Grafički studio Vodnjan: Outlines for A Retrospective

13/08/2022 - 19/09/2022

The exhibition of posters made by Grafički studio Vodnjan (Vodnjan Print Studio) should be perceived as a sort of digest, as the first informative encounter with the rich printmaking heritage built by this studio during the 1970s and 1980s. Apoteka’s exhibition space is simply too small to present even a small part of the rich silkscreen printmaking activities of this studio and a decision was made to display only a selection of posters (along with some smaller prints), designed and conceptualised by this studio. Unfortunately, many of their creations are left out, as well as those made in the studio and designed by the most significant Istrian artists, and also many prints by the most significant Istrian artists, designed and printed by the studio. This exhibition, unfortunately, could not encompass the important sociological, cultural and visual design pluralism of this studio to a necessary extent, but let us hope that a much-needed valorisation and a comprehensive presentation of this studio, extremely significant for Istria, will be made soon.

Grafički studio Vodnjan was established in the early 1970s by brothers Armando and Licio Debeljuh as a family-owned handicraft business. Silkscreen printing was in full bloom around that time in the world and in our country; it offered new expressive possibilities, while graphic design significantly changed and improved as this medium provided new and more affordable and available editions to (artistic) prints. Around the time when the Debeljuh brothers launched their printmaking and creative enterprise, the Croatian graphic design scene was stronger than ever. In Zagreb, CIO (Centar industrijskog oblikovanja – Industrial Design Centre) was blossoming, including, among others, Stipe Brčić and Boris Ljubičić (Mediterranean Games in Split, 1979). Independently, in addition to the already mentioned Ivan Picelj and Mihajlo Arsovski, the activity of Željko Borčić, Nenad Dogan, Ivan Doroghy and Boris Bućan began, and somewhat later (Croatian National Theatre in Split, 1983, and Zagreb Symphony Orchestra, 1988) they will be the ones to take Croatian poster art to the very top of global poster accomplishments. Such production of posters owed a lot to silkscreen print, with the Student Centre Sitotisak and Brane Horvat’s and Vladimir Straža’s Studiji, which specialised in art prints, leading the way. It was in such an atmosphere that Grafički studio Vodnjan appeared as one of the first silkscreen printmaking studios in Istria, playing a pioneering role across the area from Pazin to Pula. Over time the studio moved away from its initial production for industrial purposes and turned to its own graphic expression. Very soon the majority of posters, brochures, fliers, booklets and other printed materials were designed and made by the Debeljuh brothers: Armando as a designer and Licio as a photographer. Armando set about on a family business following a long career as an organiser and editor of different cultural and social events and print editions, also with a rich experience in graphic design, while Licio devoted more and more time to photography, next to his musical activities and silkscreen printing craft. Such a symbiosis soon brought enviable results, and the creative trademark of Grafički studio Vodnjan made a great impact on the development of graphic design in Istria at the time. Interestingly, albeit logically, the brothers opted mostly for designing promotional materials for numerous cultural and athletic events, following an intense collaboration with the Pula Museum of Revolution (today Historical and Maritime Museum of Istria), Pula’s Istrian Scene, Pula’s Youth House, as well as other social and cultural institutions of the time.

Due to still dictated iconographic patterns and other design requirements conditioned by the socialist government, the creative pinnacles of the Vodnjan-based duo most frequently evidenced themselves in posters for theatre, music and film, while complete freedom of expression was perhaps the most visible in posters for MAFAF (Međuklupski autorski festival amaterskog filma / Interclub Creative Amateur Film Festival was the largest annual amateur film event in Yugoslavia, and it took place in Pula between 1966 and 1990). These posters, like most other designs of this Studio, are characterised by bold and innovative aesthetic and technical solutions achieved by skilfully combining visual (images, symbols, colours, photos) and verbal (typography) components. Grafički studio Vodnjan was always open to different forms of collaboration and often hosted the most significant protagonists of the cultural scene of the time (Boško Obradović, Gorka Ostojić Cvajner, Martin Bizjak, Miro Ploj, Alfio Klarić, Albino Crnobori etc.), just like Željko Burić, Predrag Spasojević or Noel Mirković made their first significant steps in design there. Over time, Grafički studio Vodnjan turned more to art prints and in their preparation an important role was played by Franko Macan, an associate since the Studio’s establishment.

Towards the late 1980s, Studio began to fade away, but it soon granted its premises to the Vernier Gallery (1994-2001), managed by Licio’s wife Lucija Debeljuh. Studio de facto and incognito continued its activity through the gallery activity because the still existing silkscreen print table produced small prints for the artists exhibiting in the Gallery, a constituent part of the catalogue designed by Licio, just as he designed the gallery’ original visual identity. One of the basic ideas was to make the Venier Gallery an open workshop where artists, in addition to exhibiting, could make their prints and this brought about the print portfolio Cukerančići by Marcel Brajnović. A real publishing endeavour was Istarski rukopisi – Calligrafie Istriane, an edition printed in 1998 which consisted of 20 portfolios by Istrian artists. The portfolios contained seven prints and one poem handwritten by the poet. After about ten years, the gallery closed down, which also put a final stop to the Grafički studio activities. Nevertheless, Studio and the Gallery, active for around thirty years in 70 Trgovačka Street in Vodnjan, left and indelible trace and exerted an immeasurable influence on the development of design ideas and the formation of contemporary arts and culture scene, not only in Istria, but also beyond.

Mladen Lučić

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