The Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts is one of the oldest print biennials in the world, having been founded already in 1955 by a small group of ambitious cultural workers in socialist Yugoslavia. Through the creation of an international printmaking exhibition, they aimed to connect one of its centres, Ljubljana, to the larger European visual arts scene and beyond. Already with the first exhibition, the Biennial—headed by the director of Ljubljana’s Museum of Modern Art, Zoran Kržišnik—succeeded in bringing to Ljubljana several international names, among them the artists from the circle of the well-known École de Paris. The Biennial established a vital communication channel with the artistic milieus of the West, which was of key importance for the young Slovenian and Yugoslav artists. It also became one of the symbols of Yugoslav openness.
This (political) moment was essential for the success of the Biennial’s idea and its support from the local and state levels. After 1948 and the dispute with the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia had to reorganise itself and search for new alliances, to ward off isolation. What followed were several exceptionally tense years marked by the threat of a military conflict with the Soviet Union, economic and other difficulties as well as a relatively severe state political repression. Thanks to the proficient parallel communication with the Western bloc and, after Stalin’s death in 1953, even with the Soviet Union, the country escaped collapse and also managed to set up the foundation of its foreign policy. The Yugoslav strategy of a “peaceful coexistence” emerged. With the signing of the Warsaw Pact, the ideological poles were firmly divided. The threat of a nuclear confrontation between the superpowers hovered in the air, and the world lived in fear of a new, even more, destructive war. At that time, Yugoslavia chose a third, independent path.
With their proposal for a new, exceptionally ambitious international exhibition, the Biennial organisers were perfectly aware of the political moment. Thus, in 1955, the first Biennial was organised. The values of democracy and pacifism were at its core. At the same time, art became a tool and the exhibition a platform for the confrontation and encounter not only of diverse thinkers but, above all, of two fundamentally ideological poles.
If the participation of artists from Western Europe, the United States, Japan and other countries belonging to the Western art scene is well-known, we cannot say the same for the art from the Eastern bloc countries. The general political message promoted abroad by the democratic, wide national participation is acknowledged and emphasised; what’s missing are the specific details of this interesting and important part of the Biennial’s identity.
In the present text, I will define a few of the general patterns, trends and issues which appeared in conjunction with the question of the involvement of the Eastern European countries in the history of the Biennial. Subsequently, based on the established critical framework, I will focus on the participation of Romanian artists. I will present the stylistic evolution of the Romanian selection and the key artists who exhibited in Ljubljana, focusing especially on the events in the second half of the 1960s which marked a change in the artistic profile of the Romanian “pavilion.”
The Participation and Positioning of the Communist Countries in the Biennial
Even after the major tensions between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, several events—such as Yugoslavia’s opposition to the Soviet interventions in Hungary in 1956 and, especially, those in Czechoslovakia in 1968—seriously shook the diplomatic contacts with the Eastern superpower. Despite that, we can generally say that countries from the Warsaw Pact regularly participated in the Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts. Czechoslovakia and Poland were present in all of the exhibitions. The Soviet Union withdrew its participation only twice, in 1957 and 1959; Romania and Bulgaria rescinded each once, in 1961 and 1959, respectively; Hungary in 1957, 1959 and 1961; while East Germany participated only from 1961 onwards.
However, even with the very strict national frame, which had a politically comfortable connotation and emphasised pluralism and democracy, the space for manoeuvring, what we might call today the curatorial space, was very large. Especially in the earliest Biennials, many from the Eastern European “team” such as Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania were represented by a very low number of artists, sometimes even by only two or three. As such, unlike the artistic heavyweights—France, Great Britain, Italy, who counted in their midst more than ten artists each—they were unable to leave a greater impression. Additionally, the exhibition created a hierarchy through its arrangement of the works, that is, the arrangement of the national sections in the exhibition space itself. From the guidebook in 1967, we can see that the most prominent rooms of the ground floor of the Museum of Modern Art (mainly those left and right of the central entrance hall) were devoted to the countries which we count among the well-developed Western art centres. The representatives of the Eastern European countries, later also from the artistically less exposed Asian and African environments, were many times presented in the halls and rooms in the back end of the building and the basement spaces.
The more that we drill into the structure of the Biennial, the more specific the influences of the (cultural-) political processes on the exhibition become. An analysis of the international jury, which selected the (monetary, mostly symbolic) prize winners is very telling in this sense. In the international, carefully chosen company of five, six or sometimes even ten jury members, it was rare that more than one representative of Eastern Europe participated. Experts from the Soviet Union, the politically strongest country of the Eastern bloc, were not invited to be jury members in the 1950s. In the 1960s, they participated four times, between 1961 and 1967, that is, in a period when the contacts between the two countries were relatively good. After that time, perhaps because of the conflict between the two countries in light of the Prague protests, they were no longer present in Ljubljana. The smaller countries under a strong Soviet influence, those with stricter regimes, namely, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, did not have jury members representing them.
From the second Biennial onwards, a seat in the jury was “reserved” for a visual art expert from either Czechoslovakia or Poland. Among others, this can be attributed to the fact that in the second half of the 1950s both countries had gone through a political thaw which later allowed the alternative, unofficial art scene—oppressed in the Stalinist period—to breathe easier and began to open towards the West momentarily. Jury members from Poland, a country that had a more liberal regime into the 1970s, participated in the Biennial throughout. On the other hand, after the 8th Biennial in 1969, the Czechoslovakian representatives in the jury were no longer present, which could also be a consequence of the Prague Spring and the end of the more liberal politics in Czechoslovakia associated with it.
The awards also led to the greater exposure of certain artistic environments, as they followed the trend of awarding artists or movements established in the Western art world. Among the artists of the Eastern European countries, only two Czech artists received the greatest recognition, the Grand Prix: Adriena Šimotová in 1979 (the 13th edition of the Biennial) and Jiří Anderle two years later. While we find Polish and Czechoslovakian artists among the recipients of the highest international awards, Hungarian, Romanian and Soviet artists received mostly the less visible purchase prizes.
The Art of Eastern Europe: Official Contacts and Direct Communication
The organisers invited the artists to participate in the Biennial directly, that is, personally; there was also an open call, to which artists could send prints on their own, a jury then made the selection. The organisers could not or perhaps did not want to rely only on the competition. We know that before the first Biennial, Zoran Kržišnik had travelled to Paris and, with the help of compatriots living there, attempted to convince the leading European modernists to send some of their prints to Ljubljana. Elsewhere, the organisational committee “remotely” connected to foreign experts whom they trusted and invited artists according to their recommendations. Nearly without exception, those were people who through their medium of expression were embedded in the progressive art scene and distinctly active in the communication between the local context and the Western art space.
Not infrequently, the committee, if it wished to place on the list of participants new, mostly Eastern European and, from the 1960s on, non-aligned countries, turned to official channels, embassies, ministries, particularly the national societies or unions of fine artists. Because of the closed political situation of these countries or the diplomatic sensitivity of contacts with Yugoslavia for the country in question, no one expected them to sign up on their own initiative and/or have the possibility to participate.
The organisers were aware that the official selection would not reveal the most contemporary and most vital art; in this case, they also depended on the response and interest of the artists’ unions and other official organisations. Thus, this principle helped them in situations in which it was the only way to attain a country’s participation or, at least, until they could travel locally to visit studios, art schools, exhibitions and to establish personal connections.
Poland and Czechoslovakia, countries that felt more strongly the easing of the system at the end of the 1950s, were among the first from the Eastern European region with whom the organisers established personal contacts. In contrast, formal relations in inviting artists were persistently present in the communication with the Soviet Union; all the connections relied on Moscow and the intermediation of other cultural/political organisations. Interestingly, in their search for the more attractive productions, the organisers often partially avoided official channels, by adding a few names which they had reached through other sources to the official, more or less classical realistic socialist Soviet selection. For a short period, from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, the connection to the Estonian art scene, in particular, was very dynamic.
Romania and Yugoslavia: A Sketch of the Visual Art Cooperation in the Time of the Romanian Political Thaw
Before I focus on the presence of Romania in the Biennial, let us spend a moment on the question of the (cultural-) political relationship between Yugoslavia and Romania. In Zoran Kržišnik’s archive, MGLC preserves a confidential foreign affairs document, whose purpose is to define the contacts of Yugoslavia with its neighbouring countries in the field of culture, thus also with Romania. Along with addressing the roles of the large Serbian and Croatian minority communities in the border region of Romania, the document generally emphasises good and friendly relations between the two countries, especially because of the affinity of the Yugoslav and Romanian international political aspirations.
The author of the diplomatic report explains the meaning of the events in Romania in 1965—which saw, among others, the 9th Congress of the Communist Party and the ratification of a new constitution—events which tell about the country stepping out from under the Soviet shadow. In this document, the author determines that the unique Yugoslav model of the non-aligned can mean a considerable success for Romania’s independence, as through an alliance with Yugoslavia, the country could more easily fight for equal status in the international community, not only concerning the Soviet Union but also beyond.
Likewise, the report exposes the negative, internal political aspects of Romanian society. It evaluates that the entire spectre of life in the country is “subjected to complete centralisation and strict control.” Consequently, communication with foreign countries is under the complete subordination of the Party leadership. For these and other reasons, the seemingly positive relations between Yugoslavia and Romania had not yet come to their full expression in any particular field of cooperation, even in culture. Regardless, the report concludes with a call for a continued and intensified collaboration in all fields, including visual arts.
Following this appeal, in the field of visual arts, we can see more frequent exchanges of exhibitions in the second half of the 1960s. In 1965, Slovenian artist Marij Pregelj had a show in Bucharest; the following year a larger exhibition of contemporary Romanian art toured to Belgrade, Novi Sad and Zagreb. Romanian art was on view on an exhibition in Rijeka, Croatia, in 1969; Yugoslav printmakers returned the visit in 1972 with a show at the Dalles Hall in Bucharest. The next collaboration concerned the hosting of the Museum of Visual Art Galați, which presented works by Romanian artists from its collection at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Novi Sad in Vojvodina. Following this year, most likely also determined by the more closed Romanian foreign affairs, official exchanges were cut to a greater extent and re-established only at the beginning of the 1980s.
Along with the mentioned guest appearances and exchanges, international cyclical exhibitions were an additional opportunity for contemporary Romanian creators to present their work in Yugoslavia. Besides the Biennial of Graphic Arts, I must mention the biennial International Exhibition of Original Drawings, which, using the model of the Ljubljana Biennial, conceived an exhibition in the port town of Rijeka, Croatia, first taking place in 1966.
From the end of the 1960s many international biennials, above all printmaking, sprouted up in Eastern and Western Europe offering a frame in which Romanian and other Eastern European avant-garde artists could present their work and find a path to the international scene. Along with exhibiting in biennials already set up in the 1950s (Lugano, Tokyo), in the biographies of artists around and after 1970 we also find mentions of participation in the biennials in Eastern Europe (Kraków Biennial, est. 1966), Scandinavia (Fredrikstad, Norway, est. 1972), South American (Buenos Aires Biennial, est. 1968). We also find mention of the countries that we count among the centres of Western art (Florence, est. 1968; Bradford, UK, est. 1968). In this quickly growing network of biennials, the Ljubljana Biennial, because of its almost pioneering role and longstanding tradition and above all its reputation and international influence, was nevertheless significant for artists.
Romanian Artists at the Ljubljana Biennial
How did the prints of Romanian artists come to Ljubljana? If we consider the political and other circumstances, it is understandable that at first they were predominantly formally mediated. For example, in the 1965 catalogue, Kržišnik thanked the Romanian ambassador in Belgrade for the help in the organisation of the Romanian presentation. In 1967, the Romanian Union of Fine Artists appeared among the intermediaries listed in the engagement of the Romanian artists.
A step towards a different method of communication, which also corresponded with the changed Romanian political circumstances, took place in the period leading up to the next Biennial. The archive of the Biennial of Graphic Arts, which is kept by the International Centre of Graphic Arts in Ljubljana, preserves a part of the correspondence from December 1968 between Zoran Kržišnik, the secretary of the Biennial, and Ethel Lucaci-Băiaș, a Romanian printmaker and illustrator. From this letter, we can see that the secretary asked the artist for “selectorial” help in choosing the Romanian artists to appear at the Biennial. In her letter, the artist thanked Kržišnik for his trust, further writing that after visiting several studios she has sent an application form in Kržišnik’s name to three Romanian artists: Ion Bitzan, Şerban Gabrea and Ion Nicodim. In his reply, Kržišnik thanked her for her assistance, expressed his hope that the chosen artists would indeed send their prints, and personally invited her to the opening of the Biennial in 1969. 
The result of this collaboration was successful. With the help of Lucaci-Băiaș, all three invited artists, Bitzan, Gabrea and Nicodim, exhibited in the 8th Biennial of Graphic Arts in the Romanian section. The selection was rounded out by Ileana Micodin, who had already participated in the previous Biennial. The secretariat’s list of acknowledgements in the Biennial catalogue confirms the implementation of this principle of quasi informal “selectorship” in finding that year’s Romanian representatives, since, concerning Romania, we no longer find the embassy or the Romanian Union of Fine Artists, but Ethel Lucaci-Băiaș.
Artistic characteristics of the Romanian selections in the Biennial
How might we generally describe the artistic production of the Romanian artists who exhibited in the Biennial in the 1960s? In 1961, 1963 and 1965—when the movements of art informel, geometric abstraction, neo-Dada and pop art were in the foreground—Romanian art was still mostly more conservative. The prints, which were based on motifs we could classify as socialist-realist, ranged stylistically from classical realism to moderate formalism.
We can observe a certain shift in the Romanian selection already in 1965, in the 6th Biennial, and even more in 1967. While there are still a lot of figurative works, we seldom come across ideologically-charged images; there is more experimentation with formal elements. We can understand the award which Ethel Lucaci-Băiaș received as a sign that the jury (positively) observed this shift. Namely, in this period, Ethel Lucaci-Băiaș abandoned the social-realist motifs so characteristic in the previous editions.
After 1965, Romanian artists quickly took advantage of the period of improved relations and contact with the West. A reflection of this soon arrived in the Biennial, especially thanks to the mediation of Ethel Lucaci-Băiaș. In addition to the three invited artists who participated in 1969, in the following years, we see in the Biennial Wanda Mihuleac, Radu Stoica, Radu Dragomirescu and several other representatives of the heterogeneous Romanian contemporary art, from constructivist, conceptualist and other neo-avant-garde directions.
As one of the peaks of the avant-garde period in the Romanian selection, we certainly have to highlight the success of Ion Bitzan. Bitzan had been exhibiting abroad already since 1964 when he represented Romania at the Venice Biennale. At that time, he was still creating in a more or less socialist realist manner. After experiencing the West, his work took a turn towards an even more experimental direction, and he began to make abstract, constructivist works and projects. In the 1969 Biennial, he exhibited three prints from a series of colour woodcuts entitled Composition. Already in his first appearance at the Biennial, he received a purchase prize—most likely his first international recognition. Two years later, when the artist participated in the 9th Biennial for the second and last time, he exhibited even more experimentally conceptualist works. In Ljubljana, we could see the famous woodcuts Cordonnet non tendu [Unstretched Cord] and Cordonnet bien tendu [Well-stretched Cord], both interesting because of their unusual elongated format.
In the second half of the 1970s, the Romanian selection mainly built upon the foundations established in the neo-avant-garde turn at the beginning of the decade. The presentations remained strong, yet new names and directions appeared slowly since in each Biennial we came to know only a few new artists. In 1975, Adina Caloenescu first exhibited her characteristic cybernetic structures; after 1977, Ion Stendl also regularly participated in the Ljubljana Biennial.
Until the late 1960s, Romanian artists most often sent prints created in woodcut and linocut techniques, characteristic to Socialist Realism. Later, intaglio and, especially from the late 1970s, lithographic techniques were very common. Yet, for example, the exhibition also accepted the unconventional, offset prints of Wanda Mihuleac. Also worth emphasising is that numerous Romanian “avant-garde” exhibitors from the 1970s onwards were not specialists in printmaking. Rather, they dealt with printmaking tangentially or in the wider intermedia spectrum of contemporary art.
I do not have space here to compare the Romanian participation in the Biennial with that in other cyclical events and exhibitions in other countries from the end of the 1960s onward. Yet, I can conclude with an overall observation that, in the 1960s and 1970s, Ljubljana became a part of the widely branched international network of exhibitions, in which several of the most resounding representatives of the Romanian avant-garde proved and asserted themselves. In this regard, we can connect the Romanian involvement with the wider trend that we notice in the Eastern European selection of the Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s. The selections of Hungary and the Soviet Union, which until then had been artistically reserved, started to include avant-garde artists who attracted the attention of the organisers and the international juries. This “modernisation” trend is interesting from the perspective of the history of the Biennial since it brought new dynamics and contexts to the Biennial event. In the future, alongside a suitable critique of the Western-centric view on Eastern European art, it is necessary to investigate these processes further and include them in the history of the Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts.
Gregor Dražil is curator at the International Centre of Graphic Arts in Ljubljana, a PhD student and Assistant at the Art History Department, Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana.
Translated from Slovenian by Jana Renée Wilcoxen