|Yours truly with the Stojadin that took me from Dundee, to Tallinn, then to Zagreb and back, in 2008. The 6,000 mile round trip pretty much killed it.|
In my last job, at Duncan of Jordanstone College in Dundee, I did quite a bit of preparatory research into this large topic. In recent years, there has been a steadily growing bibliography on art produced in the former Warsaw Pact countries, particularly on work done in Poland, East Germany, and the Baltic States. It may surprise readers to learn that the English language literature on art in the former Yugoslavia, is still rather slight. Of course, major figures such as Marina Abramovic, Rasa Todosijevic, and the NSK/IRWIN/Laibach grouping, all have a substantial amount written on them as individuals; there is, to my knowledge, no overarching book that provides a basic survey of art produced in this region in the last hundred or so years.
There are books- such as the fascinating Impossible Histories by Misko Suvakovic and Dubravaka Djuric, and the East Art Map, edited by the IRWIN group. Nonetheless, despite their many merits, both these books require a certain level of pre-knowledge to get the most out of them. My aim, therefore, is to write the basic survey text which will provide both specialists and the general reader alike with a really good grasp of the many complex, inter-linked and ideas-heavy art work that has appeared from this territory. Ultimately, my aim is to consider and develop "Yugoslavia" as a cultural space, rather than add to the already vast and rich literature which considers the territory in political, military and social terms.
|Banovina of Royal Yugoslavia, 1929-41|
|The Royal Yugoslav army parades in Serbia in the 1930s, with Sarplaninac dogs. Getting a dozen of these tough, strong-willed and fiercely individualistic creatures to walk in formation, and stay calm, is no mean feat.|
|Ivan Mestrovic in Zagreb, in the mid 1920s|
|Anton Azbé, Zamorka, 1895. National Gallery of Slovenia, Ljubljana|
We have to be careful, here, though, as there was never any such thing as "Yugoslav art"; i.e, a confluence of practices, styles and ideas worked on consistently by artists across the country. Throughout the existence of Yugoslavia, the individual character of artists from all the different countries was maintained. In Tito's time, certainly until the later 1960s, art produced in Yugoslavia can be described as "SHS" art; Serbia-Hrvatska-Slovenia. Ljubljana became known for graphic art, Zagreb for sculpture and so-called "naive" painting, and Belgrade for fine art painting and later installation and performance. It was only in the last twenty years or so of Socialist Yugoslavia that functioning art scenes began to coalesce in Sarajevo, Skopje, Subotica and Titograd (present day Podgorica).
|Ljubomir Micic posing in front of a Zenitist image, 1921|
In Royal Yugoslavia, the first artists identified as avant-garde included Banija's Ljubomir Micic, founder of the first avant-garde movement known as Zenitism; its fusion of Utopianism, Dadism, Futurism and a Balkan localism was Yugoslavia's first consistent connection with the European avant-gardes. Later, Zenitism's Zenit journal was proscribed by the Royal Yugoslav police, and Micic and his brother Branko Ve Poljanski were obliged to go into exile in Paris for a period. Another artist who fell foul of the intrusive royalist authorities was the Slovene constructivist and abstract artist August Cernigoj; Cernigoj's radical compositions owed much to Bauhaus and German abstraction in the 1920s, and his implicit criticism of the Belgrade authorities was taken badly. Cernigoj went on to found another avant-garde journal, Tank, which he promoted from exile in Trieste.
|Composition by August Černigoj. Černigoj Museum, Lipica, Slovenia|
The historian Vesna Drapac, in her book Constructing Yugoslavia: A Transnational History, argues that these inherent instabilities in Yugoslavia in the 20s and 30s were as much the creation of well meaning but ill informed international politicians, as they were created internally. People knew how unpleasant Yugoslavia had become, and knew how much of a mess the royal despotism was making of the country, but Alexander was known and tolerated as the only real figure Western diplomats and politicians knew could keep the country together. There was some liberalising of the regime after the assassination, and a return to negotiation between different interest groups, but government and society was never far from open conflict.
The same cannot be said of art in the 1930s. By then, strengths of academic production in the three main art cities was well advanced, with particularly strong cultural links with France. Many Serb and Croat artists spent time in the French capital, then in its last years as the unofficial "art capital of the world"; the links between France and Yugoslavia persisted in the Tito years, with the French holding the biggest ever survey of Yugoslav art mounted outside of the region; the vast Four Thousand Years of Yugoslav Art, shown in Paris in 1970.
There is not time to explain the complex, multi layered and nuanced developments in Yugoslavia during the Italo-German-Bulgarian occupation of the country during 1941-45. The young King Petar fled with his ministers to London, in May 1941, as the Germans swept aside the hopelessly out-gunned Royal army in just ten days, and Belgrade was subjected to a truly horrific mass bombing raid from the Luftwaffe. Although King Petar tried to keep a grasp of things in his kingdom from London, he was never to return. Poor leadership, the weakness of royal institutions after twenty three years of (largely) misrule, and the intriguing of politicians in Petar's circle for their own narrow ends, ensured that the monarchy was finished. After an exhausting, painful and extremely costly struggle, Josip Broz Tito emerged as new president of a Communist Yugoslavia in the second half of 1945.
|A crafty tactician. Josip Broz Tito plays chess at his Bosnian HQ during 1943-44.|
|Socialist Yugoslavia, 1945-90|
|Socialist Modernism: detail from Borko Lazeski's The National Liberation War, which was painted between 1951-56 for the railway station in Skopje. Sadly, these frescoes were destroyed in the 1963 earthquake.|
|OHO Group, Mount Triglav happening, Zvedza Park, Ljubljana, December 1968.|
At about the same time, the curator Biljana Tomic began to invite performance and process artists from all over Europe to attend her BITEF theatre and arts exhibitions in Belgrade; Josef Beuys and Michelangelo Pistoletto were amongst the artists who took part in these ambitious displays. Simultaneously, the young Marina Abramovic and Rasa Todosijevic began experimenting with performance art at the Student's Cultural Centre in the Federal capital. Abramovic's astonishing Rhythm series of performances, in which she tested her physical and mental endurance to the absolute limit, alongside Todosijevic's Decision as Art series at around the same time. Performance quickly became centrally significant to art produced in Yugoslavia in the second half of the 1970s; Braco Dimitijevic in Sarajevo; Balint Szombathy in Subotica and Novi Sad; Simon Uzunovski in Skopje; Sanja Ivekovic and others in Zagreb.
|Sanja Ivekovic, Trokut (Triangle) performance, Zagreb, 1979.|
|The former Yugoslavia in the mid-2000s. Kosovo has now declared UDI, in a move not recognised by the Serbian government, but by many countries internationally, including the US / UK.|
So, there you have it. That, in rough and broad terms, is why I'm here; researching this book, deciding how I'm going to do it, and what I'll be looking at when it comes to writing it up in quill pen, by the light of a guttering Skopje candle, in 2012. Maybe some thought that I was a bit mad leaving my job behind to come here and do all this research, but I find it utterly absorbing and compelling, and am still learning new things and hearing new perspectives on an almost daily basis. It's nice to have a happy ending, so it's worth also stating that, having taken this opportunity when it presented itself, I'm as happy as I've been in a long time.