THE FIRST EPOCH (1900-1950)
It must be remembered that Serbian (and Yugoslav) painting at the beginning of this century took shape in two European metropolises, Munich and Paris. It usually started in the first city and ended up in the second.
Kosta Milicevic, Landscape from Corfu, 1918, Museum of Modern Art, Belgrade
The desire to achieve collective, national liberation by means of individual liberation was only encouraged by modern art. However, while Academism referred to the models of “eternal art”, the new art – inspired by the liberal ideas of the Enlightenment – was just then creating those models, or was yet to create them. Yet, Academism also wanted to bring its fundamental postulation, ars est imitatio naturae, into harmony with those discoveries which had at least become accepted in the meantime. Therefore, one can notice its duality in the period around 1900 – a strong affiliation with tradition, accompanied by certain Impressionist innovations: pleinairistic art, with daylight and clear colours as a logical consequence. Novelties appeared in the framework of that which was already well-known (in the works of Beta Vukanovic, 1872-1972, Marko Murat, 1864-1944, Dragomir Glisic, 1872- 1957 etc.). However, pleinairism as a general trend did not exclude the particular trends of the time – Symbolism and the Secession, for example, which became mutually assimilated. Since the Secession was an attempt at a new synthesis (although it had distinctive formal features), Symbolism was encompassed in its broader definition (Selz) with its mystical belief that visible reality is a symbol of another, invisible one; that the spiritual, romantic, mysterious shadow of an entity is essential, and not the entity itself – umbra vitae, not vita by itself; and that beauty is touched by transience and other-worldliness.
Milan Milovanovic, The Bridge of Emperor Dusan in Skopje, 1907, Museum of Modern Art, Belgrade
Since that which the eye sees is not only that, but is also something else, the real is, in the function of its antipode, the unreal and the inexpressible (Leon Kojen, 1859-1934, the early period of Nadezda Petrovic, 1873-1915, Marko Murat, 1864-1944, Malisa Glisic, 1855-1915, etc.). However, a different synthesis of tradition and novelty was also common. It characterised some later tendencies in the third decade: the value of composition and gradation, space, the elimination of pure colour and so on (the early works of Kosta Milicevic, 1877- 1920, and Milan Milovanovic, 1876-1964, Mosa Pijade, 1890-1957, Ljubomir Ivanovic, 1882-1964, Borivoje Stevanovic, 1879-1976, etc.).
Nadezda Petrovic, Gypsy with Red Shawl, 1905, Museum of Modern Art, Belgrade
Impressionism in Serbia appeared in this framework. It was not so much that of “Paris” – although Milovanovic and N. Petrovic also worked in Paris – as it was that of “Munich”. There, in Azbe’s school, the new concepts spread among prospective Serbian and Yugoslav painters, to be revealed in 1904 at the First Yugoslav Exhibition in Belgrade. The motif was no longer just illuminated with daylight and the rhythmical vibration of lines and colours, it was also diluted. A cosmic effluvium emanated from each entirely individual plastic element: colour, line, and shape. Yet, unlike French Impressionism, Serbian Impressionism, being in the middle of national battles and wars, remained deprived both of hedonistic intoxication and flare, and of the metropolitan tumult – remaining humble and gentle, in patriarchal and folk frameworks (Nadezda Petrovic, early works, the late works of Milan Milovanovic, Kosta Milicevic, Natalija Cvetkovic, 1882-1928, Branko Popovic, 1882-1944 andothers).
Jovan Bijelic, Girl in Baby Carriage, 1933, Museum of Modern Art, Belgrade
If Impressionism reflected pleinairism, the expressionism of Nadezda Petrovic burst forth from Impressionism. She was the most significant painter of the epoch, who created as much by the dictate of an “internal necessity” and the spirit of the times as by the dictate of particular Serbian social circumstances. After becoming acquainted with the works of Van Gogh, Munch and Kandinsky, she introduced a rapid, forceful way of painting and a new concept of time as a total of each and every stroke, and including a distinctive “local colour” and even ethnographic traits.
Zora Petrovic, Mature Women, 1959, Museum of Modern Art, Belgrade
After the turbulence brought about by World War I, the spiritual ambience was fundamentally changed: a “constructive” and “synthetic” form, instead of “the light of freedom” and pure colour. However, in spite of that general feature, the art of the third decade is controversial: the centuries-old Greek-Roman ideal of imitation was rejected and then accepted again; tradition was vehemently disputed and then resurrected by the tendency of this art toward synthesis. A spectrum from avantgardism to traditionalism was displayed: from Yugo- Dada, “Zenit” (“Zenith”) and Surrealism (Dragan Aleksic, Ljubomir Micic, Marko Ristic and others) — whose activity has been pointed out in the international histories and monographs more and more often as being an integral part of those movements – up to Cezannism, post-Cubism, Expressionism of forms and neo-Classicism. At the same time, efforts were made to Balkanise the “Dada”, to oppose the East to the West, to overthrow “Barnum-like” European civilization (“zenitizam”, “Zenithism” – named after the magazine “Zenit” which dealt mostly with the Modernist movement) and to continue the Europeanisation of the Balkans. However, the common denominator of these opposing attitudes was a steady form, which had been shattered by Impressionism. The artists who followed Cezanne aspired to achieve it.
Sava Sumanovic, Drunken Boat, 1927, Museum of Modern Art, Belgrade
Cezanne appeared to be not only the starting-point, but the sanctuary as well, making development in different directions possible: toward neo-Cubism – with his understanding of paintings as pure, geometrised, “absolute” forms – toward Expressionism – with his preoccupation with character, the deformation of objects and strengthening of forms, and toward neo-Classicism – with his longing for that which is absolute, general and final.
Ignjat Job, Bachanal, 1932-1933, Museum of Modern Art, Belgrade
The initial radical Cubist, post-Cubist and Expressionist tendencies of the decade (Jovan Bijelic, 1886-1964, Petar Dobrovic, 1890-1942 and Sava Sumanovic, 1896-1942) were nevertheless transitory (especially those of the avant-garde) in the otherwise great opuses of those painters, for soon afterwards they concluded inversely, with neo- Classicism. After all, Cezanne himself wanted to create “something solid and everlasting, like museum art” and to paint “like Poussin, but according to nature”: “synthetic” art was created by taking examples of the Renaissance masters. Generally speaking, in this epoch of “nomadism”, this traditionalist galaxy was comprised of the already mentioned people, and besides them: Milo Milunovic, 1897-1967, Sibe Milicic, 1886-1945, Veljko Stanojevic, 1892-1967, Milan Konjovic, 1898-1993, Ivan Radovic, 1894-1973 and Ignjat Job, 1895-1936. (Only for Vasa Pomorisac, 1893-1961 and Zivorad Nastasijevic, 1893-1966, the members of the group “Zograf”, did it remain a permanent sanctuary.) At the end of the third decade, the creators of the “constructive”, “synthetic” painting, after going through all its stages, became its destroyers: they returned to an opposite expressionism in colour and gesture (the only exception is Milunovic), and were the ones to continue N. Petrovic’s work. In this manner, heralding the painters of “progress” and “return”, Sava Sumanovic painted the “Drunken Boat” in 1927 in Paris, which was aesthetically entirely antithetical to his “Sculptor in the Atelier” of 1921.
Petar Lubarda, The Gusle Player, 1935, Museum of Modern Art, Belgrade
In fact, the phenomenon of N. Petrovic could not be repeated due to the social milieu, experience and historical determinants which were different in the fourth decade. The new Expressionism was individually more heterogeneous and poetically more differentiated, and thus it possessed all the features of its fundamental poetics: it became enthralled by a subjective, changeable image of reality and existence (“the human being united with nature” – Van Gogh), vigorous expression, pure, elementary line and stroke, ethical and aesthetic dilemmas (In interiore homine habitet veritas – St. Augustine) and the principles of “poetic harmony” (Fry) and “subjective integrity” (Read). Besides the ethical, an ethnic moment was conspicuous as well: its representatives often used localised symbols. Konjovic connects them with Vojvodina, Bijelic with Bosnia, Dobrovic and Job with Dalmatia, and Zora Petrovic with folklore, figures in national costumes, and so on. In comparison to its pathetic vigour, Intimist painting and Poetic Realism were opposite trends, inspired by the motto: the return to nature and immediate spiritual life. Both poetics continued certain elements of Impressionism, its warmth and passion for a tranquil life and presence in it. Poetic Realism was, however, more strained and melancholic (Stojan Aralica, 1883-1980, Ivan Radovic, 1894-1973, Nedeljko Gvozdenovic, 1902-1988, Ivan Tabakovic, 1898-1977, Marko Celebonovic, 1902-1987, Kosta Hakman, 1899-1961, Petar Lubarda, 1907-1970, Pedja Milosavljevic, 1908-1987, Ljubica Sokic, 1914 and others).
Milo Milunovic, Still Life with Violin, 1930, National Museum, Belgrade
An important fact must also be mentioned: in the “pink” fourth decade, on the eve of World War II, Serbian painting was divided into “art for art’s sake” and “art for the sake of an idea”. The poetics of the first, prevailing one have already been mentioned. The poetics of the second, “engaged one” are: Surrealism, Social Art, Art in the War and Revolution and Social Realism. Belgrade’s Surrealism, presented by the almanac “Nemoguce” (“The Impossible”), the periodical “Nadrealizam danas i ovde” (“Surrealism Here and Now”) and so on, brought together poets and essayists who were direct participants in the activities of the Paris Group (Breton – M. Ristic) and who introduced an entirely new approach to painting and the picture with their experiments in visual arts – about one hundred drawings, photograms (“rayogram” – a work in the style of Rayonism), collages and assemblages….As well as with theoretical declarations in “Antizid” (“The Anti-Wall”) (M. Ristic, V. Bor) and “Nacrt za jednu fenomenologiju iracionalnog” (“An Outline for a Phenomenology of the Irrational”) (Koca Popovic, M. Ristic). Social Art, supported by the communist party, was established as an artistic and political trend around 1930.
Milena Pavlovic Barilli, Venus with Lamp, 1938, Museum of Modern Art, Belgrade
It was influenced by Paris in the former, and by Moscow, in the latter sense, as well as by the authors from other countries with their sharpness in social criticism and satire, especially Masereel, Kathe Kollwitz and Neue Sachlichkeit (Dix, Grosz, Beckmann). Its beginning is related to the exhibition of Marko Kujacic (b. 1901) in 1934, at which a framed proletarian boot was shown (Djordje Andrejevic Kun, 1904-1964, Djurdje Todorovic, 1907-1986, Radojica Noe Zivanovic, 1903-1944, Vinko Grdan, 1900-1980, Pivo Karamatijevic, 1912-1963, Bora Baruh, 1911-1942). During the occupation and war, the art of painting only smoldered – human values were cynically betrayed and destroyed by Nazism. Some artists were still strong enough to work even in concentration camps in Germany and Italy, as well as in the National- Liberation War. After the liberation of the country, the revolution demanded that artists abandon their “brilliant loneliness” and become preachers of the new ideas, that they renounce their freedom, leave formalism and adopt a dogmatic and violent Social Realism. However, the difference between the works of the “fellow travellers” and convinced adherents was evident.