Roman Petrović, Dećek z balonom (Boy with a Balloon), 1929, oil on plywood, 57 1⁄2 × 45 1⁄8". From “On the Brink: The Visual Arts in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1929–1941).”

Roman Petrović, Dećek z balonom (Boy with a Balloon), 1929, oil on plywood, 57 1⁄2 × 45 1⁄8". From “On the Brink: The Visual Arts in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1929–1941).”

“On the Brink: The Visual Arts in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1929–1941)”

“Yugoslavia” usually operates as a synonym for the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1945–1991), but the first Yugoslav (literally, South Slavic) state was a kingdom founded in 1918, in the aftermath of World War I, and initially named the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. “On the Brink: The Visual Arts in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1929–1941)” revisits the 1930s, when King Alexander Karađorđević imposed a royal dictatorship and renamed the country the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in an attempt to force national unification and stifle political opposition. Bringing together painting, sculpture, print, photography, and film from Bosnia—Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia, “On the Brink” instigates an integrative perspective on the shared (art) history of the post-Yugoslav nation-states. The gesture of integration, however, only serves to reinstate a conflict, no longer along national lines, but instead among social classes and the aesthetic tendencies aimed at representing them.

The entrance to the central hall of the exhibition illustrates this clash, juxtaposing Petar Dobrović’s refined, bright-colored portraits of a fashionably dressed middle-class lady with Roman Petrović’s naturalistic, earth-tone paintings of destitute street children and Mladen Širola’s silent film about a blind beggar and his vagabond son. Despite economic reforms and the transition from feudalism to capitalism in the wake of the dissolution of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires that had dominated the region, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was marked by poverty, illiteracy, and hunger. The global economic crisis of 1929, coupled with the rise of fascism, exacerbated ideological divisions, giving a boost to the leftist opposition while at the same time creating rifts within the faction. Several Yugoslav artists and writers—mostly members of or sympathizers with the outlawed Communist Party of Yugoslavia—joined the international debates on the position of art and literature in revolutionary struggle, pitting modernist and avant-garde aesthetics against realism. In addition to artworks that embody each of these conflicting positions (such as the visual experiments of the Belgrade surrealists, in contrast to Đordē Andrejević-Kun’s socialist realist–style prints depicting miners), the exhibition also presents a selection of journals and publications that formed the crucial sites of the “conflict on the left.”

The mix of original artwork and archival material runs through the entire show, most notably in the section dedicated to the final years of the kingdom. In this section, a case study of Yugoslavia’s presentations at the Venice Biennale—beginning in 1938 after the failure of King Alexander’s “state Yugoslavism” and with war looming—delves into attempts to construe a shared Yugoslav identity by positing an art that crosses ethnic and national boundaries. Today, with global crisis again coupled with the rise of nationalist and racist politics, “On the Brink” should be seen as another attempt to test the aesthetic and political possibilities of gathering under the Yugoslav name. This was Moderna Galerija curator Marko Jenko’s key curatorial gesture; importantly, he organized the exhibition in collaboration with thirteen scholars from across the post-Yugoslav region, thus creating common ground for research still predominantly performed within the limits of national borders. Although the exhibition catalogue, unlike the exhibition, still mostly respects these boundaries, the show’s emphasis on socially engaged art—exemplified by the all-Yugoslav resonance of the Zagreb group Zemlja (Soil)—reads as an implicit endorsement of this search for the common and its current political relevance. The social, national, sexual, geographical, and racial tensions underlying this search play out in all five sections of the exhibition, although some, such as the one titled “Inside, Outside,” dealing with the boundaries of the private and the intimate, feel blurrier.

Above all, “On the Brink” is an invitation for a collective return to the theme of the shared—Yugoslav, as well as international—heritage of the interwar period, and in this sense it is less about telling and more about asking what we see. No wonder that the exhibition’s main narrative line comes from The Native’s Return (1934), the celebrated travel-ogue in which the Slovenian-American writer Louis Adamič mapped out what he saw on revisiting his homeland. It is also important to note that this invitation to return is made by Ljubljana’s Moderna Galerija. Once the leader of the rediscovery of Eastern European art, the museum now once again, and in a somewhat contradictory fashion, places itself in the foreground of the project of historicizing, exhibiting, and institutionalizing Yugoslav heritage.