Juraj Dobrović on several occasions, talking about his work, stressed that it was inappropriate to use such momentous concepts as creating and creativity in describing it, instead of discovering and discovery (“in this case the term creativity is not the right word because what precedes my activities and what they bring to a close is not creating but discovering”; “I have not created, but I may have discovered something.”). These modest claims, spoken like some kind of self-justification, are in fact the statements of a strong personality; because to discover something in (modern, contemporary) art, where everything already seems to have been discovered, is a very considerable demand to place before oneself, and if a real discovery is actually made, then this is a very important achievement. What Dobrović discovered is not anything that can be put to general use, anything that can be applied elsewhere; it is the world of forms and the set of problems inherent in his own work. In the depths of its foundations, it is the form-generating principles underlying the construction of his work that allow and make possible its natural, consistent and unforced, yet nevertheless continuous, unbroken and long-term development, which is not yet finished. An oeuvre that has, since its first appearance, continued for more than four decades and has been part of the Croatian art scene for just as long; the very length of time that it has lasted gives it a historical dimension. But, Dobrović’s work is not historical only because it has been present long enough to have become part of history, but also because it has already been confirmed as historic, as one of the very stable values of newer Croatian art that explores an immediately recognisable set of problems.
Croatian and international context
The very fact that Dobrović took part in three exhibitions of the international New Tendencies movement, whose organisational centre was in Zagreb (New Tendency 3, 1965, Tendencies 4, 1969, Tendencies 5, 1973), made him a legitimate member of this art movement. Together with Ivan Picelj, Aleksandar Srnec, Vjenceslav Richter, Vojin Bakić, Julije Knifer, Miroslav Šutej and Vladimir Bonačić, he was one of a forceful group of Croatian artists in the series of the five Zagreb events of New Tendencies, an undertaking that is today considered by all one of the most important contributions of Croatian art to international (European, world) art. What is more, a deeper and broader view of the history of the constructivist approach to art shows that a line runs through Croatian twentieth-century art starting in the early twenties, in the circle around the journal Zenit and its reception of the ideas and achievements of Russian Constructivism and Suprematism, continuing in the early fifties, with the crucial programmatic role of the EXAT-51 Group in the introduction of abstract art, and lasting to the sixties and early seventies, in the sequence of the five New Tendencies events already mentioned. Dobrović, as a participant in the last three, is therefore fully part of this great continuity of constructivist thought in Croatian art that lasted through almost the entire twentieth century. To belong to such a distinguished line in the art of one’s country is an important accomplishment for each of its participants, and so also for Dobrović as its full member and its prominent representative, regardless of how much, in what way and even whether at all, he sees himself as part of these art trends and problems.
Besides the above domestic context, the wider international context of Dobrović’s art is in the general tradition of European formal constructivist thought ranging from historical examples (Mondrian, Van Doesburg and De Stijl, Malevich, Tatlin, El Lissitzky and the Russian currents of Suprematism and Constructivism, the protagonists of the Bauhaus, Moholy-Nagy, Albers, the Concrete art of Bill and Lohse, geometrical abstraction, optical structuralism) to contemporary trends closer to Dobrović in time, with which his work shows significant and close problem-related links, direct correspondence and almost surprising coincidence. If we, therefore, move away from the general position of the distant and spiritual, more than the actual, kinship in language and form and move closer to developments that are in a real operative relationship with Dobrović’s art, if we move closer to the circles with which he is working contact and which count on him as their close collaborator, we find a context that recent art terminology knows as European relief-structure artists or European constructed relief artists. Artists such as Ad Dekkers, Ewert Hilgemann, Max Mahlmann, Hartmut Böhm, Klaus Staudt, Marcelo Morandini, Sandro de Alexandris, Hans Glattfelder, Colin Jones, Malcom Hughes, Jean Spencer and others belong to this circle. This is not an organised art group, least of all a group with any set programme, but an array of individuals from various parts of Europe – Great Britain, Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands, Italy – who in the late sixties and in the seventies spiritually recognised one anther in an atmosphere in which contemporary mainstream art was dominated by large power centres that pushed into the foreground currents such as Pop-art, Minimal art, Colour Field Painting, all of them protagonists of the domination of American art in the international art system. This mainstream was opposed by Fluxus, Arte Povera and Conceptual art, Body art, the art of new technical media (photography, video), which in the early eighties led to the postmodernist revival in the painting of New Expressionism, Transavantgarde and Anachronism. In this prevailing atmosphere of the endless interweaving and fierce competition of many late-modernist and postmodernist trends and their promotive strategies, and in contrast to it, the inheritors of the constructive spirit, few and isolated, ignored by the market and great international art events but with sufficient internal self-confidence and persistence, gathered in exclusive circles to continue in untarnished faith to work on the purity of art language and nurture the ethics of artistic behaviour. Their work was usually expressed through the discipline and technique of a relief of precisely thought-out, planned and executed structures, usually white or monochrome, more rarely coloured; their visual impression and meaning was sooner spiritual than perceptive, sooner manual and meditative than technological and optical, which is what made Dobrović close to such art and why he found himself part of these currents. In connection with Dobrović’s work it is, therefore, essential to say that he was quickly and rightly recognised as a spiritual associate of certain global art processes and became part of them, even though he worked withdrawn and solitary in Zagreb, and even though he had no great wish to establish and maintain direct personal links, meet in the public venues of the art scene, or seek any specially prominent position for himself or for his work. But the conceptual purity of his formal language and, of course, the importance of his realisations brought him into corresponding art fields and currents, in which he won a recognisable position, and his work was of necessity placed in the context of very relevant historical and contemporary art frameworks, both international and Croatian.
Conditions of development and first appearances
Dobrović’s education and development were extremely unusual for a (future) artist: he graduated from the Faculty of Economics (1956) and the Faculty of Philosophy, history of art (1961), in Zagreb. He did not work in either of these fields and his first public appearance was a one-man exhibition of objects for use in metal, which he started to make in 1958 and showed in 1962 in the Gallery of the Association of Croatian Architects. In purpose, technical execution and general impression the objects shown at that exhibition were applied art, not pure art. Even so, the shallow dishes and curved plates of hammered copper are clearly the embryonic form of the first reliefs from the Fields series of 1963, and it is inexplicable and mystifying how Dobrović managed to make such a quick, sudden and conceptually rounded and well-defined transition from those utterly “non-metaphysical” objects for the home to the pronounced metaphysical level and spirituality of his white reliefs. Already his first white reliefs satisfy the high requirements of the “spiritual in art”, equally because of their non-material and super-material whiteness and because of the absolutely regular order and the extremely compact structure of their elements, identical in type but different in size. The elements are semi-spheres that protrude from the surface and produce very gentle and fine shadows as light falls on them, thus making the work extremely sophisticated, mild, gentle, meditative and contemplative, despite the structural order subjected to strict mathematical rules of relations, measurements, proportions and dimensions in the distribution of the many individual elements as the composite units of a completely homogeneous and balanced whole.
Dobrović showed reliefs from the Fields series at three exhibitions in 1965 – at two one-man exhibitions (Student Centre Gallery, Zagreb, and the Kolarčev narodni univerzitet Gallery, Belgrade) and as a participant of the third New Tendencies – which brought him to the fore right from the beginning, and he quickly gained an exclusive position on the domestic and partly also on the international art scene. This was in the mid-sixties, at the time of “after Informel” (oltre l’informale), in the art climate that followed after the crisis and waning of the then central current in painting, when New Constructivism and Optical art were strengthening and in the framework of which the contribution of Dobrović’s white reliefs was immediately recognised. Much as his quick entry into this prestigious international art context suited him, it immediately became obvious that the meditative and contemplative features of the white reliefs of Fields stood far and fundamentally apart from the dominant course of the New Tendencies movement, which was at the third Zagreb exhibition in 1965 in a stage of quantitative expansion under the slogan Divulgation of Research Specimens. This the exhibition organisers understood as the introduction of methods for the technical multiplication of precisely designed art objects, with the corresponding social and political implications that this programme brought about and demanded. Dobrović happened to join New Tendencies at a moment of turbulent internal ideological and organisational changes and the first evidence of the deep crisis in this movement, so his participation at the exhibition evoked the following dilemma: on one hand, it helped him to become known as an artist, but on the other and more fundamentally, it distorted the true and basic nature of his artistic personality. In short, Dobrović was by no means comfortable with the declared ideological position of the current stage of the New Tendencies movement, he felt himself isolated and separate from them. He had for a long time felt a deep resistance against any kind of pigeon-holing, and this was true even of being placed under the wing of New Tendencies which were to him the closest and most acceptable He expressed his need to distance himself from any collective association in art in the following statement, very characteristic of him:
“Anyone who works in this field is forced, day by day, to face certain demands:
to change the world
to produce usable and useful work
to be engaged to a limited degree
to abandon the contemplative for the sensual
to reject ‘formalistic exploration’ in the name of vital principles
and although I do not know how much these demands were part of the formation of my work, I did not seek for motivation in this series of challenges.
In the diversity of my explorations I always tried to give myself up to the growth of the work losing my own trail and, following that growth, I tried to find a general and assembling principle. I always worked as an observer too, and because of this, I believe, I did not betray openness and clarity.
I have not created, but I may have discovered something.”
To give oneself up to the growth of the work
Dobrović’s basic motivation is not anything external, peripheral or based on any programme, but only that which is internally problem-related. “To give myself up to the growth of the work” – words from the artistic belief mentioned above - is the very essence of his artistic approach. It could never have been any different for this detached and concentrated artist who was never interested in, and especially never attracted by, the dynamism of events and happenings in the art world and who found all artistic and especially non-artistic ideologies completely foreign and distant. For Dobrović “to give himself up to the growth of the work” meant an extremely focused engagement on consequential research, on what he would call the “discovery” of a certain number of problem-related postulates, narrowed down but at the same time flexible and open to potential processes of elaboration. These he very precisely condensed in the following description of the characteristics of his work:
“- the symmetry of structures or the conditioned distribution of elements, which can to some extent be connected with the problem of the mandala,
- white as the cohesive and sensitising power of the relief and object,
- the visual and plastic representation of mathematical and geometrical values, and the use of the decimal, duodecimal and hexadecimal systems.”
Symmetry in the arrangement of the basic structural elements and the complete whiteness of the surface on which these elements are distributed – these are the two fundamental characteristics of the reliefs in the Fields series (the first were made in 1963, then came variations on the subjects of the first reliefs in 1975-76). Thanks to their symmetry and whiteness, these objects do not only possess and convey the visual and the perceptive, but also the symbolism of extreme perfection and purified spirituality. Symbolically interpreted, symmetry represents perfect order, shows a need for silence, serenity, the calm of immobility, complete self-possession, in short, for everything that Dobrović understands as belonging to the concept of the “prayer principle”. In his case the whiteness is primarily symbolical, too, his use of white completely fits into Udo Kultermann’s discussion of the “symbolism of white” which designates the “empty, unknown, pure and innocent”, but also the complete opposites, where white means “turmoil, apprehension, hidden danger, death”. In any event, the symbolism of white is a great subject in the history of modern art and the use of white goes back much further and deeper than Dobrović’s time. Among the stages of its use we must mention the first, Malevich’s White Square on White that was of capital importance, and also the work of Fontana, Manzoni, Castellani, Rauschenberg, Ryman, Girke and Holweck. In Dobrović’s cultural circle and among the members of the preceding generation, Kristl’s Positives from 1959 also have white as their primary characteristic. At exactly the same time when Dobrović was making his white Fields many exhibitions on the subject of whiteness were being held in European art centres (Kultermann mentions Weis in Hanover 1962, Weis Weis in Düsseldorf 1965, White on White in Lincoln 1965, Bianco Bianco in Rome and Weis auf Weis in Bern 1966). As an artist from a peripheral background compared to the leading international art centres, and as an artist isolated and separate from what was going on in these centres, Dobrović understandably did not show at these exhibitions, but this does not prevent us from observing that his Fields from the mid-sixties coincided with some of the most important problems being addressed by European and world artists somewhat earlier or even at exactly the same time.
In his white Fields Dobrović for the first time applied the operative principle of the series, family, variations on the theme of basic solutions, identical in type but different in form. “All these surfaces are One, but each of its systems defines the One in a different way, sees a different manifestation of it,” wrote Zvonimir Mrkonjić about Fields in the text Dvojstveno tlo Jurja Dobrovića, 1964. The way in which a work is manifested, its final visible stage is not, therefore, the fruit of one-off random intuition, a sudden gift of improvisation, the reward of a happy moment of inspiration, but is the result of an approach to image-forming, at that time completely new in Croatian art, where one artwork, through programmed shifts of its constitutive elements, gives birth to a second and following ones. Works of this kind exist as units in a series of kindred conceptual and formal solutions, but this does not prevent them from also existing as separate artworks, independent and singled out from the series. Works that were made as and which inter-relate as units in a series, although appearing as visual objects, are essentially conceptual, mental and objectified works, precisely planned to the last detail before being just as precisely realised according to plan. When Dobrović says that his ideal is “to give himself up to the growth of the work” he in fact means an image-forming process in which the work, as the generative matrix, leads the artist from one solution, the preceding one, to the second and following ones, instead of each new work being produced ab ovo, as the first-born, out of the artist’s (subconscious, dark, tormented) personal psychological and emotional situation. The practice of the serial autogenesis of the artwork was one of the crucial moments in the conception and production of art at the boundaries of the great art strategies of modernism, at the time of transition from the unrepeatable artwork in the classical disciplines of painting and sculpture to the work that actually is, or potentially could be, technically multiplied. It is to these effective or latent multiplying potentials, which are fundamental to the new post-paining and post-sculpture approaches and procedures, that Dobrović’s white reliefs in the Fields series basically belong.
Accepting and rejecting Optical Dynamism
Although he never felt like a militant member of the New Tendencies – we must remember that he put aside demands to “change the world”, to produce “usable and useful work”, to be included in “engaged to a limited degree”, which were all ideological postulates of this movement – in his work from the mid-sixties Dobrović nevertheless seemed to show some characteristic oscillations that made him part of the foment and reshuffles within New Tendencies at the moment of their expansion and international affirmation. Not long after Fields, whose whiteness and gentle tactility coincided spiritually and metaphysically with one wing of the early New Tendencies at the first Zagreb exhibition in 1961 (Manzoni, Castellani, Mavignier, von Graevenitz, Uecker and others), Dobrović began to grow towards the precise and systematic geometrical structures that had dominated the second Zagreb exhibition in 1963. This was the time when Dobrović, starting from 1964, produced his first Spatial Constructions built of wooden laths arranged according to precise mathematical rules to build a structural geometrical body composed of rotating square modules of constantly and successively decreasing dimensions. Fixed at static points and connected with thin threads, these objects were freely suspended in the air so that they could move and continue moving in response to even the gentlest touch, thus becoming objects in an elementary non-mechanical kinetic art. However, at the same time – for internal reasons connected to the approach to form, and certainly under the influence of the powerful international art system and especially under the impression of the exhibition The Responsive Eye in the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1965 – there was a pronounced strengthening of the optic and Gestalt in New Tendencies, and also of the virtual or real kinetic component. Although Dobrović was personally outside of and unconnected to these events, in his first print-folder Fields (silk-screen in colour, 1967, published by the artist with a foreword by Matko Meštrović, made after black-and-white drawings from 1965) he showed a timely inclination for this art trend, then in vogue, and his penchant for Op-art was further confirmed by his participation at the Op-Pop exhibition in Frankfurt in 1966. In the spirit of William Seitz’s terminology in the introductory text for the catalogue of the New York exhibition mentioned above, the prints in Dobrović’s first print-folder Fields could be seen as close or even identical with the concepts of Perceptual Abstraction or Perceptual Movement. These terms denoted a kind of optical illusionism that suggested space and movement, artistic problems that Bridget Riley, Ludwig Wilding, Wolfgang Ludwig and others analysed in the mid-sixties on the trail of Vasarely. After this Dobrović came out with the print-folder Fields 2 (silk-screen in colour, 1969) whose prints still echo the optic effects from the first Fields, but now greatly mellowed and quietened by the calm and fine colour gradations which again strengthened the contemplative and meditative component in his art. This re-orientation was not by-the-way and temporary, as shown by the artist’s decision after 1970, and especially intensely in 1975-76, to make new variations on the subject of the white reliefs from the 1963 Fields series. He was obviously once more gripped by a very strong inner need, a need for complete spiritual self-possession, which finally conquered him and definitively left behind as transitory (and temporary) the episode of strongly kinetic and optic dynamism shown in Spatial Constructions and the two print-folders Fields from the middle and second half of the sixties.
One for all: the creation and the meaning of Spatial Construction
When Dobrović had to choose one single work for the cover of this book, which would emblematically embody the very essence of his work, for indisputable reasons he decided on Spatial Construction, wooden laths, 41.5x41.5x41.5cm, 1968. Spatial Construction is a cube-shaped three-dimensional body that the observer cannot see and conceive in its completeness when looking at it standing on a static base; it must be handled, turned round, looked at it from all sides and in different positions. Only then and in this way can he or she not only fathom the principle on which this particular form was constructed, but also the principles that govern Dobrović’s total approach to building forms, which the artist himself condensed in the words about “giving himself up to the growth of the work” so as “by following that growth try to find a general and assembling principle”. Spatial Construction is a perfect geometrical shape which at first glance seems to have been created by extremely precise calculation from a preliminary design on a flat surface, and only after that built and finalised as a fully three-dimensional body. But in this case Dobrović’s construction process was completely different: starting from a chosen origin, from its own nucleus, the form grows from itself and of itself so it is at the same time both geometric and organic, as vital as a biological entity but also mental, cognitive, conceptual. It is a form that is completely obviously material, made of simple wooden laths that build its interior and exterior, its skeleton and its skin, and that also give it its shape which remains firm thanks to the material of which it is made and the manner of construction. When it begins to grow it continues to do so for as long as its elements can be kept together, and the artist stops its further growth at the precise moment when this further growth might lead to the entire structure caving in and then collapsing. It is this that makes Spatial Construction the paradigmatic work of Dobrović’s entire sublime and spiritual geometry, a geometry that is by no means primarily rational although it is strictly controlled by the mind, a geometry whose visible form looks like the materialisation of a mathematical rule but which has an intrinsic meaning that makes it a geometry of pronounced spiritual characteristics which, through the number, scale, proportions and relations built into the visible form, are there to enable us to infer and arrive at the laws of some higher arrangement and the highest order, as the basic principles of the harmony and balance of the ideal universe.
A geometrical form as an unusable object
What were the reasons, at first glance difficult to unravel, was it pure chance or perhaps a kind of deep connection with the spirit of the historical moment, that made Dobrović for a moment in 1968 break the thread of the pure non-iconic geometry of Fields and Spatial Constructions to produce an object which he called Cravat, a name referring to a particular thing? However, as soon as we see this object and take it in our hands we realise that what we are holding is not only not a cravat, but is a wooden cube just over five centimetres in size which, furthermore, makes a noise when shaken, showing that there is a much smaller object inside it (perhaps a ball?). So why – we ask ourselves – did he call this object a cravat when there is obviously not the slightest connection between them? Why this unusual game, this devious trap, even, into which he intentionally leads the observer of this object, what is the reason for this paradoxical and absurd artefact, so unexpected and unusual in the work of an until then absolutely consistent artist focused on the strictly structural, visual and plastic, in one word, on purely abstract lines of thought?
If we think about the year when Dobrović made his Cravat – 1968 – we must remember that this was a historical moment of many changes, including changes in what had until then been the fundamental approach to the perception of art and the ways of its operative and media-wise execution. In the changed social and spiritual context marked by the landmark year of sixty-eight, uncertainty appeared in the hitherto enthusiastic confidence which artists had in the rational foundations and unfolding of contemporary civilisation, and very obvious symptoms of doubt, scepticism and even resistance surfaced against the promise that the march forward of civilisation would, so it was said, be unbroken and unstoppable. Under such circumstances the élan of an optimistic future projection, shared also by the members of New Tendencies, weakened on the current art scene and was almost completely exhausted, and at the same time there was a strengthening of critical views on the position of and chances for art activities in the modern post-industrial society. An answer was given in the appearance of Arte Povera and Conceptual art, Body art and Performance art, in short, various ways of dematerialising the art object. It is in this overall art context that we must place and understand Dobrović’s Cravat as a work that was interpreted as akin to Conceptual art not long after its assembly, although this is not what it is in the explicit sense. Nevertheless, it is a piece whose significance and meaning should sooner be arrived at through thought than exhausted by simple observation. Therefore this small wooden cube, together with the sound that it makes, can and should be understood not as a pure non-iconic geometrical form but as an unusable, meaningless and practically useless artwork, but which in return is also spiritual and spiritualised, a kind of speculative artwork. This is the view that Zvonko Maković took to interpret Dobrović’s Cravat not long after it was made - as a work on the metaphysical level - and he implied that on this level “we do not see the real value of the thing with the eye but with the spirit, with that perception that does not rest on the level of the seen but much more deeply - in breaching the seen, in a meta-space that is superposed on the substance of the work”.
The art of mental qualities
Dobrović did not directly continue the idea of Cravat as a pure geometrical form in the status of an unusable object (only on one other occasion, in 1977, did he take a finished object, an alarm clock, and paint it white so that the dial was completely lost in the whiteness) although the metaphysical and mental qualities of Cravat left an indirect but lasting mark on his work after 1970. In the exhibition in the Gallery of Contemporary Art in 1971 (the foreword for the catalogue was by Radoslav Putar), which conclusively strengthened his position among Zagreb Neo-Constructivists and on the total home art scene, Dobrović for the first time showed the whole range of his earlier plastic research and at the same time announced its new areas. This range, besides the series already mentioned of Plates, Fields and Spatial Constructions, included the cycle Relief-Collages from 1965-67 (in ‘kromoluks’ card), and as a new problem the series US Reliefs (Ur-structures) from 1970, in which he used a white masonite basem with the effects of regularly distributed wooden laths and their shadows, to place before the observer’s perception potential and virtual instead of completely materialised and finalised geometrical figures and structures, thus confirming that the art of strict geometry, in the case of sensitive and cognitive artists such as Dobrović, is anything but a dry and restrictive rational discipline. On the contrary, for those who know how to realise it in this way, the art of geometry is an almost inexhaustible field for a kind of imagination that is even finer and more fascinating than the imagination needed for paintings of figurative and narrative fantasy. Bearing all this in mind, it is right to talk of Dobrović not only as an artist of Geometric Constructivism but also as an artist of metaphysics and of the imagination, which he especially became after the mid-seventies when he began the next cycles of his research, Cube and its Shadow, Eclipses of the Cube, and the series Reliefs with Folded Corners and Reliefs with Internal Foldings, all from 1974-76.
From the mid-seventies the square, as the primary two-dimensional geometrical figure, and the cube, as the primary three-dimensional geometrical form, were subjected to procedures in which their primary stages were modified, became the completely predominant motifs of Dobrović’s art. However, the square and the cube are more than the primary geometrical figure and form, they are also a mental and conceptual figure/form, instead of an objective and substantive one. The square and the cube are, therefore, not empirical and referential creations but are pure and structural formative constitutions, and they are thus very suitable models for procedures subjecting them to surprisingly numerous and varied transformations of their initially strictly defined starting points. It was transformations of this kind that Dobrović began to carry out in individual works and entire cycles, which started with Truncated Cube, 1972, when he – as the name of the work says – slashed the bottom right corner off a cube, shown in illusionistic two-dimensional projection, using a sharp cut like a surgical operation, and literally “truncated” it, spoiling its ideal wholeness, introducing a kind of anomaly, provoking an incident in the expected perception of the appearance of this form. In doing so he expressed in one more way his leaning towards the metaphysical instead of the strictly rational, which made one of the interpreters of Dobrović’s art, Mladen Lučić, writing about the motive for and the surgical operation carried out in Truncated Cube, associate a “Mannerist shift”.
“The square is a concept”, said Miško Šuvaković talking about Dobrović’s repertoire of forms, and he could also have added the cube to this repertoire. In his view a concept is an “idea, conception, notion, thought plan, project or programme. The notion of a concept is one of the basic models of analytical philosophy, where the term is used in three different ways: 1) a concept is an element of thinking that builds thought like words build speech and writing, 2) a concept is a notion that connects mental images and language, 3) a concept is the thought plan, project or programme of a scientific or artistic discipline.” Accordingly, it can be said that Dobrović’s art, although it does not belong to Conceptualism as this art current is strictly defined (its paradigmatic problems and positions were given by Joseph Kosuth and the Art-Language group), is nevertheless intrinsically constituted on the conceptual approach because its artistic nature is manifestly cognitive and analytical, absorbed in the first place in establishing and enlarging on the system of its own internal functioning. Dobrović’s approach, however, is not a priori theoretical, it is not primarily based on the conceptual and then secondarily expressed in the visual; instead, it is fundamentally and dominantly visual although with the strongly accentuated part played by the conceptual. This is why the genesis and expression of Dobrović’s approach is primarily artistic and only secondarily philosophical, in other words, his approach is that of a visual artist of pronounced cognitive and analytical abilities. An artist of this kind tests and proves the nature of his art primarily through his very branching operative practice, not in the theoretical sphere, and in this specific case the practice was especially intensive in the 1970s and 1980s.
Permeation of the extremes of discipline and imagination
In the early and mid-seventies Dobrović was concerned with two successive cycles of reliefs: Folded Squares, 1971-74, followed by reliefs with a hole called Internal Foldings, 1975-76. Speaking about the first cycle, he said that it consists of the “outline of a square damaged by drastic cutting, but the square nevertheless re-establishes itself through the imagined restoration of the folded corner”; for the second cycle he said: “What was cut away from a square has been stuck on so that in the imagination, using the mirror-image principle, it can be put back and the static form of the square restored. The complementary form (which consists of the positive and the negative, i.e. the relief part and the hole) is as a whole both new and consistent.” The form-generating operation performed in the two cycles is, therefore, strictly mental and predetermined to the last detail, which means that the artist knows in advance exactly what he will do and what final outcome is to be expected. In this process, however, the aesthetic object, as the result of the operation, possess besides the preliminary mental characteristics also those that are substantive, material, tactile, in one word, characteristics perceived by the senses. A predefined system of potential formal solutions thus exists that must be developed and built on in operative practice, which means that their latent possibilities must be drawn forth to a conclusion and proved in the work. By the time he made these cycles Dobrović had already completely left behind the neo-constructivist language of the mature New Tendencies period and in his practical work turned to the principles of Systemic art, which expressed his way of thinking by enabling the free choice of a particular set of starting principles which, after the choice is made, are further developed according to strict and consistent principles. These form-generating principles are such that one work emerges from another, one work proves the next and the following (and vice versa, the subsequent proves the preceding), which means that all the works which come about in this way are the equal-value units of a specific problem theme, they are complete equals and they must consequently all be treated together as the modalities of “variations on a theme”. “When an entire cycle produced in this way is viewed as a family of inter-related solutions, it is quite easy to observe the starting point, problem and goal of the task which the artist is addressing in his work, and the complex and all-encompassing repertoire that he finally brought a to the stage of elaboration.”
The visual arts in the eighties are usually thought to have been marked by the sudden expansion of expressive, figural and taught painting with obvious historical reminiscences (Neo-Expressionism, Transavantgarde, Anachronism), all to counter-weigh the hitherto domination of mental approaches in Conceptual art and body actions in Performance art. This changed sprit at the end of the twentieth century, covered by the general concept of Postmodernism, does not suit artists of modernist origins, who are not comfortable with the climate of this new chaotic language of pluralism and eclecticism. Even before this climate set in, at the time of the dematerialisation of the art object, Dobrović, who separated himself from current trends, was in no way hampered by changes on the art scene; indeed, they seemed to strengthen him in his need to remain in the shadow of all the noisy turbulence in the surrounding art world. When postmodern new geometry (Neo-Geo) appeared at the end of the eighties it seemed that the moment for Dobrović’s work to suddenly resurface had come. Not because he wanted to participate in this re-affirmation of geometry in art but simply because he had never even abandoned geometry and had continued to follow his own path, Dobrović showed his work in an exhibition in the Gallery of Contemporary Art at the beginning of 1988 (then also shown at the Likovni susret in Subotica) and, perhaps unexpectedly even for himself, found himself the centre of attention of young critics and the art public interested in current innovative events. This attention focused on the cycles Cut Cube, Divided Cube, Cut Prism, Cut Square, Cut Rectangle, Cut Forms, Step-like Cube etc., all from 1979-87, all painted in acrylic on canvas, in which Dobrović divided, sliced, literally “cut” the above geometrical bodies and figures in illusionistic three-dimensional projection. In doing so he stepped out into an almost inexhaustible world of fantastic rather than rational configurations based on the eternal foundations of geometry, leaving behind the modernist ideal of the strict reduction of form and in his own way accepting the postmodern challenge of “language games”. He abandoned himself to these games, founded on a small number of basic assumptions, and arrived at a surprisingly rich and varied repertoire of formal solutions, always in the form of the geometrical bodies and figures whose names the above cycles bear. It was this diversity of formal solutions instead of uniformity that made Tonko Maroević, writing about Dobrović’s exhibition in 1988, observe: “Despite the syntactical kinship, we do not see him on the trail of Albers and Vasarely, rather, we recognise in him a non-figurative Escher, a creator devoted to formulating extremes in which discipline and imagination touch and permeate.”
The cube as a form with deep and lasting symbolism
Dobrović usually experimented with this touch and permeation of discipline and imagination on the example of an archetypal geometrical form, the cube, which he consistently “cut” and “divided” in many ways and using many methods, all of them different. In the case of Dobrović, the choice of the cube as the starting point for these operations is by no means accidental: he is well aware that the cube is a form with deep and lasting symbolism, the most perfect geometrical body along with the sphere, and as the sphere is the spatial projection of the circle so the cube is the spatial projection of the square, the ideal figure that Malevich’s black and white squares elevated to the status of the most spiritual icon of modern art. Just as the square is an icon, so the cube is said to be a “symbol of wisdom, truth and moral perfection”, and by choosing this symbol for the basic determinant of his art Dobrović shows his commitment to some of the basic human values and virtues. However, he could not stop at simply taking over the finished body of the cube as a symbolical form complete and perfect in itself. He demanded a lot more than the rhetoric potentials of this symbol; instead of satisfying himself with the same form that was accessible to everyone, that was general and common, Dobrović developed it further and devoted his work to a variety of external and internal transformations of the cube, trying to see beyond the visible, into the interior of this ideal form, as if he wanted to discover the ultimate treasure that it hides and shelters and by doing so to draw it close and make it personal, his own and individualised.
To search for what is one’s own and individualised, in one word for what is separate, instead of being satisfied with what is common, is closer to the essence of the poet than to that of a former New-Tendencies “researcher” artist. At the end of the eighties his membership in this movement from the mid-sixties, which even then had lasted for a very short time, was a distant and almost forgotten past for Dobrović. Thus he had increasingly fewer spiritual kin among artists at the time of his meditations about the cube; he stood before the white canvas completely alone, just like the poet stands completely alone in front of the white page of his paper. Feeling this kinship in solitude, Dobrović found himself profoundly close to a poet whose poem from the cycle Conquest of the Cube he used as a motto for the catalogue of his 1988 exhibition: this was Nikola Šop and his poems devoted to the cube (“Further Story of the Cube”, “Delusion”, “Ascents” etc.). If we had not known that the creative paths of the artist Dobrović and the poet Šop ran on completely parallel lines, independent and untouchable, we might have thought that they had really been and still were collaborators. Their collaboration, however, was not personal but completely spiritual, because it lies in the challenge whereby the poet, in writing about the cube, and the artist, in his representations of the cube, both want to resolve basically the same thing: inquire into the secret of the symbol, use the symbol to fathom the incomprehensible secret of the quintessence of existence.
Resisting the turmoil of history
For a whole decade and a half, from the exhibitions in 1988 in the Gallery of Contemporary Art and at the Likovni susret in Subotica to the retrospective exhibition in 2003 in the Gliptoteka HAZU, which means throughout the violent and tragic nineties, Dobrović had no one-man exhibitions but only appeared at some group shows, and always with earlier works instead of more recent ones. This was, of course, not a time that favoured art events because in those tormented years the thoughts and feelings of artists were gripped and tortured by too many other kinds of events and emotions. In the shelter of his studio, however, the only place where he could find moments of tranquillity, Dobrović’s work continued unbroken and intensive. The nineties were a very fertile period in his art – which the recent retrospective exhibition showed and confirmed –although he played no noticeable part in public life. This was the time when he created the cycles Constellations, 1990-91, two variants of Division of the Cube, 1992, more cycles on the subject of the Folded Square, 1992-99, and Folded Rectangle, 1995, and finally his most numerous and most recent cycle Towards the Centre, 1997-2002, sequences of most often three (triptychs) and sometimes four paintings that make a whole. The technique used for all of them is acrylic on canvas, all the canvases are square (50x50, 60x60, 70x70, 80x80 cm), the paintings show no trace of brushwork, which means that they were first mentally and conceptually thought out and defined to the smallest detail in preparatory studies and drawings. Besides a different technique, these works were different in another way from earlier ones: instead of the whiteness of his reliefs and the black-and-white contrasts of his earlier canvases, now the foundation for the black forms is always grey, which gives these paintings a mellowed, almost nostalgic tone instead of one that is visually active and aggressive. The plasticism that Dobrović now investigated, besides continuing some of his earlier themes, brought considerable changes in his approach to the problems he dealt with, which are most evident in his largest and newest cycle Towards the Centre. The name suggests something that takes place in the field of the painting: elementary geometrical forms seem to enter it from somewhere outside and then – of course in the illusion created by the artist – move across the painting to its centre where they create new geometrical forms, themselves also completely regular and logical. Thus, for example, on one triptych the shape of the square is reached from the triangle via the rectangle, on another four squares join and overlap to produce a cross. The starting operative principle is perfectly clear and readable, but the final impression and effect of the operation has a spiritual subtext that goes beyond the purely visual appearance of the forms, which all belong to the register and repertoire of permanent and profound archetypal forms and their meanings. Although Dobrović opened new vistas of form-structure research in the nineties, insisting almost didactically on the comprehension of their organising principles, nevertheless his production at that time did not diverge from what was fundamental to his art: a special kind of precise imagination combined with sophisticated and sensitive spirituality as the constant and irreplaceable quality of his character as an artist.
Dobrović’s persistence as late as the nineties in the art of geometrical forms and structures shows the steadfast perseverance of a member of the former “last avant-garde” in using his own language and ideological origins despite all the changes and transformations in art in the periods of late Modernism and Postmodernism. This kind of persistence in an artist of Dobrović’s outlook and approach to ethical responsibility can also mean the belief that art should not and must not, even in the most difficult circumstances, give up its world view based on the primacy of reason. In theoretical and critical discussions in the nineties valid views were expressed about “renewing the modern project”, about the need to support the “second” or “neo-” modernism. This was necessary, at a time when the criteria of civilisation were undergoing great changes and unsteadiness, to preserve the principles that underlay the concept of modernism and modernity. It was this concept which had, in its time and through the mediation and example of art, fostered faith in humanity’s endurance, survival and progress in the consciousness of individuals and communities. Dobrović’s artistic position in the nineties, private and self-effacing more than publicly loud and present, shows that this faith never weakened, what is more that it held firm despite all the turbulence that no one, least of all one in the fragile position of an artist and his art, could escape.
An artist whose ideals combine movement and tranquillity
Almost everyone who has provided an interpretation of Dobrović’s art has seen in it a combination of seemingly contrary approaches and qualities. The first to do so was Zvonimir Mrkonjić who in 1964 wrote about the “twofold ground of Juraj Dobrović”, Tonko Maroević – as we have seen – detected and emphasised the existence of “extremes in which discipline and imagination touch and permeate”. For Radoslav Putar Dobrović’s work contains “systems of fields and the rhythmic development of constructions in space that witness an extent of ideas born from gentle awe at the enormity of the harmony in which movement and tranquillity touch”. All this does not, of course, mean that Dobrović, in a wish to avoid the optical and neo-constructivist mainstream, and searching for his identity in the simplicity that marks every true style, connects the unconnectable so as to achieve an externally easily recognisable hybrid art idiom. On the contrary, Dobrović achieves the unity of style necessary for every serious artist by harmoniously fitting together several basic factors from which each of his complex works is made, develops and is finally realised in its external identity. In the case of Dobrović movement (to use Putar’s words) in fact means the activity of the spirit, aspiring to a distant goal, participating in the art life of present time, understanding artistic ideas that are close to him and those things that have been superposed on them in response to general changes in art. Furthermore, movement also implies constant work, the consciousness that an artist must always prove himself anew in an adequate wealth of production (but by no means hyper-production). On the other hand and as a counterweight to movement, Dobrović also possesses tranquillity (again according to Putar), which is his inner need for complete focus, concentration and surrounding silence while he works on his artistic constructions. When on one occasion (in a questionnaire for European relief-structure artists published in the journal The Structurist, 17-18, 1977-78) he was asked about the motivation for and sources of his work, Dobrović replied “free time” and “meditation”. And added: “The attempt to achieve form whose meaning, however mysterious and complex, must be explained in the work itself.”
Free time and meditation, which are completely personal conditions and feelings, not something that comes from, for example, the social environment and everyday living, these are the incentives and desires that Dobrović in his art tries to achieve. It is in them that he seeks for the realisation and embodiment of completely personal moods. These moods are anything but an easily reached satisfaction with achievement that may ensure beforehand easy production not marred by anything internal. “It often happens,” said Dobrović sincerely, speaking about these moods, “that when I am finishing a homogeneous cycle of works I have a feeling of an end, of futility and of being in the middle of nowhere, then with an effort at concentration and patience, suddenly, as if by some grace, a fresh possibility for work is created.”
Truly, Dobrović’s unique art is created with an effort at concentration and patience, by a grace that is sooner the gift of his basic human nature than of his professional constitution alone. His is an oeuvre unique within itself, but in a different way also unique in the entire array of problems that the powerful current of geometric and constructivist artists in Croatia in the second half of the twentieth century concerned themselves with. This current began with the EXAT-51 group in the early fifties, continued in the sixties and early seventies in the work of the Croatian artists of the international New Tendencies movement, one of whom was Dobrović himself, and it was also supplemented by some individuals outside and alongside these groups of artists. In his development and the typology of his language of form Dobrović owes nothing fundamental to the EXAT heritage, and he showed his work at the New Tendencies exhibitions more to strengthen the domestic group of participants than because he was a follower of this international art movement’s programme and ideological postulates. Although he had no direct working contacts with the artists of the Gorgona Group, it was probably to them that Dobrović was spiritually the closest, if for no other reason then because he, like most of the members of this group, was disinclined for frequent public appearances and fostered the introverted, contemplative and meditative virtue of artistic engagement. Furthermore, unlike the EXAT and New Tendencies artists, and unlike the Gorgona Group, all of them “northerners” and “continentals”, Dobrović was the only “southerner” and “Mediterranean” in the Zagreb group of geometrists and reductivists. This difference in origin is by no means unimportant, what is more, it seems to additionally underline very marked characteristics in the nature of his art. Dobrović’s equal measure of discipline and imagination (according to Maroević), or his movement and tranquillity without the prevalence of either opposite pole (according to Putar), belong both to his personal psychological and spiritual constitution and are the marks of the deep sublimation of a very specific genius loci that Dobrović, as a product of the Mediterranean civilisation, carried in him. The mentality of this genius loci is expressed in self-sacrificing diligence and industry, which are some of the inborn characteristics given by their culture of living to the people from the land of his origin; but it is also expressed in their need to envision, comprehend, desire and finally realise something that is always better and more perfect, not because of the excessive abundance of their everyday existence but to achieve the ideal of dignified asceticism in the harmonisation of the material and spiritual, active and cognitive (Dobrović himself might prefer to say “prayer”) principles. It is from here, from this unity of movement and tranquillity, from the equal diligence of the hands and the keenness of the spirit, that his art seems to emerge. This art, which at first glance and in superficially interpreted external stylistic clothing seems to be part of the international art of Geometrical Abstraction, New Constructivism, Systemic Plasticity and the like, but is in fact, in its essence, a deeply personal and private art, an art that grew from a very strong inner need, proof of which is also the fact that it did not in its beginnings develop from the customary professional art education. On the contrary, through his persistent efforts at self-development Dobrović’s art has established itself as an art which, more than by its undoubted aesthetic values, shows and proves itself by the ethics of a humanistic world view.
With the approval of the author and publishers, the text is taken from:
Publishers: DAF and Art Gallery, Split
For Publishers: Zoran Senta and Bozo Majstorovic
Editions: Monographs, the first book
Text: Ješa Denegri
Translation to English: Nikola Jovanovic
Photography: Branko Balic, Boris Cvjetanovic, Luka Mjeda and Goran Vranic
Design: Juraj Dobrovic
Press: Skaner Studio
Zagreb, May 2007.