Saturday, 26 November 2011

Zagreb 2

Broken Relationships corner
So, at last, a relatively normal day, after a week of largely being confined to barracks. This morning I had new winter tyres put on the Fiat (mandatory in Slovenia, Austria and the Czech Republic). With that, and some other admin out of the way, I sloped off into town on the tram and managed to catch two exhibitions, both of which were some way removed from my normal "territory".

The first of these was the permanent display at the brand new Museum of Broken Relationships. The title sounds like a particularly bleak late 80s volume of poetry published by someone like Bloodaxe, but the reality is very much a twenty first century micro-biographical mosaic. The museum, which has shown some of its collection internationally, before opening in Zagreb at the beginning of this year, has already garnered a "most innovative new museum in Europe" award, and the displays are a mixture of the hilarious, the poignant, and the downright sad.

In the era of social networking, "micro-blogging" has become the dominant mode of expression; from status updates on facebook, pithy one-liners on twitter, to photo essays on tumblr, and flickr. People are more and more fascinated by, and more time is sunk into, producing and consuming on-line ephemera. The level of access that total strangers can now have to one's intimate thoughts and ideas is quite disturbing, as is the sheer colossal volume of information generated on a daily basis on these sites. I've always applied a very fine filter to the personal info I put online, but others are much more exhibitionist, with a range of observations from the quality of Morrison's own brand Rich Tea biscuits, to eye watering abuse of reality TV stars, and all points in-between, available for all to see on the internet.

It struck me, walking around this new space today, that this may be the first micro-blogging museum. The collection is made up of the detritus of relationships that have ended, a variety of objects from abandoned teddy bears, through sex toys discarded in an embarrassed hurry, through to the more disturbing broken glass and, er, an axe.  Accompanying each object is an anonymous story, written by the object's donor, as to the siginificance of the exhibit in their failed relationship, and it and the owner's fate in the months and years after the break up. This is the first collection that reflects our current all-consuming obsession with life as a Morse Code message, dots and dashes of hastily obsolete experience.

Amongst the objects currently on show are a cheap plastic frisbee (bought as a thoughtless second anniversary present for a girl in Belgrade- the resulting volcanic rage ensured that there wasn't to be a third); a "we broke up on skype" clock, together with a long account of breaking up via the medium of Estonia's most famous brand-name; a grey dress, bought for an eighth anniversary party that never happened; and, the aforementioned axe. This, it transpires, was bought in Germany and used to hack into small pieces the furniture of a girlfriend who seemed to both enter and leave relationships with little concern for the well-being of the other person involved.

Key Bottle Opener from Ljubljana  
This collection could quickly degenerate into the mawkish and narcissistic if badly curated, but the careful placing of certain objects in the displays mean that those depths are never in danger of being plumbed. A good example is the bottle opener, donated from Slovenia, shown above; at first glance it doesn't appear very interesting. Then one reads the accompanying narrative. The person speaks of a funny partner who was forever producing strange curiosities as small presents, and the donor's puzzlement as to why the relationship never really progressed beyond intimate friendship. The last sentence stops the visitor dead: "I only really realised how much he loved me after he had died of AIDS". Moments like that ensure that this never runs the risk of becoming the museum equivalent of Simon Bates' notorious Our Tune from the 1980s; in the end, it functions more like the late John Peel's Saturday morning Radio 4 programme, Home Truths.

I had gone in here a little sceptically minded (there's a shock readers) but emerged an hour later, completely won over. The museum is a brilliant and compelling cabinet of curiosities, and richly deserves the very generous praise that has flowed its way in the first year, as well as its swiftly rocketing-up-the-Zagreb-tourist-must-see charts-status. Interestingly, the collection remains open to new accessions, so if you have a poignant old object from a time past cluttering up your Hoover cupboard, you might consider sending it on with a brief account of the story behind it. Just be sure to keep shtum about it though, lest you become the talk of the steamie amongst your pals on facebook.

An old friend mentioned this summer that she wasn't on facebook, and spent as little time as humanly possible on the internet, as she enjoyed have a rich life in real time, and was far too busy with various things, to risk having her little spare time eaten away by pointless prospecting for non-existent on-line gold. Even this hard line stance may no longer be enough, if the Museum of Broken Relationships is anything to go by.  Social networking-style behaviour has just planted a big pixellated foot in the real world with this innovative little place.

Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Major Renaissance Masters

Round the corner, at the impressive home of the Renaissance-to-Modernist blockbuster show, Galerija Klovicevi Dvori, there is currently a major showing of the work of Venetian masters from Croatian collections (largely from the Dalmatian coastal towns and the islands). This was unfamiliar territory of a different kind. As an art historian, from the age of 19, I have pigeonholed myself as someone largely interested in modern and contemporary art. For reasons I've never really been able to fully understand myself, I just cannot warm to the Renaissance at all. Maybe it's just too remote in terms of time, maybe it's a disinclination for an avowedly non-religious person, to engage with so much religious subject matter, politics and patronage.

Of course, I had to study the Renaissance for the first two years of my undergraduate degree, and developed a love for Giotto, Piero della Francesca, and Mantegna. Other than that, though, I found Renaissance study hard going, and nothing like as compelling as art from the late eighteenth century (and the foundation of the Royal Academy in 1768), to the present. I jettisoned the Renaissance as soon as I could, after a final course with the brilliant Jim Lawson in my third year, and have never looked back. Since then, the Renaissance has been a nagging blind spot, something that I feel that I should know a lot more about, but just don't.

This exhibition works chronologically rather than geographically, and focuses entirely on Venetian painting from the early fifteenth century until the middle of the sixteenth. I'm not going to embarrass myself by trying to write a detailed critique, but just thought that I should mention two paintings briefly.

Giovanni Bellini, St. Benedict and St. Augustine, 1490. Stossmayer Old Master Gallery, Zagreb
 The first is by Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430-1516), a painter descended from a very eminent Venetian artists' family, who was also related by marriage to Andrea Mantegna. The image above is a double portrait of Sts. Benedict and Augustine, painted in around 1490. The crystalline forms and jewel like clarity of the spare, restrained colour palette held my attention for almost half an hour, so much so that it wasn't until late on that I began to notice the enormous gilt frame that have held the two saints in place for half a millennia.
Giovanni Batista Moroni, Portrait of a Man, c.1560. Stossmayer Gallery, Zagreb
The second was a rather sombre portrait by Giovanni Moroni, one of the better regarded Italian portraitists of the second half of the sixteenth century. The colouring and lighting seemed very Northern European; there is little clue as to the identity of the 30-something affluent sitter.

Overall, this show was a sumptuous procession of altarpieces, religious narratives, Italiante landscapes and then Mannerist painting. I quite enjoyed it; for someone who knows their way around this territory, it will be an absolute treat. The show was particularly good in describing the links between Venice and Croatia in this period, with a surprisingly large amount of patronage for Venetian painters coming from this country- often from unremarkable villages who would mortgage an entire year's fishing catch and sizeable percentage of agricultural output just to have one of these images in the local cathedral.


Trundling down the hill to the tram home, I stopped in at the Antiquarian bookshop next door to Nokturno. Zagreb is unfamiliar in terms of its weekend habits to UK visitors; the whole city is thronged in the morning, then things begin to wind down noticeably after two o'clock, with many of the locals repairing for a long afternoon in the pub, in the coffee house, or in making an elaborate dinner at home. I was rather lucky to find this place open, as few shops remain open in Zagreb after mid-afternoon on Saturday.

I left several hundred kuna lighter, and with a box of books waiting for me on my return in late-January. Foregoing the charming pleasures of an Edwardian red-jacketed volume entitled The Adventures of Two Englishmen in Montenegro, and a copy of Rebecca West's ubiquitous Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, the shop owner came up trumps; an eight volume encyclopaedia on Croatian art, which looks like a pretty comprehensive dictionary; an unfinished two-volume encyclopaedia on Yugoslav art, published in Zagreb, and terminated because the country itself had begun to disintegrate, and a sumptuous catalogue of an exhibition of Croatian church art published by the Vatican. Attempting to cart these several kilotons of verbiage across the city would have reversed alarmingly the progress my back has made in the last 24 hours, so I'll pick them up when I return to Zagreb in late Janaury, on my way to wherever I'm going next. My first task once I've settled will be to find bookshelves of reasonable quality. Two of my long serving bookcases were landfilled, before I left Perth in July, having been pulverised to chipboard atoms by several years of holding up the combined tonnage of my library. I have acquired many, many more books on this trip, all on the subject of Yugoslavia and Yugoslav art, so I'll need to somehow find them an appropriate home urgently. They are currently spilling out of a slowly shredding large dry cleaners bag on the back seat of my car.

Three and a Half Weeks and I'll Be Home

So tomorrow it's a short drive to Ljubljana and the familiar surroundings of Hostel Celica for a fortnight. I have some meetings with Slovene artists and art historians lined up, as well as visits to the recently re-opened Moderna Galerija, and the brand spanking new Museum of Contemporary Art, which is opening tonight, a Rory Delap throw-in away from the front door of the hostel itself. With all this to get through, as well as trips to Maribor, Celje and Lipica, it won't be long before it's time to motor north westwards towards Calais again. Almost unbelievably, my five months on the road will soon be just a memory.

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