Spring of the Balkan Avant-garde

This is not a theoretical text or a perspective on the Balkan avant-garde through the eyes of an art historian. As an artist I am trying to present my own view on development of the Balkan avant-garde from the early 20th century till now. I am a part of a younger generation that was brought up after the fall of Yugoslavia in a new country that was trying to adapt to the Western style of living. For me, it was hard to imagine the way of living in Yugoslavia and the problematics that accorded there. During the last two or three decades the perception of Eastern and Central European art has changed fundamentally. It is hard to imagine that most of the artists in, now, ex-Yugoslavia were almost unknown outside of their region. Very few people came out of Yugoslavia and made a name for themselves in the Western world. The goal of this essay is to present a brief development of the Balkan avant-garde in relation to the social system as I explained it to myself trying to understand the history of the place that I come from.

To get a better picture of the problematics that came from the cold war, and before that, we have to understand that there was no history of Eastern European art until the Slovenian art group IRWIN launched a book project called the East Art Map in 2006. In the book, one can read and see a map of activities and artists that were working in the East and Central Europe during the second half of the 20th Century. Even in the first half of the 20th century many artists, from the East, were almost unknown, like Kazimir Malevich (18791935). He possibly wouldn’t be as recognized as he is today, if Alfred Barr, the first director of MoMA, wouldn’t have smuggled two of his paintings to America in an umbrella from Germany, fearing that the Nazis would seize the paintings after banning this kind of artworks. Also in Russia, under Stalin, Malevich was seen as a suspicious, not propagating Communism, and had a lot of problems presenting his work. 

Kazimir Malevich: The Last Futuristic Show, Belgrade, 1985-86 Ownership: Moderna galerija, Ljubljana Exhibition: LOW BUDGET UTOPIAS. Works mostly from the collection Arteast 2000+, Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova, Ljubljana, 2016. Photo: Dejan Habicht (© Moderna galerija, Ljubljana)

Kazimir Malevich: The Last Futuristic Show, Belgrade, 1985-86
Ownership: Moderna galerija, Ljubljana
Exhibition: LOW BUDGET UTOPIAS. Works mostly from the collection Arteast 2000+, Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova, Ljubljana, 2016.
Photo: Dejan Habicht (© Moderna galerija, Ljubljana)

Artist that calls himself ‘Malevich from Belgrade’ (1950- ), sometimes also Alfred Barr or Walter Benjamin, has many times addressed the topic of Malevich’s journey to MoMA. Malevich from Belgrade has brought to the art public the idea of reproduction as a “defibrillator” of dead artists and their artworks. In many ways the possibility that Malevich could be forgotten inspired him to think about the artistic practice as a method of keeping historical artworks alive. While Marinetti in his Futuristic manifest wrote “museums are grave yards”, Malevich from Belgrade, through repetitions, tries to reverse this logic and give new life to historical artworks. One of the works where we can see “defibrillation” in practice is an exhibition called “The Last Futuristic Show”. As we will see later, not only Kazimir Malevich from Belgrade, but also many other artist from the Balkans associated with Retroavantgarde, mostly from the 80s and 90s, used idea of “defibrillation”. This idea is in many ways a response to a non-holistic history of the Eastern European art, which was hard to produce, because of the turbulent times of the 20th Century.

The struggle to be a part of the art world history has a long development in the East. In Slovenia, at the beginning of the 20th Century, a young poet Srečko Kosovel (1904-1926) was one of the first that was writing constructivist poetry. Before Janez Vrečko (1946- ), Kosovel was perceived only as an Impressionist, Futurist and Expressionist. The work of Janez Vrečko has shed light on an oft ignored and disregarded part of Kosovel’s art, who is now also trying to bring to awareness that this young poet, who died at 22, is important not only for Slovenia, but for the whole world as one of the first Constructivists writing poetry. Why it was so hard to understand such an obvious thing is totally unknown to me.

Kosovel’s fellow artist called Avgust Černigoj (1898-1985) was for a short time studying at Bauhaus and was a student of Kandinsky and Moholy-Nagy. Černigoj brought with him to Slovenia some ideas from Bauhaus, which left a mark on the Slovenian art scene. For example, the conflict that happened at the Russian institute INHUK between the Constructivists and the Suprematists also moved to Bauhaus. Černigoj supposedly saw the INHUK conflict at Bauhaus, between Moholy-Nagy, being a Constructivist, and Kandisky, being associated with Suprematists, and was trying to resolve this conflict in his group work titled Trieste Constructivist Ambient (1927). The problem that the Constructivists saw in Suprematism was that the idea of academism was not totally negated, as was the plan. It was true that Suprematists moved away from Futurism by negating naturalism but the problem was that they still didn’t move away from two dimensional canvas. Tatlin’s Counter Relief was all about moving art into a three dimensional space and that was a starting point of the INHUK conflict. In the Trieste Constructivist Ambient Černigoj and others hanged Malevich’s painting of white on white inside of their Constructivist set up and by hanging it from the ceiling, looking like it was floating, gave it special characteristics that was in accordance with Constructivism. It is important to note that this happened in Trieste. As we will see through this text Černigoj was also understood as a problematic citizen and after his Constructivist show, in Ljubljana, he was forced to leave Slovenia in 1925, at that time belonging to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.     

Reconstruction number 1 ½ Trieste Constructivist Cabinet, (1927) 2011, Moderna galerija Ownership: Moderna galerija, Ljubljana Exhibition: 20th century / Continuity and Ruptures. Selected works from the national collection of Moderna galerija (1906 - 1991), Moderna galerija, Ljubljana, od 2011 Photo: Dejan Habicht (© Moderna galerija, Ljubljana)

Reconstruction number 1 ½ Trieste Constructivist Cabinet, (1927) 2011, Moderna galerija
Ownership: Moderna galerija, Ljubljana
Exhibition: 20th century / Continuity and Ruptures. Selected works from the national collection of Moderna galerija (1906 – 1991), Moderna galerija, Ljubljana, od 2011
Photo: Dejan Habicht (© Moderna galerija, Ljubljana)

During the period of Yugoslavia and Soviet Union, there were a lot of restrictions in the cultural and everyday life. The generation of students that were a part of the ‘68 movement had their respective stories to tell. The Yugoslavian Black Wave film movement had a strong position that was many times critical of the system, but in a subtle way. One of the main figures in the Yugoslavian Black Wave film are Dušan Makavejev and Aleksandar Petrović, nominated twice with Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Their student, a film maker named Lazar Stojanovć, was imprisoned for three years after screening his student film Plastic Jesus. The film was moved from the public view till the 90s and was almost unseen in the Yugoslavia, till then. There are many different versions of why he was imprisoned. One of them was that he criticized Tito’s cult of personality and the other one was that he revealed the identity of Yugoslavian army general that could be used by the enemy by using film footage of Ljubiša Ristić´s wedding where his father, the general, was shown. Repression, that was present in that regime, forced a lot of intellectuals to move to the Western countries. Stojanović was living in London after he was re-listed from prison and then for some time in New York, many other artists also moved for some time to New York.

A very progressive group OHO was also active in the 1966-71. One of their members was David Nez. He was born in 1949 in Massachusetts and moved to Slovenia where he finished BA 1972 at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ljubljana. The group OHO was known around the world and was also visited by Walter De Maria. But this “strange” form of art that was connected with Conceptualism, Land Art and Arte Povera provoked suspicion in the Yugoslav authorities. That fear of unknown was projected on David Nez, who was American. Nez was accused of working with the CIA by promoting conceptualism in Yugoslavia, which was by the authorities understood as an American weapon to destroy Yugoslavia. Makavejev, that also had some problems with the authorities, and OHO were known outside of Yugoslavia, but in their own country they were not understood as progressive, but as something that was working against the system. I am not in any way against socialism, but for a more liberal one as was the generation of artist and intellectuals before me. The problem was that the logic in Yugosalvia was: if you wanted to change anything, for the better, that meant that you were against the system. If you were fighting for a better Yugoslavia, it was understood as if you were an enemy, like fascists. The simple binary logic of being totally against or totally for the system would in logic be called tertium non datur or ‘the third is not given’ and in this logic there is no space for a better socialism.

OHO: OHO and Walter de Maria, 1970 Ownership: Moderna galerija, Ljubljana

OHO: OHO and Walter de Maria, 1970
Ownership: Moderna galerija, Ljubljana

The next generation that came in the 80s-90s and was well aware of their historical background. Retroavantgarde rose from the idea that “the history is not given”, as IRWIN titled one of their books, and used historical references to rethink their position in a system affected by Tito’s death and slowly falling apart. Mladen Stilinović, Malevich from Belgrade, Rasa Todosijević, Laibach and IRWIN were using a lot of references to the Russian avant-garde re-interpreting its meaning by putting these artworks into a new context. Similarly to the Yugoslavian Black Wave and also to anti-political art of the central Europen art, like Kantor, Koller, etc., the idea of a nonpolitical art, was in many ways, extremely politically informed.

Mladen Stilinović: Red Era, 1973-1990 Ownership: Moderna galerija, Ljubljana Photo: Dejan Habicht (© Moderna galerija, Ljubljana)

Mladen Stilinović: Red Era, 1973-1990
Ownership: Moderna galerija, Ljubljana
Photo: Dejan Habicht (© Moderna galerija, Ljubljana)

The whole idea of non-political art in some way became very political. Laibach and IRWIN were, and still are, using Malevich’s black cross as a symbol of zero ideology. Postpone the symbol was understood as an allegory of a swastika, but that was not the case. The collective memory projected this idea into the void of a meaningless symbol and understood especially Laibach as fascist. In France (probably also in Yugoslavia), they were forbidden to have concerts, yet many intellectuals were trying to explain that they were not as they seem. The most famous of them was Slavoj Žižek who wrote the text: ‘Why are Laibach and NSK not Fascists?’. The model of appropriating culture, mostly history of the 20th century, provoked people to understand the meaning of this art form as a projection of their trauma. I  remember  Todosijević’s  show  at  the 54th Venice  Biennale where  he  showed  a  swastika  in  italic  style  of  writing. When people saw this 3 or 4 meters italic swastika on the wall they just walked out of the pavilion. But what was the idea or motivation behind this re-interpretation, re-appropriation and de-contextualization? For me it was always about memory. The problem of an official archive or public memory that is usually in the domain of institutions like museums, galleries or private collections provoked artists to work with historical material. Reproduction of historical artworks and reflections of them can be found in many art forms in the Balkan and the East. Sometimes there is a usage of historical style like with Irwin or Kabakov in Russia. Kabakov used Social Realism style of painting to reflect on Russian cold war utopia of flying into the space, or his auto-portrait in the technique of Cézanne. Almost all named artist used Malevich’s Suprematistic forms, a cross, a square or a circle. Stilinović used a lot of iconography from El Lissitzky and his wall compositions are analog to Malevich’s ones. Even earlier on one with Černigoj we can see quotations of El Lissitzky. On one of his Constructivist constructions he wrote two letters EL, that were referring to El Lissitzky. Kosovel had many quotations of Constructivists, especially Tatlin, and many others.

Avgust Černigoj: Sculpture "EL", (1924) 2001 Ownership: Moderna galerija, Ljubljana Photo: Matija Pavlovec (© Moderna galerija, Ljubljana)

Avgust Černigoj: Sculpture “EL”, (1924) 2001
Ownership: Moderna galerija, Ljubljana
Photo: Matija Pavlovec (© Moderna galerija, Ljubljana)

The story that at the beginning sounded very pessimistic had in its own essence a positive result. If there was a problem of no official history, then artists created their own ways of writing it. For example, IRWIN or NSK are an institution in itself. This year NSK had their pavilion at the Venice biennial, organized by IRWIN. The pavilion has functioned as good as any state pavilion, or even better. They had the support of institutions to organize and produce their project, but the system of the project was not a usual one. Usually, institutions invite artists to participate in an event like that, but here it was the other way around. Another example is Kazimir Malevich, or Alfred Barr, from Belgrade, who also created his own institution called Museum of American Art in Berlin. This space is working with preserving the memory of the early exhibitions in MOMA (Malevich and so on). Another interesting para-institutional practice happened with Russian APT-ART (apartment art) connected to the Moscow Conceptual scene. Artists that couldn’t exhibit in galleries organized exhibitions in their apartments. Many such alternative institutional practices happened in the East and that is because of the lack of good institutions and repressions at that time. This self-organizing practice is definitely something positive that rose from that environment.

At the beginning, it was said that this is a text on the Balkan avant-garde and a lot of times the East and West are mentioned. This is not a coincidence, because most of the artists from the Balkans in the 80-90s, and even before, turned to the East for their artistic inspiration and alliance. IRWIN, for example, is still, in many ways, conceived as a part of the 90s Moscow art scene. In my short and brief text I mentioned a generation of artists that were not a part of the Balkan avant-garde, like Yugoslavian Black Wave film or OHO, but they were important for the later generations in the sense of non-political art. Kosovel and Čerigoj were openly for Socialism, but the generation of ‘68 saw that this Socialism was not going the right way. Their means of art, similar to Central European art, was avoiding direct political commentary (OHO was not so indirect). In some way they were a bridge between the early avant-garde and Retroavantgarde. They softened the strong political commentary of the early avant-gardes. Repression disabled the production of a relevant history but from that the phenomena of self-organized history gave birth.

Luka Savić, Ljubljana: 8. 11.2017

Luka Savić is an artist and a philosopher born in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in 1990. He has finished High School for Design and Photography (SŠOF) in the department for graphic design. He continued his education on AVA, Academy for Visual Arts, in the year 2010. After finished his education in visual arts he went to the Faculty for Arts where he has graduated in the department for Philosophy in 2017.  At the 31. Graphic Biennale in Ljubljana, in the year 2015, he has exhibited a half sized Tatlin’s flying machine and by flipping it on the back gave it a social commentary. Few times a year he has lectures about his theoretical research on arts. From 2011 to 2017 he has been an assistant of Miran Mohar, Slovenian artist, who is a part of group IRWIN. Savić works on many different culturally informed project in Slovenia and other European countries. Since 2017 he has been an associate of David Gothard’s Studio Archive, based between Ljubljana, London and Goriza. His work has been recently presented at the Mahler and Le Witt Studios in the city of Spoleto in Italy.

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