Ivan Picelj (Okučani, July 28th, 1924 – Zagreb, February 22nd, 2011)
was a Croatian artist with multiple talents and interests, who expressed his art equally successfully through the media of painting, sculpture, graphic art, and design. He studied at the Fine Arts Academy in Zagreb between 1943 and 1946, when he abandoned his studies and began to work as a free-lance artist. During his studies, together with painters Aleksandar Srnec and Ivan Kalina he founded the IPIKAS group.
His activities as artist began in 1948. Since that year, together with Vjenceslav Richter and Aleksandar Srnec and later with Zvonimir Radić, he has worked on displays of art and commercial exhibitions and designed Yugoslav exhibition pavilions for World Fairs in Stockholm, Vienna, Hannover, Turin, Chicago, and Paris.
In 1951, together with architects Bernardo Bernardi, Zdravko Bregovac, Zvonimir Radić, Božidar Rašica, Vjenceslav Richter, and Vladimir Zarahović, as well as with painters Vlado Kristl and Aleksandar Srnec he founded the EXAT 51 group (Experimental Atelier 1951), which was active during the first half of the fifties in the then dominant climate of socialist realism. Their program strongly advocated abstract art, i.e. synthesis of all visual art, which is an idea taken over from the legacy of Russian constructivist avant-garde and the Bauhaus experiences. The group announced its program at the yearly assembly of Croatian Visual Artists’ Association in Zagreb 1951. This triggered a number of attacks from advocates of “traditional” art. Next year Picelj, Rašica, and Srnec exhibited their works in Picelj’s apartment in Zagreb and then took part at the VII Salon der Réalités Nouvelles in Paris, which was the first extra-institutional appearance of Croatian artists at an international exhibition after the war. At that time Vlado Kristl joined the group, who by the beginning of 1953 exhibited his works at the Croatian Architects’ Association, at the first public exhibition of geometrical abstraction in a socialist country. It was titled Kristl, Picelj, Rašica, Srnec and soon mounted also at the Graphic Collective Gallery in Belgrade. The group played an important role in Croatian art, especially in the sense of widening the space of artistic freedom. During the 50s, a number of important cultural institutions was founded in Zagreb. The foundation of the City Gallery of Contemporary Art (now Museum of Contemporary Art) in 1954 marked the beginning of long-year collaboration with Ivan Picelj. From 1956 to 1983 he designed exhibition posters for the MSU, catalogs from 1960 to 1986 and the basic typography and its logo until 1998. His recognizable posters encompass constructivist motifs and constitute an important and valuable part of the Museum’s poster collection.
During decades Ivan Picelj has designed numerous other publications — an entire series of books published by the Croatian Graphic Institute, Central Croatian Cultural and Publishing Institute, and Znanje Publishing House, but also some self-published ones. He designed posters for prevailingly cultural institutions — the CASA Department of Prints and Drawings, the Arts and Crafts Museum, the Museum Venue at Jezuitski trg, Gavella Drama Theatre etc. Picelj shaped logos and symbols and was responsible for the graphic design of magazines, journals, and brochures. He played a pioneering role in the promotion of visual culture in Croatia and former Yugoslavia — Arhitektura magazine, Vjesnik u srijedu, logo of the Arts and Crafts Museum, Industrial Design Center etc.
In 1955 he took part in the organization of the first exhibition of industrial design in Zagreb and a year later he was one of the founders of the Industrial Design Studio (SIO).
In the 60s Picelj adopted the contemporary silkscreen printing technique and was one of the most prominent members of the so-called “Zagreb school of serigraphy”.
In 1959, with the opening of the exhibition Bakić-Picelj-Srnec he started a long and successful collaboration with the Denise René Gallery in Paris, where his last exhibition took place in 2008.
By the beginning of the 60s he was one of the initiators and founders of the international New Tendencies movement. His participation covered several areas: the organization of exhibitions in which he also took part, the role of the editor of the bit international magazine, and the design of posters and publications linked to New Tendencies. For the New Tendencies exhibitions, held in Zagreb from 1961 to 1973 at the Gallery of Contemporary Art, he created several series of programmed works in which he explored the boundaries of visual perception, mathematically founded rhythm, and the possibility of the movement of particles.
Between 1962 and 1964 he self-published seven issues of the a magazine in which in 1962 he wrote a personal manifesto titled “For Active Art”, which clearly shows Picelj’s inclination to avant-garde thinking, observable in the postulate that “active” art must at the same time be imperceptible in the sense of its penetration into everyday life, but then also omnipresent. Individual issues of the magazine were edited by Vjenceslav Richter, Victor Vasarely, Getulio Alviani, and Dimitrije Bašičević Mangelos.
Picelj developed a specific form of geometric abstraction in Croatian art by using basic colors and the reduction of forms to geometric shapes, while the multiplication of the basic plastic unit within the regular surface grid was one of the fundamental procedures in his work. He worked in series in which he addressed particular constructivist problems. Perfection in the execution is typical of his works.
He initiated many exhibitions, guest appearances, and projects founded on international collaboration with the aim of promoting constructivist art.
His works have been exhibited at many renowned institutions locally and internationally. He participated at exhibitions like the Venice Biennale (1969, 1972), A Century of Avant-garde Art in Middle and Eastern Europe (Bonn, 1994), Constructivism and Kinetic Art (Zagreb, 1995), Ivan Picelj — Graphic Art Opus 1957 – 2003 (Ljubljana, 2003), Picelj (Denise René Gallery, Rive Gauche, Paris, 2008). His works are today part of many international museum collections, for example Victoria & Albert Museum in London, Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, Boymans Museum in Rotterdam, Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum in Duisburg, Muesum Sztuki in Lodz, an well as the Museum of Modern Art in New York.