Ješa Denegri, EXAT 51 on the International and Home Scene [ENGLISH]

EXAT 51 on the International and Home Scene

Published in the Proceedings Pedesete: umjetnost – ideologija u podijeljenoj Evropi, [The Fifties: Art – Ideology in the Divided Europe] Zagreb, 1999.

The work of the group EXAT 51 was accomplished in the early 1950’s (its members issued their Man­ifesto in 1951, and four painters exhibited their work in 1953), but this art circle, or its individual members, also acted in keeping with some principles that had characterised the group’s practice and ideology several years before and some years after these important dates. EXAT 51 (Experimental Atelier 1951) was a spiritual, ideological and artistic phenomenon of the culture of the 'fifties, and it was concurrent with the period of post-war renewal and the break with Socialist Realism, as the prevailing ideological doctrine in the culture and art of the countries that were politically dependent on the Soviet Union. In the former Yugoslavia, the situation of total dependence on the USSR only lasted until the 1948 Cominform Resolution, but Socialist Realism still retained some influence for a time after that key political event. Bearing in mind all these major historical circumstances, the social and political context in which EXAT 51 functioned, as a group, was obviously very important.1

In the opinion of Giulio Carlo Argan, in the early post-War period, when European culture and art were undergoing a renewal, there was a 'critical questioning of the great themes from the first half of the century'. One such theme was 'a return to the principle of form', which, in fact, meant a resumption of the questioning of the heritage left behind by the movements founded on this principle. He specifically mentioned De Stijl and Bauhaus, in this connection.2 The Russian avant-garde and, especially Constructivism and Productivism, should be added to this short list of antecedents that might have been – indeed, were – admired and emulated by the young artists and architects, such as the members of EXAT 51, who were working in a social and political environment that was based on processes initiated by the 1917 Russian Revolution. However, the approaches adopted by the EXAT 51 group and some of their contemporaries were not simply taken over whole, as a purely intellectual or historical exercise – they were functionally re-assessed and adapted to an early post-War environment that was itself feeling the impact of ideas of this kind, and of a wider European context that had its own motives for incorporating aspects of that inheritance into the foundations of its post-War art and culture. When we define this tradition as the starting point for the creative work and activities of EXAT 51, we are not saying anything new. Earlier analysts had reached similar conclusions. Matko Meštrović had clearly pointed out this inheritance, in saying that the members of EXAT 51 were 'representatives of geometric abstract art and adherents of the Bauhaus ideas'3, and Vera Horvat-Pintarić had said that 'the consciousness of the members of this group… was grounded in the revolutionary traditions of the post-October avant-garde, the traditions of Bauhaus and the Dutch De Stijl'.4 Without any specific examples or comparisons, Radoslav Putar provided the most concise picture of the general boundaries and a historical evaluation of the group’s work:

'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.'.5          

The spiritual heritage of the European Constructivist movements, which formally and symbolically found expression, primarily, in the painting of geometric abstraction, was not re-assessed in the early post-war period, merely for the sake of historical reminiscence. On the contrary, it was undertaken on account of the real, and deeply felt, needs experienced by people living at the time. Piero Pacini’s interpretation of the dynamics of the situation is very persuasive. Describing similar problems in Italian art, he wrote:          

'In a society emerging after the devastations and bitterness of war, the idea of geometry appeared as the need for a new myth: it simultaneously incorporated the myth of solidity and the myth of practicality, since it was reminiscent of architecture… Geometry is, on the scene of the early post-war period, one of the signs of optimistic and conscious reconstruction.' 6

These remarks, and the similar developments at that time, lead us to the conclusion that that the groups, Forma Uno (founded in Rome in 1947), Movimento arte concreta (Milan, 1948) and Arte d’oggi (Florence, 1950) might all be described as relatives of EXAT 51, by virtue of their similar concerns, and that they even appeared slightly earlier than the Zagreb-based group, although the latter did not have any direct contact with them. In Paris, where EXAT’s painter members participated in the promotion of abstract painting at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles in 1952, their work could be directly com­pared to that of the Espace group (founded, 1951), whose members were leading exponents of the ideal of a 'synthesis of the arts' and enjoyed the spiritual support of Le Corbusier and organisational and managerial support of André Bloc, the editor of Art d’aujourd’hui, whose contributors included apologists of historical and contemporary abstract art, such as the critics, Michel Seuphor and Léon Degand. Paris was also the city where the key theoretical treatise on post-War abstract geometric art, Auguste Herbin's L’art non figuratif non objectif (1947), appeared and the focal point for the movement's rapidly spreading ifluence.7 We must also mention, without going into further details, the similar developments that could be observed in British, German and Dutch contemporary art, respectively. This influence extended right down to South America (e.g. the Arte Madi group from Buenos Aires), with which the members of the Zagreb group did not, of course establish direct connec­tions, and contributed, In sum, to the formation of a global artistic, architectural and cul­tural climate in the early post-War period. All these groups and individuals were trying to found a new constructive approach to art that would not stop at the symbolic language of abstract painting, but would be realised through the specific tasks of renewing the environment in architecture, applied arts and design, to which the programme and practice of EXAT’s members obviously aspired. When all these close relations and similarities are taken into account, it becomes obvious that EXAT’s ideas did not appear in Croatian art as a distant and belated echo of what had by then been his­torical chapters of European Constructivism and Geometric Abstraction from the first half of the century; on the contrary, the ideas and the practice that directly stemmed from this were part of the strenuous, living endeavours of the period in which EXAT 51 was active. This spiritual horizon gave the EXAT 51 group a pronouncedly European character, but in terms of practical outcomes the group also had a distinctly 'local' character, in the best sense of the term. In other words, it was original enough, to be an artistic and cultural manifestation that had grown out of its own milieu and was grounded in it, in many ways. Of course, EXAT’s members were not the only artists in their community who had, in the early ‘fifties distanced themselves from prevailing doctrines of  Socialist Realism. Confirmation of this was provided by a statement of the sculptor, Kosta Angeli Radovani – himself, an interested party, as well as a witness -, to the effect that the 1950's had marked, not merely 'one beginning' (most likely, with reference to EXAT 51), but 'many beginnings', all the remainder of which had sprung from 'Expressionist roots'.8 In addition to Radovani’s own exhibition, in 1952, the most important examples of these ‘other beginnings’ were two exhibitions of Antun Motika (1952, 1953), the joint exhibition of Miljenko Stančić and Josip Vaništa (1953), Edo Murtić’s cycle, The Experience of America (1953) and the exhibitions of work by Oton Gliha, Dušan Džamonja and Ljubo Ivančić (1954).9 But, unlike all of these artists who had stemmed, more or less, from ‘Expressionist roots’ (in Radovani’s words) – i.e. from an individualistic and subjective stance – EXAT-51EXAT 51 was ideologically grounded in the Constructivist heritage, and the members of the group used the language of Abstract Art in their paintings. It was not only geometric, but also lyrical, and this meant that these paintings displayed some innovative aspects, very early on; for, at that moment, and in their environment, there was no abstract art at all that was founded on a programme and built up on a clearly articulated theory. It is this difference that makes for the essential contribution of EXAT 51, in upholding the idea of abstract art and its practi­cal demonstration, in a community without any deeper experience of this capital accomplishment of 20th-century art. At the moment of the group's initial appearance, and especially after the first exhibition of paintings by four EXAT 51 members in 1953, they provoked a degree of wariness, to say the least, among the artists in their own milieu. The con­sequences were to be felt for a very long time, and it was with some difficulty that the public ever came to accept­ EXAT 51. The general scepticism was finally overridden with the group’s retrospective exhibition at the Galerija Nova in Zagreb, in 1979, and the exhibition entitled Abstract Tendencies in Croatia 1951­-1961, at the Gallery of Contemporary Art, Zagreb, in 1981.10

The wariness provoked by EXAT-5 – mainly by the abstract paintings of its four painter members –  was based on a sense of  the 'alien' nature of this art, in relation to local sensibilities and the tastes and traditions of the community; what the artistic community considered authentic and autochthonous was moderately Expression­ist, Realist or Intimist art that originated from Central Europe and, especially, from Paris, in the first half of the century. The works of the EXATists had nothing to do with this tradition. They opposed it intuitively and even programmatically, owing to its essentially different genetic code, so that EXAT 51 provoked resistance in the art milieu in which it was born and in which its membership worked. In an account of the reasons for this resistance, Picelj convincingly stated:

'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. We did not want the same destiny. To create a work was not enough. We had to defend the work. It meant confrontation.' 11

To this, Richter added his own view of the issue:

'In fact, we wanted peaceful conditions of work, yet the ruling logics implied that the clash just had to happen. Luckily, the clash came at a time when many outdated links with Stalinism were already breaking, so that everything, speaking of the essence, passed more or less at an academic level: there was no persecution or anathema, or anything of the sort. We became, I do not know whether regrettably so, but we became full-fledged members of the society, because that is what the circumstances were like'.12

As successors of the Constructivist tradition, by the nature of their ideology and in order to realize the group’s practical goals, EXAT’s membership strove to be included in the community in which they worked, which is understandable and justified, when we also know that EXAT-51EXAT 51 had appeared in the early 'fifties, in a country completely overwhelmed by the post-war zeal for reconstruction. The EXATists wanted to contribute to that general enthusiasm, without demanding anything important in return from their environment; nor were they getting it, especially not from the socio-political order in which they found themselves, and in which they had begun to work as young people. EXAT 51 offered its community the energy of committed young people who wanted to assert themselves, because it was a normal behaviour, a behaviour in accordance with the mentality and morale of the members of the group; apart from being allowed to work normally, they did not desire, or expect, any extra benefits. This can be seen from the professional status of most EXAT 51 members, who made a living from their own talent and/or spe­cial knowledge, usually as free-lance artists, designers and architects, in a society that was lacking an art market and one of modest overall economic potential. Thus, the accusation voiced against them by Angeli Radovani – 'EXAT 51 members are enduring men of today: and they have been offi­cial revolutionaries, like the Futurists in Italy' – does not correspond with the true state of affairs and is a typical example of the criticism that has always proved popular (even in those days), in the competitive world of artists.13

The EXATists were well aware that they were working in the specific historical conditions of post-war Yugoslavia’s socialism. They tried to work in harmony with the forces of society that under those circumstances looked upon them as something of a showcase item. Theirs was not the position of power and force enjoyed by those in authority, but the posi­tion of an enlightened, and generally progressive, minority that had fallen in with the promise of a total spiritual and material transformation, even if this was more of an ideal than the reality. This was a pro­cess in which they truly wanted to take an active part. Richter, as a prominent member and to some extent the theo­retician and ideologist of this art community, briefly expressed his own ideological credo, more in his own name than as a representative of EXAT 51, though within the context of the group's shared attitude to society:

'The issue of socialism, as a deep social change for solving the problems of the class society, is a historic issue which essentially cannot be linked to any particular person, one which is not restricted by the goals of an individual or a party, one which is not even taken off the agenda by the dis­torting practice in some socialist countries, or by the preventive efforts in some capitalist coun­tries. To us, what is happening here is important as part of the general change of our picture of the world, even of the society which we can perceive through the advancement of our knowledge in all fields of human activity. This consciousness we have gained about the world, the society and our­selves, through building up our perception about every discipline in which we work, is an inevitable and necessary process that has not left out a single field of human activity.'14

History was later to disprove most of Richter’s forecasts: today, his words are read and experienced as the typical assertions of a fervent member of the artistic avant-gardes, whose leftist, progressive views and entire programme finally ended up, trapped in the illusions of a social utopia. However, the concrete production that was achieved was not a utopia, it was a realisation in the field of fine arts and the culture of a broad approach to spatial design. This production, especially in painting, was extremely novel for its environment: for the first time in modern Croatian art, a fully mature the­oretical, ideological and morphological stream of Abstract Art was established. Typologically and strategically, it was avant-garde, in the way in which it took its point of departure from existing practice, and built the necessary foundations for the future. The small, but nevertheless real, and precious, domestic tradition to which EXAT 51 referred was termed ‘The Other Heritage’, by Boris Kelemen. In time, EXAT 51 itself became a tradition on which ‘The Other Line’ in post-1950 Croatian art was based, or to which it was directly or indirectly related. The next stage along ‘The Other Line’ was the New Tendencies movement. Four (by then, former) members of EXAT 51 took part in its foundation in Zagreb, as one of the international centres of the movement,, in organisational terms. They were Picelj, Richter, Srnec and Kristl, and the event took place exactly ten years after the pub­lication of their earlier manifesto (EXAT 51's Manifesto had been published in 1951, and the first of the New Tendencies exhibitions was mounted in 1961); the same period had elapsed between their first appearance in public (the 1953 exhibition of EXAT 51 painters) and the second New Tendencies exhibition (1963). And even if it would not be simple, it would still be possible today (though beyond the scope of the present essay), to recognise and name everything that has stemmed directly from the achievements of the New Tendencies, or has been directly linked to them. Almost everything important that there is to be said about EXAR 51's many contributions to Croatian art and culture in the 'fifties and afterwards has already been explored and explained. Here, we can only add that EXAT 51 was a phe­nomenon, which incorporated the artistic culture of its local community into the maintream of the most progressive art-related ideas of the day – on an equal footing, and at the same time as these – through many individuals and values that have, each in their own way, found their own historical justification today.


1      Denegri, J. and Ž. Koščević, Exhibition catalogue EXAT 51, Galerija Nova, Zagreb, 1979.

2      Argan, G. C. “Kriza umet­nosti kao ‘evropske nauke’ “ ["The Crisis of Art as a 'European Science'"]. Treći program Radio Beograda, 33, 1977, p. 626 (original title: L'arte moderna 1770-1970. Firenze, 1970).

3      Meštrović, M., “Osobitost i univerzalnost” [“The Particular and the Universal”], Kolo, 2, Zagreb, February 1964, p. 267. Re-published in his book Od pojedinačnog općem [From the Particular to the General], Mladost, Zagreb, 1967, p. 136.

4      Horvat-Pintarić, V. "Suvremena jugoslavenska umjetnost" ["Contemporary Yugoslav Art"], Razlog, 5, Zagreb 1964, p. 459. Monograph by the same author, Vjencesiav Richter, Zagreb: Grafički zavod Hrvatske, 1970:7.

5      Putar, R,. 'Nakonoslobođenja do danas ['From the Liberation to the Present Day'], exh. cat. 60 godina slikarstva i kiparstva u Hrvatskoj [60 Years of the Painting Art and Sculpture in Croatia], Zagreb, 1961: 28.

6      Pacini, P. and G. Nativi, Nativi, Catalogue for the exhibition held at the Galleria Michaud, Firenze, April 1976.

7      For more on Italian art conditions, concisely, see: Tomassoni, I. Italia – Arte dopo il 1945. Bologna, 1971. On art conditions in Paris, see: Ragon, M. Vingt-cinq ans d'art vivant, Paris, 1969. See also: Exhibition Catalogue Paris-Paris 1937-1957, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1981.

8      Angeli Radovani, K. Kip bez grive [The Maneless Statue], Nakladni zavod Matice hrvatske, Zagreb, 1985, p. 111.

9      Exhibition Catalogue Apstraktne tendencije u Hrvatskoj 1951-1961 [Abstract Tendencies in Croatia 1951-1961], Gallery of Contemporary Art, Zagreb, 1981.

10    See the catalogues referred to in Notes 1 and 9.

11    “Apstrakcija, naša, prva.”, Okrugli stol o EXATU ‘51 [“Abstraction, Ours, the First”], Round Table on EXAT-51EXAT 51, 0ko, No.199, Zagreb, November 1-15, 1979, p. 8.

12    Ibid.

13    Angeli Radovani, K., op. cit., p.115.

14    Richter, V. Sinturbanism, Mladost, Zagreb, 1964, p. 11.

The work of the group EXAT-51 was accomplished in the early 1950’s (its members issued their Man­ifesto in 1951, and four painters exhibited their work in 1953), but this art circle, or its individual members, also acted in keeping with some principles that had characterised the group’s practice and ideology several years before and some years after these important dates. 

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