Stalin’s death in March 1953 was a catalyst of change, not just political but also cultural, in most countries of the Eastern Bloc. The period just after 1955 is referred to as the ‘thaw’ in the arts and it swept – with varying intensity – across Poland and Czechoslovakia all the way to Romania and Hungary. Preferring abstraction and opposing Socialist Realism, modern artists, began to gradually take part in more or less official artistic events. A particularly interesting part of the process of winning back the field of the arts in Central and Eastern Europe was played by Art Informel.

Stalin’s death in March 1953 was a breakthrough in terms of politics and culture in Central and Eastern Europe. Although its consequences were not seen immediately, from 1953 onwards the severity of the totalitarianism was being relaxed and which could be observed in the different spheres of social and artistic life of the countries controlled by the USSR. The wind of change and hope for a return of normality, at least partially, that was felt then, particularly in the second half of the 1950s, are often referred to as the ‘thaw.’ This metaphor, most fittingly describing the processes going on in visual arts, reflecting well the atmosphere in artistic milieus of that part of Europe: enthusiasm and new energy in the fight to come out of the shadow cast by Socialism Realism, the officially sanctioned artistic doctrine of communism that quashed individualism and creativity.

However, the changes brought about by the death of the leader in nearly all countries of the Eastern Bloc were highly diverse in terms of dynamics, and which was a result of local circumstances. As a consequence, the artistic thaw in a given country was typically strongly conditioned by political developments, which could either accelerate it or cause a considerable delay. In Poland, it began at the earliest stage, i.e. already in 1955, and soon became visible in the sphere of official artistic life, with the changes won by artists proving most durable over time. The acceleration of the process was influenced, inter alia, by the Poznań events of June 1956 and the breakthrough in October that same year that gave the Poles hopes of a better future.

In other countries of the region, modern art had it more difficult as regards making its way into the mainstream. In East Germany, the grip of communists was hardly relaxed which was soon understood by avant-garde artists who decided to keep their creative output on the sidelines. In Czechoslovakia, the thaw-related relaxation in the world of the arts came before politics, yet outside of the mainstream. In Romania, changes began with a nearly 10-year delay catalysed by Nicolae Ceaușescu’s ascent to power. In Hungary, in turn, the course of the political events of the second half of the 1950s, the key one being the Budapest uprising, were the most brutal of all and the actual thaw in the culture came only in the late 1960s, already characterised by different artistic patterns than those found in the other countries of the bloc. The situation was different again in Yugoslavia, as from 1948 onwards it pursued policies independently from the Kremlin that were more favourable to creative freedom, hence the word ‘thaw’ is hardly applicable in the case of that country. (1)
The example of Polish artistic life in 1955–60 shows that artists from Central and Eastern Europe were successful in using the opportunity to get reconnected with the culture of the West, still setting the artistic trends of the day. In 1955, two important art exhibitions were staged in Poland: The All-Polish Exhibition of Young Visual Arts Against War, against Fascism in Warsaw’s Arsenal (often just referred to as Arsenal for short) and the ‘exhibition of nine artists’ in Cracow. The former mainly showcased works by artists of the young generation and the latter of more accomplished ones, yet what they had in common was prioritising modern-style creativity and abandoning unidimensional Socialist Realism. Those events were an indication of irreversible changes in the Polish arts, that was gradually driving away the communist painting doctrine from exhibition spaces, which was, incidentally, partially favoured by the authorities.

In 1956, Tadeusz Kantor returned from Paris. The painter and director was one of the most versatile creators of the time. Kantor used his several-month bursary in the French capital to become familiar with the creative output of French and American ‘painters of gesture,’ that is artists of Art Informel. Born in the late 1940s in the United States, the current also became popular in Europe, primarily because of its highly individualistic nature. Informalism rejected conscious composition of a work, characteristic of, for instance, Constructivism, which was popular in Europe. In turn, it prioritised the artist’s gesture as the main carrier of expression. Works in that current were created by means of dynamic, semi-automatic splashing of paint on canvass. Additionally, Art Informel soon joined forces with newly-born matter painting, where apart from paint non-artistic material like sand, soil or gravel was also put on the canvass. Thanks to Kantor’s stay in Paris, Art Informel and matter painting reached Poland and became another ‘weapon’ in the fight against Socialist Realism mounted by artists. Figuration which left no room for the imagination was replaced with expressive abstraction and communist uniformization with western individualism.

To a smaller or greater extent, Art Informel played a similar role in other countries of the Soviet bloc, particularly Czechoslovakia, where unlike in Poland, it found its roots in the local tradition of the artistic avant-garde. In Poland, apart from Kantor, its most eminent representatives were Jerzy Kujawski and Teresa Tyszkiewicz; in Czechoslovakia, Josef Istler, Vladimir Boudnik or Eduard Ovčáček; in Hungary, Endre Tót was one of the artists painting in that style.
Although the post-Stalinist thaw did not last long and the communist authorities retained control over art in Central and Eastern Europe, the events of that time contributed to the revival of modern art in the region for many years to come.

(1) Piotr Piotrowski, Awangarda w cieniu Jałty. Sztuka w Europie Środkowo-Wschodniej w latach 1945-1989, Rebis, Poznań 2005, p. 66–109.