When the various nationalities, old and new, started to emerge from the beleaguered Yugoslav nation in the closing decades of the twentieth century, they were accompanied by discourses and iconographies of the past that substantiated their claims to historical right and heritage. An integral part of these emerging identities were aesthetic systems that communicated ethnic, national, and cultural belonging and sets of visual references that are imagined to be deeply woven in the ethnic makeup and to echo history and tradition.
These visual perceptions are part of identity formation as much as language and religion. They are not questioned and are beyond judgment, individual choice, or preference. They are visual codes that define belonging. For Orthodox Serbs, Bulgarians and Greeks, who imagine themselves as the cultural heirs of the Byzantine Empire, the visual code is the ethereal aesthetic of the Byzantine icon. For Muslims in Bosnia and in southern Serbia whose identity has been recently realigned around their perceived Ottoman heritage and who have assumed a Turkish identity, as well as for Turks, visual codes can be in the form of a religious phrase in Arabic, such as a sura from the Quran as one often sees on cars and trucks, or on walls as graffiti, and in a particularly powerful self-identifying statement, as body tattoos (in the Turkish context these calligraphic designs can be compared with the motif constructed from the signature of Atatürk). The design transcends the meaning of the text and transmits a visual code associated with a cultural or ideological orientation. The design itself becomes the text. Thus although the Arabic of the sura is unreadable to most Turkish and Slavic speaking Muslims, it is accepted, for the calligraphic design communicates a particular worldview associated with Muslim culture and forms a network of references to customary perceptions of the Islamic civilization.
The visual code is a stereotype. It can be the colorful charm of a bazaar, the mysticism of a Byzantine church or the orderliness of a Renaissance piazza. Adherence to a particular aesthetic does not necessarily correspond to individual sensibilities and preferences: a Serb or a Greek, for example, can appreciate Italian Renaissance art or may prefer the exquisite charm and realistic texture of a Raphael to the rigid forms and abstract linearity of a Byzantine icon. But they will always regard the Renaissance work as foreign while the Byzantine icon (even when it is indeed foreign) will appear to them as something that is a part of what makes them Serb or Greek. Just as the calligraphic design to a Muslim.
If ideas of modernity and progress ever managed to supersede this Balkan parochialism and its obsession with tradition and ethnicity it was in the second Yugoslavia. Indeed, the Yugoslav socialist interlude ushered in a novel sense of modernity. After Tito’s break with Stalin in 1948 Yugoslavia developed its own variety of socialism, branded as ‘self-management’, that significantly relaxed the rigidity of Russian ‘scientific socialism’. Separation from Russia and the Soviet bloc meant the introduction of considerable civic freedoms, as demonstrated explicitly in 1950 when Yugoslavia became one of the founding members of the European Broadcasting Union. International events such as Eurosong and Jeux sans frontiéres, broadcast live on state television, and a variety of high-profile international film, theater, and music festivals subsidized by the state provided a sense of openness that had no parallels in the Soviet bloc. At the same time local radio and television stations provided a platform for social critique far removed from the otherwise restrictive framework of state bureaucracy. All this was accompanied by a modernist visuality that dominated furniture, fashion, residential architecture, and graphic design. One example is Start magazine, whose explicit female nudity, often critical and intellectually stimulating content, and modern layout and typography communicated a message of modernity and urbanity. This was a welcome break with historicist thinking in a region that was so deeply embroiled in the shades of its own past.
Yugoslavia appeared more humane, upbeat and optimistic than ever before. The officially approved visual models included modern art and avant-garde digressions, such as the abstract expressionism of Živojin Turinski and Petar Lubarda, which formed the backdrop of state pageantry alongside the residues of Socialist Realism. Equally dramatic and visually spectacular breaks with Soviet models were the abstract modernist monuments (dating mostly to the 1960s and 1970s) that dotted Yugoslavia’s landscapes in celebration of events from the socialist imaginary – mostly battles fought by Tito’s partisans during World War II; a notable example is the winged Monument to the Revolution by Dušan Džamonja. These monuments also marked sites of commemoration, e.g., Bogdan Bogdanović’s concrete flower that rises above the site of the Jasenovac concentration camp.
This is not to say that the Yugoslav communist elites were inclined toward modernity because of personal affinities. Quite the opposite – one can hardly imagine the rigid communist bureaucrats appreciating Cubist or abstract art. Tito himself was inclined toward academic realism whose subjects are drawn from the folkloric imaginary. But some of the early revolutionaries, who had been active in the interwar years in left- wing intellectual and artistic circles, had sympathy (or at least tolerance) for modernist aesthetics. One such individual was Koča Popović, a close associate of Marshal Tito, who was one of the founding members of the surrealist movement in Belgrade in the 1920s. Nonetheless the promotion of modernist aesthetics in Yugoslavia at a time when socialist realism dominated the neighboring Soviet bloc had less to do with the affinities of such revolutionaries than with the communists’ claim to be the ‘avant-garde of the working class’. The ‘new socialist man’ who looked to the future, not the past, was, by implication, a modern man.
In opposition to these mainstream trends radical avant-garde movements arose; these included the neo-figural Mediala in Belgrade (1953), the abstract EXAT 51 (1951), and the proto-conceptual Gorgona group (1959) in Zagreb, as well as the conceptual OHO group (1966) in Ljubljana. This was a generation unburdened by history and religion.
To be sure, traditionalism and patriarchy persisted but the new Yugoslav identity was constructed without historical and religious references. Unlike the somber imaginaries that inspire religion-based ethnic nationalisms, this modern Yugoslav fantasy was one of optimism and hope. It envisioned a contemporary lifestyle in high-rise apartment buildings such as those of New Belgrade and New Zagreb, built across the Sava River, conveniently away from the cluttered old city centers, as the venues of a new beginning and symbols of a bright future. The aesthetic of modernity was the visual code that defined socialist Yugoslavia. But this does not mean that ancient memories were forsaken. As ethnic nationalisms were subdued and adapted to the discourses of modernity, medieval monuments were cleansed of their religious and ethnic connotations and placed in the pool of artistic and cultural traditions that formed the joint heritage of the Yugoslav people.
The Yugoslav attempt at modernity failed, not because the constituent nationalities were of different cultural backgrounds and historical experience, as claimed by nationalists, but because secularism never really took hold. It simply faded away with socialism. Underneath the thin layer of modernity were the centuries of ethnic and religious loyalties and the rock solid framework of traditional patriarchy. When we compare the ceremonies celebrating Tito’s birthday that united the Yugoslav nation through calculated sentimentalism that invoked almost religious devotion with the ecstatic displays of ethnic/ religious sentimentalism at Međugorje, where in 1981, one year after Tito’s death, the Virgin Mary appeared to Croatian children to bolster Croatia’s ethnic/religious identity, we realize how lightly applied secularism was.
Yugoslavia was like a dream. But deep down, hidden, was the pan-Balkan culture of boisterous heroism and senseless violence amidst a blend of poverty, prejudice and superstition that reflected the extent of desolation in this unhappy land; occasionally it surfaced in noir culture (Yugoslav Black Wave) such as Aleksandar Petrović’s I Even Met Happy Gypsies (1967), Živojin Pavlović’s When I am Dead and Gone (1967) and the neo-noir Virdžina (1991) by Srđan Karanović. This indigenous culture entered the mainstream in the 1980s, but only in a polished form that was more suitable for mass consumption such as Emir Kusturica’s poetic affectations and the calculated ruralism of ‘ethnic’ music; the latter climaxed in the frenzied revelries at Guča.
The twentieth century in the Balkans ended, as it began, in a ludicrous mimicry of history where entire populations, mesmerized by the transcendental notion of participating in some grand scheme of history, acted out their resuscitated ethnic/historical identities: the Orthodox identified with Byzantium, the Muslims with the Ottoman Empire, while the Catholics imagined themselves as descendants of the Habsburg Monarchy. Once again visuality followed the identity shift and reverted to past models. As internationalism relapsed into ethnic/national exclusion and priests, saints and kings replaced the heroes of the socialist revolution, the aesthetic of modernism was replaced by the rigid forms and glittering gold of Byzantine icons, Oriental calligraphic designs and various iconographies of medieval statehood.
This Yugoslav excursion to modernity and back can be followed through the artistic career of Milić od Mačve, one of the founders of the Mediala group, whose work is marked by a regression from the avant-garde new figuralism in the 1950s to a sordid blend of Byzantine inspired ethno-religious folklorism thirty years later. This relapse is an appropriate metaphor of the Balkan condition.
This text was published in
Balkan Locus Focus: Visual Communication Design Histories in the Long 20th Century, 2014 (Izmir University of Economics & Parsons The New School for Design)