Olga Jevrić’s Pioneering Experiments in Abstraction are Shown in London for the First Time

The Belgrade-born sculptor developed a language that acknowledged a world in flux

It is a truism that some artists, many of them women, really should be better known. The Belgrade-born modernist sculptor Olga Jevrić, who died in 2014, is one such artist. Despite the fact that she represented her native Yugoslavia at the 29th Venice Biennale in 1958, her work has only recently come to light outside of Serbia. Following a 2016 exhibition of her small-scale sculptures at the Henry Moore Foundation in Leeds – which presented Jevrić’s models for mostly unrealized monuments – as well as the Tate’s recent acquisition of some of her works, PEER and Handel Street Projects have collaborated on the artist’s first solo exhibition in London, mounted across their two spaces. Another truism is better late than never. 

Olga Jevrić, Articulation of Space II, 1956-57, cement and iron, 29 × 45 × 23 cm. Courtesy: © Digital Archive of the Heritage House, Belgrade and PEER, London

At PEER, a selection of Jevrić’s small and mid-scale sculptures are presented on tiered untreated MDF plinths – gallery director, Ingrid Swenson invited Richard Deacon and Phyllida Barlow to collaborate on the design concept for the show, enabling Jevrić’s protuberant forms to expand into their supports. Jevrić’s materials included steel rods or iron nails welded together, around which she modelled plaster and cement masses coated with ferric oxide, creating a rusted surface, which made it easier to add further layers of wet plaster. Jevrić liked to layer.

Articulation of Space (1956) is an upright structure of welded iron that suspends oblong lumps of concrete inside a frame of obliquely positioned ribs. A work of paradox, the configuration is perhaps best described in the artist’s own words, documented in a 1982 film interview screened in the show: ‘It exists in the dark and in the light, in the destruction and construction, decay and growth.’ I interpret this in relation to Belgrade’s postwar landscape – bombed buildings, piles of rubble, a world once more trying to find the light. 

Olga Jevrić in her studio Staro Sajimi te, Belgrade, 1956. Courtesy: © Digital Archive of the Heritage House, Belgrade and PEER, London; photograph: Nobuya Abe

Chiming with other artists of her generation – such as the British sculptors Reg Butler and Kenneth Armitage, whose work the critic Herbert Read identified as inhabiting a ‘geometry of fear’ – Jevrić’s physical shaping of material evokes emotional and intellectual states. In Space in a Habitat (1966/74), narrow bars jut vertically inside a rounded cave of oxidized iron, suggesting a prison within a void – or is this a nightmarish head with sharp, rusting teeth? The complex formal relationships within the work – its womblike hollow stabbed with rhythmic linearity – are underpinned by a system that unites opposites: creation and murder, freedom and entrapment.

Jevrić was a piano student, graduating from the Belgrade Music Academy in 1946, and her musical sensitivity shows through in her sculptures, which she referred to as ‘spatial compositions’, combining ‘sound masses, silences and interstices, to produce melodic phrasing.’ For all their internal dissonance, harmony, in Jevrić’s sculptures, ultimately prevails. Another work, The Form in Origination (1964), recalls a bulbous spine, each vertebrate reverberating, increasing in size like a crescendo, caught somewhere between life and death in their rusting growth. 

Olga Jevrić, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: PEER, London

At Handel Street Projects, director Fedja Klikovac fleshes out the picture by presenting black-and-white exhibition documentary photographs, small sculptures mainly from the 1950s and early works Jevrić made under the restrictive demands of socialist realism. These include figurative pieces, such as Portrait RD (1952) – a head of gypsum with broad features and Lego-like hair depicting Ruta Davičo, the wife of novelist Oskar Davičo – and, perhaps most remarkably, Relief on Theme of Reconstruction (1948), a wall-mounted slab of patinated gypsum into which Jevrić has carved semi-abstract reliefs of working people. Men and women rebuilding a war-torn Belgrade are presented like hieroglyphs. Inspired by the Stećci (carved limestone medieval tombstones) that were strewn across Yugoslavia’s landscape, Jevrić’s sculptural language acknowledged a world in flux, moving from darkness into light. 

Main image: Olga Jevrić, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: PEER, London

Louisa Elderton is a writer and editor based in Berlin, Germany. She was the Project Editor of Phaidon’s survey books Vitamin T: Threads & Textiles in Contemporary Art and Vitamin C: Clay + Ceramic in Contemporary Art, and is Content Editor of their upcoming publication The Art Book: Women Artists, due for publication Autumn 2019

Issue 206

First published in Issue 206

October 2019

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