MILIVOJ UZELAC, 1897 – 1977 – Retrospective

Milivoj Uzelac: A Retrospective Who actually is Milivoj Uzelac, that Croatian painter who after 1921 spent only a short time in Zagreb and in 1923 left for good, to settle down in France? In truth, this departure did not mean a complete abandonment of his old milieu. Through continued exhibition in Zagreb, and indeed in the whole of the then country, Milivoj Uzelac did in an indirect way confirm his affiliation.

Milivoj Uzelac: A Retrospective

Who actually is Milivoj Uzelac, that Croatian painter who after 1921 spent only a short time in Zagreb and in 1923 left for good, to settle down in France? In truth, this departure did not mean a complete abandonment of his old milieu. Through continued exhibition in Zagreb, and indeed in the whole of the then country, Milivoj Uzelac did in an indirect way confirm his affiliation. He maintained the links with the setting from which he stemmed in other ways too. For example, in friendships with other artists.     One of these friendships was with Vilko Gecan, with whom he had become friendly back in his childhood, in the Real High School in Banja Luka.

They started to figure on the Croatian art scene in the same year that it was left, though his premature death, by the greatest authority of that generation, Miroslav Kraljević.   The generation to which Gecan and Uzelac belonged is marked by Kraljević in every way.   The sought their expression and their own space within his aura, in the firm belief that they would discover and know themselves if they approached him to the maximum. As well as these two painters, among others, Trepše and Varlaj, Tartaglia and Šumanović, Šulentić, Babić and Steiner also belonged to this generation of the second Modern period. An important turnaround in the life of Milivoj Uzelac occurred in autumn 1911, when his father died, and his mother with the children, Milivoj and his two sisters, moved the following year, 1912, to Zagreb. And from Banja Luka to Zagreb that autumn came Vilko Gecan; both of them started attending, for a short period of time, the private school of Tomislav Krizman.   These few autumn months in 1912 were to be for Gecan and Uzelac and the whole of their generation extremely important because they were to encounter the works of Kraljević, painter who was subsequently to be their idol. On November 11, 1912, the first Kraljević exhibition opened, in the Ulrich Salon in Zagreb. Gecan was to leave for education in Munich in the middle of 1913. Uzelac stayed in Zagreb however, where at the age of only just sixteen he passed the entrance exam for the Provisional College for Art and Fine Crafts, as the Academy of Fine Arts was then called.  Restless, or if the truth is to be told, ill-disciplined, and a show-off, Uzelac could not make his way in the school, which required orderliness and consistent work, and because of inappropriate conduct, he was expelled. World War I was soon to start, and Uzelac was thus mobilised, but managed to get out of it, and in 1915 went to Prague, where he was to spend the war years, working in the studio of the painter Jan Preisler, occasionally visiting the Academy there. From the extant works from these war years, of 1916 and 1917, it can be concluded that the influences on Uzelac were many and heterogeneous, and that his skill in drawing and painting often achieved the level of  real virtuosity. All these wartime years and particularly before the war, the artistic climate in Prague was extremely dynamic. From 1907 the echoes of the Expressionism of the Die Brücke group can be discerned, and later several of these people relied extremely directly on Picasso’s Cubism. Painters Bohumil Kubišta, Emil Filla, Vaclav Špala, Vincenc Beneš, Otakar Kunin, Antonin Prochazka, Josef Čapek and sculptor Otto Guttfreund constituted the highest quality part of Czech Cubism up to 1916. After the war too Prague was to continue this practice of accepting, familiarising itself with and taking on new stimuli, among which a particularly important role was to be played by Russian influences, and Berlin Dada. In 1920 Richard Huelsenbeck, Johannes Baader and Raul Hausmann arrived in Prague, and the next year, Hannah Höch and Kurt Schwitters came along with Hausmann. This meant that these direct contacts of the German Dadaists were to be seen very rapidly on the Prague art scene. What is more, the consequences of these Dada impulses were to be recognised in the Croatian section of the avant-garde movement. Students from Croatia Dragan Aleksić and Branko Ve Poljanski sent the first news about Dada to Ljubomir Micić from Prague, and he printed them in the early numbers of his journal Zenit, in 1921. Not only information, but also the Dada events in Zagreb and around Croatia organised by Aleksić and Poljanski derived their initial impulses from Prague. In this burgeoning of the avant-garde in Prague, Uzelac was not able to cope. What is more, what constituted there even the slightest more radical form of artistic speech was unrecognised and unabsorbed in his work.   But the problem of his eclecticism is not the most important problem for understanding his art. His role in the formation of Croatian painting immediately after World War I, in the key years, then, of the Spring Salon, which means the inauguration of the Cézanne doctrine,  mastering and leaving behind Kraljević and Expressionism, Lhote’s academic version of Cubism and later too, when he left Zagreb, would be of great importance. Put simply, without Milivoj Uzelac, Croatian painting from 1919 to 1940 would have gone in an entirely different course. It is not only his work that is important, but also the effect that he had on contemporaries.


At the end of World War I, there were in Prague, as well as Uzelac, Marijan Trepše and Vladimir Varlaj, and in spring 1919 Vilko Gecan arrived. Uzelac painted numerous portraits, including those in which he portrayed Gecan, and collective portraits featuring Gecan, Uzelac and his then regular model Viktoria, in several versions. The nineteen-year-old Czech girl, Viktoria, was in love with Uzelac, and went with him and Gecan to Zagreb.   Gecan was later to say that she was an excellent model, the model for his first painting with distinctly Expressionist characteristics (Viktoria, 1919), while in Uzelac we can find her in works like Composition (Three Portraits), Amorous Couple, Woman with a Hat – all from 1919 – and Venus of the Suburbs, Female Portrait with Artist, In the Studio of the Bohemian of 1920. In autumn 1920 the Artists’ Association allotted Uzelac a studio at Vočarska cesta no. 74, and that change can be felt in his works. Here the first undisputedly great work was produced, In the Studio of the Bohemian (1920). This painting is important not only for consideration of Uzelac. It is in fact a work that in a masterly way concluded the presence of Miroslav Kraljević in the generation that made his name, elevating him to the position of an absolute standard, their idol. In an indirect way the memory and spirit of Kraljević’s great forebear, Edouard Manet, is invoked, those signs that constituted the early Modern period of Croatian art. The depiction of two dressed men, one of whom (Gecan) is dandyishly elegant and melancholic, in the society of a beautiful naked young woman (Viktoria) with an extremely sophisticatedly arranged still life at the very bottom of the picture, can easily be understood as a somewhat liberal version of Manet’s famous Luncheon on the Grass (1863). The picture In the Studio of the Bohemian is a kind of farewell to Uzelac’s early, Prague-and-Zagreb period; in this, the continuity of one line that has a clear origin can be discerned, and it can be said freely that in it the artist reached the peak of his maturity. Indeed, if one looks at all those portraits created in Prague, and still more the works of the second half of 1919 and 1920 painted in Zagreb into which a new iconographic inventory was introduced, we shall see scenes of the demi-monde with prostitutes, circus artistes, the social dregs. His departure for Paris in early 1921 and his stay there to the autumn of the year would have a crucial importance. Uzelac was fascinated by the dynamics and wealth of all kinds that Paris had to offer, as well as by the new painting. Neo-Cubism, as he called it, that version of the late academicised Cubism that came out of the school of André Lhote. He spent most of his time in Montparnasse, which had then become the centre of not only Paris but of all important artistic events and encounters in a global sense.   But what was it that Milivoj Uzelac took on in Paris during 1921, when for the first time he moved into a milieu that was to be in a full sense his life setting in future?   What he discovered then, selected and adopted, can be best seen in the pictures done just after his return in the autumn to Zagreb. He showed some of them at the 12th Spring Salon. What can be understood as a link of all these works created between 1921 and 1922 is a kind of “action of reduction”, as many years later Mića Bašičević was to call this morphological determination, thinking above all of Sava Šumanović.   In 1921 came several Uzelac paintings in which it can be clearly seen how he carried out this action of reduction. This includes the pictures Sphinx of the Big City (Danae) and Magdalene, in which the new spatial organisation is implemented more clearly, or to be more precise, the flattening of the middle ground that became, as it had been once long before with El Greco, just a supple, abstract drapery the only goal of which was to bring out the relief aspects of the figure in the foreground. Also included here are Red Nude (1922), two allegorical pictures of a narrow and elongated format done to order (Allegory of the echo and Allegory of Music, 1922), and Three Female Nudes (1923) in which the author seems to have been wanting to try out some elements that he used for the first time in Magdalene. In 1923, Uzelac’s key work was produced. This is the Self-Portrait in front of a Bar. In this picture, the principle of unity is done away with in a radical manner, both in the spatial organisation of the painting and from the mimetic aspect. This is a painting that is done on the principle of the collage. Conventional integrity is replaced by the sequencing of fragments arranged with great freedom, the way they are linked by pure associations.   The crumbled, fragmented composition takes us into a neurotic condition of time and place and approaches that kind of expression most precisely and consistently employed in his works by George Grosz, during the war years, still more so after 1918 and the Dada experiences of the early post-war years. The principle of the collage on which Uzelac produced this work does not link him, however, only with the works of the Berlin artists of these years, from Grosz to the writer Alfred Döblin, from Hannah Höch to Raul Hausmann, but also with the Zagreb of the early twenties. It was at this time that the first collages and photo-montages appeared in the circle of Micić’s avant-garde journal Zenit. They were produced by Josip Seissel (signed with his pseudonym of Jo Klek) and his friends who for a short time made up the group called Traveleri/Travellers. If earlier Uzelac had evaded radical language challenges, as was the case in Prague with Cubism, with his Self-Portrait in front of a Bar he now came closest to them. And then, the vulgarity, obscenity and salacity that we find in this picture in the depictions in the background, which are extremely similar to the kind of graffiti and drawings one finds in public toilets, are in no way an isolated topic in the oeuvre of Uzelac. Indeed, the erotic imagination is very lavish in his work, and works of suchlike contents, which in many cases enter the sphere of pure pornography, can be found during the whole course of his painting. 


In 1923 Uzelac left for Paris, for good. He settled on France to be his lasting dwelling place. In the autumn he took up his residence in the suburb of Malakoff. He painted a very great deal, and attempted to catch the current language of painting, in which one can recognise throwbacks to Classicism with strong, vast forms, in which Picasso and Derain were in the lead.   A highly clubbable nature enabled Milivoj Uzelac to make his way very easily in his new surrounding; indeed, he received commissions and found purchasers, and only a year after his arrival in Paris he was able to show four pictures at the Autumn Salon.   In 1925 he was still more successful, and a run of paintings show that he had effectively absorbed the key principles typical of the poetics of the “return to order” (the paintings Composition II – Five Female Figures, Three Graces, both of 1925). He painted portraits, views, city scenes in general, scenes from cafés and from settings of private life, and the facility with which he worked verged on occasions on superficiality.  Uzelac was actually very well aware of this, but the numerous commissions and a social life lived to the full drove him to work fast and much.   In this he was like Derain.  If one compares the works that were done from the mid twenties and indeed in the whole of the thirties by Derain and Uzelac, there are many instructive parallels. In 1928, Uzelac left the suburb of Malakoff and found a studio in town; in summer, Gecan came to visit him, after several years of living in the USA.   They now produced portraits of the Uzelac model of those years, a Hungarian student they called Tushika. The stiffness of the classicising forms was now softened, and Uzelac revelled in the ease that he achieved in the shaping of the body, and, in particular, the female skin. When in autumn 1930 he met Rosemarie de la Rayere, he found in her not only his permanent model, but also a partner for life, with whom he was indeed to spend the rest of his life.   Portraits of Rosemarie and her little daughter from an earlier marriage became his regular subjects, but what is new in all this is that there is a feeling of intimacy, which for the first time Milivoj Uzelac established as the dominant content of his painting.   Once again facility, once again return to the same motifs, increasingly frequent sojourns in the south of France, where there were lighter and colouristically brighter scenes, the painting of numerous versions of the same motifs: these were the basic marks of Uzelac’s paintings of the thirties. In the abundance of paintings, there were a string of great works in which in a wonderful way not references to but resonances of Matisse and Derain can be read off, with the authentic personal style of Uzelac, however, always welling out. True enough, in this mass of work there is a lot of run-of-the-mill work dashed off according to commission or stemming from leisurely superficiality. But the fact is that this superficiality left no trace in the case of the great works such as Portrait of a Woman with a Model Sailing Ship (1931), two versions of the same subject, Area from the Window (1932), Plane Trees (1933), Black Skin (1934) and Odalisque on Cushions (1934). To this list of Uzelac’s really major works one should certainly add the Painter and Model of 1934. Today we can see Uzelac more objectively and from the viewpoint of the major revisions that overtook the art of the first half of the 20th century. These revisions in certain aspects played excellently into Uzelac’s hand, and gave his art, or more precisely some key works from it,   a value that had not earlier been recognised as they are today. His prodigality and bohemian way of life, his superficiality and facility, even his bland virtuosity, of which he was himself so well aware, did not entirely damage him. In the possible division of Uzelac’s work it is possible to see in him phases, to seek places in common with general trends, to reject what does not live up to the criteria, of which there is much, but, the basic values remain strong enough. Without the Uzelac part, we would not be able to understand Kraljević the way we do, or Gecan and Trepše, or indeed some more distant phenomena, which in fact become much closer through this painter.   Such phenomena belong sometimes to extremes, to mention only Grosz and Derain, Lhote and Matisse, but then, Uzelac was in a sense a painter of extremes.  

Text: Zvonko Maković