Yugoslavia 1 - Art in a closed society

Avant-garde movements at the beginning of the 20th century

Shortly before and after the World War I, just like in most of the other European countries, Yugoslav artists searched (and in many cases found) a new way of artistic language.

European movements were received and discussed in magazines. Already in 1909 an essay on Futurism and Marinetti was published in the magazine "Ljublanski zvon". Dimitrije Mitrinović expressed his ideal of art in the magazine "Bosanska Vila", which was close to German Expressionism and Italian Futurism.
There were several vanguard magazines (Vijavica, Juriš , Svetokret: List za ekspediciju na severni pol ljudskog duha, Plamen etc.) 
Mentioning the avant-garde movements in Yugoslavia is an important task. Especially in the 1980s and 90s Yugoslav artists constantly refer to those artists.
In the Yugoslav cultures, the avant-gardes (and neo-avantgardes) were at the margins, almost invisible for a greater public, were hidden, misunderstood, censored and very quickly forgotten. What seems to be a pity at first view, at a second it proves to be great. Only what has been forgotten can be re-discovered. Younger generations could identify with the avant-garde artists (out on the edge) and over and over again re-discover, re-interprete and reinstated the modernist ideas.

1. Expressionism

In 1919 Ivo Andrić und Stanislav Vinaver founded the artist group "Grupa Umetnika" in Belgrade, later (in 1920) the group was renamed to "Alfa" and existed till 1923. Als the members were writers. There main aim was to establish an Expressionist language. They wanted to break with traditions and cope with the desasters of the First World War.
However, their self-definition stayed a bit unclear. On the one hand the artists wanted to define their art according to French artists, on the other hand they sought a distinction from other cultures (an important topic for them was the establishment of a kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes).

Self Portait, Image on wikipedia
Another important figure in this context is Nadežda Petrović. She was one of few painters, who worked in Serbia most of the times (though she had studied in Munich, Germany). She worked in an Expressionist manner and started to introduce abstractions in her work. She studies in Munich in the private school of Anton Ažbe, just like Wassily Kandinsky, who might have had a strong impact on  Petrovićs work. 
Her contributions were essential in organising the First Yugoslav Art Exhibit, and the First Yugoslav Art Colony. But she also organised an aid organisation (Kolo srpskih sestera), she volunteered as a nurse in Wold War I. in 1914 and died of typhoid fever in 1915.
Her life and her art closely related to each other.

2. Yugo-DADA

In Yugoslavia there was heavy Dada activity between 1920 and 1922 run mainly by Dragan Aleksić. He joined the dadaist movement in Prague (1920-22). Back in Zagreb he released two publications: Dada Tank and Dada Jazz (both 1922), published manifestos and poetry. In contrast to the Zenitists, his writings were not explicitly political. He invented the term "Yugo-Dada" and had been in contact with Raoul Hausmann, Kurt Schwitters and Tristan Tzara.

3. Surrealism

Dušan Matić, Aleksandar Vučo, L’, 1930
The Belgrade surrealist movement began to express itself via magazines in the 1920s (Putevi, 50 u Europe, Nemoguće, Nadrealizam danas i ovde etc.). The movement was founded by Marko Ristić, who encouraged cooperations with other artists (painters like Živanović Noe , experimental artists like Vane Zivadinovic Bor, poets like Aleksandar Vuco, journalists and revolutionaries).
It was frequently the case that a movement or a style was associated with a single person. In the case of Dada it was Aleksić, the key-figur for Zenitism was Ljubomir Micić and Surrealism in Yugoslavia was identified with Marko Ristić. But unlike other movements there were many cooperations and works produced by different artists at the same time (s. image). 
Proceeding from the idea of the readymade, Marko Ristić’s, Vane Bor’s and Dušan Matić’s collages regroup readymade pictorial and textual matrices according to the rules of free associative syntax. Traditional materials were discarded (first and foremost: oil on canvas).

4. Earth Group

The Earth Group (Grupa Zemlja) existed from 1929 till 1935 (when the group was banned). Its main interest la
y in a critical approach to social issues. The group was Marxist in orientation and proclaimed the importance of independent creative expression, a reflection of the reality of life, the needs of modern societies. It was partly modelled on "Neue Sachlichkeit" and Naive painting, but rejected the uncritical copying of foreign styles.
The group included the painters Krsto Hegedušić, Edo Kovačević, Omer Mujadžić, Kamilo Ružička, Ivan Tabaković, and Oton Postružnik, the sculptors Antun Augustinčić, Frano Kršinić, and the architect Drago Ibler.

5. Zenitism

Zenit was an international magazine for art and culture, launched by poet Ljubomir Micić in 1921.

It has been published in Zagreb monthly up to 1923 and then in Belgrade till the last issue in December 1926, when the magazine has been forbidden. (A total of 43 issues). The magazine intended to introduce social and artistic principles of avant-garde to Croatia and Serbia (especially Dadaism and Futurism). There were several foreign collaborators (Ivan Groll, Alexander Archipenko, Kandinsky, El Lissitzky etc.). 
Micić also organised "The First Zenit International Exhibition of New Art" in 1924.
The movement held anti-bourgeois, anti-nationalist and pacifist views and wanted to reject traditional art, while offering a new, effective art, which Micić called "abstract metacosmic expressionism". 
But what about the name: Zenitism? Zenitism should express an attitude, which enables the human being to rise from earth to the zenith. (s. image) Of course the center of this rise lies in the Balkans. 
One of the most-known members of the group is Josip Seissel (bettern known as Jo Klek). He started as a painter but later turned to architecture. His architectural plans were non-functional, like his "Zenitheum" (1924).
Seissel joined the Surrealist movement in the 1930s and broke with Zenitism (from that point on he only made surrealistic artworks). Nonetheless, the influence of Zenitism on younger generations is big. A reason might be that it is a typical Yugoslav movement, unlike Surrealism (strongly influenced by French artists) or Dada.

In their "Autonomism Manifesto" Uroš Đurić and Stevan Markuš (published as a leaflet in 1994) made references and quoted "Zenitism", saying that they want to repeat these "radical" avant-garde movements. 

According to Jovan Despotović the avant-garde movements between the two World Wars in Yugoslavia (engaged left wing artists) developed in two directions: 1. Surrealism and 2. Social Art. The latter ended as socialist realism (instrumentalized art, which did not find approval and ended in fierce arguments after 1950). Many artists sought to overcome socialist realism and reinstated the ideas of the early avant-garde.

Neo-Avantgarde (1951-1975)

The neo-avantgarde in Tito's Yugoslavia began as a continuation of the prewar modernistic practice (again on the margins of socialist culture). 
The artists were against social realism, were anti-bourgeois and wanted to express their criticism by overstepping the traditional media boundaries.


The artist group EXAT 51 promoted a neo-avantgarde utopian fusing art, architecture and design with everyday life. They sought an abolition of the distinction between fine and applied arts, because in their believe artists should be involved in the shaping of a (new) environment (they share many ideas with Russian Constructuvists and the German Bauhaus).

The number 51 in the group's name means that the group was founded in 1951. In the same year the artists published their first Manifesto, which was fiercely attacked by the traditional art establishment. The group broke up in 1956. The group's legacy got continued by five international exhibition with the title "New Tendencies" (1961-1973).


Leonid Šejka: Multiplication, 1956
The group Mediala was founded in 1953 in Belgrade. The name is a neologism (by Miro Glavurtić) consisting of the words med (honey) and ala (female mythological creature recorded in the folklore of Bulgarians and Serbs). They defined honey as a kind of elixir, which can be artificially synthesized. Ala is a dymbol of darkness, conflict and destruction.

The group focused on gestural actions close to Neo-Dada and Fluxus. However, they claimed to be neither modern nor post-modern and merged traditional values with modern trends; a blend of classic and modern elements. 
Their aim was a modernization of both spiritual and practical life.
The two most-known artists of the group were Leonid Šejka and Vladan Radovanović.

Gorgona Group

Gorgona was an artist group, which was founded in 1959 in Zagreb and lasted till 1966. The artists advocated a non-conventional art. Besides working in traditional techniques (painting, sculptures etc.), they promoted radical forms of artistic expression, strongly related to Neo-Dada, Conceptualism and Existentialism.It included the painters Josip Vaništa, Julije Knifer, Đuro Seder, sculptor Ivan Kožarić, art theoreticians and critics Radoslav Putar, Dimitrije Bašičević, and architect Miljenko Horvat.
The group published a magazine called "Gorgona" (11 issues), which actually was designed as an anti-magazine. Each issue was simply designed and displayed work and views of the artists. It was in itself an artwork.
The influence of Dadaism was very strong. Gorgona organised several "absurd" events: e.g. they send invitations for an event that never took place or excluded the audience, placed ads for the sale of trivial objects etc.

Tomislav Gotovac

Gotovac was one of the most important perforamce artists, authors of structuralistic and experimental film and conceptual artists in the region.
The artist made several performances close to body art in public spaces, which shocked the civic environment. His popularity and the fame of his so-called "rhetorical body" lies in photographic performances that made his art accessible to a broad and general public.
1981 he made a performance called "Zagreb, I love you". He walked naked through the city center of Zagreb, bend down and kissed the asphalt. 


In June 1968 students protests broke out at the University in Belgrade, which became the epicentre for protests all over the country (Ljubljana, Zagreb, Sarajevo).
It alle begann with an (escalated) brawl between students and security forces in Novi Beograd. One the next day thousends of students gathered and protested, but were stopped by police forces, which used firearms to stop the demonstration. The students occupied the University in Belgrade and renamed it into "Red University Karl Marx" (a reference to the occupation of the University in Frankfurt, Germany). 
Belgrade is the world, image on: www.mgb.org.rs
The students' paroles were "Abolition of all privileges, democratisation of the media, freedom of assembly and demonstrations." The call for "freedom, justice and self.determination" is similar to other students protests in 1968 (e.g. Germany, France, Austria, Switzerland). However, there was one pecularity. The Yugoslavian students already lived on a socialist society and could express their claims in accordance to the League of Communists of Yugoslavia. What they criticised was the contradiction between theory and practice. President Josip Broz Tito gradually stopped the protests. In a televised speech he said that "the students are rigth". But in the following years, he dealt with the leaders of the protest by sacking them from university and Communist party posts. According to Bora Ćosić the situation for artists got worse after the protests (in the 1970s).

The protests has had a strong impact on art; especially on theatre, film and literature. There is a strong interconnection between the protests and theatre's developments. Several articles on the importance of theatre and the political dimension of (students) theatre groups were published in students magazines (e.g. by Miro Medjimorec, Zeliko Falout), public discourses were held and international festivals organised (e.g. International Festival of Students Theatre IFSK in Zagreb or Belgrad International Theatre Festival: BITEF).
Ron Eyerman wrote: "Performance theory focuses on corporality, presence, and the pre-discursive, while the same time including it."
However, the discourse was not about everyday politics, but about the overcoming of social pressures as structural problems.

Besides the theatre films were an essential part of the cultural discussion linked to the protests and to a (students) subculture. Directors like Aleksandar Petrović, Zivojin Pavlović, Želimir Žilnik or Dusan Makavejev were important protagonists in this field. Their films were an essential part for the protest culture. The so-called "New Yugoslav Film" was defined by a decided renunciation of the mainstream film production (mainly concerned with glorifications of liberation struggles and partisans.

In contrast the New Yugoslav film focused on a critical approach to the own history, sexuality and social conflicts. Critics called these developments "black wave", an expression which later became an official name.
Inspired by Italian Neorealism and various waves in European cinema, the authors of Black Wave rejected the norms and ideals of optimism and self-congratulatory official culture, and instead openly exposed the dark sides of socialist society - above all the truth of its hidden capitalist side that emerged with the implementation of market economy and its devastating social consequences, like unemployment, massive migrations of workers both within the country and abroad, poverty, crime.