What is the world today? What kind of a world are we living in? More or less everyone knows the answer. The world is engulfed in crisis, recession, omnipresent corruption and economic and financial crime involving not only small things, but entire companies and states. This is not only the case in Croatia, but all over the planet. All things considered, this situation gave way to the greatest economic and political crisis after World War 2, much akin to the Great Depression which started in the US in 1929. Artists have no other option but to react to the global crisis, which brings about their own personal, social, emotional, mental and psychological crisis in turn. For example, contemporary American artists express themselves almost exclusively in the terms of anxiety, pessimism and even disbelief of a better future, especially after the 9/11 attacks. This is visible in many aspects: photographs of numerous homeless Americans, the visual artist Jackson constructed an enormous installation and used fire to remind of the atomic bomb that destroyed the city of Hiroshima (the work August 6th 1945). The situation remains confusing even in the field of painting and sculpture, as an expression of the creative crisis derived from the general crisis of the society. Painting is simulational, numerous painters paint in different styles of painting, as the “centre” has been lost as Hans Sedlmayr would say. Hence, simulational painters paint abstract, figurative, decorative, geometrical, lyrical, achromatic and coloristic paintings, but not as individuals; each painter paints individually all these paintings, which do not contain a particular style anymore, but are predominated by pastiches of all styles of painting founded in modernism and avant-garde  (Philip Taafe, Ross Bleckner, Christopher Wool, etc.). Sculptors captured in a situation where the centre has been lost create what American art critics call „commodity sculpture“ („sculpture for everyday use”: the most prominent and respected artists within this paradigm are Jeff Koons, Ashley Bickerton, Haim Steinbach, Mike McCollum).

In fact, while they remain in such a state of pessimism and anxiety caused by a loss of centre, American artists use their art merely to pose questions, never to give answers, because there is no answer: every individual is given the right to interpret art in his/her own way. What is the situation in Croatia? Different artists belonging to all generations create art which manifests in different ways as questioning the political, economic and social state of the crisis. Real, truthful, significant and critically engaged art can rarely be found as general entropy is dominant everywhere. It is hard to live and survive in a land of precarity, where small interest groups, clans and cliques are powerful to the extent of involving top state officials in corruption and crime. However, there are exceptional individuals who surpass such a state of crisis in art by applying an entirely opposite way of artistic expression. One of such artists is the still-young painter Tomislav Ostrman, a student of doctoral (postgraduate) art studies at the Academy of Fine Arts of the University of Zagreb. Ostrman creates irresistible optimistic, cheerful, funny and humorous art, which manifests itself as an escape from the gloomy and harsh reality as it is today. Right at the start of his early artistic career, he devised and created his already famous characters, the Sailor(Mornar) and the Whistler (Fućkalica). The Whistler is a male character symbolising the joy of childhood, pure love and soulfulness, together with his female partner the Flute (Žveglica). They represent the possibility of Romance (as one painting is named – “Romantika” /Romance/) in spite of the unheroic times, as Miroslav Krleža and Ivan Meštrović (some of the greatest Croatian artists of the 20th century) would describe it. 

The Flute (Žveglica) is actually an old Croatian wind instrument. Ostrman wants to allude to the auditory, beside the visual, to bring us his own idea ofsweet utopia founded on absolute peace, love and the beauty of interpersonal relationships, an entirely pristine idyllic environment of primordial human innocence. The Whistler, on the other hand, is a whistle-blower, as we may already assume in relation to familiar everyday events; it is someone who reports of illegal or even criminal wrongdoings of the cliques in their own company or work collective, for the sake of their conscience. Hence, the Whistler is conceived as a character that represents the moral authority of an individual who uncovers and fights immoral deviations present in the society. With Ostrman, the definition of this idea is perfectly clear and forms a basis to the same idea. However, this idea in its crystallised form, besides being presented in an infantile, relaxed and innocent style in his works, has a didactic and revelatory character, as it intends to construct an imaginary ideal world. This world is an attempt to recreate and reconstruct the important and significantly defining human category of long disturbed, at times even destroyed and forgotten, aspiration for Love and Kindness. Ostrman’s characters present themselves as cartoon or comic book characters. If Ostrman were an animator, his plainly drawn and painted characters of the Sailor or the Whistler and the Flute would be appraised as popular cartoon characters, certainly keeping in line with the great and important tradition of the Zagreb School of Animated Films; some 20 years ago, this was the most acclaimed school of animation in the world.

That way, his SailorsWhistlers and Flutes would become known to public just as Professor Balthazar, Vukotić’s human character from “The Substitute” or Kristl’s legendary character of Don Quijote did at their time. However, Ostrman’s method of creating characters that might appear as cartoon or comic book characters does not follow in such steps. He does not even think of it. His characters establish themselves only as motives on paintings, reliefs, at times even in art performances. In fact, Ostrman relies not only on the medium of painting, but he is interested in multimedia practice of sorts. Moreover, he has invented some other interesting characters, like the white and black Sheep (Ofce). The white Sheep represent the masses, ordinary, naïve people, who are gullible, harmless and quite silly; they can be convinced of anything and will accept anything. The black Sheep are sarcastic, cynical, intelligent, clever and wise; they represent the men of knowledge in an imaginary kingdom of general utopia. The motives of thePanda and the Giraffe appear as well from time to time.

The Panda is a troublemaker and a vigorous rebel against pretty much everything, whereas the Giraffe is the symbolic representation of the sage that controls the black Sheep. Ostrman writes sometimes on his paintings and he chooses their titles carefully just as well. For example, the painting “Romantika” (Romance) has a somewhat enigmatic character. Beneath a chequered tablecloth one can barely observe a cloth presenting a palm tree and a boat, as a hint of a possibility of an unsullied life in paradise. Another painting is named “Ne bacaj biserje pred svinje” (Don’t cast pearls before swine), showing a black Sheep explaining art and romance to a wild boar. Throughout the course of time of the creative process, Ostrman pursues the logical sequence of human burning-out. He speaks of solitude, the only possible state of mind that enables us to gradually attain wisdom; subsequently, he speaks of action, which he uses to denote the importance of art and its venerable function of depicting the world as it is, but without the pretentious intention to change the world through art, as he knows it is impossible. Romance logically follows action, as it is the basic prerequisite to love, and the process ends giving way to life as two, representing the idealised love. However Ostrman’s paintings and the appealing accompanying characters seem cheerful, happy, optimistic, funny and humorous, they represent a total dystopia in fact. Dystopia, in turn, is a product of a cynical mind. Osterman seems to follow the path of “Critique of the Cynical Reason“, an extraordinary book written by Peter Sloterdijk, a German theoretic and philosopher of art and culture.

This remarkable book, an evident post-modern theory of the state of society, civilisation and our contemporary culture, by itself presents an allusion to Kant’s philosophical treatises “Critique of Pure Reason”, “Critique of Practical Reason” and “Critique of Judgment”. These days prove one can neither think about the culture of the modern world nor make art, without being ironic, cynical and sarcastic. But Ostrman seems as if his paintings call out: Let’s give optimism a chance! Another important source of his ideas is a book written by another French significant theoretic of modernity Nicolas Bourriaud, “Relational Aesthetics”. This work has established relations, i.e., relationships between particular institutions which build the circle of life of works of art, art itself and artists themselves. It describes the cycle: work of art / artist – galleries and museums (exposition spaces) – art critics – audience – public and private collections. Bourriaud names many artists of global relevance who would not have attained such relevance if they did not manage to survive in such a cycle. Within this context, he concludes, the new aesthetics is formed, and the author appears to cry out that life itself should be lived as a work of art. Analogously, the painter Ostrman reinvents his party time planet through his sweet utopia as the planet of Whistlers who cry out: be happy, be childish, giggle, play, party… this is best attained through art. All of these are elements of initiation to the planet of Whistlers through art and by art. The planet itself is a metaphor for a positive, optimistic, cheerful, naïve and innocent, pure and sublime state of mind. The party on the party planet of the Sailors andWhistlers serves as an ideological basis to remind of the necessity to establish and organize an ideal society that would act as a fundamental opposition to the world, the society and the negative state of mind that generally prevails in the reality of the contemporary world. The man is defined as a homo ludens (the playing man) with respect to his inner essence, whose aspects throughout the history of civilisation were explained by the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga. Ostrman asks us never to forget we are homines ludentes (playing men) and reminds us to alleviate the troubles of life using the element of playfulness we carry deep inside ourselves.

In a symbolic level Ostrman treats his Flutes (Žveglice) and Bubblers (Žlaburače) in a very concrete semiotic way. The Flutes have the form of a lighthouse and represent an image of a woman as a safe harbour, whereas the Bubbler has the form of a windmill, representing a woman with moustache that complains constantly and against whom Don Quijote engages in a battle, futile of course.

Ostrman’s painting is primarily planar painting. He never engages in perspective depictions of spatial coordinates, making his compositions appear as vignettes or emblematic symbols. All of this leads us to a conclusion that this form of painting manifests itself as Kunderian “unbearable lightness of living”; the painting somehow drifts along that course exactly, as the art of painting offers the possibility to blunt the sharp edge of everyday brutality. His painting is in factvaudeville painting, as Professor Igor Rončević, his doctoral studies mentor and a painter himself, would describe it. Vaudeville is a French word describing a long tradition of stage shows that offer a mixture of operetta, comedy, circus, illusionist and acrobatic acts, pantomime, dancing, recitals, poetry, singing, etc. Some of the most famous vaudevilles are the legendary “Crazy Horse”, “Moulin Rouge” and “Lido” in Paris. These vaudevilles are in fact cabarets, but vaudeville is not merely a relaxing pastime for an idle audience, but a carefully elaborated (in dramaturgical terms) and arranged show; it speaks of all aspects of homo ludens that reside in us, always with a distinctive message, sometimes even bitter, which serves us as a means of catharsis within the context of suppression of essential and existential problems of everyday life, all while unpretentiously pursuing lightweight and frivolous motives. However, Ostrman has established his vaudeville style of painting through the use of extremely simple, skilfully balanced circular, semicircular, quadricircular, triangular or tapelike visual components that always carry a certain vital enigma deep inside. All that happens within this form of painting resides at a level of examination of human, universal, what is here and now.

Art critics have already lauded the originality and authenticity of Ostrman’s visual expression. He has already exhibited in the US, showing us how his painting holds well even in international terms. One of the significant elements of Ostrman’s artistic work is the tendency to brand his easily recognisable motives, such as SailorsWhistlersFlutesBubblers, black and white SheepPandas and Giraffes, as they simply form a trademark of Ostrman’s artistic personality. As such, they deserve to be systematised and contextualised within the dominating currents of Croatian modern art, with an intention to promote them to a universal level of planetary recognition. What is there left to the Party planet, but to go out, reconquer the same planet, and to become a planetary famous trademark to an entirely personal and individually recognisable art?

  • Enes Quien, DSc