CONTEMPORARY CROATIAN PAINTING – BETWEEN FIGURATION AND ABSTRACTION
CIVICO MUSEO REVOLTELLA
July 5, 2022 – October 9, 2022
Jasminka Poklečki Stošić, director of the Art Pavilion in Zagreb
Branko Franceschi, director of the National Museum of Modern Art, Zagreb
Artist: Twenty of the very best contemporary Croatian artists currently figuring on the art scene in Croatia. These are painters of the middling generation, between the ages of 35 and 55. Each painter will be represented by a maximum of two pieces.
The exhibition New Croatian Painting between figuration and abstraction is a choice of twenty of the very best Croatian painters of the middling generation who are dedicated to easel painting as traditionally understood. These are artists whose work during the two decades of the new millennium has already helped domestic visual art to attain its currently high artistic standard and who will undoubtedly determine the future of their creative area. While in terms of technique the exhibition is focused on painting on canvas in oils or acrylics, the artists and works chosen excellently represent a wide range of formal options, which is after all one of the permanent characteristics of the Croatian fine art of the last century. At one end of the range there are proponents of the New Figuration, mainly based on photographic and similar visual originals, and on the other end there are representatives of the New Abstraction, which can mainly be brought down to various versions of the organic and intuitive approach. Between these extremes are those who represent the inheritance of Conceptual Art, mostly referring to the involvement of textual elements in the composition and visual quotations.
With respect to substance, the figurative painting is pronouncedly narrative in its performance, with themes and motifs referring to current phenomena in society and civilisation, or else in some escapist disengagement from them, or is alternatively absorbed in the perfection of the rendering of a realistic depiction. Speaking of the links they have in common, the selection of abstract painting presents artists with restrained expression and a muted range of colours, marked emotionality and an ambiental charge.
Depending on the size of the space selected, each of the artists can be represented with two works created during the last two to five years. The exhibition will be accompanied with a bilingual Croatian/Italian catalogue, with a foreword, reproductions of all the works selected, brief artist CVs, a list of works on show and the usual facts and figures.
CONTEMPORARY CROATIAN PAINTING BETWEEN FIGURATION AND ABSTRACTION
The exhibition of contemporary Croatian painting entitled Between Figuration and Abstraction presents the pictures of artists who in the turbulent decades of the turn of the millennium, notwithstanding the then prevalent discourse concerning the death of painting or at least the pointlessness of the easel painting type, in the clash with innovative artistic disciplines, technologies and strategies, actually in this oldest of the visual disciplines found and successfully developed the sense and substance of their artistic careers. Like every survey of an art scene, our exhibition too under its common denominator brings together very diverse aesthetic formulae and thematic preoccupations. Our goal is to present to a foreign public the heterogeneity and vitality of the Croatian visual art that came into being and developed in the dynamic decades marked by radical social changes after the war and the gaining of independence, when one of the priorities was to develop the Croatian cultural identity and make it identifiable on the international cultural scene.
With respect to the cultural system, from the socialist era, Croatia inherited and continued to develop a network of exhibition venues and museums devoted to the fine arts in which all county or provincial centres were comprehended. The biggest advance occurred in tertiary level education. The Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb was founded in the cultural and political centre of the state back in 1907, the first tertiary level institution to cultivate the fine arts over a wide geo-political area that stretched eastwards from Italy. Up to national independence, it was the only educational institution for the fine arts at tertiary level in Croatia. From the second half of the nineties, new academies were opened in regional centres, first of all in Split in 1997 and then in Rijeka and Osijek in 2004. These are that towns that, notwithstanding the cultural gravitational force of Zagreb, developed into distinct art centres with their own particular identities, founded on a a very coherent organisation of art scenes that from then on included not only presentational but also top-flight training institutions. In consideration of the painting section it is impossible to pass by Dubrovnik, which thanks to its social and cultural history and notwithstanding its rather small population, has always, including in the modern age, been able to speak with pride of its marked visual talents and artistic creativity, of national and international importance. In spite of these opportunities for study, which have never been greater, some young artists have still opted for study abroad, primarily at the academies in the fairly immediate surroundings, such as those in Venice, Vienna and Dusseldorf, less frequently in global centres like London, Berlin and New York. With respect to the transfer of knowledge, the situation changed with Croatian accession to the EU in 2013, after which for both Croatian students abroad and their foreign counterparts in Croatia, studying in other universities or receiving at least parts of their academic curricula, became a fairly usual mode of university education. The same thing can be said of participation in the many two-way artistic residency programmes and exchanges. Also from the socialist system, in addition to the exhibition institutions and the educational opportunities, a system of art profession associations was inherited and then upgraded. For the discourse of the present writing, there is much interest in the associations of visual artists who gather all kinds of artists at work in a comprehensive spectrum of disciplines and practices together on the territorial principle, the objective being self-determination and the upgrading of their status within the whole of the structure of society. Lively exhibiting programmes are historically related to this activity, and today the associations have some of the most prestigious venues in the state at their disposal. Not only do they operate as platform via which artists can make exercise their influence on the regulations and laws that govern their existential position at the state and civic level, but membership in an association is the basis on which visual artists base their status as independent artist, which assures them the right to state financing of their health insurance and pension plan. The operations of the associations, the financial aspect of artistic rights and the work of museum and gallery institutions as well as of the NGO sector, which since the nineties has developed rapidly into a system existing in parallel with the traditional institutional sector is entirely financed from the national budget at state, regional or city level. Public funds for the work of institutions is by statute automatically divided out among the owners, which may be state, city or region, and programme resources from the same sources are acquired from them via the annual open competitions for the award of funding for public needs in culture. With a negligible amount of funds from sponsors and donations, the result of a social strategy that is not very encouraging, it can be said that for better or worse culture and art in Croatia are totally dependent and reliant upon public financing. In the segment of the fine arts the activity of private galleries is very particular, and almost non-existent; if things were different, it might, apart from trading in artworks, also deal with investment in production, organisation of exhibitions and participation in art fairs and in general show some concern for the development of the artists whom they represent. Commerce in artworks in Croatia is not regulated, and unfolds outside the taxation system in a grey zone of direct sales in the artist’s studio or via a network of middlemen. Successful artists, particularly those with useful international careers, rely on foreign galleries and gallerists to promote them on the international market and to the major cultural institutions. There are historical reasons for this. Up to World War II the modalities of the art market in Croatia corresponded to the Western European practice of the time, with an appropriate structure of private galleries and leading collectors. Everything changed profoundly with socialism when, particularly because of the rigid ideology in place immediately after the war, collecting was labelled a bourgeois and unacceptable activity, the state and its institutions taking on the care for, or control of, the work and existence of artists and the reference institutions for art. It was held that artists needed to contribute to society, which would in return take care of their needs, while the consummation of the cultural needs of the citizenry had to unfold in public space and in institutions, not in the form of property held in private premises. This ideological modification of the historically developed dynamic of relations between artist and public, which cut the art market out of the equation, resulted in practice in the opening of a space for illegal commerce in art, which during the liberalisation of society was ossified into the settled grey zone of business operations that functions to this day. On the bright side, in visual art, the artist’s independence from the commercial aspect of work and the art market resulted in some of the most influential visual phenomena, such as the proto-conceptual Gorgona group during the sixties, the openness to visual research sublimated in the New Tendencies exhibitions. By and large, a judgement criterion was developed for the relevance of a work of art that paid greater attention to the conceptual and experimental aspects of creative work than to the production qualities. In terms of neo-avant-garde practice, Zagreb was one of the leading international cultural centres during the sixties and seventies. In parallel with these trends and phenomena a particular type of art developed in Croatia and Yugoslavia, what was called socialist modernism, which, within the confines of abstract art, produced top works in the domain of traditional visual disciplines, at the international level.
The selection of recent paintings that we are exhibiting presents the transition and culmination of this complex context through the work of several generations of painters who developed their professional status from the nineties on. In this period some of them have grown from students to professors at the art academies, some work in schools, and some are freelance artists. For most of those on show, painting is the preferred discipline, while for some of them it is just one of the forms of their multimedia art practice. All without exception have in Croatia attained an enviable professional status, and in several generations are considered the leaders and continuers of the discipline of easel painting. The oldest among them took their degrees at the end of the eighties and in the early nineties and began their careers in art and painting at a time when for the umpteenth time in the modern epoch the death of painting was announced. In the nineties, after a growth of interest in the painting medium during the eighties, in the domains of institutional promotion and visual art criticism, the Zagreb scene (actually historically open to artistic experiment) supported all forms of media art, performance, activist, interactive and inclusive art practices.
Then indeed it seemed as if easel painting was turning in a closed circle of worn out aesthetic formulae, ideas and themes. There was a prevailing feeling that with the exception of already established painters who were continuing to develop their poetics, the younger cohorts could no longer see in easel painting a medium with which to express their drives and visions.
Of course, there were exceptions, painters who while still students had developed within the scope of traditional easel painting their own untypical and distinctly original themes and typologies, which was to me then, as a young curator in the Miroslav Kraljević Gallery with its eclectic exhibition programme extremely interesting. One of them was Tomislav Buntak, who from the very beginning of his career stood out as a painter of escapist or exotic worlds. Buntak was not directly inspired by anything that was then or had historically been part of the local painting tradition. He was to spontaneously develop his playful drawing studies from wall-painting, on top of incised or digital drawing, to site-specific compositions in gold and finally to easel paintings. He developed his visual universe in a themes ranging from fantastic and the sensual to the sacred. In 2011 in Zagreb he was one of the initiators of the Painting Biennial, which coincided with the moment when global interest in easel painting was at its peak in recent times. Buntak is currently dean of the Zagreb Academy of Fine Arts and has for a number of years been president of the Croatian Artists’ Association in Zagreb, the most effective of the professional visual artists’ associations. Two of the artists of the oldest cohort present in our selection live and work in Pula. Each in their own way with a great deal of spirit and a powerful feeling for the existential absurd develops themes and motifs that take up a critical attitude to global and national social phenomena, ideologies and worldviews. Bojan Šumonja is known for his impeccably produced phantasmagorical figural compositions, and Robert Pauletta for compositions that, depending on the topic, will with the greatest of ease move from the figurative to the abstract idiom, and back again, as well as into the domain of the expanded image, which includes textual or sculptural components into the composition. Another member of their generation is Zoltan Novak, known for compositions that have a powerful symbolic charge, a gloomy mood and colouring, the central motif of which is the human figure brought down to a sign or a flat figure that at a symbolic level functions as typical and anonymous representative of a civilisation that has lost its balance. Close to this in terms of the concept of reductionism is the oeuvre of Robert Šimrak, with its technical perfection, whose figuration flirts with the aesthetic of Pop Art. Both visual impression and handling of motif are close to the aesthetics of the emphatically precise drawing promoted by the comic strip and the ad industry. Šimrak, after a series of years working in a digital medium and the production of light objects founded on digitally generated compositions, returned to painting with the production of images of dystopian topics of a post-apocalyptic society that notwithstanding all the lessons of history is doubling down on its destructive hostilities.
The cynical mood links Šimrak with the following generation of figurative painters who mostly took their art degrees in the midst of the first decade of this millennium and then, on the local scene, made out of figurative easel painting the dominant trend, one particularly successful among reviewers and public alike. A generation highly skilled in techniques and drawing, inspired by the ideas generated in the big media and marketing companies that have expanded into all parts of visual reality and influenced in terms of concept by New Age world views, it intrigued audiences with the exploitation of suppressed themes of ecological disaster, nuclear apocalypse, a civilisation increasingly bizarre and unbalanced, migrations and social double-think. Leading figures of this group at this exhibition are, in alphabetical order, Sebastijan Dračić, Pavle Pavlović, Stjepan Šandrk, Josip Tirić and Zlatan Vehabović.
Older critics and art historians were taken aback by the impression that a younger generation of artists were working as if there had never ever been the great local tradition of gestural and constructivist abstract painting that had stood astride the second half of the last century. It seemed that the visual references of their generation owed much more to images of the world of the kind transmitted by the mass media industries through photographs and the moving images of film and television produced for digital platforms of communication than to the history of painting. And yet the accomplishments of abstractionism were not entirely lost. Matko Vekić, for instance, has achieved in his oeuvre a certain modus vivendi between figuration and abstraction, thanks to his intense feeling for visual material as palpable and tangible. We present him at the show with images in which, in the production of large landscape compositions, he combines work in the support of the picture and upon it, which in certain parts turns into the pure pleasure of work with material. A careful balance between figuration and abstraction is present in the entirely non-everyday project of the Heavenly Image Corporation that unites the works of the painters Danica Franić and Davor Krelja. Married to each other and working in a shared studio, at a certain moment they started spontaneously to paint as one, creating a coherent oeuvre equally distant from the individual art projects of one and the other. Compositions with motifs of levitating amorphous fantastic organisms are produced flatly, with soft tones that emanate a hypnotic atmosphere, low in intensity and psychedelic in mood. For the moment the project has been interrupted by the Zagreb earthquake that ravaged their joint creative space. The painterly oeuvre of Anabel Zanze draws on a long tradition of visual poetry and local conceptual art that brought letters and words as aesthetic facts into the painting medium. Taking this heritage as her point of departure, Zanze has developed a complex and instantly identifiable personal poetics that defines the composition of the paintings, mainly executed in monochrome or bichrome, by the font adopted and by the spatial interrelations of their letters. The semantic stratum is deliberately arcane and ultimately unimportant for the aesthetic impression. Anabel Zanze is a Dubrovnik painter, as is Katarina Ivanišin Kardum, one of the painters working in the space in which figuration merges into abstraction, and inversely. She has aroused the interest of the public with her almost monochrome cycle with motifs of stuffed birds covered with protective film. The following cycle of monumental compositions on paper with motifs of mountains was a swerve away from the mimetic depiction of the motif towards the abstract as far as was consistent with keeping the initial motif recognisable. In its concept the procedure was similar to that of our first abstract painters, for whom the point of transition towards abstraction was the reduction of maritime landscapes to planes of sky, sea and island contours. Osijek painter Zoran Šimunović paints compositions that suggest a complex mental space in which the laws of nature do not hold true, being rather an arbitrary set of figurative motifs in their interpretation open to a meaning orchestrated according to the iconographic perspective. Here too the balance between figurative and abstract elements of the composition is pulled off with the objective of suggesting a surreal and dreamy atmosphere.
In the last few years a certain saturation with the trend towards figurative painting has been observable on the scene. The initial charge with which painters expressed the acute problems of civilisations or Croatian society tended to retreat in the direction of the illustrative, and the original intellectual engagement was replaced by a kind of rivalry at the level of proficiency of performance. For this reason a certain number of painters, having achieved reputations among the successful figurative practitioners, turned entirely to the abstract idiom. The exhibition shows recent paintings of Fedor Fisher and Izvor Pende. Fisher has opted for gestural abstraction, highly expressive in its nature, which ultimately results in an oeuvre suggestive of the Informel manner. Like his historical predecessors of the fifties, Fisher uses industrial tools to mix painterly and non-painterly materials that he then hurls onto a support with orgiastic intensity in dense and thick layers. Pende’s painting manner founded on a meticulous approach to the relations of the painted surfaces, lines and values, is the most distinctive phenomenon in contemporary Croatian painting. Although it has its own particular colouring and developed in the setting of what is called Dubrovnik colourful painting, it is in terms of tone closer to American or German abstraction, and in its use of letters and sometimes whole words as visual motifs, to Pop Art in America. In Pende’s pictures the eye can still occasionally glimpse the outlines of some organic shape, but actually it is only about the aptitude of our perspectival machinery to seek human or animal forms in the clash of lines or flows of coloured area. Finally, Lidija Šeler, whom we used to know for her decorative painting objects done in mixed media, has after a number of years away returned to the scene with her vehement, monumental abstract compositions. Her dramatic new paintings are produced with huge physical and mental power in an intuitive eruption of energy that has clearly been tamped down to date. Artists are as if re-discovering an unimpeachable energy of liberation that only abstract art, with no need for message or perfection of mimesis, can offer both them and the public.
The circle is opening again. Or closing.