T he 20th century was undoubtedly one of the most fruitful periods of progress in the history of art, as Europe and America saw the emergence of movements such as Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. It was an intoxicating and vibrant time for artists who sought new and ever more innovative methods of self-expression.
But in parallel to developments in the West, another movement was taking place further east. Behind Europe’s Iron Curtain, countries already ravaged by World War II were now subject to oppressive Communist regimes. Those in power enforced harsh boundaries on creativity, only approving art that served their political message. Artists who diverted from this to pursue their own agendas were on their own. Working in isolation, they received no state funding, were banned from exhibiting, prohibited from communicating with artists in the West and often under state surveillance.
And yet even in these seemingly impossible conditions, there were artists who persisted in creating works that defied the state, offering alternative perspectives on, and interpretations of, life under oppression. As their work becomes more widely recognised on the global stage, Sotheby’s is proud to represent several of these artists in the upcoming 20th Century Art: A Different Perspective sale in Cologne, between 22 - 29 November 2022.
For Tessa Kostrzewa, Senior Specialist in European Paintings and head of this sale, the acclaim is long overdue. “When I started doing this 25 years ago, very few people were looking to Eastern Europe. I wanted to change this. A lot of great art was produced in these countries despite the challenges artists faced. Artists working in these countries in the 1950s, 60s and 70s were not only hidden behind the iron curtain: they often lived in great poverty, were not allowed to exhibit their works, and were harassed or persecuted by the KGB. They had to be truly and deeply invested in order to pursue their artistic vision and vocation. As a consequence their works are often highly intellectual, original and creative and deserve wider recognition. ”
Of particular interest is Wojciech Fangor, whose Op Art masterpieces were created without exposure to similar works in Europe and America and who can justifiably be considered a pioneer of the style. Indeed, with optical illusions appearing in his oeuvre as early as 1956, he actually preceded the wider movement despite working in isolation in his native Poland. It is highly likely, given that Op Art took off in the mid-sixties, that artists in America were inspired by his work after it was first exhibited in a multi-artist exhibition at MOMA in 1961, when Fangor was still living in Warsaw.
“I find a lot of the contemporary art from Eastern Europe from this period is quite intellectual. Because these people were so passionate about their art. They had a cause”
Typical of the way Fangor fluidly played with shape, space and colour, his 1973 work SU 29B leads this sale with an estimate of £300,000–500,000. Blurring the lines between bold hues of orange, white, blue and black, the colours seem to pulse together, eluding the fixation of a viewer’s eye. As Kostrzewa says “I find a lot of the contemporary art from Eastern Europe from this period is quite intellectual. Because these people were so passionate about their art. They had a cause.”
That intellectual thread is also prominent in the work of Czech artist Mikuláš Medek. The grandson of impressionist painter Antonín Slavíček, his family was part of the intelligentsia and suffered persecution underneath both the Nazi and Communist regimes. Often under strict surveillance, Medek was blacklisted several times, limited to exhibiting in his living room and relied on people introducing him to potential customers who would be willing to buy his art.
Nonetheless, his extensive output was heavily influenced by the socio-political situation of his country. Beginning as a surrealist and later moving towards abstraction, two works from later in his career are present in this sale including Gold Cry I (Zlatý Křik I), which comes from his most sought-after period, between 1964-1969, and provides an example of his use of synthetic enamel and oil paint, treating paint as 'living matter' through which he could scratch and carve with sharp tools.
Having been produced under such difficult conditions, the provenance of these works can be equally fascinating. For example, the smaller of the two Medek works in this sale, Abstract, was bought by the current owner on Charles Bridge in Prague in 1964, the buyer having been introduced to Medek by Jiří Mucha, son of famous Art Nouveau painter, Alphonse Mucha (whose work is also featured in this sale).
Having been in a private collection ever since, the Medek family had only a black and white photo of the work in their archives and no idea what had happened to the painting. Similarly, although Fangor’s SU 29B was recorded in the Fangor archives, this was only accompanied by the artist’s description of the work, with no visual record after he gifted it to a friend in 1976, while working as a teacher in New York. As such, both works are hugely exciting rediscoveries that deserve to be seen by a wider public.
One artist who has found an audience outside of his native Poland is Zdzisław Beksiński, a surrealist painter, photographer and sculptor known for his dark, twisted and often gruesome creations. Working during the Nazi occupation of his homeland, his work reflected death and decay, nightmarish hellscapes, distorted skulls and skeletons, as evident in RZ, featured in this sale. Through his dystopian and apocalyptic visions, Beksiński has developed a cult following, particularly in France, America and Japan. Perhaps it should be no surprise that one of his biggest fans is the award-winning Mexican film director Guillermo del Toro, who has cited Beksiński’s work as inspiration for his most celebrated feature, Pan’s Labyrinth.
With estimates ranging from £1,000 to £500,000, this sale represents an excellent opportunity for investment to collectors as these artists – hidden for so long – have seen prices steadily increase over the last 20 years as they become highly collectible. “Since we started promoting these artists, the market has really picked up because they have a local following but increasingly, that following has become international,” says Kostrzewa. “We’re the only auction house to present them in an international market. Through globalisation, they become more widely known but it’s still an auction where you can discover.”