This is my second post in the series of posts on the Yugoslav 20th century art. During my latest visit to Belgrade, I went back to the National Museum to see this collection. I mostly missed it when I was there last time, back in November 2018. Sometimes, we go to a museum and after a while we are simply saturated with too many impressions. Then, it becomes difficult to process and remember everything. But, thanks to the photos in this and in my previous post, I can now look at these beautiful paintings whenever I want.
I also intend to learn more about the Yugoslav art in the 20th century. This will be a good start and it will certainly complement the knowledge that I already have on great masters and the history of art. Occasionally, we need to find the right inspiration. So, this visit to the museum was very good in a way that it initiated my familiarisation with the art that was mostly unknown to me. Until now!
YUGOSLAV 20th CENTURY PAINTING
In the Serbian and Yugoslav painting of the first half of the 20th century, a lively interest was fostered in modern forms. It was no different from modernist deliberations that were spreading throughout Europe. However, a subtle distinction between specific thematic and ideological differences made it possible to group and register the particularities of the Serbian and Yugoslav Modernism, primarily according to its themes. Much like inseparable bonds between the art and social circumstances.
Relations between the development of modern painting and the history of the environment in which it appeared, provide signposts in modern art and are also a visual chronicle of the times in which they were formed.
BEGINNINGS OF MODERN ART
In the first decades of the 20th century, Serbian painting cultivated impressionist poetics in all its recognisable elements: free brushwork, plein air light and a brighter palette of colours. Meanwhile, the selected motifs – landscapes, scenes and people – bear witness to a turbulent historical epoch marked by Balkan Wars and the Great War, but also by the steady progress of the bourgeoisie and the process of modernisation.
That is why numerous portraits and self-portraits, plein air painting, the work of the first Yugoslav colony and the activities surrounding Yugoslav exhibitions, organised more than a decade prior to the creation of the unitary state, much like the depiction of scenes connected with the nation’s fate – refugee shelters, casualties of war, exile and displacement – testify to the development of modern, impressionist painting and to the people, ideas and historical circumstances in which it came about.
REALISM OF THE THIRD AND THE FOURTH DECADE/PEOPLE AND THE CITY
The end of the First World War coincided with the emergence of new protagonists on the art scene who, in that era, shared a general interest in “Realism” and ideas of a “Return to Order”. It was a period of enthusiasm and renewal, time of accelerated modernisation in the new Yugoslav state. Events that occurred in Yugoslav towns and major European centres appeared in pictures that captured the prevailing atmosphere. Images of cities, the encounter of new and old ways of life and portraits of contemporaries, all form a distinctive group of motifs from everyday life.
Still, these paintings of public spaces, when compared to intimate, private scenes, offer complete impression of the multilayered nature of the story of an era. Interiors, the objects in them and various still life motifs thus become studies that allude to taste, choice, sensibility and personality – images of an aesthetic and ethical system of values.
HAVENS OF MODERNITY
Irrespective of the diversity of modernist forms, Yugoslav painting in the inter-war period fostered pronounced interest in landscapes. In choosing and depicting a certain space, the artist, by means of repeating motifs, proceeded to construct a myth about its uniqueness. Although this may seem to have been the imagination at work regarding one’s native region, each scene actually expressed nostalgia for some other, different time.
The landscape served as a romanticist corrective of the modernisation process, a symbol instead of a direct observation. It illustrated idealised ties with the soil and was interspersed with village motifs, stories about folk traditions and untainted nature – harbours of moral and spiritual values – and a quest for better times. Art served as a shelter against modern life and a discreet challenge to the idealisation of the idea of progress.
SYMPTOMS OF SOCIAL REALITY
The formation of the working class in Yugoslavia is inseparable from the process of rural migration. Social status and living conditions in towns are captured in a series of paintings from the third and the fourth decade of the 20th century. Artworks depicting hard life, poverty and depression, critically reveal facts of social divisions. They resulted from the process of modernisation, urbanisation and industrial progress.
The committed portrayal of reality would continue during and immediately after the Second World War, in dramatic representations of wartime suffering and hardship, but also in the building of a new society.
I used this last painting as the main photo for my recent article Work in Progress. This painting was made right after the Second World War and it depicts beginning of the works on construction of New Belgrade. That part of the city that did not exist before the war. However, today it’s a modern and a very big part of Belgrade.
It also symbolically depicts current vast construction and renovation works in the city.