Milan Konjović’s initiatives on the 20th century Serbian art

Our history of art shows that the painter Milan Konjović is one of those artists who deeply influenced the courses of the 20th century Serbian and Yugoslav art. Konjović starts his creative work during the second decade of the last century, and finishes it in 1990s, i.e. 1993, when he dies in his Sombor. During this long period, Konjović’s art  developed harmoniously and logically. What makes things in his art extremely interesting is a fact that the greatest part of Konjović’s work remained relevant to the current Yugoslav artistic events. Of course, this presence has its specific qualities and it is marked as an ‘underground stream syndrome’. In other words, in the crucial moments of our art, Konjović appeared with his  anticipating and inaugurating work that confirmed the forthcoming ‘trends’: after his early impressionist and postimpressionist achievements, he started his artistic concept with a rational approach to colour and form getting to the cubist notion which offers ‘the world of painting’ instead of ‘painting of the world’; afterwards, in 1930s and 1940s, he insisted on a strong colourism and expressionism, which would later become a landmark of his style. At the beginning of the second half of the century, in the era of  fresh postwar trauma, in a gloomy atmosphere of state-socialistic proclaimed demands of ‘socialistic realism’, Konjović’s ‘pure art’ would be among those which respected the dignity and freedom of creation. During the early 1950s, Milan Konjović, as an active participant of his epoch, appears as an initiator of new concepts (abstractions during 1950s, even realizes a performance at the beginning of 1960s). In 1970s he indicates postmodern neo-expressionism with his ‘gesture and action art’. Finally, in his late eighties, he participated actively in  ‘art of 1980s’ philosophy with characteristic concept of ‘cite art’… A particular temporariness is a specific quality of all Konjović’s activities.  Like an initiator, Konjović appears at the crossroads of our art and, with his renewed painting concepts, he touches, hints or  announces a spirit of innovation, emphasizes a spirit of modernism - in order to come back to his own continuity of consistent and distinctive expressionist.

      The author of this exhibition concept has had the idea to present the artist’s  paramount importance in our history of art. The exhibition shows the most important points in Konjović’s  painting continuity, the moments when his art was on the top positions of the 20th century art of Vojvodina, Serbia and Yugoslavia.


I  One cubist excess.

At the beginning of the 1920s Milan Konjović transposes  his experience of reality into a strict, formal expression that will, in several paintings, emancipate to a cubist concept. The motif is broken and decomposed to the basic geometric scheme and the painting becomes a sum of calculated relations and considered methods. ‘Grey still life’ (1922) theoretically meets cubist concept demands: the real object from nature is a cause of  its artistic fact  realization; instead of  painting of the world, a parallel  world of painting is created – ‘it isn’t an art of imitation but an art of thoughts’ (Apoliner)… Konjović himself said : ‘That short cubist phase was my fight with cubism. I didn’t deal with it due to my spirit. I thought it bound me, although I drew an important lesson from it: a painting is a new, self-governing reality that has its own laws and that only use the nature, respectively its artistic elements’. Milan Konjović and a few  distinguished Serbian artist (Šumanović, Radović, Bijelić, Petrov, Balaž) were among the first to problematise the ontological issues of a painting as an autonomous reality in order to direct the Serbian art to the modernism.

II Expressionism, the pure art.

 In 1930s, Konjović developed his art in an expressionist manner. Returning to his Sombor, he transmits that ’Paris’ circle’ expressionism into the late 1930s Serbian art. In that time, one of the most significant features of Konjović’s art was formed: in the most divergent social and cultural occasions, the artist managed to achieve metaphisical autonomy and the exemplary  essence of art. His expressionist ’pure art’ is representative in the ontological sense, because the painter could achieve  the world of painting estetic autonomy by depicting and expressing the tension and the anxiety of his own…

        ’Konjovic is not an expressionist of  big-city’s neuroses, miasmas and existential panic, that ’cultural uneasiness’ or dizziness – even his Paris’ paintings, series of ’teracces’ and ’studios’ longs for the whirl of natural energies.’, writes Miodrag Protić. He achieves the wide areas of artistic freedom, and, one of the best experts of Konjović’s  Paris’ work of art, a French critic Maurice Betz writes about ‘a noble, courageous, strong and crude art’. Coming back from Paris, the painter builds up one characteristic and convincing ‘expressionism of colour and gesture’,which will get him acknowledgement as one of the most significant artist of the 20th   century Serbian and Yugoslav history of art.  In spite of the constant oscillation between the avant-gardism and classical pictorial postulates, Konjović gets to the authentic results close to the atmosphere and sensitivity of the world and the time when he lived and created.


III Painting autonomy defence.

 Immediatelly after the end of the Second World War, establishing the new communist ideology and installing the new state-socialistic concept, a new socialistic realism ideology was imposed upon Serbian and ex-Yugoslav art scene. A new socialistic system entrusted the fine art with a new role, so the artists were required to support  the new social and ideological system. In that time, Milan Konjović was probably the most persistent struggler against administratively imposed regulations of socialistic realism in our country. In Konjović’s Belgrade 1949 exhibition review, the main ideologist and theoretician of socialistic realism, Jovan Popović, reckons:’ When our man is regarded, our new man, a man of our society who, according to human standards and progressiveness stands by the Soviet Union then his image deformation is not allowed…’ This exhibition was, by the way, seen by 2,000 people per day.

Konjović endures all criticism and, in Belgrade again, puts on his well-known exhibition, ’The People’, where he confirms  his personal artistic attitude, his sticking to authentical postulates of the painting and art by his authentic, subjectivistic, colouristic, gestual, expressionistic way. His thesis, beside Lubarda’s early abstract paintings exhibition that was held few months later, is therefore considered a turning-point in the Serbian art way to authentic, pictorial thought.


IV Towards abstraction.

In 1950s, as well as at the beginning of 1960s, Konjović realises his discrete abstract phase with which he ’defends’ the phenomenon in the Yugoslav art. Going to abstraction in 1953 with one more departure from his own continuity, from time to time, he supports the innovative abstract tendency in our art. This tendency was a kind of desperate need after the turmoil of the time. Under the influence of the obsessive idea to reach the freedom of creation, in his studio in Sombor, he will create a few paintings where an impression of abstraction is realized by abstracting the motif and bringing geometrical elements into the structure of painting. Instead of dealing with the theme, he deals with the problems of plastic and a painting as an aesthetic phenomenon. He insists primarily on the effects of colour and form,  on other and different kind of sensitivity to the world of painting, on the painting free from  interpretative obligatoriness and functionality… It is interesting that later in Sombor, at the traditional biennial ‘Likovna jesen’ in 1962, a significant exhibition of twenty-seven artists will be held and which is considered by the distinguished critic, Lazar Trifunović, ‘the first and the only abstract art exhibition of representative quality in Yugoslavia.’ Milan Konjović’s artistic intuition was confirmed again.


V Only one performance.

In 1962, Konjović even gave a performance which speaks about his abilities to anticipate events in art.

He realized an act of painting in public, at the traditional theatre manifestation Sterijino pozorje. A theoretician and an expert on Konjović’s art, Lazar Trifunović, conducted and commented the performance to the onlookers. Konjović made a painting  in ‘a breath’. It was  the demystification of the  act of creation  and an act with a clear concept. Irma Lang is right when she claims that it was a kind of happening leading to all later performances in our conceptual art in 1970s. Nowadays, it is clear that it was one more Konjovic’s initiative or one more spontaneous authentic anticipation of coming phenomena in our art.


VI Towards postmodernism – 1970s ‘Art of gesture and action’ and ‘Byzantine cycle’ in ‘the art of 1980s’.

In1973, on the occasion of Milan Konjović’s 75th  birthday, a new exhibition was put on, in Novi Sad. Its author, Dr Lazar Trifunović, named it  ‘The Art of Gesture and Action’.  A frieze made of dramatically painted landscapes without realistic outlines was predominant. What dominates in these paintings is the impression of artist’s action and particular material existence of realized paintings – the postmodern art features which will start to live in the Serbian art in 1980s.

Milan Konjović passes the position of an anticipator and comes to the position of an authentic participant of postmodern tendencies in the middle of 1980s, when he creates his ‘Byzantine’ cycle. In these paintings, he cites and reinterprets, in a new neoexpressionist way, the Byzantine icons motifs. Of course, he adapts the motifs to his own conception. Konjović does not cite the motifs from the history of art. Paintings from the Byzantine iconographers are only  particular patterns and an initial spark for his creation where he masters a method from the current postmodern conception.

The basic conceptual idea of the new retrospective exhibition at the ‘Milan Konjović’ Gallery is to point out that Milan Konjović, with his great work, considerably influenced our 20th century art. His authentic work of art was based on particular pictorial, expressive and quite personal experience and interpretation of the world. This art constantly offered a great deal of initiatives with which Milan Konjović directed Serbian art to modern tendencies, pictorial consistency and authenticity. At the same time, through eighty-five years of his career, Milan Konjović achieved a unique pictorial  universe which even today acts as a relevant interpreter of the world and man’s secrets and sentiments.

by Sava Stepanov

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