The changing face of Croatian culture: an expert's guide

Jonathan Bousfield takes a cultural look at Croatia in 2018
Mamma Mia
By Jonathan Bousfield
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Croatia will be all around us this year, although not necessarily in the ways you might expect. Decked out in fake snow, the island of Pag stands in for the frozen Arctic wastes of Ridley Scott’s lauded new TV drama The Terror; while the Dalmatian holiday hideaway of Vis doubles as a Greek fishing village in musical rom-com sequel Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. Bits of Croatia too numerous to mention played locations from Prague to Pakistan in recently-aired BBC thriller McMafia. The fact that Dubrovnik is occasionally mistaken for Kings Landing or Canto Blight has provided stacks of new material for the city’s tour guides.


Croatia can make equally compelling viewing when playing itself. Director Dalibor Matanić is currently engaged in shooting a second series of Novine (“The Paper”), the Croatian TV serial that is one of the first ever dramas from Central and Eastern Europe to be picked up by Netflix. A gripping tale of power, corruption and lies set in the port city of Rijeka, it is a woozily atmospheric and utterly convincing attempt to create a new, locally rooted school of Adriatic noir. Rijeka, with its mixture of post-industrial melancholy and seaside swagger, is very much the star of the serial. Matanić’s next project is a six-part adaptation of Robert Perišić’s acclaimed novel Područje bez signala (provisionally entitled “The Last Socialist Artefact”), which will be partly funded with European money and is very much being made with export in mind.


Croatia arguably carried more weight as an international culture factory in the Sixties and Seventies of the last century, when its films, pop music and avant-garde art were exported not just to other Yugoslav republics but to most other European countries as well. It is a story partly re-told in the one bog blockbuster exhibition of 2018 (and the beneficiary of a massive jumbo-poster advertising campaign), The Sixties in Croatia: Myth and Reality, which runs at Zagreb’s Museum of Arts and Crafts until the end of September. The exhibition challenges the idea that Croatia simply imported pop music and youth revolt from a more developed West, demonstrating instead that the country’s burgeoning economy generated a modernist culture of its own. Looking at the range of popular magazines, album covers, fashion designs, architectural models, book jackets and theatre posters on display here, it’s clear that Croatia had its own look, a look that still informs the country’s culture today. The design of the exhibition is being handled by contemporary creative studio Numen/For Use, establishing an appropriate link between the Croatian modernism of yore and its latter-day inheritors.


One of the minor but telling stories to come out of this reexamination of the Sixties is that of the so called Praxis summer schools, when intellectuals and left-wing theorists from all over Europe descended on the island of Korčula for a vacation of theoretical chat organized by Zagreb Marxist magazine Praxis. The magazine did not always tow the ruling communist party line and played a creative, subversive role that fitted in rather well with the emerging culture of idealistic youth, long hair and jeans. It’s hard to imagine that Korčula – with its increasingly bijoux reputation and high-season prices - would be able to host such a gathering nowadays, but it remains an intriguing piece of tourist heritage nevertheless: Croatia’s Adriatic coast was not just an arena for hedonism and me-first narcissistic retreats, but also as a place where people could meet, exchange ideas, and think about the world as a better place.


Fans of Sixties architecture and design should also note that this year sees the fiftieth anniversary of the inception of Split-3, the apartment-block settlement that stretches east of central Split, and whose white geometric shapes provide the city suburbs with an instantly recognizable visual trademark. A planned quarter of residential blocks, pedestrianized walkways and local facilities such as kindergartens, schools and shops, it's the kind of place that is nowadays admired as an example of how modernist planning could create communities rather than simply uprooting them. The anniversary will be marked with an exhibition at the Vasko Lipovac University Gallery (appropriately, in the middle of Split-3), together with discussions, guided walks, and concerts. Now that the ancient heart of Split (uniquely beautiful though it is) has been taken over by tourist accommodation, wine bars and bistros, it’s arguably in places like Split-3, a discreet step away from the tourist trail, that an authentic local city still exists.


The modernist architecture that sprung up along the Adriatic coast in the Sixties and Seventies is often fetishized as ‘brutalist’ or ‘communist’, as if it was built by grey ideologists rather than professional architects and designers who had something to say. Many of the hotels and public buildings erected during this period were in fact well-proportioned geometric affairs designed to blend in to a Mediterranean environment of scrub and stone. There’s an understandable air of poignancy attached to those hotels which currently lie derelict, and tourist itineraries that bind together these lost masterpieces of Adriatic modernism are an increasingly big deal. The Motel Trogir project aims to provide tourist signage to help visitors find two of the most famous derelict hotels: Ivan Vitić’s Motel Trogir, which looks like a row of gargantuan bedside tables in the middle of a grassy wasteland; and Rikard Marasović’s Krvavica Chidrens’ Hotel near Makarska, a circular flying saucer of a building that’s a classic of its kind. “Buildings like Motel Trogir and the Krvavica resort have the same status as Trogir Cathedral in the sense that they are listed by the Ministry of Culture as monuments of national importance”, says Motel Trogir’s Nataša Bodrožić. “But, unlike the cathedral, they have been left in a state of decay.”


Ruined hotels and ambiguous leisure-zone landscapes are among the regular motifs in the work of Igor Hofbauer, currently the most internationally visible of Croatia’s graphic artists. Combining film noir, sci-fi, old-school horror and contemporary urban grotesque, Hofbauer is one of the few Croatian illustrators to have created an immediately recognizable visual universe of his own. His comic strip collection Mister Morgen has just been published by Conundrum in North America; while his gig posters, club flyers and illustrations are scattered all over the new, visually sumptuous history of the Močvara club (the full title is Močvara i priča o URK-u), available now in Zagreb.


Another book that fully deserves to be judged by its front cover is the sharply-designed Journey to Russia, by far the most exciting piece of writing to come out of Croatia in 2018 - despite being written by someone who died 37 years ago. An account of Miroslav Krleža’s 1925 trip to a youthful and turbulent USSR, it fizzes with acute observation, self-referential ruminations, and a writing style that’s so contemporary that you have to pinch yourself to remember that it’s actually ninety years old. Its appearance in English is largely due to the enthusiasm of translator Will Firth and Ivan Sršen of publisher Sandorf, who simply decided that this modernist non-fiction masterpiece deserved a global audience. If you want something genuinely different to read on the beach this summer, then look no further.

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