Zagreb / Croatia / Art

Vojin Bakić

Few artists exemplify the former Yugoslvia’s modernist heritage quite so much as Croatian sculptor Vojin Bakić

According to an anecdote retold in Darko Bekić’s excellent biography of Vojin Bakić (“Vojin Bakić ili kratka povijest kiposlavije”; Profil 2007), President Tito arrived at the opening of the Zagreb Autumn Fair in 1963 to be confronted by an angular sculpture by Bakić lying on the grass outside the entrance. “What on earth is that?” asked former metalworker Tito, adding pointedly: “I could have made that myself! 

Tito spoke out against abstract art on more than one occasion (especially when he was cultivating better relations with the culturally more conservative Soviet Union), but rarely stepped in to clamp down on artistic freedom. In marked contrast to some other East-European states, modernism flourished in communist Yugoslavia, providing an avant-garde heritage that is much poured over by art historians and gallery curators today. Bakić (1915-1992), whose career stretched from figurative portrait sculptures in the Forties to brash avant-garde monuments in the Eighties, exemplifies this heritage as well as anyone. The exhibition at Zagreb’s Museum of Contemporary Art is the first full retrospective devoted to this pivotal figure in Croatian art, and provides an ideal opportunity to get to grips with the man and his times.

Graduating from Zagreb Art Academy in 1939, Bjelovar-born Bakić lost all four of his brothers to Croatian fascist execution squads in World War II, and was set to work on Agitprop projects by the communists immediately following the liberation. Bakić’s first job was to decorate Zagreb’s main square in preparation for the Congress of the Antifascist Women’s Front in July 1945. He covered the square’s equestrian statue of Ban Jelačić with a huge plywood screen, to which were added towering papier-maché figures - a female Partisan warrior on one side and a healthy corn-brandishing peasant girl on the other. Archive pictures of this Socialist-kitsch makeover are a sight to behold.

The regime’s commitment to Socialist realism was soon abandoned in the early Fifties, and Bakić participated enthusiastically in the first wave of Croatian abstract art.  He was also one of the Zagreb cultural scene’s most compelling figures, the kind of serious party animal and dedicated womanizer who helped give the Zagreb art world its distinctly bohemian flavour. Bakić’s studio was a popular meeting point for sculptors and their muses; private parties here could go on for days.

In 1953 Bakić designed a monument to Marx and Engels intended for the Yugoslav capital Belgrade, only for Tito’s guardians of taste to cancel its construction on the grounds that it was unsuitably avant-garde. However Yugoslavia’s communist functionaries were keen to demonstrate to the outside world that Yugoslavia was not a totalitarian state on the Soviet model, and increasingly allowed modern art and architecture a free rein. One of the key exhibits in the MSU exhibition is a cast of Bakić’s Bull (1956), an iconic, muscular form that was an important inclusion in the attention-grabbingly modernist Yugoslav pavilion at the Brussels World Expo of 1958.

The one sculpture that typifies Bakić’s style more than any other is Foliated Form (Razlistana forma; 1957), an alluring black swirl that currently tops a plinth outside the Hotel Dubrovnik in central Zagreb. Resembling a cross between a submarine propeller and the interlocking tails of imaginary sea beasts, it seems to combine the grace of natural movement with an uncompromising interest in abstract form. It’s one of the most beautiful examples of public art anywhere in Croatia – and one that casual strollers may well miss unless they are paying attention.

Bakić was heavily involved in designing monuments honouring Yugoslavia’s wartime Partisans, a form of art on which the country’s communist rulers were particularly keen. Such was Yugoslavia’s obsession with war-hero statues that painter Oto Gliha coined the term “Kiposlavija” (“Statue-slavia”) to describe a land in which no Partisan exploit was too small to merit its own Bakić-designed memorial park. Monuments to Yugoslav idealism were unpopular in the Croatia of the 1990s, however, and many Bakić-designed constructions ended up being trashed by right-wing philistines. Suffering total destruction was the Victory Monument at Kamenska near Požega, an asymmetrical metallic tulip that can nowadays only be admired in the form of archive photographs.

Arguably Bakić’s most famous project was the memorial centre at Petrova Gora southwest of Zagreb, a 37-metre-high cluster of angles and curves that was completed in 1981. Holding an exhibition space and a café, the outlandish memorial-cum-museum was visited by school trips and works outings from all over Yugoslavia. The interior was devastated and looted after 1991, and the stainless steel panels that covered the exterior were subsequently plundered by locals.  Although nowadays recognized as a masterpiece of Croatian modernism, Petrova Gora would probably cost millions of euro to restore.

The MSU exhibition also features Bakić’s sketches for an unrealized monument to Tito that was intended to mark the centenary of the dictator’s birth. Combining a somewhat angular sculpture of Tito set against a backdrop of jutting geometric shapes, the design gave full expression to Bakić’s modernist instincts. Its subject, no doubt, would be turning in his grave.

© Jonathan Bousfield

This article was first published in December 2013 to coincide with the Vojin Bakić retrospective held at Zagreb’s Museum of Contemporary Art from December 6 2013 to February 2 2014.