by mileta prodanović | pdf


Dejan Grba, Gulliver, oil on canvas, 1998-2001.

...at the End of the Era of Serbian Social Miracle

Various are the ways in which the power of media culture affects the realm of pathology and crime. In Serbia during the Nineties, the war generated a variety of endemic phenomena that remain undetected in the societies still intact by the marvels of postmodern warfare.

During the mid-Nineties, the minds of Yugoslav citizens, or at least the minds of TV buffs, got occupied by the character from a TV commercial for the Bank of Vojvodina. The commercial pioneered the computer animated TV advertising in this part of the world, notorious for its technological backwardness. In it, a digital character named Voban explained the advantages of investing money in the Bank of Vojvodina – a pointless marketing effort because Yugoslav citizens who entrusted their money to banks had already been robbed and double-crossed more than once. Quite accidentally, Voban’s name, the acronym of VOjvodina BANk, sounds just like the name of the French engineer Sebastian Vauban who formulated the principles of baroque warfare and fortification with spiky bastions and platforms, the principles according to which the castles of Kalemegdan and Petrovaradin were built.

At the end of the initial Voban advertising campaign, the news crime sections reported on the police arrest of a dangerous maniac who slaughtered women. Under the psychiatric inquiry the maniac pleaded not guilty, claiming that his deeds were all dictated by the mysterious person who introduced himself as Vob. The description of that secret adviser, if we are to believe the words of a mentally disordered fellow, precisely matched the advertisement character Voban – an unappealing yuppie with glasses.

This extreme case is not unusual – the psyche of one of the most famous Belgrade prodigies, widely known as Đole Trip, is allegedly inhabited by a virtual married couple. When the residents’ matrimonial relations are in harmony, Đole is cool. But when the couple starts quarrelling, when dishes go crashing in the mental kitchen, it becomes more than evident by the behaviour of this renowned commentator of Belgrade urban life.

With the vague media boundaries at the end of the second and the beginning of the third millennium, the variety of artistic strategies seems overwhelming. Diverse appropriations of styles, from Duchamp on, got topped by symbolic, indirect, and even literal appropriations of identities.

The Blue Lotus, Dejan Grba’s series of paintings featuring the swift cartoon hero Tintin, was created through the traditional painting procedures. The predominant technique is oil on canvas, while one painting was treated by the application of pure pigment. Grba’s project – spanned over the long years of the last decade – is, nevertheless, not the result of a simple decision to replicate the popular cartoon character. If that were the intention, a hero who is more familiar to Yugoslav audience would have been chosen.

Grba’s strategy is much more complex because it involves ‘empathy’ with Tintin’s character throughout particular situations in which the hero, as conceived by Hergé and consumed by the audience, had never got into. Tintin is here an alter ego of the artist who modifies the original cartoon frames and turns them into the ‘quasi scenes’. These situations, impossible for real Tintin, function as diagrams of the artist’s own mental states within the tilted social environment that, however strongly an individual resists it, disturbs even the most intimate personal horizons.

Thus, the irony is not present in these paintings – at least not to the degree that might be assumed at the first sight. In fact, this series goes far beyond the plain decontextualization of a cartoon that could be found, for example, in porno versions of the Snow White or in cavalcades of Who Framed Roger Rabbit with the cacophonic conglomeration of all available cartoon characters and their space-time contexts. Simultaneously recreated and deconstructed in Dejan Grba’s paintings, Tintin serves primarily as a relay of artist’s personal circumstances and intimate moods.

More than fifteen years ago, Politika Express newspaper started publishing Russel Meyer’s Broomhilda. The main protagonist of that cartoon – an obese, unattractive and clumsy witch with large nose and black hat – is, like other cartoon heroes (e.g. Hoggar, Snoopy, Soldier Billy, etc.), occasionally surrounded by the arsenal of additional characters. Broomhilda supposedly lives in the forest so the typical inhabitants of gothic novels accompany her. The most frequent Broomhilda’s assistant is a troll represented as a mass of hair from which protrude only eyes and nose and, sometimes, hands and feet. In one episode, the fuzzy troll, wearing beret and with holding a palette in his hand, paints Broomhilda’s portrait. The impassionate model can hardly wait to see her image on canvas, but when the portrait is finished it turns out that her nose is depicted as a beak and that, in fact, the portrait resembles Donald Duck’s girlfriend Daisy dressed in Broomhilda’s black cloak. Naturally, Broomhilda gets mad because she ordered the troll to paint her ‘in the style of the old masters’, while the troll does not see where he went wrong and states that, to him, Walt Disney is an old master.

Similarly to the Italian ‘hypermanirist’ painters or to their ideologically emphasized counterparts Komar and Melamid who handled historical painting from the Settecento to the Social Realism, Dejan Grba devises the particular way to shift the context of a hero whose origins might be remote to the ‘high art’ but who is, in his own perspective, also ‘classical’. That is, at least for the comic book readers. It implies that – in the social circumstances when the gag with Broomhilda is not a joke anymore – the parameters of popular culture undeniably moved into our lives, virtually matching the ‘renowned values’. In his work, however, Dejan Grba surpasses the widely spread stereotype that the products and characters of mass culture are the mere conveyors of instant values that suppress reflection or any other creative observer’s act, and that their generalness and even superficiality actually subvert any serious consideration. Many artists, from Pop Art on, actually denied that attitude. By ‘transposing’ Tintin into the realm of a subjective experience of the Nineties in Serbia, Dejan Grba did it his way.

Mileta Prodanović, Alter-Egoism at the End of the Era of Serbian Social Miracle, The Blue Lotus exhibition catalogue, Remont Gallery, Belgrade, 2001.