The Sixties in Zagreb

13 Jun 2018
Even though a cluster of fiftieth anniversaries has served to remind us of how far away the Sixties actually are,they still exert a huge influence over the European imagination. From indie bands to industrial designers, people still regard the decade as a source of creative inspiration. In many ways the Sixties represent the formative years of modern Europe: from music to TV shows, student revolt, fashion and sexual liberation, the main themes that we associate with the Sixties still inform the template we live by today. 

Appropriate therefore that most anticipated exhibition of 2018 was ’60 in Croatia: myth & reality in Zagreb’s Museum of Arts and Crafts. Opened at the end of April, it immediately struck a chord with the local public, attracting almost 10,000 visitors in its first month. The main thread of the exhibition is to display the objects that made up daily life – everything from kitchen utensils and coffee sets to glossy magazines and mopeds. It also tracks the art, design, photography and architecture of the period to show not just how culture changed, but also how culture became a central pillar of an emerging lifestyle in which books, plays, records and films became both more plentiful and more accessible. It was during the Sixties that a combination of economic growth and cultural freedom produced a flowering artistic culture in Zagreb, and much of what we identify as typically Zagrebian today – animated films, sassy pop music, edgy theatre, quirky contemporary art, and an architectural taste for the brutal – all took shape in this turbulent decade.

Recounting history in terms of decades is never a neat and tidy affair, and the exhibition actually kicks off in 1958, when the 7th Congress of the Yugoslav League of Communists resolved to put more emphasis on consumer culture and leisure.Economic reforms in the years that followed stimulated production of cars, record players, TVs and home furnishings – and helped ensure that people had enough money to buy them. The sacking of Serbian hardliner Aleksandar Ranković in 1966, and fierce criticism of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, indeed made it look as if socialism Tito-style was moving in a decidedly liberal direction. Student demonstrations in 1968, critical of increased inequalities in a society that was nominally supposed to be egalitarian, served as a reminder that left-wing idealism was alive and kicking among the young.

For outsiders, Yugoslavia was increasingly seen as an avant-garde socialist country that didn’t fit in with people’s preconceptions of what communist Europe was supposed to look like. Of course locals knew that things were slightly different: the Yugoslav League of Communists had a monopoly on power, criticism of the official political line was met with harsh discipline, and national grievances were frequently kept locked in a dark cupboard. However the world of culture, especially high-brow drama, music and art, was increasingly free, and it seemed to foreign observers as if Yugoslavia was a country well worth learning from. Croatia, geographically and culturally very near to the West, was one of the republics that benefitted most from this new atmosphere of exchange. Croatia’s capital Zagreb suddenly found itself at the centre of things.

A prime example was the Music Biennale, founded by Milko Kelemen in 1961 to showcase contemporary classical music. Kelemen made full use of Yugoslavia’s non-aligned position by telling the Soviets that they needed to send their best musicians to Zagreb in order to counter growing western influence; and then telling the USA that they should fund the participation of American musicians in order to counter the soft-diplomacy of the Soviets. The inaugural Biennale made a major international splash - the New York Times was so impressed they ran a half-page article entitled ‘Revolution in Zagreb’. John Cage was the star guest at the 1963 Biennale, famously crawling underneath his piano as part of the performance despite warnings from security officials that such avant-garde behaviour might start a riot. 

The international cultural community’s new-found interest in Zagreb was also in evidence at New Tendencies (Nove Tendencije), a sequence of exhibitions-cum-festivals that brought together local and international artists keen to explore the possibilities of new technology. There were four editions of New Tendencies in the 1960s, and by the end of the decade it enjoye worldwide renown as one of the prime platforms for computer art.

Another example of Zagreb’s hold on the international imagination was Praxis, the journal of Marxist theory that brought together all kinds of people who didn’t go along with the ossified Soviet model of socialism and were subtly critical of the Yugoslav model too. First published in 1964, Praxis organized summer schools on the Adriatic island of Korčula that attracted an international who’s who of left-wing philosophers - Herbert Marcuse, Jürgen Habermas and Erich Fromm were among those who caught the ferry to the cute medieval town before locking horns in intense ideological debate. 

Debates of a rather different nature filled the pages of Zagreb fashion magazine Svijet, a ground-breaking publication that boasted ambitious shoots, creative layouts, iconic front covers, and a lot of local talent in the design department. It also laid significant emphasis on what Croatian women could make at home: top fashion items were still quite difficult to get hold of in the shops, and you if really wanted to wear something stunning, you probably had to make it yourself. 

To a certain extent the lack of up-to-date consumer items in Croatian shops was compensated by the fact that Yugoslav citizens now had passports and were free to travel to the West. The Italian city of Trieste became the preferred shopping destination for generations of Croats, who came here to buy brands of jeans that couldn’t be found at home – alongside T-shirts, shoes, leather jackets, glossy magazines and the latest pop records. 

Croatia’s own pop industry was in full swing. The country’s first real singing star Ivo Robić had already made an impact in the late Fifties, even having an international hit with his song Morgen (which reached no. 13 on the US Billboard charts) in 1959. However it wasn’t until the mid-Sixties that a boom in record player-ownership created a mushrooming demand for vinyl records. One of Yugoslavia’s biggest record labels was the Zagreb-based Jugoton, who cultivated local acts as well as signing up the best of the talent from other Yugoslav republics. The marketing of local pop stars, coupled with an increased emphasis on record-sleeve design, turned Croatian pop into the shop-window of Yugoslav socialist society. In 1964 Jugoton even opened a chic new music shop at Bogovićeva 5 in conscious imitation of the record boutiques of Western Europe – the shop is still there, although it now shares space with a music-themed café.

In an age of popular culture and mass passions, one of the most significant symbols of Croatian identity was the football team Dinamo Zagreb. League champions in 1948, 1954 and 1958, they won the Yugoslav cup three times in the 1960s. Arguably their greatest triumph came in 1967, when they won the European Fairs Cup (forerunner of today’s Europa League) by beating another up-and-coming regional superpower, Leeds United. The next 15 years were a disappointment for Dinamo, and it wasn’t until 1982 that they raised another trophy. And as decades go, the Eighties turned out to be even more important than the Sixties in defining Zagreb’s character; but then that’s a whole different story…
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