At a time when sales of artworks for record sums compete for newspaper headlines with the stories of the tragic deaths of migrants and refugees, it’s worth reflecting on the life and politically-inflected artworks of a fascinating and transitory figure of history. Delving into a photomontage by the Yugoslavian artist of Croatian descent, Ivana Tomljenović (later -Meller), reveals that if we look beyond the art of the headlines, plenty of artists’ work offers much richer historical food for thought.
Tomljenović’s photomontage consists of three parts composed in 1930 but only pieced together into an album 50 years later. On the left the words “Good Luck Comrades” hover over a dramatic scene. Electric red lighting bolts jolt from the Bauhaus—the radical new art school founded immediately after World War I—to Berlin, symbolized by its bear mascot and iconic radio tower. Tomljenović has labeled the school in a typical lower-case sans serif Bauhaus font. But “bauhaus” has turned red, as did Tomljenović after she arrived there in 1929. Like many Bauhaus students, she was radicalized and joined the Communist Party. She includes herself in the montage as a Young Pioneer who looms cheerfully over the school. But even as Communism swept over the Bauhaus, so too did National Socialism. Contemporaneous reports tell of strict political lines drawn in the student cafeteria. Tomljenović shows dark clouds threatening to overpower the Bauhaus that suggest the rise of Nazism there and in much of Germany.
The word “Comrades” (drugovi) gestures to the middle of this two-page spread, a collective of the heads of three of Tomljenović’s Bauhaus friends artfully montaged together. At the right is a photograph of Tomljenović taken by her teacher Joseph Albers labeled “on the train to Berlin.” She appears in profile with bobbed hair and bursting with pluck. Because the Bauhaus had become so politicized, its second director, Hannes Meyer, was fired in 1930, and any known-Communist students were dismissed. Others like Tomljenović left in solidarity. Heading for Berlin, Tomljenović writes with biting glee, “See you After the Revolution.”
Tomljenović was a model female type of the interwar period whose biography reads like a novel. She embodied new womanhood with her fashionable beauty, rejection of the wealth she was born into, and embrace of politics and life as a bohemian Bauhäusler. On the side, she was a semi-professional athlete. During her post-Bauhaus life in Berlin, she worked as a graphic designer, collaborated with the radical Dadaist John Heartfield on a theater set for Communist director Erwin Piscator, and won the European championship in Czech handball. From there she went to Paris ostensibly to study literature at the Sorbonne, but likely her main occupation was as a Communist operative. Artist, fashion plate, sports star, revolutionary, spy: in retrospect Ivana Tomljenović perfectly embodied the interwar period.
But of course the Communist revolution she awaited did not come to pass. Instead, fascism swept over Europe, and in the meantime, Tomljenović had moved on to cosmopolitan Prague, where she continued her work as a graphic designer and married in 1933 (hence the “-Meller”). Prematurely widowed in the summer of 1934, she returned to Zagreb, the city that would become the capital of the Nazi puppet Independent State of Croatia in 1941.
Piecing these pictures together in 1980, Tomljenović revisited a time when she and her friends were about to set the world on fire. She made this album in response to the first signs of renewed interest in her work, which had fallen into obscurity. Spring 1980 also saw the death of Yugoslavian dictator Josip Broz Tito and the start of the country’s brutal breakup. Now, as Europe again faces questions of insiders and outsiders in the floods of refugees fleeing unrest and tyranny, Tomljenović’s probing and ironic works, including this one which reflects politicized movement and political transformation, are on display in an exhibition titled Bauhaus: Networking Ideas and Practice (BAUNET) at the Zagreb Museum of Contemporary Art.
ELIZABETH OTTO is a professor of art history and executive director of the Humanities Institute at SUNY Buffalo. She writes on gender and experimental art and media in early 20th Europe, and is currently working on a book titled Haunted Bauhaus, an alternative history of interwar Europe’s most influential art institution.