Columbia University in the City of New York

Harriman Institute




Off the Page: In Search of the Romanian Avant-Garde Outside Its Publications

This event was held virtually as a Zoom webinar and streamed via YouTube Live.

Please join the East Central European Center at the Harriman Institute for a presentation by Alexandra Chiriac, Leonard A. Lauder Fellow in Modern Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This event is part of the event series East Central Vanguard: New Perspectives on the Avant-Garde.

According to numerous scholarly accounts of the avant-garde in Romania, the first play with a Constructivist staging to take place in the country was a production of André Gide’s Saul in 1925. In fact, despite its presence within the pages of Romanian vanguard magazine Integral, this production never took place.

In this talk, Alexandra Chiriac will examine how narratives around the avant-garde in Romania have centered on a series of printed publications, marginalizing certain artistic practices and practitioners and even spawning a number of problematic myths. As she found out when she expanded her research focus to incorporate international archive holdings and a wide range of period press, this selective narrative has bolstered canonical accounts of the avant-garde, privileging male artists with links to Western artistic movements. In this talk, Chiriac will draw attention to some new discoveries that demonstrate the diversity and breadth of avant-garde practices in Romania. Firstly, she will discuss some of the women unfairly overshadowed by their vanguard partners, such as business-owner and salon hostess Melania Maxy and theater innovator Dida Solomon. Secondly, Chiriac will highlight some figures whose transnational trajectories have placed them outside national histories, such as the designer and pedagogue Andrei Vespremie and experimental theater producer Iacob Sternberg. Thirdly, in telling some of their stories, another kind of myth-making will be exposed, showing how links to prominent institutions such as the Bauhaus were contrived to the detriment of other lesser-known ones, in this case the Schule Reimann, a pioneering Berlin design school. In this respect, a more thorough understanding of ostensibly ‘peripheral’ avant-garde practices can also expose the cracks within the established narratives of art history.

Image caption: M. H. Maxy, Costume designs for the Devils in Saul (c. 1960s). Pencil, ink and gouache. 22 x 38 cm. Romanian National Art Museum.

Alexandra Chiriac is an art historian specializing in marginalized histories of twentieth century modernism, with a focus on identity, gender, and ethnic minorities. At present, she is a Leonard A. Lauder Postdoctoral Fellow for Modern Art at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, working on a book project that explores urban modernity in interwar Bucharest through the means of design and visual culture, and traces the city’s networks of connectivity to Paris and New York. Chiriac’s peer-reviewed publications examine aspects of Romanian, Soviet, and Jewish design and performance history. She holds a PhD from the University of St Andrews and her research has been supported by numerous grants, including an award from the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (2015-2019). Prior to her graduate studies, Chiriac worked at Sotheby’s and co-curated exhibitions at GRAD, a non-profit cultural platform for Russian and Eastern European arts based in London.

East Central Vanguard: New Perspectives on the Avant-Garde

2021 Lecture Series

East Central European Center is pleased to host a webinar series on interwar art and culture. This series focuses on artists from East Central Europe whose art practices and contributions to various local and international avant-gardes have attracted less or no critical attention within Modernism Studies.

The avant-garde demand for crossing aesthetic boundaries within the domain of everyday life does not necessarily nullify the modernist right of art to its autonomy, but seeks to understand art as a practice accessible to all and based on the belief in its power to fundamentally change and improve social conditions. The avant-garde replaced the modernist perception of the uniqueness of the work of art that yields aesthetic pleasure isolated from practical life, with the direct call for “Art into life!” The repercussion of efforts to abolish the distance between art and life is characterized, above all, by the fact that we no longer speak of avant-garde texts or objects in the categories of literary work or aesthetic artwork, but in the categories of literary, or rather, avant-garde manifestations. The East Central Vanguard webinar series is devoted to an investigation of artists from East Central Europe whose lives and art practices deserve to be credited amongst such avant-garde manifestations.

FEBRUARY 23, 2021
Off the Page: In Search of the Romanian Avant-Garde Outside its Publications

Alexandra Chiriac (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

MARCH 23, 2021
Many Masks: The Radical Politics and Performance of Míra Holzbachová

Meghan Forbes (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

MARCH 30, 2021
Radical Women: Jolán Simon and Other Female Artists in Hungarian Avant-Garde Periodicals

Gábor Dobó (Kassák Museum – Petőfi Literary Museum, Budapest)

APRIL 6, 2021
The Zenithist Woman

Žarka Svirčev (Institute for Literature and Arts, Belgrade)

APRIL 20, 2021
Katarzyna Kobro and Debora Vogel as “Composers of Space”

Michalina Kmiecik (Jagiellonian University, Kraków)

Event Video