By Darko Glavan | In spite of the seemingly radical deviations and experiences, the artistic oeuvre of Croatian artist Josip Butkovic retains an outstanding consistency in his chosen means of expression—the print—as well as in the selection of motifs from his immediate surroundings. The three decades’ worth of printing strategies and unorthodox methodologies developed by Butkovic markedly affect the innovative approaches seen in his country’s contemporary printmaking culture.
During his final years as an art student in the late 1970s, throughout his post-graduate work and into his tenure as the founder and Chair of the Department of Printmaking and Drawing at the College of Education1 in Rijeka, Croatia, Butkovic systematically produced two series: Houses and Beaches. Soon after they were completed in the early 1980s, the works attracted the attention of Rijeka art critics. In 1984, Radmila Matejcic stated that it was impossible "to separate technique from formal treatment" in Butkovic’s art. Still more farseeing was her remark about the processual nature of his approach:
Between himself and the plate, Josip Butkovic has created a subtle contact; sometimes, when he holds the matrix, it seems they are united; that the surface of the plate forgives him the injury that he has inflicted with his incisions and etchings, and he seems to ignore the whimsies of the plate that might be frolicsome while the impression is being pulled.2
Leading Rijeka art historian Berislav Valusek found lofty intellectual kin for Butkovic, including figures such as Giorgio de Chirico, Carlo Carra and Giorgio Morandi. Valusek noted the unique method of “spatial articulation” within Butkovic’s composition. According to the art historian, "The planes suggested by the foreshortening of the pebbles in the perspective are at odds with the setting in which they are placed (an empty, undefined space or broad and dark areas)," and "This inversion of the spatial coordinates contributes to the surreal and sometimes metaphysical reverberations."3 I am also inclined to accept Valusek's evaluation that the "dehumanized spaces” (i.e. the absence of human beings) of Beaches and Houses provoke “metaphysical atmospheres and are identified as archetypal signs."4 Rijeka art critic Nina Kudis’ 1988 detection of the "results of the interaction of water and stone"5 forecasted the artist’s later works involving collaborations with nature and fortuitously selected assistants.
Josip Butkovic, By the Houses, 1986, etching, aquatint, 19 3/8 x 20 7/8 inches (49 x 53 cm), edition of 20, photograph by the artist.
In vein of these experts’ assessments, it is apparent that even during the 1980s, Josip Butkovic was cultivating an independent printmaking approach typified by a systematic search for, and insistence on, structure and texture. There might be some complaint that I am emphasizing mere commonplaces of printmaking as an artistic discipline. The criticism would not be misplaced, since Butkovic consistently selects motifs that reflect the resources of printmaking and refer to the Croatian seaside architectural tradition of dry stone structures. This extremely reduced archive of forms lost descriptive characteristics over time as the artist transitioned to emphasizing elementariness and essentiality. At the end of the 1980s, he commonly employed a distinctive, irregular, organic conical form that in the context of the Kvarner coastal landscape could be read as stylized cypress trees. In the later visual transformation, however, these shapes became devoid of any intimations of reality and took on allusive features of the male sex drive. The internal logic of the print increasingly dominated the composition as imitations of reality ceased. The title of the series Kvarner Games (1994) refers to the creative games played by the artist during almost fifteen years of studio research. The imaginative transfigurations of pictorial elements that he realized during his earlier stages were crucial for defining his manner of expression and affect his work through today.
I would emphasize the prints of the series By the Houses, particularly the examples from 1995 (entitled LXXXVI, XCII and XCI), as salient for Butkovic's further development. These images demonstrate a perspective that drives out any possible associations with the real world. They rather convey the almost endless possibilities of combining the blackened conical forms and the white of the picture field, cut across with distinguishable hatching and various intensities of grey. Even in an abstract viewpoint, the visual effect renders textures seen in the continuous series’ earlier stylized but still recognizable depictions of beaches, houses and landscapes. The radical advances put forth by the former Yugoslavia’s New Artistic Practice during the 1960s and 1970s6 greatly impacted Butkovic’s efforts to establish a new printmaking vernacular. Its realization ultimately crystallized in 1997, as the philosophy embedded into the installation of Tribvo Honorem in Memorial Ivlio Clovio de Croatia, an artist’s book that Butkovic dedicated to renowned Croatian miniaturist Julije Klovic. Ten prints make up the small-scale book that is placed in a plaster cast box in the form of a sarcophagus; the object, however, should be understood more as a constituent of a greater process than as an isolated work with prints in the conventional sense. Tribvo Honorem was conceived as a collaborative scheme with Butkovic’s former students, artists Tamara Paskvan (who designed and sculpted the box) and Kreso Kovacicek (who bound the portfolio pages). In addition, the photographic documentation of the book’s production became part of the project’s presentation that coincided with the 500th anniversary of Klovic’s birth. What is also significant, in my eyes, is that the name of the old master was intrinsic to Butkovic’s first trenchant step into the new system of artistic practice centered on intervention and performance. The transgressive context provides a clear signal of his lasting commitment to the challenges of contemporary art in concert with a profound respect for the tradition of printmaking, not to mention a redefinition of artistic collaboration.
It is not at all by chance that this pivotal creative revolution coincided with the foundation of the Chalcographic Studio in Susak, Rijeka—Butkovic’s personal workshop where he invited his former students to pursue art, organize exhibitions and access resources. The workshop’s activities still resonate in the city; today’s leading figures of the local printmaking community all practiced there. Tribvo Honorem collaborators Paskvan and Kovacicek were two of the Chalcographic Studio’s earliest participants in the late 1990s. The latter also wrote the text in the said project’s exhibition catalog. "Objects and things limn the act in which they are produced," claims Kovacicek in that discourse, which can be understood as a programmatic statement of the transformation of Butkovic's artistic procedures and postulates. The author calls gestures “inverse acts” because “they open the substance that calls them forth and by them we can explain the fairly exceptional relationship of man and things—in favor of things—for it is they that call for the performance of the necessary gestures." He concludes that "the object itself takes the initiative of inversion—it has nothing to do with our intentions—as ultimately it rounds off its meaning and decides on its own truth."7
Butkovic’s comprehensive familiarity with conceptual art and its most prominent historical antecedents dates back to his student days. From this point of view, it seems particularly important to consider the theoretical basis and practice of the international artists who took part in the Fluxus movement. In Styles, Schools and Movements, American art theorist Amy Dempsey describes the essential impulse of Fluxus as a conviction that "life can be experienced as art." Purveyors of this interdisciplinary movement “sought for a stronger connection of life and art as well as a more democratic approach to creative work, the conception and collection of art," according to Dempsey...8
[This article appears in full in the print and digital editions of Celebrating Print, Vol.3, No.1.]
1. Nowadays the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Rijeka.—Ed.
2. Radmila Matejcic, foreword to Josip Butkovic at Energoinvest Gallery, exh.cat. (Sarajevo: Akademija likovnih umjetnosti, 1984).
3. Berislav Valusek, 6th Biennial of Contemporary Croatian Graphic, exh.cat. (Split: Hrvatsko drustvo likovnih umjetnika Split, 1984).
4. Berislav Valusek, “Painterly Quatrefoil,” Novi list [New leaf], December 21, 1987.
5. Nina Kudis, foreword to the catalog of an exhibition in the Becic Salon, Slavonski Brod, October 1988.
6. The New Art Practice is a name for certain exploratory artistic strategies carried out between 1966 and 1978 in the former Yugoslavia (Ljubljana, Zagreb, Subotica, Novi Sad, Beograd, Split). Under the influence of conceptual approaches (for example, those of Joseph Kosuth or Lawrence Weiner), artists altered their means of production by completely neglecting the process of materialization of an aesthetic object. They rather focused on carrying out social actions to fuel changes that provoked, incited and motivated artistic engagements. Marijan Susovski, ed., foreword to Nova umjetnicka praksa 1966–1978 [The New Art Practice 1966–1978] (Zagreb: Galerija suvremene umjetnosti, 1978), 3–4.—Ed.
7. Kreso Kovacicek, foreword to Tribvo Honorem in Memorial Ivlio Clovio de Croatia, exh.cat. (Rijeka: Hrvatsko drustvo likovnih umjetnika, 1997).
8. Amy Dempsey, Styles, Schools and Movements: An Encyclopedic Guide to Modern Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 2002).
Darko Glavan in Conversation with Josip Butkovic
View of an installation for Josip Butkovic's Courtyards (2014) in which zinc plates underwent interventions by nature and animals as well as the artist, who partially covered the plates to manipulate the corrosion process, consequently affecting the design of the prints. Photograph by the artist.
Can you remember when and why you opted for printmaking?
Barely. I do know that it was settled almost by accident. I enrolled in the College of Education in Rijeka, which also had a fine arts program. However, my experience there was very short, only two years, and there was no access to equipment, especially not for printmaking. But during the summer of 1977 after college ended, I went to Novi Sad in Serbia and got to know the art scene there: the poetess Katalin Ladik, Marina Abramovic, the whole conceptual art scene, the studios on Petrovaradin, sculptors, painters, and my future teacher, Bogdanka Poznanovic. I thought to myself, well, it's Novi Sad or nothing. So, I enrolled in the Academy of Arts—a completely new school, the first cohort had just graduated. I think I was the first student from Croatia.
We started talking about the Klovic project. You attached a lot of significance to the packaging of the artist’s book and the entire presentation, making it coincide with the old master’s anniversary. Do you think that you de facto changed the traditional format of installing art in a gallery, in the spirit of the New Art Practice?
Yes. Even before the Klovic project I barely left the studio, and that became suffocating. I turned to some open spaces that intrigued me. Thanks to my dear friend and expert on traditional architecture Branko Fucic, a great supporter of the Chalcographic Studio in Susak, I discovered Veli Mrgar, a wonderful structure of dry stone walls and marvelous pastoral architecture. A magnificent sheep pen. I only later realized that, in a special way, the structure also became a pen for my prints and for me. Space has always been quite significant for me—the negotiation with it, acceptance or rejection, the time. I executed and exhibited many projects in Veli Mrgar, almost like in a classical studio. It functioned as a gallery, although it wasn’t recognized as a formal gallery space. [laughs] I organized exhibitions for three or four viewers in mind. However, almost the same number of people would come to a display of prints in Veli Mrgar as a show in Rijeka's Kortil Gallery, and yet it took two and a half hours to walk to the stone walls, through a terrain not unreasonably called the Plateau of the Moon. Veli Mrgar witnessed the creation of the print projects Mrgar by Velebtl and Sky in Mrgar, one that vanished without a trace. We also “dropped” the sky down onto the plates in Veli Mrgar. This was done for the 2nd Croatian Triennial of Graphic Art centered on the theme of energy. We sought to shed light on how much energy there was in us, the sun, the sky and the plates. Moreover, in the end, I also got an imprint of the sunshine in the sheepfold field where the plates, later stolen, had been placed. The sky left its impression; the thieves revealed it. Perhaps I never would have noticed the effect by gazing at the sky and the plates.
Josip Butkovic executing interventions on zinc plates for Sky in Mrgar (2001) in the sheepfold Veli Mrgar island of Krk, Croatia. Photograph by Ana Vivoda.
Imprint on the ground in Veli Mrgar, after the theft of the plates for Sky in Mrgar (2001). Photograph by the artist.
Did you discover Veli Mrgar in 1998? You carried on this open-air project for ten years.
Only ten years? It feels like I have been doing it for my entire life. I cope poorly with time. When things get a hold of me, time becomes less important, and I often don't notice it passing. That means, in just ten years, a few things happened: projects in Velebit, Mrkopalj and Obljaj in Lika; the hens; the tortoises; meters and meters of prints; and sheep herding in Greece.
Your recent efforts revolve around your working and living space in Lika. In a sense, this project can be considered a follow-up to your activities in the sheepfolds . . .
Subsequent to the work in Veli Mrgar, and particularly after the theft of the plates, I experienced a vast and tedious void. True enough, as I was helping family members in Lika after the war [the Croatian War of Independence, 1991–1995—Ed.], I started to discover new possibilities. I came across a completely new space by walking around Obljaj, a prehistoric hillfort in the region, and revisiting places of my childhood. I had to come, move in, set off. Now I am better. Several years have passed since my wife and I arrived in this area and settled. Like every previous space, I very carefully form it. I explore and adapt it, but not just to myself. It is imperative for me to take stock: arranging, rearranging, getting the excess out of the way. There are far too many of my works, thousands and thousands of photos, hundreds of plates and an endless number of prints, impressions, ideas. Suddenly, I’m not able to see the forest for the trees. I start to feel stifled.
So, I have once again set up the plates outdoors. They are now in my space, a space close to me, nobody is going to steal them. [laughs] I can monitor them every day from the window of the studio or house. I watch my child running over them and the sheep and hens, of course. I can feel the traces of completely non-artistic intentions, with matrices serving as feeding plates or playing tracks. A feeling arises of energies coming into being—the feeling of being born again...
[This interview appears in full in the print and digital editions of Celebrating Print, Vol.3, No.1.]
Image top: View of Josip Butkovic's Courtyards VI (2006), an installation of zinc plates covered with a layer of asphaltum, consequently etched and printed in different stages with multiple interventions by the artist. Overall dimensions 16.4 x 16.4 feet (5 x 5 m), each plate 39 3/8 x 19 5/8 inches (100 x 50 cm). Gornje Vrhovine, Croatia. Photograph by the artist. Featured on the cover of Vol.3 Number 1.
This article Fortuity of Making and Print Tradition in Josip Butkovic’s Practice by Darko Glavan appears in the print edition of Celebrating Print, Vol.3 No. 1, published in April 2017.
JOSIP BUTKOVIC (b. 1950 in Rijeka, Croatia) is a visual artist working in printmaking. He studied in the former Yugoslavia, earning a BFA from the Printmaking Department at the Academy of Arts in Novi Sad and an MFA from the University of Arts in Belgrade. Butkovic’s exhibition record encompasses 45 solo and about 200 group shows in Croatia and abroad, along with over 100 international print exhibitions and biennials. He was granted, among other awards, the City of Rijeka Award for his artistic and education-based accomplishments (2005) and a prize at the 1st Croatian Print Triennial (1997). His works are included in public collections such as the Bibliotheque nationale de France in Paris, the International Centre of Graphic Arts in Ljubljana and the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rijeka. Butkovic founded the Subdepartment of Printmaking at the Academy of Applied Arts at the University of Rijeka in 2010; he served as the subdepartment’s dean from 2013 to 2016 and currently works there as a professor of printmaking.
DARKO GLAVAN (1951–2009) was a renowned art historian and curator. He graduated from the Departments of Art History and Comparative Literature of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb. He briefly taught at the Department of Museology before he became a curator at the Mimara Museum in Zagreb. Glavan curated a dozen international shows and over 100 national art exhibitions, such as From Futurism to Fontana (2002) and Dzamonja, Drawings 2005/2006 (2007). His publishing record includes written art criticisms and texts for monographs on contemporary Croatian artists, such as Andrija Maurovic: Familiar and Unfamiliar (2007) and Antun Motika (2002). Glavan was also one of Croatia’s most influential rock music critics.
Editor’s note: Darko Glavan’s article “Fortuity of Making and Print Tradition in Josip Butkovic’s Practice” is a special posthumous edition of the author’s text “Od grafike do nove umjetnicke prakse i natrag” originally written for an exhibition catalog Josip Butkovic: From Printmaking to the New Art Practice and Back Again published by Hrvatsko drustvo likovnih umjetnika, ISBN 978-9536508-46-4. Ana Vivoda provided assistance in the translation editing for “Fortuity of Making and Print Tradition in Josip Butkovic’s Practice” in Celebrating Print.