East of the Louvre; Our Annual Tour of the Summer's Best Art Focuses on the Brightly Flourishing Capitals of Eastern Europe
Plagens, Peter, Newsweek International
Byline: Peter Plagens
During the Cold War, it was called "Eastern" Europe. Since the fall of the Berlin wall, "Central" has become the designation of choice. Tourism marketers prefer "The Other Europe" to set off such countries as Poland, Slovakia and Hungary from heavily Americanized Western Europe. Save for the fact that spoken English is more common on the streets of Warsaw, Bratislava and Budapest than in, say, Paris, they have a point. As for art, it's here in abundance--familiar faces and startling discoveries--and more than reason enough to take this year's tour a bit off the beaten path.
Since war, occupation and dictatorship ravaged the region through much of the 20th century, it's practically obligatory to start any visit with some serious historical grounding. Warsaw was 85 percent destroyed during World War II, but the salvaged artifacts in its History Museum give you a glimpse into the depth of the culture; the Warsaw Uprising Museum--interactive to a fault and punctuated with such unintended ironies as the pastry smells from the museum's coffee shop wafting into Resistance-fighter tunnels--provides a moving recapitulation of the tragedies suffered there in the 1940s.
Keep one other proviso in mind: only a decade and a half into a freewheeling market economy, museums and galleries are not yet rife with changing or traveling shows, so you need to go where the art is, not wait for it to come around. Given that, three venues in Warsaw stand out. At the Poster Museum, there's proof aplenty that not only was the poster--commercial, political or public-service--the premiere art form of postwar Central Europe, but also that its incisive visual puns and graphic elegance put most allegedly "smart" contemporary painting to shame. And there couldn't be a better moment to drop in than during the "20th Biennial of Posters," a worldwide competition on view through Sept. 24.
Bright ideas are also on display at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Ujazdowski Castle. Conceptual installation art abounds and, from July 24 to Oct. 10, the lead-up to today's sometimes bewildering fare will be limned in "In Poland that is where," an anthology exhibition of 40 Polish artists from the 1920s and'30s to now. But perhaps Warsaw's most intriguing showplace is the Fabryka Trzciny, a rehabbed former marmalade factory in the now artily gentrifying Praga district. It's a gallery/lounge/performance space whose art component is being "redirected" toward younger artists. Praga also houses a growing number of commercial galleries, the best of which seems to be Galerie Luksfera, a serious, subdued purveyor of decidedly nonglitzy contemporary photography.
Moving on to the Slovak capital of Bratislava, you should first stop at the Municipal Gallery. Amid its medieval holdings, the city gallery puts on modernist exhibitions; until Aug. 20, the headliner is an informative primer on Central Europe's spiky, abstracted surrealism, entitled "Treasures of Czech and Slovak Modern Art II, 1956-1978." But the highlight of the institution is a permanent installation, "Passage" (2005), by Matej Kren. Although it uses a couple of the more common installation cliches around--an infinity of mirrors and books by the thousands--the result, an apparent library of everything, is both stunning and provocative. The National Gallery's summer offering (through Aug. 20) features "Figures and Episodes From the Old Testament, From Durer to Chagall." Sound hokey? Not at all. The combinations of old-master paintings (e.g., a Guercino) and modern art, and Slovak and foreign artists are fascinating. The remodeled galleries, lighting and installation are superb.
Well-tended Roman ruins (Acquincum is a mandatory pause) and the uniqueness of the Hungarian language make Budapest probably the most exotic destination in Central Europe. During Hungary's communist days, private businesses were permitted as long as they employed no more than nine people--plenty for an art gallery. …