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Davor Matičević
Identity Despite Discontinuity

The characteristics of contemporary art within a certain cultural area can be sensed or even recognized, yet they are difficult to specify by examination. This exhibition highlights the common characteristics of the work of contemporary Croatian artists rather than gives a full explanation to the nature of their art. To begin with, it must be mentioned that the artists' search for identity has been very much limited by the poor technical conditions under which they work. Thus the selection of works for the exhibition, which presents both the impacts of past events on the artists and identity preserved in spite of many an interruption, seems justified. The exhibition offers a sample of the recent production of young Croatian artists: mainly geometrizing and symbolic-metaphoric paintings, sculptures and installations. In the introduction, it is regarded necessary to provide an overview of the achievements of Croatian art which have had an effect on present day art and now help us to interpret it. Therefore the exhibition includes the works of two older artists whose thirty-year artistic activity makes a clear example of continuity (Julije Knifer has kept varying the same theme of black- and-white meanders in his paintings, while Ivan Kožarić has zealously been creating new forms and meanings without reminiscences of his earlier sculptures). In order to follow current trends in art it is important to study the nature of creation with regard to the cultural and historical context and to the piece of art itself as well.

Although it might appear awkward to take examples from distant past, it is worth remembering old Croatian architecture which is characterized primarily by simple forms, thus showing analogies with modern art. The border between the East and the West in Europe has determined construction and destruction within the Croatian cultural area, once much larger, now reduced to the metaphor and to the very shape of "a border line" (Željka Čorak). For centuries it was the stone, as building material and means of fortification, that determined the tectonics and symbolism of out-of-the-way church-fortresses, of castle- citadels and of fortified cities. Artistic influence from outside and the taste of the commissioner were decisive for the architect's work. Examples of not only architecture alone led Dr. Ljubo Karaman to the recognition: "provincial centres, influenced by great art centres, in contrast with the periphery of the art centres, did not reproduce the original in inferior forms but assimilated and modified it according to their needs." Despite its current internationalization, I believe, Karaman's statement applies to contemporary art as well. Though this statement can be challenged, or substantiated, by the authenticity of contemporary works from Croatian art centres, for these works, despite the relative isolation, poor funding and lack of patronage of contemporary Croatian art, share the same "spirit of times" with great art centres in terms of topicality and problems.


One can apply a simplified scheme for Yugoslavian art between the two world wars and label Zagreb a Constructivist centre of architecture, Ljubljana an Expressionist art centre and Belgrade a Surrealist art and literary centre (Boris Kelemen). Although few art historians have noted, it is the innovations themselves that have proved such a division valid.
The thirties are primarily marked by the Zagreb school of architecture and the works of Zlatko Neumann the colleague of Adolf Loos as well as Drago Ibler, an assistant to Le Corbusier. Owing to the activity of these people and of younger Croatian architects, a most radical Purism and Functionalism appeared in Croatia at the right time to join the mainstream, yet retain authenticity.

At the beginning of this century painters from Croatia studied painting in Munich under Hugo Habermann and the Slovene Anton Ažbe. Other painters (Josip Račić and Miroslav Kraljević as well as Vladimir Becić and Oskar Herman) achieved clear plastic forms in their highly refined works by studying classical painting, from old Spanish to nineteenth century French painting (especially Manet), in various places in Europe. A reduction of forms, the Cézannesque total purification came somewhat later with the second generation (artists of the 1919 Spring Salon: Gecan, Uzelac, Trepše, Varlaj). Djuro Tiljak and Marino Tartaglia, too worked and made their contribution to artistic innovations in the course of the second decade of the 20th century, the former a student of Kandinsky, the latter a follower of the Futurists in Rome and Florence. In the first place these artists set the standards of art in Croatia; also they stimulated a trend of traditionalism at the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb. They were joined by the internationally renowned sculptor Ivan Meštrović who abandoned his refractory Cubism and stylized Art-Deco and shifted into the Classicism of the thirties and encouraged the "Mediterranean tradition" in his students' art. In the twenties radical ideas and Modernist conceptions became interwoven in the activity of the art critic and writer Ljubomir Micić, originator of Zenithism (Zenitizam), the nucleus of which was made up of artists from Zagreb and Belgrade and of foreign artists too; the group's publication was the periodical Zenith (Zenit 1921-1926). Similar to this was the activity of Dragan Aleksić from Zagreb with his periodicals Dada and Dada Tank in 1923. After moving to Belgrade, Micić became more and more involved in politics; like Marinetti, he sympathized with totalitarianism and later had to leave his country, and moved to Paris. In this period, however, a great variety of theater performances, exhibition exchanges with other countries and the opening of a permanent exhibition in Zagreb including works by Archipenko, Sonia Delaunay, Gleizes, Gris, EI Lissitzky, Lavrinov, Larionov, Moholy-Nagy took place. From the time Vilko Gecan, Sergej Glumac, Vinko Foretić and the Slovene August Černigoj as well as the very influential Josip Seissel, and Jo Klek must be mentioned, the latter of whom, an architect and painter, was the first in Croatia to produce abstract paintings: geometric collages, followed by drawing based upon linguistic motifs and architectonics of Surrealist compositions.
In the third decade of the 20th century several Bauhaus students returned home to work, as a result of which visual arts became up-to-date and of a higher standard. Nevertheless, other artists too, made their contribution to this process (e.g. Ivana Tomljenović Meller). While cubist drawings by Romulo Venucci, a Budapest graduate from Rijeka were a unique and isolated phenomenon, students from André Lhote's school founded post-Cubism in Zagreb (Sonja Tajčević, Sava Šumanović etc.) the principles of which later served as the basis for the artistic program of the purification of forms.

Social commitment of architects, sculptors and painters in the Earth (Zemlja) group, partly modelled on "Neue Sachlichkeit", led them to the thematic application of stylized forms, to the breakthrough in architecture, and the emergence of Naive painting as an alternative to Academism. In the end the group's activity was banned by the ever more repressive regime.
During the short period between the world wars, eventful yet peaceful, the bourgeoisie painting was on the average level of post-Cubist and Expressionist painting. Art on occasions, such as the featuring of European and Russian avant-garde art in Milić's collection (which was on permanent display and open to the public), provocative happenings staged by the Earth group at their exhibitions as a demonstration against the regime, and exhibitions of foreign artists (e.g. Georg Grosz) was an exciting social event for the great public. Visual artists and writers regularly met to exchange ideas and experience, which from time to time ended up in clashes between the leftist and rightist political ciews intensified by the dictatorial regime, the assassination of King Alexander, the ensuing fescistization of the country, the German and Italian occupation, and finally by the guerrilla war. Still, while war was going on at the front, back in the country, in isolation, far from the public eye, very significant experiments in the field of art were carried out (Antun Motika's collages and works with oil, insects and frass; Vanja Radauš' series of decollages with paints; and Emanuel Vidović melancholic, serial repetition of the same motifs. [Vidović was not allowed to leave the region because he refused to display his works in Split which was under Italian occupation]).

Refusal to participate in exhibitions was an increasingly popular means of resistance among artists during and after the war; yet due to the shortness of the Cominform dictatorship forms of Social Realism were never taken over. Changes came after the break with Stalinism, with the emergence of the Exat 51 group. Its artistic program was geometric abstraction in painting, radically original handling of space in architecture, which was shown at exhibitions abroad, and, above all , abolishing the distinction between fine and applied arts. In places away from big centres, e.g. in painters' summer colony of Rovinj, artists enjoyed a freedom, which they hardly did in Zagreb. In the fifties artists tended to turn to inwardness, to Surrealism and to various personalized ways of expression, and finally to lyrical abstraction.
As Yugoslavian policy in the sixties opened for Europe, the same process was triggered off in the field of art. International and domestic , federal festivals as well as biennial and triennial shows were organized which was an important development compared to previous overall group exhibitions of artists' regional associations. The only exhibition, however, concentrating on specific artistic issues was held in Zagreb: the biennial exhibition and meeting called New Tendencies. It was organized by the art historians and art critics Božo Bek, Boris Kelemen, Radoslav Putar, Matko Meštrović and by the artists Ivan Picelj, Vjenceslav Richter, Julije Knifer, Aleksander Srnec, and later by a group of younger artists: Juraj Dobrović, Miroslav Šutej, Mladen Galić, Ljerka Šibenik and Ante Kuduz. This exhibition focused mainly on neo-Constructivism: its aim was to present the whole range of current artistic achievements, from computer graphics to environmental art, as well as the theoretical and futurological attempts at connecting new type of art and new type of society. The exhibitions, which actually took place scattered in several museums and galleries in Zagreb kept presenting the latest innovations in art from abroad; the works of many artists of international fame, eg. Otto Piene, François Morellet, Almir Mavignier, Heinz Mack, Julio le Parc, Piero Dorazio, Marc Adrian, Zdeňek Sýkora whose works are still to be seen in Zagreb museums. The last biennial exhibition was organized as late as 1977. The neo-Constructivism of New Tendencies remained a rather isolated phenomenon, however artists started adopting it some ten years later.

Its contemporary, the Zagreb-based Gorgona group, which worked on a much smaller scale is considered more influential than New Tendencies, mainly as an educator of new generations of artists. The group was composed of painters e.g. Josip Vaništa, Marijan Jevšovar, Djuro Seder, the sculptor Ivan Kožarić and the art historians and critics Radoslav Putar and Mića Bašičević as well as the painter Julije Knifer whose works are easy to misinterpret as geometric. The best critic of their art was Matko Meštrović, one of the leaders of New Tendencies. Some artists participated in the Group's activity only occasionally by displaying their works in Gorgona's exhibition hall Studio G" and by contributing to the anti journal "Gorgona", which appeared between 1961 and I966. The group worked in an existentialist, depressive and nihilistic spirit, nevertheless longed for mental renewal. Through correspondence and project exchange they maintained contacts with Fontana, Rauschenberg, Vasarely, Manzoni and Roth. "Meetings" were held in studios and in nature in order to observe things directly. They were preoccupied with the concept of the absurd within simple and seemingly displayable projects: they chose the black as their colour, sent people invitation cards for occasions that never took place, put ads in newspapers for "trivial" objects for sale, made plans for unfeasible intervention in the landscape as well as in building interiors, going as far as excluding the audience because they wanted the whole place for themselves. The use of the absurd, tautology or even land-art puts their art in the category of neo-Dadaism or proto-Conceptualism. Some members of the group were involved in Naive art (Bašičević) or in sports (Knifer). The group had no well-defined program, anything differing from the standard and belonging to the realm of free expression could be labelled as Gorgonesque. This art was of vital importance to the new generation (Miljenko Horvat, Josip Stošić and Tomislav Gotovac from Zagreb and Radomir Damnjanović from Belgrade) i.e. to those artists who worked in this tradition in the seventies thus bridging the gap between themselves and the generation of Conceptual artists from Zagreb and from Belgrade. Tomislav Gotovac' experimental actions, collages, and his first happening in 1967 can be regarded as the continuation of the poet Josip Stošić' projects, performances and conceptions. In contrast with the defeatist members of the Gorgona group, Gotovac' and Stošić' artistic radicalism seemed highly unacceptable to the authorities, consequently they soon banned it. At the end of the sixties minimal art, Pop-art and the geometrizied forms of New Tendencies appeared together with a new generation of artists. Boris Bućan, Dalibor Martinis, Jagoda Kaloper, Sanja Iveković, Davor Tomičić, Dean Jokanović, Goran Trbuljak and Gorki Žuvela. They absorbed the experience of the sixties and in the course of the seventies managed to formulate their own Conceptual thinking. This generation of artists was first of all characterized by the rebellious spirit of 1968 and by ideas about "changing the world", which later turned into disappointment, ironic detachment and critical reaction to official art they often boycotted. As an artistic innovation, they put massmedia to their use: newspapers, graphic design, posters, films, video films, photography as well as urban and social interventions were a means to express their individual observations and views. In accordance with the belief of their generation, they wanted to change the artistic, cultural and social system from within. In the short period working together with Braco Dimitrijević from Sarajevo, studying at the Art Academy in Zagreb, and Neša Paripović and Marina Abramović from Belgrade, at that time attending graduate school in Zagreb, they came up with landscape and mental interventions, which served mainly as exercises in disciplining and clarifying the concepts of projects. Due to the totalitarian invasion of culture, by the mid-seventies their activity lost much of its dynamism. This led to the artists' disillusionment, breaking up the group and leaving the country, in some cases forever; the group was never re-formed, though artists individually continued working in its spirit. As a consequence of the atmosphere in general, their art reflected an increasingly ironic and critical attitude towards artistic conventions and society, also found with Ugo la Pietra, Hans Haacke, Anette Messager, Christian Boltanski and Daniel Buren, exhibiting in Zagreb. Croatian works of this period were clearly structured and were affected or absolutely determined by the nature of the chosen medium. Some of them e.g. metaphoric narrations in video by Sanja Iveković and Dalibor Martinis, and picture-posters by Boris Bućan gained international fame in the eighties. A kind of social rebellion characterizes the markedly Expressionist works by sculptors and painters of the Biafra group from Zagreb in the early seventies, nonetheless over the years these artists started securing themselves commissions from the state. Social and cultural alternative groups comprise the second generation of Conceptual artists in Zagreb. They were simply groups of friends with literature, film or photography as a devotion bringing them together. From the many, who rebelled against leading an ordinary, everyday life, a group of angry young malcontents stood out (Vlado Martek, Mladen Stilinović, Sven Stilinović, Željko Jerman, Vlasta Delimar) stood out and protested by unconventional forms of expression at unconventional places: art actions on the main square of the city (e.g. Željko Jerman painted slogans on the pavement: "Intimate notes" and "This is not my world"), met at alternative meeting places to exchange information [e.g. discussions and exhibitions in the open studio called Podroom (podrum means cellar in Croatian), of Dalibor Martinis and Sanja Iveković], gave performances for themselves or for an occasional audience, held gatherings which they transformed into seemingly spontaneous happenings. For instance , Vlado Martek s leaflets saying "Artists, arm yourselves!" were distributed at the Venice Biennial, "Lie to the state!" was written on cookies served, and agitation posters were put on walls in a couple of towns calling people to read poets who had committed suicide. However after a while these artists stopped group shows and from the eighties on worked individually.

These years artistic trends were fairly varied: the art of the group of Conceptual artists was characterized mainly by confrontation with bourgeois morality, their main topic being the criticism of the totalitarian system; younger painters, loosely ass to them, started taking interest in Primary Painting; Boris Demur, as well as Antun Maračić and Željko Kipke, members of the "Six Artists" group, were renowned visual artists and critics an the same time; Dubravka Rakoci and Goran Petercol cultivated a somewhat isolated, individual approach to painting. These artists, together with older artists mainly from the Gorgona group (Ivan Kožarić, Julije Knifer, Dimitrije Bašičević , Radoslav Putar and Marijan Jevšovar) founded the Gallery of Extended Media in Zagreb, which became the central meeting place of "the second line of artists" (Ješa Denegri) in the eighties.


Painters could feel "released from the grip of Conceptual Art" on as late as the end of the seventies. The transition to pluralism in art which took place in the course of the eighties had three main sources:
- painting and sculpture of New Image, including new ways of š expression and a new sensitivity towards intimity and symbolism;
- - various individual approaches to and explorations of elementary painting and sculpture, which concentrates on essence and meaning in the work;
- - Conceptual Art, inclining towards ever more materialized forms including the specific case of films and cartoons.

In this hectic decade different -isms and phenomena took root parallely and influenced each other in Croatia, like anywhere in Europe. New forms appeared within the traditional media art involved more people than before which made some analysts think that the transition in the eighties and the return to the pictorial medium constitutes a turning-point of much greater significance than that of 1968 71, which had augurated Conceptual Art. In contrast with this , radical theorists regarded it as a mere materialization of the almost ten- year-old Conceptualist ideas in painting and sculpture. However one should not insist that all this took place only in the eighties, for some critics as early as in the mid-seventies noted that several of the older Croatian artists had turned again towards painting. For instance, Ferdinand Kulmer adopted the contemporary European experience, Djuro Seder brought significant changes into twentieth century Croatian painting, and the sculptor Ivan Kožarić performed a careful examination of his own artistic past and reformulated his artistic credo. At the same time Dimitrije Bašičević organized the "Confrontations" exhibition which juxtaposed the various avant-garde and traditional approaches to art and compared their value and significance.

By the mid-eighties, major innovations in painting and partly in sculpture were accomplished. Disappointed young artists, notwithstanding the awards they won, did not see any prospects for themselves and left the country (Vesna Popržan, Damir Sokić, Nina Ivančić for New York; Milivoj Bijelić for Düsseldorf; Marina Ercegović, Mirna Krešić and Boro Ivandić for Paris; Zvjezdana Fio and Dušan Minovski for Vienna). The sources of these artists were miscellaneous, ranging from free imagination based on Latin American literature and rock music and personal sensuality as well as internal frustrations and an overall view on the world, and their artistic achievement was uneven. Due to their emigration, their art remained incomplete and they are lost to Croatian culture. Their works are a combination of symbolic figuration and abstract individualized symbols in painting and in sculpture, characterized by spontaneous plastic expression, by an awareness of the significance of painting process itself and by imaginative journeys outside this world of art. Ante Rašić , Željio Kipke and Boris Bućan in their spatial compositions still go along these lines in the beginning of the nineties.

In contrast to New Image, acceptance of the primacy of the painting process, i.e. painting per se, the interest in the essence of the process, in the expansion and individualization of artistic programs rather than in expression - the same with sculpture of Primary Process- went on rather slowly. However, the phenomenon was only of secondary importance as opposed to the creative study and the attempt at coming over the limits of artistic creation (Goran Petercol, Dubravka Rakoci). The theme of a painting became its structure (Edita Schubert and Boris Demur). The resistance of the material and the artist's intervention resulted in a clash, or in a new kind of harmony (Slavomir Drinković; the object without title by Dušan Jurić and Vesna Pokas' installation of illusions and dematerialization achieved by means of light). These works came up with the old type of metaphors as a result of abstract thinking. The aim was not figuration any more, but a new meta-language with symbolic interpretation.

Conceptual work became narrative or explicative for they created a new tension through contact with imaginative forms of works (Mladen Stilinović, Vlado Martek) of video installations and video art (Dalibor Martinis, Sanja Iveković, Breda Beban and Hrovje Horvatić). The structure of a piece of art became the basis of its creation. Reduced expression, together with a kind of restraint - a later development in art- prove the complex origination and manifold meaning of the work. Such complexity became the starting point of creation for the artists of the end of the eighties. By then artists affected one another's art considerably, generally they held the view that only the personal, direct experience of reality enabled the artist to entwine the materialization of reality and the mental impact reality had on the artist and put it into a piece of art (Đorđe Jandrić and Krunoslav Stipešević).

Younger artists from the late eighties having lost interest in looking upon the world from an ironic stance tended to abandon communicative art and turned to individualization. Older artists, however, felt increasingly uncomfortable which was caused by what they experienced around themselves and the disillusionment in eternal youth. They dreamt about a better world and their individual mythologies turned into restrained, sometimes absolutely isolated creativity.
Nevertheless, younger artists still had constructive ideas and a zeal to find new ways of putting together elements of different structuring principles or the different media, such as photography or video and sculpture. The mere presence of geometry and forms do not indicate the birth of a kind of neo- Constructivism, although experiments with high-tech art is not far from it in terms of themes and aesthetics. The signs of a shift towards neo- Geometry appear together with the Deconstructionist principles when artists unite "wholes" in their object-installations. The paraphrase of everyday objects equated the importance of meaning and of the mental process to that of the creation process. Contrasting opposites and differences, the objects draw the viewer's attention to the artist's main concern: man is lost in time. Still, compact and clearly defined works of the youngest artists evidence that a new generation of artists for the nineties is emerging with an inclination towards general problems and full-scale innovations, where art makes a good use of high-tech and deals with themes of sci-fi.


Clear plastic forms in contemporary Croatian art, originating in Geometrism can be traced back several decades, and much longer in European Rationalism and Mediterranean Purism. New Tendencies with neo-Constructivist elements in its art is a milestone in Croatian culture. However, various artistic phenomena that reappear cyclically, contain the elements of a symbolic-metaphysical artistic language. The activity of the Gorgona group, first of all Knifer and Kožarić, are also of extreme significance. Their indirect education of younger artists contributed to the forming of an artistically very conscious generation, the members of which arrived to a highly individual way of doing art: creative renouncement (Jevšovar); escape into the reality of memory (Vaništa); assembling opposites into a whole (Bašičević); and putting gestures and feelings into painterly expression (Seder). Petercol, Rakoci, Stipešević, Martek, Kipke, Gudac, and Bućan follow them on these tracks. Not only visual artists, but other people involved in art at that, time contributed to the development in Croatian art.

In the artistic climate was marked by openness and explicitness as well as making Zagreb a centre of authentic art, notwithstanding a certain isolation and problems with funding. Cultural events of the time - festivals of avant-garde and contemporary music (still held), the foundation of the School of Animation in Zagreb (dealing with reduced animation to overcome the difficulties produced by miserable circumstances, which in turn became an element in the artists' work) and student theatre festivals in the late eighties (nowadays revived by guest performances of American and European groups) as well as festivals of contemporary dance and international exhibition of graphic design - have created favourable conditions for present day art. Today many of the obstacles to freedom in art have vanished and many of the old stereotypes, such as differentiating between artistic centre and periphery and regarding Croatia as a place of provincial art, have disappeared.

While the "multicoloured Zagreb school of painting", examples of which were displayed a the Millennium exhibition in Budapest one hundred years ago, elaborated a simple and unified code of art, a diversity of approaches as well as individual conceptions leads us to the recognition of a much broader and general category: creation. This category has been valid over the centuries for the clear, reduced architectural forms and it might prove to be of greater importance than Renaissance painting or the organization of forms so typical for western art. However, besides common characteristics, particular artists with their individual arts are very much constitutes to Croatian art. Working in isolation, they made their greatest achievements in sadness and sorrow, believing that they were only free in art. They loved and hated their country; tied to it, yet refusing to identify themselves with it, for them and for us "this territory has become our destiny" (Prof. Vera Horvat Pintarić).

Written during air-raids in Zagreb, October 1991

Translated by Vera Horvat Pintarić

Received on 2003-06-30


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