Academic journal article Serbian Studies

Inspiration and Affirmation of Revolution in Nineteenth-Century Serbian Painting

Academic journal article Serbian Studies

Inspiration and Affirmation of Revolution in Nineteenth-Century Serbian Painting

Article excerpt

History painting assumed an unprecedented level of importance in nineteenth- century Serbia. Previously, it was essentially limited to depictions of Serb ruler saints and tied to the traditions of the Orthodox church. (1) The impact of such a dependency was both thematic and stylistic. Secularization of subjects and stylistic changes typically met with little approval, let alone support. Moreover, the cultural isolation produced by centuries of Turkish occupation further hampered artistic change.

Although there were preparations and preludes, the events of the nineteenth century, beginning with the first Insurrection in 1804, dramatically reshaped Serbian political, social, cultural, and artistic life. Expanding international contacts brought a new level of western political involvement as well as exposure to modern institutional structures, diverse intellectual ideas, and artistic concepts and styles. Secular art in the Classical, Romantic, and Realist styles was embraced by Serbian artists studying at the academies in Vienna, Buda, Pest, Munich, and Dusseldorf. (2)

In a period of intense nationalism, self-awareness, and conviction that the birth of a new Serbian state was at hand, artists provided their response through history painting. Four main categories of subject are discernible. They are the events and personalities of: the pre-Kosovo independent Serbian state, the 1389 battle of Kosovo and the demise of the Serbian kingdom, Serbia during the Turkish occupation, and the struggle for independence in the nineteenth century. Whether stylistic adaptations of Classicism, Romanticism, or Realism, these paintings are generally descriptive and didactic. They speak of glories of the past, acceptance of God's will, oppression, resistance, and heroism.

In many ways they are a pictorial parallel to the epic songs composed during the dark days of the Turkish occupation. Orally disseminated from generation to generation, these recitations sustained a sense of national identity. In the nineteenth century they took on even greater significance. Their compilation by Vuk Stefanovic-Karadzic and publication in 1814 served as a timely reinforcement of Serbian commitment to restore a predestined independence. Their themes and messages informed the work of contemporary painters. These songs captured the attention of numerous European writers, who transmitted them in translation to their countrymen at a time when political attention was increasingly focused on the Balkans. By the second half of the nineteenth-century paintings dealing with specifically Serbian themes were being viewed by international audiences as well.

Pre-Kosovo Themes

Embroiled in years of fighting to overthrow the Turkish yoke, gain full independence, and receive international recognition of their sovereignty, the Serbs needed continued reminders of their heritage. In art the representations of illustrious deeds and legendary heroes served that purpose. A patriotic Serb and an internationally renowned painter, Paja Jovanovic provided such subjects. To demonstrate the remarkable achievements of the great Serbian empire, Jovanovic turned to the subject of Tsar Dusan, whose reign (1331-55) was marked by territorial expansion and cultural flowering. (3) Commissioned by the royal family and exhibited at the Serbian pavilion of the Parisian World Exposition in 1900, The Coronation of Tsar Dusan, (4) evokes a glorious past at a time when the young nation needed to assert the legitimacy of its new status of European statehood (Figure 1 following p. 328).

Meticulously researched and executed with immense technical skill, Jovanovic's painting presents the Serbian state at the height of its power. Every detail, from the grandeur and solidity of the architecture and the rich attire of the courtiers to the noble commanding figure of the great ruler, suggests it. For Jovanovic's compatriots Dusan had not only realized Serbia's territorial and material aspirations, but had ruled over a sophisticated society governed by a code of laws he had authored. …

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