Written in 2002, published here for the first time
A Factual Sketch
The group of painters, architects and designers under the name of EXAT 51 (abbreviation for Eksperimentalni atelier 1951) has for a long time been considered, by general consent, to be a phenomenon of fundamental historic significance to the Croatian art and culture in the period after the Second World War. The factual ‘portraits’ of the membership and the history of their grouping and activities are more or less well-known today, so here is a brief survey only:
The members were (in alphabetical order): Bernardo Bernardi, Zdravko Bregovac, Vlado Kristl, Ivan Picelj, Zvonimir Radić, Božidar Rašica, Vjenceslav Richter, Aleksandar Srnec and Vladimir Zarahović. Together, they made public their Manifesto during the plenary session of the Applied Artists’ Association of Croatia held in Zagreb on October 7, 19511. This took place two years after some of the later members had jointly participated in arranging the exhibition stands at some trade fairs at home and abroad (Zagreb, Stockholm, and Vienna, in 1949; Hanover, Chicago, and Stockholm – again – in 1950), which they approached as something demanding much more than a merely functional response, as they took advantage of these assignments to put into practice their idea of a 'synthesis of architecture and visual arts' which they advocated and later formulated as one of the key articles of EXAT’s Manifesto. However, what was actually to attract exceptional attention from the cultural milieu, and, at a given historic moment, trigger a storm of controversy was the exhibition staged by the four painter members of the group: Kristl, Picelj, Rašica and Srnec. It was mounted in the Hall of the Architects’ Association of Croatia in Zagreb (February-March 1953), and re-staged in Belgrade (March-April of the same year), in the Gallery of the Graphics Collective (Grafički kolektiv). The historic, landmark role of the show is based on the fact that it was the first programmatic appearance of Abstract Painting on the Croatian/Yugoslav art scene, only a short while after that same scene had been governed by the ideology and practice of Socialist Realism. But even before these events in the country, Picelj, Rašica and Srnec had taken part in the international exhibition of abstract art, the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles in Paris, in 1952. Formally, the group never dissolved, but their joint activities gradually lessened, owing to a lack of concrete jobs and other occasions for collaboration. The painters in the group continued to participate in the important art exhibitions of the time, such as Salon 54 and Salon 56, in the city of Rijeka, but as individuals rather than as members of EXAT 51. The last occasion on which EXAT 51 may be considered to have exhibited together, as a group, was the 1956 exhibition of paintings by Picelj and Srnec, at the ULUS gallery in Belgrade ('ULUS', being the Serbian acronym for the ‘Association of Fine Artists of Serbia’).
The Innovative Character of EXAT 51
The group EXAT 51 emerged in the early 1950’s, in the period of postwar material reconstruction and of a re-orientation of the political order, whose ideological and cultural matrix was the doctrine of Socialist Realism, maintained until 1948 and only finally rejected, several years later. As might be expected, EXAT 51 was not the sole artistic phenomenon to evade, or confront, the dominant spiritual climate of the time. Around then, there were several other individual deviations from the norm, including, in particular, a number that aimed to revive some of the principal concepts in pre-War art. But it was exactly at that point that EXAT 51 diverged from everything else, as its fundamental premises lay elsewhere. Namely, the principal difference lay in the fact that the area of the group’s activities was understood to cover - and did, Indeed, cover - a far broader area than that of the disciples of the classic art of painting, although it was in painting that they showed how open they were to innovation, in terms of their visual language. With respect, both to their theoretical intentions and the practical limitations that stood in their way, they may be said to have succeeded in immeasurably broadening their field of activity, to encompass the entire whole reality of objects and space.
The innovative character of EXAT 51 was thus manifested in their synthetic approach to bringing together architecture, painting and design, as a whole. However, it was not possible for them to implement the comprehensive programme to the degree, and extent, that they would have wished, because of the many social constraints and post-War scarcity of materials. In real life, what was left to EXAT 51 was a complex of ideas that was most thoroughly worked out in the theoretical writings of two of the group's members, Vjenceslav Richter’s ‘Prediction of a Synthesis of Life and Art, as a Reflection of Our Age' (Prognoza životne i likovne sinteze kao izraza naše epohe) and Zvonimir Radić’s ‘The Meaning of Plastic Reality’ (Značenje plastičke realnosti). In order to draw the attention of the public in their environment to their own aspirations and positions, EXAT 51 carried out a 'minimum programme' in their own environment, to draw the attention of the public to their own ideas and aspirations, by means of an exhibition of paintings that were largely abstract and ‘spoke’ a plastic language. Up until then, no paintings like this had ever been made, or even dreamed of, in Croatia, though it is worth noting that, during the period between the two World Wars, there had been some hints and premonitions of what was to follow, in the work of one or two individual, who were now duly identified and recognised, as forerunners, by the freshly minted EXATists. In a reference to these, and an attempt to justify EXAT 51's right to build on a home-grown tradition Picelj emphasised that:
'In addition to all possible and impossible arguments against our painting art, one of the constantly repeated claims was that we did not belong to this milieu, while forgetting that it was in this city that Aleksić (Dada), Micić (Zenit), Sava Šumanović (post-Cubism), and Seissel (Bauhaus) had worked. Their activity, however, was buried by the burgher environment.” 2
The works created by EXAT’s four painter members showed no stylistic unity though they did share certain typological properties in common. The label, ‘geometric abstraction’ does not wholly apply on them, though Kristl and Picelj were inclined to this idea. Rašica and Srnec, in contrast, introduced some freer, even moderately automatic painting techniques into their work, without, however, making any concession to the evocation of objects, landscapes or figures. The four painters in the EXAT group were actually four very different individuals, each with his own distinctive pictorial style and form of ‘handwriting’. Yet despite the obvious differences between them, there were no typical or atypical representatives of the group, other than this small cluster of painters.
As for Picelj, he titled most of the paintings from his EXAT period Compositions, and this unambiguously indicates their fully abstract character, based on a balanced assessment of the fundamental elements of visual art. Although appearing to be a strict ‘geometrician’ during his EXAT 51 period, Picelj had begun with drawings and tempera paintings on paper that employed a lyrical idiom, rather than a form of geometric abstraction. But having once mastered the means of building up a painting on a rational basis, Picelj was never to abandon the use of an accurately defined and measured ratio of form, space and colour, as his means of animating the entire picture-plane with a rich pattern of complex visual interrelationships. In Composition 54 (1954) he painted the most concise Minimalist that had ever been produced in his local environment up to that point, Towards the end of EXAT's existence he also executed Composition W and A Tribute to El Lissitzky (1956), which were classics, not only in his own oeuvre, but for the entire Croatian painting scene, in that first post-War decade. It was within the context of EXAT 51 that he built up his view of the world, was an artist, and he later worked, constantly to improve on this and bring it up to date, going through a number of stages that ranged from adherence to the New Tendencies movement onwards – producing objects, paintings and prints, when the second half of the 20th century was well under way.
During the existence of EXAT 51, Kristl was seemingly close to Picelj, in terms of the strictly geometric organisation of his then rare paintings titled, from first to last, Composition (all of them, dating from 1952-3). In essence, though, they fostered substantially different approaches to the fundamental understanding of art and of the artist’s personality; they differed in the matters of artistic behaviour, too. As he joined EXAT 51 only after the group’s manifesto had been published, Kristl did not feel obliged to follow the principles and ideal postulates of the common programme. Producing paintings of striking geometric ‘hardness’ and ‘dryness’, this extreme individualist seemed eager to defy and irritate the people in his own environment, who had done much to stimulate an appreciation of the aesthetic and pictorial qualities of contemporary painting. Within EXAT 51, Kristl was uniquely characterised by a certain paradox: instead of producing his paintings in accordance with certain principles of construction, he produced the desired effects through the opposite principle of deconstruction - unlike Picelj who was consistent and homogenous, in terms of his language; and unlike the heterogenous and subversive Kristl, Srnec was the most stylistically versatile and productive of all the EXAT painters. The very versatility of Srnec’s repertoire provided evidence for the fact that the style-based matrix of geometric abstract art was by no means the decisive common denominator in the paintings produced by the members of this group. Srnec was a genuine homo ludens, with a fondness for improvisation - hence, it was imagination, rather than the method, that governed his formal techniques and practices. His playful, springy line, instead of firm form, was the fundamental element of his visual ‘phrasing’. With his Spatial Modulator (Prostorni modulator, 1953), produced while the EXATists still stuck together, Srnec was the only one of the group to venture beyond the two-dimensional plane of the painting/collage/drawing into the concrete, three-dimensional space of the object, thereby heralding the further elaboration this initial concept that took him on to devising kinetic and contextual solutions for his subsequent Luminoplastic pieces.
Finally, we come to Rašica: although an architect, by training and a set-designer, by profession he was – unexpectedly, perhaps – the most pictorial painter within EXAT 51. But the surprise is not complete, if one knows that the eldest of the four (at the time when he joined the group) had already had years of experience, as a figurative landscape painter, in an idiom he never fully abandoned, on his road to the borders of abstraction.- Working – like his fellow-members in the group – in several fields at the same time, Rašica took to painting as a personal past-time, rather than as a commitment to exhibiting regularly on the art scene; yet such an approach does not diminish the importance of his role, as a painter member of EXAT 51 and contributor to their common endeavours, as a whole.
For the first time in modern Croatian art since the solitary example set by Josip Seissel/Jo Kleks during his Zenitist period 18 years before, here was a strong group of Croatian painters, each of them responsible for a sizeable production, and all of them, qua members of EXAT, producing consistently abstract, non-objective, concrete work, directly linked by the types of painting that were landscape scenes, or views from a window, and introducing images of objects in their place - i.e. paintings had a pictorial status and an independent, self-sufficient formal structure. This new approach rejected the traditional forms of genres of 'genre' and landscape painting, in favour of introducing the ‘image as object' - i.e. presenting a panting as an objective reality that can survive, as an independent, authentic, formal reality-facture. Moreover, the innovative features of EXAT’s abstract/concrete paintings were not merely typological, morphological and stylistic, but primarily conceptual, cultural and, essentially, ideological in character. Namely, at the historical moment of its birth and within the social context into which it was born, this form of autonomous abstract/concrete painting signalled the aspirations - and the need - of these artists to give public expression to their autonomous position and right to an independent existence, in a social and political situation where many things could not be taken for granted.
EXAT 51 in the International Art Context
Igor Zidić, in his analysis of the historical phenomenon of EXAT 51, expressed the following critical views about the character of the group:
'Since the time of EXAT’s emergence was still the time of practised intolerance toward abstract art, its position as avant-garde was all the more striking...The Exatist opposition to the ideal of ‘Soc(ialist) Realism/academic figurative art, soon disclosed the conformist part of its face, too: that is, it represented resistance to the lowermost level thinkable. That is a shadow and a corrective of some successes. The sole undeniable thing is that in the area of painting art EXAT 51 consciously produced and propagated abstraction and for the first time so here. It is this being-the-first that the infirm reputation of EXAT’s painters rests on. And yet their 1951 show (in December) seems to have been rather significant and relatively early one, and it would have been even more significant had not the existence of the Parisian group Réalités Nouvelles accounted for the sources and proportions: that group was founded in 1947 as a legitimate heir of neo-plastic-art legacy, and in 1947 the legacy encompassed no less than forty years of experience and results. If to this we add that the founders of EXAT 51 were since 1952 simultaneously members of the Paris-based group, then we can without pretended hesitation reduce the relations between Réalités Nouvelles and EXAT 51 to those of the headquarters and a representative office... EXAT 51 was assigned the role (and it was not a solitary case) of fortifying its European-scale self-assertion (whereby – how naïvely! – our assertion is often assumed) by cutting the very bough their reputation was standing on at home. If their paramount merit is being the first (in Croatia/Yugoslavia), one has to apply the value criterion which, unfortunately, makes them peripheral and sidelined in an international cross-section.”'3
The issue of an 'international cross-section', in EXAT’s case is really one of importance for an adequate historical verification and evaluation of the cluster of painters, which requires a close examination, supported by a corresponding corpus of facts. The fact that three of EXAT’s painters had displayed their works at the 1952 Salon des Réalités Nouvelles (that is, one year before all four painters' public début in Zagreb and Belgrade, in 1953) should be taken as the earliest example of international integration achieved by an artistic tendency In Croatia or, indeed, the then Yugoslavia, as a whole.. This phenomenon was part of some international developments, with which it shared certain ideas and a visual language in common. The EXAT painters' presence in the said exhibition had resulted from the personal contacts established by some of the group's members and was the obligatory procedure for arranging official appearances by artists abroad. The members of EXAT 51 quite clearly demonstrated their dissatisfaction with local circumstances, by taking the initiative into their own hands. In seeking to gain wider International recognition and a pace for themselves in a broad international context, they acted autonomously in their relations with the Paris-based group which was only an exhibitions forum, not a group, after all, on the basis of certain affinities that existed between themselves and their international colleagues. Today, instead of comparing the work of this small group of painters belonging to EXAT, within the context of a long history of the pioneers of abstract art and drawing conclusions about their 40 years' tardiness within a European context, one should draw attention to similar phenomena in a number of countries in, and even outside, Europe that took place at around the same time as EXAT’s activities, including L’Association pour une Synthèse des Arts Plastiques, the group L’Espace and the magazine, Art d’aujourd’hui, in France; the groups Forma Uno, Movimento arte concreta and Arte d’oggi ,in Italy; Nine Abstract Artists, in England; Arte Madi, in Argentina. All of these reflected the aspirations of the first postwar generations of architects and artists – while proposing 'synthesis' and using the language of geometric abstraction – to manifest the spirit of construction which was inherent in the need for general rehabilitation, following the great cataclysm of the World War. As young people of their time, the members of EXAT 51 not only sensed the atmosphere of that historical moment, but were also familiar with the ideas and particular practices that were current on the international scene of the time. Due to the residual devastation and the appearance of fresh crises on an international level, the scene was infused with a sense of spiritual and psychological Angst, which gave it a distinctive quality that was quite different from that of pre-War Geometric Abstraction. The emergence of Art informel and Abstract Expressionism were likewise typical of the evolution of visual languages and ideologies in the period of the Cold War.
Historical Verifications of the EXAT 51
A short while after the loose collaboration of fellow artists struggling for the realisation of shared ideas under the name of EXAT 51 had come to an end, a number of art historians of the period deliver their assessments of the group's contribution:
'In the age of our modern art (and now, after 1950, we indeed, for the first time in the most recent past, can speak of an authentic modern art in our milieu), special place is occupied by the art group EXAT 51 founded by painters Kristl, Picelj and Srnec, and architects Bernardi, Bregovac, Rašica, Richter and some others. In 1953, the group had its first show in the country, and then some of its members would appear individually at collective exhibitions. It was the first group to present a clearly formulated and, in fact, the only rounded-off artistic programme in the time since the year 1945... The practical positions of EXAT 51 are those of Abstract Art, and their prospective programme – integration and synthesis of all branches of fine arts. The style tendencies of the group were deeply rooted in the truly vibrant and currently relevant part of the general issues of the time, while the ultimate consequences of their stances reached farther in the cultural sphere than one could generally see and admit at first.'4
'Here (in Zagreb) one can meet representatives of geometric abstract painting and adherents of the Bauhaus ideas, who emerged in 1952 with a fully elaborated art programme, comprehending the function of art within the broadest sense of transformation of the total plastic-art reality and abandonment of the traditional concept of an artist with all of his burdens – for the sake of a new type of art-creator, one capable of contributing to the growth of material culture... In the time of the just initial large-scale industrialization in the materially and technologically underdeveloped country, the broad-ranging programme of the Exatists reflected the need for a programmed cultural upswing, yet proved unacceptable due to the very absence of such growth, that is, due to the impossibility of discovering the means of its actualization in the given conditions.'5
'The exceptionally positive activities of this group were not so much evident in the latter period in the field of geometric abstract art, as they were in the initiation and theoretical elaboration of some of the acutely current issues of the contemporary society. In their very clearly formulated programme, the group emphasized not only the significance of autonomous plastic values of visual arts, but also put forward as its guideline an activity towards a synthesis of plastic arts as well as an elaboration of the issues from the field of visual communications. Unfortunately, the programme and the ideas of this group remained just fragmentarily realized; they were carried out only in plastic shaping of the exhibition halls at the trade fairs and art pavilions in Yugoslavia and some cities of Western Europe and America… Further, it was owing to this group that the issues of industrial design were put forward; the Triennale of Applied Arts was organized and the Centre for Industrial Design established – in Zagreb, too. It is the activities of some members of the group (Kristl, Srnec) that the beginnings and rise of the now world-renowned Zagreb School of Animated Films are related. Over the last few years, it is within this group that the now relevant issues of Programmed Art, i.e. of new research into the visual, have been initiated (Picelj, Srnec, Richter). Therefore, it is not a matter of chance that an International Biennale of Programmed Art has been held in Zagreb over the past four years.'6
'In the local milieu, the group EXAT 51 was the first and at the moment a radical opposition to the official concepts of the art of the Socialist Realism, making an important counterbalance against the ongoing backwardness. The awareness of the members of that group of the necessity for a differently oriented creative production and art in general was grounded in the revolutionary traditions of the post-October avant-garde and the legacy of Bauhaus and the Dutch De Stijl. In this heritage of ideas, the waymarks for a progressive practice of ideas and methodology were already preset, all the more so considering that the most radical metamorphoses within the field of plastic-art activity had occurred during the revolutionary metamorphosis of the society after the October Revolution. Resuming this legacy from the first half of the century – after a long-lasting historical lapse – the group EXAT 51 set as its main tasks ‘first, the orientation course of the artistic endeavours toward a synthesis of all visual arts, and, second, giving experimental character to work, since without experimenting one cannot conceive progress of the creative approach in the domain of visual arts’.'7
EXAT 51 Half a Century Later
Viewed more than five decades after its initial Manifesto (1951) and the exhibition of four painters (1953), the group EXAT 51 marked a watershed in the history of Croatian art and visual culture at the beginning of the second half of the 20th century. The painters' contribution was considerable, In a number of important respects they were proponents of introducing the achievements of abstract painting into a milieu that was practically unfamiliar with anything of this nature; they championed the idea of ‘synthesis’ which provided incentives to the theory and practice of town planning, architecture, industrial design and applied arts; and last, but not least, the contributions of individual members of the group mad a perceptible impact on the fields of art education, stage design, graphic design and animated film. All this took place within the context of dire scarcities and limitations, not only on artistic freedom, but on social and political activities. Actually, EXAT’s concern 'was not a matter of abstraction but one of freedom' – at least, that is how Radovan Ivšić8 emphasised the very essence of the group’s emergence in one of his later reminiscences. Ivšić insists that the members of the group advocated freedom of expression and behaviour, but they were not rebels, and should not have been that either: the historical moment, and the elementary needs of the milieu, required reconstruction, as part of the common endeavour, though constructive action should by no means be identified with dutiful compliance with, and acceptance of, the existing political order. Despite making an ample contribution to the move away from the repressive ideology of Socialist Realism, EXAT 51 did not benefit straightforwardly from this. The famous report by Miroslav Krleža, at the 1952 Congress of the Yugoslav Writers’ Union, provided key evidence of that rejection: at one point, the document read as follows:
'If one can speak of a leftist or a rightist programme, we tendentiously advocate the leftist realization of these artistic objectivities. That this cannot be achieved in the manner of dilettante quasi-programmatic lyrical poetry as that pursued by Tikhonov or Rilsky, that it cannot reflect in a Fauvist manner or to the taste of Constructivist and Imagist or Abstract painting or poetry of the kind sterilely fostered in the West for more than fifty years now – that is beyond any doubt.'9
Though not accepted by the influential majority and the circles in power, EXAT 51 was not rejected in its own working milieu either: it could work, and that sufficed to the membership. This is how one of them, Vjenceslav Richter, recalled the social and spiritual climate of the day:
'In fact, we wanted peaceful conditions of work, yet the ruling logics implied that the clash just had to happen. Luckily, the clash took place at the moment when the many outmoded links with Stalinism had begun to break, so that all of it passed at a more or less academic level. There were no bans, maledictions, any of that. We became, I am not sure whether regrettably so, but we became full-fledged members of the society, owing to the current circumstances.'10
Since their ideas were tolerated, and could earn their living by doing different jobs, the members of EXAT 51 were able to maintain their independence, in their pursuit of their individual artistic vocations; and they never demanded, nor were they given, anything more than that. As time went by, this kind of independent intellectual stance gained in moral strength, and new artistic movements were quick to start recognising some of EXAT’s achievements as heralding their own. This was, indeed, exactly what happened at the beginning of the 1960’s, when the international movement, New Tendencies, established itself in Zagreb. In the first two of the movement’s most significant exhibitions, the recent EXATists took part - namely, Picelj, Kristl, Richter and Srnec (alongside Knifer, Bakić and Šutej. Thus, in addition to its own contributions in terms of ideas and artistic output, EXAT 51 – as the characteristic phenomenon of the art and culture of 1950’s – acted as a link between the rare domestic historical avant-gardes of the 1920’s and the spreading neo-avant-gardes of the 1960’s, and became Integrated in the continuum of artists and Intellectuals who were anxious to address leading artistic and cultural Issues on their home ground. Nowadays, more than half a century after its first appearances in public, EXAT 51 is regarded as an historic phenomenon within that culture, still afloat on the sea of living memory.
1 EXAT- 51
does not see a difference between the existing framework of our artistic orientation on the one hand and the spatial concept which results from the harmonized relations of production and social standards on the other hand.
does not see a difference between the so-called pure and the so-called applied art.
holds that the methods of work and the principles in the domain of the non-figurative, that is, so-called abstract art, do not reflect any decadent tendencies but, on the contrary, sees the possibility of – by way of studying these methods and principles – developing and enriching the area of visual communications in our country.
the group’s pursuits are realized in the current time and space, the guideline and point of departure being seen in our political needs and chances.
with regard to understanding our reality as an aspiration for progress in all fields of human endeavours, the group perceives the necessity of a struggle against the outmoded views and production in the domain of fine arts.
finally, takes as the main goal: first, the orientation course of the artistic endeavours toward a synthesis of all visual arts, and, second, giving experimental character to work, since without experimenting one cannot conceive progress of the creative approach in the domain of visual arts.
finds its foundation and activities to be a practical positive outcome of developing the struggle of opinions, which is a necessary precondition for the stimulation of art life in our country.
Bernardi, B., architect; Bregovac, Z., architect; Picelj, I., painter; Radić, Z., architect; Rašica, B., architect; Richter, V., architect; Srnec, A., painter; Zarahović, V., architect.
2 Round table on EXAT 51: “Apstrakcija, naša, prva” [“Abstract Art, Ours, the First”], Oko, No. 199, Zagreb, Sept. 1-15, 1979.
3 I. Zidić: “Naš prostor u umjetnosti” [“Our Region in Art”], Život umjetnosti, 1, Zagreb, 1966, pp. 32-33.
4 R. Putar: Nakon oslobođenja do danas [After Liberation until Today], catalogue for the exhibition 60 Years of Painting and Sculpture in Croatia, Umjetnički paviljon, Zagreb, March 1961, p. 28.
5 M. Meštrović: 'Osobitost i univerzalnost. Jedan pogled na jugoslavensko slikarstvo poslednjeg decenija' ['Particularity and Universality: A View of the Yugoslav Painting Art in the last Decade'], Kolo, 2, Zagreb, February 1964, p. 267; re-published in the book Od pojedinačnog općem [From the Particular to the Universal], Mladost, Zagreb, 1967, p. 136.
6 V. Horvat Pintarić: “Savremena jugoslavenska umjetnost” ['Contemporary Yugoslav Ar'”], Razlog, 5, Zagreb, 1964, p. 459.
7 V. Horvat Pintarić: Vjenceslav Richter, monograph, Grafički zavod Hrvatske, Zagreb, 1970, p. 7.
8 R. Ivšić: 'Nije se radilo o apstrakciji nego o slobodi' ['It Was Not a Matter of Abstraction but One of Freedom'], in the monograph EXAT 51, Galerija Nova, Zagreb, 1979, pp. 288-289.
9 M. Krleža: “Govor na Kongresu književnika u Ljubljani 1952' 'Speech at the Writers’ Union Congress in Ljubljana, 1952', in the book: M. Šicel: Programi i manifesti u hrvatskoj književnosti [Programmes and Manifestoes in the Croatian Literature], Liber, Zagreb, 1972, p. 330.
10 Round table on EXAT 51: 'Apstrakcija, naša, prva' ['Abstract Art, Ours, the First'], Oko, No. 199, Zagreb, Sept. 1-15, 1979.