Behind the Yugoslav art movement that predicted the birth of digital art

27 October 2021

Sixty years ago, a modest exhibition featuring a group of little-known artists opened in the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, capital of what was then the Croatian republic of a federal Yugoslavia. Named Nove Tendencije, or New Tendencies, it aimed to represent a snapshot of what was happening in the art world of the time. Europe was emerging from over a decade of post-war austerity and reconstruction, and its artists were refashioning the modernist avant-gardes of the inter-war years to address a new age of economic growth and technological progress.

It became an international phenomenon. Four more New Tendencies exhibitions launched between 1961 and 1973, attracting hundreds of artists, critics and intellectuals to a city that was fast emerging as a haven on the cultural cutting edge.

Nurturing neo-abstraction, early premonitions of op-art, and the beginnings of computer art, New Tendencies represents one of Europe’s forgotten avant-gardes. From the abstract “meander” paintings churned out obsessively by New Tendencies regular Julije Knifer, to the eddying kaleidoscopic patterns of Miroslav Šutej and the computer-generated light installations of Vladimir Bonačić, New Tendencies seemed to rescue the flagging modernist tradition and provide it with a new sense of energy and power. By emphasising the role of new technologies in defining how artists saw their world and communicated to their audience, it anticipated everything from video art to bio-art and robotics. Based in a maverick communist country that was open to the west, it also emphasised the social role of the artist, and promoted the idea of collective work in an attempt to overturn the “bourgeois” myth of the artist as a lone genius.

But the role of New Tendencies in art history has been shouted out by louder, less ambiguous trends. As an ever-evolving association of like-minded artists spread over a wide geographical area, it never had a manifesto for academics and critics to decipher or dissect. By fate, it also took root in a country that, however important it might have been in the 60s, simply no longer exists today.

New Tendencies 1, visitors and PX X/61 by Uli Pohl

The first New Tendencies exhibition was the result of a chance meeting in the autumn of 1960. Croatian critic Matko Meštrović and Germany-based Brazilian artist Almir Mavignier met by chance in Zagreb and discovered they shared a common enthusiasm for Piero Dorazio, an Italian artist who had done much to re-energise abstract art in the years following the Second World War. “It didn’t take me long to find out who Mavignier was,” Meštrović tells The Calvert Journal. “Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1925, he was a painter and graphic designer, and belonged to the first generation of students to pass through the renowned Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm [the West-German art school famous for injecting new life into Bauhaus traditions extinguished by the Nazis]. Our conversation lasted well into the evening and finished with two suggestions from Almir: I would handle the selection for an exhibition of Yugoslav paintings in Ulm; and he would make a list of artists similar to Dorazio for a group exhibition at the Contemporary Art Gallery in Zagreb.”

Featuring names such as op-art precursor Heinz Mack, geometric painter Francois Morellet, and kinetic sculptor Julio le Parc, the New Tendencies exhibition opened in Zagreb on 3 August 1961. It was one of the first truly international art exhibitions to take place in post-war Yugoslavia, demonstrating that the emerging generation of local abstract artists belonged within a much broader context. The exhibition also suggested that Yugoslavia had something relevant to say about the state of culture in a divided world. By emphasising art as technology, art as public spectacle, and art as a form of communal endeavour, New Tendencies offered a set of values which differed from the market-driven arts scene of the West.

Getulio Alviani and Eugenio Carmi in front of Strutturazione fluida by Gianni Colombo, New Tendencies 2, 1963.

“Yugoslavia had broken with the Soviet Union in 1948 and embarked on a process of finding its own identity, which of course expressed itself in the field of art and culture as well as in everything else,” explains Darko Fritz, an artist, curator and art historian who has played a leading role in bringing the work of New Tendencies to contemporary public attention. “After 1948, Yugoslavia witnessed a new respect for abstract art, a continuation of Bauhaus traditions and Russian constructivism, all of which was used politically to present post-1948 Yugoslavia as a modern country with its own ideas. It was a climate stimulated by Exat 51 [a Zagreb-based group of abstract artists committed to integrating art, architecture, design and other contemporary disciplines], which made it possible for something like New Tendencies to happen in a city like Zagreb. Members of Exat 51 like architect Vjenceslav Richter and abstract artist Ivan Picelj reemerged as active participants in New Tendencies.”

Art critics Ješa Denegri and Biljana Tomić at Nove tendencije 3 exhibition

Ivan Čižmek in the Kugelkabinett by Effekt

One of the purposes of the New Tendencies exhibition was to show how local artists fitted in with a Europe-wide web of people engaged in similar things. Alvir Mavignier’s list of contacts, passed over to Matko Meštrović, was crucial in building this sense of community. “The New Tendencies events weren’t just big exhibitions, but also a form of networking,” says Fritz. “It enabled the formation not just of one network, but also networks of networks.” Matko Meštrović prepared for the first exhibition by roving across Europe, meeting up with the artists on Mavignier’s list. “It was through these intense contacts the idea of an international movement was born,” he tells The Calvert Journal. “The key departure points for us were the ‘de-sacralisation’ of art, the activation of public involvement, a research-based approach similar to that used in science, and above all, opposition to the art market.” This utopian vision depended on art (and artists) being paid for out of the public purse – something that may have been within the bounds of possibility in the headily optimistic context of socialist Yugoslavia in 1961, but which ultimately proved to be an unfulfillable dream.

Visitors manipulating Drehgraphik by Rudolph Kämmer with the work by Klaus Staudt Regelmässig grau-weiss in the background

The 1961 exhibition was such a success that its participants decided to keep New Tendencies going. Meetings in Paris in 1962 paved the way for Tendencies 2, held in Zagreb in 1963 (and re-exhibited at Venice and Leverkusen). Tendencies 3 arrived in 1965, followed by an exhibition themed around the movement in Paris. However, it was the Croatian capital that continued to be the movement’s natural home. “Zagreb itself functioned as a kind of unofficial cultural capital of Yugoslavia (with political and economic power being concentrated in Belgrade),” explains Darko Fritz. “Zagreb was, to a certain extent, able to use this position both in a national and an international context: not just with New Tendencies, but also with the Zagreb Music Biennale (also founded in 1961), the GEFF festival of experimental film (launched in 1963), and the Festival of Animated Film (established in 1972). All of Zagreb’s festivals were very cutting edge. And Zagreb played a very different role to Dubrovnik, for example, which was much more about classical culture with the occasional suggestion of avant-garde treatments.”

Competition, Muzej za umjetnost i obrt, Zagreb, exhibition view

Many of the people who took part in the first two New Tendencies exhibitions were also invited to take part in the Responsive Eye exhibition held in New York’s MOMA in 1965. With its emphasis on visual patterns and their capacity to create optical illusions, the MOMA show gave rise to the term “Op-Art”. Zagreb-based New-Tendency regulars Ivan Picelj and Miroslav Šutej were two of the artists included in the MOMA exhibition. Indeed, Šutej’s swirly, disorientating work Bombardment of the Optic Nerve became one of the exhibition’s visual flagships. But while Op Art is still remembered today (and op-art practitioners such as Bridget Riley have become icons of the coffee table), the fact that much of the movement was based on ideas already developed by the New Tendencies exhibitions has largely been forgotten.

By the time of Tendencies 4 in August 1968, the curators and artists associated with the movement were turning their attention towards computer art. The arrival of digital technologies suggested that societies were on the verge of great changes — and that artists had to change too. The world seemed poise to enter a new future, where teams of scientists would be more important than individual artists with paintbrushes. New interactive works were also becoming possible for the first time, allowing a greater degree of public participation.

Jonathan Benthall in front of the works by Peter Milojević

“[Tendencies 4] was the first time that digital art was presented in Croatia, and produced by Croatian authors,” says Fritz. A central figure was Vladimir Bonačić, a research scientist who saw art as an extension of his own technological experiments. He created a series of computer-programmed light installations for galleries and public spaces, including one mounted on the exterior of the Nama department store in central Zagreb. Arguably Bonačić’s most famous work at Tendencies 4 was Random 63, in which a panel of 63 light bulbs flashed on and off according to a “random” programme generated by computer. A unique synthesis of science, art and life, it still exudes a mesmerising allure. The other iconic relic of Tendencies 4 is the poster made for the exhibition by Ivan Picelj, its distinctively dotted design based on perforated computer-programming paper.

It was towards the end of Tendencies 4 that British art critic Jonathan Benthall issued the so-called Zagreb Manifesto. Although the work was not an official New Tendencies manifesto, it nevertheless caught the spirit of the movement at that time, urging artists to embrace new technologies in the service of mankind.

Matko Meštrović, Umberto Eco, Vladimir Bonačić and Martin Krampe in Gallery of Contemporary Art

But by the time of Tendencies 5 in 1973 (which contained more computer art, but also more geometric paintings by the likes of Viktor Vasarely), the movement was running out of steam. The idea that individual artistic intuition would be rendered less relevant by science, technology and industrial production, turned out to be a false prophecy. The social revolutions of the late 60s ended up reinforcing the role of the artist as an individual genius, rather than a socially-committed co-worker.

“The art world was changed in a manner they had not foreseen,” says Darko Fritz. “New types of art were coming into the world: body art, performance art, land art, conceptual art. Much of this seemed to be in conflict with what New Tendencies had proclaimed: a rational approach to art, the idea of art as research, and the idea of art as collective work. Mystification had become respectable again.”

Computer graphics by Anton Zottl and Ludwig Rase at tendencije 5 exhibtion

Those interested in the heritage of New Tendencies today can still visit Zagreb’s Museum of Contemporary Art (Muzej suvremene umjetnosti or MSU): the successor institution to Zagreb’s Gallery of Contemporary Art and the place where many of the Croatian artworks representing the movement are kept. The meander designs obsessively painted by Julije Knifer, and the precise geometries inhabiting the works of Ivan Picelj, Aleksandar Srnec and Miroslav Šutej, all stand as optimistic testimony to the movement’s faith in progress. Meanwhile, Darko Fritz’s new book Digitalna umjetnosti u hrvatskoj 1968-1984 (Digital Art in Croatia 1968-84), accompanies a digital-only exhibition unpicking this small but explosive slice of Balkan art, organised by Zagreb’s Nikola Tesla Technical Museum.

tendencije 5, tehnički muzej, Zagreb, visitors with Orange extension by Jesus Raphael Soto and 4 trames superposes 0°, 90°, 30°, 120°

While Fritz believes that New Tendencies deserves more recognition, he is just as adamant that its impact on art is still being felt today. In particular, the movement’s fascination with computer art continues to reverberate across the decades. “Sometime around the late 80s early 90s, a new wave of what we can call media art began to produce art similar to that exhibited at New Tendencies. There was a growing network of media artists who were interested in three crucial things: art, technology and social change,” he says. As an artist active in these things myself I was able to tell my colleagues that those same themes stood at the heart of an international network active in the 1960s called New Tendencies. Of course, nobody had any idea that such a thing had ever existed.”

There is still some hope that the artists behind New Tendencies will come again to the international spotlight. A big exhibition devoted to New Tendencies took place in Graz’s Neue Galerie in 2006, with an expanded version shown in Karlsruhe the following year. Darko Fritz was also co-editor of the accompanying book. “I found it extremely gratifying that many other authors went on to write about New Tendencies after that,” he says. “And it was with that that I felt that I had succeeded in my mission.”

Read more

Behind the Yugoslav art movement that predicted the birth of digital art

Katalin Ladik’s body art tore away the veil of conformity for Eastern European women

Behind the Yugoslav art movement that predicted the birth of digital art

Despite its name, Belgrade’s Museum of Yugoslavia is looking towards the future

Behind the Yugoslav art movement that predicted the birth of digital art

Visitors from the Galaxy Revisited: 11 artists reimagine Yugoslavia’s first all-electronic film score