Ján Kralovičworks of art reflecting the broad range of contemporary viewpoints, with an emphasis on
“The aim of the exhibition Danuvius 1968 is to present works of art reflecting the broad range of contemporary viewpoints, with an emphasis on progressive approaches to the artistic questions of the day and the current problems of our era,” says exhibition commissioner Ľubor Kára in his foreword to the exhibition catalogue. From this very general observation, it is not clear what he means by contemporary viewpoints or problems. I thus find it necessary to first outline the factual characteristics of the exhibition, to place it in context, and to offer a critical assessment of its history. In an attempt at shedding light on the nature of Danuvius 1968, I have chosen to compare several exhibition reviews published in Czechoslovak art magazines after the exhibition’s conclusion.
The concept behind Danuvius 68
The Danuvius 1968 international art biennial was a survey of young artists (aged 35 and younger) whose aim was to act as a platform for the broader presentation of the domestic art scene and to confront it with international artistic tendencies. The idea for the exhibition was born from an attempt at following up on earlier presentations of young art held in Brno in 1958 and a broader survey held in 1966 in connection with an AICA meeting that was moved at the last minute from Bratislava to Brno. Danuvius was an exhibition of selected artists, who were invited by the exhibition commissioner and the organizing committee. All in all, nearly 120 artists participated in the exhibition at the Bratislava House of Arts, including 49 foreign artists. The exhibition opening was planned for 4 September 1968, but while the installation was still being installed, Czechoslovakia was invaded by the armies of the Warsaw Pact and the fate of the exhibition was thrown into doubt. In the end, the organizers agreed to put off the opening, and the exhibition was held from 18 October to 21 November 1968. During the exhibition’s final days, an international jury specifically assembled for Danuvius met to choose the winning works. Jurors included important art historians and theorists: Zoran Kržišnik of the Gallery of Modern Art in Ljubljana (chairman); Werner Hofmann, director of the Museum of 20th-Century Art in Vienna; French theorist and critic Pierre Restany; Czech theorist Jindřich Chalupecký; and director of the Slovak National Gallery Karol Vaculík. On the day before the exhibition’s closure (20 November), the jury awarded the various prizes: the Danuvius 68 Grand Prix went to Jozef Jankovič, and four additional awards went to (in no particular order) Getulio Alviani, Radomir Damjanovič-Damjan, Dieter Krieg and Miroslav Šutej. Besides these prizes, the jury also awarded five purchase awards (Stano Filko, Adolf Frohner, Alena Kučerová, Gianni Pisani, Martial Raysse). Three Slovak artists – Alex Mlynárčik, Karol Lacko and Jana Shejbalová-Želibská – protested against the August 1968 occupation of their country by withdrawing their participation. By not showing their works at the exhibition and by delaying the exhibition opening, Danuvius 1968 took on the added dimension of political and civil protest, an appeal for freedom as a basic foundation not just for art but also for a full life. Compared to other exhibitions at the time, one interesting difference was the attempt to connect the exhibition to the broader cultural context through a series of accompanying events. For instance, the exhibition’s run of more than a month included four film evenings featuring works by young Slovak (Jakubisko, Hanák, Havetta) and Czech (Brdečka, Kopáč, Schorm, Švankmajer) filmmakers, plus a section on literature (Bednár, Földváry, Janovic, Popovič).
The Danuvius 1968 biennial aimed to offer audiences new and fresh stimuli by presenting a shift towards intermediality and interactivity. The exhibited works stressed viewer participation (I. Štěpán) or presented new forms of (anti)monuments that depicted grotesque- existential feelings or pathetic uniformity (J. Jankovič). Kinetic sculptures (B. Gironcoli) or objects that interacted with a complex and synesthetic installation (S. Filko) reflected art’s liberation from the historically conditioned limitation of the various artistic media.
A critical reflection of the era
As has already been indicated, the exhibition was extensively covered in reviews and commentaries in the Slovak and foreign media. I will here take a closer look at three texts: Danuvius 68 – záslužný čin (Danuvius 68 – A Commendable Deed) by Ľudo Petránsky, Chalupecký’s Danuvius poprvé (Danuvius, Take One), and Pierre Restany’s Bratislava – ponaučenie o relativite (Bratislava – A Lesson of Relativity), published in the Italian magazine Domus.
In his text, Petránsky points out that the exhibition was essentially the first monumentally conceived survey of this size and format to take a look at young Czechoslovak art. In its manner of installation, it also emphasized the mutual relationship and differences between Czechoslovak art and the work of foreign artists. It clearly showed that a significant number of Czech and Slovak artists were still working with neoor post-surrealist painting, which was already fading away on the international scene. The article’s focus is thus on those artists with a more daring orientation on the psycho-physical experience. Stano Filko’s engaged installation, The Cathedral of Humanism, is a direct response to the events of the Prague Spring and the August invasion. A synthesis of object, projection, and sound, it is a stimulation work that pulls us in, arouses our interest, and uses media to reflect on everyday survival as conditioned by technological civilization. Petránsky identifies the principles of play and playfulness in Mira Haberernová and her puppet-like figures, and also in Ivan Štěpán’s installation Optitertial Stabiloid, which encourages the viewer’s physical participation. Petránsky writes positively about Bohuš Kuľhavý, who combined motifs of reminiscence from art history with contemporary Civilist collage-like reality. Petránsky’s text essentially summarizes and takes stock of the exhibition. He does not avoid assessments bordering on pathos, for instance when he writes about “progressive and engaged works that bear dramatic witness to our times.” Naturally, the article also looks at Jozef Jankovič’s winning work The Great Fall, which shows the artist’s attempt at provoking the viewer to form their own perspective not just of the work, but also when engaging in a more general reflection on the symptoms of experienced reality. The text makes frequent references to the exhibition as a reflection of new technological and civilizational problems, with the artists avoiding national or supranational subjects in favor of a humanistic message or even a “humanistic demonstration.” There are also references to the artists’ or the exhibition’s interest in cleansing art of commercialism – i.e., Danuvius as an alternative to commercially-oriented exhibitions and biennials. Danuvius was also a kind of symbolic culmination of the Sixties, a decade during which Slovak art no longer engaged in epigonic acts or tried to catch up with Western trends; instead it kept pace with progressive artistic tendencies.
In the introduction to his article in Výtvarné umění, Jindřich Chalupecký takes a critical approach to how the exhibiting artists were chosen. Because they were invited by the organizers, the exhibition remained closed to a broader range of artists. Of the foreign artists, Chalupecký writes positively mainly of the American Frank Stella and the Italian Getulio Alviani, adding that he missed a broader representation of, in particular, kinetic and luminist tendencies. One important attribute of the exhibition was its diversity and variety, and in this sense also the heterogeneity of the works. Vibrant abstract painting (I. Keserü) alternated with examples of new figuration (R. Němec, J. Načeradský) and sculptural works that did not try to flee into their own artistic fictions but that entered into open confrontation with the viewer (J. Jankovič, D. Králik). One distinctive, in Chalupecký’s view not fully represented, tendency was “cold” geometric abstraction (A. Biasi, M. Šutej), which he contrasted with fantastical neo-surrealist (A. Brunovský, V. Gažovič) or neo-mannerist works (J. Vožniak) that ran the risk of being excessively hermetic and closed-off, finding inspiration exclusively from within the art world itself. In his article’s conclusion, Chalupecký is critical mainly of the Czech works on display, noting their cautiousness and lack of follow-through, their unwillingness to risk, and conversely their tendency to build on what has already been well-proven. In his view, the Slovak entries were more open, partially as a result of their communicativeness and interactive nature.
Pierre Restany opens his text for Domus magazine by emphasizing the organizers’ immense efforts (especially Ľubor Kára) and their contribution to mak-ing this distinctive international exhibition a reality and thus placing Bratislava among other European capitals of art. The biennial, he writes, has succeeded in attracting young but already established domestic and foreign artists representing fragile kinetic (G. Colombo), chromatic (F. Stella), and minimalist-inspired object-relief tendencies (A. Bonalumi). Like the other authors, he notices the relatively broad representation of “surrealistic” tendencies especially among (Czecho-) Slovak artists (V. Gažovič), or also fantastical-Veristic works (J. Vožniak). In terms of its overall curatorial vision, he misses a more distinctive representation of kinetic art. One important theme of the article is the lack of participation – more precisely, the refusal to participate – on the part of three artists (Alex Mlynárčik, Jana Shejbalová-Želibská and Karol Lacko, although Restany fails to mention the latter). The second part of the text is a loose description, more a personal impression, of Bratislava and its art scene, intended for the “Western reader.” The text feels somewhat disjointed, as if Restany were trying to squeeze in not just a subjective assessment of the exhibition, but also his own personal experiences. In conclusion, he recalls his contacts to Prague, including the artists and exhibitions that he knows or has visited. Restany’s text thus tries to place Danuvius within the context of a broader social milieu, but paradoxically its “fractured” structure causes its message to dissipate into personal reflections and diverse, constantly branching associations.
Danuvius 37 years later ...
Based on information from the exhibition catalogue, from the aforementioned articles, and from smaller reviews published in the domestic press (e.g., Bohumír Bachratý, Ľudmila Peterajová, Juraj Mojžiš), we can describe Danuvius as a diverse though by contemporary standards “salonishly” conceived survey. Its aim was to, through select group of artists, present the artistic tendencies of the second half of the 1960s. Even though fantastical-Veristic, structural, or neo-surreal works hold an important place, they are gradually replaced by works that are more inspired by civilization – the attributes of technological civilization, “the folklore of the city,” or the visuality of everyday life. In retrospect, it is too bad that the artist Christo did not participate. He had planned to erect a giant object consisting of colorful oil barrels on a nearby square, but he could not find the right number of barrels and so the work remained only a vision. Another unrealized project was Mlynárčik’s megalith entitled LOLA – several 25-meter tall pillars that were supposed to be erected on the public square in front of the House of Arts. After the invasion on 21 August, however, Mlynárčik decided that he would no longer prepare for the exhibition.
The prizes, including the main prize for Jozef Jankovič, reflected art’s turning away from artificiality and self-absorption and emphasized its balancing act on the thin line between art and life. This trend was also reflected in the works that called for audience interaction, that encouraged or demanded a creative perceptiveness or even playful participation. Through some of the exhibited works (S. Filko, I. Štěpán), Danuvius thus hinted at the shift from the artwork-as-artifact towards the artwork-as-environment – i.e., art that works with the context in which it is received.
An exhibition of such size and with such international participation was not a common occurrence in our part of the world (nor is it today). The immense efforts of the organizers – reflected in part in the impromptu change in the exhibition’s dates – was “rewarded” among other things by the large number of visitors. For many years, Danuvius remained the last possibility for confronting Czecho-Slovak art with international works to such an extent. Unfortunately, the onset of Normalization meant that Danuvius 1968 remained the only installment of what had been planned as a biennial. Today is perhaps once again the right time to recall Danuvius and (taking a similar curatorial or thematic approach) to continue its legacy.
Ján Kralovič is a curator and theorist of art, and works at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bratislava.
Getulio Alviani Surface with Vibrating Texture, 1965−66, aluminium, 126 × 126 cm photo: Jan Ságl.
Bruno Gironcoli Object, 1967 polyester, photo: Jan Ságl.
Jozef Jankovič Great Fall,1968, combined techniques, photo: Jan Ságl.
View of the Exhibition Danuvius 1968 photo: Jan Ságl.