Professor Steven Mansbach reflects on growth in scholarly interest in Central And Eastern European modernism

With the publication of his latest book, Riga’s Capital Modernism, Professor Steven Mansbach has completed what seems “an appropriate final step” in a multi-year project studying Baltic modernism, one that encompasses the past publications Modern Art in Eastern Europe: From the Baltic to the Balkans ca. 1890 to 1939 and a series of articles on the character and meanings of modernist architecture and art in Estonia and Lithuania. To accompany this latest publication, this past fall Professor Mansbach delivered the Halecki Lecture, a yearly lecture series that alternates between a senior politician and a senior scholar, one of only two American art historians to do so. As it happens, the two scholars, Professor Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann and Professor Mansbach, share remarkably similar trajectories: both have focused on Central and Eastern European art and architecture, the one Renaissance and Baroque, the other the early twentieth century, at a time, the 1970s, when very few others did, not even in the European region.

Like Professor Kaufmann, Professor Mansbach can look over the art historical landscape and derive great satisfaction at the attention his field, and by extension his work, now receives, both here and abroad. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the greater travel now possible for East Europeans, scholars there quickly have developed their study of modernism in its many forms. For Professor Mansbach, investigation of the most rooted, and thus most culturally reflective, form of modernism – architecture – led him to the Baltics, which otherwise is quite understudied. He notes that what is so fascinating about the Baltics is that it is not a geographical so much as a historical concept. One can see a remarkably wide range of formal sources reflecting different periods of political and commercial alignment – from the Hansa, to the Dutch, to the Scottish and British – that, in such a tiny geographical area, makes for a manageable study. Within this cultural distillation, modernism is a type of reprise of the inventive mix of external influences and indigenous motivations, and its application as both idea and culturally-informed spaces affords a fascinating opportunity for study.

The years of careful spadework by Professor Mansbach is yielding a bountiful garden of young scholars. In addition to those European scholars now recovering the richness of their regional modernisms, a generation of American scholars is rising. Many of these graduate students study under Professor Mansbach and he marvels at the scholarly infrastructure available to them, one he, in essence, in large part created. “They are better trained, and are building methodologies and networks that were not available to me.” Professor Mansbach hopes that the growing numbers of students studying here in the Department are forming a critical mass that will not only build a vibrant intellectual exchange but lead to the convening in College Park of a conference for scholars of Central and Eastern-European modernism. Professor Mansbach’s seminar this spring, “Modern Art Avant-Gardes in ‘Eastern Europe’,” may form a core; every student in the class is, like Professor Mansbach, a student of central and eastern European modernism, a first for the department. “It is amazing,” notes Professor Mansbach, “each graduate student has a good number of colleagues.”