Questioning Cold War Art

Introduction to the conference: Questioning Cold War Art (1945-1965)

What is Cold War art? Did such a thing exist, and if so, how can it be defined, investigated and discussed?

These questions are of key relevance in light of the growing interest in the Cold War within the field of art history. Whilst the political history of the Cold War is well documented, the nexus of art, culture and politics remains relatively under-researched, not least in a Danish context. Much cultural research has been focused on propaganda, Americanisation and popular culture, while high culture – and in particular the visual arts, which are the central focus of this conference – have received less attention.

This conference will have as its specific focus the early Cold War era (1945 to 1965), a period in which works of art were still subject to a concept of modernist autonomy, and in which the assignment of ideological formations of meaning can consequently be difficult to locate in and around the artwork; ditto the work of art's context within the history of ideas.

It is our hope that through this conference we can contribute to a clarification of how the objects of art-historical inquiry can be linked to political history, the history of ideas and cultural research into the first decades of the Cold War.

The conference will question Cold War Art and culture through presentations on:

  • How Paris and New York confronted with a completely transformed world attempted to reframe their artistic international relations. And how fights over cultural differences formed a battlefield onto which modern artists were hurled.
  • The origins of the CIA campaign to assert the merits of Abstract Expressionism as an asset in the cultural Cold War. And whether Pollock et al. were amenable to the idea that theirs was a specifically ‘American’ aesthetic.
  • Examinations of misreadings of Socialist Realism in relation to the bipolar modes of expression dominant on an international level.
  • Anti-formalist hysteria in the Soviet Art World, 1945-53, and how modern Western art had a profound influence on the development and promotion of the method of Socialist Realism as a humane alternative in the early years of the Cold War.
  • Soviet artistic exchanges with the West and the drastic change that took place after Stalin’s death. And why official exchanges in fine arts were much smaller in scale than the exchanges in music.
  • Socialist Realism in Danish literature and art, from the thirties to the fifties.
  • The rewriting of East European art history after 1945 in a global context and how, and to what extant 1989 can challenge former methodological paradigm to describe the post-war art history, and show it in a different, i.e. global perspective.
  • How Danish kitchen culture reflected the Cold War conflict and to what extent one can talk about Cold War in a Danish kitchen culture.
  • How MoMA proved instrumental in devising the theoretical and historical infrastructure for the architectural International Style, supporting America’s claim as the Cold War modernist superpower  and how MoMA’s “idea of modern architecture” permitted West German modernist architects to dissolve historical memories incompatible with a postwar career as a “Free World” architect.
  • Four different presentations of new research on Danish Art and the Cold War, a field which has to date been almost non-existent. The presentations will focus respectively on Asger Jorn, on the non-figurative and concrete art, on figurative art and on how the artists in the different camps were concerned with the role of art in the cultural, political and material reconstruction of Europe.

Keynote speakers

Keynote speakers are Professor Serge Guilbaut (How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art) and journalist Frances Stonor Saunders (Who Paid the Piper?).

Practical matters
The conference is a collaboration between the University of Copenhagen and theNational Gallery of Denmark, with one day of the conference held at each of the respective institutions. It is open to anyone interested in attending, but speakers are invited by invitation only.

The organisers
All three of the organisers are graduates in art history and funded PhD students embarked on projects concerned with visual art from the early Cold War era. Furthermore we are part of the CEMES research group: European Cultural Life During the Cold war.

Jens Tang Kristensen is employed at Sorø Art Museum and The University of Copenhagen and is working on a project investigating the development of the plastic arts in post-war Denmark. Liza Burmeister Kaaring is employed at the National Gallery of Denmark and likewise The University of Copenhagen and is working on a project on the depiction of the human form in Danish graphic art of the 1950s. Karen Westphal Eriksen is employed at The University of Copenhagen, where she is researching the relationship between abstract and figurative art in post-war Denmark.


The conference is supported by the Novo Nordisk Foundation.

For programme and registration see here