Founded ninety years ago, Zemlja or ‘Earth’ was one of the most influential movements in the history of Croatian art. As this major exhibition demonstrates, the artists who came together under the Zemlja banner shaped a distinctive Croatian visual style that is still very much around today.
The main aim of the Zemlja group was to develop an art that could attract a broad public and also function as a critique of an unjust society. According to Zemlja, art should play a documentary role in recording what life in the then Kingdom of Yugoslavia was really like: it was no longer enough to idealize the peasantry as some kind of folkloric national bedrock clad in traditional costumes, you also had to describe rural poverty and do something about it. The other key aspect of the Zemlja philosophy was the creation of an authentically local art that would have local roots, and which would not simply be an extension of the latest art trend from Berlin or Paris.
Most talented painter of the group was Krsto Hegedušić (1901-1975), an artist committed to depicting the realities of rural and working-class life. Together with painters Juraj Plančić, Ivan Tabaković and Oton Postružnik, he arranged exhibitions which had a clear socialist message. They formed the Zemlja movement in 1929, with architect Drago Ibler writing the manifesto. ‘You have to live the life of your times’ it declared, ‘because art and life are one.’ Hegedušić was also was a key sponsor of the self-taught village painters of Hlebine in Eastern Croatia, nurturing a ‘naïve’ style of rural painting that remains one of the key trademarks of Croatian culture.
Being a member of Zemlja was a risky affair: Hegedušić was arrested several times in the 1930s for his left-wing beliefs, and after two big Zemlja exhibitions in 1932 and 1934, the association was banned. It was of enormous long-term influence however and represents a unique and powerful episode in Croatian art.