Stefana Djokic is a first year History of Art PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. Her PhD focuses on the role of art in US-Yugoslav relations during the Cold War, examining to what extent exhibitions of post-war US art in Yugoslavia were diplomatic tools, aimed at strengthening US-Yugoslav relations and transferring US cultural and political values to Yugoslav people. At the same time, her research investigates how Yugoslav politicians, critics and artists responded to US art and how the Yugoslav government instrumentalised art in foreign diplomacy.
As my PhD focuses on former Yugoslavia, I was very excited at the opportunity to spend two weeks in two former Yugoslav republics, carrying out archival research in the most important institutions, meeting with art historians and curators, now retired, who were involved in US art exhibitions in Yugoslavia, and engaging with local scholars who could share valuable insights on my research. I am therefore very grateful to the SGSAH and the Student Development Fund for making this fieldtrip possible.
My fieldtrip began on the 10th of May in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. It was my first time visiting Ljubljana and this small, charming city instantly won me over! I was able to cross the heart of the city by foot in less than 15 minutes, which made going to and from museums and libraries much easier. The Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) was first on my agenda (Figure 1). The MoCA is most notable for its Arteast 2000+ collection of East European avant-garde art, as well as for its extensive archives department. Bojana Rogina, Head of the Archive, kindly hosted me during my visit and went out of her way to assist me in using the Museum’s archive. It took me a few visits to go through all the material that the museum had documenting US-Slovenian cultural exchange: press-clippings, exhibition catalogues, letters and other correspondence, key texts by art critics in art journals, etc. I was able to collect missing material on exhibitions that I previously started to research, but more importantly, the archival research led to new discoveries of US-Yugoslav cultural exchange. For example, I learnt of several exhibitions of Slovenian and Yugoslav artists that were organised in the US in the 1960s and 70s. Also, I discovered new primary sources revealing US attitudes towards Yugoslav art and further evidence which contributes to a truer picture of how US art was received in Yugoslavia.
I also visited the International Centre of Graphic Arts in Ljubljana, which houses the archives of the Ljubljana Graphic Art Biennale, the world’s oldest biennale of graphic arts (est. 1955). The building sits on top of the Tivoli Park (Figure 2), so the scenic walk from the city centre to reach it was just the thing to prepare me for the next few hours of (laborious) archival research! Once there, I was able to look at important primary evidence documenting Robert Rauschenberg’s First Prize, awarded to the artist by the biennale in 1963. This is Rauschenberg’s very first European award, which has sadly been overshadowed by his First Prize in Venice, awarded a year later. I also engaged in stimulating discussions of the Graphic Art Biennale with Breda Škrjanec, the Museum Councillor and Gregor Dražil, a fellow PhD student who is researching the early years of the Biennale.
The most rewarding moments of my fieldtrip were the rare opportunities to meet with and interview long-standing art curators, art critics and historians who were active during the Cold War and who could really bring to life the exhibitions and events that I am researching. In Ljubljana, I was fortunate to meet with Aleksander Bassin (b. 1938), a leading Slovenian art critic and previous director of Ljubljana’s City Art Gallery. Bassin shared fascinating insights (and an anecdote or two) on Slovenia’s engagement with American art during the Cold War, as well as on the role of the Ljubljana Graphic Art Biennale.
I was also able to catch the exhibition Tomislav Gotovac in the City Art Gallery during my stay in Ljubljana (Figure 3). Gotovac is an important ex-Yugoslav artist who experimented with film and public performance. I was very glad to be able to see his works in person, as he is one of the artists that I am analysing in a chapter of my thesis about the influence of US art on Yugoslavia. Lastly, I also met with Dr Asta Vrečko from The University of Ljubljana, who shared with me her extensive knowledge of early 20th century Yugoslav art and with whom I have maintained contact since.
After spending a week in Ljubljana, I boarded a very small plane which took me to the bustling city of Belgrade, capital of Serbia. I didn’t have much time for rest, however, as the next morning I already found myself in the apartment of Prof. Irina Subotić, (b. 1941), the former curator of Belgrade’s Museum of Contemporary Art. She kindly invited me into her home, where I was able to interview her and ask questions about US art exhibitions in Yugoslavia during the 1960s and 70s. We shared some refreshing mint tea, which she had picked from her garden, and through our conversation I was able to gain a deeper understanding of several issues concerning Yugoslavia’s relationship to US art and culture. For example, she revealed how artists and art curators, such as herself, experienced the implications of President Tito’s attacks of abstract art in 1962, which he had called an “imposter”.
My next stop was the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) in Belgrade. This was a long-awaited visit for me, as the MoCA had only recently re-opened its doors to the public, after it was closed for ten years due to a major reconstruction. I was greeted by Aleksandra Mirčić, Head of the Department for Art Documentation, who advised on how to effectively conduct research in the Museum’s archive and who was there to answer any questions. The Museum’s archive had extensive material on all the exhibitions of US art that it had hosted during the last seventy years (Figure 4) and I was very glad to discover a lot of new material, which will inform several chapters of my PhD thesis.
Another important institution that I visited in Belgrade was the Archive of Yugoslavia. This was my very first time visiting the archive, and one of my supervisors (Dr Vladimir Unkovski-Korica, who was also in Belgrade at the time), kindly accompanied me on my visit. It took me several hours to get through two very large boxes filled to the brim with documents (Figure 5), but the outcome was very rewarding: I discovered several unpublished papers reporting on the ideological and political aspects of US-Yugoslav cultural relations. I plan to closely scrutinise these sources in the coming months, hoping to draw new conclusion and arguments for my research.
To conclude this blog post, I can say with confidence that this fieldtrip has been a very formative and rewarding experience. While it may have been at times exhausting, as I rushed from one institution to the next trying to get as much done in the short time that I had, I succeeded in effectively conducting archival research and collecting primary sources that I would never have had access to in the UK. While these sources are vital evidence for my research, of equal importance are the very interesting and informative conversations and interviews that I had with different people. I have made significant progress in my research and have returned to Edinburgh feeling more confident and better prepared for my First Year Review. I would strongly encourage any PhD student who needs to undertake an archival fieldtrip to do so as soon as possible. This is the best way to immerse yourself in your research, to really advance your ideas and to gain more confidence about your work. Accordingly, I’d like to once more express my sincere gratitude to the SGSAH Student Development Fund for all their help and support with my PhD research.
We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with David via email at email@example.com or connect with the blog on Twitter