aestheticization and de-sublimation, which “involves overcoming precisely that illusionistic quality of harmony and order which is always present in the very form of the conventional organic work of art” (Murphy 2003, 35). This paper will investigate to what extent surrealist collage contradicts these ideas, and what such contradictions might mean to our fundamental understanding of avant-garde.