The story of Zenit and Zenitism is a world story – whether people like it or not. And the National Museum of Serbia missed a great opportunity to commemorate one of the most important dates of the Serbian avantgarde. And it could have created a remake of Irina Subotić’s wonderful 1983 manifestation “Zenit and the avant-garde of the twenties”. That was Europe in the National Museum of Serbia!
The date of 1st February 2021 marked the hundredth anniversary of the release of the first issue of the “The International Review of Culture and Art” – “Zenit” [Zenith], founded and edited by Ljubomir Micić… I find interesting the determining of the concept and poetics of this most important and most significant periodical of the Serbian and Yugoslav avant-garde: from issues #4 to #7 Zenit was “The International Review of New Art”, from issue #8 it was “The International Review of Art * East – West”, from issues #11 to #15 it was “The International Journal of New art”, and from the 16th issue Zenit became “The International Journal of Zenitism and New Art”, while in the so-called extraordinary-special edition of 23rd September 1922 it was determined as being “The Zenitist Herald for Balkan Culture and Civilisation”. From 1924 until the cessation of publication it was “Zenit”, with the tag “International Journal”.
Zenit founder and editor Ljubomir Micić is the most controversial, most frequently attacked, most contested, most undermined and most tragic hero of Serbian culture on the one hand (among so-called intellectual circles of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes or the Kingdom of Yugoslavia), while on the other hand, in a global context, he is one of the most respected, renowned and esteemed personalities of the avant-garde movement of 1920s and 1930s Yugoslavia.
In these horrible times of the pandemic, on 1st February this year, the centenary of Micić’s “Zenit” was commemorated in the Belgrade branch of Art Gallery Rima, at 8 Pariska Street. It just so happened that I found myself in Belgrade in mid- February, and quite by chance I found out from a bookseller called Vlada about the exhibition ‘Zenit Magazine (1921-1926)’. Although modest in the number of exhibits, it is nonetheless an important symbolic sign in terms of importance and value. I inquired about the large collection that had been prepared and edited by Irina Subotić and was told that hadn’t been released due to some problems that arose between Art Gallery Rima and the National Museum, which preserves Micić’s artistic legacy – a treasure of the world that was brought to that museum thanks to Irina Subotić, who is an exceptional and hard-working curator.
There is no way of forgetting the outbursts and transgressions of some who tried with all their might to dispute the worldwide moment of Zenitism: in one place could be found works of world avant-garde artists who had at some point exhibited in the Zenit Gallery of New Art (Archipenko, Moholy-Nagy, El Lissitzky, Kandinsky, Chagall, Tatlin, Zadkine, Charchoune, Rodchenko, Egon Schiele, Lozovik, Teige, Kasak, Černigoj, Petrov, Jo Klek, Gecan, Bijelić, Paladino, Prampolini et al), which the unfortunate Micić preserved in his pauper’s home. That was certainly an act that would, in every civilised culture, have placed Ljubomir Micić among the ranks of the greatest benefactors of not only Serbian but also European art.
However, when the facts are read literary-historically and artistically, they responsibly tell us about much more complex circumstances in the Serbian literature of the 1920s. The main figure devaluing everything that was new during those years was Marko Ristić, a key literary ideologue of the 1950s and ‘60s, who wrote about our tragic hero in the “Index” of his broadly acclaimed Literary Politics [Književna politika,1952], writing: “Micić, Ljubomir, Serbian writer, anti-talent and mystifier, editor of Zenit, founder of Zenitism, ideologue of barbarogenics, and so on: nothing”. It was a verdict calling for the complete expulsion of a creator of the world avant-garde movement from Serbian and Croatian literature.
But who actually was Ljubomir Micić? Born in Sošice near Jastrebarsko (Croatia), he was a poet, narrator, novelist, actor, editor (of Zenit magazine and Zenit Library), set up a gallery (Zenit-gallery), worked as a medic… He graduated in philosophy from the University of Zagreb. And he was an exile (he resided in Paris from 1926 to 1936). After returning to Belgrade, he and his wife, Anushka, also lived in exile of a kind, first at 69 Njegoševa Street, then, in the post-war years, at 18 Prote Mateje Street – in the same street where his chief detractor, Marko Ristić, also lived. He died in a nursing home in Kačarevo (1971).
The Wikipedia page states that “Zenit was a magazine of an international character, in which many prominent artists of the period published their works in French, German, Dutch, Hungarian, Esperanto etc. It had particularly important links with Italian futurists, primarily with the founder of their movement Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, which testifies to the affirmative attitude of ‘Zenitists’ towards new technical and technological achievements.
On the other hand, following his break with the Expressionists, Micić began to advocate for different ideas, which became the foundation for the poetics of Zenitism: the idea of Barbarogenics, advocating for the Balkanisation and barbarisation of Europe. Such aspirations towards the primitive and primordial appeared after World War I, arising from disappointment in Western European values and saturation with Western European culture. Micić believed that the Balkans, as an as-yetunexplored territory, offered freshness, incorruptibility, the ability to regenerate the faltering Western European man.
Micić believed that the Balkans, as an as-yetunexplored territory, offered freshness, incorruptibility, the ability to regenerate the faltering Western European man
Despite all the contradictions, nationalism, on the one side, and cooperation with European artists on the other, despite contrasting collaborators and the desire to break with other avant-garde schools, Zenit remained focused throughout its existence on novelty and innovation, newer media and branches of art (radio, film, jazz), advocating for anti-traditionalism and anti-militarism, with man at the centre of attention.
Driven by the ideas of Russian avant-garde artists, Micić represented a constructivist approach to creativity, which does not recognise inspiration and enthusiasm, rather a conscious work of art, programmatic creative with a clearly defined goal and intention.
He published the following books of poems: Ritmi mojih slutnja [Rhythms of My Hunches, 1919], Spas duše [Salvation of the Soul, 1920], Stotinu vam bogova [A Hundred Gods for You, 1922], which was censored and banned, then republished that same year under the title Kola za spasavanje [Lifebelt], and again banned, Aeroplan bez motora [Aeroplane Without an Engine, 1925] and Antievropa [Anti-Europe, 1926]. He published books in French: Hardy! A la Barbarie. Paroles zenittes d’un barbare européen (1928), Zéniton, L’Amant de Fata Morgana (1930), Les Chevaliers de Montparnasse (1932), Etre ou ne pas être and Après Saraïevo – Expédition punitive (1933), Rien sans Amour ( 1935), Barbarogénie le Décivilisateur (1938) – and this makes him one of the most famous Serbian avant-garde artists, alongside Moni de Bouli, in French literature (and was exceptionally well received among French critics).
Thirteen issues of ‘Zenit’, from 1921 and 1922, spawned Serbian Dadaism (Dragan Aleksić), which would be manifested most radically in 1922 with the gazettes “Dada tank” and “Dada jazz” (editor and founder Dragan Aleksić) – that marked the point of separation and the start of polemics over who Dadaism belonged, which would culminate with the Zenitist anti-Dadaist magazine “Dada jok”, created by Ljubomir Micić and Branko Ve Poljanski. At the same time, during those two years, ‘Zenit’ published prose and poetry by the most important creators of Serbian expressionism (Vinaver, Krakow, Rastko Petrović, Boško Tokin, Dragan Aleksić, Dušan Matić – the later surrealist poet and the only one to find himself in the Zenit “flock”!).
And even when the aforementioned creators left ‘Zenit’, its structure and content ensured that it remained exciting, provocative and decidedly polemical.
However, what renders ‘Zenit’ an international magazine is the fact that the so-called anthology issues – the most famous is the anthology issue “New Russian Art” (issues #17-#18, 1922) with articles by Khlebnikov, Mayakovsky, Ehrenburg, Lissitzky, Pasternak, Malevich. Aseeva, Yesenin, Tairova et al. Then the so-called German issue #16, which published within it the “Categorical Imperative of the Zenitist Poetic School” and the Zenitist verses of Micić and Poljanski. However, when it was renounced by Serbian writers, the magazine gained diversity and internationality through numerous world creators: Raoul Hausmann, Franz Richard Behrens, Henri Barbusse, Fels, Jaroslav Seifert, Karel Teige, Pierre Albert-Birot, André Salmon, Adolf Hoffmeister, Paolo Bucci, Herwarth Walden, Max Jacob, Ruggero Vasari, Lajos Kassák et al.
And to conclude with excerpts from the manifesto “Man and Art”, from the very first issue of ‘Zenit’, which was published in Zagreb in February 1921, by its owner and editor-in-chief Ljubomir Micić: “All us poets wear the blackness of darkness, and that is our great punishment, that we are poets today. We are all pushed into space and do not know ourselves whether we are crazy or above time. We, as apostles of the crucified Man, preach faith in the New Man and await his revelation. We are no longer waiting for an emperor – we are waiting for Man! … Man! … Man! …
The tragic power of new art lies in the desperate cry: Man! And that’s why today it is the furthest from ancient beauty and l’art pour l’art-ism. She is the New Spirit who creates, and the artist’s eternal urge is to create. Art, which in our meaning – expressionism is the strong will to create new values – new forms. She has a strong yearning to be published. She is yearning for eternity. She is the scream of our love. She is a scream for salvation and for ascension. Art is universal – omnipresent. And that is why there is no specific national art, much less class-based art. We poets – the artists of this country – extend our arms to everyone who thinks like us, to everyone for everything above the shattered human skulls. Our souls are stuffed with yearning for revelation. And art is the great revelation of the Spirit and the great fulfilment of man’s yearnings. It is our eternal restlessness, eternal dynamics, movement, eternal anarchy, eternal revolution. There can be no dormancy in it. Our tragedy of unrest and dying has reached its Crni Vrh and determined a new direction for art. Today is the Second Renaissance.
It was in expressionism that it found its strongest affirmation. Expressionism is the imperative of the soul for the strongest expression in a work of art. Zenitism – as an incarnation of spirit and soul, is an imperative for the highest expression in a work of art. Zenitism is striving to create the highest forms. Zenitism is abstract meta-cosmic expressionism. Zenitism and expressionism are mirrors in which we will see reflected our terrible inner pain – the drama of our soul. They will remain haunted mirrors for unborn generations that have them conceived in the blood. Because they will not find themselves, but they will find – us. They will long seek themselves helplessly in the future, and again they will find us. And we, like terrible apparitions and phantoms, will wander with bloody hands through their dreams and nights. We are the testament of future sons who should sacrifice themselves for the salvation of Man, and we leave them our Golgotha and the Mount of Olives in our works – who paves the way to the resurrection.
Our cry: MAN!
Our faith: ZENITISM.
‘Zenit’ (1921-1926) and zenitism a hundred years on: inspiration for some new avant-garde, or for the beginning of new quarrels, new misunderstandings, new adulterations – for a story about a new man, new values, new arts. Or for the story of some new hatreds, like the one from the beginning of this article that everything that belonged to Micić is tantamount to “nothing”. On the contrary, this is a great European story which, among impartial interpreters, becomes exciting material for new readings, and thus a new contextualisation – of both ‘Zenith’ and the zenitism of Ljubomir Micic – the most novelistic personality of the Serbian avant-garde.
By Gojko Tešić