The painting of substance was replaced by exposing a real substance on easel in the middle of the 20th century. As the World War 2 shattered the belief in humanism, an isolation and escapism marked artists’ response. While artists tended to find a shelter from the unbearable reality into their inner world, the last element of a “classical” picture was destroyed, and that was the shape, or the form, which had gone away with reality. An artist did not aim to make a reference to it any more. The picture stood independently and parallel to the outside world. Depiction of substance came to prominence together with the very act of painting. The difference between life and art was diminished and the automatism in painting became desirable. The Abstract Expressionism was a term coined to stand for these art trends in USA, while they were better known as Lyrical Abstraction or Art Informel in Europe.
Serbian avant-garde scene was ready to embrace these trends in the early 1960s. In Belgrade, Art Informel was not only a reaction against the geopolitical tensions, but also an answer to the aestheticism that became traditional within the “Belgrade School of Art”. However, the pictorial elements of the Art Informel in Belgrade had never been eradicated and this mixture of rebellion with the traces of tradition was peculiar to the movement.
Branko Protić was the artist who first showed his Art Informel paintings in 1959. He was interested in making a dynamical relation between zones of concentrated blacks and diluted grays. He presented substance which he “took from his palette, the way the other artists took colors” (Zoran Pavlović). He maintained a rhythmical composition of concentrated material which could philosophically be described as “I” world against the outer world, as Lazar Trifunović noted. Although radical, Branko Protić had never crossed the border to anti-painting.
Vera Božićković- Popović was a painter who entered the Informel phase after making experiments with the abstract landscape. As she did not find enough satisfaction in this work and having been influenced by Zen philosophy, she radicalized her style. She used to add sand and other non-pictorial materials on canvas in order to make a hard texture. She would then spill black liquids which would make way through substance spontaneously. She did not abstain from cutting incisions with hard objects in liquid material. This made the “exciting estuary” effect (Mića Popović), a miniature version of a natural disaster that echoed its unpredictability.
This radicalization of painting that was seen in Vera Božičković- Popović’s work provoked even Lazar Trifunović, an art historian and critic who fervently advocated Art Informel in Belgrade. Trifunović was the person who made an effort to “make a space” for the painting of substance by criticizing the works of the December’s Group. He maintained that their art become predictive and that they fell into a routine.
Although too harsh in criticism, he felt the need for a change in the art scene that had already explored the possibilities of geometrization.“The substance is not a color. It is sand, glass, textile, metal, grass- the life of the substance has just started to live throughout the contemporary painting”- said Trifunovic.
Primordial substance was depicted in the works of Branko Filipović Filo, an artist born in Montenegro, who studied in Belgrade. He was influenced by Petar Lubarda’s vision of rocky mountains. Filo intuitively started to experiment with new materials. His paintings with the elements of the associative landscape evolved into a vision of substance that was painted fast and that could be described as the dark and light “before they were separated”. One could notice the continuity in his style development. Even when he abandoned the strict Art Informel painting and introduced bright colors in years to come, he still maintained the spirit of spontaneous and ecstatic presentation of substance. In contrast to the other adherents of the Art Informel movement, Filo stood independently in terms of organization and he managed to present his work in some of the international exhibitions only by his personal engagement.
The Yugoslav political establishment were, however, far from supporting the artists who dared to roam too far into this abstract, suspicious and rebellious way of creating. Just when it seemed that the Social Realism lost its place, in 1963, the political elite made a campaign against the Abstract art. Josip Broz Tito gave a speech to the audience who were not artistically educated. He pointed out he was not against the modern art, but asked a question: “Does not our reality offer so much material from which our artists can draw inspiration from? And it is exactly this reality that the most part of our artists do not pay attention to. They escape from the reality instead of shaping our reality.”
Art Informel was not explicitly mentioned in the talk, but it was obvious it had sparkled the debate which had a certain effect on the artistic freedom and creation. However, in spite of the campaign and the turbulence it had produced, several artists managed to continue to create. However, the “demonic beauty” of Art Informel had a turbulent and short lifespan, not because of the political campaign, but due to the spontaneous degradation of the art that showed its “spiteful face” to aristocracy . As soon as the elements of aestheticization penetrated this anti-art, it started to lose its vigor.
In the years 1963 and 1964, this movement reached its zenith with the several exhibitions held by the artists Branko Protic, Mića Popovic, Branko Filipović, Vladislav Todorović, Lazar Vozarević and Živojin Turinski. Their artistic approach had become more diverged now and the personal differences in treating the substance become more obvious. After this, artists fell into a routine. “There was not enough time to enjoy the affirmation. The realization that the picture, in order to be alive, had to live on its own ashes, came too soon. There were only few artists who had been ready for this ultimate sacrifice, the majority of them continued to produce in the Infomel manner in a routinely done artistic practice.” (Ješa Denegri)