apexart :: Conference Program :: Ana Devic

Conference in Rio de Janiero, Brazil - July 2001

Reception of Modernism Within the Context of Croatian Art Since the 1950's
by Ana Devic

Close connectives of culture and ideology that had shaped complex cultural situation of 1950's and 60's in socialist Yugoslavia is much defined by specific geo-political context. By focusing on certain phenomena within Croatian art in the 50's and 60's, within mainstream art production one can follow how art indirectly reflects ideological and political trends, while stressing certain artistic phenomena that took place at the social margins of the time, continuity and relevancy of alternative and non-institutional ways of art production are to be pointed out.

Political and cultural context of the 50's in ex-Yugoslavia was marked by numerous controversies and contradictions.1

Since 1948 when Yugoslavia broke apart with the politics of the USSR and moved away from its domination, one can trace parallel processes of de-Stalinization of the country and a "discreet" inclining to the West. In the context of visual art, this trend is visible first of all in the decline of doctrinaire praxis of soc-realism, which was gradually replaced by modernistic style - especially with affirmation of abstract art that strongly characterizes 50's and 60's.2 The newly established political identity of Yugoslavia emanated a picture of seemingly "neutral" and "open" socialist country that balances between the two political blocks, and whose position had been additionally confirmed by intensifying political movement of so-called non-alignment - mostly countries of the Third World Ü where Yugoslavia was very actively participating. Although the relation of communist state apparatus toward modernism was not spared of inner conflicts and was not homogenous in different republics of Yugoslavia during the two decades, the 50's and 60's, with gradual acceptance of abstract art, the official promotion of modernistic visual language as the representative form also took place.3 Soc-realism in visual arts actually lasted for quite a short period, from 1945 to 1950, and its basic task was to affirm optimistic vision of after-war renewal of the country. Within the context of "democratization of arts", which started in 1950 in Yugoslavia, the role that abstract art had played in its geometric, lyrical and expressionistic variants, proved to be of key importance, but also ambivalent -abstract tendencies were not isolated occurrences but a broader phenomenon that on the one hand was evidently institutionally supported and presented, while its questionable reception actually proved useful by supporting its status of something of the controversy, so polemics supplied this visual language with some kind of highly relevant and critical status.

Although the affirmation of abstract art during the 50's in Yugoslavia took place under the wing of socialist state, this phenomenon was not that paradoxical when seen from the perspective of exploration of context of cultural-diplomatic promotion of abstract expressionism painting in Europe during the cold war, performed under USA government.4

In Yugoslav context this process reflects political changes and acceptance of abstractionism as visionary image of optimistic and conscious cultural renewal that was generally present in post-war Europe, In Yugoslavia this process was more drastically visible because direct optimism of soc-realistic figural vision had been replaced by more subtle modernistic version of "optimism".

Within the republics of former Yugoslavia, Croatia and Zagreb as its capital and main cultural center, were important factors in above-mentioned events. It is important to stress the generally ambivalent position of art production at the margins of European cultural space. On the one hand, there is the phenomenon of being relatively late after leading modernist trends in the first half of the 20th century, that resulted in mixing and cross-over styles, and indirectly mediated ideas (that came to Croatia mainly over German speaking countries and Italy). On the other hand, marginal authorial positions that were not officially supported, in late 50's and in the 60's, resulted in extremely interesting avant-garde achievements that in many ways had anticipated the production of the whole decade to come, but at the time of its making and activity stayed completely isolated in local context as a marginal phenomenon, while in international context they were either completely unknown or insufficiently and irregularly presented and documented.

I The beginning of 50's: Exat 51, Edo Murtic

The year of 1951 is very important for the introduction of new tendencies. It is the year when the artistic group EXAT 51 has been established in Zagreb, and also the year when painter Edo Murtic went on a study trip in USA and Canada, where he stayed until 1953, when he returns to Yugoslavia. In that period, a gradual opening of cultural space took place, so for example, Yugoslavia started to participate again at the Venice Biennial. At the central meeting of Association of visual artists of applied arts of Croatia in 1951, the manifesto of group EXAT 51 had been read publicly. Their manifesto is inspired by ideas of Russian constructivism, neo-plasticity, Bauhaus, and De Stijl. Direct parallels could be drawn in ideas such as synthesis of arts, architecture and design that should completely encompass and improve the praxis of daily and social life. The members of the Group Exat 51 were mostly painters and architects - Vjenceslav Richter, Aleksandar Srnec, Bozidar Rasica, Ivan Picelj and Vlado Kristl. Their manifesto is composed of carefully composed theses that promote socially engaged art in an attempt to creatively take down the dogmatic soc-realism and to replace it with totality of modernistic synthesis. The profile and objectives of group EXAT 51 might be perceived in the broader context of post-war questioning of artistic heritage of the first half of the century, but it was not only about sheer reminiscence but also about very urgent need to form new public myth. Many similar tendencies and artistic attempts were happening in Europe.5 One can mention here just slightly earlier movements in Italy, such as Forma Uno (Rome, 1947), Movimento arte concreta (Milan, 1948), Arte d'oggy (Florence 1950), with whom the members of Exat 51 had no contact whatsoever. More direct parallels might be drawn between group Espace, formed in 1951 that under intellectual guidance of Le Corbusier promoted the idea of synthesis of arts, but Exat 51 came to know its activity only in 1952 when they exhibited at Salon des Realites Nouvelles in Paris, manifestation that promoted abstract art.6 This possible correspondences points toward the fact that the ideas developed by members of Exat 51 fit into a broader art praxis of great artistic synthesis that is supposed to encompass the totality of life. In that context it is important to stress that Exat did not succeed in realization of their synthetic projects, as well as the fact that the group exhibited in Zagreb for the first time only in 1953, two years after it had been established.

A question is still open: was the promoting the tradition of Russian constructivism somehow strange in the political climate of breaking apart with USSR?7

One of the parallel beginnings of the new period is connected to state-funded stay of the painter Edo Murtic in USA and Canada in the period between 1951 and 1953. His leaving Yugoslavia was not without ideological connotations, and the painterly series "Impressions of America" he produced while on that study trip had been displayed immediately after his return, first in Belgrade and then in Zagreb, before the first exhibition of the group Exat 51.8 Expressive figurative colorist painterly series is mostly composed of vistas of American, New York cityscape, with tender indications of abstract thinking that in his later work was visible in his abstract lyrical paintings and in abstract expressionism. Although the exhibition of Edo Murtic was presented as controversial and it had provoked various reactions, it turned Croatian painting back to the European modernism publicly and in grand style, and symbolically broke apart with soc-realism once and forever. The background of the exhibition "Impressions of America" was an important political event of historical denouncing the theory of soc-realism, and spreading the idea of freedom in socialism. Although in painterly sense we cannot talk about the introduction of abstract expressionism, but certain abstraction of forms and signs of "new expression" of lyrical abstractionism and abstract expressionism are clearly visible. The series "Impressions of America" was accepted as a new and non-compromised artistic experiment and bold breaking with the tradition, and political dimension of such a project became clear only after a significant time had elapsed.9

II The end of 1950's and 1960's: The art as the way of existence
Gorgona and Tomislav Gotovac

At the end of 1950 many young painters emerged, who accepted informel, action painting, abstract expressionism, lyrical abstractionism, and it resulted in significant production and basically local variations of different styles. At the time when several different concepts of art existed simultaneously in Yugoslav cultural life, from the end of 50's one can also trace the positioning of several highly individual artistic positions characterized by non-institutional activity and opposition toward the system of confirmed social values. Artistic activities of the artistic group Gorgona, as well as performing activities and experimental films by multimedia artist Tomislav Gotovac, redefined the praxis of art presentation and radically moved away from white cube concept, acting directly in public, social and media space. Apart from dematerialization of artwork as separate object, we can also trace the affirmation of everyday life as the motive, and intersecting of the sphere of art with the sphere of life.

From 1959 to 1966 a group of visual artists and intellectuals called Gorgona was active in Zagreb. The members were painters Josip Vanista, Marijan Jevsovar, Julije Knifer and Duro Seder; sculptor Ivan Kozaric, architect Miljenko Horvat and art historians Dimitrije Basicevic, Matko Mestrovic and Radoslav Putar. There is no manifesto, program or aesthetic and ideological concept of the group, but the members were kept together by the proximity of their intellectual and human positions. Although the members were mainly painters it was not a painterly group, and within the group there was a very clear creative autonomy of its members, and also a common "sprit of gorgonism".10 The way of their activity had nothing in common with usual artistic groups, and their non-formal activity was one of the reasons why Gorgona had been non-documented for such a long time. The Group was initiated by Josip Vanista, in 1961. He tried to define the Group as a contradictory anti-artistic process. "Gorgona is serious and simple. Gorgona is for absolute transience in art. Gorgona seeks neither work nor a result in art. It judges according to situation. Gorgona is contradictory; it defines itself as the sum of all its possible definitions. Gorgona is constantly in doubt. Valuing most that which is dead. Gorgona speaks of nothing. Undefined and undetermined."11 Gorgona was first and foremost the process of search after spiritual and intellectual freedom; searching itself was the aim of the search. Gorgona affirmed absurd, emptiness, monotony as aesthetic category, nihilism, metaphysical irony, and its nature might be compared to the poetics of Fluxus or neo-dada.12 Gorgona's activities were actually the following: exhibition in the gallery Studio G, Gorgona publication, and numerous art concepts, projects, various ways of artistic communication that established correspondence and contacts with numerous international artists. Publishing 11 anti-magazines Gorgona, plus two unrealized issues, in the period between 1961 and 1966 is one of the most important projects of the group, and in certain way it anticipates the "artist book" common in the late 60's. Every issue of the anti-magazine offered complete creative artistic solution. Anti-magazine Gorgona was well distributed, and artists like Manzoni, Rauschenberg, Fontana or Rota collaborated with Gorgona during the first half of the 60's. In Gorgona praxis, a dematerialization of the artwork, an active use of the language, a specific way of mail and utopian concepts played an important role. Gorgona meetings were often held in the form of the walk on the outskirts of Zagreb, and the meaning of these walks might have been anything from watching the sunset together to so-called "committee inspection of the beginning of spring", that mocked the absurdity of certain socialist principles. "Exhibition without the exhibition" of Josip Vanista from 1964 represents one of the most radical acts by Gorgona when Vanista, instead of exhibiting artistic objects, wrote precise descriptions of each painting.

Although the members were not on social margins, Gorgona's activities mainly happened in anonymity, without any prospects of their work ever being accepted and recognized. They found many coincidences, similarities and support for their intentions in their correspondence with international artists. After 1966 the Gorgona suffered the crisis, the last anti-magazine was issued, and although the artists stayed in contact, the group had gradually stopped its activities. Identifying life and art, announced in Gorgona work, is the key concept for understanding the work of Tomislav Gotovac. He started working in late 50's when he made first photographic works, and at the beginning of 60's he produced collages, performances and films. As the author of numerous experimental-documentary films dating from early 60's and of numerous radical performances, Tomislav Gotovac is the key figure of the period. His early structuralist films positioned him alongside experimental film authors like Kubelka, Snow or Frampton.13 As a performer, Gotovac uses his own body and always act in the Ich-form. His earliest actions are based on registering everyday acts: "The action of taking 120 pills" in 1957, "Breathing the Air" or "Showing the Elle Magazine" from 1962 transposed the everyday into the public space and thus transformed the common daily rhythm into something of the spectacle. In Belgrade in 1964 Gotovac performed three actions and made three avant-garde films in relations to them: "Direction (Stevens -Duke)", "Circle (Joutkevic -Count)" and film "Blue Rider (Godard -Art)". Between 1962 and 1964 he was engaged with experimental and structuralist film: "Number 1", "The morning of the fauns"; "Circle" "Direction", "I Feel Good" and "Where Do We Go, Do Not Ask", which announced his later use of socialist symbols in his work.

The author's speech is characteristic for Gotovac, he is an individual who works independently of any artistic associations, groups or art institutions. He stepped into public space directly; radically connecting confronted categories of private and public. His work can be described as performance art in its broadest sense, and his activity can be described as a global set-up that includes unmasking of political manipulations. The main material and point of departure of his work are uncovering the politics of everyday and reinterpreting historical political facts, as well as his personality. The series of tautological performances after "Showing the Elle Magazine" in 1962 had been continued by actions such as "Watching the TV", "Listening to Radio", while in the 80's it would be expanded by actions like "Cleaning the City" from 1980, or "Begging for Money" and "Selling the Newspapers".

As a film director, Gotovac is aware of political power of film as the medium and in all his work, no matter in which media, he always uses precise procedures of film directing, appropriating political contents, public space as the location of realization, quotes and homages to other artists. Gotovac is a socially engaged performer and his performances are strong, minutely arranged structures. The concept of homage to other artists is so prominent in the work of Tomislav Gotovac that his almost every work bears elements of references and dedications to other artists who make certain pantheon of Gotovac. He often appropriates the music or sound record but he does not use the language of other authors, but in certain manner he absorbs their artistic charisma. Performance "Streaking" done on the streets of Belgrade in 1971 consisted of the artist running naked, and documentation of that action, and of actions "Hair-cutting and Shaving" and "Red Star on the forehead" are inserted in a film by Lazar Stojanovi*, "Plastic Jesus", that was prohibited for decades and its authors were sanctioned, mostly because of the documentary material where Josip Broz Tito took part. Film as a strong political means was more severe censored that visual arts, but this also points toward the shift toward more conservative views in the politics and culture, that will in the 70's result in the national movements in certain republics of former Yugoslavia, while the suffocation and prohibition of these movements proved very important in the process of falling apart of Yugoslavia in the 90's.

At the end of 70's Gotovac produced avant-garde film Glenn Miller (School Playground I), to whom Gotovac dedicated many of his performances. Many performances include the artist being naked in the public space, like "Action 100", from 1979 and "Laying Naked on the Asphalt and Kissing the Asphalt, Zagreb, I Love You" from 1981. One of the main problems that Gotovac had been dealing with is freedom of the individual in given space-time framework. Identifying life and art is also clear in the fact that Gotovac defines each decade of his life as art movement: 1956 -1967 Employment action, 1967 -1976 Art education action, 1976 -1986 Hair-cutting and shaving action, and the most important decade started in 1986 with the action Paranoia View Art (The art of paranoid view to the world) that forms a framework, a construct, a worldview that through a paranoid optic seeks to reinterpret political events, to position them within cause-and-consequence relations and to deconstruct the manipulation. "Everything is in supporting or negating the paranoia," says Gotovac. Paranoia View Art includes clear references to camp, kitsch, soc-realism, communism, torture, cliché, minimalism, irony, S/M, Hollywood, film and the term "directed by". In many of his performances Gotovac uses strong iconography of these terms, and he did the whole series of homage to J.B. Tito. His relation to American culture and fascination with American cinematography is quite specific. Although he did not travel to USA until middle 90's, he declared himself American artist active in Zagreb.

Shifting from direct soc-realism to a subtler modernist manner actually drastically changes the way of representation of the ideology that suggested the illusion of art not related to ideology. In the period since 1950's there was no system of official censorship, but the idea of being politically appropriate was very strong, although never consequently implemented. Generally speaking, censorship was much harder on film and literature, especially during the 70's, than on visual arts, since film and literature were generally considered more powerful means of influencing. During the 70's, in political life conservative currents were prevailing, and visual arts turned toward innovative art practices, a decade before announced in the work of Gorgona group and Tomislav Gotovac. The paradox lies in the relative artistic freedoms at the margins, and generally more conservative, centralist state politics, repression and economic problems. Although the art practice of the 70's was generated in an interaction with the social context, and was often realized in public, external spaces, it was despite this active on the social margin, which allowed a critical-polemical attitude toward the political system in the art expression.

From the 50's, in the context of ex-Yugoslavia, the connection between ideology and art institutions that affirm and articulate artistic production that wasn't homogeneous or without internal conflicts has been transparent in the reaffirmation of modernism.

The question arises why official art system of the 50's, that functioned in direct ideological connection to state apparatus, pushed in the background Exat 51, and why its reception in broader public was complicated? Integration of art in all elements of society and ideas of Exat 51 were clearly calling for certain Žlan vital that was supposed to happen in the state and its art production, and that could not be realized without support of the society. Their activity ended in the illusions of social utopias, while basically traditional manner of Edo Murtic, colored by the visions of America, was promoted as aesthetic and spiritual renewal. The act of such affirmation of the term of "artistic freedom" is clearly political. Since 1960's the members of Exat 51 initiated the manifestation called New Tendencies, that to certain extent had carried on the ideas of Exat, very prominent in the new context of 60's, turned toward kinetic and optical art. New tendencies were very important for their gradual internationalization of local artistic context, and also for introducing new media to the generation of artist that will be intensively turned to new media in the 70's. The praxis of Gorgona group also implicitly included the critique of traditional concept of art as an institution, and their group is total inversion of the group concept of Exat 51 that seeks totality of art. By affirming that which is ephemeral and everyday, by using published forms, language and mail, Gorgona opposed ideas of modernism as bastion of Art in the new society. In certain ways Gorgona anticipated 70's and post-object and conceptual art, and in spiritual sense was close to Fluxus.

Gorgona group was marginalized by local politics, so it was not perceived as important phenomenon or real subversive threat that could mock the political system. Gorgona was not recognized at the time of its activities, although their early and autonomous activity in this part of the Europe is quite distinguished. Valorization of their work and its reception had started actually quite recently, and in local context their work is mostly orally transmitted. Gorgona was a way of life and intellectual activity, and their characteristic black humor and irony will be very important for the artists of the next generation. By evoking the segment of the work by Tomislav Gotovac from the 80's, it is pointed out further processes of relations between art and ideology, initiated in the decades that preceded it. However, the 1980's was the decade of slow disintegration of the communist regime, and this process is clear in art as confrontations and simulations of the system. In his work Gotovac interprets Yugoslavia as artistic phenomenon, and Party, president Tito and political regimes he perceives as well directed project. "The whole history of Yugoslavia has been directed by our Leader, dead for ten years. Maybe he was a great actor himself, and it was not clear if the project of Yugoslavia was just a sequence or the whole feature" Ü said Gotovac at the end of 80's. The strategy of appropriating the language of the ideology in order to unveil it has not been an isolated phenomenon on the art scene, and it was best exemplified by the slogan of the Slovenian art group Neue Slowenische Kunst: "Every art is the subject of the manipulation, unless it uses the language of the political manipulation itself." So, the very process of the art production of the language of the political system as the instrument of the manipulation was the point of the controversial relationship of the art and the ideology.

1. In the local context, this topic is still not absolved. In addition to analysis and revalorization of the local tradition, certain steps were made towards the context of the art heritage on international conference "Art and Ideology of 1950's" which was organized in Zagreb 1999 by the Institute for Art History.
2. Igor Zabel, among others, was dealing with the social affirmation of the abstract art and state. Zabel, Igor: "Art and State: From Modernism to Retroavangarde", contribution at the conference "Art and Ideology of 1950's", Zagreb, 1999
3. ibid.
4. The subject has been elaborated by Eva Cocroft, Max Kozloff, Michael Leja.
5. The EXAT 51 activities in the context of the 1950's was analyzed and revaluated (among others) by Jesa Denegri and Liljana Kolesnik. Denegri, Jesa: "EXAT 51 within Local and International Context", contribution at the conference "Art and Ideology of 1950's", Zagreb, 1999; Kolesnik, Ljiljana: "Critical Reception of Geometrical Abstraction within Croatian Art of 1950's", contribution at the conference "Art and Ideology of 1950's", Zagreb, 1999
6. Denegri, Jesa: "EXAT 51 within Local and International Context", contribution at the conference "Art and Ideology of 1950's", Zagreb, 1999
7. Valusek, Berislav, contribution at the conference "Art and Ideology of 1950's", Zagreb, 1999
8. ibid.
9. Political dimension of this project was analyzed by some participants (among others, Jesa Denegri, Berislav Valusek), conference "Art and Ideology of 1950's", Zagreb, 1999
10. Dimitrijevic, Nena: "The Art as Way of Existence", catalogue, Gallery of Contemporary Art, Zagreb, 1977
11. Vanista, Josip, member of the Gorgona group, Zagreb, 1961
12. Dimitrijevic, Nena: "The Art as Way of Existence", catalogue, Gallery of Contemporary Art, Zagreb, 1977
13. Hrvoje Turkovic analyzed and put in the context cinematographic works of Tomislav Gotovac in the basic artist's documentation of the SCCA Institute for Contemporary Art in Zagreb. Turkovic, Hrvoje; "Tomislav Gotovac: Observing as participating", SCCA, Zagreb.

©2001 Ana Devic

The author is grateful to being able to use documentation of SCCA Institute for Contemporary Art, Zagreb and documentation materials of conference "Art and Ideology of 1950's", organized by the Institute for Art History, Zagreb, 1999.