100 Prime Works of Croatian Artists from the Collections of the National Museum in Belgrade


The exhibition One Hundred Prime Works of Croatian Artists 1850-1950 from the collections of the National Museum in Belgrade in its very title, the exclusiveness of the theme and the very high prestige of the material selected necessarily elicits various connotations, raises a number of issues from this country’s own and from the common cultural past, issues that often go beyond cultural topics, and that ultimately can all be boiled down to the most essential of all – was it really necessary to wait the whole of a century for this exhibition to happen? And how is it that neither the profession nor cultural policy as a whole managed to summon up sufficient interest in the accomplishment of a project that in word, image and work restores to the national memory some of the most valuable works of the Croatian art heritage? And although answers to this and suchlike questions could be looked for primarily in the sphere of politics, the actual occasion for the exhibition here and now derives from an entirely mundane solution to an architectural problem. In the reconstruction, that is, of the building of the National Museum in Belgrade, which owns the exceptionally valuable works of Croatian artists selected for this exhibition. Thanks first of all to the initiative of the Museum curator and Yugoslav Painting Collection manager Ljubica Miljković, who is one of the authors of the exhibition project, a unique opportunity presented itself, in line furthermore with the current conception of the work of the establishment on the international presentation of its holdings, for, the first time in a whole century, a fairly complete selection to be shown, and a kind of art history inventory of the key figures and their works that characterised Croatian modern art and that make up a more complete unit than has ever been collected in a museum beyond the Croatian borders. As well as for a clearer comprehension of all the points of contact and the sensitive points of our common cultural (and political) history the unheroic time notwithstanding, which, passing through different periods of utopian integration activities has shown different aspects and possibly influences of cultural togetherness. And has endorsed the criteria and the methods of collection of the art holdings of one of the most important and oldest museum institutions in Serbia. Indeed, any reasonably serious dossier exhibition, critical retrospective (like the Spring Salon 1915-1928) put on in the Art Pavilion in May 2007 or any fairly systematic review of Croatian art at the end of the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century will necessarily invoke a museum institution that possesses one of the most worthwhile collections in this part of Europe…

Does one then need to recall that in the long-term exhibition practice of the Art Pavilion, and indeed of most high-standing Croatian museums and galleries, retrospective presentations of the separate oeuvres of the most important artists of Croatian modern art (like Bukovac, Meštrović, Uzelac, Tartaglia, Seissel and Job, to name a few) could hardly be considered complete without dipping into the rich holdings of the National Museum in Belgrade? Both for the sake of a more complete insight into individual poetics and given stylistic periods of Croatian modern art, and in general into the chronology of the development of art in these regions, and because of the exceptional inherent importance of the actual works of art that are kept in the holdings, collaboration at this level became the usual practice of two institutions and was kept up for decades. However, this was commonly at the level of temporary loans or reproductions in catalogues of a small number of works for retrospective or dossier exhibitions, and never before in Croatia has such an exhibition been mounted, which, in form and content, provides such complete information about and an integral critical insight into the very long list of names and works of Croatian artists owned by the Museum. With these considerations as the premise, backed up with the readiness of the National Museum to make available, with the support of its team of experts and restorers, all the works selected for the exhibition (the Meštrović masterpiece Memory of 1908, although intended, will not unluckily be presented for purely technical reasons), collaboration on the preparation and organisation of this grand exhibition project was agreed on; it was intended to throw additional light on certain chapters of and indeed the entire picture of Croatian art of the first half of the last century. And it also draws fitting attention to some completely unknown oeuvres or works of artists that the exhibition interestingly reveals and that are still to be explored (of M. Marinković and V. Grdan). Finally, this is an exhibition that will for the first time, for the Croatian public, open the doors of the Museum and the creation of a very large collection of Croatian art assembled by donations, public purchase at numerous exhibitions of Yugoslav artists, starting from the foundation of the first South Slav Art Exhibition (1904) and the South Slav Art Colony (1907), via the work of Lada, the Serbian Association (1907) and Croatia’s Medulić (1908), the Spring Exhibitions and so on, with the participation of the artists who either lived in Belgrade or spent longer or short times there (Tabaković, Grdan, Tartaglia, Job, Meštrović and so on). Out of the total of eight hundred and eighty nine works – paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints – that the Museum in Belgrade possesses and keeps in its collections of Yugoslav art and in its permanent displays of work of a national and international character, for this display the authors of the exhibition (Ljubica Miljković and Zvonko Maković) chose a hundred masterpieces and consummate achievements of some forty of the leading Croatian artists, constituting, in toto, an integral body of national art of the twentieth century. The exhibition follows, in a wide range of styles and poetics, a constellation of Croatian artists from Karas, then on to Bukovac, the early works of Meštrović, then Račić, Kraljević and Becić, Gecan, Tartaglia, Uzelac, Job and Kršinić and then on to Plančić, Radauš, Seissel, Vidović and Knifer, as well as many others, who in these key works of theirs set the stamp on the modern era.  

Text: Radovan Vuković, director of Art Pavilion in Zagreb