Sunday, 11 September 2011

Art Before, During and After Yugoslavia

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.
Such is the rather ponderous (provisional) title of the book that I am currently researching in these parts. Casual visitors to this blog may have assumed that I was just another rootless "gap yah" type tooling around inconsequentially in Central and Eastern Europe; in fact, now that the holiday period is over, the whole motivation of my journey is working towards being in a position to produce a substantial tonnage of highly explosive verbiage on this subject, in the next year.

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
 Yugoslavia first appeared on a map in late 1918, titled as "The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes". The idea of a united Yugoslav state first originated in a group of poets, folk writers and administrators in nineteenth century Croatia, known as the "Illyrians"; individuals such as Ludovit Gaj and Josip Juraj Stossmayer, amongst others, spent much of their active lives arguing for a common Slavic territory, as a means of defending and distinguishing the national minorities in hat was then Austria-Hungary. Further south, the constant to-ing and fro-ing between Austrians, Serbs, Macedonians and Turks kept the south of what was to become Yugoslavia in a constant, febrile, tense state; by this time, Ottoman influence was waning substantially, and in the two Balkan wars Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey squabbled over Macedonian territory; the border between Austro-Hungarian interests, in Bosnia, and Serbia, became heated at various periods.

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.
 To cut a long story short, the new Kingdom emerged as a result of the Versailles treaty in 1918-19, based partly on the Wilsonian of self-determination for the national minorities who had desired independence from pre-war Austria-Hungary and Tsarist Russia. Of course, this was a principle selectively applied; the new state was to have its capital in Serbia, and be overseen by the Serb Karadjordjevic dynasty. This situation came about as a "reward" for Serbia's conduct in the 1914-18 conflict, when substantial parts of the country were left in ruins, and 775, 000 soldiers and civilians lost their lives. In Western Europe, there was considerable sympathy for the plight of the "gallant Serbs"; some historians have argued that the twentieth century myth of Serbian military strength derived from the tragic losses in the first war.

Ivan Mestrovic in Zagreb, in the mid 1920s
In London, oddly enough, sympathy for the Serbs in part spurred on two very well received exhibitions, at the V&A, by the Croat sculptor Ivan Mestrovic. Mestrovic, whose work today can be seen all over the former Yugoslavia, was seen by many as an equal to Rodin in the 1920s and 1930s, although he was kept so busy by public commissions in the new Yugoslavia that many folk in Britain lost sight of him after this period. No fewer than four books and catalogues were published on Mestrovic in London, between 1918 and 1933.

Anton Azbé, Zamorka, 1895. National Gallery of Slovenia, Ljubljana
 Mestrovic was however a rarity in this period, being a Yugoslav artist who exhibited extensively abroad. In Austro-Hungarian times, artists from Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina tended to aim for Vienna, or in some cases Munich; the most influential painter was the Slovene portraitist and academic Anton Azbé, who established a private school in Munich and numbered Wassily Kandinsky amongst his pupils. The academy in Belgrade, particularly strong in painting, accounted for most Serbian, Montenegrin, and Macedonian students, although artists from what would be Yugoslavia also studied in Romania and Greece. The emergence of a new state in the 1920s necessitated the construction of the new cultural space that would become Yugoslavia and, by definition, the emergence of the first avowedly Yugoslav avant-gardes.

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
Alexander Karadjordjevic's new kingdom quickly became an unpleasant and repressive despotism, with his subjects enduring a near-Tsarist level of intrusion from his political police. A constant refrain in the politics of early Yugoslavia was a battle for influence between Serbs and Croats. The ghastly murder of Stjepan Radic, leader of the Croat Peasant Party, at the Parliament in Belgrade, by a Montenegrin deputy, in 1928, showed how far attempts at negotiation and equal sharing of power had broken down. King Alexander's response was to "abolish" the Yugoslav nationalities, establish an entirely artificial series of new banovina (Governorships), and take an authoritarian grip of the country at the expense of the democratically elected parliament. This poor decision making and increasing repression led almost directly to the murder of King Alexander,  along with the French Foreign Minister, during a state visit to Marseilles in 1934. The murder was arranged by Ante Pavelic, a Croatian Nazi, who was subsequently given shelter by Mussolini, having been funded directly by the Italian dictator for a number of years.

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.
Tito, an extremely astute and capable military leader and politician, was never really that interested in art. He and his advisers were, however, interested in the effect that art could have in binding the population closer to his regime. (A Croat artist I met a few years ago spent almost his entire military service with the JNA painting portraits of Comrade Tito, at the orders of the regimental colonel). Immediately after the war, Yugoslavia went through a brief Stalinist phase until 1948; as the critic Branco Dimitrijevic points out, the few instances of "socialist realism" produced in Yugoslavia date from these years.

Socialist Yugoslavia, 1945-90
 Dramatically, in 1948, Tito and the Yugoslav Communists had a major disagreement with Stalin, and the party and the country were expelled from the COMINFORM, entering a period of fraught and dangerous isolation that endured until the middle 1950s. The point of mentioning this period of dispute- known here as the Informbiro period- is that it shaped fundamentally the post-war Yugoslav cultural space. Overtures were made to the West, who for their own reasons were delighted to establish closer relations with a Communist country. A quite unique cultural exchange was established between Yugoslavia and the Western cultural world, with major exhibitions of contemporary Dutch, French, and American contemporary art touring the country in the early 1950s. In no other country in the Communist world would an exhibition of American abstract expressionism been possible in the 1950s.

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.
The Communist regime devolved most cultural powers to the level of the government of individual republics- each republic had its own cultural apparatus and Union of Artists. Exhibition spaces and opportunities were rolled out extensively from the late 1940s onward; it seems logical to point out that the basis for cultural production in the contemporary ex-Yugoslavia dates from the Titoist period (indeed, in Macedonia, little seems to have changed as regards how art is funded, with the exception of the money available). A new style of so-called "socialist modernism" emerged across the region; an art that was allowed to experiment with the forms and ideas of the Western avant-garde, as long as the political content of the work was acceptable. "Socialist Modernism" was important across the visual arts, with resistance to this compromise between party and visual culture only beginning to come into question in the later 1960s.

OHO Group, Mount Triglav happening, Zvedza Park, Ljubljana, December 1968.
In the later 1960s, artists experimenting with new forms of production- performance, installation, process art, reism, happenings- began to appear as a challenge to the Socialist Modernist consensus. one of the more notable examples was the staged happening by the Slovene group OHO in a Ljubljana park; in a performance entitled "Mount Triglav", the three members gently alluded to a separate Slovene identity, and were arrested for their pains- although later released without charge. Manifestations of national separateness were one of the few things strictly forbidden in art, as well as in all other aspects of life, during the Tito years.

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.
Tito died in May 1980, and, with hindsight, the death of Yugoslavia was on a timer from that very moment. What was true politically did not hold culturally, however. In the 1980s, the notions of post-modernism and trans-avant-gardism became central in the cultures across Yugoslavia. Artists such as Goran Djordjevic, a.k.a. "The Kazimir Malevich of Belgrade", and the artists group IRWIN, growing out of a very strong and fertile counter-culture in Ljubljana, were the best examples: IRWIN, in particular, had developed a high profile European practice, and were almost uniquely well placed to survive the collapse of the Communist state, and of Yugoslavia itself, during 1990-91.

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.
 The events of the past twenty years have been covered in exhaustive detail, from all conceivable points of view, so I don't want to dwell on them too much if possible in this mini-dissertation of a post (those needing to refresh their memories on what happened should watch the BBC series The Death of Yugoslavia on youtube). The final part of my book will focus on what became of art production in the two decades following the break up of the Yugoslav federation. In many ways, the "variable geometry" of the Socialist Yugoslav art world has persisted, but formalised as the independent art structures of many new republics. My aim will be to concentrate not only on the vastly differing experiences of the former Yugoslav republics, but also to say something about the "Yugoslav diaspora" of artists working abroad, and to base my writing on the showing this year of the former member countries at the Venice biennale. Interestingly, I shall also consider the very real evidence of the persistence of a Yugoslav cultural space, at variance with the irreversible socio-political decisions that have led to the death of the federation; and, also, artistic play with the notion of "Yugonostalgia" in contemporary production.

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.

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