Reclaimed Avant-garde

Reclaimed Avant-garde project was initiated in 2017 by the Zbigniew Raszewski Theatre Institute. The project has involved collaboration between scholars and theatre centres from the countries of Central-Eastern Europe. The international research group has created an open platform for a broadening exchange of knowledge and a deepening analysis of the intercultural heritage of the avant-garde. The first stage of the work was devoted to scenography as a realm where the innovation of the Central-Eastern European theatre avant-garde was especially strong. The analysis focused on scenography, conceived not only as the art of creating the visual milieu of a performance, but, more broadly, as the theatrical and theatre-inspired art of composing a space for artistic and social action.

The Reclaimed Avant-garde project has already included the publications of Awangarda Teatralna w Europie Środkowo-Wschodniej. Wybór tekstów źródłowych [The Theatrical Avant-garde in Central-Eastern Europe: A Selection of Source Texts], and Reclaimed Avant-garde: Spaces and Stages of Avant-garde Theatre in Central-Eastern Europe (a collection of articles that, as the title suggests, explore innovative alternatives in theatre scenography and space conceived and created by artists of the Central-Eastern Europe interwar avant-garde).

In 2018, the international research group began work on a Lexicon of the Central-Eastern European Avant-garde.


The Reclaimed Avant-garde project aims to document and present the achievements of the theatre avant-garde of Central-Eastern Europe. The historical avant-garde was largely understood as a group of phenomena and artistic projects that emerged in Europe between World War I and World War II, and specifically, we set forth a definition of Central European avant-garde to be a set of phenomena that developed under different historical, political, and cultural circumstances, and simultaneously remained in a strong and complex relationship with two great avant-garde centres: Russia and Germany. The starting point is the assumption that the influence of the German and Russian theatre avant-garde overshadowed the achievements of the theatre avant-garde in the countries located between Germany and Russia – those from the Baltic countries to the Balkans and the Caucasus. Meanwhile, the culture of these countries has produced original, unique designs and solutions, which to some extent processed the inspiration flowing between East and West, but were invariably guided by the search for their own theatrical style.

It is of great importance, here, that following World War I, the vast majority of countries in the aforementioned regions found themselves in an entirely new political situation: regaining or gaining independence, or by changing the shape of their own existing state power (e.g. Hungary). As a result, avant-garde projects, in a way unheard of to this extent in other parts of Europe, were closely linked with the search for forms of collective identity and shape of modern national culture; in many cases they were also associated with the creation of new forms of statehood. In the avant-garde explorations of Central and Eastern Europe, theatre art was considered to be closely related to social life, therefore was tasked with its re-formation, and linked to a search for new shapes of space, interpersonal relations, aesthetics of everyday life, and so on.

Our goal is to present the specifics of Central-Eastern European theatre avant-garde within these contexts. The Zbigniew Raszewski Theatre Institute, starting in 2017, initiated the platform for researchers of Central-Eastern European theatre to enable the exchange of knowledge and free discussion. Reclaimed Avant-garde also sets out to situate Polish culture within a network other than a stereotypical East-West dimension, and points to the numerous, strong, and often neglected links with theatre culture in Central and Eastern Europe. We strive to document the achievements of the Polish and Central European theatre avant-garde as an element of the important, though forgotten, heritage of national and European culture. Demonstrating the Polish theatre avant-garde’s links to specific artistic movements within Central and Eastern Europe, the project not only revisits the neglected achievements of Polish culture, but also re-contextualizes and proposes a new understanding of the connection between Polish culture and the cultures of the region. Situating the Polish theatre avant-garde within contexts of the Central-Eastern European avant-garde, and creating a lexicon of Central-European avant-garde theatre will serve as a basis for future research of an analytical and interpretative nature, thereby providing inspiration for contemporary theatre artists.

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The research focuses on the ideas, projects, and achievements of the Polish theatre avant-garde which was seen as part of the historical interwar theatre avant-garde of Central-Eastern Europe. The basis of the project is to understand the latter as an internally diverse, yet relatively coherent and autonomous set of phenomena which developed – in contrast to the Western European avant-garde – under different historical, geopolitical, and cultural circumstances. The initial assumption and the basic hypothesis from which the idea for the project stems, concerns the specificity of the avant-garde of the countries stretching between Germany and Russia – from the Baltic countries to the Balkans (Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia) and the Caucasus (Georgia). When referring collectively to these countries as Central and Eastern Europe, we refer not so much to a specific geographical and cultural term, but to the hypothesis regarding a common sense of being in a specific cultural situation of “in-betweenness” – between East and West; beyond, and in its complex, complicated, and problematic relationship with the great centres of European culture, combined with a simultaneous and lasting sense of also belonging to it. The history of these countries, marked by the instability of state systems, the changing borders, and multi- and inter- culturalism, meant that for a long time the new states remained mearly as specific projects leaning into the future. The end of World War I and the resulting changes on the map of Europe meant that the inhabitants of the new states faced the challenge of implementing such projects. Contrary to stereotypical belief, the Central-Eastern European avant-garde did not compose a series of experiments detached from reality, but was a radical search for answers in a dynamically changing reality, a desire to develop the shape and the form of future life.

This turn towards the future and towards a connection with collective identities is of particular importance in Central and Eastern Europe: a place in which new state organisms provided the framework and foundation for these identities, created an important context for avant-garde activities, and often redirected them in such a way that, unlike in the West, were associated with a redefinition of traditions and search for different, unique genealogies (e.g. Polish monumental theatre as a synthesis of avant-garde and romantic tradition; Ukrainian avant-garde as a search for national art forms). This may well be the most important, though not singular dimension of the diversity of Central-European avant-garde. In order to illustrate this difference, and then to rethink and perhaps introduce it to European avant-garde thought in general, it will first be necessary to examine, document, and make available materials that may constitute a basis for further research.

Of course, the Polish theatre avant-garde was already the subject of interest for Polish theatre historians, most notably Stanisław Marczak-Oborski, yet, it seems advisable to return to these issues in a way that would combine new methodologies with an act of re-contextualization – a key to this project – by situating Polish theatre within a network set beyond a stereotypical East-West divide. Although many texts on Polish avant-garde theatre have already been published, one may still have the impression that these apply mainly to the achievements of its most famous figures (Andrzej Pronaszko, Leon Chwistek, Tadeusz Peiper, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz), however, there remains a vast body of work unexplored and uncollected, including works and statements by its (unjustly) forgotten players, and above all, a body of critical texts and commentaries of the time on the avant-garde’s propositions and actions. Contemporary methodologies that broaden thought about the theatre as a public institution on one hand, and a space and laboratory of experience on the other, point to the need to verify what should be included in the thought and practice of the theatre avant-garde (good examples would be constructivist architecture and proposals for spatial design, e.g. Katarzyna Kobro and Władysław Strzemiński’s explorations of space). The pioneering anthology of Polish avant-garde theatrical thought, developed by Stanisław Marczak-Oborski, was published in 1973, over 45 years ago, in a publication which gathered various trends in Polish theatre of the interwar period, including those whose avant-garde nature seemed problematic (such as the Reduta circle, the continuations of modernist theatrical ideas and practices). However, from today’s perspective it lacks many phenomena, characters, and ideas which – although not directly related to the theatre – form an expanded perspective of its contemporary understanding, appearing equally, and perhaps even more interesting than any general declarations about a “theatre of the future.” Combining the achievements of the last four decades’ worth of research on the avant-garde, together with an altered theoretical perspective, as well as methodical and extensive queries, we wish to produce a new anthology that will have the chance to open a new chapter in research on Polish experimental theatre and its traditions.

Following the publication of Les Kurbas theatrical writings, we will publish an edited volume of the writings by Emil František Burian from the Czech Republic, focussing on, among others, the thought and oeuvre of the two avant-garde artists from neighbouring countries related to Polish theatre. Both artists developed an extremely original practice and avant-garde thinking, which on the one hand provides a very interesting context in the search for Polish artists, and on the other hand, remains in various relations with the achievements of Polish theatre (almost legendary contacts of Kurbas with Juliusz Osterwa; Jerzy Grotowski’s workshops at Burian’s theatre in 1958). Introducing the texts of both artists to Polish readers provides a starting point for extended reflection on theatre avant-garde, moving further away from the concept of a so-called “Great Theatre Reform” with its typical references to Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig, and additional analysis between the similarities and differences with which other artists in comparable cultural and socio-political situations coped with such problems.

The Reclaimed Avant-garde project emerged from a series of international meetings during the Zbigniew Raszewski Theatre Institute’s Avant-garde Year, and so far as a result of the research, the following volumes were published:

  • The Theatrical Avant-garde in Central-Eastern Europe. A Selection of Source Texts, ed. Ewa
    Guderian-Czaplińska, Małgorzata Leyko, Warsaw 2017 (published in Polish);
  • Reclaimed Avant-garde: Spaces and Stages of Avant-garde Theatre in Central-Eastern
    Europe, ed. Zoltán Imre and Dariusz Kosiński, Warsaw 2018 (published in English);
  • Les Kurbas, Theatrical Writings, ed. Anna Korzeniowska-Bihun, Warsaw 2021 (published in
    Polish).
  • Polish 1919–1939 Theatrical Avant-garde. Anthology of a Sourcebook, ed. Dorota Fox and Dariusz Kosiński, Warsaw 2018 (published in Polish);
  • Ewa Guderian-Czaplińska, The Grey Zone of the Avant-garde and Further Writings, ed. Wojciech Dudzik, Małgorzata Leyko, Warsaw 2021 (published in Polish);
  • Emil František Burian, Dynamic Theatre. A Selection of Writings on Theatre, Music and Politics, ed.  Jan Jiřík, Warsaw 2023 (published in Polish).

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