Issue 1/2008 - Remapping Critique

Not a full stop, but a comma

Interactions in an understanding of modernity – via the example of the sculptor Vojin Bakic

Natasa Ilic

The recent intensification and proliferation of independent cultural production in Zagreb, which is positioning itself in opposition to dominant models of representation and as a reaction against the inadequate work of institutions, is directly related to the possibilities of its institutionalization and influence on that process. Although in the last years we have witnessed significant changes in the vocabulary used by decision-makers and representatives of institutional »state« culture, the cultural domain in Croatia is still characterized by the logic of identity, particularly national identity. Antagonisms that deeply stratified society throughout the 90s have been temporarily suspended under consensus, which is, obviously, exclusionary, and nationalistic rhetoric is certainly watered down, but the basic understanding of culture has not changed at all. In that context, the exhibition of Vojin Bakic (1915-1992), organized by the curatorial collective »What, How & for Whom / WHW« in the public, city-owned Gallery Nova in Zagreb in June 2007, intervenes in the highly restricted and institutionally guarded area of high modernism.

Vojin Bakic is an artist on the one hand perceived as an »authentic« modernist sculptor, a key figure in the break with socialist realism and a proponent of abstraction who forged the paths for freedom of artistic expression in the 1950s, and on the other hand is seen as a »state artist« whose art has been serving ideology; highly acclaimed in official art histories, yet his monuments to the anti-fascist struggle have been devastated in the heat of the nationalism and anti-communism of the 90s. Local and international reception of Bakic’s work notes periods of intense interpretation and critical appreciation, but also significant silences and breaks in continuity. After exhibiting at the Venice Biennale in 1956, the World Fair in Brussels in 1958, the Gallery Denise Rene, Paris in 1959 (with Ivan Picelj and Alexander Srnec), Documenta in 1959 etc., he was included in histories of modern sculpture by Michel Seuphor, Herbert Read, Udo Kulterman and the like. Locally too the 60s are the peak of his appreciation in art history, but in the last decades his work oscillates between material devastation and intellectual marginalization.
Society’s problematic relationship with the legacy of socialist decades of society, which has imposed collective mystification and oblivion on the archive of politics, economy and the style of the failed project of socialist society, are certainly crucial for understanding the context of the reception of Vojin Bakic’s works in the last decades, but many misunderstandings related to his position are the result of the dominant understanding of modernism. The function of art institutions, relations of national culture and its international options, problematic collective relations towards the past are some of the unresolved contradictions that define the context of understanding modernism in Croatia today.

[b]Inherent contradictions[/b]
The common understanding of Bakic acclaims him as visionary who played a »historic« role of breaking with soc-realism in sculpture.

The political situation in Yugoslavia up to 1948 was characterized by membership of the communist bloc. Due to his organizational and military capacities during the people’s liberation struggle, the leader of the Yugoslav Communist Party, Josip Broz Tito, managed to gain the respect of the Western allies and a high level of coherence in the Party regarding its decision to keep the country completely independent in domestic and foreign policy, with close collaboration with the USSR in all other areas. As Stalin could not agree to these terms without posing a threat to the monolith of the Eastern Bloc, in 1948 the Yugoslav Party proclaimed an Informbiro resolution1, which resulted in all diplomatic, economic and military ties between Yugoslavia and the USSR being completely severed. After that, Tito, who in 1947 had declined participation in the Marshall Plan, turned towards the West and accepted US financial aid.

The changes in the cultural sphere were gradual, but nonetheless dramatic. In 1949, the main party ideologist, Edvard Kardelj, proclaimed the withdrawal of the Party from cultural affairs. To prove that it was attempting to open communication channels in both directions, in 1950 Yugoslavia took part in the Venice Biennale (and Vojin Bakic, along with three other sculptors, participated with his impressionist portrait of partisan poet Ivan Goran Kovacic and the model for the »Monument to Partisans Executed by Firing Squad in the city of Bjelovar«).
From 1950 to 1954, there were fervent debates about the proper expression of socialist ideas. With the move away from socialist realism, its place in the mainstream was taken by »socialist realism with a humanistic face«, meaning non-conflicting academic modernism which could neatly link up with national traditions between the two wars. But acceptance of abstraction was not that easy and monumental sculpture slowly escaped from the firm embrace of academism.

Perhaps the most important episode in that process was the public call for the proposal for the monument to Marx and Engels, for the square of the same name in Belgrade, the country’s capital, in 1953. Vojin Bakic’s proposal - although it was rejected by the jury, composed of writers Milan Bogdanovic from Serbia, Miroslav Krleža from Croatia, and Josip Vidmar from Slovenia - still played a crucial role in the process of freeing monumental sculpture from academic realism. The rejection of that rather benign sculpture, with its moderate leaning on the formal solutions of Cubism, resulted in a scandal in which young critics stood in its defense. The importance of the episode certainly does not lie in the inherent artistic qualities of Bakic’s sculpture, but in the fact that to commemorate the fathers of Marxism, he chose to adopt the formal repertoire of the artistic movement that had only recently ceased to be stigmatized for its bourgeois decadence.

In that narrative Bakic is understood as a propagator of abstraction who struggled for freedom of artistic expression, and his use of clean abstract forms is interpreted as a victory of art not only over socialist dogma, but over ideology in general. What such an understanding fails to comprehend is the fact that modernism is not a monolithic construction nor is it ideologically empty; notions of artistic freedom and the autonomy of art are only seemingly disconnected from ideology and politics. Neutralization of art as a means of social critique, performed through the abdication of the avant-garde, and the possibility of introducing precise ideological messages into the self-referential forms of high modernism, without direct »program intervention« on behalf of the centers of political power and without openly violating the institution of autonomous art, was politically functional both in the West and in former Yugoslavia.

Today we understand abstraction after WW2 as a phenomenon related to politics within the specific context of the Cold War, in which many different cultural initiatives played a role. Complex relations between »marginal« modernisms with a socialist background and the ideologically free and neutral modernism of the West - supposedly shaped strictly by ideas of individualism and freedom of artistic experimentation, offering a new, supra-national and international framework for art in the period of the Cold War, and as such in contrast to socialist realism, collectivism and politically prescribed art in the East - have only recently become the subject of more extensive research.

In that context the case of Yugoslavia is especially interesting, not only as the only socialist country that cut off relations to the Eastern Bloc, as well as relaxing ideological barriers and opening up to the West culturally, but also as a cultural space in which parts of the communist political and cultural elite recognized correspondences between the universalism of modernist art and the universalism of socialist emancipation.

Abandoning social realism in Yugoslavia was not an act of heroic artists or brave individuals, but the result of Party politics after the resolution from Informbiro2 and the break with Stalin. There are many indications that Yugoslavia had a clear cultural policy in which ideological separation from the USSR and the Eastern Bloc supplemented strong modernizing impulses with modernism in culture.

It is certainly necessary to get rid of cultural-racist prejudices about communism as something produced by some ethnic Other, and to abandon banal clichés, still held by local art history, about strong social realism and the struggle for modern art as a certain form of resistance to endangered bourgeois society. One has to take into account that, after WW2 and within the general modernization movement, leading figures in the Yugoslav Communist Party and the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia not only tolerated modern - meaning abstract - art, but obviously supported it. A schematic presentation of the clash between dogmatic socialist realism and progressive modernistic tendencies is not accurate, but that does not mean that modernism was accepted without much resistance. The current revisionist view inscribes into post-WW2 Yugoslavian abstraction a tendency to »restore a sense of belonging to the Western European cultural circle« and understands modernism as a certain continuity of »bourgeois« culture, failing to comprehend that exactly this bourgeois, traditionalist culture prone to academism strongly resisted modernistic tendencies, and that modernism stands for positions of social change, and is closer to the socialist project ideologically than to bourgeois culture. That does not mean that modernist artists were necessarily Party men. It is not about mere manipulation and instrumentalization of modernistic tendencies for political needs related to Yugoslavia’s separation from the Soviet bloc. In modernist abstraction enlightened communist consciousness saw an affinity to the universalism of modern emancipatory politics. Those artists were not modernist because they were communists following the Party line, but as modernists they were necessarily leftist, anti-fascist, socialists, and communists.

The fact that Vojin Bakic used the same formal repertoire to simultaneously create global cosmopolitan cultural identity and the collective memory of socialist Yugoslavia is thus not a paradox but the true face of modernism. The point is not to neutralize or reconcile contrasting views on modernism, but to understand them within the dynamics of their relations, to see contradictions as inherent to modernism itself, and to explore their specifics in a given cultural space. The ideological battle over modernism in socialist Yugoslavia and its legacy and importance today is exactly the aspect that can not be left up to institutions, but instead needs to be taken over and imbued with new meanings.

[b]A metaphor made flesh[/b]
The exhibition was not really opened to visitors. The sculptures could only be seen through gallery windows, and twice a week the gallery opened for guided tours by art historians, curators, critics or artists. An archive was set up in a separate space, using a timeline to set his work into a broader social and artistic context and drawing on press and TV documentation, excerpts from critical texts on Bakic and photos from his family archive. This part of the exhibition was open during regular opening hours.
The exhibition has been devised as a »realized metaphor« referring to the etymology of the word »problem« - something thrown in front of somebody, an obstacle. It is also a result of very real limitations - on one hand, the condition of the sculptures, which are in urgent need of restoration, and on the other hand, a small non-profit gallery with insufficient infrastructure and an extremely tight budget. It alludes to the objective state of and frustration over the modernist heritage of socialist Yugoslavia - we cannot approach it directly, and if we attempt to do so, we are not completely sure what to do with it.

This is the first solo show of Vojin Bakic, after 41 years. The reasons for that are partly related to Bakic’s reticence about the exhibition format, and partly to his occupation with monumental sculpture, some of the most important examples of which were realized in the 70s and early 80s. The fact that the show took place in a small non-profit gallery, and not in some properly equipped institution, is significant for the reconfiguration of interests and relations between institutional and non-institutional cultural practice in Croatia. What perspectives open up for these concepts of culture? Who defines the so-called mainstream in Croatia today and how do they do so? What characterizes relations between institutional and non-institutional culture? Is it about conflict, parallelism, mutual ignorance and exclusion? In the local context, the need to radically confront the role of art institutions, in a situation in which not only art as a material product but also its promotion become marketing tools and ideologically lucrative products, does not necessarily mean understanding institutions as a mere reproduction mechanism of global capitalism and its ideological hegemony. The dynamics of these relations include activities moving towards transforming institutions into a platform for articulating collective interests that have not been entirely assimilated to the interests of global capitalism. That includes building new institutions, attempts to conduct institutional work in a different language, with different economic parameters and aspirations vis-à-vis existing institutions, but also vis-à-vis the very institution of Art.

In that sense the exhibition attempted a critical diagnosis of a situation, but also aimed to initiate changes. It is in no way a full stop, but a necessary comma, a proposal to update the legacy of Bakic and modernism, to restore his studio and works on his family estate, along with restoration of destroyed monuments, a call for transformation of the situation. As such, it is the result of confrontation with institutions, but also a tactical tool and a proposal for solution and debates which are not possible without them.



Nataša Ilic is a member of the curatorial collective »What, How & for Whom/WHW«, which organizes various production, exhibition and publishing projects, and is also the director of Galerija Nova in Zagreb, Croatia.

1 On 30th June 1948, the mouthpiece of the Yugoslav Communist Party, the daily newspaper »Borba«, published a resolution from the Information Office of the Communist Parties (Kominform, successor organisation to the 3rd Communist Internationale, dissolved in the Second World War), which under Stalin’s leadership brought pressure to bear on the non-conformist attitude of the Yugoslav Central Committee under Tito and Kardelj. The Yugoslav masses were shocked by Stalin’s openly threatening tone towards a »fraternal people«, which accelerated Yugoslavia’s split from the Eastern Bloc. The following years were also known as the »Informbiro« period (Yugoslavian abbreviation for Communist Information Office i.e. Kominform). (note by the editor.)

2 C.f. Ljiljana Kolešnik, Izmedu Istoka i Zapada, Hrvatska umjetnost i likovna kritika 50-ih godina (Between East and West: Croatian Art and Criticism in the 1950s), Institute of Art History, Zagreb, 2006.