A REVIVAL OF ART, REVIVAL OF CRITICISM
Art and Criticism After 1980
When did the end of the age of 20th century Modernism begin in art? With conceptual art, which marked its last pages, or was it the “death of art” in post-informel state, or the “suicide of the picture” at the end of a series of avantgarde deconstructions in the art of this century? Maybe Modernism ends with the so called “revival of picture” in the eighties, with the surge of Postmodernism, whose specific succession we attend while partaking in recent creative activities. This confusion is only a derivative of the question: is Postmodernism the last phase of Modernism, or just the inception of an altered, different and new concept of art, its motives and its goals? Further on, this question opens up new ones: is the epoch of the Postmodernist paradigm – as a general denominator of all variations within the stylistic formations of the artistic revival, starting with New Image Painting, Pattern Painting, Bad Painting, over Heftige Malerei and Neue Wilde to Figuration libre and Figuration chic, and finally, La Transavaguardia, Nuova immagine and La Pittura Colta, as the mass artistic renaissance of the eighties was called in Europe and America – represent the closing phase of modern art, which has been so stubbornly, so laboriously but victoriously pushing its way through the twentieth century. Does the idea of the end of art mean its literal cessation endangered by the technological innovations of “clever supermedia” and the virtual esthetics on CD ROM, or are these just inferences of a rationalist, essentially positivist and revivalist concept of art and its history as a succession of epochs and a simultaneous stylistic contingencies after the period of Impressionism? We are convinced ourselves of being far away from a possible, and not a more or less hypothetical reply to all this, to these questions, while in front of us stands another, more promising alternative: to understand and define those events, which will, like a multitude of (correct) premises lead to true conclusions. The following lines should be interpreted in that sense.
The position and the role of criticism in this activity is central. Although likely to be taken either as right or wrong, the ideas written down by the visual arts critics represent a necessary bulk of knowledge transferred through time like legacies. One of the possible and realistic sketches on the effectiveness of art criticism will be mentioned in the text yet to come, in a fuller and firmer connection with the current artistic practice.
Of a particular importance to our topic is the 1979 exhibition “The American Painting of the Seventies”, conceived by Marcia Tucker and organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade, under the specially constructed Buckminster Fuller’s cupola on the Museum grounds. This show stands at the beginning of a long series of exhibitions by Belgrade authors – both the artists and the catalogue texts that followed, gradually building at the beginning of the decade a completely new, in many ways different, picture of our latest art. Those changes were most evident in actual exhibitions where the artist of the new visual understanding suddenly and convincingly exhibited their own linguistic innovations in the creation of the objects of art.
This wave of New Painting, the name attached immediately to the revival of painting and sculpture in Belgrade, will be present in the years to follow, which also brought the first programmatic and author exhibitions conceived by the critics: New Now, In a New Mood, FVA (Faculty of Visual Arts) Students As Plastic Artists, Yugoslav Participants at the Venice Biennial and the Biennial of the Young Artists in Paris in 1982, Untitled Flight, The Young – ’82.
However, the crucial event toward the total affirmation of New Image Painting took place in 1983 at the exhibition The Art of the Eighties in the Museum of Contemporary Art, to the horror of almost the whole established artistic public. The main objection was that the Museum inappropriately and imprudently undertook to dictate the artistic fashion for the, still coming, decade, since it was a promotional show at the beginning of the ninth decennium. The theoretical postulates in catalogue were, in fact, recapitulations of the standpoints dispersed through numerous introductory notes of the invited artists, and the ideas developed in two thematic texts on this art published somewhat earlier in the year, in the magazines from Zagreb Pitanja (Questions) and Polja (Fields) from Novi Sad. This tempestuous period of the rise of the art of New scenes, got into quieter waters when the majority of galleries, now encouraged, exhibited the art of these new visual conceptions. A particularly important contribution came from the new magazine for visual arts Moment, a regular chronicle of what was happening in Yugoslav art and in world criticism, theory of art and art itself, bestowing most of its space to the group that was emphatically recording the spirit of its time. Today, the twenty-four issues of the magazine represent the essential source of data, of the ideas and problems both artists and critics encountered in the eighties in all the phases of the creative language.
In interpreting the meaning of this phenomenon with evident hallmarks of an art of new conceptions, new plastic contents and a powerfully impressed creative imagination, the first moment is also marked with the perplexity of criticism in establishing whether it was a revival of the painting and a return to the traditional medium, after some critics registered anxiety because this art was interpreted as a return to the traditionalistic views so characteristic of the local school of painting, or if in fact it was only a tumultuous transition from a dematerialized state of conceptualism to a re-materialized form, an objectified picture with a clear awareness of the crucial events in the art of the seventies, that is, in the area of the New artistic practice.
The manifest port of this art was strengthened in catalogue prefaces of promotional exhibitions. They indicated that it was the painting and sculpture in the wake of renovation, within the new-wave-generation of a new sensibility that was beginning to paint in its full force, intensely, euphorically, gathered around a great desire and need to draw delight out of the process of painting. About this, quite recently born art, Bojana Buric wrote in a more composed manner: “This selection of students’ works is the result of an understanding of the present state of art, as a pluralism of the most diverse possibilities of artistic creation, without the domination of a certain poetics. A totally unburdened approach to any material and the greatest possible freedom in searching for one’s own expression are the landmarks of the new mood in which the youngest authors work… Their “new sensibility” is reflected in a synthesis of different media in order to capture both the space and substance, and liberate absolute expression”. Three essential areas of practical effectiveness were identified: the synthesis of media, since it was obvious that the New Image Painting in fact represented the collective expression of the new “image”, new notion, new scene, in the completed works in painting and sculpture at the same time, thus initiating all other multidisciplinary subjects, objects, installations, ambiental, environmental, constructions, etc.; further on, there was a triumph over space and material – particularly stressed by the exhibition Students As Plastic Artists when a number of examples confirmed this emergence of paintings into space and an ambiental quality of sculptures; and finally, also as an important characteristic of the “fierce” work in art, there was a liberation of overall expression which would mark the first half of the eighties. Within smaller groups of artists each of these features would develop particular characteristics that would further, taken together, build the “pluralistic” scene of our art in the eighties.
The author exhibition of Jadranka M. Dizdar, Untitled Flight, aroused a lot of interest. In the catalogue, the critic published her interviews with the artists from which she made several significant conclusions summarized in a few ideas: “I was interested in the theme-life-theme-time, that could serve as a documentary source on a generation contemplating, foretelling and living out its creations…At the present moment, in contemporary Belgrade art there are undreamed of possibilities of an utmost expression of individuality…Its basic characteristics: a construction of the hermetic creative systems, which cannot be understood without a large amount of effort, or an acceptance of attraction, a repetition of a series of sentiments and ideas thus brought to the point of no sense. In any case, all of these investigations and all attempts to objectify personal codes and personal messages, are worth a patient and undramatic penetration.” Here we encounter a germ of a new language in criticism as well, which tries to follow in the same, at least similar, way the parallel flow of the new visual notion of the art of the eighties. This new language will have a special evolution with the critics who began their career with the emergence of New Image Painting.
The identified hesitations regarding judgments about the new art can be followed in all of the texts of the early years of this revival of painting. We will use some additional short extracts from the texts of two art critics – Jadranka Vinterhalter and Bojana Pejic – and an artist – Tahir Lusic – in order to identify the specific features of the different interpretations of this art, its goals, causes and models, which were quite openly, as recorded at that time, transferred, like quotations, into the latest painting. This kind of dilemmas can best be seen in texts, in prefaces to catalogues of the exhibitions conceived by Jadranka Vinterhalter.
Already at the show The Space of Sculpture she noticed in some works “the possibility of a different distribution of various elements in the space, thus allotting them the dimensions of the environment where mass not only occupies certain space, but articulates it”. This kind of ambiental relationship of the material and the form within the space of a work in this early phase suggests that the new art can be observed from two angles: on the one hand it is very responsible, almost in a traditional way, towards the medium (first of all, sculpture), and on the other, it had already been totally justified to exceed the medium determinants (of painting and sculpture) towards a completely new and emancipated spatial fact with somewhat altered esthetic qualities, that is, a need to change also the terminology in order to define installation, ambiance, object and the like. To our wondering why it was so then, we could find the answer in Vinterhalter’s statement that “the art of this region evades the strict definitions of style, even the new sensibility”. Therefore, two essential strongholds of the new art had been established: its style and the applied sensibility of artists. There was an obvious overall change of style (although this pluralism of the eighties seems to have had not style, if we exclusively think of its mainstream), its language and media configuration of the recent creative works – New painting (not just one of the artistic media – the painting, by whose mediation pictures come into existence, but its new appearance, image, painting-representation, of this art). Jadranka Vinterhalter correctly observes that the new media in the current conditions represent the altered aspect of the old (painting, sculpture) in a different configuration of which the young artists were becoming increasingly aware.
For Bojana Pejic, on the other hand, all of that represents an announcement of the “time of iconodules”. In a text under the same title she confirmed that and fiercely objected to setting up of border lines between the New artistic practice (to which she had greatly contributed as a critic and its promoter with numerous texts, exhibitions and other activities in the Gallery of the Students’ Cultural Centre) and the New painting. The first belonged to the years governed by, she wrote, “rationalism, epistemology, tautology and demystification; those were the years of numerous media, the period of the creation of ‘non-pictorial international’… the seventies were exclusively the time of iconoclasm”, she concluded at the very beginning of the text. Further on she wrote that the time of the New painting were “the years of ego-navigation and the explosion of the I, the years when art renounced the rational and the demystifying and return to ‘itself’… the years of one medium, the years of pictorial nationals (the German Heftige Malerei, the Italian Transavanguardia, the French Figuration chic), the years after the ‘linguistic evolutionism’ had been accomplished, the years when standpoints, if present, had to be subjected to form. One could also add here: the eighties were exclusively the time of the iconodules”. Rejecting the division between these two periods she so correctly described using the already established repertoire of criticism, she concluded that “the general principle of One, certainly does not exist today”. Further on, in the same text, she said: “So, after the iconoclasts and a conscious ‘abstinence from painting’, came the iconodules. The painting is back, the notion is back. But, both the picture and the notion came back altered. The picture is created with an awareness of the iconoclastic experience of the fathers, without whom it would not have been altered at all”. This advocacy of continuity in an “art without any continuity” with the preceding period is an expression of the real danger of any interpretation in the conditions prevalent in our artistic life when each, especially new, phenomena are approached from extreme traditionalistic positions. (And so it happened that the first manifestation and interpretation of Postmodernism in Belgrade was organized from extremely anti-modernist viewpoints).
In her text “Exercises in Artistic Pluralism”, Bojana Pejic quite openly points to the perilous influences of the traditionalist art schools, their relationship toward the art of the seventies, in order to give at the end some new evaluations of the characteristics of the then happening revival under the sign of the current “pluralism”. In a longish introduction she sketched the development of the Modernism of Belgrade school, the institution generating the notorious ossified ambiance that first met the appearance of conceptual art, and was then reflected in the same way on the appearance of the New Image Painting. This also indirectly explains the real, fundamental characteristics of the recent revival of the language of art. The main question is the problem of the relationship toward models – is a true participation in international artistic currents a proof of “artistic import” or is it the commonplace of “rewriting” of the great names of Modernism in this milieu, from Picasso to Moore, from Bacon to Brancusi, so obvious in the post-war period of the Serbian art. The break-up with this attitude happened in the seventies when the other art “did not agree to continue the tradition of Belgrade Modernism, but decided to choose its tradition”, wrote B. Pejic. And it is right here that another point is identified, the item characteristic both of the already begun changes from the beginning of the eighties. Somewhat unjustly, Bojana Pejic pushed this active change, then in its most delicate phase, into the arms of traditional Modernism with local features, with which we could only partially agree, but she herself was aware of its new energy and the new views toward global art. By continuing the line of effectiveness of the other art (New artistic practice, conceptual art, etc.) which was the leading current of the seventies, to the period of 1980, B. Pejic in fact established a hard line of continuity, which flew over, with the help of the Art Workshop of the Students Cultural Centre, into the new visual contents of the renewed language of art. And that, of course, is not questionable.
However, there is a misconception hidden in this, the wrong understanding that the Workshop was the only active place for shaping the nucleus to influence the appearance of the main stream of the art of the ninth decade. Important ideas and explanations of these questions can be found in the texts of Tahir Lusic (the founder and main ideologist of the “learned painting” group Alter Imago), as well as the point of special interest for our topic, the shaping of a new critical discourse which closely follows in an appropriate way the visual tendencies of the language of that art. In his texts there are many responses to the frequent remarks and doubts expressed with regard to the possibility of a trans-avantgarde paradigm in the Belgrade artistic circle. Thirdly, it is very significant that Lusic’s texts either largely support or follow the strict line of the plastic language of his paintings. Roland Bartes spoke about the “pleasures of reading”, Baudrillard about the “pleasures of writing”, and these two principles finally merged into the new “pleasures of painting”, a new determinant fostered by recent criticism (beside Lusic, mostly by Lidija Merenik and Mileta Prodanovic). Lusic put the key word for understanding the New Image Painting at the beginning of the text “Imago al’inverse” – sophistication, and immediately exchanged it for a more appropriate – involvement, trying to point not only to the entangled influences which are dispersed through historical periods like the citations present in the new painting, but also to interactions between the simultaneous contingencies of the styles: “Layer by layer of the inverse construction of the Painting, where the first layer gets entangled in the last which tries to hide it. Impasto suffocation. A tension of futility of the layers fused into the flash of the surface. The tension of the hard outline and the whirl of the substance, etc. the multitude of events in the multitude of layers full of residues, of the dregs of historical experiences, although – ‘the past may not be more than an archive’ (G. C. Argan) – pointing to a stratification which, of course, need not be maintained the same all the time, but can be positioned, in linguistic spans, somewhere between the difficult “one” and the equally difficult “all”, that is, between the direct, impudent, and the gentle, discreet, etc…. but always ‘plane’, reminiscences”.
In the first programmatic manifestation at the exhibition New Now Lusic wrote for Alter Imago: “things and scenes appear under a specific light – the light obtained from the snotty rhythm of the ‘U’-flashlight in a perfect tension of the ‘dynamic catatonics’. This snatchiness, this heterogeneity of things represents the elementary material of the scene. In order to accept scenes, we have to stop them. Once they are stopped, we adopt them. So adopted we experience them, closed within certain categories, almost breaking up with our interest in their qualities, because the elements of construction are nothing unless gathered within certain categories. These categories are the categories of the experience. They can scream, be contemplative, monstrous, cadaverous, exalted. The broadest of all of the categories of the experience is the OBSESSIVE… The realm of the dialogue is a game of the egotic being and a personality – with what has been chosen or is only being offered as the ‘other’ (alter). The game of heterogeneity, polycentrism, opening and closing, of harsh and gentle touches… The world of linguistic inversions lives the time of persiflage”.
The two main critics who interpreted and evaluated the new revival of art in the eighties were certainly Jesa Denegri and Lidija Merenik. For this occasion, we will give only some of the more important insights into their viewpoints.
The main text in the catalogue of the exhibition The Art of the Eighties, entitled “After 1980: the Art As Diversity” was written by Jesa Denegri. The emphasized tone of conciliation (irresistibly recalling the famous text by Bogdan Popovic from 1921, “In Honour of These and Those”, where the learned and wise essayist tried to reconcile the old, classical and oppressive tradition and the new Serbian Impressionist painting from the beginning of the century, which had been met with disastrous reviews) will remain characteristic of Denegri for one simple reason. Namely, this already renowned and influential critic, the main theoretician and theoretic propounder and promoter of the New artistic practice in Yugoslavia, in the seventies, was certainly aware at the beginning of the ninth decade of the changed plastic values and successfully reconciled his personal viewpoint of a previously “militant” critic of conceptual art with the composed interpretation and appraisal of the situation altered with the New Image Painting.
For Denegri, the transition in art from the eighth into the ninth decade happened exclusively as a transition from Modernism into the Postmodern paradigm. However, he finds questionable the interpretation of the reasons for that change: “In front of the chaotic and undefined artistic practice, criticism finds itself today again faced with a temptation: if it continues its analytical and historicistic vocation, it will bear the burden of the methods operational in the preceding period, which may be totally inadequate in the present artistic situation; however, if it agrees to break up with any kind of a stricter critical instrument and, like art itself, accept the behaviour of ‘open nomadic life outside any ideological direction’ (as propounded by Bonito Oliva in his introduction to Panorama della Post-Critica, 1983), it could find itself in a gap wherefrom it can no longer observe the processes of the whole, just follow the completely dispersed fragments of artistic events. But, regardless of all these traps, one should decide upon one’s position even at this moment, when – as often repeated – ‘in the field of art, all paths are allowed’. Therefore we would like to point out immediately that the present day artistic situation should in no way be considered as another symptom of the ‘call to order’ or ‘return to order’, as it appeared in the European art of the late twenties and during the thirties, as a reaction to the movements of the historic avantgarde from the beginning of the century. On the contrary, the present day situation seems to be a further continuation of those permanent fermenting processes known to the entire post-war period, which were brought to the point of total confrontation in the new artistic practice of the preceding decade. It is true that the art of the eighties is not a direct continuation of that practice, neither ideologically nor in its expressive forms: moreover, numerous elements bear the signs of disagreement with the postulates of the new art of the seventies (they can be observed, first of all, in the repeated reference to the artistic object, to the technique of painting, in an abolishment of reductionism and analytical intentions, in a rejection of the ideological factor of the artistic language), but still maintaining the former inclinations of the artists toward an emphasized individualism and nomadism expressed, of course, in a totally different way, and all that, finally, makes us experience what was happening in art at the beginning of the eighties as just another part of the former permanent mobility of contemporary art”, stands in the same text.
Further on, Denegri finds another characteristic of the new painting, it emphasizes the discourse genius loci, that is, the picture of international events in art during the whole period of Modernism, now, finally, disintegrates into numerous localisms: Transavantgarde in Italy, New Expressionism in Germany, Bad painting in America, Eccentric Figuration in France, etc.
Although the term “interlacing” does not appear in the text of Lidija Merenik bearing that title, she vividly identifies the whole elaboration of the early story about New Image Painting in Belgrade with numerous examples of interlacing, intersections, interweaving of stylistic, historic, media (with prefixes multi- poly-), vertical, horizontal and diagonal transversals starting from a multitude of sources. By establishing a specific difference, in fact the differentiation points between the Italian trans-avantgarde and New Image Painting, situated in our domestic conditions, Lidija Merenik, like the artists of her generation, the carriers of the changes, only just entering the arena of criticism, forcefully propounds the authentic qualities – almost local individuality of the originating art: “One should probably repeat the question regarding the real determinants of the phenomenon of New Image Painting and ask oneself whether in some cases there has been a substitution of theses along the line of New Image Painting – Oliva’s definition of trans-avantgarde. In the first case there is a possibility of an equal dialogue with the art of the moment, and a qualitative definition of the offered material; in the second case, the ‘model’ of trans-avantgarde can only be matched with ‘sparse’. If there is mobility, according to Oliva’s definition of trans-avantgarde, thousands of open possibilities… a flexibility of positions and interests… we must allow for the possibility of an equal coexistence of different artistic approaches within the framework of the phenomenon of the ‘new painting’, and we should only then write about the all-encompassing and complex phenomenon of the Yugoslav art of the eighties. In Belgrade, at this broad field of artistic languages of the eighties, there is a group of young artists, who began their activity at the time of the late works of the ‘new artistic practice’, and who found themselves, at an extremely responsible, almost adventurously responsible moment, between the model of education at the Fine Arts Academy, the legacies of conceptualism, new artistic practice, performance, behavioral art and environment, and, on the other hand, their own subjective feeling, which could be identified for a lot of us with the well-known ‘pleasure of painting’, or ‘painting-for-the-sake-of-painting out of one’s own horror and pleasure’”. This opinion is taken as meritorious, regardless of the fact that it is one of the first texts written on this new art, since Lidija Merenik was even then completely versed in the kind and forms of the new production and the place of its beginning and origination. Working as an assistant in the Art Workshop of the Students Cultural Centre she was able to perceive the difference in the creative activities of the Workshop and the art schools and distinguish the real elements and contents of New Image Painting in the diversity of these influences. From there stems the meaning of the term “interlacing”, and its full measure can be read in numerous texts that followed, written with perfect comprehension of this art of a multitude of permeations, intersections, interweavings, so that these texts themselves become the register of the key words for determining and interpreting the new art.
Therefore, even from this fragmentary survey one can perceive that the Belgrade response to the frequently expressed thesis that the language of Postmodernism and this very learned, demanding and intellectual revival of painting in the eighties was basically initiated from two sources. It was partly under the influence of the New artistic practice of the seventies (from the point of view of institutions as well – in the first phase it developed in the Art Workshop of the Students Cultural Centre, then supported by the conceptual art critics of the time, like Jesa Denegri, Bojana Pejic and Jadranka Vinterhalter). In a larger part this art has showed its simultaneous activity in three directions, two of which originated in the same environment and were immediately backed by younger critics (Bojana Buric, Jadranka M. Dizdar, Lidija Merenik). Apart from the members of the Alter Imago group (at the beginning without Mileta Prodanovic), all other protagonists of the revival of painting in this period were students at the School of Fine Arts. Generally speaking, they differed in the two essential positions: one group stayed faithful to the medium and the visual subject-matter, similar to the so-called Belgrade school of painting, so that the very first records indicated only a gentle inclination toward the coming revival of the “new scenic qualities” (in the works of Mrdjan Bajic, Darija Kacic, Olivera Dautovic, etc.). Others were more energetic and full of revolt toward the luke warm poetics of the local school and “fiercely” rejected academic teachings. Following the surge of general changes in rock music, video, design, photography, fashion etc, they set upon a total destruction of all given routines (media, esthetic, visual and the like) as proven by De Stil Markovic and Vlasta Mikic. Finally, a group of artists gathered under the name of Alter Imago (students of art history, self-taught painters) represented a specific, “learned” reply to the questions of trans-avantgarde paradigm, since in their permanent reference to the artistic tradition, citations etc. they showed both an ability to manipulate the artistic media and their great knowledge of the processes evolving inside art history and causing certain stylistic and esthetic formations. From such a complex structure, serving as a specific nourishing foundation, more different turmoils will appear in the eighties on the wings of the local postmodernist body: as a reaction to the euphoria (pseudo) of figuration, a new stream of geometry will powerfully emerge as neo-geo, and certainly the most interesting phenomenon will be an outstanding domination of the new sculpture, showing a yet unseen yet vitality, signs of inexpressive influences and a full plastic symbolism of the time. Many examples have their origins in the scenic effect and the strategies of form of the New Image Painting. And, finally, in the nineties, a new, other, art, will appear in its main stream with a specific coloristic figuration, a new phenomenon in our painting, accompanied by a criticism of an altered language. With a group of “neo-Mondrianists”, it will represent the expression of a need to search the inside of the hidden private spaces of artists and bring a deeper emblematic quality of the works, both as media and the places where different conceptual contents are formulated. But these are the topics of some other titles.
Belgrade, December 1996