By Eda Čufer
So, what is the story behind this quite ugly poster created by the group of designers called Novi Kolektivizem in 1987?
This poster actually never made it to designated walls on the streets of former socialist Yugoslav federation. It was designed to promote and celebrate annual state holiday called Dan Mladosti, ‘Day of Youth’, dedicated to the birthday celebration of Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito. In the form of a proposal, it passed through the federal commissions and was selected as the best proposal and approved to be realised.
However, after the results of the selection got into Yugoslav media, a scandal erupted over the night, after a civilian, remembered as Grujic, an engineer, disclosed in a newspaper article, that the poster officially selected and confirmed by federal authorities was in fact an appropriation of a Nazi propaganda painting called Third Reich, painted by Richard Klein in 1937. The appropriated part is obviously the ugly naked man, while the Nazi symbols, present in the original painting were replaced by the symbols of socialist Yugoslavia: the German eagle with the dove (a symbol of peace), a Nazi flag with a swastika replaced by a Yugoslav flag featuring a star, and a Nazi emblem with the Day of Youth emblem. Grujic’s disclosure caused a huge public and political turmoil leading to the abolition of this constitutive and quite beautiful state holiday, announcing the beginning of the end of socialist Yugoslavia, which officially fell apart in 1991.
To be able to grasp the meaning and importance of this event from 35 years ago, we need to put things into historic perspective. Eric Hobsbawm defined the 20th century as a short century squeezed between 1917 and 1989, obviously giving real socialism and communism the status of the major force that shaped the century. As opposed to a “long 19th century” — extended to between 1789 and 1914 — shaped by industrial revolution, capitalism and imperialism.
Yugoslavia, a new country on the map of Europe from 1918, was a consequence of these major historic shifts. I identified four major players in the story of this poster. These are: Socialism and Communism, fascism and Nazism, Josip Broz Tito, and the art collective called NSK.
I assume readers all know a bit about the above-mentioned ideologies. Now, who was Josip Broz Tito? He became prominent as the leader and commander of a dual war fought over the territories of former Yugoslavia: against Fascist and Nazi occupation of the country between 1940 and 1945, and the Civil War against the royal, capitalist regime of the so-called first Yugoslavia. After the victory and foundation of the socialists, he served as President of the so-called second Yugoslavia until his death in 1980.
During his Presidency, he already in 1948 refused Yugoslavia’s obedience to Stalin and the Soviet Union, which put the country on the very special path between the East and West through the non-aligned political movement that he initiated. The consequence of Tito’s break with Stalin was also abandonment of social realism as an official style, and acceptance of modernism as the official cultural style of specific Yugoslav socialism and communism.
Now I will introduce the last player, art collective NSK. Novi Kolektivizem, the author of this poster, is one of the groups of a larger art collective called NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst), founded in 1984 in Ljubljana, Slovenia, by three constitutive groups: music-art group Laibach, founded in 1980, visual art group Irwin and theatre group Scipio Nasice Sisters, both founded in 1983.
As an act of consolidation of the three individual groups into a larger collective, the members founded the fourth group, design department Novi Kolektivizem. In 1984 I was a founding member of the theatre group and therefore became also one of NSK founding members. Like myself, the majority of NSK members were born in 1961. We represented a generation which did not directly experience WWII, Fascist and Nazi occupation and partisan communist struggle. Our perception of the past was transferred to us through the grand narrative of the heroic communist struggle, indoctrination and propaganda. We were raised under the ‘Pioneer’ flag. We were Tito’s Youth, designated to build a bright future for the country, gained through great historic struggle and many, many sacrifices. In 1980, when the country was 42 years old and we were about 20 years old, the majority of us came to the city from provinces, to study at the university.
The question that remains to be answered in conclusion is: how is it possible that Novi Kolektivizem won the contest for the total design of the Day of the Youth event in 1987? This poster is not only ugly, but it was also odd and anachronistic in its own time. We need to remind ourselves that the conventional grammar of design and visual-textual codes in Yugoslavia of the 1980s, were modernist, transitioning to postmodernist grammar, with NSK being the harbinger of this transition to postmodernism. By 1987, NSK practice was already critically and theoretically legitimised, most efficiently through the writings of the so-called ‘Ljubljana Lacanian’ group of theorists, which proposed psychoanalytical interpretation of the NSK phenomenon. Through consistent super-impositions of different and often clashing and irreconcilable visual codes, the NSK managed to trigger dormant contents of the collective unconscious, and by that supported and accelerated independently existing transformative forces of the society at large.
When the Slovene Youth Organisation (a mandatory socialist organisation of every Yugoslav Republic and an incubator of young Communists) got in line to organise the next federal Day of Youth Event, the leadership of young Slovene communists knew what they were doing by inviting NK and NSK to design the event. As being one of the Youth Organisations that worked closely with the Slovene Komunistična partija, in the country which most forcefully demanded federal political, social and cultural reforms, the Youth Organisation fed on NSK avant-garde radicalism, artistic immunity, and its ability to confuse commonly accepted collective narratives. Their target was the old communists who still held the power, and were suspicious to any attempt for the country’s internal reforms. They held on to their myths of an heroic past and ironically, those who sat in the commission that approved the poster, quite liked its aesthetics, which reminded them of the ‘good old days’.
Poster credit: Dan mladosti, by Novi Kolektivizem (NK) 1987