Exhibiting Central European Baroque Art in Cold War Britain: 'The Works Themselves Refute Geographical Separatism'

By Clarkson, Verity | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2016 | Go to article overview

Exhibiting Central European Baroque Art in Cold War Britain: 'The Works Themselves Refute Geographical Separatism'


Clarkson, Verity, Journal of Art Historiography


This article analyses the organization and reception of one exhibition of baroque art, Baroque in Bohemia. 1 Organized collaboratively across the Iron Curtain, it formed part of an official governmental programme of cultural exchanges between Britain and Czechoslovakia. It was shown in two British locations in the summer and autumn of 1969: firstly, London's Victoria and Albert Museum (henceforward V&A) and later the City Museum and Art Gallery in Birmingham.2 The press release summarized its content as 'Baroque sculpture, paintings, glass, silver, ecclesiastical vestments and metalwork ranging in date from the beginning of the seventeenth to the end of the eighteenth century', noting that the exhibition aimed to trace 'the evolution of the Bohemian Baroque in all its aspects'.3 Exhibits were drawn mostly from Czech sources, predominantly museum collections in Prague and churches in Bohemia.4 However, planning the show was a more collaborative effort, requiring co-operation between a number of administrative and governmental bodies both across the East-West divide and within each individual country. The Czechoslovak Ministry of Culture took a lead role alongside various Czech museums, notably the National Gallery in Prague. Various British cultural and governmental organizations also worked together to realize the exhibition. The nominally apolitical Arts Council of Great Britain was in charge of general administration with input from the two museums in London and Birmingham; the British Foreign Office dealt with diplomatic talks and planning; and the British Council - an organization more familiar for its promotion of British culture abroad - provided funds and negotiated and implemented the exchanges of exhibitions on behalf of the Government.5

Baroque in Bohemia was an instrument of cultural diplomacy: it had a political role in the context of the wider ideological conflict of the Cold War and can be examined alongside other officially sanctioned exhibitions from the Eastern Bloc shown in Britain in the 1960s.6 These utilized historical and contemporary art and design, often publicly proclaiming the distinctive national characteristics of the countries of the Bloc to foreign audiences.7 Exhibitions had long been used as a method of publicly demonstrating and asserting such national characteristics but against the backdrop of the Cold War this practice took on new features.8 Critical responses to displays like Baroque in Bohemia often revolved around whether these national identities were as apparent in the exhibition content as their titles and catalogues suggested. In writing about the exhibition, British critic and curator Norbert Lynton noted the conflict between twentieth-century claims to individual nationhood and the political realities of the seventeenth century, commenting that the 'works themselves refute geographical separatism' because 'Central European Baroque was international in its aspirations, patrons and creators'.9 Having fled Germany as a child in 1935, Lynton may have been particularly conscious of the slippery concept of nationality; however his concerns were typical of British press reviews of similar Eastern Bloc exhibitions.10

In other ways, Baroque in Bohemia stood apart from comparable exhibitions held in Britain. It was distinct in its exclusive focus on baroque art; although later exhibitions like the extremely popular 1000 Years of Art in Poland (1970) held at the Royal Academy in London incorporated some baroque pieces yet these were presented as part of a broader national survey of artistic developments.11 Consequently, this exhibition facilitates an analysis of how one artistic style gained new political significance in the geo-political context of the 1960s. Baroque in Bohemia can be studied in order to unpick how Central European baroque art was used in Cold War cultural diplomacy to represent a particular nation and to explore the relationship between this exhibition and wider political events. …

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