The Black Flag

October 30, 2020 1 Comment

The Glynn Vivian Art Gallery is closed for ‘firewall’ fortnight, but when it reopens you could do worse than pay it a visit.  There are several excellent temporary exhibitions, as well as some seldom-seen items from the permanent collection, including a small display of art on the theme of protest.  Its centrepiece is a striking oil painting called The black flag.

Ljubo Babić, The black flag (n.d.) (Glynn Vivian Art Gallery)

It’s by the Croatian artist Ljubo Babić, and seems to have been acquired by the Glynn Viv in 1930 through something called the Yugoslav Exchange.  It’s night time, and the moon shines high in a clear, midnight blue sky.  Below is an urban street – dark in the foreground, but brightly and theatrically lit, as if by lightning, where it curves to the right in the distance.  There are no vehicles, but the street and pavements are thronged with people, all moving in the same direction, towards the light.  From the tops of the buildings on each side of the street hang long black flags.

It takes some detective work to work out what might be going in in The black flag.  The location is Zagreb, the capital city of Croatia – probably Mesnička Street – and the date is late November 1916, during the First World War and immediately after the death of Emperor Franz Josef, the ruler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Black flags were draped in the streets as a sign of mourning for the Emperor.  Many Croats, though, were far from grief-stricken.  They had no love of the Habsburg Empire, and looked forward to its defeat in the War and the emergence of some kind of independent state in its wake (Yugoslavia came into being in 1918 after the effective abdication of Franz Joseph’s successor, Charles I, and the collapse of his empire).  While officials decreed mourning, the streets were filling with protestors wanting change.

Ljubo Babić, The black flag (1916)
(Moderna Galerija, Zagreb)

Why is the Glynn Viv’s picture called The black flag, when several black flags are in view?  The answer seems to be that it’s a later, more conventional version of a painting Babić made on the spot, from his second-floor studio in Ilica Street, in 1916.  This original work is far more radical and dynamic.  It’s dominated by a single black flag, torn at its bottom edge.  Beyond, gaps in the clouds look like crows, or smaller black flags. The sky is turbulent, and a gale seems to blow about the miniscule figures below.  This is not a scene of mourning, but of political agitation.  The artist noted at the time, ‘everything around me is falling apart’.

Babić was born in 1890 and trained as an artist in Zagreb and then Munich and Paris.  Back in Croatia he became an influential figure in the art world in the inter-war period.  After a period working in the Art Nouveau tradition, his style of painting took an expressionist turn in 1916, reflected in the two versions of The black flag, and a third, different again, that dates apparently from 1918.  In the 1930s he turned to landscape and folkish painting.  He was also active as a lecturer, author, critic, book and poster designer, and gallery curator. He designed theatre sets and costumes, founded the Zagreb Puppet Theatre, and won the Grand Prix for set design in the Paris Expo in 1925. 

Ljubo Babić, Black flags (1918) (Galerija umjetnina Split)

But by the end of the thirties Babić’s youthful leftist sympathies seem to have degenerated into extreme Croatian nationalism.  When the Ustaše, Ante Pavelić’s brutal and murderous Nazi puppet government, came to power in Croatia in 1941, Babić enthusiastically supported the new regime.  He was responsible for designing its visual identity – including its banknotes and coins, military insignia, and, ironically enough, its flag. (Interestingly, many current Croatian summaries of Babić’s career are silent about this period.)

Babić survived the war and was quickly rehabilitated.  He lived on until 1974.  His original Black flag emerged from private hands to be displayed in public in 2011, in the Moderna Galerija (Modern Gallery) in Zagreb, of which he had been the first curator. Two years later the painting featured on a Croatian stamp.

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  1. Alun Burge says:

    Good piece of detective work Andrew. The painting from his flat above is arresting. And thanks for the tip about the Glynn Viv exhibition on protest. I’ll go when lockdown eases…

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