DESIGNING IDENTITIES. Reshaping the Balkans in the First Two Centuries: the Case of Serbia

Published in: Journal of Design History, Vol. 20, No. 2, 2007.

The Beginnings

An unsuspecting observer of the many political rallies during the crises of the 1990s in former Yugoslavia would have been perplexed at the mixture of iconographies: communist banners featuring the hammer and sickle, old Serbian standards with real or invented royalist insignia, flags of socialist Yugoslavia with the red star, all mixed together with pictures of Serb nationalist leader Slobodan Milošević, Saint Sava, the twelfth century founder of the Serbian church, and Draža Mihailović, the leader of the royalist resistance in the Second World War. Among the plethora of conflicting, ideologically opposed symbols were reproductions of icons and images of places sacred to Serbdom, notably the medieval monasteries of Kosovo.

Such conflation of past identities sums up two centuries of the Serbs’ experience in their vain attempts to forge a viable identity. It all started when Herderian Romanticism and its messianic vision of the Volk ignited dreams of liberation and unity amongst the South Slavs divided between the Austrian (later Austro-Hungarian) and Ottoman empires. Instead of binding them even more closely together, however, nationalism divided them. Defining a nation entailed construction of ethnic identities that would differentiate these communities that had lived side by side for centuries. But how does one delineate ethnic belonging if these groups share the same core cultural traditions and language? Linguistic variants, the dialects and sub-dialects of the common language, came with settlement patterns and migration; as myths, beliefs and customs, they reflected regional specifics that often overlapped political boundaries. It was upon such fluid cultural entities, formed around kinship communities and often rather vague religious affiliations, that the nation builders of the nineteenth century imposed ethnic denominators.[i]

The story of the nation, woven from episodes in history and legend and often blurring the distinction between fact and myth, provides a semblance of historical authenticity and is accepted as indisputable truth and testimony to cultural continuity. The national imaginary within is an equally dreamlike world that contains the entire body of real or invented traditions, ranging from religious beliefs and customs, dress, songs and cuisine, to ethical standards and moral values. To these ethnic attributes we should add ancient heroes, sacred places and monuments that testify to the glory of the nation’s past.[ii] These markers of cultural identity are shaped into a visual framework using a formal and symbolic language that is believed to be innate to the group or to echo ancient traditions, an ‘aesthetic’ that reflects affiliation with broader cultural contexts with which the group may claim affinity or descent: it is a visual code that defines identity.[iii]

For two centuries now, perceptions of nationhood in the Balkans have been in constant flux; over and over ‘national’ histories have been written, traditions have been invented, languages and cultural legacies have been constructed. As the themes of linguistic, ethnic and cultural belonging mutated so did their visual expressions. They were designed and redesigned in a continuous process of assertion and denial: new identities overwrote previous ones, adding layer upon layer of memories and traditions to the imaginaries of national or ethnic uniqueness.

Writing the Narrative

The first significant remapping of traditional values began in the early eighteenth century among those Orthodox Slavs who had fled their Ottoman-ruled homeland and settled in Austrian Habsburg territory. For these rural kin communities adaptation to a modern centralized state was a painful process that entailed relinquishing customary beliefs and lifestyle; for the clerical establishment exposure to secularism meant ceding much of the control they had enjoyed in the Ottoman Empire. Eventually they adapted: the peasants became citizens; not long thereafter they were to become Serbs.

It was in Karlowitz (Sremski Karlovci), the seat of the Orthodox church in the Austrian monarchy, that archaic Byzantine models in icon painting were replaced with the vibrant colors and formal abundance of the Baroque visual language. As the new aesthetic imbued traditional religious imagery with new life, Baroque and classicist designs transformed the church architecture. These developments gave rise to secular arts and literature that were to position the Orthodox Slavs within the intellectual framework of central Europe. When later in the century Dositej Obradović, the rational-minded advocate of the Enlightenment, contested the deep-rooted clericalism, he provoked an intellectual discourse that was to disrupt traditionalist values. New generations brought new challenges – from Josephine anticlericalism to Romanticism and ideals of nation. The most contended issue that arose in the early nineteenth century was the linguistic reform of Vuk Karadžić; despite violent opposition from the conservative ecclesiastical establishment, his new ‘Serbian’ language, constructed out of one of the Slavic dialects, set the groundwork for linguistic-based nationalism amongst the South Slavs of the Habsburg empire: the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.[iv]

The story that these Romantics told was not unlike the narrative widely accepted today. At the center of the narrative is the notion of perpetual victimization, starting with the loss of statehood after the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 and followed by ‘five centuries of suffering’ under the ‘Turkish yoke’. But this, we are told, did not subdue the Serbs. Throughout the Ottoman centuries their identity was kept alive in Orthodox monasteries, those centers of learning where liturgies celebrating the holy kings and patriarchs of the medieval Nemanyid dynasty perpetuated collective memories of ancient glory.[v]

The Habsburg Serbs’ perceptions of their brethren under the Ottomans resonated well in this narrative-in-the writing; they were the alter-ego, primitive but pure, and a repository of archetypal myths and traditions that only had to be awoken. When in 1814 the language reformer Vuk Karadžić published in Vienna a body of popular epics that he had collected amongst the Orthodox Slavs in the Ottoman provinces, they were embraced by the Romantics as the voice of the ages: the living memory of the nation passed down from time immemorial.

In reality, the largely peasant Orthodox population in the Ottoman Empire had accommodated to Ottoman society and adopted Ottoman culture – albeit transformed and ultimately perceived as indigenous or ‘Orthodox’ – which they came to regard as their own ‘perennial’ traditions. The church did survive the collapse of the medieval state; in fact the restored Serbian Patriarchate at Peć was even more powerful, with jurisdiction extending during the two centuries of its existence (1557-1766) to all territories inhabited by the Christian Slavs – a true Orthodox theocracy within the Ottoman Empire. Frescoes and icons painted in this period suggest a continuing veneration of the Nemanyid saints among the church elite, but that does not say much about the general population. Are we to assume – as nationalist historiography would have us believe – that such memories of the medieval past were sustained among the Orthodox population, and that they reflected a widespread national sentiment maintained by the ‘national’ church? [vi] If we refer to the oral poetry collected by Vuk Karadžić, we shall notice that the Nemanyid times, celebrated in the nationalist discourse as the high point of the Serbian achievement, are not as prominent as one would expect; it would appear that the common people, dispersed in self-sustaining kinship communities, did not relate to the medieval kings of some distant past. Their epics were not knightly romances of chivalry but tales of legendary or semi-legendary heroes endowed with supernatural powers and vengeful Christian saints with pagan attributes. Barely literate village priests who themselves did not understand the archaic Slavonic language of the very liturgy they celebrated – let alone the faithful – were hardly in a position to disseminate proto-Romantic ideas of medieval glory and lament lost statehood. It is even doubtful that they managed to preserve the Christian faith whose vestiges had been merged with pre-Christian beliefs and rituals and sustained only through fasts and church holidays.[vii]

When the Habsburg Serbs started arriving in the semi-independent Serbian principality, established in 1830 within the confines of the Ottoman Empire, they were not received with great enthusiasm. The Serbs from the principality displayed little understanding for their kinsfolk from across the Danube whose sophisticated manners and Western dress were seen as a betrayal of tradition and customs; so they referred to them as the ‘Germans’. While many came for profit, some, such as Dositej Obradović, were driven by a missionary zeal to promote ideas of civil liberties and rationalism. Such idealists saw themselves as the enlightened bearers of civilization whose mission was to educate their unfortunate brethren who had suffered under Ottoman rule for centuries. They wished to instill in them a sense of belonging, a national identity based on common language, religion and heritage. But this was easier said than done: all the two groups had in common was a vague sense of ethnic and religious affinity.

Indeed, this was a dramatic confrontation between two worlds, quite literally an encounter between liberal cultural nationalism and an archaic breed of ethno-religious patriotism. It is not difficult to appreciate the lack of interest of the Serbs from the principality in these inventions coming from the ‘other side’. When they had rebelled in 1804, their goals were not revolutionary: they had not demanded social reforms or national emancipation but protection from the excesses of the local Ottoman officials. Events however unfolded in unexpected ways and they ended up with a state of their own hopelessly entangled in the complex political and military confrontation of the great powers.

Adding to the shock was the new visual language that the Habsburg Serbs brought with them. It provided a dramatic contrast to the rudimentary art that had been practiced by self-trained iconographers during the Ottoman centuries almost without change from its Byzantine roots. It is hardly surprising then that the sophisticated Baroque and classicist imagery was not immediately appreciated by the Serbs in the principality; their taste was conditioned by the sacred meaning and familiarity of traditional icons and not by trends in aesthetics. The Serb elites in Habsburg Austria on the other hand had developed a refined taste in fashion and the arts; furniture and portraits painted by Viennese-trained artists in that prototypical middle-class style, the Biedermeier, were in particular demand among the wealthy mercantile classes.

It was only a matter of time before such trends would be adopted in Serbia proper. Despite resistance from the overwhelmingly traditionalist rural population, who ridiculed the newcomers’ novel dress and sophistication in deportment, it took only one generation of city dwellers to shed their traditional Ottoman-style dress for waistcoats and crinolines and adopt urban lifestyle.

Designing the Nation

The designing of the newly-adopted Western identity was extended to the built environment; while urban planners remapped cities cutting wide boulevards through the mazes of ‘Turkish’ streets, architects introduced the full range of academic historicist idioms to replace the picturesque old ‘Balkan’ architecture (as it came to be called to avoid the use of the terms ‘Ottoman’ or ‘Turkish’). This involved the destruction of the previous identity: by the second half of the nineteenth century only one mosque out of thirty remained standing in Belgrade. Without the numerous minarets the skyline of the city assumed a more European appearance; it was now dominated by the bell tower of the new Baroque cathedral.

Such shifting of identities was an ongoing process. It was not long before immersion into Western culture came to be perceived as a threat to the ‘perennial’ cultural traditions and customs. Perhaps in a sense this was even true: this was a radical interruption of traditions. But a much larger question would be what is the ‘perennial’ tradition of a people, especially one whose cultural traditions were formed within the framework of three empires: the Byzantine, Habsburg, and Ottoman?

For the ideologues of nationalism there was no such dilemma. Once the national narrative was internalized, the Baroque bell towers that had once replaced the minarets no longer fit in the new imaginary. This was bluntly conveyed by the architect Andra Stevanović when he described Belgrade’s cathedral as a ‘Catholic-Jesuit Baroque monstrosity’.[viii] The Serbs should not be looking to the West, he was implying, but to the East. As Russian influence in the region was growing, identity formation was channeled toward a nationalism based on cultural affinity with ‘Orthodox Slavdom’ and its Byzantine heritage. Religion now replaced language as a designator of ethnic uniqueness and a means of distinguishing the purportedly disparate Balkan groups. The equation of religion and ethnicity was extended to include the notion of natural disposition toward cultural traditions and visual styles. Consequently, a decree of 1862 required the ‘Byzantine style’ to be used for designing new churches. Baroque and classicist forms were purged from the sacral; these foreign designs were now restricted to residential and public architecture. It is ironic that this ‘Byzantine style’ was in fact an eclectic historicism promoted by Theophilus Hansen in Vienna. It was adopted by his Serbian students not so much for its resemblance to any specific monuments or architectural forms of Byzantine architecture as for its ‘eastern’ quality; the aesthetic of the Rundbogenstil and the fusion of Romanesque, Oriental and Byzantine decorative schemes made the ‘Hanzenatika’ sufficiently distinct from the Baroque to create an illusion of cultural affinity with Orthodoxy and continuity with the ‘national’ heritage.[ix]

Indeed, a national heritage was imagined as the visual counterpart to the narrative-in-the-writing. Since the eighteenth century the medieval monasteries dispersed throughout the Ottoman Balkans had been built into the imaginary of the Habsburg Slavs as holy sites of Orthodoxy. Engravings showing vedutas of the revered ancient sites mapped the sacred and rooted it firmly into the popular imagination. As the idea of nation gained prominence in the nineteenth century, pious reverence was replaced by reverence for history and the holy sites were transformed into monuments of national glory. Journalists, antiquarians, and historians ventured deep into the Ottoman domain of ‘Old Serbia’ (Kosovo). Their travelogues and reports charted the imagination of the budding national sentiment: they were symbolic maps of national memory that added these sacred places to the catalogs of the saintly kings and patriarchs. Anthropologists for their part, such as Jovan Cvijić, outlined ethnic spaces by mapping the racial features of the indigenous populations. The archeological and ethnic topographies of ‘Old Serbia’ centered on the myth of the Battle of Kosovo were thus implanted deep in the national imaginary.

Little was actually known about these medieval monuments beyond the mythical. Publications were numerous, but these were legendary histories whose main purpose was not to provide accurate archeological or architectural descriptions but to incite national sentiment. It was not until late in the century, after the Serbian principality gained full independence and was proclaimed a kingdom (in 1878), that archeological research conducted by Mihailo Valtrović and Dragutin Milutinović brought to light some stylistic features of this architecture. These two scholars identified, although somewhat vaguely, an architecture of highly distinctive features. The prime example of this idiom, which was to be named ‘Morava’ by the French scholar Gabriel Millet, is the church of Ravanica Monastery founded by Prince Lazar, the ill-fated hero of the Battle of Kosovo.[x] This regional architecture, noted for its excessively ornamented polychrome exteriors dominated the architectural scene of the northern Serbian principalities during the last century of independence – before they succumbed to the Ottomans in the mid-fifteenth century.

The discovery of the Morava idiom was followed by the demise of the ‘Hanzenatika’, which was now deemed an artificial eclecticism of foreign origin. The Morava ‘style’ was swiftly incorporated in the national imaginary as an indigenous idiom singular to the Serbs. A decorative design derived from these monuments was included in the curricula of the department of Architecture and the department of Ornamental Design (Ornamentika), both at the Technical School in Belgrade. The latter program was led by Branko Tanazević, an architect who did much of the research and endeavored to promote the idiom in public architecture. But how did he apply this medieval idiom in contemporary design? In his most prominent work, the Telephone Exchange in Belgrade (designed in 1906), Tanazević interspersed motifs and devices from the repertory of the Secession with stylized elements adapted from churches of the Morava group: blind arcades, rosettes, interlace patterns and pilaster strips, with alternating red and white colored bands that emulate the composite building technique. (Fig. 1)

For many this was the ultimate evidence of rediscovered roots. While it may have had special symbolic value for its association with the Battle of Kosovo and its hero Prince Lazar, the Morava design also appealed to those revivalists who advocated a return to the pure and uncorrupted art of the peasants and shepherds. The actual medieval monuments of the Morava group occasionally lack the sophistication of some of the earlier architecture of the region. The occasional crude construction and carvings have something of a rustic appeal that suggests genuinely vernacular creations. If we add to this the carpet-like profusion of patterns and intense colors we have a design that, although historicist, fits in the national imaginary as a product of the indigenous ethnic community.[xi]

Indeed, folklore was seen as the most substantial evidence of national existence since Vuk Karadžić published his epic poems. As Karadžić had uncovered the ‘original voice of the people’, so it was the task of patriotic designers to discover that ‘original’ design principle that arose from the collective unconscious of the Serbian people. One such designer was Dragutin Inkiostri, who employed designs from a miscellany of overlapping regional traditions, from Croatia to Bulgaria, which he believed reflected the primeval traditions of the Slavs. These indigenous forms, as he elaborated with great passion in his writings, would inspire the creation of a new national design free from the restrictions imposed by foreign academic styles and a ‘rebirth’ of Serbian art.[xii] Inkiostri’s endeavor to introduce vernacular motifs in architectural and interior design echoes contemporary trends in east and central Europe.[xiii] One example of his ‘national’ style is the interior decoration of the house of the geographer and anthropologist Jovan Cvijić. Here Inkiostri combined Secessionist designs with motifs taken from rugs, embroidery and attire from the southern regions of Serbia, Macedonia and Bulgaria. The furniture is inspired by carved ornaments from traditional household objects and musical instruments; the upholstery and cushions are made from Pirot rugs, a Balkan variant of Anatolian kilims. (Fig. 2) On the walls and ceiling Inkiostri interspersed geometric and floral ornaments with black, red and white Pirot-style and related vernacular motifs; the occasional patriotic device such as the stylized double-headed eagle and cross on the chandelier and the ceiling, the coat of arms of the Kingdom of Serbia, is there to assure us of the ‘national’ quality of his design. (Fig. 3)

If we look further at the ‘national’ designs created in these years we notice that they usually follow a generic Secessionist formula. Vladislav Titelbah’s illustration for an epic poem features a set of symbolic motifs borrowed from the international repository of allegories. (Fig. 4) A female personification of Serbia atop a cloudscape bears in one hand a large shield inscribed with the national insignia and brandishes a sword in the other. It does not require great erudition to grasp the meaning: it symbolizes the battles that were to be fought for the liberation of the Serbs who still remained within the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. Rather than the female figure, a hybrid of Britannia and Marianne, probably invented by the artist for this occasion, it is the distinctively stylized Cyrillic lettering and the interlace pattern of the ornamented initial that are immediately recognizable as ‘national’. They were purportedly inspired by the Miroslav Gospel, a twelfth-century Slavonic manuscript written in the Cyrillic script.

Neither is true, but it went well with the national imaginary that perceived this gospel book as testimony to the Serbs’ literacy and cultural continuity since the Middle Ages. In the 1920s a local lithographer from Belgrade devised a typographic style he called the ‘Miroslav’ that has since become the favorite typeface in ‘patriotic’ publications. There is irony in the fact that the lettering was in fact not based on the Miroslav Gospel but adapted from standard Russian typography. But this was not seen as a problem: the label, it appears, was sufficient to denote its national character and the Miroslav typeface was added to the repository of ‘indigenous’ designs along with the historicist Morava and actual vernacular traditions. Such a fusion of folklore, history and religion reflects the communitarian ideal of the national imaginary where peasants and kings stand as equals. It finds expression in a design for a patriotic society where leaders of the popular insurrection against the Ottomans, singers of epic poetry and medieval Nemanyid kings and patriarchs are brought together in a setting that combines vernacular and historicist idioms. (Fig. 5)

This sort of folklorism fired the imagination of the Croatian and Slovenian enthusiasts of Slav unity. From the perspective of today’s nationalism, and especially in view of the recent Yugoslav wars, it sounds remarkable that a Slovene, Jernej Kopitar, provided the initial impulse to the rise of Serbian nationalism. It was he who encouraged Vuk Karadžić to construct a new vernacular language out of a Slavic dialect and to collect and publish oral epic poetry. Equally remarkable was the Croatian Pan-Slavists’ acceptance of the new language that Karadžić called ‘Serbian’. The paths of development of the Yugoslav nationalisms were indeed multifarious and complex. Just as they had adopted the language, these proponents of unitary Slavic culture appropriated the Serbian epic narrative as the most forceful and ancient of the South Slavic traditions and a repository of primeval Slavic heritage. When artists around the Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović organized into art societies (Lada in 1905 and the Medulić Society in 1908), they were motivated by discovery of a primitive heroic impulse in their own roots: spontaneous, inherently free and just, the Slavs were destined for a greatness that only had to be aroused by an equally heroic inspiration. This messianic and visionary idealism was expressed in the epic pathos of Meštrović’s sculptures dedicated to the Battle of Kosovo, the central theme of the Pan-Slavic vision and of the Serbian epic narrative.[xiv]

This however was not just innocent idealism. Awoken by the call of their race, the rugged and primeval bodies of such legendary heroes from the Serbian epic imaginary as Prince Marko and Miloš Obilić, the former a medieval noble who assumed superhuman abilities in the popular imagination and the latter a knight whom the epic tradition credits with slaying Sultan Murad I at the Battle of Kosovo, emerge from their millennial sleep to lead the Slavs into new victories in the impending wars of liberation. Indeed, soldiers who fought in the successive wars against the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires identified with these precedents. Serbia’s military successes and valor in the two Balkan Wars (1912 and 1913) and then in the First World War encouraged the Slavs of Austria-Hungary to openly support these ‘wars of liberation’, which they imagined would lead to the fulfillment of their dreams of unity.

A series of exhibitions of Yugoslav art were organized in European capitals to promote, mainly through the symbolism of Kosovo and the Serbian epic tradition, the ‘poetry and idealism of the Yugoslav race’, as a British official saw Meštrović’s heroic and awe-inspiring figures in 1919 at an exhibition in the Victoria and Albert Museum; for him these ‘inherent’ Slavic qualities were a “counterpose to the heritage of German materialism”.[xv] Meštrović was indeed central to the South Slav ideal: international success, particularly at the 1911 International Art Exhibition in Rome where he and the other artists – mainly Croats from the Austro-Hungarian Empire – defiantly chose to exhibit in the pavilion of the Kingdom of Serbia, established him as the ‘Prophet of Yugoslavism’. Josef Strzygowski understood the mobilizing power of Meštrović’s art; his fears that it would spell trouble for the Habsburg empire proved to be prophetic.

Austria-Hungary crumbled and so did the Ottoman Empire. The Pan-Slavic ideals became reality: the South Slavs united in the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later Yugoslavia). Upon unification in 1918, King Aleksandar adopted Meštrović’s vision to promote a monumental visual expression of the new unitary state. But looking at these works today does not inspire awe as they were intended to and undoubtedly have; rather, the rustic appearance and primeval power of these figures, meant to embody the forces of nature and history, appear to overwhelm humanity itself for the sake of grands idéaux. It is tempting to compare Meštrović’s superhuman Slavic race with Pan-Germanic racial visions. Whether or not these sculptures can be compared with Arno Breker or Josef Thorak is less of an issue than the obvious affinity in their ideological provenance. Indeed, although Pan-Slavism may be seen as an idealistic attempt to unite people based on common traditions and language, it also contained the seed of a messianic racial ideology. Meštrović’s design for a monument dedicated to the Battle of Kosovo is imbued with such meaning. Rather than following the principles of his teacher Otto Wagner, Meštrović adhered to the tendency toward monumental structures overflowing with massive sculptures and sculpted ornaments found in the works of Franz Metzner. Meštrović’s Slavic heroes find parallels in the Teutonic knights that Metzner sculpted for Bruno Schmitz’s colossal Monument to the Battle of the Nations, the Völkerschlachtdenkmal, built to celebrate the centenary of the 1813 Battle of Leipzig. It is this kind of ideal that Meštrović pursued in his Kosovo Temple. He envisioned an immense structure replete with sculptures of intertwining bodies of epic heroes, sphinxes and caryatids, all exaggerated in scale and proportion. The Kosovo Temple, as its German counterpart, can but cause wariness amongst viewers today, not for its ostentatious monumentalism, but for its meaning: this was not meant to be a monument to an ideal as much as a shrine to a race. Such racial fantasies came to an end with unification and the temple, intended to be built on the site of the Battle of Kosovo, was never carried beyond the planning stage; perhaps for the best.[xvi]

The ideals of a unitary culture were pursued in socialist Yugoslavia, established after the Second World War by Josip Broz Tito, leader of the communist resistance. Tito’s views in some ways were not very different from King Aleksandar’s. It was thus possible for him to overlook Meštrović’s growing religious sentimentalism and personal reservations toward communist ideology. Meštrović left for America, but his visionary ideals were pursued in socialist Yugoslavia, albeit with some alterations: the communists would accept the messianic narrative if they were the messiah. Therefore, the adapted narrative described Tito’s guerilla fighters within the same imaginary as the mythical heroes of Slavdom; their revolution and struggle against the Nazis were absorbed as an integral part of the Yugoslav peoples’ heroism and ‘eternal’ resistance to foreign invaders.

Uniquely among socialist countries, Yugoslavia was almost untouched by the revolutionary optimism of the Soviet imaginary and had no equivalent to Stalin’s historicist monumental designs. After the split with the Comintern in 1948 a moderate version of modernism was to become a trademark of socialist Yugoslavia.[xvii] This was certainly not a reflection of Tito’s personal taste; on the contrary, his disagreements with the proponents of modernism were common knowledge.[xviii] In view of his preference for the products and aesthetic of ‘folk’ art, it comes as no surprise that he was partial to the academic descriptive realism that persisted since the nineteenth century in the form of ethnographic narratives and genre scenes (which had also been adapted to the imagery of socialist realism), but also as historical images, such as Uroš Predić’s Kosovo Maiden where traditional folk costume and jewelry imbues this historical scene with a vernacular flavor. (Fig. 6) Both such autographic images of Balkan life and history that convey ethnic pride, moral integrity and heroism of the Volk and Meštrović’s epic messianism were carried into mainstream academic modernism. For example, Petar Lubarda’s rugged expressionist forms in glaring colors evoke visions of primeval heroism and the uncontrollable stamina of the Balkan peoples. His Gusle Player, a blind bard of epic poetry accompanied by his primitive instrument seems as if verses from the mythical depths of time immemorial are gushing forth from his gaping mouth.[xix] (Fig. 7)

Folklore is a persistent theme in the self-perceptions of identity that mutated according to the changing ideological structures, from Serbian to Pan-Slavic and Yugoslav. In its modernist guise, cleansed of religious and ethnic connotations, folklorism could fit into the image of modernity and prosperity. The new Yugoslav and socialist identity required the redesigning of the urban landscape along modernist lines and the mass production of standard housing equipped with modern-style furniture and appliances.[xx] The showcase of such ideals was New Belgrade, built on marshland by ‘youth work brigades’ as a display of the new collective spirit of the working class. A locally-assembled diminutive ‘people’s car’, the Zastava 750, made under license from the Italian Fiat and its successor, the Yugo, along with locally-designed fashion clothing contributed to the image of a modern lifestyle that was in sharp contrast to the dismal image of the Soviet bloc. Even the coarseness that was so often associated with the primeval and uncorrupted spirit of the common people, such as in Lubarda’s vision, was rendered ‘clean’ in the colorful ‘naïve art’ of peasant artists that was internationally promoted in the 1970s to demonstrate the optimism of socialist Yugoslavia’s peasantry.[xxi] This image of ‘modern folklorism’ was constructed through the promotion of ‘folk’ dance ensembles and products of traditional arts and crafts mainly by the Narodna Radinost (Folk Arts and Crafts), a state-run cooperative that marketed an assortment of handicrafts, including Pirot rugs from Serbia, coffee sets from Bosnia, wood carvings from Croatia, and a selection of products such as crockery, musical instruments, filigree jewelry, lace and embroidery from all regions of Yugoslavia. In particular demand was knitwear made by local village women in Sirogojno, a reconstructed ‘ethnic’ village on Mount Zlatibor in Serbia. These products were admired for their colorful designs and unrefined texture, which created a sense of authentically indigenous products. Just as ‘naïve art’ was promoted to the status of high art and exhibited in art galleries, Sirogojno knitwear was displayed in fashion shows alongside designer clothing.

The Elusive Identity

The unlikely combination of modernity and a polished folklorism however could not forge a unitary identity that would simply brush aside traditional identity structures. Yugoslav identity thus came to be conflated with socialist ideology. When communism collapsed it became obsolete, creating an identity vacuum that opened doors to ethnic and religious nationalisms. But the building blocks of identity reconstruction had already been fashioned in the first Yugoslav state. The kingdom of the South Slavs was not a model democratic country; nor was it, despite considerable efforts, a truly multicultural society. Once disenchantment with the unitary state set in, artists from the Pan-Slavic circle turned from extolling the Serbian past to discovering their own. The Serbs for their part had been largely unresponsive to the idealistic vision of Pan-Slavism and had little interest in cultural traditions other than their own.

It is not an easy task to imagine one’s nation in the Balkans. The ethnic and cultural topography of the region is defined by complex interrelations of elusive ethnicities, overlapping traditions and a shared historical fate. Croatia, whose statehood tradition stretches all the way back to the eleventh century was, after a short period of independence, absorbed into the Hungarian kingdom. Similarly, the somewhat more clearly outlined Serbian principalities emerged from Byzantine dominion in the early thirteenth century only to be engulfed by the expanding Ottoman domain two centuries later. These brief interludes in the South Slavs’ long history of obscurity within the Byzantine, Habsburg and Ottoman empires were expanded in the national narratives into glorious kingdoms arbitrarily encompassing territories according to political imagination and the mutations of the nationalist discourse.

In reality, these two groups have difficulties even distinguishing between themselves; their national and ethnic identities are just as much the product of imagination as their nationally-specific cultures. Nationalist theories tend to assimilate callously, disregarding layers of regional cultural traditions that are the result of centuries of mixing and blending in complex social and cultural processes. The same is true of the equally preposterous notion of a visual language or aesthetic principle that would somehow be inherent to only one group.

So what remains of that national or ethnic-specific design in Serbia? Inkiostri’s passionate dedication to folklore did not result in a ‘rebirth’ of authentic Serbian art (or Yugoslav, as he labeled it after the Yugoslav kingdom was formed). The designs he promoted as ‘national’ were nothing more than a blend of local vernaculars interspersed with generic fin-de-siècle ornamental devices. (Fig. 8) The same is true of Tanazević’s Morava decorative design and the many other historicist and vernacular ‘revivals’. However much these designers and artists strove to define a national style all they could come up with was a local variant of an international idiom. The ‘Hanzenatika’ historicist fantasy and Meštrović’s Slavic symbolism lack even regional references; they are ‘national’ only in the label.

The Power of Illusion

If we were to ask the question of how these visual languages of diverse origins came to be accepted as representative of nation or ethnicity we would be entering the uncharted domains of the irrational. Identification of the source of this phenomenon would require an investigation of the militant and oppressive discourse that dominated the intellectual scene for most of the time period under consideration. Toward the end of the nineteenth century the militancy intensified. It was then that the influential Andra Stevanović attacked foreign academic styles and demanded the use of Serbian historical and vernacular models; these in his belief represented innate spiritual values of the nation.[xxii] His words resounded strongly. They came not long after Valtrović and Milutinović had identified the Morava idiom. The discovery of an indigenous style was a powerful incentive in the increasing militancy that heralded the impending wars. The two Balkan Wars and the battles of the First World War stretched the national imaginary to the limits, evoking memories of mythical battles for mythical ethnic spaces that needed to be ‘liberated’: Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo.[xxiii]

These were not lonely voices. The goal of most cultural and intellectual activity was reduced to explications of nationalist policies.[xxiv] Such parochialism had a devastating effect on the creative output of artists, designers and architects. Many of them in the nineteenth century were educated in Western academies, often in Vienna and Munich, to which they went driven by the sense that they were on patriotic missions to acquire knowledge. Very few stayed abroad: after completing their studies they returned to government positions and squandered their talents on uninventive public projects and tedious patriotic debates. This indeed was not an atmosphere conducive to creativity and innovation: mainstream trends in the visual arts and design, from various academic historicisms to incarnations of the Secession in vernacular guise, were mere simulations of styles; they were removed from their theoretical framework and adapted to the vacuous discourse that dominated the intellectual scene.

Nationalism even penetrated the modernist and avant-garde scenes of interwar Belgrade and Zagreb. One such case is the Zenit movement founded in 1921 by Ljubomir Micić, who promoted an extravagant concept of the ‘barbaric’ creativity and ‘genius’ of the Slavs, which would supplant Western culture in the impending war of civilizations. This cultural radicalism was in fact a restatement of Russian Slavophile theories expressed through the visual languages and discourses of Dada and Futurism. Ironically, it draws from the same imaginary as mainstream culture, whose conservative values Micić and his associates believed they were challenging.[xxv]

Modernism in the Balkans is a trompe l’œil of modernity, an illusion that conceals social underdevelopment and deep-set traditionalism. Despite all its shortcomings the art scene in socialist Yugoslavia did make significant progress. The proscription of ethnic and religious nationalism and refutation of the equally doctrinaire socialist realism in the years following Tito’s split with Stalin was a liberating moment.[xxvi] But underneath the veneer of the academic modernist visual languages was that persistent traditionalist underpinning and parochialism centered on the local milieu and perceptions of the indigenous. When notions of modernity were actually expressed, as they were by some independent movements and occasional brilliant individuals, they were tolerated as the escapist resorts of the elite few and kept at safe distance from mainstream culture.[xxvii]

The profusion of images described at the beginning of this article was a pageant of traditionalism and patriarchy. It was the summation of all past identities: as if encapsulated in a vacuum of conflated time, this imagery, drawn from the various imaginaries of past identities, announced yet another identity change: from the Yugoslav and socialist to religious-based ethnic identities. Shifting from Marxism to Orthodoxy and from proletariat to nation hardly required a leap of faith; both were communitarian populist ideologies with closely related and overlapping mythological matrices. Folklore remained the dominant theme, but this was not the polished folklorism of Tito’s Yugoslavia. It was a strain of conservative Slavophilism developed by émigré Russian clerics in the 1930s and reiterated by Serbian bishops as an ethnic ontology named Svetosavlje (‘St. Savaism’) after Saint Sava. In this bewildering mixture of theological mysticism and organicist history, Orthodox Christianity is described as the spiritual essence and true identity of the Serbs.

It is hardly surprising that the visual expression of this Svetosavlje identity is formed by the ‘Byzantine’ aesthetic. The scintillating gold of icons and the irrational spatial setting known as ‘inverted perspective’ are seen as a visual code that defines cultural belonging. Indeed, icons evolved from their traditional role as objects of private devotion – closely related to the celebration of the family patron saint, the slava – into markers of collective identity. In this transformation the Baroque-derived visual language, traditional since the eighteenth century, was discarded in favor of simulated medieval visual models; this, according to the ideologues of Svetosavlje, was the authentic style of the Serbs. Indeed, the ethereal two-dimensional saints hovering in surreal gold settings were more consistent with the Serbs’ new ‘spiritual’ identity.

The ‘Byzantine’ aesthetic was not restricted to icons; it appeared on a range of products, from calendars to slivovitz decanters – and even Easter eggs, the other significant artifacts of religious folklore that underwent a transformation from colorful symbols of a church holiday into markers of ethnic identity.[xxviii] This somber religious imagery has displaced the vibrant colors and lively vernacular designs of ‘folk arts and crafts’ and assumed the most prominent place in the national imaginary as perceptions of the indigenous. When new identities are constructed, however, they do not forfeit earlier ones. Thus a profusion of symbols drawn from past imaginaries, including monasteries, saints, military heroes and emblems of church and state were adapted to the ‘Byzantine’ aesthetic and branded as ‘ethnic’. (Fig. 9)

This dysfunctional agglomeration of myths and history, folklore and religion is yet another triumph of parochialism. Sustained by a folkloric religion, the Svetosavlje identity perpetuates the same cultural inertia and self-isolation that has plagued Balkan mainstream culture since the Slavs started to emerge as Serbs and Croats in the early nineteenth century (and most recently as Bosniaks, Macedonians and Montenegrins). However much identity structures changed and new narratives were written and imaginaries developed over these past two centuries, the traditionalist underpinning remained.

These identities are in fact nothing but illusions, chimeras of collective desires, as are their visual expressions: the visual languages and designs that were grafted onto these collective self-perceptions of uniqueness. As visual codes that define identity, they were just as much illusions as the identities they were meant to convey.

[i] It is not uncommon to find in scholarly literature, as in the nationalist discourse, views that today’s nations are in one way or another comparable or traceable to pre-modern ethnic groups. For a critical summary of such perennialist theories, see Anthony D. Smith, Nationalism and Modernism, Routledge, New York and London, 1998, pp. 145-198. Adrian Hastings for example argues for the development of ethnic or even national sentiment in some parts of Europe in the Middle Ages; thus in the Balkans, according to this author, the Serbs and Croats had assumed distinct identities in the later medieval period. Adrian Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion and Nationalism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York, 1997, pp. 124-147. However, the mélange of isolated rural communities that formed the medieval and post-medieval Balkans does not in any way correspond to the large ethnic groups that emerged in the nineteenth century and that we more or less encounter today (as nations). It is unlikely that these disconnected communities could have developed identities other than those shaped by kinship loyalties, regional and local customs and traditions; when they did extend beyond the local milieu they referred to the shared pool of traditions such as language, social organization and remnants of ancient beliefs that subsisted as part of religion and custom. But these transcended political and religious boundaries: Catholic and Orthodox Slavs (and later Muslim) would have had some sense of mutual affinity (not necessarily loyalty) based on this shared heritage. (see below, notes 2 and 6)

[ii] These traditions were often extracted from a common pool of traditions and assigned to the cultural heritage of one or another ethnic group. Such appropriated traditions correspond in part to Hobsbawm’s definition of ‘invented traditions’. Eric Hobsbawm, “Introduction: Inventing Traditions”, in The Invention of Tradition, ed. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York, 1983, pp. 1-14. They were not necessarily invented or revived; living traditions were often transformed (spontaneously, at the popular level) to accommodate changes in perceptions of identity. Examples discussed in this article include the icon and the ‘Byzantine’ style, the national heritage and the epic narrative, all of which mutated from their original contexts into markers of collective identity.

[iii] Benedict Anderson’s printed vernaculars may have been the initial medium for the spread of national narratives, but only amongst the elites. It was through such familiar visual styles that these narratives and their imaginaries were widely disseminated among the population. Cf. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, 2nd ed., Verso, London, 1991.

[iv] For Vuk Karadžić, see Duncan Wilson, The Life and Times of Vuk Stefanović Karadžić 1787-1864: Literacy, Literature, and National Independence in Serbia, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1970.

[v] For the medieval history of the Balkans, see John V. A. Fine, The Late Medieval Balkans: A Critical Survey from the Late Twelfth Century to the Ottoman Conquest, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1987. On the Battle of Kosovo, Thomas Emmert, Serbian Golgotha: Kosovo 1389, East European Monographs 278, Columbia University Press, Boulder and New York, 1990.

[vi] This nationalist claim has been accepted by some historians. Arguing against Benedict Anderson’s view that nations were not possible before the advent of print-capitalism Adrian Hastings maintains that the church and the popular epic poetry sustained Serbian national consciousness throughout the Middle Ages. Hastings, Construction of Nationhood, p. 135. Even the modernist Eric Hobsbawm complies with the perennialist argument. Although it could easily fit into his notion of ‘invented traditions’ Hobsbawm accepts the contention that in Serbia memories of a medieval kingdom were preserved in this popular lore and by the church, in the daily liturgy which celebrated the saintly Nemanyid kings. Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York, 1990, pp. 75-76. It should be noted, however, that much of this poetry consists of fragments compiled from disparate sources of unknown age and provenance. Even as we know them today, from a nineteenth century redaction, there is hardly anything that would indicate ethnic (let alone national) consciousness. In fact it was only after their publication in Vienna that these epics were transformed from popular lore into a powerful tool in the construction of national memory. From there, they were transmitted back to the population in the Serbian principality as part of the national narrative.

[vii] For the history of the Balkans under Ottoman and Habsburg rule, see L.S. Stavrianos, The Balkans Since 1453 with a new introduction by Traian Stoianovich, New York University Press, New York, 2000.

[viii] This was stated in a public lecture at the university in 1890. Two articles appeared in the same year where he expounded his views on national art and architecture: Andra Stevanović, “Umetnost i arhitektura” [Art and Architecture], parts 1 and 2, Srpski tehnički list, no. 10, 1890, pp. 159-163 and nos. 11-12, pp. 179-182.

[ix] The different strains of historicist architecture in Serbia and their relation to national ideology are discussed in Bratislav Pantelić, “Nationalism and Architecture. The Creation of a National Style in Serbian Architecture and its Political Implications”, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 56, no. 1, 1997, pp. 16–41.

[x] Gabriel Millet published the first systematic survey of Serbian medieval architecture where he identified three major ‘schools’ of architecture: the Raška, the Serbo-Byzantine and the Morava. Gabriel Millet, L’ Ancien art serbe: Les Églises, Boccard, Paris, 1919. These three medieval idioms have inspired all church architecture in Serbia since the late nineteenth century.

[xi] Tanazević’s inclusion of a historicist idiom within a Secessionist framework finds parallels in the work of Ödön Lechner in Hungary, who oscillated between historicist eclectic fantasies and a panoply of motifs purportedly derived from Magyar ethnic traditions (for example his Postal Savings Bank of 1901 in Budapest). For Tanazević and the spread of the Morava decorative design, see Pantelić, “Nationalism and Architecture”, 29-30. For the Hungarian Secession, see Jeremy Howard, Art Nouveau: International and National Style in Europe, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1996, 108-110.

[xii] Dragutin Inkiostri Medenjak, Preporođaj srpske umetnosti [The Rebirth of Serbian Art], Zadužbina Ilije Kolarca, Belgrade, 1907.

[xiii] Such as Dušan Jurkovič’s Czecho-Slovak national style, Stanisław Witkiewicz’s Zakopane style in Poland or that of Ion Mincu, the originator of the national style in Romania. Analogies are to be found in Hungary where nationalists such as Károly Kós found inspiration in the traditional architecture of Transylvania, the imagined original homeland of the Magyars. Along similar lines was the Finnish nationalists’ discovery of the wooden architecture and folk arts of Karelia which they associated, very much like the Serbs, with their national epic, the Kalevala. For these national styles, see Howard, Art Nouveau, 103-122, 123-136, 160-183. See also the essays in Michelle Facos and Sharon L. Hirsh (eds.), Art, Culture, and National Identity in Fin-de-Siècle Europe, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York, 2003. For a survey of Inkiostri’s work, see Sonja Vulešević, Dragutin Inkiostri Medenjak: pionir jugoslovenskog dizajna [Dragutin Inkiostri Medenjak: The Pioneer of Yugoslav Design], Muzej primenjene umetnosti, Belgrade, 1998. Inkiostri’s attempts to promote vernacular motifs in architectural design however met with great opposition from architects who were more inclined toward international historicist styles. In church architecture it is a historicism of academic neo-Byzantine provenance, such as Aleksandr Pomerantsev’s St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia, which finds closest parallels in Serbia.

[xiv] For a summary treatment of the ideological and political impact of these art movements, see Ivo Banac, The National Question in Yugoslavia: Origins, History, Politics, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1984, pp 203-208.

[xv] As stated by Lord Robert Cecil, Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs at the opening of the exhibition. Quoted from Branka Magaš, “The Politics of Ethnic Cleansing”, Against the Current, no. 48, 1994.

[xvi] The Kosovo Temple is summarily treated in surveys of Yugoslav art and in some popular monographs on Meštrović. For a brief analysis of this monument in the context of national ideologies, see Banac, The National Question, 204-205.

[xvii] Despite fierce opposition from proponents of socialist realism, modernism prevailed: abstract art officially represented Yugoslavia at the Venice Biennale in 1954. For the ideological debates surrounding modernism, see Lidija Merenik, Ideološki modeli: Srpsko slikarstvo 1945-1968 [Ideological Models: Serbian Painting 1945-1968], Beopolis and Remont, Belgrade, 2001.

[xviii] Ibid, pp. 98-99.

[xix] For these two artists, see Stanislav Živković, Petar Lubarda, SANU, Belgrade, 1981 and Miodrag Jovanović, Uroš Predić, Galerija Matice srpske, Novi Sad and Zlatna grana, Sombor, 1998.

[xx] This entailed the establishing of industrial design: in 1948 the old School of Arts and Crafts evolved into the Academy of Applied Arts; it was followed by the founding of the Museum of Applied Arts two years later.

[xxi] A popular survey of this art in English is Nebojša Tomašević, Naive Painters of Yugoslavia, Hippocrene Books, Hew York, 1978.

[xxii] Curiously, Stevanović’s own architectural designs display the full range of academic idioms from neo-classical to neo-Renaissance and little if any trace of a ‘national’ design. For his views on national art, see above note 8.

[xxiii] It was not a figure of speech when in 1906 the dean of Belgrade’s Technical School argued that design was an important tool in the ‘contemporary cultural battle’ that was being fought between nations and that researching and preserving medieval culture and ‘popular taste’ would “… strengthen the resistance of the people in that battle”. Quoted from Dušica Živanović, ‘Počeci proučavanja vizantijske arhitekture u Srbiji’ [The Beginning of Research of Byzantine Architecture in Serbia], in Proceedings of the Second Conference ‘Niš i Vizantija’, ed. Miša Rakocija, Niš, 2005, pp. 400-401.

[xxiv] In Serbia, as elsewhere in the Balkans, opposition to official academic styles and calls for a return to archetypal cultural models lack the utopian and revolutionary ideals of John Ruskin and William Morris or even the religious and moralistic outlook of the Cambridge Camden Society and Augustus Pugin. Rather than in opposition to the institutional framework and the nationalist mainstream, intellectuals and artists in the Balkans were usually part of it. In this respect, perhaps, the Serbian situation could be compared with the nationalist discourse in Germany and August Reichensperger. Parallels can be found also in neighboring Hungary where harking back to the rural simplicity of the ethnic past was motivated by a desire to resist foreign influence. For Hungary, see above, note 12 and for Germany, Michael J. Lewis, The Politics of the German Gothic Revival: August Reichensperger, MIT Press, Cambridge Mass. and New York, 1993.

[xxv] For the manifesto of the movement, see Ljubomir Micić, ‘Delo Zenitizma’ [The Purpose of Zenithism], Zenit, vol. 1, no. 8, 1921, p. 2.

[xxvi] Although it may be true that official endorsement of formalism was in fact an efficient way of preventing social and political commentary, freedom to pursue individual artistic invention was not challenged.

[xxvii] The advent of modernism in the 1930s opened up the Yugoslav cultural scene to international developments and prospects for a unitary culture. Among the avant-gardes that appeared Belgrade’s Surrealist movement (active from the 1920s) is notable for its authentic alternative to mainstream cultural models. But it was only in the second Yugoslavia that the alternative art scene diversified into a variety of original trends. For a critical survey of the avant-garde scene in Yugoslavia, see Dubravka Đurić and Miško Šuvaković (eds.), Impossible Histories: Historical Avant-Gardes, Neo-Avant-Gardes, and Post-Avant-Gardes in Yugoslavia, 1918-1991, MIT Press, Cambridge Mass., 2003. Modernism in the architecture of Belgrade is discussed by Ljiljana Blagojević, Modernism in Serbia: The Elusive Margins of Belgrade Architecture. 1919-1941, MIT Press, Cambridge Mass., 2003.


About pantelic

Bratislav Pantelić je istoričar i teoretičar za koga su prošlost i sadašnjost u stalnoj interakciji. On veruje da svako doba sebe oblikuje u skladu sa sopstvenim odnosom prema prošlosti i da se za razumevanje jednog vremena mora kritički sagledati celokupno intelektualno i kulturno okruženje i pravilnim čitanjem dešifrovati njegove namere, težnje, zablude i ideale. Pantelićev pristup nalazi se na konvergenciji socijalne antropologije, političke, kulturne i ekonomske istorije, istorije kulture i umetnosti, sociologije, teorije, prakse i istorije vizuelnih umetnosti, arhitekture i književnosti. Njegovi radovi objavljeni u međunarodnim naučnim i stručnim publikacijama obuhvataju raznovrsne teme - od antičke nauke i njene primene u projektovanju, srednjevekovne arhitekture u formiranju političke ideologije i simbolike, do kulturne politike i pitanja nacionalizma i identiteta u modernom dobu - ali ono šta ih objedinjuje je interdisciplinarno polazište. Osim naučnih i stručnih radova povremeno piše eseje iz oblasti kulturne politike i istorije. Bratislav Pantelić je magistrirao i doktorirao (1994 godine) na University of Pennsylvania. Za vreme i nakon postdiplomskih studija bio je stipendista Kolb Foundation, Dumbarton Oaks instituta, Mellon Foundation i Center for Advanced Studies in the Visual Arts. Posle povratka iz SAD, proveo je kraće vreme u Beogradu odakle je 2000 godine otišao na Sabanci University u Istambulu, gde predaje na katedrama za istoriju i za društvene i političke nauke.


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