Persistent Sacrificing for Beauty
It was an exquisite opportunity to, at least briefly, overcome the six years long isolation of the National Museum and in one place review the history of new Serbian painting, its best period according to many, perhaps even unreachable. It is a heroic and tragic art created during wars or between them, in hunger and poverty, in the lack of everything, in spite of historical and social circumstances. It is a true wonder that this many and such paintings were preserved

By: Dejan Djorić

For the last six years, the public has not been able to see the permanent setting of the National Museum in Belgrade ”due to renovation” of this key institution. This setting includes archeological materials, sculptures, graphics and drawings, valuable icons from the Balkans, a representative collection of European art, from Bosch to Tatljin, as well as the best collection in the country of Serbian painting from Baroque to Post-Modern art. The people from the Museum and its management do not want to accept the isolation of this institution and continue with a series of guest exhibitions of works of art from the Museum’s fund, organized in the country and abroad.
The culmination of their work outside of the Museum is the exhibition Hundred Years of Serbian Art, Painting in Serbia 1850-1950. Masterpieces from the National Museum in Belgrade organized this autumn in the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences (SANU) Gallery (from September 7 to October 18). Before Belgrade, such an exhibition with more works of art, a more detailed and better printed catalogue, was organized in Romania.
The exhibition which marked the artistic life of the Serbian capital in 2009 provoked great interest of the public. More than 100.000 have seen it. It was accompanied with a high quality catalogue, with many of color reproductions, introductory essays written by art experts about certain artistic periods and well written biographies of artists. The authors of the exhibition and the catalogue were curators of the National Museum Petar Petrović (for XIX century painting), Ljubica Miljković (for modern art) and Gordana Stanišić (for works of art on paper). Only a part of the National Museum’s fund was exhibited and some crucial works of art were not included because the organizers were limited by space. The National Museum has the most important works from this period in its possession, more than any other institution of its kind. We noted that certain faithful visitors of this house, while watching the exhibition in the SANU Gallery, knew exactly where the exhibited works of art were located in the Museum’s permanent exhibition.
It was an exquisite opportunity to review in one place, prepared as a museum, as it is done in good exhibition rooms in the world (for example, the paintings were on a neutral green background), the history of new Serbian painting, its not only best but also incomparable period according to many. It is not only about XIX and XX century art, it is also an example of the organic connection between tradition and innovation, Realism and Modernism. We see that the whole period was pervaded with the same spirit, role models and inspiration, like extended pre-modernism, preceding the split of Serbian art into figural (or traditional) and avant-garde, which began in the following period, from 1950 to 2000, and especially developed in the last twenty years (together with the civil war in the area of Yugoslavia).


This previous unity of styles was possible thanks to the strong civil class in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croatians and Slovenians, that did not care much about experiments in art or in life, thus introduced painting into the realm of the family and intimate. The historical avant-garde, in spite of being present and strong in the public, could not be successful in this area at the time. Expressionism, Futurism, Dadaism and Surrealism were marginal, accidental, a rebellion of rich sons and snobs.
A hundred and thirty works of art created by more than fifty artists exhibited in the SANU Gallery enabled one to directly notice and separate the lines of development, connections or deviation from the European model. It is wrong to think that the story of Serbian art – after the breakup with Byzantine aesthetics, disappearing of zographs and last icon painting workshops at the time when first oil paintings appeared – is based only on European liberation from tradition, on the civil class educated in the West. Serbian art certainly is part of European art, sometimes even its best segment, as the case was with Lepenski Vir, Paja Jovanović, Milena Pavlović Barili, Mediala (especially Leonid Šejka and Dado Djurić) or the avant-garde art of Vladan Radovanović and Marina Abramović.
Dominant styles at the SANU Gallery exhibition were Classicism, Romanticism, Biedermeier, Realism, Impressionism and Symbolism. After them, features of style and solid outlines of art were being lost from decade to decade in Modernism, and signs of movements and schools disappeared in the globalist uniformity, mixture and virtualness.
Serbian modern art has its origins in the works of Dimitrije Avramović, painter of the Belgrade Cathedral Church. He was not the first Serbian painter ready to break his connections with icon painting, zographs and Byzantine role models, but was our first important painter in the Western sense of the word. He advocated the Nazarene painting, advanced even for the then European painting, which influenced pre-Raphaelites and Symbolists (like today, in avant-garde art, the marginalized Realism used to be a form of the most advanced Modernism). The truth about historical modalities is best documented by the synthetical intersections of the époque, monumental exhibitions and textual analyses written by experts. Within this selection of capital of early Serbian modern works of art (now art historians notice the beginnings of Modernism in Goya, Turner and Chardaine), we can best notice some of our mistakes.
Why is the influence of Viennese, Munich and Parisian professors on our students constantly researched, while little attention is paid to studying heritage, the fact that Serbian painters began their education here and looked up to our masters?
It would be valuable to research where and what each of our famous painters could learn, since the SANU Gallery exhibition undoubtedly indicates a line of internal development of Serbian modern art, looking up to, correcting and leaning on its own forces.


It is always emphasized that the first female academician in Serbia was Isidora Sekulić, whereas it was actually Katarina Ivanović, painter, one of the most successful ones in the whole history of our painting, art-wise, in terms of proficiency and masterhood. Already in her example we can notice the sensitiveness and dependence of an artist on the often unfriendly society. She grew up and died in Hungary, came to the small town of Belgrade full of enthusiasm, although she never succeeded in learning the Serbian language well. She was humiliated by the then Serbian first lady, the royal palace was closed for the best Serbian female artist, and her works (after coming to the backwards region and losing touch with European culture) became problematic.
There are also opposite examples. Kosta Miličević, on which our Modernism should be based upon instead of Nadežda Petrović, did not find his way in Europe (like so many Serbian artists after him) and painted his best works in his country.
Regarding Milena Pavlović Barili, the third great Serbian female painter, a general opinion among the critics is stating Giorgio De Chirico and Salvador Dali as her role models, which is not completely certain. The roots of her onyrism can be also found in the Balkan mythology and religion, in the pagan religion and the Kosovo cycle, or in Orthodox Christianity. At the end of her life she painted a kind of icon, judging by its format, perhaps also its content. Such historical intersections of key works of art, fulcrums and foundation stones in the time of art show us all this.
We can see how powerfully artists can stop time, write their names in eternity, ascend the common and usual to timeless and fixate mythical in real life. The spiritual is strengthened to unimaginable limits in materially friable objects such as paintings. Exhibitions such as this one in the SANU Gallery enable us to notice the closeness of Constantine Danil and Paja Jovanović, relations between artists of different generations, logical derivation of the aesthetics between two wars from the previous one, the aesthetics of the XIX century academic realism. It is always the same jewel, with numerous facets which differently break light, each in its own way.
The life of artists in the past however, was not bright at all. Kosta Miličević was starving, Novak Radonić abandoned painting, Miloš Tenković went mad and killed himself, and Leon Koen had the same fate. Due to mockeries of a local politician, Djura Jakšić was beaten with sticks, after which he died, and wars and sufferings devastated the blossom of Serbian poetry and intelligence.
It is a true wonder that this many and such works of art were preserved for the, as we see now, grateful ascendants. The public, especially the younger ones, were able to discover a great époque of Serbian art, or to be reminded of it in the right way. Serbian art is heroic and tragic, created in wars or between them, in times of hunger and poverty, in the lack of everything, in spite of historical and social circumstances, and its beauty paid with sacrifices is therefore more majestic and truer.


Russian Factor
The connections between Serbian art and Eastern Orthodox Christian background have never been broken. They are evident in Serbian monasteries, churches in icons, in celebrations, customs and legends, as well as in the (real or potential) powerful influence of Russia. Therefore it is reasonable to invest efforts, and it is never late, especially in cases of such official reviews, to include great Russian painters in the corpus of our art, those who were or are creating here (especially Stjepan Kolesnikov, Igor Vasiljev and Sergei Aparin). If they had not chosen Serbia for their second homeland, they would, as their exhibitions throughout the world indicate, have had much more success elsewhere.
This is the necessary correction to be made in the image of our art based on Vienna, Munich, Prague, Krakow, Paris, New York and Berlin role models, and it is even more significant because the artistic connections between Serbia and Russia are the oldest in the history of our pre-modernism and because new Serbian art, respectively its beginning in the Baroque, cannot be separated from the Ukrainian influence.


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