Yugoslav Art in the Twentieth Century

Playwright and novelist, as well as the ranking art critic in Yugoslavia, OTO BIHALJI-MERIN has devoted many years to editing YUGOSLAVIA,the handsomely illustrated periodical dealing with ancient and modern painting and sculpture and archaeology, which is sponsored by the state publishing house. He is the author of MODERN PRIMITIVES: MASTERS OF NAÏVE PAINTING,published in 1961 in New York by Harry Abrams, Inc.

IN THE life and culture of Yugoslavia, one may follow like a leitmotiv the simultaneous appearance of contrasts between the primeval and the new, between the archaic form and the planned civilization. One can perceive reminders of the collective soul of the people in their songs and customs transmitted through centuries, in the group dances, the funeral dirges and wedding songs, and in the proverbs and folk poetry. The imprint of the radiating art of antiquity on the land which was settled by the Slavs led rather early to a fruitful synthesis. The meeting of the courtly and priestly Byzantine attitude of mind with the Slavic joy of storytelling and a Slavic individuality closely linked with life produced the medieval master works on the walls of Serbian and Macedonian monastic churches.

Peoples and provinces of Yugoslavia may have their own independent and peculiar melodies, but their voices sound together polyphonically. This country consists of many sections which have their own political histories and which underwent separate social and artistic developments. After centuries of foreign domination, the parts were united into one state in 1918, and only after the People’s Liberation struggle of World War II did that state become united into one national entity. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the first exhibitions of individual Slovene, Serbian, and Croatian artists became manifestations of their joint cultural and national aspirations. But the splintering which had been conditioned by the historical separation was overcome only through the unification of the state and through the recognition of the equality of rights of national groups. Thus, in this short survey rarely will the national origin of individual artists be mentioned, whether they come from Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, or Bosnia-Herzegovina. All of these artists have experienced the great drama of modern art and have, especially in the last decades, reached achievements which indicate their creative participation in the spiritual conflicts of the period.


The great movements in the world of art, especially that of the École de Paris, have always found an echo in the art of Yugoslavia, even if with a slight delay in time. That echo would then be modified to adjust to the course of history, to the social climate, and to its own reality. The beginning of the twentieth century was characterized by vacillations between impressionism, Fauvism, and cubism. All the variations, from intimism all the way to abstraction and Tachism, found an expression in the development of Yugoslav art.

Modern painting in Yugoslavia was introduced by the Slovene impressionists Jakopič, Sternen, Grogar, and Jama. This group of painters was active after the turn of the century, and they considered their art as a means of illuminating an inner experience through surfaces of light and shadow in motion. The temperamental, passionate, and rhythmic brushstroke of the Serbian painter Nadežda Petrovic pierces out beyond reality and becomes an interpretation of an inner vision.

The Croatian painters Josip Račić and Miroslav Kraljević are impressionists to a limited degree. Račić, who committed suicide in his early twenties in Paris, possessed a neat and restrained chiaroscuro bearing Manet’s stamp, which only through its freshness and the immediacy of the open brushstroke acts as impressionistic. The sensitive paintings of Kraljević combine the methods of impressionism with the erotic sphere of a ToulouseLautrec.

AFTER the end of World War I, Yugoslav artists experienced the shattering of the foundations of their social, ethical, and aesthetic traditions. They turned away from rationalism and objectivism and started seeking a new and inner world of the observed.

It was already clear that the imitation of outside reality had never satisfied art, and that by producing paintings in a mechanical manner, such imitation had become altogether superfluous. The perception of human culture as a whole broke up European egocentricity; foreign and archaic cultures refreshed and inspired artists and art lovers, who had wearied of academicism and virtuosity.

Today the young artists of Yugoslavia have entered a world in which whatever is worth fighting for is entitled to exist as a matter of course. Whereas the earlier avant-garde art, which had endeavored to interpret the unexpressed, was most often alone and misunderstood, the younger generation of artists are today seeking full recognition and approval for their often fantastic experimental modes of expression. They are a generation full of self-confidence. It is with indifference, and even with revulsion, that they regard the masterpieces that are praised in their academies. These young artists have rejected the measures and criteria of yesterday, yet it is with a sure instinct for quality and taste that they move in the world of today. Interested in today’s gods though they may be, they do not serve them to the extent of sacrificing their independence in awed humility.

The varied work of the young painters hardly allows them to be classified; they move in inconsistencies, some of them hypnotized by the weight of the archaic past, others craving to shed everything and to begin each day anew.

Petar Dubrović (1890-1942), whose brilliantly colorful painting of the Adriatic island of Hvar appears on the cover of this issue, was influenced by Cézanne. In the early period of his creativity, Dobrović analyzed the landscape according to its elementary components. Later the colors of his palette became brighter, more dissonant, and expressively distorted. The sea which he painted is a deep ultramarine and a blinding white; the landscape of the island is in a refined pink hue, a delicate light green, a floating violet, and the saturated orange hue of the Fauvists.

Marino Tartaglia (1894) at first painted cubistic modulations and then moved on to a more refined colorism and the lyricism of the intimate. Sava Šumanović (1896-1942), until his death in battle during the German occupation, conceived everything visible in terms of abstract surfaces into which he arranged the expressive landscapes of the Pannonian plain. Ignjat Job (1895-1936), in his obsession with color, abandoned his cubistic beginnings in order to devote himself to a passionate expression of his feeling for the world. The search for the refinement of form of a Cézanne and the explosive power which distorted forms in Van Gogh were the starting points for Jovan Bijelić (1886), whose affinity for color strangles his construction of design. The lively shapes of the painter Zora Petrović (1894-1962) embody both starkness and substance. Her expressive scale of colors unites the ecstasy of instinct with a traditional gaiety of color.

The palette of Milan Konjović (1898— ) is allied with the dark, yet radiating coloristic power of Georges Rouault. In his younger years, Konjović was influenced by the bold distortions and visionary colors of El Greco. Later he approached the deluded awareness and flaming humanity of Van Gogh. In recent years his world has shrunk to symbols of color and form, and he is achieving abstractions inspired by folklore.

The painters Milo Milunović (1897) and Marko Čelebonović (1902) were trained in Paris. The culture and instinct of Čelebonović’s painting, which unites the flavor of medieval frescoes with the magic of broken tones and intermediate nuances of light, can be said in the last analysis to define the fruits of earth as newly recognized appearances of forms of life. Milunović’s Cartesian painting, balancing soul and reason, combines the refined colorism of Braque and the wisdom of Pompeian paintings. Milunović’s restrained mosaics are made of natural stone, and his canvases unite the musicality of antiquity with the dissonance of today.

Petar Lubarda (1907) left the dark rocky mountains of Montenegro to go to Paris. He reduces the visual experience of nature to its basic substance; shapes of craggy stones and sky, of men and animals are intertwined and disentangle themselves to become fantastic interpretations of a harmonious and abstract reality. His penetration through the visual sphere into the sphere of the pulsating beams of light leads him into abstractionism. His painting has preserved something of the moonlike chill of the hills of his fatherland. The virtuoso brushstroke of Predrag Milosavljević (1908) conjures up times that are past. Frano Šimunović (1907) transforms the tragic karst landscape of the Dalmatian hinterlands into the lines and structure of an abstract architecture in rhythms and diagrams. Oton Gliha (1914) evokes the fantastic ornamentation of the earth crust and of the enduring rocks with the calligraphy of his colored surfaces and of his drawing.

THE middle and younger generations of artists have a decisive share in the future development of Yugoslav modern art. Although the transitions from one generation to another cannot be fixed, one may still recognize a few strata. They are manifested in the first place as a striving toward surrealism and abstraction. Visual sensitivity, a quick grasp of the essence, and frequently a sovereign mastery of new techniques and methods are apparent.

Gabrijel Stupica (1913) in his search for truth wandered from the silvery luminousness of Velázquez to the tragic gradations of the night of a Rembrandtesque world. An inner restlessness led Stupica time and again to abandon once-reached shores. A fragmentary dissonance, the magic of his backgrounds, is the key to his sensitivity. Juxtaposed with the realistic character of a world full of doubts, the demarcation between the actual and the apparent in his paintings is uncertain.

Miljenko Stancic (1926) conjures up his society of ghosts of humans and creatures from a dream background of shadows, forebodings, and delights. What is the source of his skill and maturity right from the start, the perfection of his work, the abundance of imagination, the intensity of poetic imagery, which break through the boundaries of substance and sense? Stančić is a conductor of hallucinatory color chords, which at times act as questionably sweet tranquilizers. To this dark and dissonant music of colors he adds the scenery of a banal architecture of broken houses and crumbling men, decomposing flesh, frayed kerchiefs, in which the relationships of time and space have lost their validity.

The painter and engraver France Mihelič (1907) transposes the fantastic masked dances of Slovene peasants into a surrealistic world of allegories, daydreams, and the subconscious. With the divining rod of his art he transforms the objects of daily use into undefinable mysterious props of the abnormal, of fear, and of melancholy. His suggestive imagination creates Gothic backgrounds of strong, haunted scenes which spring from the hobgoblin sources of peasant fable writers. Also, in everything that Marij Pregelj (1913) paints, there is a will to show the world in its gross complexity without any embellishment. The expressionist, cubist, and surrealist elements are united in order to give immediacy to the primitive world of fable.

The world of the paintings of Mladen Srbinović (1925) unites the strong and somber pomp of the Byzantine-Slavic cult with the spirit of cubism and a harmoniously muted colorism. The dull color of childhood experiences in Macedonia surrounds stiff, surprised, archaic female figures, magically shown in a greenish light and fluid play of Eros. Men and things are experienced, held off, and translated into the symbolic. Lazar Vozarević (1925) has abandoned his graphic architectonic compositions, the strong Byzantine figures which he painted earlier. Instead he paints fluid canvases with golden planes shimmering with the color of rust.

Vladimir Veličković (1935) paints the intense history of the sufferings of Serbia in World War II, and Milić Stanković (1937) formulates with a pitiless spectral precision the solemn march of Death. These two painters are the representatives of the younger generation of artists, who are testing the capacity of the figurative for the interpretation of contemporary events in an apocalyptic denseness of their surrealist and expressionist world of paintings. The representations of the horror of the soul which appear in the work of many a young artist were not taken over from Salvador Dali’s catalogue of dreams; they derive from the fateful experience of destruction and an all too early cognizance of death. This art is in quest, over an abyss, and points with somnambulistic signs and symbols to the threatening landscape of past and future destruction.

One group of Yugoslav abstract painters derives its art from the Fauvists and does not abandon the lively feeling for form and the evocative substance of color. Kandinsky’s rich discovery of shapes in playful rhythms lives also in the intellectual and passionate art of Stane Kregar and Edo Murtić. Kregar (1905), who belongs to the older generation, tried his hand at abstract art in the period between the two world wars. The objective world and landscapes are disembodied by him and are transformed into rhythms of color. Murtić (1921— ) devotes himself to an unrestrained joy in the meshwork images of matter, in a structure which becomes visible in the roughness of the linen and frailness of the azure pigment. In his most recent works the tones are deeper and have more radiance.

Miodrag Protić (1922) has also abandoned the objects of visible reality. His aristocratically soft and silky nuances have given way to a stronger color composition. Zlatko Prica (1918) shows syntheses of realistic and abstract color fugues. His are paintings which move on the space-time plane. Zoran Petrović (1921) creates ruglike compositions in which are interwoven the courses of energy and of color dynamics. Josip Vaništa (1924) dramatizes color and builds paintings from dynamic expression and fleeing shadows. The compositions of Ferdinand Kulmer 1925) are structures of superimposed layers of paint. They remind one of the bark of trees through which shimmer the pigments of colors. Stojan Čelić (1925) starts from nature. In a steady motion he transforms the naturalistic sphere of observation into a world of myth and abstraction.

Abstract art belongs to our century, as does the atomic age and space flight. The changes in the thinking of the sciences dealing with nature show parallels in art. In the United States, in Yugoslavia, and in the majority of other countries, there are many painters today who undertake to interpret the essence of basic matter. It is a dark country which Mića Popović (1923) tries to illuminate. With a quick and hard stroke of his brush he penetrates under the skin of things and indicates, as in a mine, the tunnels of objects; the green and soft velvet of the sand dunes and the black metallic weight of the plain interspersed with craters remind one of the travail at the birth and death of matter. Are the interpretations of psychic conditions in the paintings of Ljubo Ivančić (1925) of purely abstract nature, or are they pictorial expressions of new microscopic aspects? In this artist’s paintings interiors look like caves into which steps lead downward and which are lit by some strange, dim light. They shine from within in violet and brown hues. Their emanations interpenetrate the substance and remove the border lines between the inner and outer world.

What Janez Bernik (1933) introduced in his sensitive engravings, he now fulfills in his paintings. The thick crust of paint has become an equivalent for the material, for earth, metal, and stone. From the first glimpse, the canvases of the young Orden Petlevski (1930— ) keep a firm hold on us. Some fateful necessity lies in the rhythms of his fleeting color. I get a feeling of his deeply rooted union with the inborn color and rhythms of the homeland, which I have seldom experienced with the abstract paintings of other artists. In spite of the modern intonation, the tragic and melancholic music of Macedonia lives in Petlevski’s paintings.

In an epoch of estrangement from the objective, of dissolution and abstraction, there was a strong desire among some artists in Yugoslavia to establish a new relationship with the world of figures and with social reality. They sought a synthetic realism which would maintain contacts with the folk traditions, yet at the same time embrace the experiences of modern art. Such strivings led, in the period between the two wars, to the founding of the artistic group Zemlja (“earth”). In the work of Krsto Hegedušić (1901), an interpenetration of social reality and the magic power of expression of human ties came to fruition. The peculiarity of his technique of painting lies in the concordance of the material object and figures. His figures are deformed in an almost verist brutality, and at the same time transformed by his transparent azure layers.


In the year 1929, Hegedušić, in his search for ties with simple folk, encountered the then fifteenyear-old peasant Ivan Generalić (1914— ) in the village of Hlebine and encouraged him and other peasants to paint. This meeting was the beginning of a naïve art in Yugoslavia.

The meeting between Hegedušić and Generalić was of deeper moment than either of them imagined; it brought a trained painter as a helper and friend to the peasant painters of feeling and primitive expression; at the same time, a way was found to do away with the barriers separating art and the people. In the course of becoming their teacher, the trained painter received lessons and inspiration from the fresh instinct of the peasant artists. This reciprocal influence, which perhaps concealed a sign of future developments, was an indication of the new impetus which art was to receive from the fount of naïveté.

Usually in regarding an artist’s work it is sufficient to concentrate in order to understand it. In the case of the naïve artists, fife and art are an indissoluble entity. Their provinces are life and the dreams of life. They paint their labors, their efforts, and their holiday and burial ceremonies. Their connection with the world, their stifled rebellion against backbreaking burdens are robust, full of peasant shrewdness and poetry.

As a child tending the pigs, Ivan Generalić always carried pencil and paper in his pocket to set down what he felt, saw, or thought. His early works contain something of the unexpected rhythm and stiffness of children’s drawings. His sharp, clear lines cut through the confines of logic. His perceptions and visions blend with each other: a shepherd, dog, herd of pigs in the snow, and the gloomy wood, trees, a man and his animals side by side in the simplicity of their natures. Most of his paintings are gilt glass (the French term is églomisé, a technique of painting on the back side of the glass, in which the layers of paint are superimposed in reverse order). Thus, the color of the background is the last to be applied.

The strongest talent next to Generalić in the village of Hlebine was the peasant Mirko Virius (1889—1943). He preferred to paint on canvas because he liked the texture combined with the paint. Virius was not a painter of fantasies. He identified himself with the world which he painted. His sympathies and his stand are expressed in his brushstrokes. From his own viewpoint he painted the fate of peasants in a simple, dramatic, and realistic way. Virius was killed by fascists in a concentration camp in Zemun.

Hlebine is not the only village in this country in which an interest in painting is widespread. Another school of painting, consisting of peasants and workers, came into being in the village of Kovačica, not far from the capital city of Belgrade, in the fertile plain of Banat. Some sixteen primitive painters of Slovak origin have established there in the local House of Culture a permanent exhibition, a unique gallery of this peasant art.

Jan Sokol (1909) is one of the founders of this group. The gingerbread faces of men and animals which he paints suggest something immovable and timeless. Jan Venjarski (1928) paints childlike paintings with an imaginary perspective; all is in the foreground. His brother, Ondrej Venjarski (1930), started painting only in 1959. He is one of the most imaginative painters in the whole group. His talent for observation is very intense, and his paintings of life in the country are like fairy tales.

It is customary in Yugoslavia, besides these two schools, to speak of the Serbian school of painters from Oparić, where Janko Brašić is the one who encouraged some peasants to take up painting. The Serbs are essentially individualists, and in the final analysis each one works and paints for himself. Yet they have included in their paintings something of the archaism of their tribal poetry.

Brašić (1905) is the only Yugoslav primitivist who does paintings in large sizes. It may be that this is an influence of the medieval tradition of fresco painting. He has helped in the decoration of churches with wall paintings. In very loud colors he paints the showman’s picture of village life, brawling men in an inn, war scenes, cemetery gatherings.

All heretofore mentioned are peasants. Emerik Feješ (1904) is a former button and comb maker. As is the case with many painters living in cities, in his soul he yearns for distant lands. His paintings of various cities — done as if he were traveling around, although he seldom leaves the place in which he lives — are orgies of fantasy. He painted his early works with the ends of wooden matches. He dipped the matches into the bright colors of his imagination and shaded the paintings with churches striped like zebras and built ideal palaces in a utopia. Matija Skurjeni (1898) at first painted trains maneuvering in a dusky and magical landscape. Today his soft and thin brush depicts the moonlit places of love and the limbo of those expelled from Paradise. Ivan Rabuzin (1920) has appeared only recently in the circle of primitives. His monumental wonderful flowers are like crocheted dreams, like the richly knit handkerchiefs which the peasants prepare for a saint’s feast. His bouquets of fields, hills, and forests, as if put together with pinheads, are in fact the blossoming flowers of the fantasy of a child’s heart.


The first modern artist from Yugoslavia who penetrated beyond the boundaries of his country by the sheer power of his works was the sculptor Ivan Meštrović (1883—1962). The originality of his talent, his imagination, and the perfection of his technique overcame any artificial external element in his work. The classical and peaceful forms of his representation of women, full of health, womanliness, and fulfillment, show a mastery of plastic forms. Meštrović is well known to American art lovers by his statue of a rider in Chicago and by some other works in American museums. After World War II he lived in the United States.

A determined artistic personality and creator of many outsize sculptures, among them that of the riding Amazon in front of the United Nations building in New York, is Antun Augustinčić (1900). An intensive feeling for form and a lyrical temperament are united in the sculptures of Frane Kršinić (1897).

The younger generation of sculptors in Yugoslavia have sought new methods in the spirit of the times and through their own intuitive processes; they have become skilled in the different uses of clay. Kosta Angeli Radovani (1916) creates figures of women which appear to have originated in a double climate of Mediterranean apotheosis and African primeval growth as projections of desires of his refined intellectual sensitivity. The mysteriously radiating and fragile figures of Miša Popović (1925) belong rather to the realm of the archaic and of myth than to the sensual and barbaric primitivism to which Olga Jančić (1929) finds herself attached. Her tragic and lively pieces evoke exciting tensions between proportions of weight and substance in motion. Stojan Batić (1925) represents the human figure as an individual and in groups of mine workers, in cubist and linear shapes with powerful human symbolism, bike Henry Moore, Batić has not represented the external facts of the mine worker’s life, but rather the inner landscape of his men, who, living in and for the mine, themselves become mine works, coal, metal, and earth. From a contrasting impulse for form, Drago Tršar (1927) formulates the contrapuntal collective being of a new social sphere in creation. The realms which Tršar embraces cannot be simply defined as figural or abstract, since the reality of a broadening existence has assimilated into sculpture new dimensions of sense and shape.

Vojin Bakić (1915) was the first to detach himself from the ties of objectivity. With perseverance he abandoned all the conquered positions and sought volume which grabs space, which grows from the last memories of form. The next step led him to a coalescence of organic form, rhythm, and bulging curves. Ana Bešlić (1912) follows sensitive aesthetics with stress on form. The theme which she prefers centers on a duality of abstract masses which tend to gravitate toward one another. Jovan Kratohvil (1924— ) shapes symbols of action in space. They tend to set tensions into balance. Olga Jevrić (1922) forms protruding, dramatically broken images, which seek a balancing point between falling and standing motionless. When Dušan Džamonja (1928) discovered his special ability to combine wood, glass, and metal, he brought into being those square crystalline figures which approximate the budding breakup of nature, and at the same time come close to overcoming it and being new creations. His works are festive and are executed with technical consciousness and mythical dreamy poetry.

The naïve sculptors in Yugoslavia are all connected with folk art. Thus, the Dalmatian peasant and craftsman Petar Smajić (1910) began his artistic activity with the carving of the gusla, a musical instrument. He decorated his pieces with strong and simple figures of men and riders. Particularly impressive are his heads. The deepest experience of the naïve point of view in contemporary sculpture is conveyed by the magically poetic sculptures of the peasant and doorman Bogosav Živković (1920). The stories in his carved pieces transgress the borders of his personal experience, family traditions, and folk culture. The transformation of form of this naïve sculptor reminds one of the powerful totem poles of North American Indians, which Živković never saw. His carved columns are permeated with the spirit of Byzantine-Slavic epic poetry.

In the many-voiced chorus of Yugoslav sculpture there seems to be a common striving toward elemental simplicity and direct expression, such as are found in the medieval tombstones of the Bosnian Bogomil necropolis. There must be an inner need when peasants, fishermen, and craftsmen in all parts of Yugoslavia are not content just to labor as farmers tilling the soil, to cast their nets, to use the tools of their craft; but with paint and chisel, in wood or stone, try to find an expression for their basic moods. Also, the professional artists in Yugoslavia, who find themselves surrounded with tradition and the new social and aesthetic positions, are creatively restless and are striving to move from a hermetically closed point of view to the experience of open spaces, to develop a visual and figural unity of the symbols of their collective life.

Translated by Miloš Veliniirovic.