8 Artists Who Defined the Yugoslav Avant-Garde

July 14, 2020

Ever since its formation in 1918, Yugoslavia was a site of extraordinary experimentation primarily embodied in Zenitisim and local adaption of Surrealism. After World War II, with the new ideological matrix came a new generation of artists that continued experimenting especially after 1948 and the state rejection of social realist doctrine imposed by the Soviet Union.

As Yugoslavia was the only socialist state outside the Iron curtain that was open towards the West, the local artists were familiar with leading global tendencies in visual arts, cinema, theatre, and other artistic fields. After different artistic currents more or less focused on stylistic and formal explorations, in the late 1960s came young and bold artists aware of the official politics and the ideological implications of the same on everyday social conditions.

Triggered by 1968 student protests and willing to reform the society they brought an entirely new and rather critical approach to artmaking. The most prolific art critic at the time, Jesa Denegri, an equivalent to his Italian peer Germano Celant, proposed an umbrella term The New Art Practice to describe a scope of persuasions, methods, and approaches practiced by a diverse group of artists active in Yugoslavia in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s.

Many gravitated towards youth cultural centers, expressed themselves in an array of media, showcasing their artworks outside the institutions in public space. They were well connected, organizing exhibitions and presenting them both in local (primarily in the cities such as Belgrade, Zagreb, Novi Sad, Subotica, and Ljubljana) and international context. In brief, The New Art Practice could be also described as a Yugoslav response to Conceptual and Neo-Avantgarde art, although such a presumption is vague due to differing characteristics of the socialist society that were unlikely in the majority of capitalist societies where the mentioned phenomenon initially developed.

Although various proponents became overshadowed by the following generation of artists and finally the decomposition of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, some of them struggled but were recognized for their pioneering contribution to the development of post-war Yugoslav avant-garde in international terms.

Editors’ Tip: Impossible Histories: Historic Avant-Gardes, Neo-Avant-Gardes, and Post-Avant-Gardes in Yugoslavia, 1918-1991

The first critical survey of the largely unknown avant-garde movements of the former Yugoslavia. Impossible Histories is the first critical survey of the extraordinary experiments in the arts that took place in the former Yugoslavia from the country's founding in 1918 to its breakup in 1991. The combination of Austro-Hungarian, French, German, Italian, and Turkish influences gave Yugoslavia's avant-gardes a distinct character unlike those of other Eastern and Central European avant-gardes. Censorship and suppression kept much of the work far from the eyes and ears of the Yugoslav people, while language barriers and the inaccessibility of archives caused it to remain largely unknown to Western scholars.

Featured image: Marina Abramović, The Artist is Present, 2010, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image by Andrew Russeth via Wikimedia Commons.

Marina Abramović

Certainly the best-known Yugoslav artist on the international art scene, Marina Abramović practically redefined the notion of (body) performance. She started her career as a painter, however, in only two to three years Abramović shifted to audio environments, collages, and ultimately to body art focused on the exploration of endurance, pain, and the thin line between the physical and spiritual transcendence.

Under the roof of the Student Cultural Center in Belgrade, the artist acted as part of the informal Group of Six artists, and it was in this space she released the few of her groundbreaking performances through which she gradually started constructing what later became "the Abramović method." After leaving Yugoslavia for good in 1976, she started the successful collaboration with Ulay, an intriguing German artist who passed away earlier this year. After their last performance on the Great Wall of China, Abramović's career was nothing short of success, despite myriad of contradictions and different interpretations of her activity in the last decade.

Featured image: Marina Abramović, 2012. Image by Manfred Werner / Tsui via Wikimedia Commons.

Raša Todosijević

Raša Todosijević was the protagonist of the informal Group of Six artists along with Marina Abramović, Era Milivojević, Neša Paripović, Zoran Popović, and Gergelj Urkom. Unlike the aforementioned "grandmother of the performance," Todosijević practiced a more explicit socio-politically charged approach to art-making by producing multilayered installations dominated by the swastika symbol and performances focused on the interrogation of repressive methods imposed by the art system such as the most iconic one called Was ist Kunst? (What is art?).

Throughout the decades, Todosijević continued producing equally emblematic works that tackled the changing circumstances of the political landscape of the local context and is rightfully recognized as one of the most important figures of conceptual art in Eastern Europe.

Featured image: Uroš Djurić - Raša Todosijević, from Appropriations 2 | Society Portraits, 2009. Courtesy the artist.

Sanja Iveković

In the Croatian capital of Zagreb, on the city's thriving art scene operated Sanja Iveković, a pioneering video artist. Through her exceptional photography, photocollages, posters, and video pieces, she critically articulated the image of women manipulated by the media, as well as the transformation of communist political systems in East-Central Europe to post-communist after the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the constant misuse of the female body and experience in transitional societies in her later and more recent works.

By exploiting the self for the purpose of the artwork, Iveković practiced the famous feminist maxim the personal is political to the full extent and gained international recognition especially after having a retrospective organized at MoMa in 2011.

Featured image: Sanja Iveković, 2012. Image by François Besch via Wikimedia Commons.

Mladen Stilinović

Another significant proponent of the New Art Practice, and Iveković's peer and even colleague from that period was Mladen Stilinović. Interestingly so, in the early 1970s, the two artists worked in the department of television graphics and visual design at Zagreb Television, so they both developed an interest in motion pictures and video technology.

Stilinović gradually moved to a concise critique of the art system, expressed through his iconic text-based works, photographs, installations and actions performed in public space with the artistic group the informal neo-avantgarde, Group of Six Artists (Grupa šestorice autora), which he founded with Boris Demur, Vladimir Martek, Željko Jerman, Fedomir Vučemilović, and his brother Sven Stilinović. The group was active in Zagreb from 1975 to 1979, and from 1981 to 1991 Stilinović acted as a program officer/curator of the Extended Media Gallery, and was one of the co-founders of the Podroom Gallery (1978–1980). For his lifetime, the artist received international recognition and his artworks were exhibited in Venice Biennale and Documenta in Kassel, as well as other relevant art manifestations.

Featured image: Mladen Stilinović - The Exploitation of Dead, 1985-1990. Installation. Image courtesy of Kadist.

Tomislav Gotovac

The fifth Yugoslav avant-garde artist, Tomislav Gotovac was a renowned experimental filmmaker, and more importantly, a genuine pioneer of performance art in the country.

Gotovac started actively exploring different modalities of art-making by combing his profound interest in motion pictures with his performativity to create socially subversive and in some moments politically subversive work expressed in different media (mostly collages, films and performances). Gotovac is considered a rather influential figure of the avant-garde structuralist film, who has been experimenting with this approach throughout his lifetime. On the other hand, his activity is important in the context of body politics, and the debates around sexuality and gender.

Featured image: Tomislav Gotovac. Image via Tomislav Gotovac Institute.

Bogdanka Poznanović

Another respectable figure of special importance for the development of video art in Yugoslavia was Bogdanka Poznanović who started her career as a distinguished painter of Art Informel, but gradually abandoned painting and turned to mail art, and ultimately video art. Along with her husband, Dejan Poznanović, she was a crucial figure of the avant-garde circle in Novi Sad, the capital of Autonomous Province of Vojvodina, a member of the Editorial Board of the influential magazines Polja and Tribina mladih.

Thanks to her enormous efforts, video art was institutionalized in Yugoslavia in 1979 within a new class called Intermedial research at the Novi Sad Academy of Art. Poznanović's entire practice was rooted in experimentation, a multidisciplinary approach, and concise feminist agenda.

Featured image: Bogdanka Poznanović - Heart Object. Image via avantgarde-museum.com.

Slavko Matković

At approximately the same time Poznanović was active, another prolific avant-garde practitioner was operating in Subotica (another city in Vojvodina), and that was Slavko Matković. Fully engaged in different tendencies spanning from conceptual art, and visual-poetic research and experimental film, to body actions and installations, literature, and e-mail art, this figure was one of the founders of an influential neoavant-garde group Bosch+Bosch (1969 - 1976). According to some art historians, Matković was one of the most important experimenters in Serbian and Yugoslav art of the 20th century.

Featured image: Slavko Matković - Jugoslovenska vitrina I-V, 1973. Image via Kolekcija Trajkovic.

Katalin Ladik

Last but certainly not least is the renowned proponent of the Yugoslav avant-garde, Katalin Ladik, who explored different aspects of sound making and body politics through her multimedia practice.

By focusing on the exploration of the language and different modalities of working with the same, Ladik developed a unique, trans disciplinary body of work that encompasses written, sound and visual poetry, experimental music, photography, performance art and even acting.

Featured image: Katalin Ladik - Blackshave Poem; Novi Sad, Narodna Biblioteka, 1978. Courtesy: espavisor, Valencia; photograph: Imre Póth. Image via Frieze.

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