Last week, while America headed home for Thanksgiving, I made a trip to Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia, the northern part of Yugoslavia least affected by the country’s tragic break-up in the 1990s. I had been invited to join four other international judges – among them renowned Swiss designer Bruno Monguzzi – in the first Biennial of Slovene Visual Communication organised by the Brumen Foundation, which was founded early this year. I’m often surprised, watching design judges at work, by the speed with which so many entries are despatched. It seems almost to be a point of pride for some designers to whiz round the tables as fast as possible, refusing to be detained for even a moment by the self-evident rubbish served up by their misguided colleagues. But this time it was different. I have rarely seen such careful judging and perhaps it helps that we came as interested outsiders, with no local axes to grind. For once I finished the first round ahead of my colleagues, so I decided to take a walk.
The exhibition we were judging was held in the National Gallery next to Tivoli, the city’s park, and I headed in that direction. After walking through the trees for a few minutes I saw a house with a banner announcing an exhibition of work by Ivan Picelj. I had heard of Picelj – we featured a few of the Croatian designer’s pieces in Eye in 1997 – but it was by pure chance that I had come across his exhibition in what turned out to be the International Centre of Graphic Arts.
The display occupied nine elegant rooms. The only other person there was the attendant who sat behind a window, minding the catalogues. Picelj, like many designers, created art works, as well as commissioned designs, and the graphic prints on show covered the period 1957 to 2003. Some of them, dealing with Constructivism and its heritage, were arranged in series. One set carried the words “Remember Malevitch” in bold, red stencil lettering under images of black circles, squares and grids; another urged viewers to “Remember Rodtchenko”; another to “Remember Mondrian”.
Arranged in sequence around the walls, these pieces had considerable presence, but it’s not my purpose here to describe them in detail. I realise that, unless you come from the region, you are unlikely to have heard of Picelj, however distinguished his career. Today, supported by the huge reach of our media, we celebrate our design stars relentlessly for achievements which, if we could be objective, are often quite slender. Not for the first time on a visit to post-communist central Europe, it struck me, wandering through these empty rooms, how little the English-speaking world knows about the recent cultural history of this region. In Prague, over the summer, I was shown superb book covers, with abstract designs, created in the 1960s, which are completely unknown in our version of design history. In Zagreb, last winter, my host went out of her way to gain after-hours access to a little gallery to show me a stunning exhibition of 1970s conceptual posters by Boris Bucan. The sensation on these occasions is a mixture of delight at discovering the unexpected and embarrassment at your own profound ignorance, as you redraw the map in your head to take these findings into account.
All week, before travelling to Ljubljana, I had been thinking about nostalgia. I used the word too loosely perhaps in another post and one visitor took exception. Nostalgia is a sentimental yearning for some aspect of the past and we disapprove of it as a weakness. It suggests a moral failure to embrace the reality of the present with sufficient enthusiasm. Yet, at the same time, an understanding of history is also seen as a virtue and to enter history imaginatively you have to invest emotion as well as thought, and this investment can be poignant and pleasurable. Picelj’s prints, with their invocation of graphic tradition and requirement that we remember, embody a similar yearning. In these deserted rooms, belatedly encountering his work, I too felt a little melancholy. After a while, it occurred to me to look out of the window. A steep, tree-covered slope rose up high behind the house. It was blanketed with fallen leaves.