Croatian Avant-Garde Scene


Hvorje Turkovic, Zagreb 1993


At the end of fifties and during the sixties Zagreb, capital of Croatia, then one of the six republics of socialist Yugoslavia, was a catalyst of modernist movement in this parts of Europe, an obligatory way station for world artists, music performers, theatrical groups, art exhibitions. Zagreb was even originator of some world modernist promotions. E.g. in 196l. two manifestations were initiated in Zagreb: constitution and the first exhibition of the "new tendencies" ("nouvelle tendence", as was named when Louvre in Paris overtook the exhibition in 1964, and the next year Museum of Modern Art in New York), and Zagreb Music Biennale, the international festival of "new music", with some world premiere of musical pieces by contemporary composers and performers.


This was due to the "lust for modernism" which was loosed free by the then liberal tendencies in socialist policy of Yugoslavia. This "lust for modernism" have produced almost simultaneous "avant-garde" tendencies in different artistic fields: in literature (e.g. semantic playfulness of Slamnig), in art (expressionistic abstractionism, e.g. Murtic; constructivist, geometric and optical art and sculpture, e.g. Picelj, Knifer, Kristl, Srnec, Kovaric, Sutej), in music (a-tonal music, e.g. Kelemen, Malec), in theater (staging of Jonesco's and Beckett's plays), in animation art (the rise of modernist "Zagreb school" of animation), and - in avant-garde ("experimental") filmmaking.


All these phenomena were organisationally marginal within global cultural policy, though they possessed high "excitement value" and cultural attractiveness. The very marginal position of modernist manifestations was quite important - it made modernism possible within still restrictive and against modernism biased ideological surveillance of communist regime. The marginal position was specially important for the rise of avant-garde in cinema field. The state subsidised production of films, and ideological importance that was traditionally assigned to cinema, produced much more efficient ideological control in cinema field then that in the other cultural fields. However, in the focus of surveillance were primarily feature films, and therefore feature film industry was more resistant to the modernist challenge. But, the "margins" of cinema: film criticism, short documentary films, animated films and the whole network of "amateur societies" were free to exercise the general "lust for modernism" very early, in late fifties, simultaneously with the others.


Especially important were amateur organisations. Due to the fact that the professional cinema was relatively recently sufficiently equipped with the professional stuff, it was quite closed to any novice at that time; at the end of fifties and the beginning of sixties there was no customary, known way for a novice to enter the cinema production. Amateur societies were the only place where young cinephils could start making films. And, the societies were the only place where radical modernist ideas about cinema could be voiced. "Kino klub Zagreb" was such a place. It was an amateur club, meagerly subsidised, placed in the cellar, with some 8 mm and some 16 mm cameras, irregular supply of film stock, and amateurish stock development. At the end of fifties few stimulating individuals (especially a student of medicine, Mihovil Pansini) have started shooting ambitious "poetic", "atmospheric" films (of "mythopoetic " kind, as defined by A.P.Sitney). At the beginning of sixties, Pansini, joined by other young prospective filmmakers, initiated energetic and quite self-indulgent discussions (the discussions were taped) concerned with the idea of "anti-film". The discussions brought in references to all known contemporary modernist tendencies, with special emphasis on surrounding displays ("anti-theatre" shows in Zagreb, new music at Zagreb Biennale, "new tendencies" in Gallery of Modern Art in Zagreb, literary modernism of "Kolo" magazine genera-tion etc.).


At the same time, some of them started to shoot films to exemplify their own radical ideas of the "anti-film" (or of "real film"). Outstanding personality was that of Tomislav Gotovac, with strong modernist affinities across the arts and firm structuralist approach in filmmaking. Important work was, also, of then very young Vladimir Petek who was an eclectic, but the most daring experimenter. They were joined by Mihovil Pansini, who, in the same eclectic manner, investigated some radical avant-garde ideas. The next idea put forward by vigorous Pansini was the idea of avant-garde film festival, by analogy to the Music Biennale. Pansini and his supporters actualised the idea in 1963. and the festival, named GEFF (Genre Film Festival), was established. The conception of the festival was again very eclectic, trying to get together everything that smacked on modernism in any cinematic discipline - so not only avant-garde works were shown but feature professional films ("authors cinema"), documentaries, animated films. But the awards and the discussions arranged at the festival put the stress on avant-garde samples. There were three more GEFF festivals (1965, 1967, 1970). and on the 1967. the 10 hours selection of American avant-garde was presented by A.P.Sitney, and on the last festival Warhol's workshop films. The festivals were quite exciting events, crowded with audiences. Discussions were frequented not only by filmmakers, film-critics and film-theoreticians, but by philosophers, artists, musicians, literary people. Stimulated by the festival, even non-avant-garde filmmakers made some remarkable playful, often ironically conceived, contributions to the festival (e.g. projection of pure projector light, without film; burning of the film stock on the projectionist lamp - "Kariokinesis"; hand scratched film stock of uniform nature - "Termites"; film projection-body performance; etc.).


Zagreb did not hold monopoly over avant-garde filmmaking in Croatia. In another Croatian town, Split, the town at the Dalmatian seashore, Ivan Martinac powerfully initiated a Mediterranean, mythopoetic avant-garde line of filmmaking in amateur club "Kino-klub Split". Martinac started to shoot films in Belgrade, Serbia, during his university studies of architecture, and returned to Split as a filmmaker of articulated, very suggestive, style. Most of Split filmmakers (Kursar, Nakic, Zafranovic, Pivcevic) worked under the influence of the style Martinac had set, except Ante Verzotti who looked for abstract rhythmic patterns.


In spite of the GEFF based impression of avant-garde vigorousness, amateur conditions were highly inadequate, poverty-stricken in many ways (technically and financially mostly), and outside of GEFF and amateur film festivals they were socially quite neglected. No subcultural ambience was built to sustain filmmakers, and no systematic state support was ensured.


When the state subsidy system was reoriented toward "author" based industry in Croatia in the mid-sixties (subsidy was granted to the personal projects and not to the studios), and when the new system became quite open to newcomers and to modernist tendencies, most of the avant-garde filmmakers either looked for the job in the repopulated movie industry (and television), or went to the newly established film schools ("film academies") to study film, or attempted to get the subsidy for their avant-garde film projects. Some of them had succeeded to get the subsidy but in an uneven, irregular, unpredictable manner. The late sixties and seventies have, eventually, witnessed the dispersion of the avant-garde film movement in Croatia, with only few filmmakers irregularly producing some new work (Gotovac, Martinac, Petek, e.g.). Ironically: the success of modernism in dominant cinema, the predominance of "authors cinema" entailed waning of the film avant-garde movement.


The second half of the seventies, however, have witnessed a kind of a slow recovery of avant-garde activity. In the place of uniform location of avant-garde activity within amateur societies, multiple centers emerged. Amateur clubs were still an available host - for better or for worst - to anybody who wanted there to act in an avant-garde manner. But, in Zagreb there appeared a Student center (especially its Multi-Media Center established in 1976, made internationally known through the activity of its director Ivan Ladislav Galeta), with the continuous exhibition program of avant-garde filmmaking, video-art works, and multimedia performances, of home and foreign origin. Multi-Media Center even produced some avant-garde films (Gotovac, Galeta, Mikulic). The program of the Center were often distributed to other Croatian centers (in Osijek, Split e.g.) so it was not just Zagreb-bound activity. Still more important was the culturally new interest for film and video avant-garde within art galleries and "new practice" artists. The interest arouse under the influence of world tendencies to extend artists' work to other and new media, to video too. The tendency was manifested in the early video work by Goran Trbuljak (conceptual artist, later a cinematographer), and work by Ivekovic, Martinis, at the beginning of seventies, and the video work by Zeljko Kipke later on. However, very soon art world started to discover the older film avant-garde tradition, e.g. Tomislav Gotovac's work, who didn't pioneer just in filmmaking but in art-performances ("happening") too, and also in conceptual and body performances. The art environment became an occasional host to important film avant-garde (and later video-art) solitary work by Ivan Ladislav Galeta (Zagreb), Ivan Faktor (Osijek), Mladen Stilinovic (Zagreb). Some artists permanently established themselves as video-artists of merit - e.g. Sanja Ivekovic, Dalibor Martinis, Breda Beban & Hrvoje Horvatic.

Production situation, however, have not significantly improved though it was more varied. Pauperism was a general mark of the film-making situation. Everybody personally coped with the situation in an idiosyncratic manner. The only constant, though occasional, irregular, public production opportunities could be found in film amateur clubs, student centers (in Zagreb and Osijek), in state subsidy funds, and within some television networks (namely, in capitals of other Yugoslav republics: Ljubljana, Sarajevo, Belgrade, Skopje, video-art workshops were occasionally arranged, and some of the tapes by Croatian artists were television-produced there).


The important factor in sustaining the film and avant-garde work in Croatia in eighties was a gradual world recognition of the fact of Croatian avant-garde tradition. The ambitious avant-garde film exhibition in Lodz, Poland in 1978, and more important, the presence on the London "Third International Avant-Garde Festival" at National Film Theatre in 1979 (simultaneously with the "Film as Film" exhibition at Hayward Gallery), and at Genoa 1980. avant-garde festival - all these exhibitions drew the attention to some Croatian artists (mostly to Tomislav Gotovac and Ivan Ladislav Galeta). They were subsequently included in The American Federation of Art program "The Other Side: European Avant-Garde Cinema 1960-1980". They have been frequently invited to exhibit their work abroad. On the other side, video-artists (Ivekovic, Martinis, Beban-Horvatic and Galeta too) have been included into the world video-art "network", gaining not only exhibition opportunities abroad too, but production opportunities as well.


In eighties there was too a continuation of occasional experimental work in cine-clubs. In Split, at the end of eighties, there sprung a numerous and occasionally highly interesting group of experimental filmmakers (e.g. Petar Fradelic, Branko Karabatic, Zdravko Mustac, Boris Poljak and others), and in Zagreb cine-club and in Osijek some work has been done.


Present-day situation is consistent with the described one, with the same personalities still dominating the avant-garde scene. There are only some new accents. The war which has been waged by Serbia over Croatia (and now over Bosnia and Hercegovina), has impoverish daily life, dislocated some artists, shattered official film production, but it has only partly diminished avant-garde production opportunities which were never system dependent and never affluent. Mostly in amateur clubs (now equipped with mostly VHS video equipment) some young people are springing up producing mostly tapes (and much less films) of respectable creative standard (e.g. Kuduz, Knezevic, Tikulin, Bukovac, Simonovic-Narath, Zanki). In addition, a contemporary music video clips production serves as a possible channel for avant-garde tendencies and one can there expect appearance of some new personalities.


Personality factor is still - as it generally is - the most reliable factor of Croatian avant-garde scene. All other social, institutional, factors are in a highly fluctuating, unsettled state; there are no firm support centers for the avant-garde production, and nothing new in view.