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Peer-reviewed articles Negotiating modernism The Yugoslavian Pavilion at the Stockholm Fair 1950

In 1949–1950, the Yugoslavian Chamber of Commerce commissioned architects Vjenceslav Richter (1917–2002) and Zvonimir Radić (1921–85) together with artists Ivan Picelj (1924–2011) and Alexandar Srnec (1924–2010) to shape several pavilions at various international trade fairs; in Stockholm twice. This text departs from a rich photographic documentation of the 1950 fair, discussing how and why Yugoslavia turned to modernism, why the artists shaped the pavilion the way they did, how it was received in Sweden. It also places the pavilion in a political context. As Yugoslavia was expelled from the Eastern Bloc in 1948, it had to find new alliances. The turn to modernism could be seen as a sign of this, but such reading also risks diminishing the role of modernism, leaving it as something that belongs to the liberal democracies in the West. The text argues against such narrow reading. It also discusses the role art history has played in forming a quite stereotype image of modernism and finally, it uses Roland Barthes “myth” as a way of looking at modernism from a multiple perspective.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2020:2-3, pp 57-68
Published on balticworlds.com on October 8, 2020

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In 1949–1950, the Yugoslavian Chamber of Commerce commissioned architects Vjenceslav Richter (1917–2002) and Zvonimir Radić (1921–85) together with artists Ivan Picelj (1924–2011) and Alexandar Srnec (1924–2010) to shape several pavilions at various international trade fairs; in Stockholm twice. This text departs from a rich photographic documentation of the 1950 fair, discussing how and why Yugoslavia turned to modernism, why the artists shaped the pavilion the way they did, how it was received in Sweden. It also places the pavilion in a political context. As Yugoslavia was expelled from the Eastern Bloc in 1948, it had to find new alliances. The turn to modernism could be seen as a sign of this, but such reading also risks diminishing the role of modernism, leaving it as something that belongs to the liberal democracies in the West. The text argues against such narrow reading. It also discusses the role art history has played in forming a quite stereotype image of modernism and finally, it uses Roland Barthes “myth” as a way of looking at modernism from a multiple perspective.

Keywords: Modernism, constructivism, international fair, art, architecture, interior design, Exat 51, Vjenceslav Richter Zvonimir Radić Ivan Picelj, Alexandar Srnec, Myth.

A close-up black-and-white photograph from the Stockholm Fair of 1950 shows a remarkable display. In the foreground is a stone, placed in an octagonal cage made of black metal rods. Thanks to a support system of similar white rods, the cages appears to be hovering in front of a background consisting of a pleated white curtain and a screen in the shape of an organic, four-pointed star. The whole arrangement is lit by direct light, throwing dramatic shadows of the cage onto the curtain. It says “blymalm” (lead ore) on the screen, and beneath the cage one finds what according to the inscription “bly” [lead], is a lead pig. (fig 1)

This arrangement was placed in a sequence of similar ones, showing other goods that Yugoslavia put on display at the Stockholm Fair (then called S:t Eriksmässan after the city’s patron saint Erik) in 1950. Considering that we are looking at a presentation of the young nation Yugoslavia, whose status in the new East-West divide appeared undecided to many, the interior design is surprisingly liberated from any nationalistic markers. At the same time, it is striking how visible the interior design itself is – to the point that it seems to be as important as what is exhibited. The display thus follows one modernist ideal: that of retraction, of letting the exhibited items speak for themselves. But on the other hand, the display is not “retractive” at all; it almost becomes more the focus of attention than the lead ore and the lead pig.

In the following, I will discuss why this Yugoslavian pavilion, the result of a collaboration between architects Vjenceslav Richter (1917—2002) and Zvonimir Radić (1921—85) together with artists Ivan Picelj (1924—2011) and Alexandar Srnec (1924—2010), was shaped the way it was. I understand the various design decisions as more than just ways of displaying goods, i.e. I see them as statements of modernism and my analysis aims to reveal what messages were intended, how they were received in a Swedish context and, finally why this complexity has been lost in history writing.

My analysis revolves round a paradox. The Yugoslavian use of modernism could mean both a step towards the liberal capitalism of the West and, at the same time, a totally contradictory move, using modernism as the art of (self-managing) socialism.

This putative contradiction indicates that the meaning of “modernism” was not yet fixed, that it was negotiated. With this paper, I aim to re-open those negotiations, disclosing a more complex understanding of modernism. Obviously, this entails a discussion about the notion “modernism”, but it is crucial that my argument stems from a visual analysis, based on the rich visual documentation from the Ivan Picelj archive, courtesy of the MSU museum in Zagreb.

These visual sources have allowed me to reconstruct the layout of the entire pavilion, which led me to think of it as a totality rather than discrete individual displays. To be able to discuss the reception I have also studied written sources from the time, such as the response the pavilion received in the Swedish press. By discussing the words used in these texts (such as “neutral”) and comparing this to how the pavilions from the Eastern bloc are described, I find evidence that the press usually takes into account that Yugoslavia had recently been expelled from the Eastern bloc. But it also becomes clear that the press described the Yugoslavian pavilion from a Swedish understanding of what modernism is.

To grasp why the Yugoslavian pavilion was understood the way it was in Sweden, and to understand why the “negotiated” modernism of the 1950s has been lost today, I use the notion “myth”. I take as my starting point here two slightly different understandings of structuralism. One stems from Claude Levi-Strauss (1908—2009) who pointed out that “anomalies” in a binary structure are often understood as either holy or dangerous. In 1950, Yugoslavian modernism (as indeed Yugoslavia in its entirety) could be said to form such an anomaly between East and West: As could Sweden. Sweden had been neutral during the war, the dominating party was the Social Democratic Party with a reformistic agenda, and the relationships on the labor market were characterised since 1938 of the “Saltsjöbad spirit” that was the result from negotiations in Saltsjöbaden (a site outside Stockholm), described by historian Astrid Hedin as a “unique consensus-oriented dialogue between employers and unions”.

Roland Barthes (1915—1980) is the other structuralist I base my study on. His discussion about how myths shape our world view and how in the long run, they sometimes blind us to what is before our eyes, is useful when it comes to understanding the reception in the 1950s as well as that of today. Thus, where Claude Levi-Strauss helps us to understand why Yugoslavia’s position as in between is relevant, Barthes is used to discuss the myths that shaped and shape our understanding of the world.

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The collaboration between the artists

Through the years 1949—1950, the relatively young state of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia (proclaimed in 1945), via the Yugoslav Chamber of Commerce, commissioned architects Vjenceslav Richter and Zvonimir Radić, and artists Ivan Picelj and Alexandar Srnec (in various constellations) to create settings suitable for displaying both the country and its products. The object of this paper, the fair in Stockholm 1950, would be the last of their presentations.

Exactly why the pavilion of Stockholm Fair was to be the last the artists/architects worked on is rather unclear. In her dissertation on experimental artists’ groups in Europe during the post-war era, Valerie Lynn Hillings explains it as the result of a “dispute with the federal Chamber of Trade”. She leaves no reference for this statement, but as she lists interviews with Ivan Picelj, an educated guess says that she got this from one of the artists. Ana Ofak offers a different explanation by pointing to world politics: with the beginning of the Korean war, things got more complicated between East and West and “Yugoslavia’s waltz between the blocs” came to an end, where the country preserved “the grammar of a solo actor in international relations for now”.

Like many other scholars, Hillings discusses the collaboration between the artists as a forerunner to their forming of the artist group Exat 51 the following year. Exat 51 was a group that strived for the synthesis of the arts and they would have great impact on art, architecture, and design in Yugoslavia and particularly Croatia. It is probable that the importance of Exat 51 has caused the artists’ previous work on the pavilions to be left somewhat in the dark. It was Ana Ofak’s recent publication Agents of Abstraction (2019) that gave full attention to the collaborative work between these artists. Ofak has done a tremendous work in mapping the group members contributions and the relations between the artists and to decouvert how the Exat 51 positioned their work in relation to official state politics. Starting with the domestic Book Train exhibition in 1948, Ofak shows how abstraction on the one hand faced cultural criticism for not fitting the socialist agenda, but that on the other hand, it simultaneously gained official support. She traces this support to the close association between modernism and the “newness” that became the agenda of the Yugoslavian Agitation and Propaganda (Agitprop) department. Thus, “abstraction introduced shocks in the visual experiences…” argues Ofak, that “indicated the force of modernization in Yugoslavia at that time.”

Ana Ofak’s work has been most illuminating and helpful for this study, not least when it comes to archival work such as locating governmental documents. However, where Ofak relates the modernism of the artists/architects to state politics, I aim (as already mentioned) to reveal how “modernism” was under negotiation between many different stakeholders, which also means that the understanding of it changes in different contexts.

The Stockholm Fair

The Stockholm Fair 1950 ran from August 26 through to September 10 and mainly took place at Storängsbotten, a field close to the city center mostly known for its sport facilities, some of which were hired by the fair. According to a note in Dagens Nyheter (Swedish daily newspaper with liberal profile) it was to be 22% larger than the year before and covered 104,000 m2, which another text mentions to be 20 % larger than the fair in Chicago the same year, where Yugoslavia also participated with a pavilion by Richter, Picelj and Radić. Among the participating countries in Stockholm we find Poland, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria from the Eastern Bloc, along with many countries from the West, including the US. Morocco, then still a French colony, was the only other non-European country. The USSR had intended to participate, but the space offered was deemed too small. In an interview published in Arbetaren [The Worker], (a newspaper with syndicalistic profile),
Alexandrovitch Pawlow, the head of the Soviet pavilion at the fair in Leipzig, explained that as “the Soviet republics” only can be “presented as a whole”, they needed more space than the Stockholm Fair could offer.

The majority of the foreign countries found their exhibition space in the two principal exhibition halls. Yugoslavia was placed together with Italy and exhibitors from Sweden. It is hard to know if this separation from the other Eastern Bloc countries was deliberate, but it does suggest that to the fair management, Yugoslavia no longer belonged there. This understanding seems to have been generally accepted in Swedish press, albeit its status still was rather unclear. When a commentator in Dagens Nyheter mentions a series of countries that were to partake in the fair, s/he first places Yugoslavia among the other Eastern bloc countries, only to point in a parenthesis to its anomalous position: “if it [Yugoslavia] is to be counted as such”.

The entrance façade of the Yugoslavian pavilion was covered with photographic wallpaper consisting of three discrete images. (fig 2) The image on the right-hand side of the façade shows palm trees, perhaps a part of an avenue, through which one can see the front of an old palace or church. This scenery is juxtaposed with an image of a large industrial plant, taken from an unorthodox frog perspective, making the steel construction lean inwards, where the great tower and its ladder is presented at an angle, inclining slightly over 45 degrees. This image is mounted so that the central entrance is placed in the center of the industrial plant, as if letting the audience enter through modernity. On the left-hand side of central image, one finds is a third, smaller image placed above a second entrance. It seems to depict an enlargement of an architectonic element, perhaps an ornament from an older building.

The three images convey an impression of a country with a long cultural history, and a benevolent climate; a country that also is a part of the developed, modern world. There are no visible signs connoting “socialism” or “working-class” here; this connection is only readable through association to the country, whose name in capital letters, in the Swedish spelling “Jugoslavien”, runs along the top of the façade through the motifs.

Inside, the exhibition space is wrapped in textile: white pleated curtains cover the walls and a cloth roof is hanging under the regular ceiling, softening the general lighting in the room. From the entrance one encounters a row of vitrines, placed diagonally behind each other so that all four of them are visible immediately when entering the pavilion (fig 3). To the left is an abstract, modernist sculptural object placed on a low plinth, together with a construction that carries a series of hats. Connected to this runs a complex structure, made from white metal rods, carrying images of stunning natural scenes and of Yugoslavian people. The structure extends from the plinth to the left wall. This web-like system seems to cut off the corner to the entrance wall, where an information desk and a bat chair are situated. (fig 4)

Fig. 4Fig. 4

The white metal rods serve as the basis for the entire grid-like display. In the basic structure the rods are joined horizontally and vertically by aerodynamic shaped oblongs, every second or third meter. This allows the rods and the oblongs to form squared dioramas, but without any actual walls, roofs, or floors. The items displayed are therefore attached to another set of rods, running diagonally through boxes. (fig 5) The oblongs are painted in different colors, maybe as a way of creating a difference between the sections.

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It looks like the artists have matched the structure with the diverse content. When the grid carries fruits, smaller containers, built of the same kind of metal rods, are placed in the grid. When the squares display sardines or other canned fish, the construction is more playful, allowing free-floating elliptical shapes to become the contours of fish, where the cans act as fisheyes. (fig 6) More traditional shelves are also inserted in the system and, as we saw in the introduction, the artists have worked with ingeniously formed cages for displaying minerals. (fig 1) At times the “grid” goes haywire, breaking away from being a neutral support system and focusing attention on itself. For instance, in a section that contains bottled goods, the grid that functions as a carrier for a shelf seemingly explodes into a complex system. (fig 8)

A section with bent metal rods inserts another kind of movement than the one that deploys in the play between diagonals and straight angles. A slight displacement between three or four bows provides the setting with a sense of a wind rushing in. It carries a plate of copper, akin to a scarf, caught by the wind, with the instructive text “koppar” (copper in Swedish) written on it. Like most of the texts in the exhibition, it is written in small letters, and with a typeface that recalls clichés. (fig 9)

Since there is no real roof in the dioramas, the lighting, consisting of classical desk work lamps, is also mounted on the grid. The lamps either have plain, telescope or swing arms, leaving many possible angles for the light. This facilitates multiple lighting angles, used in some cases to cast complex and dramatic shadows on the wall, letting the grid and the products to be combined in one, flat shape. (fig 8)

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Two sections of the grid-like rod system run along parallel walls on each side of the exhibitions room. A third, placed against a black background, seems to leave a space beneath it. It is likely that a wall covered with enlarged photographs with folkloristic motifs and traditional textile products is on the far side. In front it, centrally placed on the floor, one finds a square grid system that carries wooden planks and assorted goods from a builder’s merchant. (fig 3) (fig 10) This is juxtaposed with a structure carrying two logs, cut into thick planks, and then reassembled like logs. On the other side of the structure carrying wood products is yet another kind of diorama, probably displaying textile wares.

The wall left of the entrance starts with a display of photographs of nature, followed by natural materials, metal, minerals etc. The right-hand wall consists of processed products, wine, tobacco, canned fish but also leather products like bags and portfolios. In the center is fresh fruit, and products of the forest, planks mostly, while the remaining dioramas show products for export. (fig 11) Some centrally placed items, such as the modern sculpture and the structure carrying hats, stand out for their non-functionalism. Some functional structures stand out because of their elaborateness, such as the squares where the support system take over the interest from the products. The same goes for the narrow and dramatic spotlights/desk top lighting.

How are we to understand the exhibition setting of the Yugoslavian pavilion? The very idea of letting the supporting structure create a totality with what is displayed could be located to many sources. For the Surrealist exhibition in 1932, Marcel Duchamp (1887—1968) used string that cut across the room and made it impossible to enter. Artist/architect Frederick Kiesler (1890—1965) used rods similar to the ones we find in the Yugoslavian pavilion to create exhibition support for the artworks in the room without building solid walls, notably in the “Abstract Gallery” in Peggy Guggenheim’s New York gallery Art of this Century in 1942. While it seems less likely that the Yugoslavian artists knew about Duchamps’ work, Ana Ofak suggests that Vjenceslav Richter came in contact with the works of Kiesler through his war time years as a refugee in Vienna, and points in particular to the concave panels that were also used in some of the vitrines in Stockholm. Other parts of the construction may also be derived from Kiesler.

Otherwise the structures suggest a strong affinity to the dynamics of constructivist compositions from the 1920s, such as Lyubov Popova’s (1889—1924) paintings showing spatial/architectonic compositions or El Lissitzky’s (1890—1941) Prouns. Also, the central photographic works on the façade speak the visual language of constructivism. Constructivism was part of Yugoslavian inter-war history, not least through the magazine Zenith which was produced 1921—1926. Zenith was primarily a literary magazine, but it also discussed art and architecture, and for instance had a cover with Vladimir Tatlin’s (1885—1953) tower for the third International. This “Russian Issue” (no 17/18 in 1922) was edited by Ilya Ehrenburg (1891—1967) and El Lissitzky jointly, and as Serbian art historian Jasmina Čubrilo notes, between “1923 to 1926 Zenit was devoted to the further promotion of abstract Constructivist and new (Zenitist) art…”

Many sources point out the legacy of Bauhaus and Russian constructivism as important for the trio. Ana Ofak stresses the importance of, for instance, Alexandr Rodtjenko’s “Workers club”, his contribution to the Soviet Pavilion of the 1925 world fair Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, as early as 1948 for the Book Train. Likewise, Croatian art historian Ljiliana Kolšenik writes that “it was exactly the ideology of Bauhaus that served as a key referential point of the neo-constructivist idiom appearing on the Croatian art scene at the beginning of 1950s (art group EXAT 51)…” According to one of the foremost experts on Exat 51, Ješa Dengeri, Richter already knew of El Lissitzki’s works and exhibition design before the war. The same author also underscores that this relationship was not a “distant and belated echo of … European constructivism…” but a “part of the living and fervent attempts of the time in which Exat 51 worked.” That constructivism and the Bauhaus were important for the artists is underlined by the fact that when working on the fair in Chicago (also in 1950), Vjenceslav Richter and Ivan Picelj took the opportunity to visit Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, a successor to the ‘New Bauhaus’ that Moholy-Nagy had founded upon his arrival in the United States in 1937. Also, a little further down the road, Ivan Picelj would name one of his paintings to “Homage à El Lissitzky” (1952).

Imaging modernism

Before I discuss the use of modernism in the Yugoslavian pavilion and why the legacy of constructivism is of importance, it is useful to reflect briefly on the situation with the international fairs of the 1950s. Ana Ofak describes them as the “concept stores of the 1950s”. Similar remarks about the Stockholm Fair can be found in the Swedish press at the time. The heading of an article in the Swedish morning newspaper (with conservative profile) Svenska Dagbladet in 1949 calls the Stockholm Fair “a business bridge across national borders”; the following year the local morning paper Stockholmstidningen describes it as “the great market of the Nordic countries” and Aftonbladet, another newspaper with socialist democratic profile, calls it a “peace factor” when reporting on the inauguration. However, occasionally commentators also reflect how this meeting between states also meant a great venue for propaganda. In hindsight we know that the international fairs would develop along that line some years later, with the coming of the “total cold war”. But even in 1950, it was of course already an issue.

To Yugoslavia, the fairs seems to have been, in the words of Jasna Galjer, “an ideal opportunity for (self)-promotion on an international level in the effort to get closer to the West”. While this indeed seem to have been one of the reasons for Yugoslavia to take part in the fairs, I suggest that the use of modernism is more complex than a mere affiliation with the West. A move away from the East does not necessarily entail approaching the West. This kind of argument runs the risk of endorsing the stereotype that modernism was the harbinger of Western liberal democracy.

To get closer to this complexity, we need to further discuss why Yugoslavia opted for modernism, what image of the country they wanted to present. When Ana Ofak discusses the Yugoslavian pavilion at the Hanover Fair in 1950, she describes it as entailing being “less propaganda” and more “original design”. Her recent research also reveals that the Yugoslavian state was concerned with the topic of modernism, and shows how it wanted to distance itself from blunt propaganda. A 1949 correspondence between the foreign minister Edvard Kardelj and the Yugoslavian ambassador in Paris, Marko Ristić, is revealing. The ambassador had written to the Chamber of Commerce about a fair (executed by other artists and architects) complaining that it was “provincial, Balkan-like and reactionary” and that it distributed speeches from Tito like brochures for toothpaste, a distribution he prohibited. Kardelj responded that Ristić had done the right thing, telling him not to “allow any cheap form of propaganda…”

These statements call for a discussion of how propaganda might look. As art historian Serge Guilbault has shown, in 1950s the “freedom” of the New York abstract expressionism was embraced by official politics as a “token inherent of the American system…” meaning that the art was interpreted to communicate political, propagandistic issues without actually depicting them. If abstract expressionism could be used as a sign of “individuality” and “the American way of life” by the US, we must ask what official Yugoslavia thought that the “original design” of modernism communicated.

For example, modernism might just connote “modernity”; signalizing Yugoslavia’s industrial development, rising after a devastating war that had destroyed most of the infrastructure and killed ten percent of the population. But modernism might also equal “modern”, i.e. contrary to the Balkans’ reputation as being left behind by the great nations of Europe, a reputation it was encumbered with. For instance, in Stockholmstidningen, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria are described as being “too agricultural to play with any Stakhanovite production figures…”, referring to the rich mining industries of (in this case) Poland. The “modern” of modernism could also point to an elevated position, reached through a long history of civilization. Architectural historian Vladimir Kulić identifies the need to place Yugoslavia among the old civilizations through the Pavilion of Yugoslavia at the EXPO 1958 in Brussels: “to counteract the stereotype of uncivilized backwaters, a long-standing complex inherited from the past.”

Thus, to Yugoslavia, modernism might mean much more than that striving to be closer to the West. It was rather a sign of independence that might also have reflected the difference between socialism in the Eastern bloc and in Yugoslavia. As Ljiljana Kolešnik has discussed, 1948—1952 meant improved contacts with the West for Yugoslavia, but also a re-evaluation of Marxism, a reading that led to a “theoretical framework of self-managing socialism, an authentic, modern political project implemented in 1952, which marked a real and irreversible detachment from the Eastern Bloc.”

Socialist modernism

If modernism in the Yugoslavian pavilion was used to mark a distance to and independence from the Eastern bloc, this kind of political awareness brings us back to the question of propaganda, but now seen from the viewpoint of another kind of independence. Any kind of State-approved art casts a shadow of suspicion over the artists involved, as such liaisons can appear to contradict the ideal of artistic freedom. One finds evidence of such suspicion towards state-approved modernism in notions such as “socialist modernism” or “socialist aestheticism”. Both suggest a version of “socialist realism”, meaning an aesthetic dictated from above and thus a diluted version of “real” modernism. In this way, “socialist modernism” also suggests, in the words of Vladimir Kulić, that “socialism was not a natural condition for developing modernism.” In exchanging “socialist realism” for “socialist modernism” we end up an another stereotype of modernism, a dogmatic one, stuck in a Stalinist pattern.

Clearly, when the Yugoslavian Chamber of Commerce commissioned modernist pavilions from Richter, Radić, Picelj and Srnec, this was intended to work in favor of the Yugoslavian State. But does the fact that the State commissioned modernism necessarily compromise its artistic value and independence? And what claims does ”self-managing socialism” bring, if the state in the long run was, to quote Maroje Mrduljas, ”withering away”?

The first way to approach such a question would be through the level of instructions from the commissioners. Here Ana Ofak’s research has been of great importance as she shows that for the first Stockholm pavilion, the Chamber of Commerce only “determined the materials to be used in the pavilion, leaving everything else to their [the artists] judgement.” She also describes how the primary concern of the Chamber of Commerce was to develop a “specific visual code that could accommodate commerce, culture, and industry within a socialist society…” Thus, it seems evident that the artists had quite free hands to develop the pavilions to their own taste. However, several commentators suggest that a more conscious use of a “state modernism”, i.e. an official political tool, came into effect later, for example, when Richter won the competition for the Yugoslavian pavilion for the World Fair in Brussels in 1958.

The second way to address the question of the relationship between artistic independence and official politics would be to go to the artists themselves. While it is evident that Chamber of Commerce approved and perhaps even encouraged the use of abstraction and modernism, it is less likely that they understood the radical claims that followed with the constructivist tradition. I.e., the artists and the commissioner could have similar but also distinctly different ideas about what “modernism” in this case involved.

I thus propose that the constructivist approach of the artists and architects that influenced the layout of the Stockholm pavilion is more politically radical than being a mere sign of development and independence. It is an attempt to understand modernism as a means of socialism. Constructivism worked to obliterate the difference between art, design, and goods; something that indeed is legible from the images of the pavilion. This anti-hierarchical approach was also a central theme when Richter, Picelj, Srnec, Radić and a few other artists and architects formed art group Exat 51 the year after the pavilion in Stockholm. The second point in their manifesto states that the Exat 51 “sees no difference between so-called pure and so-called applied art”.

Constructivism and productivism

That Vjenceslav Richter, Zvonimir Radić, Ivan Picelj and Alexandar Srnec consciously worked within the constructive tradition is therefore an important marker that renders the modernism of the pavilion more consciously political, as constructivism comes with a politically radical legacy. What claims can such an affiliation be said to make? Since her 1983 ground-breaking Russian Constructivism Christina Lodder has researched constructivism, how it disseminated and came to “migrate” to the West. In her El Lissitzky and the Export of Constructivism (2003) she points to the hitherto unknown seminal role El Lissitzky played. The question of mediation concerns more than a crude account for who did what first: it also has political sides as it represents an instrumentalization (and thus de-politization) of the art form.

Thus, suggesting that El Lissitzky could be (re)placed among those who disseminated the radical Russian avant-garde could be understood as a very strong critique against the artist as a Prometheus who gave the fire to ignorant Westerners, who seemed to find nothing better to do with it than to light the candles in their bourgeois salons. However, when Lodder argues that during his Berlin years El Lissitzky ceased to be a real constructivist, her distinction between him and the Moscow constructivists, who were building the new society “in a direct, hands-on manner”, is not that blunt. Instead, Lodder discusses the role the artwork continued to play for El Lissitzky. To him, writes Lodder, “the essential task at hand was to use art as a symbolic, ideological vehicle with which to assist in the transformation of consciousness both in communist Russia and in the capitalist West…” Thus, the step to productivism, i.e. to abandon the art object to work in “real life” (like the already mentioned Workers Club by Alexander Rodtjenoko) taken by many Russian constructivists, might not be the only yard stick for measuring radicalness. Art (as aesthetic objects), Lodder suggests, might prove to be a necessity, an “ideological vehicle“.

Developing her position on El Lissitzky’s role as a mediator of Russian constructivism, Lodder writes: “In this respect, he was enacting the Soviet regime’s current policy of cultivating sympathetic forces among Western intellectuals in order to create a phalanx of cultural fellow travelers who would ultimately support world revolution. […] the kind of geometric abstraction that they chose for a time to label ‘constructivist’ served as an emphatically ideological instrument, geared toward fostering a revolutionary consciousness in the capitalist West.”

The very same might have been true for the politically motivated Vjenceslav Richter, Zvonimir Radić, Ivan Picelj and Alexandar Srnec. The connection between constructivism and socialism formed a message for the radical forces in the West. It spoke of the radicalism of constructivism, forming an argument to Westerners about a different modernism where exhibition design exists on par with abstract sculptures, merchandise, natural sources, folkloristic craft, industrialization, and stunning nature. None of this excludes the idea that the “modernism” of constructivism also carried a distancing from the Eastern bloc and an approach to the West.


What message did the Yugoslavian Pavilion communicate to its Swedish audience? Did the visitors recognize the choice of modernism and/or of constructivism? By looking at the reception in five Swedish national newspapers, as well as some more local ones, mostly the largest Stockholm-based morning paper Stockholmstidningen, I have tried to get an image of what was said in a broader context about the fairs. The newspapers selected are the at the time — and still — larger ones (before-mentioned Dagens Nyheter, Svenska Dagbladet, Aftonbladet as well as Expressen, with a liberal profile) and also the, at the time, daily newspaper (closed 1990)  Ny Dag. Given the discussion of whether Yugoslavia was to be understood as a part of the Eastern Bloc, and the discussion how/if the fair was understood as part of a propaganda machinery, Ny dag offers another perspective on these ideas. Ny Dag was the morning paper of Swedish communist party Sveriges Kommunistiska Parti, which remained faithful to Moscow at that time.

The text material comprises mostly short, unsigned reflections, usually no longer than half a column or less. There are also elaborated ads, sometimes covering a whole page, explaining the content of a certain country’s pavilion, but these have been excluded from my analysis. Finally, there are also some longer, elaborated articles that often aim to cover the entire fair. Most texts do not remark either on the status of Yugoslavia as a member of the Eastern bloc or as represent of its propaganda, but some of them do. As we have already seen, there was an understanding that Yugoslavia was different from the other countries counted as part of the Eastern bloc. Ny Dag, in its turn, reports from the fair in three different issues, each article starting on the front page and dedicated to one of the three countries whose status as “Eastern Bloc” was beyond doubt: Poland, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria. The Yugoslavian pavilion is not mentioned by a word, but in a non-related article, published during the same time period, Tito is described as someone who has pretended to be a communist just to lure the Yugoslavian people, who allegedly felt strong kinship with the people of the USSR, to follow him.

In the other newspapers, the Bulgarian, Polish and Czechoslovakian pavilions are often described in the same manner as any other venue at the fair. However, there are also those that point out the unfree or propagandistic sides to them. When reporting from a press conference preceding the opening, Dagens Nyheter remarks that one cannot ask the “Czechs and Poles” “the simplest question” since they always need clearance from above before answering. Stockholmstidningen devotes several pages to the fair on the opening day with many different articles. In one of the texts, the author comments that the “dictatorships” (without mentioning any specific country) use the pavilions for “propaganda, but softened and discrete” so that the “products can speak for themselves.” The issue of propaganda returns discretely when an author writes that Poland claims to have “abolished unemployment forever”. Under the subheading “Folkrepublikansk Propaganda” (Propaganda from the Peoples’ Republics) the author finds the propaganda from the countries of the Eastern bloc to be “gross” at times. Interestingly, the Yugoslavian pavilion is here reported to be “exemplary in its neutrality”, with the goods “tastefully inserted in a sort of cubistic grid system of rods along the walls.” When reporting from “the Yugoslavian day” (invited guests only) Svenska Dagbladet, albeit in a short note, has only praise for the pavilion which is described as one of the “technically best exhibitions” at the fair, “where everything is allowed to speak for itself”.

This alleged “neutral” appearance of the Yugoslavian pavilion could be explained with its modernism since that was long understood as a part of the Swedish model and alas “neutral”. As early as in the 1937 World Fair in Paris, architect Sven Ivar Lind shaped Sweden’s pavilion in a way that connected international style with (social) democratic modernization. Modernism had since connoted “democratic” in a Swedish context. In a period of increasing trade exchange, the Swedish press took in Yugoslavia, dressed in a modernist outfit, as normal, as “one of us”.

This was not the case with Hanover Fair, where Richter, Picelj and Srnec had worked only months before. Instead, in the Allgemeine Zeitung the pavilion is described as a “Dekorationexplosion” (explosion of decoration) and in one of the two illustrations the pavilion is described as a “Schlachtfeld” (battlefield). Unfortunately, the Picelj archive contains no images from the Hanover Fair, only some articles, the quoted one being one of them. None of the other articles describes or discusses the Yugoslavian pavilion. However, in the Vjenceslav Richter archive, there are images showing the proposals, reprinted in above mentioned Ana Ofak’s article “Expo Lab — Between Art and Industry in 1950” and her Agents of Abstraction. Together with the illustrations, we are faced with material that seem to have been similar to what was presented in Stockholm. As Ofak points out, the Yugoslavian pavilion is here described in stark contrast to the “rationality” that otherwise dominated the fair. “The German cliché of correctness was counterbalanced by the ‘intoxicating’ view of the Yugoslavian pavilion.”

Why did the German press spot the innovativeness of the Yugoslavian pavilion while the Swedish press did not? The Hanover Fair was a relatively new venue, that in 1950 attracted exhibitors from ten other countries. Also Ofak concludes that Yugoslavia was the only socialist country, despite the fact, as she puts it, that they and Germany had just recently been “archenemies during WWII”. There was thus no “Eastern bloc” propaganda to compare the Yugoslavian pavilion in Hanover with, allowing it to be more “other” than it was in Sweden. Also, strengthened relationships and the presumed “democratic” modernism permitted Swedish commentators to overlook the experimental, constructive design and instead focus on the “modern” totality which led a supposed neutrality: A position that would be “normal” from a Swedish perspective.

That the putative neutrality also was important for the Yugoslavian officials is suggested in two articles, also found in the Picelj archive, where Croatian newspaper Borba and Serbian Politika both refer to the reception in the Swedish press.
M. Bratic in Borba concludes that the Swedish press recognizes the pavilion as “one of the most well-equipped and best decorated”. Politika is more detailed about the reception in the Swedish press and refers both to the fact that Dagens Nyheter wrote that the pavilion offers a “great overview” and that Svenska Dagbladet values how the products are “allowed to speak for themselves”.

And other modernist myths…

As this analysis of the Yugoslavian pavilion shows, limiting ourselves to identifying it as a part of “modernism” does not take us very far. There were (and still are) several parallel and sometimes conflicting interpretations of “modernism”: where it can exist, where it belongs ideologically, and what it signalizes. Nor is a categorical distinction between the “East” and the “West” very helpful, not least since this tends to homogenize the idea of “modernism” in both blocs. On the one hand we are suffering from a historiography that has left the art of the Eastern bloc marginalized — or as Ljiljana Kolešnik puts it: “During the last 20 years, West European art history developed a particular type of contextual narrative on socialist culture operating on the pars pro toto principle and compressing the classes of analogous social, cultural and political phenomena into a single occurrence bestowed with meaning universal for the entire geopolitical space of former Eastern bloc.” On the other hand, many (modernist) nuances also tends to get lost. Stephen C. Foster points to the problem with the contemporary interpretations of Western avant-garde that tends makes it apolitical: “Recent American scholarship has typically formalized the work of early twentieth-century European movements in ways that decontextualize the works and diminish access to their historical significance.”

Piotr Piotrowski points to the necessity of an art history that exposes “… repressive practices directed towards the margins, peripheries both geographical and topographical…” While I think that the analysis of the Yugoslavian pavilion strongly underlines this need, we also find conflicting understandings from margin to margin. If the Yugoslavian artists wanted to argue for a radical constructivist modernism with roots in Eastern Europe, the Swedish reception seem to have understood this claim from another vantage point, where modernism signalizes “neutral” and “democratic”. Thus, while art history needs to challenge established interpretations instead of forcing them upon the material, it also needs to let alternative understandings co-exist. This is why, in the final paragraphs, I will discuss the notion “myth”.

When American art professor Rosalind Krauss wrote of “modernist myths” in her highly influential essays from the late 1970s and early 1980s, she was discussing how abstract modernism comes with certain assumptions that we mistake for truths; for instance, that the grid would be a route to originality when in fact it can do nothing more than repeat itself. Or as Krauss formulates it ”…  this experience of originariness … is itself false, a fiction.” In the essay Grids she develops the notion “myth”, borrowing the concept from structuralist Claude Levi Strauss. Here, Krauss identifies how modernism becomes a story that represses, in this case how spiritualism becomes the unconsciousness of materialist modernism. While I agree with Krauss that history writing of modernism is a story of repressions, the Yugoslavian pavilion calls for another kind of discussion concerning “myths” because it activates other “stories” than the ones identified in her writings. I therefore turn to another structuralist, Roland Barthes, and his early essay Myth today.

Myth, writes Barthes, is a kind of speech, meaning anything that is being conveyed by a discourse. Thus, speech is not confined to language, but to representation. In the case of the Yugoslavian pavilion, this means that the objects shown, the way they are presented and the discussions they evoke all are part of mythmaking: Not because they are untrue, but because that is the way they make sense to us. The pavilion is understood as “constructivist”, “modernist”, “chaotic” or “neutral” depending on which “myth” the interpreter subscribes to. This points to another important aspect: The Yugoslavian pavilion marks an intersection of different myths that, it seems, can sometimes co-exist and sometimes get into a clinch. The Swedish journalist who identified the settings as “rational” was probably uttering this from a position where “rational” also means “western” and perhaps also “democratic”; maybe even “Swedish” or “like-minded”. Myth has a double function, writes Barthes: “…it makes us understand something and it imposes it on us.”

Myth neutralizes and it naturalizes. It makes us think that we understand what we are perceiving and that our perception is correct. It is indeed a speech in the Barthian sense, the way we utter the world. In this way, it is feasible that agents from different political/ideological positions can agree that the Yugoslavian pavilion belongs to “modernism”, while at the same time having conflicting understandings of what this means. They are surrounded by different discourses where the sign modernism plays different roles. “Democratic western liberal democracy”, “useful expression of not-belonging to the Eastern Bloc” and “radical expression of an anti-hierarchic, socialist art form” are all “true” depending on how these statements exist in and confirm a certain myth.

As the Yugoslavian pavilion also makes clear, conflicting visions sometimes leads to a battle where opposing sides are trying to make the myth of the other visible as just exactly that, to “mystify the myth” as Barthes called it. In the liberal press, the Yugoslavian pavilion was used as a leverage to impose the image of “propaganda” on the pavilions of the Eastern Bloc, while at the same time they were, perhaps unconsciously, taking the ideal of liberal democracy for “neutral” and “true”. But communist newspaper Ny Dag ignored any such discussion and instead described these pavilions as neutral. Which brings me to my last point. Barthes writes: “…myth hides nothing: its function is to distort, not to make disappear.” While the report in Ny Dag of course could be said to be a crystal clear example of “distorting” instead of making disappear, we also see that another, Western-biased and less conscious form of distortion surfaces when discussing the Yugoslavian pavilion. A myth that makes modernism as a radical statement quite impossible.

The myth is invisible for those who “speak” it. That is the power of it. The repressive practices Piotrowski calls attention to are probably not understood as such by those who practice them. In fact, they might be the (unwilling) result of a very reflective practice. When Krauss uncovered “unconscious” stories of modernism, she contributed to shaping a stereotype of the repressor, an image of abstract modernism where the individual artist reduces art to its (media) specific qualities and where painting becomes the jewel of the crown. While this “modernist myth” was important to “mystify”, it has little bearing on the collective, anti-hierarchic constructivism Vjenceslav Richter, Zvonimir Radić, Ivan Picelj and Alexandar Srnec deployed at the Yugoslavian pavilion. Thus, an “alter-globalist” art history cannot settle with “exposing repressive practices”. It must identify that all positions are temporal, myth-making constructions, lest it becomes repressive itself.


The Yugoslavian turn towards modernism from 1948 is often discussed as either a reaching out to the West and/or as a part of a “socialist modernism”, which creates the suspicion that it lacks the integrity of its Western counterparts. I have tried to argue that neither state socialism nor the Western liberal counterpart are fruitful concepts for understanding the collaborative work of architects Vjenceslav Richter and Zvonimir Radić, and artists Ivan Picelj and Alexandar Srnec. Their work in a constructivist tradition can equally be understood as an attempt to re-radicalize a modernist tradition whose legacy has little to do with the liberal democracy it has been understood to signalize since the war. That art history has had such difficulties recognizing this, is paradoxically partly due to the many attacks on the idea of (liberal) modernism, which have contributed to cementing a stereotyped understanding of what late modernism is. By re-opening the negotiations, I hope to contribute to an un-doing of this stereotype.

For full references in text see pdf.


  1. Astrid Hedin, “Before the Breakdown of the Saltsjöbaden Spirit of Labour Market Cooperation: The Swedish Employers’ Confederation and workplace democracy in the 1960s”, Scandinavian Journal of History, (2019) 44:5, 591—616.
  2. Valerie Lynn Hillings, Experimental Artists’ Groups in Europe, 1951—1968: Abstraction, Interaction and Internationalism (diss) (New York: New York University, 2002).
  3. Ana Ofak, Agents of Abstraction (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2019), 379.
  4. That Exat 51 found more problems with the local art scene is also discussed by art historian Ljiljana Kolešnik who recounts that while the art form appeared in the early 1950s, it was only after a period of “heated polemics and ruthless ideological battles, [that] it became a legitimate part of the Croatian art scene in the mid 1950s.” See Ljiljana Kolešnik, “Zagreb as the Location of the New Tendencies International Art Movement (1961—73)” in Art beyond Borders: Artistic Exchange in Communist Europe (1945—1989) eds. Jérôme Bazin et al (Budimpešta, Mađarska: Central European University, 2016), 312.
  5. Ofak, Agents of Abstraction, 34.
  6. “Stockholmsmässan ökar kraftigt” [The Stockholm Fair expands greatly) Dagens Nyheter, July 27, 1950, 9.
  7. ”Chicagomässan gynnas av krigskonjunkturen” [The Chicago fair is favored by the war situation] Dagens Nyheter, August 8, 1950, 8.
  8. The ”First American International Trade Fair” took place in Chicago between August 7 and 19, 1950, leaving the architects and artists with a busy schedule. They had already been working with the Yugoslavian pavilion for the Deutscher Industrie-Messe, Hanover, Germany, March 29 through April 2: 1950.
  9. ”Sovjetunionen ser gärna ett ökat handelsutbyte med Sverige” [The Soviet Union looks forward to increased trade exchange with Sweden] Arbetaren, March 20, 1950: 5.
  10. ”Ballonglotteri på Eriksmässan” [Balloon lottery at the Erik fair] Dagens Nyheter 1950, August 18: 3.
  11. Ana Ofak identifies Tošo Dabac (1907—1970) as the photographer.
  12. As Ana Ofak points out, this was the first time the artists made use of an abstract sculpture, and, following up the resemblance to the art of British artist Henry Moore, she suggests that it should be understood as an example of “humanist” abstraction. This resonates well with how modernism was conceived of in Sweden, see below.
  13. Ofak, Agents of Abstraction, 81.
  14. Jasmina Čubrilo, “Yugoslav Avant-Garde Review Zenit (1921—1926) and its Links With Berlin” (research paper, part of Serbian art of the 20th century: National and Europe), 29; See also Irina Subotić “Zenitism / Futurism: similarities and differences” in International Yearbook of Futurism Studies, Volume 1, Special Issue: Futurism in Eastern and Central Europe. (Berlin: Ed. De Gruyter, 2011) 201—230. which puts more emphasis on the Futurist connection in Zenith.
  15. Ofak, Agents of Abstraction, 54.
  16. Ljiljana Kolešnik, ”Decade of Freedom, Hope and Lost Illusions: Yugoslav Society in the 1960s as a Framework for New Tendencies”, Rad. Inst. povij. umjet. 34 (2010): 213.
  17. Ješa Dengeri, ”Exat 51” in Exat 51 1951—56 Ješa Dengeri and Želimir Koščevic (Zagreb, Gallerija Nova, 1979), 96.
  18. Ješa Dengeri, “Eksat ’51 in the international and home setting” in Art and Ideology: The Nineteen-fifties in a divided Europe, ed. Ljiljana Kolešnik, (Zagreb: Zagreb Art History Assoc. of Croatia, 2004) 76 Marijan Suskovic makes a similar point when he addresses the history of Exat 51 in his essay “Exat 51 An European Art Movement”.
  19. Vladimir Kulić, ”An Avant-Garde Architecture for an Avant-Garde Socialism”, in Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 47, No. 1 (2012) 169 note 22. Dengeri, ”Exat 51”, 97.
  20. Ana Ofak, ”Expo Lab — Pavilions between Art and Industry in 1950”, in Bauhaus: Networking Ideas and Practice ed. Jadranka Vinterhalter (Zagreb: MSU, 2015), 346.
  21. ”S:t Eriksmässan affärsmässig brygga över nationsgränserna” [The St Erik’s fair a businesslike bridge over national borders], Svenska Dagbladet, August 25, 1949.
  22. ”Eriksmässan har blivit Nordens stora marknad” [The Erik’s fair has become the great market of the Nordic countries], Stockholmstidningen August 26, 1950, 9.
  23. “S:t Eriksmässan en fredsfaktor” [The St Eriks fair, a peace factor], Aftonbladet August 26, 1950, 6.
  24. Andrew James Wulff points out a shift in the politics of the USA in 1954 after president Dwight Eisenhower had discovered how the “reds” were using the fairs for propaganda and Kenneth Osgood points to how the Eastern bloc’s participation in fairs quadrupled after the death of Josef Stalin in 1953. See Andrew James: U.S. International Exhibitions During the Cold War (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield 2015), 58; Kenneth Osgood, Total Cold War: Eisenhower’s Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad (Lawrence: University of Kansas, 2006 ), 216.
  25. Jasna Galjer, “The Idea of Synthesis as a Real Utopia: Architecture and Design in Croatia in the 1950s”, in Exat 51 Synthesis of the Arts in Post-War Yugoslavia, eds. Katia Baudin and Tihomir Milovac (Dortmund, Verlag Kettler, 2017), 74.
  26. Ofak, “Expo Lab”, 353.
  27. Ofak, Agents of Abstraction, 195.
  28. Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom and the Cold War, transl. Arthur Goldhammer, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983), 201.
  29. See Ljiljana Kolešnik, “Conflicting visions of Modernity and the Post-war Modern Art”, 110.
  30. Vladimir Kulić, ”The Scope of Socialist Modernism: Architecture and State Representation in Postwar Yugoslavia” in Sanctioning Modernism: Architecture and the Making of Postwar Identities, eds. Vladimir Kulić et al. (Austin, University of Texas Press, 2014), 38.
  31. Maroje Mrduljaš, ”Architecture for a Self-Managing Socialism” in Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia 1948—1980, ed. Vladimir Kulić. Martino Stierli (New York, The Museum of Modern Art 2018), 41.
  32. Ofak, Agents of Abstraction, 240.
  33. Ofak, Agents of Abstraction, 196.
  34. See Kimberly E. Zarecor and Vladimir Kulić, “Socialism on Display: The Czechoslovak and Yugoslavian Pavilions at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair” in Meet Me at the Fair: A World’s Fair Reader, eds. Laura Hollengreen et al. (Pittsburgh: ETC/Carnegie Mellon Press, 2014) and Kulik ”An Avant-Garde Architecture”.
  35. A similar point is made by Ljiljana Kolešnik, “Zagreb as the Location of the New Tendencies International Art Movement (1961—73)” in Art beyond Borders: Artistic Exchange in Communist Europe (1945—1989), eds. Jérôme Bazin et al. (Budimpešta, Mađarska: Central European University, 2016), 312.
  36. The other founding members were the architects Zdravko Bregovac (1924—98), and Božidar Rašica (1912—92)
  37. Quoted from Marijan Suskovic, “Exat 51 A European Art Movement”, 18.
  38. Christina Lodder, Russian Constructivism, (New Haven: Yale U.P, 1983).
  39. Christina Lodder, “El Lissitzky and the Export of Constructivism” in Situating El Lissitzky: Vitebsk, Berlin Moscow, eds. Nancy Perloff and Brian Reed (Los Angeles: Getty Publications 2003), 30.
  40. Lodder, “El Lissitzky”, 36.
  41. The article about Poland was published in Ny Dag, August 29, on Czechoslovakia August 30 and on Bulgaria August 31. The text on Tito “Skotte om Tito” was published August 30, 1950.
  42. ”Ballonglotteri på Eriksmässan” in Dagens Nyheter, August 18, 1950, 3.
  43. Stockholmstidningen, August 26, 1950, 9.
  44. ”17 Länder i Eriksmässan” [17 countries at Eriks fair] Dagens Nyheter, August 26, 1950.
  45. ”Drömtelefon och Fotogenlättviktare på Eriksmässan” [Dream phone and Photogen lightweight at the Erik fair] Dagens Nyheter, September 1, 1950.
  46. Svenska Dagbladet, September 3, 1950, 12.
  47. Tomas Lewan, Sven Ivar Lind: Arkitekt och Pedagog 1902—1980 (Stockholm: Arkitekturmuseets skriftserie #3 1994), 24—25.
  48. For a discussion see Urban Lundberg and Mattias Tydén, “In Search of the Swedish Model: Contested Historiography” in Swedish Modernism: Architecture, Consumption and the Welfare State eds. Helena Mattson and Sven-Olov Wallenstein (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2010).
  49. Ofak “Expo Lab”, 23.
  50. Ofak, Agents of Abstraction, 284.
  51. M. Bratić, [Our products at the fair in Stockholm] Borba, September 16, 1950.
  52. V. Stojković, [At the international fair in Stockholm the Yugoslav pavilion is at the point of view], Politika, September 16, 1950, 3.
  53. Ljiljana Kolešnik, ”Decade of Freedom, Hope and Lost Illusions”, 212—213.
  54. Stephen C. Foster “Hans Richter: Prophet of Modernism”, Hans Richter: Activism, Modernism, and the Avant-Garde, ed. Stephen C. Foster, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998), 3.
  55. Piotr Piotrowski, “From Global to Alter-Globalist Art History”, Teksty Drugie 1 2015: 129.
  56. Rosalind Krauss, “The Originality of the Avant-Garde”, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985), 160—61.
  57. Rosalind Krauss, ”Grids”, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, 9—22 in particular page 13.
  58. Roland Barthes, ”Myth Today”, in Mythologies trans. Annette Lavers (London, Vintage, 1993), 109—159.
  59. Barthes, ”Myth Today”, 117.
  60. Barthes, ”Myth Today”, 121 (italics in original).
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