This examination of the graphic design of Dalibor Martinis follows a series of recent exhibitions that have broached the theme of the relation between design and neo-avant-garde art, focused specifically on Conceptual art or the New Art Practice of the 1970s, on at least two levels. The first level is concerned with the problem of the historiography of Croatian design, from which the names of designers whose work is mainly related to the area of visual art will quite often slip out of sight, although they have left a high quality and, in some cases, very substantial body of work in design. This is partly a question of discontinuity in design activity or lack of interest, and it is partly probably connected with the fact that the generation that came to maturity in the late 1960s or early 1970s did not, unlike the previous cohorts, great modernist artists and designers like Ivan Picelj, draw on the conception of synthesis, the functional integration of the disciplines. Actually, it could not have done it, as is shown by another level, which concerns the artistic worldview of the generation, which in this country is often indicated by the phrase New Art Practice, explicitly calling into question the traditional understanding of art, the artist and the work of art. Critical in its attitude to institutions, recognising the social and political dimension of art, it abandoned the ostensibly neutral but in fact deeply ideologically marked gallery venues for the street, public and media spaces, the sphere of everyday life.
“Art that resisted the cult of originality and uniqueness is easily identifiable in multiplication, repeatability, its relatively democratic appeal and the ephemerality of the graphic design artefacts.”
Hence it is not difficult to understand that for artists like Martinis, Sanja Iveković, Goran Trbuljak, Jagoda Kaloper, Gorki Žuvela, and others, graphic design was attractive not only for the practical purpose of earning a living but for reasons of tactics and programme. Art that resisted the cult of originality and uniqueness is easily identifiable in multiplication, repeatability, its relatively democratic appeal and the ephemerality of the graphic design artefacts. Some of the key works of conceptual art of the early 1970s in Croatia accordingly came into being in the medium of the poster (Trbuljak), publication (Iveković), pamphlets and artist’s books (Group of Six Artists), and the whole scene built up an informal communication network via artists’ periodicals, using the network of existing youth organisations, student newspapers and cultural journals. This naturally does not automatically mean that anything of this work had pretensions to be design – on the contrary, quite the opposite often holds true – but it did beyond doubt make use of the resources of graphic design or design as an instrument. Today Dalibor Martinis says that his generation saw in graphic design a chance for “an expanded field of activity” and yet this does not at all mean that their professional design works were an extension of their “artistic” activity in the way this is to be seen in the paradigmatic example of the oeuvre of Ivan Picelj, rather that they do potentially dwell in the same space of debate and communication.
Like many others before and after him, Dalibor Martinis had his first job as a designer in what was called the “youth” press. In 1971, with Gorki Žuvela, he designed the newly formed youth magazine TLO, and later during his career, he designed several publications and many catalogues. However, the main part of his design work consists of exhibition and film posters done from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, at which time Martinis mostly quits design. Perhaps a little ironically, the 2016 retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb – which convincingly and deservingly placed this artist as one of the pioneers of and central names in Croatian conceptual and media art – included none of his graphic design work. The exclusion of his design work happened in spite of the fact that the central national contemporary art institution probably owns a greater number of his poster designs than his purely artistic works. It was actually his work for the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Zagreb (Galerija suvremene umjetnosti – GSU, which has since evolved into the Museum of Contemporary Art), that constituted in terms of scope the biggest and most consistent unit in Martinis’ production as designer.
“This poster not only establishes an attitude towards the topic of the exhibition from an oblique viewpoint – the theme being artistic interventions in urban space – but itself effectively participates as one of the exhibits”
As early as 1971, he did his first poster for one of the GSU’s programmes: for the exhibition Possibilities for 1971, which he also took part in as an artist. As “a pure visual sign”, this poster is seemingly still in the line of the high modernist approach to poster design that was established and promoted in this country by artist and designer Ivan Picelj. On the other hand, with its modular structure, it almost literally refers to the aspiration of a young author to extend the format of the poster concerning both form and content.
The first module of the poster has all the textual information; all those to follow, with the same geometrical structure can, depending on what is wanted and what is possible, be repeated when the poster is pasted up and take over the space ad infinitum. This poster not only establishes an attitude towards the topic of the exhibition from an oblique viewpoint – the theme being artistic interventions in urban space – but itself effectively participates as one of the exhibits, which comes out clearly in the newspaper photograph of Jesuit Square where, in the foreground, we can see a piece by Jagoda Kaloper, and in the background, on the wall of St Catherine’s, the Martinis poster.
In its way of thinking, its attitude to the poster medium, and in the intention of intervening with the poster in the exhibition concept itself, the one that comes spiritually close to the Martinis’ poster Possibilities of 1971 is the masterly handling by Boris Ljubičić for the 7th Zagreb Salon of 1972. His poster consists of narrow red bands that in the intervention are spread, marked and united with the space of the city.
In 1973, Martinis produced several, self-initiated conceptual posters, artistic in the narrow sense, connected in certain elements with creations from his series of works entitled Counterfeits. But while the Counterfeits were a collage intervention in the maps of the city streets (on tram tickets that then contained a map of the tramlines in Zagreb) and a map of the very cosmos (the second Counterfeits were done on star maps), these posters were an intervention in the urban public space itself of the city, and took issue with the situation in the cultural and public space of Zagreb with messages that are today just as current – Why is there nothing on in the cinemas? Why is Zagreb so filthy? What about the funicular? – forty years later and there is still nothing on and the streets are still filthy. The funicular, true enough, works, but many other public services do not – like for example the cable up to Sljeme.
A bit later on, Martinis printed the then standard postal form for the submission of telegrams enlarged to poster format, upon which he intervened with various handwritten messages that he considered necessary to send. While one of these “telegrams” still in existence was addressed to Marshall McLuhan with the message The Medium is the Message is the Medium… while another is empty, and under the heading marked Number of Words only “none” is written.
“Usually, at issue are interventions in “media” space or putting it into a direct cause-and-effect relationship with an action or an order of things in the real space. Anything can be a medium, from the technology of the video to the unpredictable algorithms of the financial market.”
It is not easy to briefly describe all the subjects that Martinis, as an author, has been interested in since the seventies. In general, the topics concern the status of the artist and art, the conditions of art’s institutional representation, the problems of communication in the public and media space, issues of the relations of the natural and the technological, the biological and the technological, the living and the media-mediated, the discrimination of real and virtual, objective truth and media-created illusion. He himself often uses copying, reproduction and repetition, recontextualisation and media manipulation, changing the meaning and upending the sense of a message at first glance perspicuous.
Usually, at issue are interventions in “media” space or putting it into a direct cause-and-effect relationship with an action or an order of things in the real space. Anything can be a medium, from the technology of the video (Open Reel) to the unpredictable algorithms of the financial market (Variable Risk Landscape). Therefore, there is nothing surprising in – thanks to the mediation of Matko Meštrović and Centre for Industrial Design (Centar za industrijski dizajn – CIO) – Martinis and Sanja Iveković having been given the task of doing the graphic design in the mid-seventies for the TV graphics for Radio Television Zagreb, during the ongoing redesign of the visual identity of RTZ. The TV graphics, which ironically have an interventionist function in the television medium, that is, letting the viewer know that the programme has been interrupted, or that there is some technical issue in the broadcast, a suspension of the flow of media images, proved to be an ideal material for these two authors. What is more, one of the leading curators and art critics of the time, Marijan Susovski, then wrote that Martinis and Iveković, the designers of the RTZ graphics, “had created the best examples of television graphics in the seventies on Zagreb television”.
In the context of the relation of design and visual art, one should not forget that in our milieu at that time, right up to the foundation of the School of Design in Zagreb (1989), there was no chance of any integral formal tertiary level education in design; the fact that designers were mostly recruited from among artists and architects is not at all exotic. The rare exceptions come from the single generation trained at the Academy of Applied Arts and are only conditionally considered as designers, and a few who were trained or did further studies in abroad, like Željko Borčić and Danijel Popović. It is in this light that one should consider the fact that these authors (including Martinis) have no particular interest in or inclination for typography. This kind of interest appeared only in the case of Mihajlo Arsovski, who was also self-taught in the area of design. The seventies were, what is more, still an age in which Helvetica was omnipresent – because of the domination of the ideology of high Modernism and for the objective reasons of the relatively meagre selection of fonts in printing shops, whether letterpress or phototypesetting is concerned.
“If for somewhat older authors, like Picelj, the poster was purely a visual sensation, an autonomous form that primarily functioned as a signal, not as illustration or explication of an exhibition, Martinis went a step further, setting up an active intellectual and critical relationship with the contents and themes that he was interpreting on the posters.”
One other aspect in which Martinis’ work in the design field was characteristic of the period is that it was completely dedicated to working for clients in the area of culture – for the GSU, the Workers’ University, Jadran Film and so on. From 1974 to the late eighties, not including the break of 1978 to 1979 which he spent in artist residency in Canada, Martinis continuously designed posters and catalogues for what was after all the central contemporary art institution in Croatia, the Gallery of Contemporary Art, succeeding in these tasks the work of major figures of Croatian and Yugoslav graphic design, such as Ivan Picelj, Mihajlo Arsovski and Zoran Pavlović, alternating with members of his generation, Boris Bućan, Goran Trbuljak, Željko Borčić and Mladen Galić. The Gallery of Contemporary Art, as an institution, at that time, like the Students’ Centre Gallery, kept up to date with, promoted and supported progressive and new art practices that came out with open criticism against that same kind of institutional framework for art. Although Martinis approached his tasks as a designer, including those under the aegis of the GSU, extremely professionally, keeping his own concerns at a distance, it was in this very stimulating polemical atmosphere that many posters were created that were, by today’s way of thinking, fairly subversive. If for somewhat older authors, like Picelj, the poster was purely a visual sensation, an autonomous form that primarily functioned as a signal, not as illustration or explication of an exhibition, Martinis went a step further, setting up an active intellectual and critical relationship with the contents and themes that he was interpreting on the posters.
This can be most simply illustrated with the posters for the Victor Papanek exhibition Design for the New World and the exhibition of the famed French conceptual artist Daniel Buren. In the first case, he plunges into Papanek’s hugely influential discourse about the ethical priorities of design as a profession. Since, paraphrasing Papanek, design is the most powerful tool man uses today to shape his environment, Martinis took a dry-transfer lettering sheet of Letraset, the common instrument of every graphic designer of the time, and re-formed it with feigned naivety into a tool for the “socially responsible graphic designer”, inserting instead of letter characters, a pictorial sign of poverty in different standard sizes. Interestingly, a few months later, this same poster appears in the photography used for the poster for Daniel Buren’s exhibition. Buren’s work is recognisable for its use of coloured stripy patterns that he applies in various public or gallery spaces to draw attention to (among other things) the tense relation of art and its immediate physical and social setting. Martinis recognises a similar striped pattern on a mattress in his flat of the time and photographs this kind of found situation, symbolically framing the pattern on the photograph to suggest to the viewer that, in some way, he has found something similar to Buren at his own home. In any event, on the lower margin of the poster in little letters is written the note that “the framed part of the photograph does not represent the work of Daniel Buren”. This approach seems cheeky and provocative, but the well-informed observer will not fail to notice the fact that Buren’s stripes, as sign, are themselves appropriated from everyday life and mass production (a popular and widespread textile pattern). Apart from that, several of the artist’s theoretical texts on the theme of the museum, the status of art, the relations between theory and practice and the issues of reality and illusion that were to occupy Martinis himself right up to the present day were printed in the catalogue of the same exhibition.
Most of the Martinis’ catalogues for the GSU, unlike the posters, where there is always a dialogue between designer and content that is to be designed, give a relatively conventional impression in their design and are not particularly ambitious. The reason for this was probably the institutional convention that the curators, and clearly the designers too, abided by. According to this, a comment was allowed and even desirable on a poster, while a catalogue was an objective publication the main purpose of which was informative and documentary. On the other hand, they also reflect in this something of the spirit of the art that the GSU was promoting at that time. The first change that Martinis brought into the design of GSU exhibition publications was the move from the high Modernist square format that was established by Picelj to the simple vernacular A4 format, which is economical for printing and photocopying, non-elitist and widely used in everything from private letters to stationery, bureaucratic forms and ultimately also for the characteristic textual statements of conceptual artists of the time. The first catalogue, in which he announced the change, for the Ivan Kožarić exhibition, is in this sense a clear designer and artist statement – a square excerpt out of the A4 format was still designed on the model of the Picelj standard, while the surplus up to the end of the format was filled with the designer’s comments on the actual exhibition.
“These are visual jokes expertly told – the main character of Bravo Maestro killed by his own success, squashed like a mosquito by clapping hands, while in the protagonists of Samo jednom se ljubi the iconographies of socialist realism and cinematic melodrama clash schizophrenically.”
In parallel with his work for the GSU and other cultural institutions, Martinis also did film posters for the domestic cinematic industry, primarily for Jadran Film and much-featured auteurs like Rajko Grlić (Bravo maestro , Samo jednom se ljubi [You love only once, 1981], Štefica Cvek u raljama života [Štefica Cvek in the jaws of life, 1984] and Lordan Zafranović (Okupacija u 26 slika [Occupation in 26 pictures, 1978], Pad Italije [The Fall of Italy, 1981], Haloa – praznik kurvi [Aloa: Festivity of the Whores, 1988]). Film posters are regularly, not only in our milieu, relatively conventional, the most conservative poster genre even, resulting mainly from the commercial interests of the production companies that insist on the use of recognisable figures of actors and scenes from the films. And while some of his posters really are in this sense formulaic, some of them, especially those with special purposes, printed for the showing of domestic films at big world festivals, are outstanding achievements in which Martinis experiments with the very medium of the poster, without losing sight of the poster’s as a product for the market.
In some of the most interesting examples – like Samo jednom se ljubi and Bravo Maestro, printed in the very large size of 140 x 200 cm, and in the somewhat more conventional Kud puklo da puklo [Which ever way the ball bounces], the posters are conceived as animated sequences in which the upper and lower halves of the poster function as two frames in a sequence, or as two contrasting situations juxtaposed to each other. These are visual jokes expertly told – the main character of Bravo Maestro killed by his own success, squashed like a mosquito by clapping hands, while in the protagonists of Samo jednom se ljubi the iconographies of socialist realism and cinematic melodrama clash schizophrenically. A similar procedure is used in some of the exhibition posters (e.g. in the one made for the Ivan Kožarić exhibition in the GSU in 1975), and was also in a way applied to the final poster for the exhibition Animation dedicated to the Zagreb School of Animated Film held in GSU, organised by Zagreb Film in 1974. In both versions of the poster, Martinis identifies the principle of the rapid interchange of images in cinematographic animation with the sexual act. In the unofficial (but nevertheless printed) version this is shown literally, while in the official, but not much less provocative version, it is suggested by the strategically placed overlapping of two phases of what is, in fact, an entirely static animation of the actual logotype of Zagreb Film (the technical of classic cell animation with sheets of celluloid is simulated by the overlapping).
There is a certain formal difference between the design works of the 70s and the 80s. In the design oeuvre of Dalibor Martinis we can in his individual way notice the same diving line between, so to speak, the late modernist and the postmodernist period, as in the posters of the much more famous poster artist Boris Bućan. In the posters for the GSU of the 80s, we can easily see the postmodern turn. We can spot a kind of symbolic watershed in the poster for the exhibition Primary Painting at which he takes the motif of the Milan Vulpe’s trademark for Chromos Ltd, in the form in which at the end of the 50s it was placed on Republic Square as one of the first animated neon adverts in Zagreb. As on the poster for the Possibilities for 1971 exhibition, the place of artistic interventions in public space was occupied by a minimalist stylisation of road lines, in 1983 the painter was replaced by the house painter, that is, there was no essential difference between the house painter and the (artistic) painter (who in primary and analytical painting tests out the elementary postulates of the actual act of painting).
Interestingly, this approach started precisely in the years when Milan Vulpe himself, a well-known graphic designer of the 50s and 60s and one of the pioneers of modern graphic design in socialist Yugoslavia, disappeared from the purview of the domestic design scene. The attraction and meaning of this motif for Martinis are confirmed by the fact that he referred to it several times in his artwork. In 2009, for instance, in his installation Artist at Work recreated on the facade of the newly opened MCA. After the poster for the Primary Painting exhibition (1983), instead of the earlier dominant vertical (portrait) format he regularly used the landscape (horizontal) (the kind that Picelj too applied in a series of posters for GSU exhibitions in the early 60s, moving in the middle of the 60s to the vertical format that from then on became a standard for other authors who designed posters for the programmes of the Gallery).
The first half of the 80s was the time, after all, of what was called the New Image, the trans-avant-garde, the painting of memory, neo-Expressionism… concepts and names of artists that we shall easily spot on Martinis’ posters of the time, and he felt that the landscape format corresponded best to the idea of the painting. Martinis, an artist of different orientations and interests from those of the then dominant “return to the image and painting”, has a clear and critical distance from these phenomena, often from artists for whose GSU exhibitions he did posters. He points this out as one of the reasons for his loss of interest in this kind of job, but also as a spur to some quite uncommon approaches.
For example, in posters such as those for the Minimalism exhibition (1983), and the solo shows of Edita Schubert and Radoslav Tadić (both in 1984) he inserts in the symbolic space between the viewer and the content that the poster communicates simplified silhouettes of observers. On the posters for the last two exhibitions only the painting works of these artists are reproduced, which in the earlier period Martinis had avoided practically as a matter of principle, but added to them is one more meta-layer indicating the process of looking and its institutional mediation, which can be connected with his performance Custodian at the Exhibition (1976)
“These posters from the 1980s, however many formal traces of the time, today clearly visible, were present in them, constitute at a temporal distance one of the more interesting and independent forms of postmodern stylisation of the 1980s in our milieu.”
In the preparations for this exhibition and the selection of the exhibits, Martinis preferred the older posters, and had a somewhat ironical attitude to those that were “post-modernist”. Still, these posters from the 1980s, however many formal traces of the time, today clearly visible, were present in them, constitute at a temporal distance one of the more interesting and independent forms of postmodern stylisation of the 1980s in our milieu. Here, along with the already mentioned posters of the first half of the 1980s, a particular place is claimed by a series of posters for exhibitions representing various nations (New European and American Drawing, Young Cuban Painters, Contemporary Finnish Art, Painting of Memory, French Painting 1960-1985, New Austrian Art, Onze de France [Eleven from France] ), powerful in their graphisms, often with the arbitrary repetition of always the same elements or textures that literally migrate from one poster to another, then to a third and so on.
Although we are not necessarily concerned here with his last productions as designer (the artist himself is not in favour of them), this kind of dispersion in the medium (of the poster) seems to be a finishing touch to a body of work in design that from the very beginning aimed at the destabilisation of the border between design and the content it was interpreting and that so much addressed the process of perception that was unfolding on that border – up to the moment in which the designer himself was no longer needed and we were left with the poster, which produced itself ad infinitum.
Authors: Marko Golub & Dejan Kršić