On the Verge Between Abstraction and Reality

photography by Slavka Pavić
written by Iva Prosoli

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In the spring of 2014, the Zagreb City Museum housed a retrospective of the photographer Slavka Pavić, which was her first major exhibition in the museum context. Although well-known in photographic circles and distinguished in the opinions of numerous art historians as one of the most significant female photographers of the second half of the 20th century, it was the first time Slavka Pavić was presented in the width of her work in any well-known museum.


The concept of this exhibition was realized by taking into account the full breadth of the author’s interests and work. The selection of photographs ranging from almost sixty years of artistic activity was executed in collaboration with the author so as to provide a better insight into the whole of her artistic oeuvre. The exhibition was organized and set thematically for the purpose of demonstrating the continuity of ideas and approaches. Slavka Pavić has donated the featured photographs to the Zagreb City Museum, thus significantly enriching its photography collection and enabling further research and contextualization of the art of photography in Croatia throughout the second half of the 20th century.


In her long career, Slavka Pavić has held nineteen solo exhibitions and participated in over three hundred joint exhibitions both at home and abroad, and in doing so won numerous prizes and recognitions. Apart from her artistic achievements, her educational activities are rather important. She was one of the founders of the Women’s Section of Fotoklub Zagreb in 1973. Alongside Đuro Griesbach and Vladko Lozić, she co-organized a series of the Section’s exhibitions entitled Žene snimaju, of which she later became the main organizer.


Slavka Pavić started to work with photography in 1951, at the incentive of her husband Milan Pavić, with whom she often collaborated in the years to follow. This was the time of growing interest in photography and its affirmation as an autonomous art in Croatia. The artistic vocabulary introduced in the 1930s, consisting of a novel perception of the photograph and use of its technical possibilities, the author’s emotional distance, mechanical understanding of objects, application of photogram, photo-collage, solarisation, double exposition, sandwich-negative and the geometrical view of scenes, was enriched by the appearance of an intimate approach and individual interpretation, as well as the anticipation of specific art and the art of neoconstructivism. Slavka Pavić has been applying these ideas throughout her work and career, regardless of topic or genre.


Ever since the very beginnings, Zagreb has been one of Slavka Pavić’s favourite subjects. Even her first photograph, entitled A Boy, from 1951, was taken in front of the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb. Marked by an extraordinarily mature composition, reduced primarily to the relationships of geometric forms, this photograph announced an author with an accentuated interest in detail and structure, who would commonly, through interesting and quite unusual cut-outs, reinterpret daily motifs and vary the primary meaning of scenes. Originating from the same year are the city scenes including the now anthological photographs such as Yard Window and In the Passage. It is precisely in those earliest photographs that Slavka Pavić uses the urban landscape as background for dramatic artistic play, finding geometric forms within the city and accentuating them using shadow.


With the expansion of Zagreb onto the southern bank of the river Sava, new architecture and changes to the urban landscape brought along a new well of inspiration. For instance, during the visit to the newly opened Zagreb Fair in New Zagreb, she shot the well-known Composition, a photo of ladders leaned against a wall. Owing to stark contrasts, the photo was reduced to a rhythm of lines and surfaces, and the motif of ladder, climbing upwards and ending in the shadow, gave this image a symbolic meaning. However, it is less known that this Composition was originally a part of a triptych and exhibited as part of a whole during the mid−1970s. By widening the plan and introducing the human figure into the other two photographs of the unit, the whole is given a narrative dimension. Geometric and static space with a man in movement.


In this context, what should also be mentioned are the Horsemen photographs, four pictures taken near the Zagreb Hippodrome, among the most poetic in the entire opus of this author. Wide white surfaces with small black specs, i.e. horses and one lonely human figure in one of them, create surreal atmosphere with an existentialist message. The little Man and the grand Nature. This is the motif that Slavka Pavić would return to and repeat in her landscape images, which are, contrary to the contrastively executed constructivist compositions, rich in nuances of colour, detail, and organized in several plans.


At about the same time numerous photographs of roads were also created. Regarding the style, they range from documenting from a distance in the manner of the new topography to various images done by experimentation during developing and enhancing the contrast for the purpose of creating a graphical impression. Slavka Pavić also demonstrates an interest in the marginal. Throughout the 1970s, she produced a series of photographs featuring traffic signs: This was the time of changes, when suddenly more and more signs were appearing on the roads, saying go here, don’t go there. This was something that I simply had to document. Those were new objects that gave the city a new appearance, she told Branka Hlevnjak in an interview published on the website of the Croatian Association of Artists of Applied Arts.


Slavka Pavić is the author of numerous photographs of the city of Zagreb and its many changes, seen today as reminders of times long past. Yet, her role in the history of Croatian photography is quite significant. She is formally innovative, open to experimentation and questioning of art features as well as the technical possibilities of the medium. In her photographs she almost always retains the narrative component and a personal comment, which makes them semantically multilayered and defines her as a representative of subjective photography.