This project examines global art exhibitions organized, between 1950 and 1990, in or by (formerly) socialist or Communist countries, including the Soviet Union and other Communist/socialist states in Eastern Europe; China; North Korea; South Korea; Cuba, and Africa, including Mozambique, Ethiopia, and Angola. We consider Socialist Exhibition Culture a crucible of 20th-century exhibition history that has as such been subject to much neglect and oversight. So far, international art exhibitions within the socialist world have been viewed from an exclusively Western perspective that has figured them either as part of an isolated national history, or as mere instances of Cold War diplomacy and symbolic gestures of international solidarity and friendship. Instead, we consider Cold War socialist exhibitions instances of a curatorial culture that developed as an alternative to the Western art market and its international outlets, and according to its own set of demands and prerogatives. And while the art shows we consider were officially planned by special agencies set up by the state, it is worth noting that in several of the countries concerned, the boundary between official and alternative, parallel, or self-organized (art) worlds was porous, with any number of translations and transfers occurring between them, interactions that form an intricate part of the process we call Socialist Exhibition Culture.
Socialist Exhibition Culture didn’t espouse the ideals of Western-style modernism—in some cases favoring home-grown versions of modernism instead—nor did it function as an arbiter in art’s global commodification. At the same time, it did not form a monolithic bloc, instead comprising a broad spectrum of strategies and attitudes whose relationship with capitalist art production was complex and subject to considerable change over time. Consequently, it would be easy to underestimate the range of themes, art forms, styles, and artists or art movements represented by the exhibitions discussed in this volume, from canonical Socialist Realist painting to international abstraction and socialist modernism, from Surrealism to social realism.
The shows we examine fall into three broad categories: first, there are international art exhibitions in socialist countries that show the work of artists from either within the Communist world, or the work of leftist/Communist Western artists. For instance, 1954 and 1973, one of Hungary’s most prestigious museums, Műcsarnok, organized retrospectives of the work of Italian painter Renato Guttuso who in 1972 received the Lenin peace prize and was one of Western Europe’s most prominent Communist artists.1
Second, there are the international art exhibitions exported, from socialist countries, either to other socialist countries—examples include the 1958 Moscow Art Exhibition of Socialist Countries, organized to rival the Venice Biennial; the 1955 Fifth Festival of Youth and Students in Warsaw; or the Baltic Biennial in Rostock (GDR)—or to the West, such the Soviet National Exhibition in New York (1959), or the Czechoslovak and Yugoslav Pavilions at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair.
Third, there are exhibitions of Western art shown in the countries of the Socialist world and seeks to assess their impact on local art contexts, such as the 1967 Duchamp exhibition organized in Prague/ČSSR.
By treating global exhibition history both within a national context and transnationally, we propose a paradigm shift in how we view the Cold War, shedding light on the way socialism during this time allowed for cooperation and exchange between the Second and the Third World. We want to pivot away from the traditional emphasis on East/West competition to a more layered model that includes instances of extensive cultural exchange and cooperation between Communist countries in the Global North and the Global South, including China, Cuba, India, and the socialist countries on the African continent.
1 We owe this information to David Fehér.