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Art and culture

From the Vučedol Dove to the lyrical abstraction of Edo Murtić, from pre-Roman wattle to the trompe-l’œil of Ivan Ranger, from Diocletian’s Palace to Generalić’s red cows, Croatian art is a reflection of the many cultures that the land has assimilated and out of which it has created a remarkable synthesis, as symbolised by the work of Ivan Mestrović.

The dove takes flight

Neolithic culture produced several treasures on Croatian territory, the most spectacular of which originate from the Vučedol civilisation, centred on the banks of the Danube, which reached its height during the Copper Age (3000 BC). This civilisation left behind it vases decorated with geometric diagrams that some have claimed to be the first calendars. But the emblematic figure remains the Vučedol Dove. Other traces of Neolithic culture have been found in Istria and Dalmatia, as well as on the islands.

The Bronze Age and the Iron Age saw the appearance of gradina (fortified towns), most of which (with the exception of Nesactium) have since disappeared underneath the towns that succeeded them. Illyrian tribes (lapyges, Dalmatae, Histri, Liburnians etc) left tools, weapons and clothing fasteners, those of the lapyges providing the most sophisticated examples.

Ancient splendours

In the 1CBC the Romans, having succeeded the Greeks of Issa and Tragurion, asserted their hold on Illyria by constructing around thirty towns, all built to the typical grid plan of their urban planning, which has in some cases lasted until the present day (Poreč, Zadar). To name just a few of their towns: Senia (Senj), Arba (Rab), Curicum (Krk), Albona (Labin), Siscia (Sisak), Aquæ Iasæ (Varaždinske Toplice) and Mursa (Osijek).

Pola (Pula) has preserved its monuments virtually intact: the amphitheatre, Temple of Rome and Augustus, and Arch of the Sergii. Salona, which was devastated by an earthquake, has been reduced to ruins.

It was in Split that the Romans left the most remarkable sign of their presence with the palace to which Diocletian retired (4C).

The end of Ancient times

The fall of the Western Empire (495) was by no means the precursor of artistic decline. Once within Byzantium’s sphere of influence, the Croatian coastline saw the erection of such admirable monuments as the basilica of Salona, of Pula (Sainte Marie Formose) and the sumptuous Euphrasian Basilica of Poreč. The decor of this golden age is exceptionally elaborate: mosaics much like those of Ravenna, marble inlays, stucco and finely carved stone capitals. The sculpted stone of the sarcophagi is of a remarkable delicacy and the reliquaries are a tribute to the talents of the goldsmiths of the period, which came to an end in the 6C with the invasions of the Avars and the Slavs.

“Old croatian” art (9-11c)

Few countries have preserved so many examples of pre-Roman art. Both on the Dalmatian coast and in Istria, close to a hundred churches were built during the period that marked the transition from late Antiquity to the Roman period (9-11C).

For the most part small (with the notable exception of St. Donatus’ Church in Zadar), these churches are in various forms: rotundas made up of a series of six or eight semi-circular foils (Zadar region) or longitudinal structures divided into three bays and sometimes crowned with a dome (in the south).

In these stone-furnished churches you can find examples of the famous Croatian wattle, or pleter, made up of a plait of three interlaced fibres which cover every last millimetre of surface and whose design becomes more and more complex. The patterns used in the mosaics are reminiscent of those common in ancient times: intertwined circles and diamonds, knots, plaits and curlicues. In the 11C human figures, forgotten since Antiquity, begin to make an appearance, as in the retable of St Dominique of Zadar (the life of Christ) and the stone slab of Split (“a Croatian king”): it is the advent of Roman art.

The Middle Ages and the Renaissance

The Roman period saw the construction of cathedrals in Trogir, Zadar and on Rab. In 1214, Master Buvina sculpted the Life of Christ in 28 reliefs on the portal of the cathedral in Split. But it was Master Radovan who accomplished the masterpiece of Roman statuary in Croatia, with the portal of the Trogir cathedral (1240). Goldsmithing, too, produced a few masterpieces with the gilded sarcophagus of St Simeon of Zadar by François de Milan. Gothic architecture made an appearance at the end of the 13C with the church of St Francis in Pula and the beginning of construction of Zagreb Cathedral, inspired by Troyes Cathedral. Civil architecture produced a number of palaces, highly Venitian in style, in Dubrovnik, Split and Poreč. As for military architecture, one must mention Medvedgrad Fortress on the hills outside Zagreb.

It was during the Roman period that painting appeared in Croatia: the linearity of Ston’s frescoes (11-12C) shows a Byzantine influence. One finds crucifixions painted on wood, icons that are a combination of Roman and Byzantine styles, among which are the Virgin of Zadar and the icons of Split, attributed to the master of Notre Dame du Clocher. There is little evidence of the beginning of the Gothic period beyond a few frescoes in Istria painted in a manner reminiscent of Giotto. Some names appear, such as Blaž Jurjev and Paolo Veneziano: the subtle shading, the stylisation of the folds, and the appearance of perspective go to show that a new method of painting had arrived.

The Renaissance

The proximity of Italy was always going to facilitate the introduction of the Renaissance to the coast and the gallery of the Rector’s Palace in Dubrovnik by Micheluzzo (1463) is a fine example. The sculptor and architect Juraj Dalmatinac (Giorgio da Sebenico , 1410-1473), taken with the flamboyance of the Venetian Gothic, introduced the values of the Renaissance to Dalmatia: his major achievement is the Cathedral of St James in Šibenik. His acolytes, Andrija Alexi and Nikola Firentinac, completed the Chapel of St John of Trogir in the late 15C, with the help of the sculptor Ivan Dukovnić , better known as Giovanni Dalmata. Other Dalmatian artists left the country and become famous in Europe, as was the case with Juraj Čulinović ( Giorgio Schiavone ), miniaturist Julije Ković ( Giulio Clovio ), painter Andrija Medulić ( Andrea Schiavone ) and sculptor Franjo de Vrana, alias Francesco Laurana (1430-1502), whose artistic legacy can be found in Naples, Messina, Marseille and Avignon.

The painters Lovro Dobričević, and later Mihajlo Hamzić (16C) hesitated between tradition and modernity. Nikola Božidarević created altarpiece polyptychs. The Renaissance also generated the concept of the “ideal city” of Karlovac and the construction of Dubrovnik’s villas. As for the north, the threat posed by the Ottomans engendered the proliferation of fortresses in Varaždin, Veliki Tabor and Đurđevac.

Baroque: all-encompassing Art

Born of the Counter-Reformation yet still permeated with the humanism of the Renaissance, Baroque art aimed to be an all-encompassing art, impacting on architecture and the space surrounding it.

The 17C witnessed the ascendancy of sacred Baroque architecture imported by the Jesuits, who put to work Italian and Austrian artists (Ackermann, Andrea Pozzo, Quaglio, A-J Quadri etc). Large churches, modelled upon the Church of the Gesù in Rome, were erected, including Sainte Catherine in Zagreb and the Assumption in Varaždin . In Rijeka , the St Guy Church (1637) was the largest circular building of the period. Existing churches were modified by the addition of a chapel on either side of the nave, in order to dynamise the space. Decoration was sumptuous. Local sculptors became well known, for example Ivan Jakob Altenbach and Ivan Kormersteiner. The painter Federico Benković was summoned to Venice.

But it was the 18C that oversaw the complete triumph of Baroque art as the Jesuits gave way to the Paulinians. In Slavonia towns such as Osijek, Bjelovar and Pošega were created with arcaded buildings giving onto squares overlooked by two churches standing opposite each other: one Catholic, the other Orthodox. In the centre of the square there stood a votive column (Osijek, Požega). The urban nobility constructed palaces (Varaždin) and castles were converted into luxury residences (Gornja Bistra).

Pilgrimage churches were built and surrounded by an enclosure, the cinctor. The pinnacle of Baroque euphoria arrived, with sculpture, painting, architecture and stuccos mixing and merging in a vertiginous whirl. Belec, Trški Vrh (Josip Javonik, 1750), Kutina, Našice… Ivan Ranger (1700-1753) covered walls with frescoes, stuccos, figures in landscapes, trompe-l’œil architecture. Among his disciples were the Slovene Franc Jelovšek , the Austrian Metzinger and Antun Lerchinger , who created the frescoes of Trški Vrh and the romantic pastoral scenes in the Miljana castle.

All of this, however, paled in comparison with the decorative grace of the Rococo (Sela church, built to an ellipse plan, Sermage Palace in Varaždin).

Viennese influence (1800-1914)

In the 19C, fashions and styles came from the capital of the empire. In 1800, Biedermeier style reigned, a Germanic response to Empire style; from 1850 on, historicism imposed itself, with the apogee of “neo” styles: buildings took on looks deemed neo-Classical, neo-Renaissance, neo-Gothic... The end of the century saw a two-fold reaction from young designers: Jugendstil (Art Nouveau), all curves and asymmetry, and Vienna Secession, which relies on geometry and straight lines.

Architecture and urbanism

Now that external threats had disappeared, ramparts were knocked down all over the place. Landscaping was able to flourish with the creation of public promenades (Varaždin, Karlovac…), while the growth of the population brought with it great urban operations. Such was the case in Rijeka, Sisak, Osijek and, of course, Zagreb, where districts were transformed under the direction of Bartol Felbinger , who created neo-Classical structures. A sense of moderation and symmetry returned to palaces (such as Virovitica and Našice) and some churches (St Teresa in Suhopolje).

Soon, though, with the construction of the lower city and under the influence of Vienna’s “Ring”, historicism imposed itself. Its principal architect was Herman Bollé (1845-1926), who left his own indelible impression upon Zagreb. Apart from the restoration of the cathedral, he designed a numbers of the capital’s buildings, including the School of Applied Art. But his masterpiece is without doubt Mirogoj cemetery, which has a neo-Renaissance ensemble of arcades and a chapel.

Itinerant portraitists, realists and Pompiers

The Slovene Mihael Stroy (1803-1871) was, like his compatriot Matej Brodnik (1814-1845) and the Austrian miniaturist Jakov Stager , an itinerant portraitist. Their work is characteristic of the Biedermeier style, with the onus on producing a true likeness and a prevalence of rigid figures posing against a neutral background.

Realism is born with the Osijek school, represented by Hugo C von Hötzendorf (1807-1869) and Franjo Pfalz (1812-1863), and, most significantly, in Karlovac, Vjekoskav Karas (1821-1858). Designated “the first Croatian painter”, he accomplished some excellent portraits and paved the way for pictoral realism. Other painters rushed through the breach, hesitating between “embellished” Realism and a freer style: Ferdo Quiquerez (1845-1893) and Nikola Masić (1852-1902) painted village scenes. Mato Celestin Medović (1857-1919) was a remarkable landscape painter. Oton Iveković (1869-1939) retained a Classical form yet added a certain soft-focus in keeping with Symbolism. Ferdo Kovačević (1870-1927) specialised in landscape paintings of the Sava... Some were not averse to producing colour prints used specifically to illustrate history books, although they didn’t spare the anachronisms!

Sculpture is represented by the Viennese Anton Dominik von Fernkorn, whose statues are scattered all across Zagreb (St George, ban Jelačić). After training in Italy, Ivan Rendić (1849-1932) specialised in funerary monuments but his excessive Realism soon lost its popularity.

Age of ruptures

Symbolism and Vienna Secession

Viktor Kovačić (1874-1926), a disciple of the Viennese architect Otto Wagner, introduced the Vienna Secession style to Croatia. Rejecting historicism, he championed a functional architecture that is adapted to the needs of those who will live in the building. In 1906, along with Stjepan Podhorski and Vjekoslav Bastl, he founded the Croatian Architects’ Club in Zagreb . Kovačić, influenced by Adolf Loos, displayed a fondness for new construction techniques (reinforced concrete) and pure forms. Bastl placed himself more in the Art Nouveau camp, as evidenced by his choice of forms and materials (ceramic). However, the masterpiece of Croatian Secession is the National Archive building, constructed in 1910 by Rudolf Lubynski. The Secession style makes itself felt in the provinces too, in Osijek’s famous Urania kino (Viktor Axman) and in the mansions built by Ante Slaviček along the avenues of Europe in the cities of Rijeka, Split and Opatija. In the same period, decorative arts really took off, with wrought-ironwork, ceramics, glasswork and cabinetmaking.

Mestrović and co.

In 1908 two sculptors came to the fore: Rudolf Valdec , who created Impressionist-style portraits, and Robert Frangeš-Mihanović (1872-1945), a student of Rodin, whose sculptures were used in architecture. Both sculptors incorporated elements of Symbolism and Secession style. But their reputation was eclipsed by that of Ivan Meštrović (1883-1962). Another of Rodin’s students, he was first noticed within the Secession group. In 1914 he turned to religious subjects, but soon abandoned them. Female nudes and monuments (Grgur Ninski, Strossmayer) defined his Zagreb period. In 1938 he constructed the House of Croatian Artists, representative of the “international” style. After being imprisoned by the Ustaša regime, he went into exile in 1942, finally settling in the United States .

Painting: Paris arrives on the scene

Having trained in Paris, Vlaho Bukovac (1855-1922) was first known as a Realist. However, under the influence of his Parisian friends he adopted Impressionism and introduced it to Zagreb in 1893. The young artists who were drawn to him formed Zagreb’s “colourful” school.

The painters of the “Munich Circle” were also inspired by French painting: Miroslav Kraljević was a disciple of Fauvism; Josip Račić can be classed with the Nabis group. Vladimir Becić , painter of still-life paintings, remains loyal to Impressionism. Oskar Hermann evolved towards a blending technique and the use of very particular colours.

The work of Bela Čikos-Sesija (1864-1931), initially a Symbolist, became more and more pure over time. Other Symbolists would include Mirko Rački (1879-1932), whose phantasmagorical illustrations for The Divine Comedy are particularly striking and Emanuel Vidović (1870-1953), whose paintings are melancholic, sometimes almost monochrome. In 1908 he founded the Medulić Society in Split, bringing together young artists who refuted academic art. Menci Clement Crnčić (1865-1930) can be considered an Impressionist due to his treatment of light. Ljubo Babić, a harsh critic of society, combined an Impressionist technique with Symbolist content and announced the end of the world.

Art for the people?

Whereas after 1918 the architects of the “Zagreb School” (Drago Ibler , Z Strizić , M Kauzlarić) attempted a synthesis of “functionalist” and “organic” trends, the painters favoured work on colour and perspective, exploring the paths of Expressionism, Futurism and “New Objectivity” ( Vilko Gecan , Marin Tartaglia , Tomislav Krizman , Marijan Trepše, Zlatko Sulentić, Jerolim Miše ). Krsto Hegedusić (1901-1975) was among the founders of the Zemlja (“Soil”) group, which united painters, architects (V. Svečenjak, O Postružnik) and sculptors wanting to take an active part in social movements, while the lyrical and exuberant work of the colourist Antun Motika (1902-1992) defies the distinctions between different schools as well as the mutual exclusivity of Abstract and Figurative art.

The peasant painters of Hlebine

It was Hegedusić who brought the peasant painters to the attention of the world in 1930 and their success was to be prodigious. Croatians consider Naive art to be a separate branch of modern art. It is true that the first generation of Naive artists included extremely talented names, starting with Ivan Generalić (1914-1992), whose work evolved from a Realism denouncing the harshness of peasant life to a simplification of form that verged on Abstraction. Among the pioneers were Franjo Mraz (1910-1981), Mirko Virius (1889-1943), Ivan Večenaj and, with a very personal style, Ivan Rabuzin . Ivan Lacković-Croata painted delightful winter landscapes, bathed in a poetic light. A few sculptors, working with stone like Lavoslav Torti (1873-1942) or with wood, such as Petar Smajić (1910-1983), ally themselves with the movement. Lastly, there are the exuberant creations of Zvonimir Loncarić , painter, sculptor and poster designer, whose work is reminiscent of Niki de St Phalle.

Sculpture after Meštrović

Antun Augustinčić (1900-1979), a student of Frangeš, and subsequently of Meštrović , dedicated himself principally to monumental sculpture. One of his works, The Monument of Peace, has been placed in front of the UN headquarters in New York. Vanja Radauš (1906-1975), whose works are scattered across Croatian cities, created sculptures of characters in a style that occasionally evokes Zadkine. A fellow sculptor from Osijek is Oskar Nemon, although he worked principally in England. The work of Frano Kršinić showcased a return to intimist sculpture.

The paths of creation

The formation of the Exat 51 Group marks the beginnings of Abstract art in Zagreb. The distance at which Yugoslavia held itself from Moscow manifested itself in the country’s art, with artists free to choose themes and styles and reject officially sanctioned art (“Socialist Realism”). One could say that the theories of the East were expressed in the language of the West.

Thus, artists such as Vojin Bakić , Dusan Đamonja , Oton Gliha , Frano Šimunović and Ivo Duličić moved towards Abstraction.

Edo Murtić (1921-2005), the most famous of Croatia’s painters, is representative of a Lyrical Abstract art inspired by the Dalmatian countryside and the red soil of Istria. His paintings are powerful and dramatic, with great flourishes. Slavko Kopač (1913-1995), who settled in Paris, was a follower of the master of Outsider art, Jean Dubuffet.

In 1959 a group of artists founded the Gorgona Group. Among them were the painters Marijan Jevsovar (1922-1988), who created monochromes, Julije Knifer (1924-2004), whose work culminated in stark black Meanders on a white background, and the sculptor Ivan Kožarić , whose work occasionally goes in disconcerting directions, incorporating anything from fresh vegetables to aluminium streamers!

Nowadays, installations, videos and sound effects are all representative of Post-Modern trends that are more or less “conceptual” or “meta-artistic”, together with performances in which the artist puts him or herself at the centre of the work (Antun Maračić , Alen Floričić) . Others are followers of Minimalism, for example, Boris Demur and Dubravka Rakoci . Relegated to the background by all this experimentation, painting is still alive and kicking, thanks to talented artists such as Boris Bućan , Zlatan Vrkljan , Sinisa Čular , Davor Vrankić and Nataša Markovinović Volk , whose work came to be noticed for its study of colour and rendering of material.

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