S otheby's 20th Century Art: A Different Perspective showcases modern and contemporary works from Central and Eastern Europe. This season, we are delighted to be offering important works by Polish artists, including Wojciech Fangor, Ryszard Winiarski, Bolesław Biegas and Surrealists masters Zdzisław Beksiński and Jacek Yerka. The auction also features two works by Czech modernist Mikuláš Medek. Both examples exemplify his groundbreaking techniques and expressive subject matter. The sale also includes a strong offering of Hungarian paintings and sculptures.
Eastern European Modern Art - Inspired by Modern Western Currents
The late nineteenth and early twentieth century was the golden age of modern art in central Europe. The nations encompassed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire (modern-day Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Romania, Croatia) consciously embarked on a process of modernisation of their economies and their cultural output, especially the visual arts. It was a time during which high culture enjoyed an especially privileged status and was greatly supported by the state. Architecture, the visual and plastic arts were perceived as indicators of a country’s level of civilisation and thus became a vital part of state representation. This led to a great, energetic current of cultural modernisation sweeping across the empire, in which each generation of new artists would develop novel intellectual, aesthetic and spiritual concepts and values. The modernisation of art took place in a similar fashion among the artists of every nation in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, because each nation closely observed what was unfolding in the others. International exhibitions and training at the academies in Munich, Vienna and Paris internationalised art and led to a fertile cross-pollination of new ideas and artistic movements.
Artists including Frantisek Kupka, Boleslaw Biegas, Janos Vaszary, Lajos Tihanyi and Tadeusz Makowski were model exponents of this era of febrile innovation and high culture. Like other fellow Europeans, a large part of the modern avant-garde artists from Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic eventually came to Paris to complete their studies at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, the Academie Julian or the Academie Colarossi, lured by the artistic vibrancy and innovation to be found in Paris at the time. At the heart of their intellectual and artistic quest was often a philosophy of questioning the status quo and a love for artistic experimentation and for breaking boundaries. This tightly knit group of expats quickly became assimilated into the ‘Ecole de Paris’, a large, international group of artists who flocked to the city and contributed to its climate of creative intensity during the seminal period of 1890 to 1940. Some made the French capital their permanent home, others eventually returned to their homelands and became crucial in introducing modern art to their respective countries. Whilst having been inspired by and applying the modern outlook and ideas they had encountered in Paris they often formulated both highly individual and national interpretations of modern art.
Eastern European Contemporary Art - Behind the Iron Curtain
The 1950s, 60s and 70s in the western world were a vibrant and fecund 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 Nazism and WWII were subject to oppressive Communist regimes. Those in power enforced a harsh crackdown on creativity, only approving art that served their political message. Artists who diverted from this to pursue their own creative visions 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 different perspectives and interpretations of living under such 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.
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 US 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.
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.
An 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 Czech intelligentsia and suffered persecution under 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 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, which provide examples of his use of synthetic enamel and oil paint, treating paint as “living matter” through which he could scratch and carve with sharp tools.
Ivan Marchuk is one of Ukraine’s most famous contemporary artists. A non-conformist, he openly opposed social realism, the official art style of the Soviet Union forced onto artists by the government. This led to Marchuk being harassed by the KGB as art other than social realism was considered ideologically harmful by the Soviet regime. Since Marchuk’s work challenged these artistic conventions, the Soviet government sought to suppress his work and even directed the KGB to directly intimidate and persecute him. This treatment lasted for years, reaching its peak in the 1970s, and caused Marchuk’s art to be under an unofficial ban for over 17 years. Marchuk eventually managed to emigrate to the US in the 1980s, and only returned to Ukraine after 9/11. Ukrainian Village in the Moonlight was painted in 1996 in memory of his hometown, when Marchuk lived in New York, feeling homesick. Despite emigrating Marchuk considered himself tied to Ukrainian soil, and it was this special perception of his native land and the tangible memory of the earth where he was born that eventually convinced him to return to Ukraine.
Regardless of whether it was inflicted by Fascist or Communist edicts, much of twentieth century Europe’s trauma was centred on Poland. Poland suffered first a population decimation under Nazi occupation including, but not limited to, the near annihilation of the Jewish community. The Soviets then oversaw a second winnowing, this time of dissenting political and artistic voices.
Surrealist art acted as a potent antidote to the stifling of artistic creativity, but was also a vessel for expressing the subconscious and unconscious, and the darker aspects of the artist’s vision. The upcoming 20th Century Art: A Different Perspective sale in Cologne contains works by two leading Polish Surrealists, Zdzisław Beksiński (1926-2005) and Jacek Yerka (b.1952). Their works evidently respond to trauma (or the threat of it) but do so in different ways. Beksiński’s work is often characterised by an overarching theme of death. He populates his paintings with emaciated, skeletal figures placed in ravaged, crepuscular landscapes. His 1984 work in the present sale, RZ, is a perfect example of this. Yet, these painting types were not his exclusive output, as demonstrated by his other work offered here, AR. Beksiński was always anxious to claim that his paintings were not ubiquitously morbid, but never actually explained his paintings, hence their lack of descriptive titles. With that said, it falls to us to infer meanings into his oeuvre. If his darkest paintings do indeed represent the horrors he must have witnessed, then the Elysian view given in works such as AR must provide the counterpoint of escapism.
Much the same can be said of Yerka. Although born after the Second World War, he grew up in the Soviet regime and struggled to break away from the rigid dictates of his art school. Despite sharing many similarities, Yerka’s oeuvre operates, to an extent, in the opposite way to Beksiński’s. The painter’s default position, it would appear, is one of playful escapism, bright colours, and a joy in the rendering of painstaking details. His work is full of bizarre, sometimes zany subjects, yet beneath the surface, and true to Surrealist form, one can detect the lurking presence of dread, danger and death.