Academic journal article Serbian Studies

Interpreting Western Academic Traditions in 19th-Century Serbian Painting

Academic journal article Serbian Studies

Interpreting Western Academic Traditions in 19th-Century Serbian Painting

Article excerpt

By the end of the 19th century, Serbian artists, the inheritors of an artistic tradition dominated by religious themes and conservative methodology, succeeded in establishing a substantial orientation towards secular art which combined diversity of subject with technical experimentation and innovation.

A climate favorable to artistic development emerged following the peace of 1774, which, beginning with the restoration of destroyed churches and monasteries, helped to liberate Serbian spiritual and cultural life. (1) Such restoration projects as well as the building of new churches called into demand the skills of locally trained artists as well as prompted the importation of foreign masters by patrons seeking more modern approaches. (2)

In addition to continued construction of monasteries and churches, by the early years of the 19th century, specifically during the reign of Prince Milos, there was a focus on building official and residential architecture, especially in Belgrade. This attracted artists from across the Sava and Danube rivers, some of whom came at the invitation of the prince. Political autonomy, greater economic prosperity, and liberation of thought converged to encourage the flowering of the arts.

There was both a desire and demand for the type of painting associated with the cultural centers in Austria, Hungary, and Germany. For the educated, the growing expectation was that the arts would transcend traditional contextual and stylistic limitations and "contribute to the achievement of social, political and cultural goals." (3) The language of the new discourse was to be secular, applicable to the changing contemporary needs of a society undergoing transformation on every level. This was a considerable challenge for the small but growing ranks of professional artists who understood the new requirements and aspired to produce works that would be comparable in significance and technical skill to those of the West.

The most obvious limitation was the availability of formal artistic training. Typically, young artists were schooled in local workshops, which represented a continuation of the themes and styles based on a Medieval tradition. This system remained virtually constant during the centuries of cultural isolation imposed by the Turkish occupation. Typically, instruction in secular art was provided by locally-trained teachers who had not had direct exposure to the technical and stylistic advances of the West. Not surprisingly, this type of training was mainly suitable for what can be classified as "minor" painters who produced portraits commissioned by newly emerging consumers comprised of small-scale merchants and craftsmen. Conversely, there was also the emergence of a group of well-educated patrons of means who expected far more proficient works, especially with respect to portraiture. Even the more sophisticated training in workshops in larger cities, such as Belgrade, Novi Sad, and Sremski Karlovci, (4) was not equivalent to that of Western art academies. Artists themselves recognized these provincial limitations and the need for more rigorous technical and theoretical instruction available abroad. Such study also provided access to the collections of past and current masterworks, and that fact drew artists, especially painters, to the great urban centers of Central Europe.

Throughout the 19th-century a significant number of Serbian students enrolled in the Vienna Academy. It was the primary destination during the first half of the century, while the academies in Pest, and especially Munich, attracted later generations seeking more progressive approaches, many of which were being imported from France. Nevertheless, even in the second half of the century Serbian artists continued to study in Vienna. Typically, they returned to their homeland, and while some turned to other occupations, most practiced their craft and provided instruction to younger artists, teaching at the prestigious Great School in Belgrade, secondary schools, or private ateliers. …

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