Our artwork of the month – the first instalment in this new series – is not from the interwar period: it was created in 2008-2009. It has been chosen as an introductory piece because it represents an important aspect of our research in a thought-provoking way. Our project considers Central Europe after 1918 as a shared cultural space, but in doing so it has to deal with the political reality: the newly minted nation states of the region and the new borders drawn between them. These borders – either their enforcement, or, as in the case of Hungary, their fervent contestation – were central to political discourse in all of these countries. The concept of the nation state relies on the idea that the ethnic, cultural and administrative borders of a nation should correspond with each other; this is, however, rarely the case in reality. The new states of Central Europe were not homogeneous either ethnically or culturally. In the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, different ethnic groups had not only lived side by side, but also intermingled. After 1918 the population of the region underwent a radical mental shift from imperial multi-nationalism towards ethnic nationalism. Yet, multi-ethnicity was still present, and cultural transfer happened between ethnicities and across borders. What does this curious map tell us about all this? Let’s take a look.
Greater Europe was created by the artists’ cooperative Société Réaliste: Ferenc Gróf and Jean-Baptiste Naudy. It visualises the state of the continent if all nations could satisfy their desires for a “greater” homeland – if those pesky borders were not in the way. If two or even three nations lay claim to the same spatial area: no problem, the area is simply replicated as many times as needed. As a result, the continent looks somewhat out of shape, but it manages to contain the territorial wishes of all its nationalists. When it comes to conflicting territorial claims, Central Europe is, no doubt, one of the busiest areas, but the map shows that the issue stretches across the continent. Just look at the two Irelands – particularly poignant at a time when the question of the Irish border has reemerged in UK political discourse.
Greater Europe was part of a larger project called Culture States: Exposition des arts et techniques appliquées à la vie moderne, which was inspired by the 1937 Paris World’s Fair (yet another reason why this artwork fits so well with our project). “This fair has been one of the most spectacular examples of the relation between Culture and Nation,” write the artists. It used constructed visions of national culture (and cultural hierarchies) to validate the political aims of nation states and empires. In such a framework, culture justifies the existence of the state, while the state represents itself as a protector of culture. The borders between cultures are clear; there is no room for ambiguity, for overlaps, for pluralism. The culture states of Greater Europe exist in splendid isolation, separated by large patches of no man’s land.
Following the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire, the construction of national narratives of history and culture formed part of the self-legitimisation of the new nation states. This often involved the projection of post-war interpretations of the nation onto the past. In Czechoslovakia, art historians had to amalgamate the art of Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia and Slovakia – all distinct regions within the former Empire – into one continuous story. In Austria, a central issue was to define the culture of a country that, having lost its territories, was now essentially a German-speaking state, as distinct from the culture of Germany. In Hungary, a country deeply unhappy with its new borders, interwar art historians focused on the “greater” territory of the former Kingdom in their histories of old Hungarian art. Aiming to trace an inherent “Hungarianness” in the art of the past, they employed stereotypical concepts of national character to build their narratives, while ignoring the multiplicity of cultures and the presence of travelling artists in historical Hungary.
Such narratives are just stories – they can be (and have been) reconsidered and rewritten. But in many of the contested territories represented in the map of Greater Europe tragic and irreversible events took place in the twentieth century: displacement, war, and genocide. Amidst all those tragedies, Greater Europe offers a semblance of peace. After all, if all areas can be replicated ad infinitum, there is no reason to fight over them. But Greater Europe is an absurdity: it is possible on paper, but not in reality. While creating an image of isolation, the map draws attention to the overlaps; it reminds us that to find peace we need to handle the spatial intersections of our mental maps. Following many centuries of entangled histories in Central Europe, it is no wonder that they exist. The question is what we make of them. This project will draw up connections, explore nuances, and examine both overlaps and efforts to distinctly separate national identities. It aims to provide a vivid account of a tumultuous time: a time of enduring continuities, as well as deep ruptures.