Zagreb

Dušan Vukotić, Surogat (The Substitute), 1961, still from a color film in 35 mm, 9 minutes 36 seconds. From “Surogat stvarnosti—pola stoljeća hrvatske animacije (Surrogate of Reality—Half a Century of Croatian Animation).

Dušan Vukotić, Surogat (The Substitute), 1961, still from a color film in 35 mm, 9 minutes 36 seconds. From “Surogat stvarnosti—pola stoljeća hrvatske animacije (Surrogate of Reality—Half a Century of Croatian Animation).

“Surogat stvarnosti”

Galerija Prsten

Dušan Vukotić, Surogat (The Substitute), 1961, still from a color film in 35 mm, 9 minutes 36 seconds. From “Surogat stvarnosti—pola stoljeća hrvatske animacije (Surrogate of Reality—Half a Century of Croatian Animation).

When Yugoslavia emerged culturally from the rubble of World War II, one of the ways it differed from the Eastern bloc was in its embrace of abstraction as its official artistic vocabulary. But around the time Yugoslav abstraction was gaining prominence through groups such as Exat 51 in the early 1950s, the film production studio Zagreb Film began to develop a new narrative tradition in features and animations, commonly called the Zagreb School of Animation. These works often started from abstract impulses, and involved many of the same artists, including Exat 51 members Vlado Kristl and Aleksandar Srnec. A great early success came with the 1962 Academy Award for the 1961 film Surogat (The Substitute) by Dušan Vukotić, the first Oscar for an animated film made outside the US. In 1968, the Museum of Modern Art in New York showcased the first ten years of the studio’s production; its golden period would continue for another decade.

Surogat in many ways is exemplary of how the language of abstraction was transformed into new forms of narrative. An animated film of nine and a half minutes, it tells the story of a man’s day trip to the beach; himself a stylized triangle, all the protagonist’s accoutrements consist of small geometric forms which, when blown up with a small pump, become a picnic table, a boat, and even a female companion. Abstraction here is literally inflated to acquire the shape of the stuff around us, and is the origin of a narrative of flirtation and frustration that most of us will have observed on beaches all over the world (he doesn’t get the girl).

On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of Surogat, curators Marta Kiš and Karla Pudar organized “Surogat stvarnosti—pola stoljeća hrvatske animacije” (Surrogate of Reality—Half a Century of Croatian Animation), an exhibition on the history of the Zagreb School of Animation, from its auspicious beginnings until today. Though the success of this and a number of associated films is well known in Croatia, the curators carefully organized the exhibition around thematic groupings that juxtaposed famous with lesser-known material to tease out formal similarities, and sometimes purely delightful pairings. The first section, titled “And the Oscar Goes to…,” aimed to construct a canon of outstanding films, grouping works from the late ’50s through the early ’90s, including the actual Academy Award winner. Other sections zoomed in on salient themes, such as the anxieties of the individual within society, as expressed through metaphor and allusion, or traced the difficult reinvention of animation after the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the wars in the first half of the 1990s. Overall, the selection showed the shifting ways in which a wide range of highly inventive graphic styles, often originating in fine-art experiments, shaped Zagreb animation over the past fifty years.

Besides the extraordinary quality of the material presented, and the sheer joy of encountering a wealth of graphic material at once new and foreign but immediately graspable and clear, the exhibition managed to open up several important lines of inquiry. Not only did it give life to the process of developing, making, and marketing animation by juxtaposing the finished films with individual acetate film drawings, storyboards, and ephemera, but it highlighted a crucial context of visual cultural production at a time when Eastern European postwar avant-gardes—and Yugoslavian art of the 1960s and 1970s in particular—are being reconsidered in light of broader discussion of postwar modernism. The fact that many important visual artists—from Kristl in the 1950s to Goran Trbuljak and Ana Hušman today—have also made important work in animation at once illuminates their fine-art production and allows us to see the past, present, and possibly the future of animated shorts with fresh eyes.

Christian Rattemeyer