Gorgona and After
Published in: Exhibition Catalogue Marijan Jevšovar, Julije Knifer, Ivan Kožarić, Djuro Seder, Josip Vaništa, Galerija SKC, Belgrade, 1986
One of the most peculiar phenomena in the history of Croatian and Yugoslav art has entered the historiy books under the name of Gorgona (‘Gorgon’), this being the name in Greek mythology for a monster, whose eyes, supposedly, had the power to turn to stone anyone who dared look into her face. Gorgona was an artists' group that one should say 'existed', rather than 'worked', as very little was known about its work, although its members were leading figures in their Zagreb milieu and the art world of the time, (1959-1966). The membership included Josip Vaništa, Julije Knifer, Marijan Jevšovar, Djuro Seder (painters), Ivan Kožarić (sculptor), and Radoslav Putar, Dimitrije Bašičević and Matko Meštrović (critics). To all of them, working within Gorgona meant a kind of most subtle game of the mind, and a close companionship ion free afternoons and evenings; it by no means meant a struggle to accomplish some artistic or extra-artistic programmer, as is so often the case, with various groupings of artists. Since they did not have any particular aim, it is small wonder that little was known about Gorgona, at the time of its existence. And those who worried about this least were its own members. But as the time passes, there inevitably comes a moment when, whatever was happening in those days, is subjected to the 'judgment of history'.
Accordingly, Gorgona has become an object of historical study. It all began with the exhibition at the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, in March and April of 1977 and the study written by Nena Dimitrijević, for the catalogue of the show. Almost everything the public could see at the exhibition was viewed for the first time, and it was so surprising, and so fascinating, that Gorgona all of a sudden turned into the 'discovery of the decade', and an event which triggered wholesale attempts to disentangle a great artistic enigma. Finally, here came Gorgona, to fill in a large blank spot in the history of contemporary Yugoslav art! It became possible, for the first time, to speak of 'art as a mode of existence' and 'art as a form of behaviour', etc., in relation to this group, and taking this group as the point of departure. And all of that provided the reason for forming an essentially different view of the pivotal role played by Gorgona, and for treating this as a watershed in our understanding of the attributes of an art object, of the artist’s profile and, in short, of the very nature of art itself.
During the preparations for a retrospective of Gorgona, in 1977, the atmosphere of 'New Art Practice' was still very lively, and in Yugoslavia this concept embraced a variety of phenomena relating to processes connected with the dematerialisation of the art object. What is more, without the experience of the New Art of the 1970’s with which Nena Dimitrijević was extremely familiar, it would not have been possible to re-evaluate and interpret the output of Gorgona, in the way this occurred, through the exhibition itself and the accompanying publication. The spiritual frame of reference of Gorgona was provided by a whole chain of events and experiences, including, among other things: monochrome and achromatic painting (Fontana, Yves Klein, Manzoni), Fluxus and Happenings. But this tells us nothing about any overlaps there were between Gorgona’s output and these other phenomena, in terms of their artistic language or ideology. What Gorgona shared in common with these other groups and developments were tendencies towards a reduction in the material status of the art object, an interest in employing minimalist vehicles and forms of articulation, and a willingness to allow the visual aspects of their work to gain the upper hand over the intellectual ones.
In keeping with this approach which, as has been said, implied some experience of the New Art of the 'Seventies, the activities of Gorgona have been surveyed along three parallel lines: the group’s output in the classical disciplines (painting, drawing, sculpture); their publishing venture, in the form of the anti-magazine, Gorgona, now viewed as an antecedent of the artist's bookwork; and, finally, the use of language as an artistic material in their practice. The fine art production of Gorgona’s members is actually least associated with their achievement, as a group: those were the works which these highly trained artists (i.e. Vaništa, Knifer, Kožarić, Jevšovar and Seder) brought along with them, but which had been created independently of their joint aspirations, during and after their communal actions with Gorgona, although their membership of Gorgona – whether they intended this, or not - left some more or less visible traces, not so much on the form their work took, as on its specific mentality and sensibility. The other two lines (the one relating to their anti- magazine, Gorgona and the other to the use of language in their artistic practice) were typical phenomena for Gorgona, which ceased to exist as a continuing public presence and mode of articulation after 1966 - i.e. when the spirit of fellowship was dissipated.
There is no single label to describe everything that was going on inside and around Gorgona, as a phenomenon; what has been left of it – the paintings, publications, records, or, simply, documents – are material traces of some states of mind and developments that had affected each member of the group on an entirely individual basis. What was it, then, that put them together? Nena Dimitrijević discerned the following links between various options:
'Gorgona was a process of seeking spiritual and intellectual freedom, a realization which is an end in itself. Apart from the professional obligations of producing an artistic output and the promotion of oneself and one’s colleagues in the hierarchy of the local art scene, this group of people gathered together and communicated mutually motivated only by the assumption of their spiritual fellowship and kinship. Regardless of the differences which existed between their individual creative conceptions, what united the members of Gorgona was their common dedication to the spirit of modernism, defined by the recognition of the absurd, the void and monotony as aesthetic categories, a tendency toward nihilism and metaphysical irony.'
And Josip Vaništa, whom all of the members took to be the actual spiritual initiator of the group, delineated the very essence of the phenomenon in this way:
'Gorgona’s thought is serious and scarce -- Gorgona advocates absolute transience in art -- Gorgona does not seek a work or a result in art -- The group evaluates according to situation -- The group is defined as a sum of all its possible interpretations -- Ascribing the highest value to what is mortal, Gorgona does not speak of anything.' (1961)
For artists with strong personal qualities – as with every member of the Gorgona circle – such a grouping could not endure for long. In any case, none of these artists ever renounced their own, individual preoccupations - not even, during the most intense days of their companionship in the group. For the period after 1966 Gorgona has left no trace of its public existence, though this does not mean that something of the spirit and behaviour of Gorgona has not been preserved, permeating, as it does, the work of Vaništa, Knifer, Jevšovar, Seder and Kožarić. It was quite natural for these four painters and a sculptor to devote themselves completely to the media that were part of their own artistic makeup in the period after their mutual ties began to loosen. The post-Gorgona period in their biographies has been characterised by their preoccupation with the art object (in other words, painters with paintings, and the sculptor with sculptures), and this took a course which increasingly highlighted their dissimilarities, rather than their affinities.
Knifer was the only one of them, who failed to change in any essential aspect: the meander has survived as his omnipresent sign, both during and after the days of Gorgona. It has not always been the same meander, but is one which displays scarcely noticeable variations in proportion, format and support. As for Jevšovar, in the atmosphere that led to the re-evaluation of Gorgona, he felt encouraged to produce more intensely, and this resulted in a series of paintings that demonstrated a spirit of radical reductiveness that was a logical consequence of his earlier, equally radical, Art informel paintings. Vaništa, however, seems to have shrunk back from the radicalism of his earlier, Gorgona period: after a number of Minimalist paintings with a single horizontal line across the middle of a monochrome field, his drawings, accurately depicting portraits, landscapes and objects, strike one as a return to classical craftsmanship. Yet that is not, essentially, what happened. Vaništa simply resumed what he had been quietly pursuing throughout his involvement with Gorgona, during its most radical phase: these seemingly academic drawings of his were imbued with a special character that was entirely in keeping with the spirit of Gorgona. Seder was the only one who aspired, openly to present the change he had been through, as an abandonment of Gorgona’s inheritance: after he had once written about the 'impossibility of a painting', he began to advocate the exact opposite - the 'possibility of painting - and celebrated the change with a drastic variety of ‘wild’ painting that was entirely in the spirit of Neo-Expressionist art of the early 1980’s. But even Seder himself may not have been aware to what extent his conversion, and his need to manifest a stubborn inconsistency of his own, were actually in character with the spirit of Gorgona. Finally, there was Kožarić, who did not take any special notice of all this (i.e. the continuity or discontinuity in his output): on the contrary, he succumbed to the impulses of momentary decisions, only fearing – as he himself ironically emphasised – the ever resurgent flood of ideas, each of which seemed to him completely different from everything that had come before.
The post-Gorgona artistic practice of the former members of the Gorgona Group reveals the features of certain changes, compared to the reductive, consciously sparse, tautological character of the most or their early work. In their later paintings and sculptures (provided these can be considered, as such), very little of the 'zero point'” survives: something sensual, affluent and ‘significant’ emanates from the more recent works of these artists with a Gorgona past. Thus, one can see today that the authentic behaviour of the members of Gorgona was anything but purely restrictive: it tended to let go and relax, to shake off the habitual and to evade whatever was given and established; it invariably tended to exaggerate, to go to the limit, and to provoke the proximity of the extreme. Therefore, there is nothing controversial either about a number of them remaining loyal to a particular principle up to the very end (as in the case of Knifer and, to some extent, Jevšovar), or about others (like Kožarić) following the course of multiple, diverse solutions to the logical conclusion, or about yet others opting for the third alternative of conversion, with its implied abandonment of what had gone before, in the name of something else (as in the case of Vaništa and Seder). Loyalty to the Gorgonian spirit in the behaviour and work of these artists all demonstrated their loyalty to the spirit of Gorgona, in their rejection of a 'middle course'. These artists all, in their different ways, opted for departing as far as possible from the norm that was expected of them by their own artistic milieu, and that was a choice that was dictated by their experience with Gorgona and the mentality of that group.
The emergence of Gorgona and the art practice its former members maintained after the dissipation of the group can be discerned today as a very special spiritual strand in contemporary Yugoslav art. This affected a circle of artists who were pronounced intellectuals, and who sprang from a well-formed urban setting and bourgeois (in the best sense of the word) educational and cultural background. For that very reason, perhaps, these artists were unfamiliar with the kind of exaltation that stemmed from leading a superficially well organised, pragmatic, optimistic form of everyday existence in a social framework that was still not integrated into the culture of modern urban life, that rejected a bourgeois education and lifestyle, for simple reasons of ideological bias. In attempting to draw some conclusions from the personality, oeuvre and behaviour of the artists in this circle, and to sum these up in a few general outlines, one might dare to suggest that the ideal Gorgona artist is a sceptic and a melancholic, a person who never gets carried away by some external form of activism; and that he is, to the contrary, a stable person, who is unrelenting, even, in his resistance to the illusions of the historical periods he lives through. A Gorgona artist is actually a loner, but a loner who wants to share his loneliness with someone who is in a similar way. Hence all those relationship of friendship between the members of Gorgona, which were anything but public, their periodic get-togethers from time to time, and their quiet walks in the city or the countryside - hence all those gatherings without any particular outcome or result, except for the mere fact of existence of a fellowship of this nature.. It is as simple as that. And when this special form of fellowship was naturally discontinued at a given moment, its natural counterpart came into its own and the individual artists began to enjoy a fruitful loneliness between the four walls of their studios. For it was only after they had returned from their collective walk in the outside world that they felt ready to return to the enclosed space of the studio, where they would enjoy the genuine, solitary freedom to paint or produce sculpture. For a Gorgona artist, in a post-Gorgona world, the studio was not a place for turning out goods, but a sheltered space that now offered the prospect of a form of personal concentration. This state of affairs left behind a sufficient body of evidence, in the form of paintings, drawings and sculptures, to demonstrate that the spirit of Gorgona had survived unimpaired in the individual nature of these very different artistic personalities. The work of these artists from the former Gorgona circle shows the qualities of an art which demands nothing, except its own existence: it is an art which has nothing to confess, which has no desire to preach, and which does nothing to persuade or exhort; it is an art which simply endures, just as the work which is the embodiment of a firm conviction endures, for reasons that elude our rational understanding. We may dare to assert, in conclusion that a Gorgona artist is the kind of person, whose behaviour is amply described in Cioran's venomous, yet invogorating, diagnosis of a certain mentality:
'The recognition that nothing is worth an effort implicitly turns into the conviction, that is, into the possibility of action; that means that the slightest form of existence presumes silent faith; a mere step forward – even toward the illusion of reality – is outlawry from nothingness. Even sheer breathing reveals the presence of fanaticism in its germ, and that applies to any participation in motion…'