Report from Croatiaby Branko Franceschi
Among Croatia’s 4.26 million citizens, weary from the long economic crisis, the widespread opinion is that visual art is one of the nation’s most successful cultural exports. This status is supported by the activities of four fine arts academies located in regional centers and a decentralized network of art museums and galleries. It should be taken into account that against the background of the turbulent 20th century—so marked by interruptions of the three wars/revolutions—the arts represented the only continuity. However, the intense political circumstances often spilled over into the aesthetic realm. One of the most dramatic was Yugoslavia’s break away from the Soviet Union in 1948, which inevitably necessitated a break with the aesthetics of Socialist Realism and the continuation of the pre-war constructivist tradition. A 1953 exhibition by the group EXAT51 in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, was the first abstract art exhibition in the socialist world. The figure of “cultural worker” epitomized the era of “Socialism with a human face,” and the chimerical figure of the art critic/curator, which sometimes even included artistic perogatives, became its influential advocate and conceptual leader. In contrast, the local iteration of Abstract Expressionism, a vibrant Socialist modernism, became mainstream art embodying the “hedonism” of the “self-managing” socialism practiced in Yugoslavia. From then on, and despite the fluctuations of the government’s dedication to democratic values, a more subversive approach towards the official order of things prospered: the New Tendencies movement, which produced the first computer art ever (1961 – 73); the secretive practices of the Gorgona Group (1959 – 66); the Zagreb Music Biennial (established 1961); the Genre Experimental Film Festival G.E.F.F. (1963 – 69) which promoted the aesthetics of anti-film; Braco and Nena Dimitrijević’s 1971 international exhibition of pioneering conceptual and video art; the New Art Practice’s institutional criticism. The artists and art critics/curators creating and promoting this “second line” of art—the art that actively re-examined its socio-political and institutional context—proved to be the most important figures of the recent past finally entering the cultural mainstream thanks to their predominant influence on the contemporary generation of new media artists and their growing international recognition.
It seemed that there were no more contested opinions to campaign for in Croatia’s prolific and all-encompassing visual art scene. Consequently, it seemed that media coverage and the dissemination of information on the visual arts in Croatia had developed into an idyllic routine, despite constant objections to the lack of actual criticism in favor of an informational approach. The ever-shrinking cultural sections of major daily papers and their Sunday supplements still provided the general public with a sufficient overview of current exhibitions and events. Simultaneously, considerable time was given to cultural events in electronic media, including regular programs and talk shows on national TV and radio channels. This was significantly expanded in 2012, thanks to the introduction of the third channel of national television being dedicated exclusively to the programs of cultural and educational content. It is not unusual that TV and radio journalists cover exhibition openings for the nationally broadcast news programs. This pattern of culture reports and broadcasts is emulated by the regional and municipal public stations, and to a lesser extent, by the private television and radio stations established after Croatia’s independence in 1990. There are specialized cultural publications like the biweekly magazines Zarez and Vijenac, the semiannual ivot umjetnosti (founded in 1966 by the Institute of the History of Art), and the privately published Art magazine Kontura (est. 1991), as well as similar publications published outside Zagreb. All these publications are heavily supported by public funds, and together with the proliferation of online culture blogs, both the general public and professionals have access to a comprehensive overview of the vivid past and present of Croatian visual culture.
However, the political rise of the new conservatives, and their astute usage of democratic procedures and legal loopholes to promote conservative values has seemingly spilled over to the aesthetic field. Again, it took an art critic/curator to create the furor. After gaining notoriety for his recent exhibition review entitled Not a Minimum of Fascination, in which he questioned the relevance of Croatian conceptual art, and his curatorial project New Croatian Realism, which rides the contemporary wave of interest in figurative painting, Feđa Gavrilović was selected by the Association of the Visual Artists of Croatia (est. 1868) to curate the 32nd Youth Salon, a major exhibition founded in 1968, which introduces young artists and presumably new aesthetics. His notion of genuine contemporary art—the art impervious to international trends, object-oriented, self-referential and autonomous—created an unprecedented uproar. Social networks erupted with protests and calls for a ban of the exhibition, and impassioned TV debates lamented the vague procedure for selecting Gavrilović as the exhibition curator. The art scene was divided on the curator’s and organizer’s partiality—not only toward traditional art disciplines, but also toward art as an object-based, decorative, l’art pour l’art activity. Suddenly, the dialogue returned to the issues hotly debated, not even in the ’50s, but in the ’20s. It seems that the very model of understanding art created by art critics and curators of the ’50s through the ’70s, by critics such as Radoslav Putar, Boo Bek, Vera Horvat Pintarić, Matko Metrović, elimir Kočević, Jea Denegri, and others, no longer resonates with the younger generation of art historians and is probably not even included in the university curriculum. It doesn’t help that the recent generation of students interested in curatorial studies cannot overcome the program’s increasing academism, and can’t determine for themselves how to approach the growing numbers of art students who just want to create art objects. The lines are drawn, positions are clear: exhibitions are being conceptualized and artists are creating objects. The days of relentless art criticism have returned.
BRANKO FRANCESCHI from 1987 to 2004 was a program director at the Miroslav Kraljevic Gallery in Zagreb, from 2004 to 2008 director of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rijeka, Croatia, from 2008 to 2010 director of HDLU in Zagreb, Croatia. Since 2010 he has been the director of the Virtual Museum of the Avant-guard Art. Franceschi was the curator for the Croatian pavilion at the 16th Sao Paulo Biennial (2004), 52th Venice Biennial (2007), 11th International Architecture Exhibition, Venice Biennial (2008), 55th Venice Biennial (2013), co-curator of the ARK D-0 Biennial, Konjic, BIH and member of the curatorial team of the International Biennial of Young Artists, Bucharest (2006, 2012).