The Daily Heller: Three Rarely Acknowledged Serbian Design Pioneers

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Dušan Janković (1894–1950), Mihailo S. Petrov (1902–1983) and Miloš Babić (1904–1968) were critical participants in the history of Serbian graphic design, and their best pieces represent its climax around 1937. They also spoke the same creative language as their fellow artists in Paris, London, Berlin, Vienna, Budapest and Krakow, using the international vocabularies of either the Art Deco or Avant-Garde movements.

The following text is excerpted (and edited for space considerations here) by Irina Subotić, from the catalog of the exhibit Three Interwar Poster Artists: Janković, Petrov, Babić at The Museum of Applied Art in Belgrade, on view until Nov. 24.

In the period between the two World Wars, graphic design became a significant factor in creating contemporary applied art (design and illustration of all types of publications, design of letters, logos, signs, diplomas, greeting cards, invitations, stamps, banknotes, securities, packaging, advertisements, posters). It influenced the creation of visual codes of the broadest strata of everyday life. This happened in the capital of the newly established Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes/Yugoslavia, which was hastily changing following the Modernism that marked those two turbulent decades.

The work shown here includes some printed but mostly original comps designed for foreign printers to follow.

Dušan Janković

Dušan Janković, a student of architecture at the Belgrade Technical Faculty (1913–1914), was guided to Paris by the circumstances of the First World War. He continued his education at a private engineering and architecture School of Public Works (École des Travaux Publics, 1917–1918) and at the painting department of the National School of Decorative Arts (École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, 1918–1921). This famous school set the course for Janković’s future. He became a decorative artist trained to create in a variety of applied and fine-art disciplines. During the 1920s, he occasionally turned to painting and, from the middle of the decade on, to graphics. He was also involved in the cultural life of Belgrade, where he was to return in 1935 to work as a technical editor at the National Printing House of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1935–1945). From that moment on, publication design and graphics became his principal activities. After the Second World War, Janković worked at the publishing enterprise Novo pokolenje (1945–1945) and at Jugoslovenska knjiga (1948–1950).

Janković’s early poster works show his interest in Cubism and African art, the futuristic tendency to depict movement and speed, the use of aerial perspective, modernization of folk ornaments, and new typography. … By adopting the contemporary poster-making approach, he set the subject of his advertisements, i.e., ornamental and/or figurative allusion to it, in the foreground, making his own artistic expression more moderate and abstract. His interest in movement and his choice of colors, which became richly nuanced owing to airbrush technique, remained unchanged. Experts working at the agency he collaborated with believed in representativeness of his work and included it in the exhibition staged at their London branch office in 1931. Meanwhile, Janković had no success in competitions staged by French car manufacturers and the Belgrade State Tobacco Monopoly Administration.

Posters re-emerged in Janković’s oeuvre during his final stage of creativity and life, after his return to his homeland. The works created for the exhibition activities organized by the Prince Paul Museum reveal that he continued to follow global standards.

Mihailo S. Petrov

Eight years Janković’s junior, Mihailo S. Petrov was fascinated by graphics as a visual medium, by German Expressionists, and was one of the first associates of the most Avant-Garde magazines of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, namely Zenit, Dada Tank and Út. Petrov departed from the Avant-Garde as early as 1925, got involved in mainstream painting and socially engaged and applied graphics, and became omnipresent in Belgrade cultural events through activities of the Association of Fine Artists as well as by staging exhibitions and publishing reviews. Graphics also became an area of his pedagogical work.

Absorbed by the ideas of Cubism, Kandinsky and the Constructivists, young Petrov … soon embraced generally accepted visual advertising schemes with marked expressive dynamics. Petrov himself highly valued his own posters and book illustrations, and included them, along with his other achievements in painting, in an independent exhibition staged in 1940. After the Second World War, he was one of the creators of political posters in Serbia, based on the ideas of Socialist Realism.

Miloš Babić

Miloš Babić was one of the rare interwar artists for whom commercial graphic design was a profession, and not only one of his activities. He arrived in Belgrade in 1923, at the age of 19, previously living in Subotica (1921–1923) and his hometown Novi Segedin, where he obtained his diploma at the Applied Arts School, Interior Architecture Department (1918–1921). He found a job at the painting, advertising, sign painting and decoration atelier Futur. Owing to its owners, the brothers Pavle Bihali and Oto Bihalјi Merin, it was a place where progressive ideas were discussed, particularly the mid-European art and political ideas, and a destination for publications adorned with the most modern graphic design, which remodeled the fine art solutions of the Avant-Garde movements to match the mass taste of the epoch. At that time, Babić embraced International Constructivism to produce his best posters around 1930, when he freely demonstrated his association with this progressive stylistic expression. It also affected his later design solutions. … Like many of his contemporaries, Babić felt deep respect for films as one of the modern technological and artistic achievements. His oeuvre was influenced by specific light effects occurring during film projection, like Metropolis, the cult film by Fritz Lang.

Babić took part in several national and international poster competitions. He was particularly emotionally inspired for the 1930 Geneva competition, when he produced the Flag of the League of Nations draft poster, pinning high hopes on success of this organization in preservation of world peace. It was a kind of introduction into a cycle of socially engaged paintings (1930–1937, kept in the National Museum in Belgrade and in the City Museum in Subotica) with extraordinary conceptual and stylistic expression, which were also based on his poster designs. Babić strived to become an associate of the Advertising and Publishing Office Sedma sila, founded in 1937 by journalists who were members of the Belgrade section of the Journalists’ Association of Yugoslavia. He most probably failed since the draftsmen who were eventually hired had already worked with other newspaper companies. After the Second World War, he did not return to his commercial design activities.