The Spring Salon, 1916 – 1928

The Spring Salon, 1916 – 1928


Exhibition title: SPRING SALON,  1916 to 1928
Duration: 12 Apr 2007 – 20 May 2007

„Spring Salon Exhibition 1916 to 1928“ is a historical overview of the most important art and cultural event in the period from 1916 to 1928 which has identified the main trends and development pathways of the croatian art in the 20th century. (Radovan Vuković)


The Proljetni salon (Spring Salon), “as developmental and temporal synonym for a time that is contradictory, complex and above all rich in disquiet”, during its lifetime left few quite indifferent. Since its importance was soon recognised and since it represented a great deal more than just a motley group of artists who occasionally, without any strong artistic agenda or objective set in advance, exhibited together, almost all the leading figures of Croatian cultural life have dedicated it least a few sentences. Milutin Nehajev, for example, wrote text, generalised indeed but imbued with the ideas of modernism for the catalogue of the first edition. Iljko Gorenčević, perhaps the most talented art critic of his time, in the foreword to the eighth exhibition, held in Osijek, wrote combatively about the “new men” who were conveying a “new art” while Antun Branko Šimić covered the exhibitions of the Proljetni salon, from that showing Kraljević’s drawings to the Vilko Gecan solo, with unconcealed partisanship, along with well-judged critical remarks. Attacks on the Proljetni salon, on the other hand, came from various quarters. Izidor Kršnjavi was against the exhibition of Kraljević’s Parisian drawings at the fourth exhibition, drawing a reaction from Šimić; Krleža voiced frequent criticisms of the artists of the Salon for modelling themselves on art phenomena from abroad and condemned them as eclectics; Ljubomir Micić, arguing a radical avant-garde position, identified the Proljetni salon as an art event of the traditional kind that could have nothing new to say. We should also recall the disapproval of the Archbishop of Zagreb of the time who was shocked by the liberal Indian ink nudes, done on newspaper, of Ernest Tomašević, exhibited in 1927 at the 25thProljetni salon.
Unlike contemporaries, whose viewpoints were necessarily conditioned by their own positions within the cultural, political and social spectra of their times, Croatian art history has recognised the Proljetni salon as a place for the gathering and absorption of the influences of the European art of the time, without which the currents and characteristics of Croatian modernism would have of a certainty been very different. In this sense, it was generally positively valued. Nevertheless, authors who have spent time on the Proljetni salon almost always looked at its artistic merits and achievements from the viewpoint of the peripheral nature of the Croatian setting. Thus in connection with the art work of these years “the hybrid character of the artistic style” and “stylistic belatedness” were mentioned. From this point of view the works of the key artists of the Proljetni salon are connected to the categories of “Secession Expressionism”, “Cézanne-style Expressionism”, “constructive Expressionism” and “Cubo-Expressionist synthesis”. Such and similar definitions tell above all of the complex structure of the Proljetni salon. But the frequently mentioned lack of stylistic coherence, deriving from its openness to the younger generation and to various kinds of poetics, cannot take from it its appertaining value and relevance. Indeed, we should rather conclude that without an acquaintance with and analysis of Proljetni salon inputs, there is no possibility of talking cogently about the Croatian art of the time. Knowing that it was at Proljetni salon exhibitions that many of the works that have in time taken on anthology-piece value were shown for the first time, such an assessment – borne out indeed by Croatian art history – is far from being overblown.
In 1916, thanks to the first exhibition of the Croatian Proljetni salon (as it was known until 1919, after which it became more simply the Proljetni salon) can be considered the starting point of the whole body of Croatian art of the interwar years. But the following question inevitably occurs: how was it that in Zagreb, the cultural centre of a small and traditional setting, at that very time, during the war time, when the artistic segment of social life must have taken a back seat, it was possible to conceive of a progressive artistic event that would create the conditions for the fuller acceptance of the postulates of modernism and install Croatian art as an essential part of Central European modernist evolution between the two wars? Since the Proljetni salon was a factor of continuity during the course of Croatian art in the first half of the twentieth century, special attention needs focusing on those facts, social, cultural and artistic, that preceded it and essentially affected its characteristics.
The period that preceded the Proljetni salon, the beginning of which is taken to be the Croatian Salon of 1898, led to a kind of institutionalisation of the fine arts, to be seen in the appearance of premises for exhibitions, the formation of art associations and groupings, the foundation of art schools and in general a general vitality in artistic life. And then, of particular importance are the upheavals in those milieus with which there were politically-conditioned cultural and other connections, all of this to be seen in the light of belonging to the European cultural area, which was constantly reinforced in this country during the 1900s. This in turn gave rise to contacts with innovative artistic postulates, depending on the individuals, on the artists who travelled in Europe or who trained there, and upon their interests and capacities. However, the process of full acceptance of the radical changes of the language of art, the new aesthetics and the new manner of seeing the work of art was relatively slow, laborious and piecemeal, primarily because of the constraints of the local setting, but also because of the traditionalism of the academies and art schools in which they had been trained abroad. And finally the demands and expectations of the domestic public were also an important limiting element. With all that, however, the position of the fine arts changed very much in Croatia, and it became an ever more important fact of social life, which was particularly enhanced by the speeding up of the flow of information and the increase in the quality of artistic dialogue over the whole of Europe. Inside the Austro-Hungarian Empire, this dialogue much depended on relations among Vienna, other urban centres and the rural and provincial areas, which can be observed through the incessant confrontation of the unificatory principles of the multinational Austro-Hungarian Empire with the local traditions that tended to reflect obsolescent formal principles. This was a framework that had a crucial influence on the dominant trends of Croatian art in the period up to World War I, the ideas and artistic achievements of which were inherited by the Proljetni salon.
The exhibition Croatian Salon, held in the Art Pavilion in 1898 claims to be seen as a starting point for modernist processes in Croatian art in the sense of pushing the idea of the necessity of progress in art and the rejection of traditional academy-inculcated standards. Without such a start, with what were after all modest indications of change of the characteristics of artistic fact, but with a powerful wish to win artistic liberties and promote individual values, not even the Proljetni salon, the first catalogue of which refers to the key fact of the arrival of Bukovac in Zagreb, would have been able to make its important modernist advances.
The Proljetni salon goes on from the working of the Medulić group – in organisation and in part in form. At the time of its foundation in 1916, the Proljetni salon was a kind of continuation of the organised exhibitions of the Medulić group members, who remained at home during the wartime years. Thus at the first shows it was possible to feel the powerful presence of ideas that had grown out of the working of Medulić: some works were shown that had been shown already in the past, and in the visual expression of some of the authors we can recognise unconcealed Secession impulses of Medulić origins. Finally, the events that led to the foundation of the new group of artists and the new exhibitions were connected immediately with viewpoints that were put forward by former Medulić members. Just as the Association of Croatian Artists introduced itself as a fraction at the Croatian Salon, the Croatian Proljetni salon too arose out of disagreements and conflicts, soon resulting in a schism on the Croatian art scene. In broad terms, what happened was a small-scale secession. It came about because of disagreements abut the organisation and conception of the exhibition to be entitled Croatian Artists for Croatian Heroes, Invalids and Wounded in Osijek. The young artists, almost to a man former Medulićes, refused to show their work together with their seniors, thinking that from an artistic point of view they had to show something new. And so they resolved to exhibit in Zagreb, under the title Croatian Proljetni salon. However, although only divergences in artistic conceptions were given as reasons for the break, it can also be assumed, considering the sensitive political situation in which the Austro-Hungarian Empire was on its last legs, that political viewpoints were also somewhere in the background. The young, because of their involvement in Medulić, were proponents of the South Slav idea, and the older were probably in favour of preserving the Empire.
Another important component on which the artists of the Proljetni salon relied was the heritage of the painters of the Munich Circle. This is certainly shown by the fact that a tribute was paid to Miroslav Kraljević by hanging his drawings at the fourth exhibition in 1917 in Zagreb, while two oils by Josip Račić (one of them the famed Mother and Child) were shown at the 8thProljetni salon in Osijek in 1920. Even more crucial than the attention the exhibitions drew to the importance of these artists was the recognition of their artistic influence on the generation of the “second modern period” as Gagro calls those artists that after the war were in charge of the Proljetni salons. Particularly important here is the influence of Miroslav Kraljević and his exhibitions in Salon Ulrich in 1912 and 1913, which had such a lasting impression on the younger generation. His work had a manifold import: recognising Kraljević’s Expressionist and Cézanne-ish tendencies as markedly contemporary formal orientations, the young artists (particularly Uzelac, Gecan and Trepše) attempted to construct their own expression on the basis of this experience. As early as 1921 A. B. Šimić was drawing attention to the importance of Račić and Kraljević for the younger generation that then constituted the nucleus of the Proljetni salon.
As well as inheriting the artistic gains of the national and of the European trends, as the two key orientations in Croatian art at the beginning of the 20th century were called by Matoš, the Proljetni salon had a particularly important role in promoting those artistic tendencies that accepted individual elements of avant-garde expression in western Europe. If we agree with the general postulates that define the avant-gardes within the CE space as regionally diverse and international and as at the same time eclectic and original, then the conclusion must arise that artists from the area that did not belong directly to the evolution of art in western Europe were obliged to reformulate progressive styles so as to be able to meet local needs, and at the same time conform to expectations about what modern art was supposed to look like. From this point of view it is particularly important to recognise the character of the adjustment to which the original formal elements were submitted. These reshapings and adjustments resulted in particular formal features in the art scenes of CEE, because of which the impulses to avant-garde trends were very different even in milieus culturally close to each other. These features are complex and multilayered, and are the result of specific regional and local situations determined by socio-political circumstances and the beginning of the involvement of ideological discourses into artistic practices. Thus we cannot speak of any literal taking on board of formal characteristics of the radical historical avant-gardes, of their patterns of working or of their original significances. The Proljetni salon is the most important locus in Croatian interwar art, at which specific reactions of individuals to avant-garde artistic phenomena are voiced – to Expressionism, above all else. This meant the formation of a stable moderately modernist environment that would to a great extent determine the further features of the onward course of Croatian art. None of this, of course, would have been possible without a strong modernist orientation, articulated in the foreword to the first exhibition catalogue, based on the awareness of the need for progress in art. Still, the Proljetni salon did not have any firmly defined artistic points of departure formulated in manifestos or manifesto-like writings. It also did not have any traits of a tightly knit group of artists (the membership was large and turnover was rapid, as shown by the lists of members occasionally published in the catalogues of exhibitions) and in fact could not have effectuated any strictly defined agenda visible in stylistically coherent productions or innovative approaches with radical avant-garde characteristics. In this way the general awareness about the artistic identity of the younger generation and the necessity for enriching Croatian art with fresh ideas that were then attributed avant-garde significance was a characteristic that was to remain a basis for the whole existence of the Proljetni salon. However, it was precisely because of such characteristics that the Proljetni salon, the showcase of Croatian art of the time, was able to fit into the dominant network of Central European trends marked at once by tradition and regionally adjusted innovations, of which reflections of avant-garde tendencies were particularly important for a complete comprehension of the features of Croatian modernism.
During the twelve years of its existence, at twenty-six Proljetni salon exhibitions with regular numeration, more than eighty artists were presented and, according to the available documentation, there were about two thousand five hundred artworks in various techniques of painting, sculpture and printmaking. In addition, the Proljetni salon was put on in different venues (starting off in the relatively cramped Salon Ulrich, its longest home, however, being the Art Pavilion), and had guest appearances in Rijeka, Osijek, Novi Sad, Subotica, Sombor and Belgrade. Like the big world exhibitions of the “new art” – from the Salon d’Automne of 1905 in Paris, the exhibition of the Blaue Reiter group in Munich in 1911 to the Armory Show of 1913 in New York – which represented critical points in the presentation of art of the time and had special meaning for the art history of western culture, some of the Proljetni salon shows had a key role in the process through which changes in the perception of the work of art were accepted and the public was educated in the Croatian setting. Since almost all of the exhibitions aimed at sales, which encouraged the creation of a market for works of contemporary art and had a positive effect on the earning power of the artists, the Proljetni salon can be considered a place of encounter between art and capitalist society. As well as this, at the Proljetni salon exhibitions the most important Slovene and Serbian artists of the time also showed their work, and made Zagreb into a noteworthy regional centre of art. And finally, the Proljetni salon artists were involved in the organisation of several exhibitions of foreign contemporary art, which was an attempt to acquaint the local public with the relevant artistic achievements in art in Europe. The role of the Proljetni salon in the presentation of Croatian art abroad was particularly important: at the big international show Exposition internationale d’art moderne held in Geneva at the end of 1920 and the beginning of 1921 most of the works from the recently completed 9thProljetni salon were shown, speaking volumes for the reputation that it enjoyed in the domestic fine arts scene. We can speak, then, of the broader cultural and social importance of the work of the artists of the Proljetni salon.
The Proljetni salon appeared in parallel with other important phenomena in Croatian culture with which it shared the same or similar meanings. Thus for example in the year in which the first Croatian Proljetni salon was held, the literary periodical Kokot [Cock] of Ulderiko Donadini also came out. This journal was “the first phase or the proving ground for the first steps in Expressionism in Croatian writing” just as the Proljetni salon was in Croatian visual art. In general, the ambitions of the Proljetni salon in the broader cultural scale were set high from the very outset. The first collective exhibition, at which fourteen artists showed, was organised as a benefit in Salon Ulrich, and was accompanied by a number of sideshows. In the small hall of the Music Institute a concert entitled Croatian Young Composers was given, and a series of public lectures about writing, music and the fine arts was given in which an attempt was made to cover a broad cultural horizon at that wartime moment. And so the modernist viewpoint about the need for connecting up different genres of art, explicitly stated in examples of western European culture, was clearly in evidence in the very first Proljetni salon exhibition.
The second Proljetni salon, which was entitled Intimate Exhibition was held not long after the first collective showing. It was a presentation of sculptress Iva Simonović and painter Zdenka Pexidr. In the unsigned foreword to the catalogue the reasons for putting only these women artists into the show were explained: “this exhibition is dedicated to the art of two women who, as it sees things, can with justice be included among those few women for whom work in art has become the only task of life.” These two women thus obtained a recognition that set them apart from amateurs and Sunday painters, their work being judged by professional standards. A series of public lectures was continued, particular attention being attracted by one by Kosta Strajnić entitled “Art and the Woman”, which was published the selfsame year.
The third exhibition, held in 1916, was a solo show by Jerolim Miše. A largish group of portraits painted over the previous few years was presented at it, witnessing to a fortunate combination of the remains of the national iconic expression with Art Nouveau features and portrait psychology along the lines of Expressionism, which for the Proljetni salon orientation was particularly important. At the fourth exhibition, held at the end of 1916, only prints, drawings and small-scale sculptures were shown. The core of the exhibitors consisted of those who had initiated the Proljetni salon: Babić, Krizman, Juhn and Turkalj. Although this exhibition cannot be said to have any particular importance because of the artistic worth of the works exhibited, it is nevertheless important for showing eight drawings by Kraljević, which sparked off the already mentioned polemics of Kršnjavi and Šimić. Not long after the fourth exhibition, the Croatian Proljetni salon moved to Osijek, and the venue of the Urania Cinema, where the ancillary lectures were also given. The fifth exhibition, as well as works shown at the fourth, in Zagreb, also had important paintings like three versions of Babić’s Widow. This time Sava Šumanović joined in the Proljetni salon showing, and Milivoj Uzelac was also there; showing two oils that are unknown today, he announced the coming of the younger generation.
After the only exhibition held in 1918 – in Rijeka, together with the Lada group, which does not figure in the regular numeration, the Proljetni salon went on with its sixth show, which was not held until June 1919, in Zagreb’s Salon Ulrich. Although this was the smallest in terms of number of exhibitors, this was a crucial show because of the first appearance of Marino Tartaglia and the review of Miroslav Krleža. It was at this exhibition that Tartaglia presented the celebrated Self-Portrait. This painting was much remarked upon and reckoned the work that really brought Expressionism into Croatian painting. On the other hand, Krleža assessed the show as a cultural scandal and recognised “eclecticism” in the works shown, which, we might add, was certainly putting things too strongly.
The seventh show of the Proljetni salon was held in the Trades School in Zagreb in December 1919 and January 1920 and is one of the key exhibitions in the twelve year history. Apart from announcing the changing of the guard, generation-wise, and an essential change in the exhibitors (Babić was no longer taking part, and for the first time Uzelac, Gecan, Trepše and Varlaj exhibited together, dominating in quantity of exhibits), while there was also a change from a formal and stylistic point of view, and Expressionist partialities and interpretations of the Cézanne manner started to dominate. Now joining in was Vladimir Becić, who through his participation was to contribute to the stylistic leanings of the Proljetni salon. In particular one should highlight the fact that the works then exhibited that have a great importance in the oeuvres of the exhibitors individually (Šulentić, for example, exhibition Man with Red Beard and Uzelac a number of important paintings from the Prague period) and that are also loci classici in any serious attempt to interpret Croatian post-war painting.
The 8thProljetni salon was held in 1920 in Osijek, but most of the exhibitors showed a combination of works from the seventh and of those that they were to put into the ninth in Zagreb. New names included Petar Dobrović and Karlo Mijić, and two oils by Josip Račić were also shown. Iljko Gorenčević covered the Osijek exhibition in detail, in the catalogue essay in which he endorsed the contributions made by the younger generation (he wrote of “breaking the links with the past and tradition” and about “evolution” in art and a “combative” and “revolutionary” art), and in articles in the daily press. Although, in the light of knowledge of the works exhibited at the show, some of Gorenčević’s assessments can be seen to have been exaggerated, it is much more important that a highly educated critic, with complex views of contemporary art, had drawn attention to the orientation of the exhibition event within which the young had taken over the leading role.
In the ninth, 1920, show, the Proljetni salon found its way into the grand premises of the Art Pavilion. The Prague Four showed the most works, among which some, like Trepše’s Olive Grove, Uzelac’s Venus of the Suburbs or Gecan’s Expressionist drawings, are crucial for the determination of the formal and stylistic orientations of the given oeuvres, as well as of the show as a whole. Reviewers recognised two different trends inside the Proljetni salon: the radical, headed by Gecan and Tartaglia, and the traditional, led by Krizman.
The ninth exhibition introduced the printmaking work of the German Munich New Secession group. Like the Proljetni salon, it was not agenda or enclosure within a single poetics that was essential; what was crucial was the individual personality of each individual artist. In such broad and open views onto art, the Proljetni salon and the Munich New Secession recognised a kinship with each other, confirmed at the Proljetni salon show with regular numeration, and the Zagreb public had a chance to see works by important German artists of the younger and middle generation, like Richard Seewald and Max Unold.
The 11th Proljetni salon, a solo show by Vilko Gecan, was held in the Art Pavilion in 1921. This was a kind of retrospective, at which many of his key works were shown, including the celebrated painting Cynic, presented with the subtitle Composition, catalogued number one. Ljubomir Micić and A. B. Šimić dedicated important analytical texts in Zenit and Savremenik to this show, in which the artist, along with lauds of the drawings and a certain hedging about some parts of the oeuvre, was positioned very strongly as one of the leading artists of the younger generation.
Not long after the Gecan show was closed, an important group exhibition of the Proljetni salon was put on. Apart from Croatian painters and sculptors, the Zagreb public had on this occasion the chance to see a large group of Slovene artists, from those who were older, like Rihard Jakopič, to the youngest, led by Božidar Jakič. On the whole these were artists trained abroad, mostly in Prague, and, sharing generational and artistic kinship, were related to the Croatian artists through their alma mater. As well as showing the exhibition continuity of the group of artists who had exhibited from the very outset (Krizman, Miše, Šulentić and Anka Krizmanić), and of the younger generation that had joined in during 1919 (Uzelac, Gecan and Varlaj), the 12th Proljetni salon indicated some essential shifts about the diverse complex of realism, which, as we shall see, was to become the prevailing characteristic of the period to come.
Now that the Croatian artists had been joined by the Slovene at the 12th show, an exhibition was put on featuring mainly artists who worked in Belgrade. The 13th Proljetni salon, a major presentation of the Belgrade four (Petar Dobrović, Jovan Bijelić, Sibe Miličić and Živorad Nastasijević) was the result of a wish for a stronger linkup among the artists of the two biggest art centres in this region. On the other hand the next exhibition, the 14th Proljetni salon was held in Belgrade as part of the great 5th Yugoslav Art Exhibition of 1922. At that time nine groups of artists from the Yugoslavia of the time were shown, while a number of artists appeared on their own. A special room in the 2nd High School, the venue for the show, was reserved for the exhibits of members of the Proljetni salon. The new line – the striving for the constructive and the objective – could be made out here very well. This was borne out in the next exhibition, the 15th, in Zagreb, held the same year. The 16th Proljetni salon returned to the Salon Ulrich: this was a cameo exhibition, aimed at Christmas sales, featuring mainly prints, drawings, watercolours and smallish sculptures.
The 17th Proljetni salon, held in the Art Pavilion in 1923, was particularly important for two guest appearances. Ivan Meštrović appeared for the first time with a large number of works (45 sculptures in bronze, plaster and marble and 21 drawings), thus confirming his own position on the Croatian art scene. On the other hand, Ljubo Babić, who was one of the founders of the Proljetni salon but was then exhibiting with the Group of Independent Artists showed up at this exhibition also as a guest and showed works enough for a smaller individual exhibition. Among the oils then presented were some that had been created in the recent years (Portrait of Miroslav Krleža, Golgotha, Red Flags) and at this exhibition then it was possible to make a good estimation of the author’s input to the previous Proljetni salon period. He also showed some thirty watercolours created on his tour in Spain, which were crucial for some aspects of his future oeuvre. Some other important works were shown at the time, including Uzelac’s Self-Portrait at the Bar and Varlaj’s Red House.
The 18th and 19th exhibitions of the Proljetni salon were also held in the Art Pavilion, in autumn 1923 and spring 1924. Apart from the dominant orientation to neo-Classicism and other modes of realism being confirmed, at the 19thProljetni salon it was possible to see a marked turnover in exhibitors. There was nothing of Gecan, Uzelac or Varlaj, the recently constant exhibitors Tartaglia, Šulentić and Miše were also missing, nor was Krizman to be seen. Sava Šumanović came back with a large number of works, and for the first time there were Ernest Tomašević and Ðuro Tiljak. The sculpture section, headed by Juhn, Kerdić and Turkalj, stayed tight and continued to take part. The Proljetni salon, though, had fallen into a kind of crisis that was manifested by the absence of artists that had constituted its foundation, and this was probably one of the reasons for the event taking to the road in the following shows. Thus from December 1924 to April 1925, four exhibitions were held – in Novi Sad, Subotica, Sombor and Osijek.
The 24th exhibition was held at the end of 1926 and the 25th in March and April 1927 in Zagreb. The exhibitor list had some new names:Ivo Režek, Omer Mujadžić, Vinko Grdan, Kamilo Ružička and Oton Postružnik. These were all representatives of the new generation that appeared on the Croatian art scene during these years with a number of well-received shows (two are particularly important: the Print Exhibition of six artists and the Grotesque of Tabaković and Postružnik) giving the last Proljetni salon shows a transitional feeling. Since at the last, the 26th, show held in the Art Pavilion in 1928 the exhibition core consisted of artists who were a year later to band together in the Zemlja/Earth group, the new artistic preoccupations that required a much more defined agenda could already be quite clearly distinguished. And here, the Proljetni salon, with its review character was no longer so attractive as a showcase, and this resulted in no more exhibitions being organised. As group and organised phenomenon with a clearly articulated agenda and mission, Zemlja appeared in 1929 as a very marked opposition to the openness of the Proljetni salon, and thanks to these very features, could respond more effectively to the needs of the time. However, it should not be forgotten that this Zemlja orientation was actually preceded, orientation-wise, by the last few Proljetni salon exhibitions, which confirms the role of continuity that the Salon had in the history of Croatian interwar art.
Any attempt at splitting the course of the Proljetni salon, the central locus for the articulation of modern art in its time, into periods has to take into account some of the dominant features necessary for the recognition of the basic developmental lines of Croatian art. It has already been said that the exhibitions of the Proljetni salon presented the results of the remodelling and adjustment of the impulses of the basic currents of European art, resulting in an important quality leap in domestic art production. These were complex processes conditioned by the state “as found” in Croatian art, as well as by the overall social and political situation, typical of a setting distant from the centres of innovative trends in modernism.
During the course of the Proljetni salon we can recognise two key years – 1919 and 1921, watershed years that have a key role in an attempt at defining the periods of the event in terms of stylistic features. And it is primarily the painting that is being analysed, the quality and quantity of which in the Proljetni salon was after all way above what the sculptors were achieving. This proposed periodisation also takes into account the fact that there was an interweaving of stylistic features even within a single work, that stylistic versions were found in parallel within a given oeuvre, and that pictures tended to be exhibited several years after they were painted, which of course affects the general image of the dominant tendencies and attachments.
The first period of the Proljetni salon (1916-1919) can be said to have been a transitional period that paved the way for the more powerful modernist thrust achieved after the war. This was the time when the Proljetni salon exhibitions were dominated by the founders and the artists who cultivated the traditional ways of expression. Because during these few years there was no prevalence of works that brought radical advances or novelties, this mainly wartime period has remained insufficiently known, and most judgements about the Proljetni salon as a whole are based on the period from the 7th exhibition on. However, one should not lose sight of the fact that it was then that some of the key works of the Croatian painters who took part in the Proljetni salon were created, works that in the sense of prologues to the swelling theme, were to define the features of the exhibitions that succeeded. Hence there is no reason to give credence to interpretations that sharply divide the first period from that which followed, rather, as Josip Vrančić once pointed out, to insist on the fact of continuity. For although in most of the works exhibited in these years the Art Nouveau hangovers of the pre-war time (Babić’s Widow of 1913, Miše’s portraits of 1914, some of Šulentić’s early works, an oil or print of Krizman here and there) were being worked out, in the works of the same artists, the new Expressionist trends were already been adumbrated. If we can accept the earlier suggested concept of Art Nouveau-Expressionism, it can be used to describe those elements of Secession that became effective factors in the genesis of the Croatian Expressionists trends. And indeed, the first period of the Proljetni salon was marked by primary Expressionist stirrings, in which there is still the linearism of Art Nouveau but also a marked interest in characterisation and psychological definition of characters in many portraits, as well as indications of tendencies towards deformations that point up the inner mood. In this way, quite often very different from Expressionism where it was indigenous, Croatian artists reacted, among other things, to the tragedy of the war.
We should not forget that the first period of the Proljetni salon, in spite of his exhibiting works of Medulić characteristics at the shows, was the time at which Ljubo Babić was creating his crucial Expressionist vehicles. His celebrated Black Flag was done in 1916. At that time too several portraits were painted – Portrait of Kosta Strajnić (1915), Portrait of Ljubo Wiesner(1916), several versions of the portrait of Krleža (1918), in which we can recognise the ripening of the formal traits that would put their stamp on the author’s personal Expressionist poetics. And finally, this was the time of Golgotha (1917), Black Flagsand Development (1919), pictures that spoke powerfully of the author’s formal direction.
Jerolim Miše appeared in the Proljetni salon with the accepted powerful influence of Secession linearism of Viennese origins, although he finished his training in Italy. In his portraits – from Man with Red Cap and Apron (1914) and the known but today lost Self-Portrait (1914) up to his Portrait of Ivo Tartaglia (1919) – the transition from Secession to a kind of Expressionism is easy to discern, articulated by much more remarked psychological identification. In connection with the early work of Miše, Igor Zidić said that he was “an Expressionist without Expressionism”, which can be used to describe his fastening the attention on the individual, on the characterisation of the characters and the attempt to limn psychological states (including his own) by expression of the face, deformation and unusual framing. This is to do with a high degree of personal sensitivity in the painter, which was used to articulate the drama not only of the person portrayed but of the feelings of the painter himself in the frustrating time of the war.
In the case of Zlatko Šulentić there were no hangovers of the Medulić aesthetics, and in that period he was able much more freely to develop his own diverse interests and sum up the influences imbibed during his stays in Munich, Paris and Vienna. Thus the oil painting Maksimir (1915) put on view at the first show, in which we can see traces of Secession linearism and rhythm, in conjunction with almost Impressionist strivings to note the very moment. The Man with Red Beard was painted in the year the Proljetni salon was founded, but it was not exhibited until 1919, when it had to fit in with a somewhat different stylistic situation. On the other hand the Portrait of Dr Stjepan Pelc and the Portrait of Ljubo Penić of 1917, with their specific tendencies to deformations and colourist accents bear clear witness to Expressionist leanings. Finally, it was the Portrait of Dr Pelc, in which we can recognise the direct influence of Schiele and early Viennese Expressionism, that became the most frequently cited example of early Expressionist works in Croatian art.
The second and most important phase of the Proljetni salon lasted a very short time indeed. Its beginning (1919) was marked by the involvement of the younger generation led by Milivoj Uzelac, Vilko Gecan, Marijan Trepše and Vladimir Varlaj. The end can be placed in 1921 – “landmark year in the chain of development of realism in this country”. It was then in the first post-war years that the heritage of Miroslav Kraljević was increasingly drawn upon: his interpretation of the Cézanne manner, and the elements of nascent Expressionism, did a great deal to build up the visual identity of this part of the Proljetni salon. It can thus be concluded that the second period of the Proljetni salon was marked by a parallelism of Cézanne-ism and Expressionism, its recognisable determinants.
The adoption of the fundamentals of the Cézanne manner was conditioned by the influence of Kraljević, while the inspiration of Czech painter Jan Preisler, Uzelac’s teacher, who towards the end of his life adopted a personal interpretation of Cézanne, was particularly to the fore in the works of younger-generation artists. The brief focus on the work of Cézanne, the characteristics of which can be seen in many landscapes, still lifes and portraits of the time was crucial for the way some of the oeuvres were to go, as well as for the overall orientation of Croatian painting. Thus the assimilation of one of the vital points of modern painting – articulated through partial acceptance, development and adjustment of Cézanne’s manner of constructing the painting and by the adoption of the skills in composition – meant an important part of the continuity, particularly when we know that Cézanne-ism was taken on board as a foundation from which various stylistic trends developed, from Cubist strivings via Magic Realism to neo-Classicism. Uzelac’s Bridge (1916-1917), Gecan’s Landscape from Gomirje – Mills (1919) and Trepše’s Olive Grove presented at the exhibitions of the Proljetni salon between 1919 and 1921 tell actually of a fresh and stimulating manner of taking on the influences of both Cézanne and Kraljević. Many others at that time inclined to personal interpretations of the Cézanne manner – Varlaj, Tartaglia, Šumanović and Šulentić, as well as Vladimir Becić, whose work is a link between the first Cézanne-ish endeavours in Croatian painting (from the time of the Munich Circle) with a repeated-but-different working out of the same know-how in the time of the Proljetni salon. In this sense, the author’s Nature (Igman) of 1920, exhibited at the 9th Proljetni salon, has the importance of paradigm: this is a picture that we can with full reason call Becić’s Sainte-Victoire.
The younger generation also developed the other important trend, Expressionism, with the support of those who in the first period of the Proljetni salon adumbrated just such inclinations. At that time some of the reviewers used the concept Expression to label all the new formal propensities. Ljubomir Micić, from avant-garde positions of representing firm stylistic principles, claimed that there was no Expressionism the art of this country: “Expressionism is everywhere today. On everyone’s tongue – in the word. Nowhere in the soul – in the work!… We are just looking for it everywhere and want to bring it into being.” In the context of the Proljetni salon Expressionism appeared as an essential label of the time presented by the formation of personal expressions shot through with various influences, and we will not be far wrong if we conclude that Croatian Expressionism, like similar versions from other Central European areas, established its own specific formal vocabulary that was most frequently tightly connected with given layers of subject.
The Self-Portrait of Marino Tartaglia, painted in 1917, is held to be an outstanding example of Expression in Croatian art. Although it constitutes a kind of morphological exception, and has always been considered independently of the entirety of the author’s oeuvre, like some “sport” this picture, created in the complex Italian fine arts environment, on the foundations of the work of the Italian Secession, of Expressionism and in touch with Futurism, fitted well into the Croatian artistic situation at the moment it was exhibited at the sixth Proljetni salon in 1919. Its appearance, with roots that were different from those that formed the first period of the Proljetni salon, had the significance of indicating new trends, that would come fully to the fore in the seventh exhibition at the end of the same year. The other pictures of Tartaglia created in these years (primarily portraits) show typical Proljetni salon tendencies to deformations, and his contribution in this period to the Proljetni salon was full: along with a Cézanneish exercise, he also created an important Expressionist section.
One more picture shown in 1919 has a special place in the history of the Proljetni salon as symbol of a more powerful Modernist thrust. Like the Self-Portrait of Marino Tartaglia, it was created several years before it was shown at the seventh exhibition. This is the Man with Red Beard by Zlatko Šulentić, 1916. Combining excellently with the younger generation’s debut, the picture gives one of the arguments for the definition of the new, expressionist situation. However, this is not at any rate the Expressionism with the elements of which the author’s Portrait of Dr Pelc is composed, particularly because of those visible elements that have origins in Cézanne. Expressionism in this painting is manifested in a different manner, much more restrainedly, without deformations and obtrusive psychological introspection, and we can agree with the conclusion that the Man with Red Beard and Portrait of Dr Pelc should be seen as a complementary pair in Šulentić’s Expressionism.
In the oeuvre of Milivoj Uzelac, too, attempts at defining a personal expressionist poetics went hand in hand with applications of lessons learned from Cézanne And although it was mentioned that there is no Expressionism in Uzelac’s painting, some works of this painter, because of the expressive intention and the use of certain elements for the purpose of the expression should nevertheless be looked at in the context of Croatian Expressionist tendencies. Thus for example in the pictures Composition (Three Portraits) of 1919 and Venus of the Suburbs of 1920 we can find the general impression of disturbance, a striving for the expression of the psychological conditions of the figures and the use of lighting and contrasts of light as expressive elements, which can be interpreted by Uzelac’s general contribution to the creation of the Expressionist climate in the Croatian painting of the time.
With Vilko Gecan, too, in the second period of the Proljetni salon, as already said, we can see essays in the Cézanne manner, and this was exactly the time when the painter “was to start and completely to work through the Expressionist phase in his oeuvre”. In his painting this was visible, as with most of the Proljetni salon artists, at the level of general impression, unlike the drawing and printmaking sections of his oeuvre (particularly the cycle of Indian ink on paper drawings Clinic, of 1920), where it is possible to recognise what we call elements of the style. However, in the picture The Cynic, exhibited at the 11th Proljetni salon in 1921, Gecan, with deliberation and forethought, spoke out about Expressionism, at the level of both form and content. At the beginning of the third decade, the artist combined the key elements of Expressionism into a whole that had the character of manifesto, not as a beginning, though, rather as a kind of exclamation mark at the end of a period.
Other artists too, with their work in drawing, painting and printmaking, helped to create the Expressionist atmosphere of the second period of the Proljetni salon. Marijan Trepše, for example, went on directly from Kraljević’s expressive impulses, while Karlo Mijić joined in the Proljetni salon at the culminating moment of his Expressionist colourism. Similar propensities can be seen in some of the prints of Tomislav Krizman or the pastels of Anka Krizmanić, as in the works of several of the Slovene and Serb painters who were then involved in the Proljetni salon exhibitions. From this point of view the short but extremely dynamic period between 1919 and 1921 was marked by a culmination of Expressionism trends.
As early as 1921 we can mark the beginnings of the complex of realisms in Croatian painting, within which the remnants of Expressionism would have great importance. As well as the works of the 12th Proljetni salon showing some indications of a new manner of treating volume and space, at that time, Sava Šumanović, returning from Paris and Lhote’s studio, put on a big exhibition in which post-Cubist stylisation made its debut in the Zagreb art scene. Spurred by Šumanović’s new orientation, A. B. Šimić and Rastko Petrović published some important writings in Savremenik. This was also the year of Krleža’s “Marginalia to the paintings of Petar Dobrović” one of the key texts by this author in which the painter’s liking for “sculptural” and “Euclidianly hard” form is applauded, and the general tendency of the art of the time in the direction of an increased interest in an objective vision of the world and classical models is recognised.
It is actually in the painting of the Proljetni salon that we can follow practically all the versions of realism that characterised practically the whole of the third decade. Although we can consider this orientation a return to traditional visual values with the significance of a kind of eddy from the recently established modernist continuity, it is by the acceptance of various kinds of neo-Realist tendencies that Croatian artists were practically up to date with the contemporary trends in Western Europe. The fundamental orientations of European art in the 1920s, which influenced our setting directly or indirectly, were Picasso’s return to figuration, the neo-Classic interest of André Derain, the Lhote post-Cubist manner, Italian neo-Classicism, and two lines of German neo-Realism – the Magic version, particularly visible in the painting of the Proljetni salon, and the committed versions, the influence of which would be indicated in the last Proljetni salon shows, and would completely come to life in the work of the Zemlja group. Thus the Proljetni salon between 1921 and 1928 once again functioned as a shop window for the affirmation of European influences that had been accepted in and adjusted to our milieu.
Marino Tartaglia was among the first to embark on more solid construction of volumes and spaces, and yet with the still-visible employment of the approaches of Cézanne. Striving for classical clarity, with an awakened interest in three-dimensionality, this painter created a sequence of paintings that were to mark the neo-Realist trends in Croatian painting, of which Combing of 1924 was the peak of his classical ideal. On the other hand several painters with a different treatment of volumes aimed at still present indications of the specific Expressionist tension in content. In this context we can speak of Gecan’s Fresh News (1922), Šulentić’s Portrait of Nikola Matanić (1922) and Uzelac’s pictures Magdalene (1921) and Sphinx of the Big City (1922). In the painting Self-Portrait at the Bar of 1923, Uzelac – still featuring the expressive intention – went the furthest in fragmenting the background, which was almost completely abstract, thanks to the rhythmical alternations of light and dark surfaces. In this kind of spatial organisation, as well as in the extreme simplifications in the formation of some of the figures, it is impossible to avoid comparisons with the technique of the collage.
Vladimir Varlaj, after internalising the lessons of Cézanne, made one of the most important Magic Realism contributions in Croatian painting. Discipline and methodicalness in the working of form visible as early as his paintings of 1921 heralded the peaks of lyrical and remarkable moods that a few years later he was to achieve in well-known paintings featuring the Klek [mountain] motif. On the other hand, Red House of 1923 is unique in its fusion of the magical and the expressive.
In his paintings of the twenties, Marijan Trepše made some important neo-Classicist advances, as shown by the paintings Rest (1924), Girl with Jug (1926) and Noon (1928). Neo-Classicism is also a characteristic of part of the oeuvre of Milivoj Uzelac: the big composition Three Graces (1925) tells of the wish for a monumentalisation of the female body as a manner of approximating to classical values. A similar contribution to the third period of the Proljetni salon was given by members of the generation that after the organisation of the exhibitions stopped were to be among the leaders of the basic lines of direction of Croatian painting. In the works of Ðuro Tiljak, Oton Postružnik, Ivo Režek and Omer Mujadžić we can see a pronounced striving for the creation of large, voluminous and rounded forms in which it is not hard to recognise the Parisian scene dominated by leanings towards realism. However, apart from various tendencies of neo-Realist origins, among which neo-Classicism was the most marked, some of the painters in their works also provided indications of a socially committed approach, and thus, during the time of the last Proljetni salon shows, were anticipating the critical Realism of Zemlja.
Although the longest period in this tentative periodisation of the Proljetni salon did not involve any rapid alternation of artistic novelties, of the kind seen in the preceding age, it is particularly important because of the way it closed up on contemporary trends in European painting and also for the achievement of the peaks in quality of some people’s oeuvres – from Varlaj’s Magic Realism to Režek’s neo-Classicism. Finally, at the end of the period under consideration, some of the artists announced those orientations that were to obtain their full affirmation at the transition into the fourth decade, and its first half. The Proljetni salon then even as it expired, without doubt brought indications of the new.
Unlike the painters, the sculptors of the Proljetni salon did not pass through any very vigorous stylistic changes. For this reason Grgo Gamulin assessed them as a “small and inessential part of Croatian sculpting of the time”, which, knowing the names of those who appeared in the Proljetni salon and the actually abundance of their appearance is something of an overstatement. Still, the fact is that inside the Proljetni salon it was difficult to establish any trend in sculpting capable to any great extent of accepting key reverberations of the dominant European orientations, primarily because of the great artistic and social reputations enjoyed by two key sculptural personalities of the time: Ivan Mestrović and Robert Franges Mihanović. However, sculptors of the Proljetni salon were valued, and some of their works were discussed with great respect. This is shown by a number of articles that related their work to, above all, the features of the oeuvre of Meštrović. Marin Studin, who took part in the Proljetni salon shows from 1920 to 1922, attracted the most attention. His work was written of by both Krleža and Gorenčević, who quoted him as an example of an artist who had managed to break away from the line of Meštrović. Finally, it was Gorenčević, in the article “Predetermination of the experiencing of visual art” subtitled “Sights from several ascents of our modern sculpture” who recognised the Proljetni salon sculptors, primarily Turkalj, Studin and Juhn, as a group capable of articulating the basic requirements of modern sculpture. And indeed, exhibiting at the Proljetni salon, many of the sculptors produced one of the peaks of their own oeuvres. This is shown by the works of Juhn, Turkalj and Kerdic, the core of the sculptural section of the Proljetni salon, who were in it from 1916 to 1928, as well as Studin, Cota and Pallavicini, for example, who, most often with cameo sculptures, essentially characterised Croatian sculpture of the time, in the sense of the gradual rejection of strict principles of academic modelling, endorsing the while various other directions, from marked stylisation and expression, via reduced form, all the way to Realist and neo-Classicists aspirations. Knowing that Frano Kršinić too, in the early part of his work, was connected with the exhibitions of the Proljetni salon, we shall not be far wrong in ascribing the aspect of continuity to the sculptural part of the event as well. From this point of view, the sculpture of the Proljetni salon cannot be bypassed in any determination of the basic currents of Croatian sculpting during the interwar period.
As a “form of organised and continuous working in the area of the plastic arts in its time”, the Proljetni salon is one of the inescapable facts in any overview of the Croatian art of the twentieth century. It brought together almost all the most important artists of the time, and at its exhibitions, the Croatian audience was for the first time presented with many key works. Thanks to its openness to the acceptance of various strivings conditioned by the influences of contemporary European art, Croatian art made a serious advance in quality, which makes it possible to look at the Proljetni salonachievements in the context of cognate events in other national arts of the culture of Central Europe. From this point of view we can indeed speak of the key role of the Proljetni salon in the formation of a moderate Modernist framework, which determined the line of development of not only the oeuvres of important individual personalities, but of Croatian art as a whole.
Petar Prelog