Inside or Outside ‘Socialist Modernism’? Radical Attitudes on the Yugoslav Art Scene, 1950-1970
Published in: Miško Šuvaković, Dubravka Ðurić, eds., Impossible Histories: Historical Avant-Gardes, Neo-Avant-Gardes and Post-Avant-Gardes in Yugoslavia, 1918-1991, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2003
The Concept of a ‘Yugoslav Art Space’
The concept of a ‘Yugoslav art space’ denotes the geographic area and political environment in which the polycentric and decentralised, yet at the same time unified, and shared, art life of the ‘Second Yugoslavia’ (1945-1991) was maintained. It was polycentric and decentralised, because it consisted of several cultural milieux and their capitals, i.e. the republics of the former country which have meanwhile become independent states; unified and shared in common, for it was interlinked by numerous personal and institutional ties between the many active participants in Yugoslavia’s art scene of the time. The term ‘Yugoslav art space’ did not necessarily lead to the abandonment of the uniqueness and specifics of the individual national/ethnic cultural milieux, nor did it demand their abolition, in the name of a unitary concept of 'Yugoslav art'. Rather, being situated within the borders of one and the same country, this art space was densely interspersed with uninterrupted daily links, exchanges and contacts between the artists themselves, as well as between the organisers of the art scene, managers of galleries and museums, critics and contributors to the cultural sections of newspapers and magazines and the programmes in the mass media - in short, of all the key factors of the domestic 'art world', or 'art system', at that time. When foreign audiences were involved - as in the case of participation in representative selections or large-scale exhibitions abroad, such as the Venice Biennale or the Paris Biennale des jeunes, the artists from Yugoslavia would display their works under the name of the whole country, and this was taken to indicate that the selection for such events was generally made on the basis of strict and fair, value-based criteria. Among other things, care was taken to ensure that an equitable balance was maintained in the representation of artists from the leading art milieux (Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia) and that the less developed milieux (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia) would also be represented, though to a more modest degree. On the home scene and local scale, however, each of these republics was overwhelmed with its own problems, since each had its own history and evolution, turning-points and discontinuities; each developed its own art topography and fostered different traditions, at the same time as becoming integrated into the overall pattern of cultural and artistic events within the exiting historical situation... Thus, the ‘Yugoslav art space’, based on a cultural model that was simultaneously polycentric and unified, proved enduring and capable of gradual change, as long as the country, as a whole, exited and constituted - as we can now clearly see - an extremely intense and stimulating collaborative atmosphere, as far as exhibitions and other related activities were concerned. In this atmosphere, most of the protagonists felt they could belong to both their smaller and larger national cultures at one and the same time, as well as to the international and universal streams of the contemporary art; by this means, as the protagonists on the art scene of the ‘Second Yugoslavia’, they both enjoyed the advantages and suffered the limits of the specific circumstances resulting from the given social and political system in that country.
From Socialist Realism to Socialist Modernism
It is certain that the political circumstances in which the history of the ‘Second Yugoslavia’ took its course and enjoyed a unique political status (referred to in anecdotes as “seesawing on the fence between the East and West”), exerted a considerable influence on the establishment and profile of a specific 'art system', which went well beyond both the rigid ideological pressures practised in the countries of Real Socialism and the advantages and the demands of the art market that characterised the countries where liberal capitalism was the rule. During the early post-war years, Yugoslavia, as a state and political system, had close relations with the Soviet Union and its satellites; hence, it adoption of the normative doctrine of Socialist Realism, in all aspects of its cultural and artistic life. This came about, not only for external reasons, but because it had roots of its own within the domestic tradition of socially committed art, in the period between the two World Wars. The decisive event, which greatly contributed to the weakening and ultimate rejection of the ideology of Socialist Realism, took place in 1948, with the breakdown of the relations between Yugoslavia and the Soviet-led countries of the communist bloc. Despite this split, however, the communist system remained in plea and, consequently, Socialist Realism maintained its dominant position in culture and art for some time to come. Although this rupture had gradually been prepared for by numerous events in various fields of artistic activity, which thus facilitated and contributed to the final blow to the ruling doctrine, the point generally taken to mark the definitive end of the dominance of Socialist Realism was the celebrated report delivered by Miroslav Krleža. to the Writers' Union at their Annual Congress in Ljubljana, in 1952. Today, the generally accepted view is that the comparably short-lived period of domination of Socialist Realism (approximately, from 1945 to1950) was an historic hiatus that naturally divided 20th-century art in Yugoslavia’s constituent republics into two parts, reelecting the first and second halves of the century. Thus, the post-War age of Modernism may be said to have begun in 1950 across the territory of Yugoslavia, as a whole and in each of its component units, and resulted in an extremely rich, complex and diverse range of artistic production that continued to evolve in a consistently interesting way over a period of many decades.1
The breakaway from the ideology of Socialist Realism in Yugoslavia after 1948, which resulted from the political change of course, demanded a re-orientation of cultural policy. This was executed in line with the initiatives and consent of the political authorities and was undoubtedly aided by the essential contribution made by numerous protagonists across a range of artistic disciplines. It is certain, therefore, that, had there not been a general shift in the political course, the new cultural and artistic situation would not have emerged; nor would there have been such a relatively early change in the art scene or the more or less total transformation of the entire artistic climate within the space of only a few years. either would they have changed the situation on the art scene relatively soon, within a few years merely, affecting - accordingly - a metamorphosis of the entire art climate. This change, however, was not motivated solely by political motives; the decisive role, in this respect, was played by artistic factors, and the vacant scene quickly took on a totally different aspect. In addition to being in tune with current phenomena, the poetics, trends, concepts and ideology of global post-War Modernism of the 1950's and 1960's - the Yugoslav art of the period, which clearly reflected the political and cultural circumstances of the country, came to represent a particular version of ;Socialist Modernism', which would only have been conceived of there, and at that time, and thus constituted a particular version of ‘Socialist Modernism’ the unique outcome of a cross-breeding of the properties of the 'Eastern' art model with the Western one. Gradually, the latter model came to prevail, as a consequence of establishing sufficiently close ties - but never a complete integration - of the Yugoslav art space and its specific form of ‘Socialist Modernism’ with the corpus of post-war Western Modernism, or, more precisely, with the corpus of Western-European post-war modernisms.
An important role in the establishment of the system of ‘Socialist Modernism’ was played by the logistical support of the cultural-political institutions which mediated the guest exhibitions of foreign art in Yugoslavia after 1950, as well as the occasions for the reciprocal presentation of Yugoslavia’s national selections on the international art scene. A chronicle of such events reveals the following key occasions and dates:
1952: Contemporary French Art - exhibition, with many great names, in Belgrade, Zagreb, Ljubljana and Skopje
1953: A Selection of the Dutch Painting Art including the entire De Stijl group, in Belgrade, Zagreb and Skopje
1955: Henry Moore: solo exhibition in Belgrade, Zagreb and Ljubljana, with a catalogue foreword by Herbert Read
1955: Contemporary German Prints and Drawings displayed in the same cities, with a catalogue foreword by Will Grohmann;
1955: Contemporary Italian Art, again in Belgrade, Zagreb, Ljubljana and Skopje, with artists ranging from Carrà and Severini to Vedova;
Finally, in 1956, as a crown of those international contacts, there came an exhibition of American colour lithograph, which toured several cities; and the famous, Belgrade-only showing of the touring exhibition, Contemporary Art in the United States of America, from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which included, among others, the entire generation of leading Abstract Expressionists.
When we take into account the elaborate political strategy involved in organizing numerous highly prestigious and high quality exhibitions of modern American art in the countries of Western Europe. the implication is that Yugoslavia was also included in that group, not only for cultural reasons, but because it now belonged to the Americans' political sphere of interest, with clearly determined aims and effects. It goes without saying that all the aforementioned events, from the programme of international cultural exchanges (as well as many other, less spectacular ones) exerted both a profound and a superficial influence on the directions in which Yugoslav artists now chose to develop their work; along with other factors, they contributed to a total re-orientation of contemporary Yugoslav art, from the recently rejected Socialist Realism towards the essentially different phenomenon of the newly-enthroned ‘Socialist Modernism’.
The exhibitions of Yugoslav artists abroad were equally influential, especially those at the Venice Biennale, where Yugoslavia has participated in its own pavilion since 1950, with selections in which, regardless of the local criteria according to which they had been chosen, there was nevertheless an effort to match the standards of international art of the early post-war decades.2 In principle, the same can be said of the appearances of Yugoslav artists outside Europe, at the Biennials in São Paolo and Tokyo, and the Biennial of Mediterranean countries in Alexandria, where they were benevolently granted numerous awards. There were also frequent guest shows of Yugoslav art in many West European countries. Of those, the 1961 exhibition in Paris received particular attention, provoking the renowned French critic, Michel Ragon, to make the following characteristic statement statement in praise of this art: “In Yugoslavia, the official art is also a living art.' At home, periodic events were established, with the aim of bringing about the unification of the Yugoslav art space during the 'fifties, including the Salon and, later, the Biennial Youth Exhibition organised at the Modern Gallery in Rijeka. The year 1961 saw the launch of the Triennial Exhibition of Contemporary Yugoslav Art in Belgrade, while, from 1955 onwards, the Biennial Exhibition of Graphic Arts was held at regular intervals in Ljubljana. This last became a very ambitious, international event, which, owing to its even-handed hospitality towards artists, not only from Western and Eastern countries, but from countries in the so-called Third World, gradually turned into a truly emblematic manifestation of Yugoslavia's cultural policy and system of ‘Socialist Modernism’. All this, and many other factors which cannot be mentioned here, led to the gradual construction and establishment of a complex and specific system of art in the ‘Second Yugoslavia’ - a system whose organization was almost entirely supported, made materially dependent upon, and ideologically supervised by, the institutions of political power. However, it must be admitted that the system was also sufficiently flexible to make most active artists feel free to participate voluntarily and to the best of their ability, i.e. with full conviction, in the building up and actualization of the culture of their own milieu(x) during the first post-war years and decades, caught up as they were with the optimistic élan of reconstructing all aspects of life, including art. A great majority of artists took part in this life within the imposed limits, without confrontation, and in agreement with, and the consent of, the ruling social and political system. Opposition could not be expected from artists, since the system was highly tolerant towards them. Many of them were recipients of numerous, diverse privileges, in the sincere belief that they were participating with full rights in the construction of a society which favorably disposed sociologists and political demagogues claimed to be a unique model, world-wide, of the country's self-management-based form of “socialism with a human face”. As a phenomenon fitting with such a model of socialism in politics, the unique Yugoslav form of ‘Socialist Modernism’ took root and developed into this productive institutional 'art world', forged in the social, political and cultural environment, briefly described above.
A New Mainstream Established: ‘Socialist Aestheticism’
The Yugoslav 'art world, which originated in the way that has been outlined above, gradually developed, in the mid-1950s, into a relatively homogeneous ideological organism, which, in the course of time, assumed the characteristics and social status of the obvious mainstream, despite a great number of different language models used by artists belonging to several different generations. Of course, we are not dealing here with an official state and party (extra-) artistic ideology, as had been the case with Socialist Realism, but it was nevertheless a type of art which was generally, or even particularly, favoured by the leading influential levers of social promotion (benefits for exhibiting in the country, selections intended for abroad, purchasing/acquisition committees, appointments of teachers at art schools etc.). This leads to the conclusion that the attitude of the authorities towards the modernisation of artistic language, which also included the main protagonists of this modernisation - i.e. the artists themselves - became more than tolerant. Actually, it did, indeed, become clearly affirmative, particularly after the authorities had realised that this modernisation could be aptly used to obtain a more acceptable image of the ruling social and political party order in the West, toward which they had increasingly been turning from the mid-1950’s on. And that provides an answer to the question. as to what had led the Parisian critic, Michel Ragon, to express his quite indicative statement mentioned above: 'In Yugoslavia, the official art is also a living art.' Owing to the interior social processes implying some liberalisation in social and cultural life, and also to the fact that this liberalisation was gained by the artists themselves through their practices within their own field, the societal/party power finally recognised and accepted (even going as far as to adopt) the domestic art of post-war Modernism; what is more, the authorities included that art in their idea of their own strategic interests. The result was that this modernism, owing to the social system in which it originated, could legitimately be termed “socialist”. And when this modernism, at the peak of its social acceptance, lost all of its issue-raising or innovative qualities, i.e. when it definitively became established, as extremely neutral and passive in relation to its surrounding reality, it was renamed by a circle of Yugoslav art theorists and critics the concept of ‘Socialist Aestheticism’. As such, and precisely for being such, the concept assumed all the characteristic prerogatives, positions and privileges of ‘The First Line’ in the art of the milieu and the historical moment of its birth.
We owe the concept of ‘Socialist Aestheticism” to the Belgrade literary theorist, Sveta Lukić, who introduced it in 1963, with an eye to the situation in which Yugoslav literature had found itself during the previous decade, while a transfer of that concept and a re-qualification of its meaning in the sphere of visual arts was carried out by Lazar Trifunović, who, having elaborated it in detail, attributed to it the following characteristics:
“When one goes further along these lines (i.e. the aforementioned postulate by S. Lukić) toward an interpretation of aestheticism, its true nature is soon revealed, as well as what ultimately became of it: the official art ideology of the fifties. Understandably, I use the term ‘official art ideology’ in this case in a broader sense, not as an attitude of the state apparatus and a directive of the Party documents, but as a natural affiliation of two similar convictions which suited each other. This fits well into the conceptions of the corresponding political structures, since freedom of creation affirmed the right to personal expression, which could and did mean denial of their own responsibility for the destiny of art, while for the artists, who had suffered the burns of Socialist Realism, this meant separation of art from social issues and life’s realities. What suited the highly politicized and vanity-stricken society of the sixth decade was a kind of art which would refrain from upsetting it and from raising enigmatic or ‘unpleasant’ questions. Oriented toward the laws of form and the pictorial problems of the painting, aestheticism was sufficiently ‘modern’ to appease the general complex of ‘openness to the world’, yet traditional enough – as a reshaped aesthetic of intimism of the nineteen-thirties – to satisfy the new middle-class taste based in social conformism and inert enough to fit the myth of a happy and unified community; it possessed whatever was necessary to blend in with the politically projected image of the society. On the other hand, the aestheticism contributed to the purification of the language of painting and its ridding of literary layers, although – in essence – it did not change the order of its traditional values. Between aestheticism and the vital art problems of the period there opened up a void which reached the point of crisis toward the end of the fifties. It caught both the older and the middle generation, there was a feeling of fatigue, ideas were exhausted, aims used up, and the Serbian painting thus went through the process from ‘revolutionary’ to bourgeois art with incredible speed…”3
A Departure from the Mainstream: ‘The Other Line’ in the Art of the 1950’s and 1960’s
However, neither all Serbian art referred to in the above-cited paragraph, or the art in other parts of Yugoslavia during those years, fit in with all the descriptions included in this text... Moreover, this art was resistant to this kind of description, owing to the conscious and direct efforts of the artists concerned or, perhaps, the unconscious and indirect characteristics of their work, as well as a certain incongruity that was manifested in their social status and behavior. Even if they are to be considered as contemporaries and participants in the period of ‘Socialist Modernism’, due to their presence on the art scene of their time, these art circles, with their mentality and the particular way in which they chose to express themselves, resisted, or at least retreated, and in any case did not chime in with the features described by in Trifunović’, in his account of ‘Socialist Aestheticism’. That is what makes It possible for us to use the label, ‘The Other Line’ for these alternative phenomena, considering that they sometimes appeared to be passively distanced form, or even in direct opposition to, the phenomena which constituted the new mainstream of Yugoslavia’s post-war art - i.e. those that constituted ‘The First Line’ in terms of status, not in terms of value, or willingness to raise important issues.
It should be pointed out at the outset that the lack of such a drastic, open opposition on the Yugoslav art scene at the time is no justification for identifying ‘The Other Line’ with political and cultural dissidence, as known in other countries of the Real Socialist' bloc; neither was ‘The Other Line’ the opposite side of the binary equation between 'official' and 'non-official' art. For the majority of artists, it was simply a matter of making a choice between different cultural models, historical precedents, linguistic terms and methods of expression - all of which resulted in more exclusive/extreme positions, which, in comparison to the positions taken up by the dominant forces of Moderate Modernism, could be labeled as positions ranging from very radical and radical Modernism to those of neo-avant-gardes and presages of a post-avant-garde – in the sense these formations are understood in the European art of the 1950’s and 1960’s. As for its historical forerunners in the national culture, ‘The Other Line’ directly draws upon, or indirectly follows, the rare and, at that time neglected and forgotten, legacy of the historical avant-gardes of the 1920’s (Zenithism and Dada, based in Zagreb; Slovenian Constructivism; and Serbian Surrealism), as points of departure that offered more daring possibilities for self-assertion and self-articulation than those that the majority of the local artistic community had been raised on - namely, moderate modernist art of Parisian provenance, or art that had emerged from its dominant influence. In the Yugoslav art space of the 1950’s and 1960’s, ‘The Other Line’ was (an)other and different precisely because it did not emerge under the aegis of Parisian inter-war and post-war Modernism; because it adopted a critical stance towards that, and opposed it with its own sharp art discourse, filling that discourse with problems, contents, moods and intonations which, due to their counterpoise, were received in their home milieux only after some delay and with a degree of reluctance. For those very reasons, ‘The Other Line’ consisted of minority and marginalized art groups and individuals, as well as of the phenomena and positions which found international art languages, phenomena, circles, flows, movements, contexts and trends closer to themselves than their local counterparts.
The group EXAT-51 (abbr. of Eksperimentalni atelier 1951), founded in 1951, carried out a drastic and decisive conceptual cut in the art and visual culture of its milieu in the early 1950’s, on two levels. From a programmatic standpoint, it called for the legitimacy of Abstract Art, considered at the time to be totally unacceptable, which is why it was opposed both to Socialist Realism and the local Modernist tradition grounded on the Intimism and Expressionism of the years between the Wars. The group, whose members were the painters, Ivan Picelj, Vlado Kristl and Aleksandar Srnec, and the architects Božidar Rašica, Vjenceslav Richter, Bernardo Bernardi, Zdravko Bregovac, Zvonimir Radić and Vladimir Zarahović, met in Zagreb during the year 1951; in December, they published their Manifesto, with a fully elaborated programme. This was followed by an exhibition of the painters’ wing of the group, staged in Zagreb and Belgrade at the beginning of 1953, which in both cities provoked considerable public attention, with polemical pro et contra echoes. Apart from advocating Abstract Art, the main goal of the group was a 'synthesis of visual arts' within the framework of modern architecture and a struggle for the development of industrial design in an environment almost entirely lacking in previous experience of such a discipline... However, since they were unable to realise many of their ideas within a reasonable time frame, owing to the limited technical possibilities and post-War scarcities, the group concentrated on smaller-scale interventions, aimed a procuring a synthesis of the arts, through their work in designing and equipping exhibition stands and pavilions at trade fairs, both in Yugoslavia and abroad.
When it came to art, the group chose, in their paintings, to employ a pictorial language that was similar to forms of geometric abstraction that had appeared in several European countries at approximately the same time, i.e. in early 1950’s (e.g. the groups Espace in France, Movimento Arte Concreta and Forma Uno in Italy, and Nine Abstract Artists in the United Kingdom). Confirmation of the members of the Zagreb group's timely involvement in similar international events is provided by their presence at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, a promotional exhibition of Abstract Art in Paris in 1952, which even preceded their début at home. The basic programme of the group and their conceptual orientation meant that they could be described as a characteristic phenomenon of the early 1950’s,, when geometric abstract painting was emblematic for the spiritual climate of the day. This climate was described by the Italian critic, Piero Pacini, in his text about the situation in his own culture, in which gave the following, very convincing, diagnosis that applied equally well to EXAT-51:
“In a society emerging after the devastations and bitterness of war, the idea of geometry appeared as the need for a new myth: it simultaneously incorporated the myth of solidity and the myth of practicality, since it was reminiscent of architecture… Geometry is, on the scene of the early post-war period, one of the signs of optimistic and conscious reconstruction.”4
When the group EXAT-51 definitively quit their activities and became part of the cultural legacy of the milieu in which it had originated, two art historical judgments faithfully and accurately summarised their role, from the point of view of the issues they raised. Let’s first hear the voice of Matko Meštrović:
“In Zagreb one can meet representatives of geometric abstract painting and adherents of the Bauhaus ideas, who emerged in 1952 with a fully elaborated art programme, comprehending the function of art within the broadest sense of transformation of the total plastic-art reality and abandonment of the traditional concept of an artist with all of his burdens – for the sake of a new type of art-creator, one capable of contributing to the growth of material culture... In the time of the just initial large-scale industrialization in the materially and technologically underdeveloped country, the broad-ranging programme of the Exatists reflected the need for a programmed cultural upswing, yet proved unacceptable due to the very absence of such growth, that is, due to the impossibility of discovering the means of its actualization in the given conditions”.5
The second view was expressed by Vera Horvat-Pintarić:
“The awareness of the members of that group of the necessity for a differently oriented creative production and art in general was grounded in the revolutionary traditions of the post-October avant-garde and the legacy of Bauhaus and the Dutch De Stijl. In this heritage of ideas, the waymarks for a progressive practice of ideas and methodology were already preset, all the more so considering that the most radical metamorphoses within the field of plastic-art activity had occurred during the revolutionary metamorphosis of the society after the October Revolution. Resuming this legacy from the first half of the century – after a long-lasting historical lapse – the group EXAT-51 set as its main tasks the direction of artistic work toward a synthesis of all the visual arts first, and, second, attaching experimental character to that work, since – without experiment – any progress of creative approach in visual arts cannot be imagined.”6
In another text, the same author also said:
“The exceptionally positive activities of this group were not so much evident in the latter period in the field of geometric abstract art, as they were in the initiation and theoretical elaboration of some of the acutely current issues of the contemporary society. In their very clearly formulated programme, the group emphasized not only the significance of autonomous plastic values of visual arts, but also put forward as their guideline an activity towards a synthesis of plastic arts as well as an elaboration of the issues from the field of visual communications.”7
From these statements, as well as some additional insights into the history of EXAT-51, it can be concluded that the group emerged not only as a consequence, but also as an initiator and promoter of the spiritual and material reconstruction in the culture of its milieu, shortly after the end of the Second World War. Under such circumstances, the group tended to act constructively, i.e. in favour, and within the framework, of the socialist society, which was undergoing construction at the time. The group acted in that spirit, and with that aim in mind, as this also coincided with the earnest convictions of its members. The group by no means acted in response to the demands of in support of, or in response to commissions from the authorities, which, for their part, tolerated the group to no greeter an extent than they did any other artistic phenomena of the time. Having established a different concept of the character of the artist, who no longer acted as a studio recluse, or an exhibitor in a gallery, but as an experimenter in various media, who demanded a change in his technical and operative skills, the group took the lead in the first half of the 1950s, in initiating the mentality of ‘The Other Line’. By virtue of this, EXAT-51 became the principal role model for other alternative phenomena in Croatian and Yugoslav art, regardless of the fact that those phenomena later existed in altered contexts, and used different languages and procedures.
Slovenian ‘Dark Modernism’
The person who created the concept of the phenomenon termed ‘Dark Modernism’ in Slovenian painting after the Second World War was the art historian and critic, Tomaž Brejc, who established and elaborated this idea in his book of the same title, published in 19918. The book is a voluminous theoretical and art-historical treatise, which raises and analyses numerous issues concerning global and local (Slovenian) art of the 20th century, where the connecting thread is the postulate, according to which, throughout the historical period of Modernism (between 1880 and 1980), there persisted a stream of subjective, pathetic and passionate communication in painting about life and existence, through which a painting work spotlighted the dramatic, alarming, traumatic and profoundly personal/confessional psychological states and moods of a solitary artist/individual, whose problems with adjusting to his surroundings meant that he barely succeeded in the end, or even failed. Contrary to Greenberg’s definition of Modernism that Brejc describes as 'pure or 'purist', implying that, in Modernism, high formal parameters are required of the painting, as a rationally arranged aesthetic object, whose essential characteristic is its immanent two-dimensionality and total flatness of the painting space and painting field, the author of this thesis (Brejc) uses the term Dark Modernism to imply an 'impure' and 'hybrid' version of Modernism. Instead of analytical and self-reflexive features, this version is dominated by the cognitive, symbolic and expressive properties of the art of painting, which is as a rule figurative and representational; and it is the issue of human destiny that became the essential content to be dealt with by this art, in a most responsible manner. According to the author of the thesis, about Dark Modernism, to put it concisely, in this art
“the painting becomes a psychical membrane which brings various existential experiences to light, most often in dark and gloomy tones”.
Within the complex of Slovenian Dark Modernism we can single out a circle with separate problematics, including, among others, three leading post-war painters of this milieu: Gabrijel Stupica, Marij Pregelj and Marko Šuštaršič, while bearing in mind, of course, that we are not dealing with a common development or tendency here, but rather with three strikingly autonomous and authentic personal positions, three quite comparable cases of “individual mythologies” in painting. Matko Meštrović had already described the main element of Stupica’s art, as being
'above all, an extraordinary pictorial culture, i.e. a deep study of one’s own life confrontations which are resolved by means of a meditative lyric-poetic effusion and the dispersion of an infantile world which totally, to the boundaries of the unreal, sensitivises the elements of concrete phenomenality. The latter, however, appears not only to be conjured up by the painter, but also in the material and object presence; yet in poetic relations it is sublimated to candid purity. With such a resolution of opposites in the openness of the creative method itself, albeit enclosed within a seemingly very narrow world, there emerges an extraordinarily harmonious and at the same time complex artistic personality, capable of reconciling the microcosm and the macrocosm.'9
The paintings of Stupica’s 'white period', from the mid-fifties on, with its characteristic subject matter of the self-portrait, the artist’s studio and the 'bride' (who is, in fact, the transposed figure of his daughter, her age ranging from very small child to adult girl) are fragile ,and almost painful, projections of the artist’s phantasms, fears, anxieties and ceaseless enquiries into the meaning of existence - all, without any final resolution and undertaken in a state of extreme uncertainty, in a form of tragic, fatalistic, existential cognisance. In contrast to Stupica’s intimate individualism, Pregelj is a painter of Slovenian collective mythical tradition and historical experience; he is the creator of a pathos-laden variety of figuration, in whose foundations lies a deeply etched, and thus persistent, personal memory of the horrifying time the artist spent in a prison camp during the Second World War. The torture and the suffering of a mutilated body, pain that is not only physical, but also one of the mind and soul – those are the constants onto this sinister and highly unsentimental painting narrative. At its almost polar opposite stands Šuštaršič’s painting, which is a microcosm of the tiniest things and
'most delicate impressions from the artist’s personal life, his memories and dreams, where we may sense his anxiety, his painstaking effort to achieve creative freedom, sometimes even the forebodings of an imminent, premature death.'10
The paintings grouped together under the label of Slovenian Dark Modernism were not, form a, linguistic, of ideological point of view, an offshoot from the heritage of the historic avant-gardes, but rather, something that proceeded, thematically and psychologically, from the legacies of Expressionism and Intimism, and, consequently, did not belong typologically to the complex of post-War neo-avant-gardes. Despite that, we may include it in the mentality of ‘The Other Line’, in Slovenian and Yugoslav post–war art, primarily because – in contrast to moderate ‘Socialist Modernism’ and, particularly, Socialist Aestheticism – this art bore witness to some utterly depressive mental states. Moreover, without shirking a search for the distressing facets deep in the artist’s being, it communicated something of the discomfort and misery of individual existence in social and political circumstances which did not tolerate such moods easily. By unveiling such a state in a society which, for ideological reasons, systematically rejected the very thought that one of its members might be capable of bearing natural and lasting human suffering, the position of Dark Modernism offered an alternative to the ruling political and ideological Weltanschauung, regardless of the fact that, in the culture of their own environment, its protagonists had already obtained, and rightfully enjoyed, the reputations, and the status of artists publicly recognized for their true worth.
Radical Attitudes in the Serbian Art of the Nineteen 'Fifties and 'Sixties
The Serbian, mostly Belgrade-based, art scene of the 1950’s and 1960’s was a very complex conglomerate of phenomena among which, after Socialist Realism, there were no longer any pure or compact linguistic and ideological models, but rather numerous individual and group activities, making for a highly heterogeneous and polarised situation. As a reaction to the previous imposition of Socialist Realism, the early 'fifties saw a systematic rehabilitation of the bourgeois art of the inter-war period (this became manifest in 1951, in the exhibition, Seventy Works of Painting and Sculpture between 1920 and 1940). At the same time, a number of artists, who had trained mainly in Paris in the period between the two World Wars re-emerged and staged individual exhibitions of their work - that of Petar Lubarda, in the same year, being a landmark and a highly influential event. Shortly afterwards the Group of Six was founded in 1954, as a means of singling out a circle of artists from the inter-War generation and was succeeded, the following year (1955) by the December Group which included the nucleus of the first post-war generation. Together, these groups constituted the mainstream in Serbian art of the sixth decade. This was at which could stand on its own feet, but also achieved the dominant position in the Yugoslav art system, with the support of institutionalised cultural life, and enjoyed the trust of the majority of the main influential figures, who made up the entire ‘artistic scene’ at the time. And it was only on the fringes of this prevailing current – whose linguistic and ideological model might be described by terms, such as ‘victorious post-war Modernism’, ‘moderate Modernism’, ‘Socialist Modernism’, and ‘Socialist Aestheticism’ – that the other main groupings,, splinter groups or radical factions were to be found, along with those, whose attitudes simply did not fit in with the typical labels and terminology of the neo-avant-garde. Yet, in the prevailing circumstances of the time, this these widely divergent attitudes did play the role of an avant-garde, by virtue of the very fact that they served to revise, shift, undermine, and sometimes even abolish, the boundaries of established thinking about the true nature of art.
The first move to transgress the limits of what was then thought to be the nature of art was taken by the Zadar Group, which was formed in the immediate aftermath of the War, in 1947.This group was made up of young artists, still studying at the Belgrade Academy, who went to war-damaged Zadar on their own initiative, in order to paint freely, without school supervision, in the spirit of a rudimentary form of Expressionism or non-canonical Realism, which was ideologically, though not in linguistic terms, totally opposed to the ruling model that bore the prefix, ‘Socialist’. This circle produced the first ‘dissidents’ or ‘emigrants’ in post-war Yugoslav art, since after their first solo exhibitions in Belgrade, most of the members of the so-called ‘Zadar commune’ left for Paris in the early 'fifties, in search of the fame and recognition they hoped for on this international stage, and of an artistic freedom that was denied to them at home. Bogoljub Jovanović was an artist of the same generation. In his 1953 series of works on small sheets of paper, executed in a spirit of crude figurative fantasy, and in a small number of already quite abstract paintings he made in 1955, he departed from all known models of post-war Serbian art and became, perhaps, the first instinctive, rather than ideological, outside on the artistic scene. Since he soon ceased to deal with art in public and definitely withdrew from an active artistic life, Jovanović provided an example of behaviour which may today be interpreted as a strategy of the “aesthetics of silence”.
Ivan Tabaković was to stand out from the context of the Group of Six, who mainly adhered to a mode of expression characterised, by Lazar Trifunović, as 'modern traditionalism'. What singled him out were his paintings and collages from the mid 'fifties onwards, with which he embarked upon a solitary venture into speculative, rather than perception-based areas of art. Namely, he asked himself whether, and how, it might be possible to depict the invisible in a painting. H sought to discover how to paint, not natural phenomena, but the incommensurable patterns of natural processes, and what science had to say about these, from the perspective, not of a scientist, but of an artist - and of an artist with an extremely unusual, freewheeling imagination, at that!. This was a form of art that went far beyond visible reality, that was an art for high flyers, not in terms of practical living, but of the author’s own thoughts and dreams (his key series of his collages bore the title, Life, Thoughts, Dreams/Život, misli, snovi, 1965-66). Thus the esoteric overrode the material, fantasy rose above reality, and all ideological matters were brushed aside, in the artist’s pursuit of his individual freedom and ability to see the world, in the way he himself thought it should be seen.
'Two phenomena arose in Serbian painting as a reaction to aestheticism and traditionalism: Mediala (Medijala) and Art Informel. The former attempted to create total painting and recreate the classical tradition of the Renaissance, the latter to demolish classical painting and assert the philosophy of hopelessness and the poetics of the absurd.'11
Although this claim, by Trifunović , was an incomplete and inadequate description of Mediala, it this claim indicated that in post-war Serbian art there were various aspects of resistance and defiance to the new mainstream of victorious communism, and was basically also supported by Miodrag B. Protić, in the following statement about Mediala and the Informel:
'Fantastic painting in reaction to aestheticism…,"Informel", Abstract Art: a new exploration of painting and new possibilities of existential statement.”12
The same critic mentioned the following characteristic detail concerning Dado Djurić, a member of Mediala in his early Belgrade phase:
'While the majority looked up to Manessier, Poliakoff and De Stael, he browsed through the reproductions of old masters…'13
This critic's claims, quoted above, to the effect that the group, Mediala, was opposed to the dominant Socialist Modernism and Aestheticism, were essentially correct. The complex, contradictory and controversial make-up of this artistic community signalled the first anti-Modernist turn in Serbian art after the Second World War, and marked an early move in a Post-modernist direction. However, one of the apparent paradoxes about Mediala was the fact that the principal ideologist, theorist and incontestable leader of the group, Leonid Šejka, achieved a remarkable neo-avant-gardist breakthrough, in some of his early output. Šejka 's assemblages of discarded objects collected from a refuse dump - the real and symbolic 'refuse' of civilisation - together with , his acts of appropriation, and authorial signature on real-life situations, as well as in his first actions and events, and personal, bodily participation, as an artist, all dated back to the mid- to late 1950’s and revealed a familiarity with the legacy of Dada and Duchamp; they also coincided with the phenomena of neo-Dada, New Realism and Fluxus.
Vladan Radovanović was one of the founders and a short-term member of Mediala, but soon turned into an outcast, in pursuit of his own relentless individualism. Radovanović was an electronic musician and multimedia experimenter, theorist and practitioner of a form of verbal-vocal-visual synthesis in art. His overall authorial personality and behaviour, as an artist reveal a striking, though indirect, kinship with the phenomena of Fluxus, Concept Art and other methods that pointed in the direction of the dematerialisation of the art object.
The only Belgrade member of the Neo-Constructivist New Tendencies movement, and participant in three of the movement’s international exhibitions in Zagreb (1965, 1969, 1973) was Koloman Novak, the creator of optical, kinetic and lumino-kinetic objects and environments. Educated in Belgrade, where he held his first independent exhibitions in the early 1960’s, Novak reached the peak of his career and earned the greatest acclaim in Vienna, where he lived between 1966 and 1971; he participated in the historic Kinetics exhibition at the Museum of 20th Century Art, in Vienna, in 1967.
The issue of extreme artistic individualism, of a kind that is commonly categorised under 'individual mythologies' marks both the work and the behaviour of Radomir Damnjan, an artist with a Belgrade background, who has been active in Italy from early 1970’s. Damnjan began as a very prestigious representative of a new generation of painters and earned international recognition early on, including an award at the São Paolo Bienal, in 1963, participation in dcocumenta III, in Kassel, in 1964, during the last phases of late Modernism. Subsequently, he turned his back on success and the reputation it had brought him and set out to re-examine the character of the very foundations of artistic language, in the spirit of the new post-object, corporeal, mental, analytical and mediatic forms of art. However, this turnabout was not just a matter of language, but could also be seen as both ideological and political, in a specific way. In other words, by effecting this turnabout, the artist sought to become, and behave, like a conscious 'nomad, who would constantly change the means and methods of his own art, so as to avoid any form of manipulation or operational entrapment any typological classification of his work and any external threat that his work might be instrumentalised, for any purpose whatsoever. By this means, he sought to protect the indomitable individuality of his work and of his life, as one who constantly pushed himself to the brink of exhausting the possibilities of one cycle, before moving on to the next.
Art Informel in Belgrade and Zagreb
The standard critique of Art Informel, as a characteristic European artistic phenomenon of the early post-war decades unambiguously asserts that Art Informel does not possess the attributes of a (neo-0avant-garde, since it does not seek any possible transformation of the overall social situation, and particularly, because it fails to advocate a progressive vision of its project, as an ideological projection into a more favourable human future. Thus, according to G. C. Argan,
'Art Informel is not and does not pretend to be an avant-garde movement; from the outset it did not take the stand of an overthrowing or innovation-enforcing polemic, but one of an art quite different, autre, that does not bear any pattern inherited from the past and no programmatic obligation to the future)14
But if an art is really so different and really ‘other’ (autre), in relation to previous art, or art from a similar context, then it is, after all, an art which stands in contrast, and opposition, to the dominant mainstream,, and, by virtue of this very fact, , excluded from the concept and position of the mainstream. In the artistic environment of post-War Yugoslavia, Art Informel possessed many of the same characteristics, precisely because, by signalling a mood of existential scepticism and defeatism (since, according to Trifunović, it 'affirms the philosophy of hopelessness and the poetics of the absurd'), it was genetically opposed to the ruling ideology of the existing socialist political order, based on a boundless trust in continuous socialist progress and a positive attitude of the individual towards his own social surroundings. Consequently, Yugoslav Art Informel was also contrary to the prevailing aesthetics of the ruling ideology, as had been the case with Socialist Modernism and Socialist Aestheticism. That the political authorities at the time saw the entirety of Abstract Art, and Art Informel in particular, as an unacceptable ‘foreign body’ in the supposedly ‘healthy mind’ of the national culture, is attested to by an attack launched by none other Josip Broz Tito, the Head of State and Party Leader, on 'decadent phenomena', including Abstract Art, in the course his 1963 New Year’s 'Message' and a number of other speeches he made, at the beginning of the same year. This had fatal consequences for the artistic climate, as a whole, and thus accelerated the crisis of Art Informel, as an Innovative force, which thereafter began its slow decline and ultimate demise. Within the heterogeneous circle of the protagonists of Belgrade Informel, whose ascent took place between 1959 and 1963, we find two former members of the Zadar Group (the couple, Mića Popović and Vera Božičković-Popović), one member of the December Group (Lazar Vozarević), one follower of Lubarda’s concept of ‘Abstract Landscape’ (Filo Filipović) and four members of the younger generation (Branislav Protić, Zoran Pavlović, Vladislav Todorović and Živojin Turinski), brought together in the Informel exhibition curated by the critic, L. Trifunović, in 1962. Trifunović himself played a significant role in the promotion, theoretical and art historical contextualisation of Belgrade Informel, which, in his view, took up a critical stance against the previous Socialist Aestheticism and thus took on the characteristics of politically committed art. In other words, according to Trifunović,
'Within the very being of painting art, Informel rose against aestheticism, and within society – against the increasingly strong wave of alienation; it became an art of crisis, a consequence of crisis, an expression of crisis, the first serious, deep and many-sided crisis the Serbian painting has encountered in its modern history. Informel encouraged it, deepened and spotlighted it from both outside and within, demanding a change in essential social, cultural and artistic criteria. After all, if the form in painting is a symbol of the world, which it is, did not its demolition in Informel mean a total negation of external reality, covering the entire range from socio-economic to societal-ideological values? In that respect, Informel had all the attributes of committed painting.”15
The Belgrade artist, Olga Jevrić, who never expressly declared her allegiance to a form of Art Informel, had nevertheless, since the early 1950s, been developing a variety of abstract sculpture that used a far more radical personal language, at an earlier date, than that any of the aforementioned painters, and showed a remarkable affinity to the general tenets of Art Informel. This was revealed in her choice of materials (concrete and iron), the lack of orthodox formal structures, the reduction of form to elemental mass, and a particularly forceful expressive quality. Jevrić 's appearance, as part of the Yugoslav selection for the 1958 Venice Biennale drew considerable attention from international art critics, who ranked her among the currently most relevant European sculptors of the younger generation. Olga Jevrić’s sculptures were mainly scale models, or 'Proposals for Monuments' to the victims of the [then] recent, cataclysmic war. However, owing to their lack of a clear symbolism that would be early to decipher and their consequent resistance to ideological exploitation, they were only realised on a scale that was suited to display in the studio or art gallery, rather than being developed further on a monumental scale that would be appropriate to an outdoor setting. When it comes to examining the stylistic and conceptual differences between the various protagonists of the in the Art Informel movement in Zagreb, as a whole around the second half of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, it is possible, tentatively, to discern the existence of two parallel, simultaneous, almost equally developed tendencies. This classification is not based on a qualitative assessment, so much as on a certain mentality - i.e. the way the very nature of art was perceived and the methods by which the artist sought integration into his own artistic milieu.
The first of the two tendencies was made up of painters who, within the terms of the expressions, Art Informel and lyric abstraction, maintained an affirmative and positive attitude towards the act of painting and the pictorial values of the painting, as a work of art. O. Petlevski, F. Kulmer, Š. Perić, I. Kalina and B. Dogan belonged to this tendency and were all postgraduate students from the Master Workshop of the classic figure of Croatian painting, Krsto Hegedušić and, along with him, the members of the group Mart (‘March’), founded in 1957. The painters Lj. Ivančić and A. Kinert, and the sculptors, D. Džamonja and S. Luketić, might also be said to have belonged to this tendency, for part of the time, at least, on the basis of some of the main features of their work. In the broad, linguistically diverse field of Informel painting and lyric abstraction, as well as in the area of sculpture that made use of discarded and re-used scrap metal fragments, the stance adopted by the above-mentioned artists essentially belonged to the ideology of moderate and late Modernism, which respected, rather than rejected, the pictorial and plastic features of a work of visual art; they did not venture to go beyond those features in the true spirit of Art Informel, as '(an)other art' (Un Art autre, the term launched by the Parisian critic, Michel Tapié, who also coined the term, Art Informel). On the other hand, the latter aspect of the Informel , viewed as something 'different', or 'other' was taken up on the Zagreb scene by a circle of painters, including the members of the Gorgona group, J. Vaništa, Đ. Seder, M. Jevšovar and M. Horvat, as well as some other artists close to their circle – I. Gattin and E. Feller - and one artist, V. Kristal, who was a former member of EXAT-51. Regardless of the understandable differences between the artists belonging to this second tendency within the mainstream of the Informel, they all shade in common an essentially anti-pictorial, anti-fine-art, anti-aesthetic approach; their work is conceptual rather than expressive, reductive and iconoclastic, and non-referential. In other words, it is devoid of reference to anything from the external world apart from the factuality of matter itself, replete with philosophical connotations and thus nihilistic, agnostic, and negativist. Due to the essentially anti-traditionalist features of this grouping, the critics who supported it termed it ‘the Zagreb Radical Informel'.
Ivo Gattin was the key protagonist of the Zagreb Radical Informel. as the 'other art', not only because he was the earliest representative of this artistic tendency (he completed his first paintings in the spirit of the Informel in 1956, and exhibited them individually in 1957), but above all, because of his complete conceptual maturity and extremely effective implementation of his artistic concept. Gattin executed his early paintings in dense matter as a mixture of various pigments, cement, sand, resin, wax and polish, all resulting in opaque black 'grounds' in a rectangular or, less frequently, oval format. Shortly afterwards, he would notice that such a shape, or frame, of the painting imposed a boundary to the matter, disrupting its eruptive expansion. He therefore decided to work on his painting by burning the matter applied on the coarse jute cloth (he poured petrol over it, then set it on fire), and what remained in the midst of ashes ended up as a lump of burnt matter, which was then fixed onto the support, thus giving this lump the appearance and status of an object which could only conditionally be called a painting. Owing to the irregularity of their formats, Gattin’s paintings from the early 'sixties resemble débris, reminiscent of the ruins which are left behind after a violent cataclysm. Nobody from either the Croatian or the Yugoslav art scene had until then destroyed paintings so systematically, or reduced them so drastically to their very ‘skeletons’, to their bare ‘bones’. If this is still painting, it is painting at the level of 'ground zero' - the end of it is the end of the art of painting as a procedure, and of the painting, as an aesthetic object, and what remains after Gattin’s non-painting interventions with the vehicle of the painting is matter itself, treated as a painting, or a painting treated as matter itself.
The Gorgona group (Zagreb 1959-1966) brought together several well-established and well-known figures belonging to the country's art world of the time: the painters, J. Vaništa, J. Knifer, M. Jevšovar and Đ. Seder; the sculptor, I. Kožarić; the architect, M. Horvat, who was also a painter; and three critics: Radoslav Putar, Matko Meštrović and Dimitrije Bašičević. It was within the framework of Gorgona that Bašičević was to become an artist, known by his pseudonym, Mangelos. However, not everything which brought fame and recognition to Gorgona - i.e. what they did, and how they appeared in public - can be said either to be entirely attributable to them, or identifiably linked to the concept of the group. In fact, 'Gorgona' referred mainly to their less public activities and almost secret, ‘private’ companionship and socialising; it was a matter of ‘existing’, rather than ‘acting’, as correctly stated by the historian of this group, Nena Dimitrijević. Instead of the usual means of self projection, through exhibitions of paintings or sculptures, or through the medium of art criticism, their togetherness was manifested through the publication of the anti-magazine of the same name, Gorgona, and through ‘Gorgonan' ideas and actions - in short, through ‘Gorgonan' behaviour’ that went beyond material art, or the aesthetic aesthetic object. Nena Dimitrijević described and explained the essence of this highly unusual artistic phenomenon as follows:
“Gorgona was a process of seeking spiritual and intellectual freedom, a realisation which is an end in itself. Apart from the professional obligations of creating an artistic production and the promotion of oneself and one’s colleagues in the hierarchy of the local art scene, this group of people gathered together and communicated mutually motivated only by the assumption of their spiritual fellowship and kinship. Regardless of the differences which existed between their individual creative conceptions, what united the members of Gorgona was their common dedication to the spirit of modernism, defined by the recognition of the absurd, the void and monotony as aesthetic categories, a tendency toward nihilism and metaphysical irony. Today’s point of view may deem those spiritual coordinates insufficient to determine the space of activity of an art group, but at the time of Gorgona’s formation, Yugoslav art was dominated by totally opposite criteria of values, so the vital energy of the group simmered in an opposition to the art establishment of the time.”16
In Gorgona’s case, the 'opposition to the art establishment of the time' meant deviation from the locally practised varieties of moderate Modernism which had, in the course of time, not only acquired full legitimacy in the socialist culture of post-war Yugoslavia, but had gradually also come to set the dominant spiritual and artistic tone. Anyone seeking to oppose the prevailing consensus would necessarily have to experiment with a radicalised approach to formal experiment in their artistic practice and would need to go beyond the bounds of the criteria that were currently acceptable. This radicalisation was manifested through abandoning the pictorial aesthetics of painting and plastic aesthetics of sculpture, in the name of some mental assumptions about the nature of work in these disciplines. Hence, the painting and sculpture of Gorgona’s members was reductionist, concretist, monochromatic/bichromatic, minimalist, non-illusionist, non-referential and tautological, and this explains why paintings by members of the Gorgona Group were sometimes virtually indistinguishable from work by other artists who were representative of the phenomenon of the Radical Informel, in Zagreb. When taken to extremes this led to the abandonment of painting and sculpture in exchange for 'existence' itself, as 'artistic behaviour'.
Although highly exceptional for the setting in which it emerged, without a background or roots in its own cultural heritage, Gorgona was by no means an extra-temporal or extra-historical artistic phenomenon. It appeared at a time when there had already been enough knowledge about Dada and Duchamp in the local cultural environment, and when well-informed circles were gaining insights about John Cage, Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni (Gorgona’s chief protagonists, Vaništa and Meštrović, maintained personal contacts with the last-named), and about Neo-Dada and New Realism. Owing to the very spirit of the time, Gorgona displayed considerable kinship with the mentality of Fluxus. In fact, Gorgona was a particle of the epochal Weltanschauung, marked by a mood of scepticism and doubt, as to the unbroken, progressive development of contemporary civilisation, on a sp