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Gentleman Next Door: Antonio G. Lauer, a.k.a. Tomislav Gotovac, and the Man Undressed in Times of Socialism

Tenderness, unburdened sentiments, and freedom are rarely found in the cinematographic spectrum of the 1950s. Arne Mattsson’s 1951 film One Summer of Happiness already assures us with its title that we are going to see something perishable. Just as the water of the lake where the two protagonists swim glitters only on the surface, and only when the sun is going down, the moments they share in this fluid and forgiving medium are already doomed. The film’s rather predictable boy-meets-girl story nevertheless presents one trope that was scandalous for the time: nudity. And we are not just talking about contours of naked female and male bodies at play, but a clear view of erect nipples. This came as close to sex on screen as 1950s audiences were likely to see. After receiving a Golden Bear at the second Berlin International Film Festival in 1952, the movie only made it to New York City in 1957. However, it was shown in Zagreb in 1952 at Kino Prosvjeta (Cinema Education), a movie theater on the ground floor of a former military hospital on Krajiška Street. Every fifteen-year-old seeing it must have gleaned enough material for an outburst of romantic or raunchy fantasies—except for one. Antonio G. Lauer, a.k.a. Tomislav Gotovac, decided many years after One Summer of Happiness that “what was implanted in [his] artistic brain [back then] was that nudity was one of the most important things through which you can tell the world your attitude toward it.”

Gotovac’s attitude, present in his entire body of work, was to provoke and please at the same time. It rarely abated and is echoed in contemporary correlations between artistic practice, the body, and factologies of the social. Who was this guy taking a stance for nudity in art when Marina Abramović was still a teenager, and coping in a society that condemned anything remotely unconventional (Gotovac’s 1962 performance Showing Elle was his first attempt to take off his clothes in public)? Over the last few years, several notable shows have offered new perspectives on Gotovac’s work. In the autumn of 2012, Tobias G. Natter and Elisabeth Leopold, curators of the Nude Men exhibition at the Leopold Museum in Vienna, placed Gotovac’s Foxy Mister (2002) at the center of the audience’s attention. At the time, one visitor told me that as soon as he entered the space where Foxy Mister hung, everything else faded to gray. In comparison, Robert Mapplethorpe’s Cock and Jeans (1978), also part of Nude Men, turned into just another stylized image from the Charlie’s Angels 1970s. The curators described Foxy Mister, in which a nude, aging Gotovac adopts the poses of a young female sex worker, as “ghoulish humor.” However, his nudes are more than persiflage or a parody of the constructed differences between the sexes. The artist rarely complied with categories; instead, he explored and exasperated them. And yet, Gotovac’s nudes were not widely circulated. In the spring of 2013, the exhibition Zero Point of Meaning at Camera Austria, curated by the art historians Sandra Križić Roban and Ivana Hanaček, turned to Gotovac’s early photographic work. His Heads (1960) were chosen for their implicit reflection of surrealist and nouvelle vague criticism of conformism and the church. Križić Roban and Hanaček arranged the images in the way Gotovac himself had originally intended: vertically aligned to resemble a totem, and mounted much higher on the wall than the works that surround them, as if Gotovac’s totem ruled over these other works. This detail is worth mentioning, because it is far from easy to exhibit the work of a perfectionist. Few others succeeded. A later series of photographs, also called Heads (1970), was shown at Frieze Masters 2013 by the Parisian gallery Frank Elbaz, and was curated by Gotovac’s longtime collaborator, the photographer Žarko Vijatović, and the artist Danka Sošić. Afterwards, both MoMA and the Tate inquired about organizing seminars on Gotovac for their curating staff, who were eager to beef up their Eastern European art epistemology. The Heads (1970) series depicts Gotovac in sequence: fully bearded, then partly shaven with sideburns, and then completely shaven and bald. The twelve mug shot–like portraits pay homage to the artist’s favorite troika: Godard, Dreyer, and Bresson. Gotovac’s cinephilia, combined with his unmistakably bold, bossy, brassy gestures and his slightly unsettling but attractive nudes, just might be the secret of his continuing rise. Not surprisingly, some have placed considerable monetary expectations on this rise.

When Gotovac’s widow, Zora Cazi-Gotovac, offered the city of Zagreb the opportunity to preserve—in cooperation with the Croatian Film Alliance and the Museum of Contemporary Art—the artist’s estate at Krajiška Street 29, city administrators declined because of budget deficits. Considering that at the time, the inhabitants of some areas of Croatia, including parts of Zagreb, only had access to drinkable water by way of antiquated water pumps, it is relevant to mention other projects the city did support. Most prominent among these was a large and colorfully lit fountain in front of the National Library, built at the behest of the city’s mayor. In the face of such neobaroque techniques of power and play, one might assume that Gotovac’s work couldn’t prevail. However, three years after the city turned down Cazi-Gotovac, the mayor inaugurated a commemorative plaque on Ilica Street honoring Gotovac’s performance Lying Naked on the Asphalt, Kissing the Asphalt (Zagreb, I love you) (1981). In this performance, the artist paced the city’s main street barefoot and naked, lay down on the pavement, and graced it with his kisses. Last autumn, two bronze casts of the artist’s rather large feet where installed to commemorate the happening. Many Croatians welcomed this belated gesture of recognition. Others, some of whom were close to the artist, speculated in private about the fate of such walks of fame—about the one in St. Louis, which honors famous St. Louisans, amounting to not much more than a Wikipedia corpse; or about the one in Berlin, which honors German film stars, and which is either permanently under repair or ignored by citizens and tourists alike. Typically, these civic gestures merely give the illusion of a profitable cultural investment in provincial minds.

Instead of compartmentalizing Gotovac’s work into different categories—like performance art, body art, or conceptual art—it is a challenge worth taking up to stay with Krajiška and the operations that occurred in and from there. And it is a challenge to concentrate on his nudes. Starting with short film sequences, then passing to collage, using his body in performance and photography as well as in conceptual projects, Gotovac assembled a “total system.” According to film critic Hrvoje Turković, this kind of “total system” is a compilation of complementary works that together form an all-encompassing totality. Gotovac’s collaborators and friends love to seek explanations for his doings too, just to escape the dictum “Tom was Tom.” The total system was a “Tom system,” or in the artist’s own words, a “system of directing and viewing.” These were the favored techniques of a man who was a schooled film director and an obsessive reel consumer, who returned to his favorite scenes up to a hundred times. Gotovac made sure his art was saturated with his cinephilic knowledge and his obsession for micro-visualities that only his eye could perceive. Much of this began in 1941 when Tomislav, at four years old, moved with his family to Krajiška—just next door to Kino Prosvjeta.

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