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Balkan art and beyond: Belgrade’s cultural reawakening

When visitors speak of Belgrade, they often think of its famous nightlife scene. But the Serbian capital has a culturally engaged population, a rich artistic history and, with the long-awaited reopening of its two premier museums, the city is cementing itself as one of southeastern Europe’s most interesting cultural destinations.
The classical building of the National Museum on Belgrade’s central Republic Square reopened to the public in June 2018 @ Datsenko Maryna / Shutterstock
The classical building of the National Museum on Belgrade’s central Republic Square reopened to the public in June 2018 © Datsenko Maryna / Shutterstock
Serbia’s most important museum, housed in an imposing classical building on Belgrade’s central Republic Square, was closed to the public for 15 years. Founded in 1844, the National Museum’s collection grew to include over 3000 paintings and more than 900 sculptures. The current building dates from 1903, and while the museum came through Yugoslavia’s demise unscathed, it had fallen into a state of disrepair. From 2003 the collection wasn’t accessible to visitors; the renovation work was pushed back so often that people started to wonder if the museum would ever reopen. But in June 2018 it welcomed a new generation of visitors, who can once again see its treasures.

A large part of the collection at the National Museum in Belgrade is dedicated to Serbia’s 18th- and 19th-century art © Lazaros Papandreou / Shutterstock
A large part of the collection at the National Museum in Belgrade is dedicated to Serbia’s 18th- and 19th-century art © Lazaros Papandreou / Shutterstock
The permanent collection, ranging from the Paleolithic period to the 20th century, is spread over three floors and coherently laid out with plenty of information for English-speaking visitors. The ground floor is given over to archaeology, tracing the history of the region from the earliest records to the Roman period, with a particular focus on the Neolithic-era Vinča culture. Perhaps the most famous (and fascinating) artefacts are a trio of fish-like stone sculptures from the Mesolithic-era settlement of Lepenski Vir in eastern Serbia. These little faces with their round eyes and wide mouths are strange and wonderful to look at – there’s something uncanny and magical about them.

The second floor is home to Byzantine and medieval artefacts, including some striking frescoes, masonry and icons from Serbia’s Orthodox monasteries. There’s also a dedicated room for the Miroslav’s Gospel (1186) – the illuminated manuscript that’s among the oldest surviving examples of the use of Cyrillic among Slavs – but it will only be open to the public on selected days for conservation reasons. The remainder of the second floor is dedicated to Serbian art from the 18th and 19th century, with Yugoslav painting from the 20th century and international works exhibited on the top floor. Don’t miss two stand-out oils on canvas: the romantic Girl in Blue by Đura Jakšić and the menacing Burning of St Sava’s Relics by Stevan Aleksić.

The reopened Museum of Contemporary Art is housed in a modernist building at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers in Belgrade © ZRadovic / Shutterstock
The reopened Museum of Contemporary Art is housed in a modernist building at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers in Belgrade © ZRadovic / Shutterstock
After a similarly lengthy period of hibernation – it closed in 2007 for extensive renovation – the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCAB) reopened to the public in October 2017. Housed in an impressive 1960s modernist building, a striking structure of concrete and glass surrounded by parkland, the museum has been handsomely refurbished. Its large windows mean that the surrounding greenery and river views become a backdrop to the artworks.

The collection, arranged over a number of light-filled levels and grouped into a series of ‘sequences’, charts a path through Yugoslav art from the early 20th century to Serbian art of 1990s leading up to the present day. Conceptual and video art features prominently. There’s a video of performances from probably the most internationally renowned artist of the region, Marina Abramović (a piece from the 1970s called Freeing the Memory), as well as a series of photographs documenting the work of avant-garde Slovenian collective OHO.

The Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade has an extensive collection of 20th-century Yugoslav art © Natasha Tripney / Lonely Planet
The Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade has an extensive collection of 20th-century Yugoslav art © Natasha Tripney / Lonely Planet
Unsurprisingly, images of Yugoslav president Tito recur. He’s there in Sanja Iveković’s New Zagreb (People Behind Windows), a piece from the 1970s that transforms a black-and-white photo of Tito’s motorcade into a potent political image – the people defying orders to watch the passing car from the balconies of a nearby apartment building are marked out in colour. One section is dedicated to Zenit, a Yugoslav avant-garde magazine of the 1920s, and Zenitism, the art movement associated with it.

There’s an abundance of sculpture, ranging from work by the famous Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović (whose Victor monument stands at the heart of Kalemegdan park looking out across the confluence of the Sava and the Danube rivers) to more surreal and abstract work from the late 20th century. The top floors feature Serbian art created during and after the breakup of Yugoslavia. The displays are excellent at telling the story of Yugoslav art – there’s no division along national lines – as well as highlighting how much experimental and radical work was created under socialism. A major retrospective of works from Marina Abramović will open in 2019.

The performance of Gorki – Alternative for Germany? by the Maxim Gorki Theatre, Berlin, at the 2018 BITEF © Ute Langkafel / BITEF
The performance of ‘Gorki – Alternative for Germany?’ by the Maxim Gorki Theatre, Berlin, at the 2018 BITEF © Ute Langkafel / BITEF
Autumn is a particularly culture-rich time in Belgrade. The Belgrade International Theatre Festival, commonly known as BITEF, has taken place every September since it was founded in 1967 by Mira Trailović and Jovan Ćirilov. In the 1970s and ’80s it was one of the few spaces in which avant-garde artists from the east and west could come together. Later, its international reputation dwindled, but under the artistic directorship of Ivan Medenica, it has been reinvigorated and is now a major platform for political theatre from the Balkan region and beyond. In 2018 it was possible to see thought-provoking work by artists from Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Estonia, Germany, Switzerland, France, Belgium and Israel in venues throughout the city, including two productions by controversial Croatian director Oliver Frljić.

The first of these, Gorki – Alternative for Germany?, was a furious response to the rise in popularity of Germany’s AfD party; the second, Six Characters in Search of an Author, used Pirandello’s play as a way of exploring Croatian nationalism and, tangentially, the #MeToo movement. In Terazije Theatre, Estonian performers were writhing in mud. In the cavernous Sava Centre, Slovenia’s Mladinsko Theatre was digging into the country’s turbulent past with a piece about a notorious Nazi that sought to de-glorify him. The festival also featured three installations including Eternal Russia, the work of Russian theatre critic Marina Davydova and visual artist Vera Martynov. Taking place in various backstage spaces of the National Theatre, it was a kind of essay on Russia’s national mythology delivered through a mix of video, audio and art.

Works by artists Xu Zhen and Takashi Murakami exhibited at the 2018 October Salon in Belgrade © Milan Kralj / October Salon
Works by artists Xu Zhen and Takashi Murakami exhibited at the 2018 October Salon in Belgrade © Milan Kralj / October Salon
Despite its name, September also marks the start of Belgrade’s October Salon, a festival of contemporary visual art established in 1960. In 2005, the Salon’s concept shifted from showcasing Serbian artists toward a dialogue with the international art scene, and since 2016 it has been organised in the form of a biennale with renowned foreign curators. Titled ‘The Marvellous Cacophony’ (and curated by Danielle and Gunnar B Kvaran), the 2018 edition revolved around the idea of diversity and showcased works by 72 artists at several galleries around the city over a six-week period.

In the galleries of the Cultural Centre of Belgrade, visitors could see AAA (Mein Herz) by Serbian-born and Rotterdam-based Katarina Zdjelar – a hypnotic durational video of a woman singing – along with photographs by John Divola, Professor of Art at the University of California, of derelict spaces made beautiful. A pioneer of conceptual art and feminist activist, Yoko Ono invited women to share stories of sexual violence through her Arising project. New York–based sculptor Tom Sachs launched five rockets from the Serbian Academy of Science and Art, and the SANU gallery on Belgrade’s main pedestrian thoroughfare featured an eclectic collection of work by Larry Bell, Anselm Kiefer and Cindy Sherman.

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