The National Museum of Modern Art, which is today housed in the Vranyczany Palace in Zagreb, was founded in 1905 and it manages a collection of 12,000 artworks, mostly by Croatian artists, created in the period from 1850 to the present day.
The exhibition One World, an unparalleled project of displaying the national museum collection outside of its headquarters for a period of two years, represents a comprehensive temporal and disciplinary range of the collection with 199 iconic works of art set-up in thematic units.
On the ground floor of the Governor’s Palace, in the foyer, the traditional discipline of sculpture is juxtaposed with media art, while the atrium is dedicated to cosmic themes, the joy and anxiety of human existence.
On the first floor, Figurative art is presented through the themes of gender, human community, family and urbanity, Eros and Thanatos, the visionary, programmatic and symbolic scenes, interventions into spiritual spheres and the realm of the subconscious, as well as representations of the natural world.
The second floor is dedicated to Abstract art, its roots, pinnacles and contemporary status within Croatian visual arts, as well as Proto- and Post-Conceptual art practice.
The display of the National Museum of Modern Art’s collection at the Governor’s Palace presents to the local audience and visitors of Zadar primarily the development and the general tendencies of visual arts production in Croatia in the period from the mid-19th century to the present-day. Our ambitions, however, in the context of the project that already sets a new paradigm in the work of a national museum by the very fact we are relocating a representative part of its collection from the parent institution based in the cultural and political centre of the country to a new representative space in Zadar, are much broader. We would be remiss to also not refer, on such an occasion, to the established canons of presenting the museum collection, as well as the conventional understanding of the social function of artistic creativity, which is still defined by the generally accepted syntagm ‘fine art’ as an exclusively aesthetic phenomenon. Given that we have immediately alluded to the project’s social and political aspect, that is, the dynamics between the centre and the periphery within the national cultural space, we would like to point out that the very title of the exhibition “One World”, appropriated from the title of Željko Kipke’s painting “Unus Mundus 2”, is an affirmation of their cultural unity and equality that is all too often, and without question, forgotten and resigned to the hierarchies of power and influence. This is particularly noteworthy when we realise that national institutions were founded with the aim of affirming creative production in and from the entire country, and are financed adequate to that purpose by taxpayers nation-wide. The nature and purpose of national institutions is therefore to strengthen the sense of community.
The notion of “one world”, of course, has much wider, even metaphysical connotations, that were alluded to by Željko Kipke, as well as the Swiss psychoanalyst and theorist Carl Gustav Jung in his seminal work “Man and His Symbols” published in 1964, which left an indelible impact on Modern art and culture. Unus mundus, Latin for one world, is considered a fundamental concept of Western philosophy, theology and alchemy, a signifier of the idea of the primordial unified reality from which everything derives. We have tried to implement this principle of comprehensive unity throughout the entire display of the exhibition and its constituent parts, as dictated by the complex spatial configuration of the Governor’s Palace and the award-winning project that repurposed it into an exhibition space. Specifically, it became clear even after a cursory glance at the spatial characteristics that the conventional chronological display of the collection is simply, and I would say, fortunately, not possible. We therefore decided, in accordance with contemporary museological and cultural interests, to shift the centre of gravity of the exhibition from the formal aspects of the evolution of styles and aesthetics during the reference period to the conceptual aspect of visual creativity. In other words, to present the artworks based on the themes that express the way the artists relate to the world and the reality in which they live, and to encompass, with each thematic segment, as comprehensive a variety of interpretations that the artists attached to them according to their subjective feeling and the zeitgeist they were working within. Needless to say, by doing so we also wanted to highlight the unity and uniqueness of creative work and the social context in which it is created. If we, even for a moment, start to consider art as a cognitive and not only an aesthetic discipline, we will understand that each work of art, through the artist’s personality, expresses the way in which the world was perceived at the time of its creation. We optimistically claim that the artists anticipate the status of the current image of the world before it even becomes fixed and generally accepted. As a result, the ‘fine arts’ museum collection ceases to just be a compilation of art objects and an indicator of the aesthetic characteristics in its sphere of activity, but it also functions as a compendium of insights into the fundamental questions of human existence, providing the audience and the curators with endless inspirational comparative insights. Today, we do not consider an art museum to be an institution focused on the demonstration of the evolution of aesthetic phenomena, but by different and parallel calibration of the collection display we turn it into an environment that stimulates the visitor’s cognitive abilities with the aim of animating and developing their understanding of the world and reality. In our view, this is essentially the social function and responsibility of the museum institution. The display of the NMMU collection in Zadar is actively set-up in accordance with such an understanding of the museum’s mission. We believe that by deciding to simultaneously present the visual arts from various stylistic periods of the Modern epoch through a series of themes, we will establish a more intense relationship with the audience compared to the conventional linear narrative of its development within national cultural discourse.
The display is always in the function of the museum holdings and the space in which it is exhibited. The two floors of the Rector’s Palace with unequal surface areas next to the monumental atrium, have imposed on us the idea of a clear representation of the key dichotomy that characterises art of the Modern era, the division into Figurative and Abstract art. Given the quantitative differences in the holdings, and the fact that the NMMU did not start following Abstract art until the 1950s, the first, and also the larger of the two floors, is dedicated to Figurative art, and the second, spatially smaller, to the abstract visual arts. The ground floor of the palace, in turn, is dedicated to general discourses; in the atrium, to the dynamic relationship between traditional fine arts and media art, and in the great hall, a covered space which used to be an outer yard, to the cosmic dimensions of reality and the joy and uncertainty of human existence.
Through the exhibition spaces on the first floor, the narrative about Figurative art starts in a consecutive order with the gender theme, the motif of women and then men in the next room. The theme of society follows, touching on the topics of family and childhood, and socialisation in general. We continue with the motifs of the urban, bourgeois environment of the city, the themes of illness, Eros and Thanatos as the key driving forces of survival and its opposite and inevitable death. By visualising the constructed imaginary and symbolic scenes and materialising the canonical and ideological precepts, the most representative exhibition gallery in the palace points to the predominance of cerebral aspects of artistic creativity in relation to the mimetic ones that Figurative art commonly falls under. On one side, they are followed by depictions of the natural world, and on the other, visualisations of subconscious mechanisms and spiritual aspects of reality. At this point, in the process of shifting the creative vision to symbolic values, there is already a noticeable reduction in the representation of the physical world which anticipates the display on the second floor, entirely dedicated to various aspects of the rich heritage of domestic Abstract art, but also the phenomena related to the Neo-Avant-Garde artistic practice, especially those related to the phenomenon of Conceptual art.
Abstract art is considered to be the result of the evolution of artistic expression, and its appearance in the early 20th century announced radical changes of the traditional understanding of art and its social role. Parallel avant-garde artistic tendencies have introduced into the cultural sphere an aspiration for a complete break with artistic heritage, especially with traditional art disciplines such as painting and sculpture, including the institution of the museum. The Avant-Garde movement intended for the artist to be a leader of social change, advocating for art that leaves the framework of art institutions and enters public space, permeating elite art with the rapidly developing media of mass and popular culture, while completely abandoning the object as a goal of artistic creation. Bearing in mind that artistic creation by its nature does not care for divisions, the current strategy of the National Museum of Modern Art and the parallel existence of the Museum of Contemporary Art, has in fact set the production of an art object as a line that demarcates the scope of the two related institutions headquartered in the same city. This seemingly small distinction allows the NMMU to include in its scope the contemporary art production that demonstrates how traditional art disciplines that have historically proven themselves to be indispensable, integrate the experiences of numerous new art disciplines, methods, procedures, strategies, techniques and technologies that have inspired and introduced into the reality of artistic practice and current visual culture, the tenets of artistic avant-gardes and neo-avant-gardes.
A distinct branch of Abstract art has developed gradually from the increasing reduction of the representation of reality to the language of pure artistic form based on the complete autonomy of form, colour and gesture from the illusionistic representation and imitation of the physical world. Many theorists will emphasise the lack of affectation of this procedure since the aesthetic experience of the physical world is inherently abstract. Trees and mountains, for example, are perceived as beautiful because of their shapes, colours and textures, not because they look like “trees or mountains”. An abstract painter is cognisant of this. One of the rooms on the second floor is dedicated to this transitional phase between landscape painting or figurative representation and abstract composition, while the largest exhibition space on the second floor is devoted to monumental paintings of Gestural Abstraction, as its final derivative, which the period of our High Modernism is identified with. One of the rooms showcases abstract works based on the constructivist principles of compositional development with a combination of visual, mostly geometric forms that reflect the building principles of reality without any associations to its representation. A separate exhibition room is dedicated to the Gorgona Group (and Art Informel as its close affiliate), a secretive autochthonous proto-conceptual movement that expressed a nihilistic view of reality with an abstract visual language, having exerted a major influence on the Croatian art scene and anticipated many subsequent artistic phenomena. It extends into a display of works of the Group of Six Authors, as the most prominent representatives of the Post-Conceptual art practice who have transferred, during the 1970s in accordance with the mood of their generation and the spirit of the times, the Gorgonian concept of an anxiety-ridden anti-art into an anti-institutional mood, having achieved the level of success that ultimately musealised theirs and the related art practice. The monumental abstract sculpture that is set-up in the central room as a counterpart to the vehement painting of Abstract Expressionism, continues with the display of smaller versions on the bridge above the atrium. Finally, the last exhibition gallery presents Abstract art produced from the 1980s to the present day.
This concludes the story of Croatian art production, which summarises all the social and cognitive dynamics of the Modern era, in a manner that the collection of the National Museum of Modern Art is able to convey. In collaboration with our partners from Zadar, the exhibition will be complemented by a program of lectures, workshops and roundtables dedicated to artistic production, problems of its musealisation and representation. All in the hope of becoming, together with our audience, one mutually enriching world.
Branko Franceschi, author of the exhibition concept
Photo: Goran Vranić © National Museum of Modern Art, Zagreb