Art as the locus of resistance to interpretation 

Raša Todosijević, akvarel, 2019.
Illustration: Raša Todosijević
Illustration: Raša Todosijević, watercolor, 2019.

It was as early as 1970s when it became clear that Raša Todosijević’s authorial approach simultaneously extended across a broad non-hierarchical diapason of media articulations, some of which had already been somewhat standardized, while others were still largely disapproved by conservative art critics, who shuddered at the possibility that something of the sort could even be considered an art medium. In the  text from 1976, titled “From the Street: Before the Introduction to History” the artist, witty as he was, made a list of everything he had to do in his artistic practice: “to cover myself in mud, swallow water, sprinkle myself with salt, paint my hands, run around, wash my feet,  torture fish,  paint ficus trees (in white), breathe like a carp, stand in place, disguise into an artist, think about history, note down profiteers, tease museums, write about revolution, hate art…”

This, however, mislead many museum practitioners and academic researchers of art history to analyse his oeuvre exclusively based on thusly defined spectrum of unconventional media. They were primarily focused on his performances, video works, installations, assemblages and written works, while his drawings and paintings were reviewed rather sporadically. The fundamental reason behind it lies in the fact that curators and researchers mostly analysed his work in pursuit of elements that would separate New Artistic Practices (they believed he was a representative of) from the aesthetic premises of the art of moderate modernism as well as the anti-modernistic artists, who professed restoration of integral painting. Critics of Todosijević’s artistic practice commonly believed in a unique evolution of art, whose main course developed from single-medium to multimedia artworks, from visual and figurative artistic approach to various manifestations of processual and performative art. In his texts, interviews and statements, Todosijević himself often insisted on breaking up with the paradigms that governed art during his studies of painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade. However, it would never lead to his renunciation of painting, but to modifications of his methods and motifs. Thus, in the catalogue for the exhibition “New Artistic Practice 1966-1978”, held in Zagreb, at the Gallery of Contemporary Art in 1978, Jasna Tijardović wrote that in the period when he intensively began to do performances (that is from 1973 to 1975), Todosijević simultaneously worked on the “production of paintings that he would define as elementary painting within the scope of elementary or post-aesthetic art”. At the time, these paintings were displayed in the exhibitions whose selection criterion required three distinctive differences in comparison with the rest of the painterly practice of the period. Subsequently, the paintings were designated as examples of post-conceptual, post-objective or primary painting. In this context, Todosijević’s paintings were exhibited during the 1970s in SKC Belgrade (1974), where he also staged some of his key performances, at the Salon of the Museum of Contemporary Art (1975) and the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Zagreb (1975). He used aquarelle, as a quick technique, to note down his random thoughts and ideas, which he would sometimes develop into broader concepts or translate them to other media, like in the series DA (YES) and God Loves the Serbs. In 2011, at the 54th Venice Biennale, the Serbian Pavilion presented his project Light and Darkness of Symbols, which alongside objects, photographs and installations, also featured drawings and watercolours. That same year, the publishing house Lom published the book titled Entrance to Paradise or the End of History, which comprised Todosijević’s “apocryphal stories of art” and reproductions of his aquarelles. The latest Belgrade presentation of his watercolours was the exhibition in the Ostavinska Gallery at the Cultural Centre Magacin in Belgrade, in February 2018. It was curated by Branislav Dimitrijević and put on display under the title Serbian Fine Arts, borrowed from Branko Vučićević. 

Illustration: Raša Todosijević
Illustration: Raša Todosijević, watercolor, 2019.

Art of Raša Todosijević

In the catalogue of Todosijević’s works published by Belgrade SKC in 1980, titled Great Southern Performances, Ješa Denegri observes the artist’s aforementioned stylistic, linguistic and media nomadism, attempting to define it in the scope of tendencies of the New Artistic Practices. He defined it as the use of “different media and methods of expression, in order to cover the broadest possible field for expression of personal ideas, stances and views, while consciously ignoring requirements for stylistic homogeneity as the fundamental distinctive feature of an authorial intention.” This aspect of heterogeneity explains why it is somewhat difficult to observe a clear pattern in Todosijević’s watercolours in terms of style or even motifs. More specifically, there is neither formal nor stylistic connection between his watercolours from the final decade of the last century presenting a cynical persiflage of the local Picassian tradition immersed in the great themes of the cult of the nation and the artist whom the nation admires and praises, and those recently exhibited, dominated by concreteness of the tangible effects of colour, surface and composition. The contemporary works bear no relation to the history of art or the social-political context. They are reduced to the pure pleasure of the painterly act – the pleasure of translating unconscious content to rather simple pictorial compositions, unburdened by rules or role-models, or struggle against them by means of avoidance. It may even be argued that they are products of the urge to continually evade, by a variety of means, any meta-linguistic intervention of theory and history of art.

These watercolours are not part of a project, and do not have a precisely defined background concept to convey; instead, they are simplified to their own concrete visual presence, imbued with emblematic elements i.e. the fragments of an artistic process that develops simultaneously with his other, project-oriented, approaches to work. If their existence demonstrates anything whatsoever, it is only the individuality of an artist who is not a slave to the principle of consistency and refuses to be nothing more than the “face” of a brand, which ensures uniformity and recognisability of all products that bear his signature.

Illustration: Raša Todosijević, watercolor, 2019.

These watercolours can hardly be adequately contextualised in relation to the tendencies of the 20th century abstract art, although, at first sight, the viewer might find them evocative and allusive in that they possibly carry some unintentional fragments of the decades-long artist’s commitment to studying art history, which his texts published in in the 1970s in the magazine “Art” clearly demonstrate. With regard to the artistic intention, these watercolours are neither comments nor homages, just as they do not derive from the attempt to evade external influences. They might be referred to as post-conceptual, but only in reference to the author’s previous experience in creating conceptual art and the epistemological rupture that, in the late 1960s and early 1980s, occurred on the level of general public perception and interpretation of art. Contemporary understanding of this attribute was established by Peter Osborne, in his book on art philosophy in 2013, where he argues that “post-conceptual art is not the name for a particular type of art so much as the historical-ontological condition for the production of contemporary art in general.” In that respect, these watercolours, by their very existence, on the one hand demonstrate that the ideals supporting pure, or analytical, version of conceptual art – regarded as anti-aesthetic and dematerialized – failed to survive in the historical sense. On the other hand, they also prove that their aesthetic potential is not necessarily something that will naturally relate them to painterly practices that had been dominant before the aforementioned epistemological rupture. It might be that their historical role is to be the locus of resistance to contemporary theory, to delegitimize the overuse of the dichotomies of neo-avant-gardes, and seek new linguistic models that would be able to properly articulate artistic contributions of authors such as Todosijević.

Stevan Vuković

Saša Marčeta Foundation 

Bulevar Maršala Tolbuhina 38 Beograd

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