Zemlja, New Tendencies and Matko Meštrović: toward an intellectual history of art in Croatia

written by Ivan Rupnik


During the long and open ended investigation of architecture and urbanism in Zagreb that would ultimately culminate in Project Zagreb: Transition as Condition, Strategy, Practice, two cultural phenomena served as key loci through which trans-local discourses intersected with local strategies and practices engendered by the permanent transition condition that continues to define the Croatian context, Zemlja, for the interwar period, and New Tendencies (Nove Tendencije) for the postwar period. Initially, their link, for me, was intuitive. Subsequent projects have continued to bring further clarity to their significance. Through my growing familiarity with the theories of Ljubo Karaman, these two cultural phenomena also grew clearer when viewed through his lens of the freedom of the periphery, where local masters were able to synthesize discourses from multiple centres in ways that would not be possible there or in a provincial context. Building upon Karaman’s theory, I added a new concept, that of the peripheral moment, refining his spatial theory into a spatial and temporal one, in trying to understand how a generally provincial context (a place or a period or both) briefly transforms into a peripheral one. While this was initially developed to understand the prolific, albeit brief period of architectural innovation which occurred in Croatia between the end of the Homeland War and the production of the Teglenica, a similar theoretical framework can also be applied to Zemlja and New Tendencies.

Nearly a decade after Project Zagreb, I returned to the subject of Zemlja through my work on the tenth CIAM congress, held in Dubrovnik and organized by Drago Ibler. Ibler’s role in framing the discourse of that important event grew directly out of his earlier role in framing the discourse of Zemlja as a kind of synthesis of tendencies in art and architecture during the interwar period. My return to the topic of New Tendencies was enabled a year later through my contribution to Zagreb's Museum of Contemporary Art’s retrospective exhibition of the work of Vjenceslav Richter, another architect who played an important role in directing the discourse of a movement dominated by artists. It was through this research on Richter that I was also able to study the writings of Matko Meštrović, especially a previously unknown correspondence between him and Douglas MacAgy, an important American curator and critic, which was included in a small exhibition at the Richter Collection in October 2017.