Art and Life Are One: Association of Artist 1929 – 1935

Art and Life Are One: Association of Artist 1929 – 1935
28th November 2019 – 1st March 2020

Zemlja Association of Artists: from Social Activism to Cultural Nationalism

Ivan Generalić, Funeral of Štefa Halačeka, 1934., Modern Gallery Zagreb

The emergence of Zemlja Association of Artists radically changed the Croatian art scene between the two wars. The official activity of this group started by adopting its Statute on February 25th, 1929. Architect Drago Ibler was elected its president and painter Krsto Hegedušić its secretary. The aims of the group were clearly delineated and the ways how they might be achieved founded on solid theoretical arguments. Zemlja was namely a group of artists which on the basis of an elaborated and ideologically clearly founded program assembled painters, sculptors and architects, academically educated artists, peasants and workers, strongly influencing not only the course of events in Croatian art, but the entire cultural scene of the multinational Yugoslav state between the wars.

Krsto Hegedušić, Requisition, 1929, MMSU Rijeka

The Manifesto and the Program of Zemlja Association of Artists articulated an idea hitherto not present in Croatian art. This is the necessity of connecting art and life, in the way that puts artists before a very complex task. This primarily implied joint, socially engaged activity along with a firm ideological concord. The Work Program Basis of Zemlja, adopted on May 22nd 1929, clearly shows this. According to this document, the connection to life must be achieved through popularization of art, organization of exhibitions, study circles, public lectures and texts in newspapers and magazines, then also by direct collaboration with intellectual groups showing similar ideological orientation. In that way, the penetration of art into modern life is not expressed only and exclusively through socially relevant subject-matter and content of artworks, but widely based activity of artists as socially aware intellectuals at all levels is also expected – from basic art and general cultural education to solving problems of modern housing in cities and villages. All that should establish a connection with most neglected strata of the contemporary society and produce “collective art” with joint forces. Such a comprehensive social and cultural project attempted to radically change the profile of art public, until then constituted only by the upper and middle class. Thanks to Zemlja, works by peasants, workers and children were exhibited at representative venues, art education for workers was organized, the work of the Folk Theater was supported and photography became a basic tool in exhibition presentation of thematic clusters that focused on contemporary life in the city and the countryside.

Krsto Hegedušić, Carnival, 1935, MMSU Rijeka

Zemlja was a product of complex times when art became tightly linked to political, economic and general social atmosphere, so it is no wonder that it turned into a central point of the clash of different ideological starting points and not only differing aesthetic notions or formal choices. The main area of Zemlja’s activity was marked by key social and political processes and events of that time: the assassination at the Belgrade Assembly and the death of Stjepan Radić, the 6 January Dictatorship of King Alexander I Karadjordjevic, national aspirations imposed by the “Croatian question” in the Yugoslav multiethnic community, strong orientation towards peasantry (in accordance with political strategies of the Croatian Peasant Party) and finally the influential leftist ideology whose bearer was at the time proscribed Communist Party.

Marijan Detoni, Carriage of drunks, 1935., Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade

Krsto Hegedušić, the principal ideologist of the Association, was influenced by the views of writer and journalist August Cesarec, the most important advocate of the need for revolutionary unity between workers and peasants, and the central personality of Croatian culture in the period between the two wars, writer Miroslav Krleža. It was Krleža who with his ideas, articulated in several key texts about art, had decisive influence on the content of different aims of Zemlja’s activity. In1926 he wrote an essay about German artist George Grosz and in this way enabled insight into his work to Croatian artists who could adopt it as a model on several levels. In other words, in his text on Grosz Krleža promoted the values that would become the foundation of Zemlja’s program orientation. His Foreword to Krsto Hegedušić’s Motifs from Podravina – a series of drawings published in Zagreb 1933 – was the breaking point at the ideological battlefield after which Zemlja Association of Artists and the entire leftist intellectual scene have never been the same. The question of individualism came into the focus of this dispute. Namely in his Foreword – contrary to the negation of individual values and the striving for full ideologization of art – he advocated critical and socially engaged, but independent art with individual qualities. In accordance with that, the author pointed out the values emerging from a subjective view as the most important ones for any artistic activity, including Hegedušić’s. This was an attempt at setting up a kind of alternative model that does not dismiss the principal goals of “leftist art”, but counteracts the rigid realist aesthetics then promoted in the Soviet Union. This was the direct cause of the disunion within Zemlja Association of Artists and the beginning of a complex, turbulent and long-lasting ideological struggle whose roots can be recognized in the influences of the prevailing world-view and cultural policies of the Soviet Union.

Franjo Mraz, Winter, 1936, Modern Gallery Zagreb

Although the activity of Zemlja Association of Artists required homogeneity in every respect, it became evident that this was a heterogeneous group, both at the political and ideological level. Zemlja’s goals were doubtlessly noble: it wanted to change the capitalist society with its large number of poor and underprivileged people, approach this neglected social class by thematizing its everyday life, include it actively into social life and improve its housing in the city and outside of it. Its exhibition activity was also considerable. During its relatively short existence the Association organized five exhibitions in Zagreb and one in Paris, Sofia and Belgrade respectively. Between 1929 and 1935 its members presented their recent production in international group exhibitions in Barcelona, London and Ljubljana. Thirty-seven artists and three guest art groups (Zagreb Work Group, New Artists from Sofia and Petar Dobrović’s Workers’ Painting School from Belgrade) participated at Zemlja’s eight exhibitions (including the one prohibited by the police in 1935), while the members of Zemlja showed more than nine hundred works in all. This means that during the years of its existence Zemlja had an extremely important role on the Croatian art scene, promoting new ideas and actively participating in many areas. The ideological approach of Krsto Hegedušić – the central personality of the Assiciation – has lastingly determined the main characteristics of Zemlja as a group. Thanks to a wide scope of influences he positioned it in the range from social engagement to cultural nationalism: he advocated art in which the striving for a national, independent art expression and direct social engagement from the position of political leftists were two basic moving forces. However, in spite of the idea that the conceptual departure points of Zemlja were not brought to realization – because they were actually unattainable – it became and remained a valuable record of a tumultuous moment in history, of a society in a non-functional state union, of many complicatedly entangled political relations and finally, of art which did not refrain from facing most complex tasks.

dr. sc. Petar Prelog, Author of the exhibition