Belgrade, Peasantville

As Kingdom of Serbia was late to industrialise, modern Belgrade was a city built in large part with the money of proud peasants and cattle (esp. pig) merchants, more than happy to celebrate their rural heritage and especially the ornate dresses of Serbian villagers – this was especially popular as Orientalist and Romantic art, as well as Art Nouveau started looking for something to break with the by then staid baroque and neo-classical styles.

Indeed, many of the greatest painters of late 19th-20th century – Paja Jovanović, Uroš Predić and Vlaho Bukovac painted “exotic” Balkans to placate the taste of their audience, and even in realistic portraits you can see a lot of Pirot kilim motifs and old traditional garb.

The decorations depicting rural customs, and especially the playing of gusle (a UNESCO protected art-form), were a more common during its interwar boom, as Serbian artists started taking more pride on own culture rather than just aping Central and Western European traditions.

Ironically, “seljak” (villager) is an insult in Serbian (vlah – shepherd – is also a derogatory term for Serbs in Bosnia), and there is constant fear in some circles of “ruralisation” of Belgrade neglecting the long standing contribution of peasants to its culture and wealth. Indeed both of our royal dynasties were involved in cattle trade, and many of our greatest scientists, artists, industrialists and politicians – including Nikola Tesla and Mihailo Pupin, often wrote and talked about their rural upbringing.

Nevertheless, it is fashionable in some circles, which see themselves as cosmopolitan, to decry Belgrade as a muddy village, or for those who like perpetuating their anti-oriental bias as a “kasaba” or “mahala”.

In a weird economy of culture and social capital, it is the post-WWII war industrialisation and the great influx of small town and village folk -into Belgrade – through which Belgrade grew almost 10x that made a lot of (often, new) city folk emphasise (ancestral) urbanity and decry their rural roots and culture.

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