During the Cold War, it was called "Eastern" Europe. Since the fall of the Berlin wall, "Central" has become the designation of choice. Tourism marketers prefer "The Other Europe" to set off such countries as Poland, Slovakia and Hungary from heavily Americanized Western Europe. Save for the fact that spoken English is more common on the streets of Warsaw, Bratislava and Budapest than in, say, Paris, they have a point. As for art, it's here in abundance--familiar faces and startling discoveries--and more than reason enough to take this year's tour a bit off the beaten path.
Since war, occupation and dictatorship ravaged the region through much of the 20th century, it's practically obligatory to start any visit with some serious historical grounding. Warsaw was 85 percent destroyed during World War II, but the salvaged artifacts in its History Museum give you a glimpse into the depth of the culture; the Warsaw Uprising Museum--interactive to a fault and punctuated with such unintended ironies as the pastry smells from the museum's coffee shop wafting into Resistance-fighter tunnels--provides a moving recapitulation of the tragedies suffered there in the 1940s.
Keep one other proviso in mind: only a decade and a half into a freewheeling market economy, museums and galleries are not yet rife with changing or traveling shows, so you need to go where the art is, not wait for it to come around. Given that, three venues in Warsaw stand out. At the Poster Museum, there's proof aplenty that not only was the poster--commercial, political or public-service--the premiere art form of postwar Central Europe, but also that its incisive visual puns and graphic elegance put most allegedly "smart" contemporary painting to shame. And there couldn't be a better moment to drop in than during the "20th Biennial of Posters," a worldwide competition on view through Sept. 24.
Bright ideas are also on display at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Ujazdowski Castle. Conceptual installation art abounds and, from July 24 to Oct. 10, the lead-up to today's sometimes bewildering fare will be limned in "In Poland that is where," an anthology exhibition of 40 Polish artists from the 1920s and'30s to now. But perhaps Warsaw's most intriguing showplace is the Fabryka Trzciny, a rehabbed former marmalade factory in the now artily gentrifying Praga district. It's a gallery/lounge/performance space whose art component is being "redirected" toward younger artists. Praga also houses a growing number of commercial galleries, the best of which seems to be Galerie Luksfera, a serious, subdued purveyor of decidedly nonglitzy contemporary photography.
Moving on to the Slovak capital of Bratislava, you should first stop at the Municipal Gallery. Amid its medieval holdings, the city gallery puts on modernist exhibitions; until Aug. 20, the headliner is an informative primer on Central Europe's spiky, abstracted surrealism, entitled "Treasures of Czech and Slovak Modern Art II, 1956-1978." But the highlight of the institution is a permanent installation, "Passage" (2005), by Matej Kren. Although it uses a couple of the more common installation clichés around--an infinity of mirrors and books by the thousands--the result, an apparent library of everything, is both stunning and provocative. The National Gallery's summer offering (through Aug. 20) features "Figures and Episodes From the Old Testament, From Dürer to Chagall." Sound hokey? Not at all. The combinations of old-master paintings (e.g., a Guercino) and modern art, and Slovak and foreign artists are fascinating. The remodeled galleries, lighting and installation are superb.
Well-tended Roman ruins (Acquincum is a mandatory pause) and the uniqueness of the Hungarian language make Budapest probably the most exotic destination in Central Europe. During Hungary's communist days, private businesses were permitted as long as they employed no more than nine people--plenty for an art gallery. So some, like the Erdész Gallery (which stocks some choice pioneer modernists like Jozsef Rippl-Ronai) have been around for decades while others, like the Várfok Gallery, were born with the Revolution. One of its young artists, Laszlo Gyorffy (another neo-surrealist) says that although contemporary art is emphatically international, he believes there's a "Central European angst" that's hard for him and his peers to keep out of their work. You can see earlier manifestations of the struggle--sometimes in moody figurative painting and sometimes in defiantly bright abstraction--in the ever-chang-ing inventory of the Kielselbach Gallery.
"Modern Hungarian painting" probably doesn't bring any names immediately to mind. But it should. At the top of the main staircase at the Hungarian National Gallery, three permanent paintings by the mystical but pictorially adept Hungarian painter Tadika Csontváry (1853-1919) could change a lot of minds about the assumed primacy of Matisse. "Ruins of the Greek Theatre at Taormina" (1904-1905) ranks right up there--in size, color, and quirky composition--with anything the French artist painted as a fauve. And speaking of fauves, the National Gallery's feature exhibition, "Hungarian Fauves From Paris to Nagybánya, 1904-1914" gives you a great chance (through July 30) to compare directly the likes of Róbert Berény and Géza Bornemisza with Matisse, Dufy and Vlaminck. It's a terrific, intense exhibition, and the Hungarians more than hold their own.
Like Beijing, Vienna and Havana, Budapest is one of the cities benefiting from the largesse of the late billionaire German collector Peter Ludwig. Its Ludwig Museum occupies part of the new National Arts Center, which also features a gigantic concert hall. The museum's collection includes a passel of the usual suspects (Warhol, Rauschenberg, Joseph Beuys et al.), and exhibits the kind of work that draws viewers to such hyper-contemporary conclaves as the Venice Bienniale and Documenta. From June 22 through July 8, the avant-garde offering will be an 8-meter-high pink inflatable Greek temple made by Lithuanian artists Aigars Bikse and Kristaps Gulbis. Inside, you're likely to see, oh, a mud-wrestling match. Stated intent: to demystify art.
Should you later want to remystify it, the Museum of Fine Arts is the place. While not quite the Louvre or the Prado, its old masters can satisfy the most persnickety appetites. And, during this year of the heavily hyped 400th anniversary of Rembrandt's birth, the museum is well able to mount an exhibition of "almost all the copperplate engravings made by Rembrandt's own hand" (more than 200) from its own collection (June 23-Sept. 25).
Of course, the real Rembrandt action is in the Dutch master's homeland. Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum has one exhibition, already up and running (through Dec. 31), entitled with reasonable self-assuredness "The Masterpieces." It includes some very nice Rembrandts (including, naturally, "The Nightwatch"), along with notable pictures from such peers as Vermeer, Jacob van Ruisdael and Jan Steen. There's a good argument to be made, however, that the master's smaller works on paper are the equal of his soulful canvases. So it might be worth catching the museum's second offering, "All the Drawings, Part I," which is up from Aug. 11 through Oct. 11. In Rembrandt's hometown of Leiden, the Stedelijk Museum teams him up with his 20th-century equivalent and ardent homagist Picasso, in a show of prints, viewable through Sept. 9.
Rembrandt is the template--passionate, individualistic, profound--from which many, if not most, of the artists we hold dear were made. In London's National Gallery, "Rebels and Martyrs" --featuring Van Gogh, Gauguin, Edvard Munch, James Ensor and Egon Schiele--aesthetically documents the ratcheting up of that temperament in the 19th and early 20th centuries (through Aug. 28). Of course, painting isn't entirely a matter of individual personality; it also takes study, hard work and not a little bit of intelligent emulation. That contention is borne out at the Louvre in Paris, in "Americans and the Louvre" (June 14-Sept. 18). The exhibition contains 30 pictures by Samuel F. B. Morse, Robert Henri, Thomas Hart Benton and other Yanks who benefited deeply from time spent in the galleries of this mother of all art museums.
No summer art perambulation in the 21st century would be complete, however, without some outright weirdness. And you can't get any weirder than the anatomical perversities of the surrealist dolls of Hans Bellmer. The Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich presents a selection of them from June 29 through Aug. 27. The American installation/performance artist Paul McCarthy, whose infamous "Santa Chocolate Shop" mixes Christmas and chocolate in a most infelicitous manner, is the subject of a big exhibition called "Head Shop/Shop Head" at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, June 17-Sept. 3
If charm, on the other hand, is what you want, we recommend the shows of the innovative Dutch design firm (how about a sink made of felt?) Droog, at the Grand-Hornu Museum in Belgium through July 23, and the classic-to-cult furniture designer Poul Kjaerholm, at the Louisiana Museum in Copenhagen. The show opens on June 23 and doesn't close until Sept. 24. That should allow you plenty of time to recline on a Danish-modern chaise longue and reflect on the highly subjective menu of art we've put together here.