To catch up with modernity, the artist needs to refer to the past, or to break up with it. In order to do so, one should first be grounded in tradition. But both tradition and modernity were forbidden in Yugoslavia after the World War 2 by the Communist regime that imposed the doctrine of Social Realism “that was not art but the policy of violence”, the painter and art critic Miodrag B. Protic noted. The chains of this pressure started to wane gradually after the Communist Party of Yugoslavia broke up with the Stalin’s Soviet Union in 1948. As some degree of freedom was permitted, artists naturally turned to the point of continuity with the art of the interwar period that was described as “decadent” by the regime.
In 1947 a group of young artists felt they needed more artistic space and liberty than the Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade could offer. They formed the Zadar’s Group (Zadarska Grupa) that was a reaction to the bondage of doctrine. The members included Mića Popović, Vera Božićković-Popović , Bata Mihailović, Petar Omčikus, Kosa Bokšan, Ljubinka Jovanović-Mihailović and others. The Group spent several months in Zadar, a Croatian coast town, where they painted landscapes and portraits. Their desire to search for the personal view was contrasted by the collectivism favored by the Communist ideology. Although they did not have an insight into the contemporary trends, they produced the art that was fresh and original.
The first individual exhibition took place in Belgrade in 1950 by the painter Mića Popović. This young Serbian artist presented his works created between 1939 and 1950. The significance of this event lies not only within the art work itself, but also in the manifesto of the modern art he provided in the form of an essay. Critics noted that his painting was not quite consistent with the theory he expounded, and while his painting had drawn some degree of continuity with the interwar period, his verbal articulation showed his unrest with the current situation and his engagement with the problem of the freedom of the artistic speech. “To be honest, I do not quite understand the notions of political or apolitical art”, he wrote in his afterward. “The good painting is determined by the visual quality, honesty and by some universal human emotion.”
Popović was sincere in his attempt to overcome the obstacles in the given period, but he was at the same time well aware of the approach he needed to take in order to be heard, as the art historian Ješa Denegi noticed. Popović’s exhibition was not simply a rebellion, but rather a rational decision to act in the scope of freedom that was allowed.
In his work, Mića Popović “showed an inclination towards a personal touch, which was not considered a virtue at the time”, Ješa Denegri remarked. Popović’s Self-portrait with a Masque is a traditionally presented realistic piece of art with a modern twist. This modernity is both hidden and obvious, and the enigmatic masque was a delicate but powerful way to show individuality and independence. This painting may be viewed as a herald of his future work which was marked by the constructive rebellion in the sphere of culture and politics.
The renewed interest in the interwar art was encouraged by the exhibition “The Seventy Works of Painting and Sculpture between 1920 and 1949” which was presented in 1951 in Belgrade. The interwar art was marked by the Poetic Realism and Intimism. These styles were actualized by the group of the artists from the prewar period that were still active. Several of them worked as the professors at the Academy (Milo Milunović, Zora Petrović, Marko Celebonović, Nedeljko Gvozdenović, Ljubica Cuca Sokić and Djordje Andrejević Kun were among them). As the artistic influence from abroad was still not prominent, these professors predominately passed down the prewar style of painting to their students.
One of the persons that ushered a change in the art was not a painter or a sculptor but an art historian, Lazar Trifunovic. He was not only able to spot the avant-garde strains in visual arts but he also had the ability to articulate these phenomena and to advocate their incorporation into the art practice. He criticized the art scene that relied solely on Intimism and on the Poetic Realism and argued that the disadvantage of this old kind of painting rests with the inability to grasp the relation between the work of art and the world around it. He noted that the painting practice from the previous period tackles the visual elements in the picture solely, which is not enough in the contemporary surrounding.
Lazar Trifunovic’s engagement paved the way for the contemporary movements that echoed the global scene. But the achievements of the artists of the prewar period should by no means be depreciated. Their art had reached its maturity after the reception and reinterpretation of the French Impressionism, Expressionism and Cubism. The revaluation of these styles brought about painting that is more calm and traditional, the one that was depicting the world of intimacy within the realm of mundane.
But this traditional kind of modern art had to give way to a new practice. A turning point in the Serbian art was the exhibition by Petar Lubarda in 1951. Lubarda was inclined to paint the rocky mountains of his native Montenegro. He abandoned the three dimensional presentation of objects and reduced these elements to the plain “traces of objects” (M. B. Protic) that become the symbols of the mythical clashes of cosmic proportions. Lubarda probably did not have the opportunity to come into contact with the foreign art in the period 1948-50 when he transformed his style. He invented his own independent vocabulary that could communicate with the international scene, and he exhibited his work in Paris in 1952 and 1954, London in 1955, Sao Paulo in 1953 and in Tokyo in 1955. The year 1951 is thus taken as a starting point of the Yugoslavian postwar art period.
While Lubarda turned to a myth in his pursuit of contemporary art, another painter, Ivan Tabaković, explored the bond between emotion and science. Tabaković was a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade at the time, and he put his reputation at risk by radically changing his style. He was intrigued by the wholeness of the human knowledge and wanted to broaden the meaning of art in a way that it became the part in an investigation process. The art could be seen as a means of discovery in a world that was being deciphered both scientifically and sociologically. Visual elements were not sufficient, there was something beyond. As M. B. Protić noted, if Tabaković had returned to mimesis, it must have been a different kind of relation of art to nature, as both of them had changed. The abstract meaning in Tabakovic’s work is obvious despite the realistic presentation of objects. This abstraction is even more evident than in some of the non-figural pieces of art. Tabaković’s depiction of movement and space in a picture was not met with much understanding, but this artist continued to pursue his interests, and his work was recognized in years to come.
The cultural scene in Paris had a great influence on the Yugoslav art in the first half of the 20th century. After the World War 2, the situation in Paris changed in a way that it became a competing ground for several new movements. The two main “abstract” ways of thinking were confronting each other, the one of them was geometrical, the other “lyrical”. The later was to become known as Art Informel, which was a European version of the American Abstract Expressionism.
A group of the Serbian painters, Bata Mihailović and Petar Omčikus among them, headed for Paris in their search for the possibilities Belgrade could not offer. The spontaneity of the new style that flourished in Paris fitted well with their temperament. However, they managed to avoid the complete following of the new trends. Their way of painting did not involve a dripping of paint onto the canvas, but rather a series of the fast strokes of brush that could be visible on the previous layer. Their works had never gone completely non-figural and they achieved success in a cosmopolitan culture while they managed to retain their individual traits.
The influence of the Art Informel was discretely making its way to the Balkans when a group of painters that explored the possibilities of Post Cubism gathered under the name of The December’s Group (Decembarska Grupa) in 1955. The members were Sojan Ćelić, Aleksandar Luković, Miloš Bajć, Dragutin Cigarčić, Zoran Petrović, Miodrag B. Protić, Mladen Srbinović, Aleksandar Tomašević, Lazar Vozarević and Lazar Vujaklija. Although very different in their visual expression, they all showed a tendency towards a geometry in painting, which did not lead them into a complete non-figural representation. They “understood the picture as a unit that was being built, that was thought of and done rationally, despite the elements that led towards a metaphysical and irrational” (Ješa Denegri). The objects in their pictures were often just starting points that undergo the transformation and are being simplified while remaining recognizable. The surfaces of the pictures were painted flat, without the visible strokes of a brush. The painting was not an emotional outburst but rather a project that is being planned.
Some of the members of the December’s Group showed an interest in the Serbian medieval art and they searched for the ways to incorporate this traditional church art into a modern context. Lazar Trifunović remarked that the Group’s bond with the Middle Ages did not come as a reaction or as an antithesis to the contemporary world, but as a part of the avant-garde explorations. Aleksandar Tomašević was successful in producing geometrical patterns that echoed repetition in the traditional art. Lazar Vozarević made references to the Byzantine frescoes and icons in terms of the motives, composition, colors and even technology, but reinterpreted them in a completely new and original way. He thus showed that the imitation was not a single way of talking about the past.
Stojan Ćelić, another member of the group, draw motives from the nature and then used reduction and simplification in his creative process. Ćelić used to watch a painting extensively and to “let it finish itself”. This process of visual thinking had its own rules and the result was often the “associative” or the “abstract landscape” that is only reminiscent of the first motive. The painting then complies to its own rules in an abstract, although not completely non-figural world.
Miodrag Protić was the person who dealt both in writing and in painting with the problem of an object in a picture that is brought almost to a complete abstraction. The object may be viewed as a mediator between the physical and imaginative world of a painter. This is the reason Protić did not completely abandon the figurative representation and he used an object at least as a symbol. Protić’s engagement as an art critic, art historian and as a painter was enormous. He was able to make a continuity with the prewar art and to simultaneously catch the thread of modernity in a “rationally emotional way”. This rationality was scarce and precious within the world of art and artists.