Posted by: Valentino Radman | March 4, 2011

Ljubo Babić – versatile Croatian modernist

Self Portrait, 1919

Ljubo Babić (1890-1974), was a Croatian painter, graphic artist, theatrical set and costume designer, teacher, art historian, critic, and museum curator. As an artist, he worked in a variety of media including oils, tempera, watercolour, drawing, etching, and lithography. He was one of the most influential figures in the Zagreb art scene between the two world wars. He collaborated with director Branko Gavella in creating a series of set designs for the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb. In 1940 he became a full professor at the Academy of Fine Arts Zagreb. He held exhibitions at home and abroad and published many articles on art history and critiques of contemporary art events. In addition, Babić wrote and illustrated many books, worked on designs for posters, interiors and decorative arts objects.

Illustration for a book of poetry, 1908                                         Engraving, 1911

Babić attended the Academy of Fine Arts, Munich where he studied painting under Franz von Stuck. In 1913-14 he went on to complete his art studies in Paris, returning to his homeland at the beginning of the First World War. His early work from that period shows some poetic symbolism and art nouveau. In portraits, he soon began to depict the more psychological characteristics of his subject. From 1916, expressionistic ideas and themes appeared, and a move towards abstraction, resulting in some of his finest works. In November 1916, on the death of Austro Hungarian emperor Francis Joseph, all the streets of Zagreb were dressed in black flags. Inspired by this image, Babić, then aged 26, painted the scene from the second floor window of his studio on Ilica Street. In the foreground is a long, torn black flag (which symbolizes both oppressed nations under the Austrian crown, and the imminent collaps of the empire). Behind it are ominous clouds, and below the people passing. Crna zastava (Black Flag) stands as one of his most memorable images. One can not find similar pictorial composition in European art of the period.

The Widows, 1912                                                                   Black flag , 1916

A journey to Spain in 1920 resulted in an expressive series of paintings and sketches. That cycle of Spanish street scenes was well received and stands as a high point of Babić’s own art and Croatian 20th century painting in general.

Watercolor sketches from the trip to Spain, 1920

Around 1930, Babić started a series of landscapes and people from around Croatia. He would travel south in the summer months, sketching scenes from Koločep and Pelješac to Čiovo and Trogir (1930-1936). He was working on what he called “native expression”, believing that the landscape, historical experience and folk art could reveal the characteristics of the people. Back in his studio, he created an impressive cycle of landscapes (the series Rodni kraj (Homeland) between 1933 and 1939.

Houses in Orebić, 1930                                                                   The Path, 1930

Ljubo Babić was one of the creators of the golden years of Zagreb theatre in the 1920s and 30s. He made his debut as set designer in 1918,  creating in total about 180 designs (often also sketches for the costumes) for drama, comedy and operatic performances. His designs were always based on the logic of the stage events, and contributed greatly to the development of dramatic action. He was also the founder of the first artistic Puppet Theatre in Zagreb (1920), and his set designs for the Paris Expo in 1925, earned him the Grand Prix.

Babić’s literary output includes 20 books, brochures and special editions, around 400 articles in periodicals, many encyclopedia articles and several educational programs. In addition to educational and critic works, he also left a number of travel and autobiographical texts. Babić’s travelogue text New York “skyline” was included in an anthology America Spectrum from 141 works of European writers and works (Spektrum America aus Werken hunderteinundvierzig europäischer Dichter und Werken), in 1964. He was a member of several editorial boards of literary magazines, and editor of the Academy bulletin 1957.

I took these photos last week at the exhibition Ljubo Babić/ Anthology in Zagreb Modern gallery.



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