Sunday, 25 September 2011

Belgrade 2

It's turned quite a bit cooler here this week. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Belgrade was visited with a near-biblical downpour; subsequently, the sun has come back, but it is now in the pleasant mid-20s rather than the mid-30s, and it is noticeably colder when the sun sets, around 1830. It's *almost* jacket weather again, not quite yet, though. Full blown autumn is in the post, but won't be here yet for another 2-3 weeks.

It's been a very busy week here in Belgrade. This trip goes in waves; a few days of settling in, a long period of research, the a day or so's unwinding before the next long car journey. I have been doing 8-9 hour shifts in the art faculty library, trying to navigate my through a mountain of art historical telephone directories. In the main, my days have been spent in the company of Miodrag B. Protić, the first serious art historian of Yugoslavia, who was prodigiously active from the mid-50s right up until his retirement in 1981. Protić is a rather old fashioned writer, these days; his narrative is couched in the pseudo-scientific classificatory terms of art history in the 50s and 60s. he often categorises artists in rather strange ways, and his writing is fairly typical of art historical writing from Communist states; factual, "objective", and with regular references to the leading role played in artistic development by the guiding hand of the League of Yugoslav Communists, distinguished from the much more censorious Warsaw Pact art worlds, and the cultural liberalism of the West.

Miodrag B. Protić, The Water Flower, 1981
 In a sense Protić is a figure like Patrick Heron or Adrian Heath in 50s England; a painter-critic. He was prolific in the studio from the 50s until the early 70s, painting in a style which merged elements of French Informel and American lyrical abstraction. The results are often less than inspiring, but writing art history from a practicing artist's viewpoint often produces more interesting results on the page. Although dry, and technocratic, Protić's many volumes on different decades and periods in Yugoslav art are invaluable, as they include complete lists of exhibitions, year by year, and memberships of the myriad short lived avant-garde groups that re-emerged in Yugoslavia in the wake of the Informbiro crisis. (Amusingly, leading Communist Party intellectual and writer Milovan Ðilas had delivered a slashing attack on "bourgeois formalism" at the V. Communist party Congress in 1948; a few months later, he was obliged to do a very rough fifth-to-reverse gear change, to reflect the cultural cataclysm that Informbiro visited on the emerging Yugoslav socialist culture). An art historian attempting to do this, from scratch, in the present day, would find the task near to impossible, given the ephemeral nature of many of these exhibitions, and the scant documentation of some of them. I have taken photos of hundreds of pages from Protić compendiums, containing vital information on a vanished art world, and have also been able to make links and connections that i was previously unable to. These will be critical during the writing up process in 2012.

Sava Sumanović, The Shepherdess, 1924
 In recent years, names like Ješa Denegri and Misko Šuvaković have become important in writing about Serbian and Yugoslavian art history. Denegri produces a series of texts on Decades in Serbian art from the middle 1990s; in more recent times, Šuvaković has emerged as a kind of Duncan MacMillan in the Serbian context, leading a team of researchers in compiling the absolutely vast History of Serbian Art in the Twentieth Century. Šuvaković had a ringside seat in the development of late Yugoslav art from the mid 70s onwards, participating regularly in exhibitions at SKC, as part of the radical Grupa 143, and in subsequent avant-garde formations in the 1980s. This was a vital developmental period; students became increasingly disatisfied with the politically compromised "socialist modernism" of the period, that was hegemonic at art academies and dominant in the art market; new art practices emerged at the end of the 1960s, and lacked the space to grown and expand. Following student riots and demonstrations in Belgrade and elsewhere in the federation, in early June 1968, new cultural centres were created- in Belgrade, Ljubljana, Zagreb, and Novi Sad- partly as a means of providing a hole to allow the angry steam of a bored and restless younger generation to disperse.

BITEF logo from the mid-2000s
These centres- together with international festivals such as BITEF, and the Ljubljana graphics triennial- gave a space for the "new art practices" to develop in the 1970s. However, the Yugoslav state's manipulation of these developments was quite clever. Large sums were provided for early international festivals, to promote an image of liberal and tolerant cultural policy and artistic freedom; in practice, in the domestic market, the big international names were little represented and ather marginal, and the old socialist modernists such as Protić and his contemporaries continued to dominate the market for domestic sales, commissions and prizes. The odd paradox of creating international excitement, but being unheard of at home, was no doubt partially responsible for the exile of many of these younger people in the later 1970s; Gera Urkom and Zoran Popović to London; Marina Abramović to Amsterdam; Braco Dimitrijević to Italy, and Paris. By the later 1970s, the radical performance/happening/events scene had weakened markedly, and attention turned to issues of postmodernity, with painting and sculpture once again the main focus.

Lazar Vujaklija, Piper, 1965. Zepter Collection, Belgrade
 These nuanced and interlinked developments can be fully appreciated in the fine collection of the Zepter Museum, a few hundred yards walk from the Fine Art faculty. Alongside the Sudac Collection in Varaždin, Croatia, this must be one of the biggest publically accessible private collection so Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav painting. Most variations are here; there is a large section devoted to "socialist modernism", an example of which can be seen in Lazar Vujaklija's Piper above. "Socialist Modernism" was a paradoxical art form, an art which used the forms and styles of modernism, not to criticise the social order and propose alternatives, but a modernism directed from above and geared to building consensus for the Titoist status quo. There are also good examples of postmodern painting and sculpture, such as Dušan Otašević's Piazza de Chirico of 1995. (below)

Dušan Otašević, Piazza de Chirico, 1995. Zepter Museum, Belgrade
One of the more interesting examples of recent Serbian art can be found in Uroš Đuric's Portrait of Rasa T., finished in 1992. This is a very clever painting, showing Todosijević in the style of a late 1920s Malevich painting. Much of Yugoslav painting in the 80s was concerned with the status of the art object, and using the styles and techniques of a defunct and discredited Utopian modernism, in an ironic sense, in the present day.  Đuric's painting cleverly exploits and alludes to this seam of ideas in the recent Yugoslav past, and includes representations of two of the conceptual artist's best known works, as part of a nod-and-a-wink portrayal of him as an aesthetic "revolutionary". Đuric is currently part of a very interesting showing of contemporary Serbian art in Regensburg, Germany, called "donumenta"; it's a biennial showing of art from the Danube region, and this year it is Serbia's turn to be represented.

Uroš Đuric, Portrait of Rasa T., 1992, Zepter Museum, Belgrade
Tomorrow I am doing a lecture on contemporary Scottish art and art education at the Fine Arts faculty, kicking off at noon; later I have to meet some collectors, and put in a couple more days work at the library, before returning to Skopje on Thursday. I will be in Macedonia for another week, before heading north-west to Sarajevo via Užice, another former "hero city" of Yugoslavia. So, my next update will probably be sometime over next weekend from Macedonia.

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