By Madison Gable
Surrounded by the constant buzz of passerby in Zagreb, Croatia, one can sense the intricacies nuanced by the interactions between the public pieces of art and the city’s citizens. To gain a holistic understanding of Purger (Zagreb local) culture, the city’s art must be taken into consideration. While this art is plentiful throughout the streets, it is perhaps best experienced in the intimate galleries and ateliers (studios) of the city. Art can cut to the marrow of a location, capturing its small universe of complexities and paradoxes. The miracle of this is art’s acceptance of the outsider, art’s ability to convey these intricacies to the stranger and allow them to resonate with a particular culture. The traveler who seeks this depth of experience can find it in these small but inspiring Zagreb art galleries.
1. In the heart of upper-town in Zagreb, Croatia lies a courtyard hidden just past a set of heavy green doors. A walk up several floors leads to Tomislav Ostoja Gallery, where the famed Croat sculptor himself will greet you personally on Wednesdays from ten to four p.m. His work is both emotionally evocative and uniquely Croatian, but the undeniable value of a visit to this gallery is the intimate space shared between the artist, the viewer, and the art. Sunlight from the French windows streams in, illuminating Ostoja’s expansive sculptures. His 1964 piece Otocanka stands on the sill, casting a slanted shadow onto the floor. Through the windows and just past the judiciously displayed pieces is a sweeping view of the city. The art provides a distinct lens through which one can view Zagreb.
2. The Croatian Museum of Naïve Art offers an insightful look into the traditional painting style of Croatian peasants. The museum is small, exhibiting only 85 pieces, but provides a valuable glimpse into Croatia’s history without overwhelming visitors with floor after floor of art. The museum’s receptionist, Ankica Cmrk, explained that painters of this style receive no formal education in art; the technique: painting oil onto glass, has simply been handed down through tradition. She described the process carefully, pulling out an unfinished piece, pointing out how the artist paints on the backside of the thin glass, completing details first and background last so that the side they paint on is only one color once the piece is finished. While the method is often used to depict landscapes, Ivan Generalić’s Self-Portrait, a poignant work that depicts Generalić hanging his head against a vivid blue background, is displayed in the front of the museum. The vibrant colors of these enigmatic works of art represent how the artists of Croatia share their memory with any passing stranger.
3. A self-guided tour through the Mestrović Atelier, former home and current gallery of Ivan Mestrović, leads you through a secluded courtyard scattered with the famous artist’s sculptures and into what once functioned as the home’s dining room. Dark wood floors and ceilings accompany elongated velvet curtains to frame the artist’s displayed work. Across another courtyard is Mestrović’s old studio. Much airier than the main house, the atelier covers its art in sun that beams in through the skylights. Gallery employee, Iva Sopta, conceded that her favorite piece is a wood sculpture that Mestrović was unable to finish before being placed on house arrest and relocating to America, and was also his last piece made in Croatia. A visit to this atelier provides an unparalleled glimpse into Croatia’s history.
4. The Modern Gallery Studio Josip Račić, a branch of Zagreb’s Modern Gallery, delivers a similar aesthetic to its parent gallery in a limited amount of space. This intimate studio hosts temporary collections from the larger gallery that changes every two weeks with exhibitions of about 15 pieces versus the primary museum’s eleven thousand. For any traveler who is interested in Zagreb’s rich modern art anthologies, but is short on time or dislikes long hours spent in museums, this is the perfect post-lunch or shopping stop. The work of Croatian and Spanish painter Petar Pedro Maruna is currently displayed in the two-room gallery. Maruna is famed for his abstract depictions of a variety of topics including war, nature, memory and their relation to the human condition. Maruna’s 1995 depiction of the Mediterranean, Memorija, which shows Maruna’s conceptualization of space and time, is one of his many famed works on display here.
5. Fotoklub Zagreb is located on Zagreb’s busy Ilica Street, but three stories above the pavement the pedestrian sounds soften and the city’s comprehensive display of local photographic art comes into focus. Established in 1892, Fotoklub is a collaboration of Zagreb’s photographers who not only use the building to display their art, but also employ it as a location for meetings, club events and classes. Like many of Zagreb’s other treasured galleries, this one feels tucked away despite its central location. The exhibit showcases photography from winners of the prestigious Tošo Dabac Award, as well as art from its 200 club members. Fotoklub secretary, Vera Juric, humbly considers herself an artist. She has had her work displayed in previous exhibitions and is even able to proudly claim that her work is considered award winning. Juric explains that she creates her photography utilizing long exposure and low lighting. She opens her phone to show one of her photographs once on display in Fotoklub, a piece she calls Awakening that depicts a shadowed figure behind a sheet. This close interaction with not only the art, but with the producers of art is the defining aspect of this Purger gallery.
Pivotal exchanges take place between traveler and destination when art is introduced to the conversation. Zagreb’s art and those who produce it provide a unique perspective through which to view the city, personalized through the resonance anyone can feel with works of art and their creators. This discovery will unfold before anyone who seeks out any of Zagreb’s valued galleries and ateliers.