The international collection of paintings in the National Museum in Belgrade continues the story of this museum. In my previous two posts, I wrote about Serbian medieval art and Serbian 19th century painting. Surely, those are truly magnificent works of art and, as I previously mentioned, probably the most interesting to see. This is especially true for people that want to get acquainted with the Serbian art and culture.
However, the international collection – although not at the same level as famous collections in museums in Paris, Vienna or Rome – is also very precious and captivating. It contains veritable masterpieces which are definitely worth seeing, especially because they are unique and can only be seen in a museum in Belgrade.
THE INTERNATIONAL COLLECTION
The international collection contains approximately 1100 paintings and sculptures, mainly by the European artists. It covers the time between the 14th and the 20th century. Since initial acquisitions, the international collection aimed to encourage the understanding of other cultures. It also positioned Serbia in the cultural, social and political space of Europe and the world.
The core of the collection is a gift from a Slovak painter Berthold Lippay in 1891, when the National Museum received 70 artworks by the Italian-Venetian artists.
The most represented and the most important part of the international collection are the Italian, French, Flemish, Dutch, Russian and Austrian art.
THE 14th AND THE 15th CENTURY
In the first half of the 14th century, Italian cities were becoming important trade centres, connecting the Mediterranean with western and northern Europe. In them, the feudal order was turning into a society based on a market economy. These changes, as well as the rise of the middle class, paved the way for the formation of local art schools. In Tuscany, the region with most important artistic trends, besides Florence, the cities of Sienna, Arezzo and Pisa came to prominence.
Owing to its specific position as the most important maritime and commercial power, Venice made its economic and cultural ties with Constantinople a priority in its policy programme. The cosmopolitan spirit that reigned in the Republic made it accessible to influences arriving from the east and the west.
Paolo Veneziano, the most influential and most prolific Venetian painter of the first half of the 14th century, based his work on the Byzantine tradition.
A particular style was developing in Sienna, notable for its Gothic forms, radiant colours and elegant lines. In preserving the Byzantine style of portraying the Virgin Mother and the Gothic tradition, while also resisting the influences of nearby Florence, Sienna became one of the most prominent centres of art in the 14th and 15th centuries.
In Florence, Giotto’s work awakened interest in a more natural portrayal of the human body, as well as in a more realistic representation of space, which became three-dimensional. The golden background, meant to evoke the expanse of the heavens, began to disappear. The visual culture of Florence and other centres in this period gradually abandoned the Byzantine influence. That made way for a process of creating art that observed and depicted reality, by reaching out more and more often for the distant, yet still impressive models of classical Antiquity.
Sermon of St. John the Baptist – Juan de Flanders
The painting below was part of the altar polyptych, dedicated to St. John the Baptist. Queen Isabella of Castille commissioned it for the Miraflores Charterhouse. The artist, Juan de Flanders, was identified in the 20th century. He was educated and trained in Flanders, although his artistic activity was documented in Castille, where he spent some time working as the court painter.
The oil technique made it possible to apply several transparent layers of colour, to achieve precision and depth of space and also to meticulously depict the greenery and realistically convey details.
Tondo is a circular painting, a symbol of perfection and harmony in the humanist culture of Florence. It became particularly popular in the late 15th century. Depictions of the Virgin with Christ Child were mainly designed for a domestic setting. They were an expression of private devoutness, but also of a woman’s position in society.
Tondo in the photo below was created in Lorenzo di Credi’s workshop in Florence. The artist had inherited it from Andrea del Verrocchio. Lorenzo di Credi had previously learned the trade in a workshop along Leonardo da Vinci. You can see Leonardo’s influence in the softening of the contours and strong lines. Also, in the depiction of landscapes that fade into the mist.
THE 16th CENTURY
At the dawn of the 16th century, maritime discoveries and the invention of printing let to a comprehensive transformation in all areas of Europe’s societal life. Economic, political and religious events, but also intellectual and scientific achievements marked the 16th century as the beginning of Modern Age.
In art, the Renaissance reached its peak in the first decade of the century. However, the harmony accomplished in the High Renaissance works would be undermined by the appearance of Mannerism.
On the Apennine peninsula, the art of Renaissance continued to make progress in regional schools. At the end of the first decade, Rome became the centre of art. Artists arrived in the city from all parts of Italy and joined in projects under the papal patronage. This turned Rome into the epicentre of artistic activity and a place of the most sublime achievements of the High Renaissance.
Meanwhile, the local rulers fostered a humanist culture, that gave rise to an art primarily intended for the aristocracy, often designed by the intellectual elite.
But, in northern Europe, it wasn’t until the start of the 16th century that the Renaissance came to its full expression in the works of Dutch and German artists.
The Temptation of St. Anthony – Hieronymus Bosch follower
The theme that Hieronymus Bosch executed in 1503-1504 became very popular among the Netherlandish urban elite throughout the 16th century. Its attraction is in both its secular content and comical details and also in its intellectual tone and messages of morality.
The theme was in particular demand among the merchant class in Antwerp. Consequently, the local painters made numerous such works in their workshops throughout the 16th century. The production of depictions of the most important Christian hermit, tormented by horrible apparitions, reached its peak between 1550 and 1570. After that, the fascination with demonic content began to disappear.
THE 17TH CENTURY – THE BAROQUE PERIOD
The 17th century was a time of widespread military conflict, destruction and devastation. It was also a time of flourishing culture and science. In fact, in many places this period was the golden age in art and economy, marked by overall progress.
In the course of the 17th century, art served three powerful groups. The Catholic Church aimed to express its renewed and solidified strength. The absolutist rulers aimed to express the splendour of their unlimited power. Finally, the rich middle class strove to display its economic potential and its taste.
The Baroque art that was developing and became dominant in the course of the 17th century was created in Rome, with the arrival of painters from northern Italy. Caravaggio’s painting of thick darkness, intense breaks of light and brutally realistic depictions aroused strong emotions and created the palpable plausibility of events.
In the classicism of the Bologna Academy, artists excelled in idealised forms stemming from the High Renaissance, appropriate for glorifying and celebration.
As their main vehicles of expression, both artistic tendencies used the facial expression, the gesture and especially the movement, as a reflection of the state of mind.
The Baroque scene turned the spectator into an active participant of an event. The erased lines between painting, architecture and sculpture created a convincing illusion.
Sensuality, exuberance and plenitude, as well as spirituality and asceticism, all equally important themes in the Baroque, successfully served the church, religious orders, rulers, the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, in expressing their aspirations.
Widely accepted across Europe, the Baroque acquired an international character. In Italy, apart from Rome, Genoa and Naples were also significant centres of Baroque art.
Diana Returning from the Hunt – Peter Paul Rubens
The mythological content combined with the theme of the hunt, in compositions celebrating abundance and constant regeneration of nature as well as sensuality of the female body, were certainly attractive to the Antwerp’s wealthy middle class with education in humanities.
The painting of fruit, game and dogs, for which Rubens hired Frans Snyder, an artist that specialised in these fields, gave the painting an exceptional quality. Confrontation of two opposite principles – the virtuous world of the prudent goddess of the hunt who resists all temptations and the sinful, drunken, swaying satyrs – was characteristics of the Baroque visual culture.
THE 18th CENTURY
The 18th century, as the golden age of reason, marked the overall transformation of the mindset and worldview. That period saw an awakening thirst for knowledge in the most diverse fields.
Ever more frequent voyages, scientific expeditions and contact with distant cultures led to a propensity for the exotic, while at the same time, Europe opened to the rest of the world.
The knowledge and technical discoveries led to revolutionary advances in science and social relations. Political thought developed, while the influence of the church and religious orders diminished. Rational thinking provided the grounds for a critical spirit and brought optimism and faith in progress.
Paris became the new epicentre of artistic activity. Although the Baroque tradition persisted into the 18th century, more intimate scenes of light colours and leisurely content replaced the grandeur and drama of lighting effects. The aristocracy and haute bourgeoisie desired scenes that offered a sense of cosiness and pleasantness. Art now primarily addressed the feelings, often emanating a nostalgic atmosphere of Arcadian motifs.
Stairway of the Farnese Palace Park – Hubert Robert
A peaceful and idyllic image of people performing everyday activities, placed in a monumental and representative architectural framework, imbued with nature and with hints of decay, was a suitable interior decoration meant for the upper class of the French society.
The environment incited the imagination and daydreaming, but also the idea of lasting through time, as well as an intellectual pleasure in the aesthetic of decay. Additionally, echoes of cultures of Antiquity and the Renaissance on the one hand and the painting’s intense sentimentality on the other, reflected the spirit of the educated elite of the time.
Italian artists of the 18th century reached the greatest hights in the realm of decorative painting, in magnificent palaces throughout Europe. With their spectacular frescoes, derived from Baroque forms and based on principles of illusion, these painters breached the boundaries of architecture. They connected celestial spheres with this earthly world.
Artists continued to travel to Italy, now primarily lured by archaeological discoveries. In the second half of the century, these discoveries sparked interest in Roman and Greek Antiquity, with remains unearthed before the very eyes of the contemporary world.
This newly created affinity for Antiquity, as well as the current trends in society, lead to the magnification of the values and virtues from the times of the Roman Republic and reflected in art through the appearance of Neoclassicism.
In the course of the 18th century, Venice, although a mere political and economic shadow of its former splendour and power, attracted a growing number of visitors as a city of rich artistic tradition and culture. It also became an unavoidable destination of young European aristocrats and their tutors.
They all wished to own the well-known images as memory of their stay in the city. Thus, the squares, canals, gondolas, palaces and churches became the subjects of precise and convincing artistic depictions.
To produce these paintings, artists used a contemporary optical aids, such as camera obscura. Although they left the impression of impeccable topographic accuracy, these works were, in fact, embellished and altered images of reality. Minor distortions created certain visual effects and thus made them attractive to foreign buyers.
For foreigners, a stay in Venice was undoubtedly a matter of prestige.
THE 19th CENTURY
In the mid-19th century, a generation of artists appeared in France, who turned to nature in search of refuge from harsh realities of industrial cities. The artists who belonged to the Barbizon school painted outdoors. They created a natural vision of the world, robed in light and the atmosphere of a personal impression.
A consequence of that was the often present sense of mystical contemplation in the face of nature, in the works of Daubigny, Dupre, Harpignies and Troyon.
The Barbizon school was the first artistic group which represented the collective spirit of a new age.
Certainly, you are not going to see famous masterpieces in this museum. For that, you have to go to more famous museums in France, Italy and Spain.
Although, paintings in the museum are interesting and precious. As a matter of fact, you can see them only in this museum and together with everything else, they are a formidable collection.
I am very glad that I took these photos, because I can look at these beautiful paintings whenever I want.
But, whenever I go back to Belgrade, I will visit the museum again. One visit is not enough to see everything properly and to remember.
I strongly recommend to everyone visiting Belgrade to make sure to visit this museum too.