Art and State: From Modernism to the Retro-Avant-garde Igor Zabel

I would like to suggest in this paper that from the 1950s onward there was a particular symbiosis in Yugoslavia between modernist art and the party-and-state apparatus, as I will call it here. Not only did this apparatus tolerate and even support modernist artists but it often even used modernism for its own public image. (I am mainly referring to the situation in Slovenia but in other former Yugoslav republics the situation was, in general, comparable.)

I will, however, start much later, in 1987, with the so-called “Poster Scandal.” A group of designers called the New Collectivism (Novi kolektivizem, NK) won the competition for the visual concept of “Youth Day” which was one of the major socialist festivals in Yugoslavia.1 Part of the concept was a proposal for a poster which was supposed to be distributed and displayed all over the country. The proposal, which showed a naked young man with a baton in one hand and the flag of Yugoslavia in the other, was accepted by a federal Youth Day committee but afterward, when it was published in the newspapers, somebody discovered that it was an exact copy of a Nazi Kunst work by one Richard Klein, entitled The Third Reich—with one significant difference: all the Nazi symbols had been replaced by Yugoslav symbols.

This event prompts at least two interesting questions, which are actually interconnected. The first question refers to the method of the NK group, described by the artists as the “retro-principle.” The second question is: how could such a controversial group (it was obvious in advance that the NK group itself as well as the whole movement of the Neue slowenische Kunst, to which it belongs, was highly controversial) win a competition for such an important and ideologically delicate commission. (As a matter of fact, the Youth Day poster was not the first provocation by the NK group. A few years earlier they had designed a poster advertising youth labor brigades for the Socialist Youth of Slovenia. The poster included a detail from a sculpture by Arno Brekker. Nevertheless, nobody had uncovered—or had wanted to uncover—this provocation.)

The two questions are closely connected. Let me start with the “retro-principle” as a working method and “retro-gardism” (or “retro-avant-gardism,” both terms are used) as the ideological position of the group. “Retro-principle” implies not only the use of already given forms and models for new needs, but also a conscious political position on which this appropriation is based. This position is made clear by one of the key statements of the rock group Laibach in the early 1980s: “Art and totalitarianism are not mutually exclusive. Totalitarian regimes abolish the illusion of revolutionary individual artistic freedom. LAIBACH KUNST is the principle of conscious rejection of personal tastes, judgment, convictions [ … ] free depersonalization, voluntary acceptance of the role of ideology, unmasking and recapitulation of the regime ‘ultramodernism.’” Laibach adds: “He who has material power has spiritual power, and all art is subject to political manipulation, except for that which speaks the language of this same manipulation.”2 So the retro-principle is essentially a strategy used in the conditions of political manipulation of art; in this case, against the attempt of the “regime” to appropriate a contemporary phenomenon such as the NSK for its own needs, just as it had previously appropriated “apolitical,” “ultramodernist” art. It is therefore necessary to answer the second question—i.e., how was it possible for the NK group to win the competition for the Youth Day concept?

I believe that at least part of the answer lies in the fact that there was already a long tradition in Yugoslavia of giving important commissions to Modernists and other innovative artists (the Socialist Youth had a particular role in this respect). Giving the commission to the NK group was clearly a continuation of this tradition.

An incredibly fast change in the cultural policy in Yugoslavia between the late 1940s and the early 1950s can be illustrated with some examples from the institution where I work, Moderna galerija Ljubljana. The new exhibition space of the museum was opened in 1947 with an exhibition presenting four masters of Soviet socialist realism (including Alexander Gerasimov and Alexander Deyneka). Of course, the exhibition was generally praised as a perfect example of socialist art which should be followed by Slovene artists. A short time later, Moderna galerija began to prepare a historical show of Slovene impressionist painters and there was a strong negative reaction in the more conservative party circles. This art was accused of being reactionary, bourgeois, l’art-pour-l’art-istic and thus generally unacceptable for the new society. Nevertheless, the exhibition had its supporters, which included intellectuals and artists who had outstanding positions in society and in the party itself, and the exhibition was opened in spring 1949. Just a few years later, in spring 1953, the same institution opened the first postwar exhibition of abstract art in Slovenia (by Stane Kregar and Riko Debenjak). It is understandable that there were vivid discussions and also furious criticisms, but, as far as I know, no real political pressure comparable to the pressure in the case of the impressionist exhibition. In a bare five years, cultural politics had changed completely. Let us keep in mind that this first show of abstract art in Slovenia did not take place in any alternative or marginal venue, but in a central state institution which had an important function for cultural politics; we can therefore conclude that abstract art was not only tolerated but directly promoted by official policy. After that, modernist art, both abstract and figurative, flourished and this development continued into the 1960s and 1970s. An important aspect of this development was a serious attempt to enter the Western art world and the international art market. (In the 1950s, Western art was becoming known through exhibitions and the newly established Graphic Biennial. Later, artists gradually began to exhibit in an international context in museums and in commercial galleries in France, Italy, and Germany. In the late 1960s a group called Group 69, consisting of prominent modernist artists, was formed, proclaiming that its essential goal was to compete in the international art market.)

What made such a development possible? The history of Yugoslavia has not yet been sufficiently researched and many details of its political history remain to be clarified; I am sure that further research could considerably expand our knowledge about the position of modernism after the 1950s as well. Nevertheless, I would like to suggest that the development of modernism in the 1950s was somehow connected with the growing power of the more liberal and enlightened wings of the Communist Party, especially after the break with the Soviet Union in 1948. This break certainly did not have merely ideological and cultural consequences. Above all, it was a matter of economic survival and military security. Yugoslavia was therefore forced to open itself to the West, and to develop an economic and cultural system compatible with the new situation (which would not, however, endanger the basic elements of socialism, the position of Tito himself, etc.); parallel to this development, the power of the liberal elites inside the system was growing, and I would like to suggest that the importance of modernism was somehow connected to this development. The increasing power of the party liberals culminated in the 1960s, when they even started to think about a “socialist market system,” workers’ shareholdings, etc. In the early 1970s, however, they were replaced by Tito and the more conservative party members.

Of course, it is important to keep in mind that Yugoslav cultural politics were not liberal and permissive in every case. Obviously, there were important differences between liberals and those who were more conservative (many of them remained influential in the cultural field as well). The relationship toward modernism changed according to the time. There was an attack on modernist art in a speech Tito made in 1963 which was not without consequences, although it did not really endanger this art.3 In the 1960s, there was also a campaign against elitism in arts, proclaiming slogans like “art for working people” and “we are all artists.” (It is nevertheless interesting that possible references for such a position are not only the highly ideological positions of conservative party ideologists, but also contemporary radical and left-oriented movements in the arts in the West.) One can generally say that apolitical and formalist modernist art was clearly supported. The relationship with more critical representative art (not so much in the visual arts, but in literature, film, etc.) was much more tense and uncertain. And any sort of liberalism ended where a possibility for a political opposition was noted.

But modernism was not only supported by the party-and-state apparatus; it was accepted as its own visual style. This is especially clear if we look at the number of monuments to the revolution and to the partisans which were directly commissioned by the apparatus and, of course, directly controlled by it. As early as the 1950s, not only socialist realism but any academic realistic tradition became outdated in monumental sculpture. In this kind of sculpture the 1950s can be seen as a transitional period from the realist models of around 1950 to modernist figurative and abstract models of around 1960. This development continued in the 1960s with several modernist monuments, some of them of very large dimensions.

It is interesting, however, that in the 1970s, when the liberal leaders were replaced by conservatives and when Yugoslavia turned much more toward the East again, modernism and other innovative artistic forms retained their central position; the movement of the “reideologization” of Yugoslav society, moreover, used these forms as well as the language of contemporary popular culture, directly for its needs. In this context, some really huge monuments by leading modernist sculptors were constructed.

In 1980, Yugoslavia appeared at the Venice Biennale with these very works. The theme of the pavilion was large monuments which were actually modernist landscape sculptures. It was one of the occasions when the link between modernism and the party-and-state apparatus became especially clear. The pavilion system of the Venice Biennale, similar to the structure of a trade fair, indicates that the selected artists actually represent their countries. In selections from 1980 onward, Yugoslavia was presented as a country which combined the socialist system with a high level of modernist art; such a combination indicated that the structure of Yugoslav society was open, dynamic and contemporary (which was, at that time, certainly not true).

This was the context of the Youth Day poster scandal. New Collectivism’s project was a result of their reflection on the symbiosis between modernism and the regime since the 1950s. In their view, the mistake of modernism was that it had declared itself apolitical, pure and autonomous. This is exactly why it could be used for political aims. Today we often hear that modernist sculptors simply used state commissions to build large sculptures which were supposedly just pure, autonomous works of art, untouched by their actual function and context. This is simply not true, and here I agree with the retro-gardists. A pure form which is called a monument of the revolution is not a pure form any more. (What is more, the reading of the form itself is determined by the tradition of monumental sculpture; sometimes, we even find very traditional monumental clichés in these sculptures—however, in an abstract form.)

The retro-avant-gardists knew well the writings of Max Kozloff, Eve Cockroft, and other researchers of modernism who have pointed to the fact that modernist art was directly used in Cold War politics. And as they looked back at the long tradition of symbiosis between modernism and politics in Yugoslavia, retro-gardists discovered that modernism, exactly because it was so “pure” and apolitical, could be made use of by different political and ideological systems. It is the particular political and ideological context which determines its actual role and significance. In this respect, therefore, it is not essentially different from traditional monumental art. Once we “purify” Richard Klein’s work of Nazi symbols, we get a work with no particular content, an “abstract” work. By giving it other symbols, we can recontextualize it and give it completely different meaning. And this is how the retro-avant-garde was “using the language of political manipulation to avoid this manipulation.”


1 / Youth Day was celebrated on May 25 and was, in fact, the celebration of Tito’s birthday. (It is perhaps interesting that for a long time it was not clear when Tito’s real birthday was; but it was certainly not May 25.) The official interpretation was that Tito modestly declined a celebration of himself and proposed to celebrate the youth of Yugoslavia instead. Of course, this was an ideological operation which was far from modest. He remained at the core of the celebrations, as an almost mythical figure connected with the idea of youth, spring, new life, and the future. Yugoslav youth symbolically repeated the solemn oath to follow Tito and his way every year at these semi-religious events. The most essential part of the festival was a relay run right across the country in which young people (workers, students, peasants, soldiers, etc.) took part. They passed from hand to hand a baton with greetings for Marshal Tito’s birthday (which also included formulas about fidelity to Tito, Yugoslavia, socialism, the Non-Aligned movement, the system of self-management, etc.). The baton was finally given to Tito at a huge event in a large stadium in Belgrade. It was considered a great honor to be the last bearer of the baton.

2 / “Neue slowenische Kunst,” special issue of Problemov 23 (1985), p. 6.

3 / It is known that Tito was no lover of modernist and abstract art. It seems, however, that this attack on abstract art was connected to another political turn. This was the time of political reconciliation between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. The campaign against the modernists could represent part of the preparations for this reconciliation, especially as Khrushchev himself had attacked abstract artists only a short time before.


Igor Zabel, “Art and State: From Modernism to the Retroavantgarde” Essays I, Založba, Ljubljana 2006, p. 319–325.