Yugoslav Sculpture Symposia: Uniting Workers, Artists & the World
Updated: May 25
Art, in its purest form, can achieve seemingly impossible feats. With a few strokes of a brush, carvings in a stone, or molding of clay, transcendent objects can be created that speak across lines of class, of nation states, of politics and ideology, uniting people in ways that few others mediums can. It is with these ambitious ideas in mind that Austrian sculptor Karl Prantl initiated the world’s first international sculpture symposium in 1959 in St. Margarethen im Burgenland, Austria. It all began the year before in 1958 when Prantl was commissioned by the regional government of Burgenland to erect a sculpture along the old imperial border between regions of Austria and Hungary, along the historic path between Vienna and Budapest, not far from what was then the “Iron Curtain” that divided Europe. In doing this, he began to ponder on the idea of sculptures as a mechanism for cultural exchange, as markers within the landscape and as a means of forcing sculptors outside their studios to connect them with nature, with new materials and with new people. Prantl felt that petty things such as international politics, ideological divisions and national borders should not serve as hindrances to the pursuit of art. With the Cold War raging through the world at that time, Prantl believed there should be event could that could penetrate these barriers and operate to bring artists together who might not otherwise ever meet or encounter each other’s work, potentially facilitating artistic exchange, cultural cooperation an supra-national collaboration.
With these ideas in mind, he founded in 1959 the first ever global assemblage of sculptors aimed at working together to create art, an event that came to be known as the “Symposion of European Sculptors”, which centered around an old Roman limestone quarry at St. Margarethen, Austria. Outside of the requirement that only the quarry’s limestone could be used, the participating sculptors were offered complete artistic freedom as to the shape of their works. Yet, of the works created here, nearly all of them were in variations of the modernist style, which many describe as a visual language that speaks in universal gestures and emotions.
Fourteen sculptors from across Europe participated in this first symposium at St. Margarethen. Among them was Slovene sculptor Janez Lenassi [profile page], who was not only the sole representative from Yugoslavia but also the sole representative from a communist country. As such, this made Lenassi’s participation all the more symbolic and significant. In fact, Lenassi was so moved and inspired by this experience, upon returning to Yugoslavia, he immediately began working towards the formation of a similar event for his country. Working with Jakob Savinšek, who was Yugoslavia’s representative for the subsequent 1960 symposium at St. Margarethen, Lenassi created in Yugoslavia (from what I can establish) the world’s second international sculpture symposium event, called “Forma Viva”, which convened two simultaneous events in 1961 in Slovenia, one at Portorož and one at Kostanjevica na Krki, both exploring modern sculpture in two different mediums: stone and wood. However, in 1961, modern sculpture was only just beginning to be accepted in Yugoslavia. Even in 1962, during a speech Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito made at the 1962 Youth Congresss, he says “Does not our reality supply sufficient subject matter for creative artistic activities? But the majority of young artists have been paying the least amount of attention to this reality. They escape into the field of abstract art, instead of showing our reality.”
As such, this action of Lenassi and Savinšek establishing an international sculpture symposium celebrating modern art was certainly a defiantly bold move. The level of artistic and cultural exchange (and dissemination) that occurred at these symposiums can not be overstated. And with the success of Forma Viva, similar international sculpture symposiums sprung up all across Yugoslavia, in Macedonia in 1963, in Serbia in 1966, in Bosnia i Hercegovina in 1967, in Croatia in 1969, and so on. These events, which were attended by many of the country’s greatest sculptors along side some of the most famous international sculptors, were unquestionably pivotal in spreading modern artistic tendencies across Yugoslavia. Such modernist stylings found their way out of the symposia and into the country’s wider artistic culture, even, one can venture, influencing the country’s creation of monumental art as well, as the rise of Yugoslav monuments in the modern style tracks closely with the rise of international sculpture symposia in the country.
While the creation of these international art symposia in Yugoslavia were a largely bottom-up affairs and had little direct promotion from the government, they very much came to reflect the political aspirations the communist government had for class unity and establishing the country in a global cultural context. As each new international sculpture symposium sprung up across Yugoslavia, each one focused on a different sculptural medium, whether it be marble, wood, metal, concrete, clay, etc. As such, as a sculptor would participate in each new symposium, they would be forced to work in a medium that they, in many cases, have never worked in before, especially in relation to industrial materials such as concrete, steel and iron. Consequently, this situation resulted in sculptors needing to work, often, side by side with skilled workers, technicians, and other industrial laborers through the course of creating their sculptures. This created a sense of partnership and collaboration between the artist and the worker, allowing both parties an insight into the lives and processes of the other, effectively breaking down the bourgeoisie class biases of the “elitist artist” and the “uncultured worker”. In fact, for numerous symposia, the collaboratively created sculptures were put on display in such a way as to enhance the industrial environment within which the laborers toiled, such as at Sisak and at Ravne na Koroškem.
Meanwhile, beyond just the workers, these symposia were meant to capture the imaginations of the general public as well. In traditional art symposia of the past, created artworks were usually meant to be put up for sale after their creation. However, Prantl’s symposium at St. Margarethen and similarly at Lenassi’s Forma Viva, the works of art would remain as permanent fixtures within the landscape, enriching not only the aesthetics of the environment but also all those who came into contact with them, whether it be in the setting of an organized sculpture park or sculptures spread across an urban or natural landscape. Where as art and sculpture were, during previous generations, works that could only be viewed in exalted institutions and museums, these symposiums in Yugoslavia brought sculpture to the people, breaking down the historical class barriers between the artist and the public. Thought was even given to artistically enriching the spaces that many would instinctively believe to be so defiantly public and utilitarian that they were beyond the scope of art: the motorway. As part of an initiative called “Road Art/Cesta umetnosti”, Zagreb artist Vjenceslav Richter placed a large-scale abstract work along the Zagreb-Ljubljana “Brotherhood & Unity” motorway as part of the 1965 Forma Viva at Kostanjevica na Krki. In fact, Lenassi himself was so interested in the idea of “road art” that he participated in the very first international sculpture symposium on the East Coast of America in 1968, which was a road art beautification project along the US Interstate System of Vermont called “Sculpture on the Highway” (organized by American sculptor Paul Aschenbach, who also took part in the 1969 St. Margarethen symposium).
Considering the mediumish size of Yugoslavia and its limited budget for such endeavors, the scale to which efforts were put towards international sculpture symposiums is truly unprecedented. By the 1980s, there were no fewer than eleven such events operating across the country in annual or semi-annual capacities. Such a fact is reflective of not only Yugoslavia’s dedication to artistic exploration and experimentation but, further, it is indicative of its desire to exist as a “Third Way” nation between the global East and West. It served an international stage for sculptors from the Eastern Bloc, from NATO nations, as well as from countries of the Non-Aligned Movement (which Yugoslavia was integral in assembling), to come together, share knowledge, collaborate, and create sculpture, regardless of their citizenship, politics, or background.
The following section of this article will explore each of the international sculpture symposia that existed during the Yugoslav-era, examining their creation, their significance, their influence and their current status. They are organized in the order of which were they were first established and convened.
Kostanjevica na Krki, Slovenia
Name: Forma Viva
Location: Galerija Božidar Jakac, Kostanjevica na Krki, Slovenia
Symposium established: 1961
Sculptural medium: oakwood
Coordinates: 45°50'05.1"N, 15°24'56.4"E
Along the Krka River in southeastern Slovenia within the rolling hills of the Gorjanci region is the tranquil town of Kostanjevica na Krki. It was here in this sleepy community that two Slovene sculptors, Janez Lenassi [profile page] and Jakob Savinšek, decided that they were going to initiate Yugoslavia’s first international sculpture symposium in 1961. Naming the artistic gathering “Forma Viva” (as a reference to the “living form” of sculpture), the pair was inspired to establish this symposium after they both had just participated in the first-ever convened international sculpture symposium in 1959, held at St. Margarethen, Austria (which continues to this day). The first two Forma Viva symposium sites to be established in 1961 were here at Kostanjevica na Krki, on the lawn of the 13th-century Kostanjevica Monastery, with the second site located at the seaside town of Portorož, Slovenia. As the St. Margarethen symposium centered around the sculptural medium of sandy limestone (a material that had been quarried there locally since Roman times), Lenassi and Savinšek decided that each Forma Viva symposium site would focus on a culturally distinct locally-sourced material. For Kostanjevica na Krki, the sculptural medium of oakwood was chosen, which is sourced from the famous nearby Krakov Primeval Forest, the most significant oak forest in Slovenia that has long been cultivated by loggers and foresters in this region for centuries. In fact, Savinšek, who chose this site personally, originally wished to employ local stone as the material of choice, but seeing the ease of availability of oak logs (and the poor quality of local stone), oakwood was instead chosen as the symposium’s artistic medium. Meanwhile, the symbolic quality of celebrating wood as a sculptural material was not lost on its organizers, with it being aptly pointed out that not only is wood a “living” material, a “Forma Viva” in itself, but also, wood is a material that literally accompanies humanity from (wooden) cradle to our grave (in a wooden coffin).
The first eight participants of this first Forma Viva symposium at Kostanjevica na Krki, which kicked off on July 4th, 1961, were Slovenian sculptor Peter Černe, Macedonian sculptor Petar Hadži Boškov, Japanese sculptor Eisaku Tanaka, French sculptor Jean Marie Touret, Canadian sculptor Robert Roussil, Swiss sculptor Silvio Mattioli, Israeli sculptor Kosso Eloul, and Indian sculptor Sankho Chaudhuri. Over the decades, roughly 100 sculptural works in oakwood have been created and are presently on display here (which were created by sculptors from more than 40 countries), while more are added all the time, as the symposium continues up to the present day, held every other year during the month of July (though, it is important to note that there was a 10-year interruption of the event between 1988 and 1998). In addition to the lawn of the monastery, some sculptures are also exhibited in the town center of Kostanjevica, as well as along the river. One of the most unusually placed works of the symposium's history, well outside the realm of its normal procedure, was the installation in 1965 of a sculpture called “Road Art/Cesta umetnosti” by Zagreb artist Vjenceslav Richter at the exit off-ramp for Kostanjevica along the Ljubljana-Zagreb Motorway (almost like a mysterious advertisement for the symposium seen by passing cars).
The cultural importance of the Forma Viva sculpture parks and art events cannot be overstated, with them being not only popular as tourist destinations but also as crucial pathways for creative inspiration. Even the term itself “Forma Viva” is so influential that it is now used colloquially to refer to any collection of outdoor sculptures in a park-like setting. The symposium is organized by the Božidar Jakac Art Museum, which operates out of the Kostanjevica Monastery, while the sculpture park that sits upon its lawns is on Slovenia’s register of immovable cultural heritage. The official website for the Forma Viva symposium at Kostanjevica na Krki can be found HERE, while a catalog of all of the works located at this sculpture park can be found at THIS link. Access to the sculpture park located at the Kostanjevica Abbey is free and open to the public.