Hidden Belgrade (42): Art for The People!

Public art in Belgrade is back in fashion with many ambitious projects completed and planned. They range from the sculptural/architectural collaboration between Turner prize-winning Richard Deacon and widely acclaimed local sculptor Mrđan Bajić to the future gigantic monument to  the founder of the most successful of Serbian medieval states, Stefan Nemanja, made by the acclaimed Russian sculptor Alexander Rukavishnikov.

There have also recently been two high-profile restorations of some of Belgrade’s most beloved monuments, the Monument of Gratitude to France and the Victor, both designed by the most accomplished pre-WWII Croatian-Yugoslav sculptor, Ivan Meštrović.

Belgrade, however is no stranger to such high-minded arty beautification projects, and the current trend can be seen as the continuation of a long tradition of providing art for the people which peaked during the socialist times. Back then, of course, socialist ideology encouraged that works of some of Yugoslavia’s best are displayed in public, for everybody to see, rather than just in museums, public institutions and private collections. Here are just a few of my favourite major artworks displayed on the streets of the city, so make sure you stop and have a closer look (it can save you the admission ticket to MoCAB or the National museum!).

Kalemegdan park: Ivan Meštrović’s “Angel of Death” (1911/2011)

Initially envisioned as part of Meštrović’s “Kosovo Temple”, which was supposed to be built at Gazimestan where the Battle of Kosovo took place, this hauntingly beautiful statue is the only part of this megalomaniac project displayed on the streets of Belgrade. Other sculptures envisioned for the Kosovo temple, from its caryatids to the bust of Banović Strahinja are on display in Belgrade’s National Museum, while its only surviving model is displayed in Kruševac’s National Museum. Initially made for the 1911 Serbian Pavillion in Rome, Meštrović’s statue was erected in Belgrade to mark the centenary of that exhibition in 2011.

Dom Sindikata : Petar Lubarda’s “Industrialisation” (1961)

This huge painting by one of Yugoslavia’s most famous abstract expressionist painters made its debut inside the National Assembly for the founding of the Non-Aligned Movement. Soon after it made its way to the entrance of one of Belgrade’s largest performance spaces, which was built in 1957. The painting dominated Dom Sindikata’s very retro hall until it was refurbished and rebranded as Kombank Dvorana in 2018. After a small controversy around its future, the painting, valued at over $1 million, was bafflingly moved to a less flattering position over one of the stairways.

Dom Omladine: Dušan Džamonja’s “The Sun” (1964)

Dom Omladine (Belgrade Youth Centre) is a real treasure trove of great art. The most famous of them is the sculpture on its façade titled “The Sun” and designed by Dušan Džamonja, famous for his abstract work in Podgarić. „The Sun“ has become synonymous with Dom Omladine, especially as it made its way on its logo. Beside Džamonja’s work, Dom Omladine’s hall also contains a wonderful mosaic designed by  Lazar Vozarević, as well as a monumental wall instalation by Mića Popović, one of the most famous dissident artists from Yugoslavia (of course during his less confrontational periods). Even a „kafana“ inside Dom Omladine, which is also called „the Sun“ ha san interesting sculptural frieze on one of its walls.

Podgarić monument

Genex Tower: Lazar Vujaklija’s murals (1979)

Lazar Vujaklija is the most famous “naïve expressionist” painter from Socialist Yugoslavia, whose monumental work is one of the two displayed in the main hall of Yugoslav Government HQ (SIV, now Palata Srbija) – the other was painted by Petar Lubarda. This mural is painted in his typically cheery style, greatly at odds with the concrete greyness of Belgrade’s most famous brutalist behemoth, designed by Mihajlo Mitrović. When it was painted it was the third oldest public mural in Belgrade. Incidentally, the first ever piece of “street art”  in Belgrade was also painted by Vujaklija in 1970, but it did not survive to this day.

Although still weirdly cheery, Vujaklija’s Genex mural is showing signs of time and has been accompanied by another few (unauthorised) pieces of street art on the buildings.

1989 Non-Alligned Movement Summit Mosaics and Artworks (1989)

In 1989, Belgrade was again hosting a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, and Yugoslavia tried pulled all stops to impress its guests. This included commissioning some of the most prominent artists of Yugoslavia to decorate central Belgrade and especially the area around Terazije and Knez Mihailova. Notable original works from this beautification drive include a very morose mural by Vladimir Veiličković by the Faculty of Philosophy, an abstract composition by Miodrag Protić at Terazije, and „The Protector of Terazije“, a mosaic by Mladen Srbinović. The summit also meant construction of several fountains including the replica of Sarajevo’s iconic Sebilj česma.

Vuk Karadžić Cultural Centre, Era Milivojević Supermat (2004)

Probably the most overlooked, but most intriguing work on this list is Supermat (Super-checkmate) which was the end result of a 2004 performance by Era Milivojević. Milivojević, who was initially part of the same group of explerimental Belgrade artists as Marina Abramović, here depicts themoves in 6 games played between Gary Kasparov and IBM’s Deep Blue computer in 1997, the first ones where AI won (3.5 vs. 2.5 matches)  against a human champion. Predating the current AI craze by a decade and half,  Milivojević considered this moment akin to the first human foray into space, and decided to replicate the game using his commonly used medium of tape, first in front of the Faculty of Philosophy and then later in a mural on Vuk Karadžić Cultural Centre.

Here are a few other interesting public art works from Belgrade, but if you prefer WWII monuments here is the list of the best ones in Belgrade.

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