The Unifying Role of Abstract Art in Yugoslavia
Written by Ana Brdar.
In Western Balkans, it is not entirely unusual to run into an enormous, otherworldly statue standing tall in a middle of an empty field, away from the bustling spaces of galleries and museums. These alien-like, concrete giants are, in fact, pubic art that was commissioned throughout the now non-existent country of Yugoslavia. Their location and aesthetic might be puzzling at first, but a glimpse into the history of the region can quickly reveal why these captivating monuments are just the way they are.
The Balkan peninsula has always been a region marked with turmoil – since the Middle Ages, it has been continuously divided and re-divided among the superpowers of the time, mainly the Habsburg Monarchy, Republic of Venice and the Ottoman Empire. After the terror and destruction caused by World War Two was brought to an end, the countries in the region decided to unite and form the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, led by a de facto dictator, Josip Broz Tito. Yugoslavia was a federation of six republics, which were home to three major creeds (Orthodox Christian, Catholic and Muslim) and many other smaller ethnic groups. Reconciliation with the brutal history, which more often than not included conflicts between the very groups that now shared land, was no easy task. The official state policy, epitomized in the slogan “Brotherhood and Unity”, had to be reflected in every aspect of the society, including public art.
The Yugoslav monuments were built in vast open spaces, usually in the same spots where atrocious events from World War Two took place. These memorial parks also had recreation centers, restaurants and hotels, which served as spaces for shared remembrance and education among its visitors (and visits where highly encouraged by schools and other state institutions). As a country that was both notably multicultural, but also kept at a safe distance from the dominant ideology in the West as well as the communist Eastern Bloc, it was important for Yugoslavia to establish its own official artistic expression that wouldn’t make any of its residents feel alienated. Rather than imposing a state-approved stylistic regulations for public art, the authorities followed contemporary tendencies and attempted to adopt them to their needs. The result was a style that could loosely be referred to as “socialist modernism”, which was characterized by abstract forms, strong symbolism, bold designs and otherworldly character.
One of the most prominent examples of this abstract expression is the Monument to the Revolution in Kozara Mountain, which is dedicated to fallen heroes of World War Two. The monument, which was designed by the Yugoslav architect Dusan Dzamonja, was erected in 1972 in present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina. The massive cylindrical construction is divided into twenty uneven segments, symbolizing light and dark, life and death. Between them, there are openings wide enough only to have one person walk through them, after which they find themselves in an enclosed space within the monument; this evokes a feeling of fear and claustrophobia the local populace had to endure during the darkest moments of the war. However, it only takes one look towards the opening above to realize that not all hope is lost.
Unfortunately, Yugoslavia fell apart in the early 1990s and, once again, its dissolution was followed by bloody conflicts and tremendous loss of human life. The former republics are now independent and there is little interest in pursuing the old tenants of unity and solidarity. However, its monuments still stand, albeit not as visited as 50 years ago. With their awe-inspiring structure, they exist as passive testaments to a bygone era or, perhaps, as timeless symbols of struggles that are yet to be overcome.