B. Videkanić: Nonaligned Modernism

Cover
Title
Nonaligned modernism. socialist postcolonial aesthetics in Yugoslavia, 1945-1985


Author(s)
Videkanić, Bojana
Published
Montreal ; Kingston ; London ; Chicago 2020: McGill Queen's University Press
Extent
320 S.
Price
€ 110,06
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Nataša Jagdhuhn, Leibniz-WissenschaftsCampus "Eastern Europe - Global Area" (EEGA)

Bojana Videkanić’s book is a pioneering attempt to intervene into the international art historical discourse. The aim of the book is twofold: firstly, to add the case of the Yugoslav hybrid modernisms to the theoretical field of global modernism and secondly, in doing so to demonstrate the Yugoslav efforts to create an authentic means of visual expression as a form of resistance to the hegemony of Western modernism. Videkanić boldly goes one step further, viewing Yugoslav modernism as a bundle of connected and mutually consequential and permeating forms of visual expression, the synthesis of which she names “nonaligned modernism”.

The term “nonaligned modernism” was used for the first time by the artist and journalist Armin Medosch in analyzing the Yugoslav context as a zone of contact between the East and the West in which the Yugoslav art group the New Tendencies was active. Videkanić takes up this term and significantly broadens its meaning, analyzing the development of the different modernisms in Yugoslavia. In this undertaking she was also inspired by theoreticians of visual culture such as Chika Okeke-Agulu who coined the term “postcolonial modernism” for the Nigerian context, Esther Gabara who used the term “errant modernism” in order to interpret Brazilian and Mexican photography, etc.

The exhibitions which have been addressed in Videkanić’s case studies are examples which present Yugoslav cultural politics at the highest level. The chapters of the book are chronologically structured: the first exhibition organized by the Yugoslav Union of Fine Artists (1949) is analyzed in chapter 1, the Yugoslav participations at the Venice Biennale (in the 1950s) and the visiting exhibition of the MOMA’s Modern Art (1956) are the focus of chapter 2, international exhibitions and collaborations (from the middle of the 50s to the end of the 80s) as part of Yugoslavia’s nonaligned cultural diplomacy are discussed in chapter 3, and the final chapter 4 concentrates on the history of the Ljubljana Biennial (from 1955 to the mid of the 80s). In this way, the cultural politics of Yugoslavia is analyzed over the almost entire period of its existence from 1945 to 1985. In each chapter, the author provides a detailed analysis of the political circumstances – the Cold War and the Nonaligned Movement – which exerted a great influence on the development of the specific art manifestations and in doing so also on the development of alternative modernisms which Videkanić interprets under the motto “nonaligned modernism”.

The first chapter of the book is dedicated to the brief period 1945–1950 in which Yugoslavia turned to the Soviet model of art and culture. The author claims here that socialist realism was never fully accepted by Yugoslav art circles, but was mixed with the modernist aesthetic of the West. It is concluded that this hybrid product of the doctrines of the East and West was actually the basis for the development of “nonaligned modernism” in the following phase of the Yugoslav cultural opening up primarily to the West and then to the Global South. Through an analysis of the exhibition which the Yugoslav Union of Fine Artist in 1949 opened in Ljubljana, Videkanić argues that even though there were strong tendencies to institutionalize Yugoslav socialist art according to the model of the Soviet canon, soc-realism was never successfully implemented in practice. Her detailed analysis is particularly directed towards two artists (from the 79 who participated in the exhibition), and to two (of their) paintings: Boza Ilić’s Exploratory Drilling in New Belgrade and Djordje Andrejević Kun’s The Witnesses of Horror.

The second chapter is a reflection on the historic shifts of the mid-1950s, in which the Yugoslav art scene is heavily dominated by the influence of Western modernism, particularly that of America. Socialist modernism, as Videkanić claims, occurs as a counterbalancing reaction to the influence of the West. The conceptual and stylistic turn towards socialist modernism is showed through the examples of the works (artists: Miodrag Protić, Vojin Bakić, Lazar Vujaklija, Olga Jevrić, Edo Murtić, Krsto Hegedušić) which Yugoslavia presented at the Twenty-Eighth Biennale (1956) and Twenty-Ninth Biennale (1958) in Venice. The great influence of the American model of modernism is illustrated through the masses of visitors (25,000 in all) to the first exhibition of American modern art (The Museum of Modern Art from New York) in Yugoslavia in 1956, which was presented in the Kalemegdan Pavilion (Cvijeta Zuzorić Pavilion), ULUS (The Association of Serbian Fine Artists) Gallery, and the Fresco Gallery in Belgrade. Videkanić analyses the exhibitions as a form of cultural diplomacy through which the official Yugoslav position of a neutral but still engaged cultural/artistic politics is clearly reflected.

The third chapter offers a study of the initiatives by Yugoslav cultural diplomacy to promote the idea of creating a transnational nonaligned cultural network within the frame of the Nonaligned movement. Through a careful analysis of archival material (Arhiv Jugoslavije/Arhives of Yugoslavia), Videkanić shows the ways in which, through cultural/artist exchanges and projects, a system of student, scientific and art scholarships, bilateral agreements, international cultural manifestations, a dialogue between Yugoslavia and the NAM members was created, as well as, if seen from a wider perspective, how art works, manifestations and institutions were supposed to reflect NAM cultural politics. Antun Augustinčić’s Monument to the Victims of Fascism which was installed in 1955 in Addis Ababa is given as example of the first projects of this type and is analyzed in great detail. In addition to the list of the instances of participation of Yugoslav artists in various important exhibitions in the NAM states, particular attention is paid to the artistic/architectural creations which arose on the place of sites where the historical sessions of the NAM were organized: the Friendship Park project in Belgrade in 1961, the sculpture for the Third Conference of Non-Aligned Countries in September 1970 or the conference centre built in Lusaka also in 1970, El Palacio de las Convenciones in Havana in 1979. The institutionalization of NAM values in Yugoslavia is also treated in here. In this context, two museum institutions are briefly presented (The Museum of African Art – the Collection of Veda and Zdravko Pečar, established in 1977 in Belgrade and the Gallery for the Art of the Non-Aligned Countries – Josip Broz Tito, which opened in 1984 in Titograd).

The fourth and final chapter of the book provides the most complete picture of the struggle of Yugoslav cultural politics to build a platform for the encounter of artists from the East, West and the countries of the Third nonaligned part of the world. The central case study here is the Ljubljana Biennial, established in 1955 in parallel to the documenta in Kassel, the Venice Biennale, the Alexandria Biennale, and immediately after the São Paulo Biennial as similar manifestations aiming to reflect a particular desired picture of the world. In practice, this meant that the Ljubljana Biennial sought to show artists from the USA, Western Europe together with artists from the Soviet Union and China. In the years after the founding of NAM special attention was given to presenting as many artists as possible from the states of the Third World at the exhibition. Videkanić claims that an analysis of the curatorial decisions in the artist selection and the creation of the juxtapositions of their heterogeneous works at the exhibitions clearly illustrates Yugoslav aspiration towards the politically and visually articulation of the relatedness of artistic expression regardless of its origin. Videkanić calls this relation “nonaligned modernism”. Its discourse, demonstrated by the Ljubljana Biennial, is understood by author as the linking of political and aesthetic contradictions, the goal of which is establishing a political and cultural balance between the East and the West.

There are three reasons why Videkanić considers that a reevaluation of Yugoslav art and culture is necessary: 1) Yugoslav cultural history is not adequately visible in the international histories of modernism, 2) after the breakup of Yugoslavia, reexaminations of Yugoslav art are often instigated for national reasons, or it is seen by scholars from one side of Yugoslav culture as being an oppressive cultural form or they simply categorize it under Western modernism and finally 3) the repeated reinterrogation of Yugoslav art and cultural history is necessary in order to revitalize the ideas of antifascism, self-management, nonalignment, anti-imperialism/colonialism and a progressive political aesthetic.

The book points to an important aspect of the Yugoslav hybrid form of modernism, which previous literature has not adequately addressed, that is the reasons for its appearance and it clearly shows that the forms in which it manifested itself were very similar to the movements which at the same time arose in the non-Western, particularly “nonaligned” part of the world. Specifically, as Videkanić argues, this is a question of modernist experiments which arose out of the struggle for the representation of their autochthonous cultural needs, for their placement in the international scene and for political independence in the context of the Cold War.

As can be concluded, it was important for the author to chronologically illustrate how the different phases of the official Yugoslav art canons are connected, from soc-realism, through socialist modernism to the search for a nonaligned modernist aesthetic. The book provides a persuasive review of this search by Yugoslav cultural politics for the third model of the representation of its nonaligned geopolitical position. As an outcome, Videkanić gives examples which illustrate the pluralism of modernism displacing one another and temporarily and ambivalently crossing paths in relation to the turn in Yugoslav foreign politics. The reader is deprived of a more concrete analysis of the musealization of the Yugoslav alternative “non-aligned modernism”, which are only touched on in the third chapter.

The great advantage of this book is its interdisciplinarity and intertextuality. It relies on archival material and the literature which belongs to the fields of history and the theory of art as well as of postcolonial studies. It presents an important contribution to the future study of art history in Yugoslavia from a global perspective. Richly illustrated with art works (60 images over 320 pages) that are analysed, the book enables the reader to gain an insight into the important art works which came out of Yugoslavia and in the purpose of building the country's image in the bipolar world of the second half of the 20th Century. The book resists dry academicism, is easy to read, and as such gives a contemporary and concise overview of the development of Yugoslav hybrid modernism from 1945–1985.

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Published on
16.04.2021
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