Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 9, 2004
Miško Šuvaković and Dubravka Đurić, eds. Impossible Histories: Historic Avant-Gardes, Neo-Avant-Gardes, and Post-Avant-Gardes in Yugoslavia, 1918–1991 Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003. 623 pp.; 53 color ills.; 161 b/w ills. Cloth $44.95 (0262042169)

For several years now, the MIT Press has pursued a mission to acquaint English-language readers with the modern art and architecture of east-central Europe. With impressive dedication, MIT editor Roger Conover has sought experts living or born in the Czech Republic, Romania, Hungary, and the former Yugoslavia, and he has also brought forth exhibition catalogues and source readers authored in the United States. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of these efforts in expanding Slavic and Eastern European Studies, fields that have perennially been oriented to the study of literature and political history and closed to those not competent in the languages involved. The recent MIT titles have made accessible a wealth of primary documents and contextual information along with much solid historical research. Thanks largely (though not exclusively) to this ongoing project, Anglophone scholars in European modern and contemporary art have many new names and places to consider, as well as to introduce in classroom discussions.

The problem is how to get beyond the introductions. Impossible Histories: Historical Avant-gardes, Neo-avant-gardes, and Post-avant-gardes in Yugoslavia, 1918–1991 is typical of most surveys on the arts of this region: a multiauthor reader augmented by primary sources, bibliographical references, and an index. Such a compendium favors highly compressed presentations, as authors strive to mention all significant makers or tendencies within the purview of their respective essays. Overlap in subjects or themes results in repetitive information, while hindering the development of a larger analytical framework for the art under discussion. To read Impossible Histories from beginning to end is, indeed, to beg the impossible, for such an anthology is best used as a reference tome. Encyclopedic in its ambition, it provides synoptic evaluations of people, movements, and phenomena and fits these into a general context of production, with valuable suggestions for further research. But only in isolated passages does this book really engage the material it presents. The panoply of views offered in Impossible Histories is thus most valuable as an invitation to undertake detailed, synthetic scholarship on avant-garde art in the former Yugoslavia.

The title of Impossible Histories refers to the premise, shared by the book’s fifteen authors, that the state of Yugoslavia was an unsustainable fiction, a dream undercut by conflict, and even in its brightest moments never commensurate with the aspirations of its constituent cultures. Created in December 1918, in the aftermath of World War I, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia received that name only in 1929, after a parliamentary takeover by the Serbian king Alexander. Before that date, during the decade of the historical avant-gardes, Yugoslavia was known as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes—the three principal regions in this federative union. Each of these leading regions traditionally had separate historical affiliations, and its populations were divided by language and religious practice as well. Moreover, each of these regions, and to varying degrees the smaller territories of the federation as well—Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, the Vojvodina, and Kosovo—strove for cultural and political autonomy rather than fuller integration into the Yugoslav state.

During World War II, the kingdom that had been cobbled together in 1918 was dismembered by the Axis powers and riven internally as well by violent opposition between fascist movements and the pro-Soviet underground. Croatian-born communist Josip Tito, the country’s iron leader from 1945, made it his mission to bury the years of civil war and bloodshed by enforcing a more strongly defined Yugoslav polity. The result of this benign dictatorial effort, as many of the book’s authors point out, was a singular “Yugoslav art space … in which the polycentric and decentralized, yet at the same time unified and shared, art life of the second Yugoslavia (1945–1991) emerged …” (171). That wishful world began to disintegrate directly upon Tito’s death in 1980. The final blow to these Histories is, as the title suggests, the series of horrific wars that erupted officially in 1991, which in their decade-long course of destruction exploded, severed, and “cleansed” any lingering desire for a unified Yugoslavia. Thus, as editor Miško Šuvaković makes clear in his opening sentences, the art under discussion was produced in “a state of untenable, even impossible, connections and clashes …. Historic Yugoslavia was permanently in conflict, flux, and redefinition” (3).

In deference to these many disjunctions, Impossible Histories is divided chronologically, geographically, and by medium. Following a pair of introductory overviews come three sections of essays: “Literature,” “Visual Art and Architecture” (including photography and book art), and “Art in Motion” (theater, music, and film). Delimitations by period (1920–ca. 1940/50, 1950–70, 1970–91) and medium are given in the titles to individual essays; certain media, such as photography, architecture, magazines, and film, are covered in their entirety by a single author. A fourth and final section, “Manifestos,” presents a selection of primary writings from each period covered. Several titles refer explicitly to “Yugoslav” art, while only two concentrate on a single region (Slovenia in both cases). Each and every essay that treats “Yugoslavia,” however, develops its subject serially, moving in some order from Slovenia to Croatia to Serbia (the other regions were apparently far less culturally active). Generalities aside, very few claims are made for the qualities of Yugoslav art as a whole, and one may be forgiven for wondering at times why the project did not appear instead as a trilogy of regionally focused anthologies.

Working within this unwieldy compartmental structure, many authors do provide fascinating descriptions of particular movements and individuals, and the mostly excellent accompanying illustrations show work that is idiosyncratic, alluring, and highly conceptualized. We meet repeatedly with the irascible provocateur Ljubomir Micić, founder of the review Zenit in 1921 and its eponymous -ism, who lauded the Balkan “barbarogenius” as a restorative for the worn-out culture of “civilized,” warmongering Europe. Micić; published Zenit almost monthly for nearly six years, a tremendous feat of continuity. As Darko Simičić points out (“Avant-garde, Neo-avant-garde, and Post-avant-garde Magazines and Books”), he kept to a singularly high level of typographic design while showing great discernment in his solicitation of international artists and poets. We also learn of leading exponents in Dada (Dragan Aleksić), Constructivism (Avgust Černigoj), and Surrealism (Marko Ristić, Vane Bor), and of the indigenous formations of Hypnism (Rade Drainac) and Group Zemlja (led by writer Miroslav Krleza). In 1932, Ristić and six collaborators prepared a particularly intriguing collective assignment, “In Front of a Wall—Simulation of a Paranoiac Delirium of Interpretation,” in which photographic prints showing a nondescript section of a stone or concrete wall were altered by each participant through semiautomatic interventions. This collective work appeared in the magazine Nadrealizam danas i ovde (Surrealism Here and Now). In a separate book called Anti-Wall, meanwhile, Ristić and Bor addressed the simulation of delirium and its material results as a key component of international Surrealism. The brutish abstraction of the Serbian group’s manipulated images distances them from the romanticism of most Surrealist photography, however disquieting, and recalls instead the violent primitivism of postwar movements such as art brut. Although confusingly presented by Sonja Briski Uzelac (“Visual Arts in the Avant-gardes between the Two Wars”), Anti-Wall sounds like a discourse on process art that merits in-depth analysis. (Unfortunately, this text is not excerpted in the “Manifestos” section.)

Several movements and personalities from the postwar decades also seem captivating. The group Gorgona, active in the Croatian capital Zagreb from 1959 to 1966, receives attention in four separate essays: on photography, conceptual art, art in the 1960s, and printed matter. Gorgona radicalized abstract art making through a series of rule-generated actions and statements. Members of the group prepared single-author numbers of an “antimagazine,” also called Gorgona (1961–66); one issue contained only blank pages, another repeated the photograph of a nondescript shop window over nine separate pages, and a third (never released) was to be stuck together with sealing wax so that the reader would complete the journal’s appearance by tearing it apart to read the contents—in fact just blank pages. Marina Grzinić; (“Neue Slowenische Kunst”) and Eda Čufer (“Between the Curtains: New Theater in Slovenia, 1980–1990”) both describe the Scipion Nasice Sisters Theater (SNS), founded in Ljubljana in 1983, with theoretical acumen. As Grzinić informs us, the founders of SNS Theater, led by Dragan Zivadinov, brought Soviet director Vsevold Meierkhold’s concept of the biomechanical actor (precise, physical, nonexpressive) into the cyberage, treating humans as machine products; in their debut production, a fusion of plays by the Germans Ernst Toller and Bertolt Brecht, the performers were nearly immobilized within an iron cage. SNS thoroughly reconsidered the relation of performers to audience. In one 1985 production, spectators were seated beneath the stage with their heads sticking up, so that they felt themselves a (presumably vulnerable) part of the stage action. From time to time as well, SNS engaged in guerrilla street demonstrations that also had the character of impromptu theater performances, in which citizens in the know or casual passersby could presumably take part.

Certain essays stand out for the clarity and cohesiveness of their presentations. Jesa Denegri, in his “Inside or Outside ‘Socialist Modernism’? Radical Views on the Yugoslav Art Scene, 1950–1970,” memorably characterizes the principal groups in those two decades. More importantly, he evaluates their merits with even-handed precision, offering his own analyses in dialogue with generous quotations from earlier critical literature. Likewise, Čufer’s overview of recent Slovenian theater sustains an argument about the repeated assimilation of avant-garde stagecraft into the mainstream, providing an overall narrative that ties together necessarily summary descriptions of the actual performances and plays. The lengthy survey of avant-garde printed materials by Darko Simičić, meanwhile, keeps in check a tendency, unbridled elsewhere, to give laundry lists of names and subjects, instead illuminating the character of the publications themselves through excerpts and extended descriptions.

The undercurrent of amazement that runs throughout Impossible Histories at the very concept of Yugoslavia might have been expressed with more direct connection to the art itself. Such an articulation could serve particularly to enrich understanding of the most provocative movement discussed here, the 1980s arts consortium Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK), whose members challenged the very basis of the Yugoslav state in their amalgam of fascist and communist ideologies. (Such a critique presumably could emerge only after Tito’s death in 1980; state repression nevertheless persisted through the breakup of Yugoslavia ten years later.) The NSK rock band Laibach, for example, dressed in costumes inspired by Mussolini, which they never took off, and in their concerts they gave deconstructive reenactments of totalitarian ritual spectacles—a strategy that resulted in a four-year ban on public appearances by the group (1983–87). Similarly, associates of the NSK art collective Irwin recreated Nazi and Socialist Realist subjects for Gesamtkunstwerk installations that circulated among the living rooms of Slovenia. One publicly commissioned poster design by an NSK affiliate recycled a fascist image from the 1930s, merely replacing the swastika with a hammer and sickle. Writing of Laibach, Grzinić quotes Slavoj Zizek and Norman Bryson on how effective it can be to stage terror overtly, concluding that such performances lay bare the ambiguous phantasm of power normally concealed from public view (252–53). With more details at hand, it might be interesting to pursue this insight further, comparing the totalitarianism fetishized by NSK members with the ideology of official Yugoslavia—if only to show the points of divergence between avant-garde and state more particularly.

The comparison between NSK and the Yugoslav state in its waning years would be just one way to work through a crucially important issue, namely the specific meanings and functions of avant-gardism in the historical context of Yugoslavia. Much of this book is indeed taken up with testing the merits of the term “avant-garde,” yet a new model or models of avant-garde operations (whether for the 1920s, 1960s, or 1980s) emerge from these essays only fragmentarily. The operative definition offered here again and again comes from German literary historian Peter Bürger: avant-garde as radical critique of bourgeois institutions coupled to thorough formal innovation. Bürger’s 1974 book Theory of the Avant-Garde (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984) has of course been epochal in its influence, but its limitations have also been made clear in the intervening decades. In cultures with a less-developed bourgeoisie, a shorter history of industrialization, and a less than saturated media market, the institutional prerequisites for Bürger’s schema of avant-garde critique are lacking, even though artists adhere to or parallel the very movements he holds in highest esteem (e.g., Dada and Constructivism in the early 1920s). Key formal innovations also emerge in public arts such as architecture, theater, or graphic design rather than (or not only) in the more private, individual fields of painting and sculpture. Literature, a cornerstone of Bürger’s theories, is more public than private as well throughout the region of east-central Europe, because it is saddled with a traditional obsession with language as the ultimate repository of national identity.

In short, the conditions of modernity are sufficiently different in this part of Europe to warrant shifts in the evaluation of avant-garde activities. The sharp distinction that Bürger, and many authors in Impossible Histories, draw between “avant-garde” and “modernist” production, with the latter belittled as accomodationist or derivative, may hide from view certain forms of innovative work. It may even hinder appreciation of those phenomena that make the cut of the bona-fide avant-gardes. “In the Yugoslav cultures,” Šuvaković declares, “the avant-gardes, neo-avant-gardes, and post-avant-gardes were invariably somewhere out on the edge, far from the eyes and ears of the greater public, hidden, censored, suppressed, misunderstood, banned, indeed forgotten” (5). How then are we to evaluate the claim, made at several points in this book, that progressive artists in Tito’s Yugoslavia experienced a condition of minimum tolerance, a sort of benign neglect, which was both more beneficial and more insidious than the open hostility faced by their peers in other communist countries? How, too, should we understand the public centrality of post-Tito formations such as Laibach, or the SNS Theater, which gave its concluding performance to a crowd of two thousand people? Turning to earlier decades, what should we make of the building program of architect Joze Plečnik, who reconfigured the city of Ljubljana in the 1920s and 1930s according to a forceful, idiosyncratic urban plan grounded in classicism and religious eclecticism? Without wishing to dilute the term “avant-garde” to a toothless marker of cultural cachet, it seems worthwhile to reevaluate its meaning in varying cultural contexts. This undertaking could yield a double prize: expansion of the existing cultural discourse to new regions and movements, and fresh insight into inhabitants of the current canon.

Matthew S. Witkovsky
Assistant Curator, National Gallery of Art