Exhibition Title: Edo Kovačević – Retrospektive
Date: November 23, 2006 – January 07, 2007

Even during the painter’s lifetime, art criticism and the discipline as a whole stated their assessment of the painting of Edo Kovačević, a kind of moral paradigm of the poetics of intimism, and clearly defined his effective role, place and significance in the formation of the visual phenomena of our modern and contemporary artistic history. In the first great retrospective in the Art Pavilion in 1978 (authored by Radovan Ivančević, one of the best interpreters and an outstanding connoisseur of the painter’s oeuvre), and then in an art monograph with an interpretation by the same author (in 1985), a certain review and an appropriate critical assessment of the most important sections and the problem underpinnings in the first half a century of his creative work was undertaken, placing him within the circle of artists who along the lines of the current European ferments and social trends of “critical realism” made an important contribution to the development of new styles and phenomena of modern visual expression in Croatian art between the two wars.

Appearing on the visual scene as a painter trained in the spirit of the advanced ideologies of the new realism, one of the active participants of the most significant artistic formations with which Croatian painting, from the thirties on, went on to establish an indigenous line of modernistic expression, Edo Kovačević set out on his evolution as a painter from the positions of a socially-committed artist, joining the Zemlja group at the very outset of its work (exhibiting with it from 1932 to 1935). But for a painter whose motivation lay in his viewpoint and intimate biography, and for whom “painting ¢was£ a moral act”, the question of belonging to a radical ideology of the social, Zemlja programme and slavish obedience to the principles of modernity was to turn out to be above all a first-rate moral issue of a humane revolt borne on the wings of rebellious European humanism. It was also the issue of a fundamental aesthetic question of expressing human and artistic liberty, with which this initial powerful creative impulse of critical awareness in a personal way was to be expressed in his own creative and human manner, marked with the aesthetics of poetic realism.

As a congenital intimist, immersed in modern and contemporary currents of the avant-garde movements and social currents that marked the European and domestic visual scene in the watershed periods around the middle of the last century, Kovačević could probably never have ultimately accepted the practice of the visual orthodoxy of Zemlja-school primitivism, with its most frequently naïve and geometrical stylisation of form. His pronounced fellow feeling and exceptional sensitivity for the problems of the “ordinary man” followed that modernist current of Croatian painting that resisted every dogmatism and every radicalism of artistic ideas and agendas. Consistently defending the autonomy of his own choice and the sensitivity of an artist who had opted for intimism Kovačević in his Zemlja-worldview of visual and social themes (portraying the reality of the urban outskirts and the everyday settings of the world of the poor) identified the ideational framework within which he gradually sensitised his painting optics, adopted principles and strengthened his modern artistic commitments. Having thus to make the choice between dogma and the freedom of expression of his own convictions, Kovačević plumped for freedom as the basic principle of his creative activity, cultivating in reduced style purity of surface and simplicity of form as well as an extremely refined chromatic and colourist expressiveness as lasting characteristic of his painting. This particular painting experience was to mark a definite and final break with Zemlja practice and getting to grips with the new challenges of space and light, and then with a freer use of paint, entirely aligning himself with the specific intimism of the late 1930s. As tireless researcher into form and one of our first post-war modernists, absorbed in the subtle construction of classical painterly topics, still lifes and landscapes, as inexhaustible well of information, he achieved his peak of colourist expressiveness in the very familiar cycle of Parisian cityscapes (1948), and then in the important theme of Zagreb rooftops, Edo Kovačević at the end of his painterly evolution, completely outside any contemporary trends, created a unique poetic and human equilibrium in a refined chromatic structure of Zagorje landscapes.

Bearing in mind all the essential components of Kovačević’s oeuvre, this critical retrospective is a kind of tribute and a last opportunity, making the centenary of the artist’s birth and a decade and a half since his last exhibition of landscapes in 1993 in the same space of the Art Pavilion in Zagreb to draw up a certain inventory of the important strongholds and high points of the most important artistic achievements made during his seventy-year-long career as a painter, and from a given historical distance clearly to articulate the contributions and basic premises of Kovačević’s primarily modernist aesthetic; and with the painstaking choice of about two hundred works being shown at this exhibition (oils, pastels, temperas and tapestries) of all his creative phases, themes and motifs, to make an assessment for the history of art of the entire work of Edo Kovačević, as a unique example of an exceptional culture of creativity.

PhD Ivanka Reberski