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Why Do They Have Such Unusual Shapes?

Why do so many of the spomeniks have such unorthodox and unusual shapes compared to the more "traditional" and "austere" appearance typically seen western-style war memorial creations? That is usually the first question a person from outside the Yugoslav region might ask when visiting them. Upon initial inspection, many viewers simply see the spomeniks as meaningless and unintelligible lumps of concrete or metal, however, those who constructed them had very specific reasons for commissioning such memorials of a seemingly unconventional, ambitious and adventurous design formats. This section will examine these reasons.

It was out of the ashes of World War II, with the crimes committed across Southeastern Europe by Axis forces still fresh in everyone's minds and hearts, Tito ambitiously wished to form his new Socialist Federal Republic nation. This country that Tito's embarked upon creating was to be formed from the lands of Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Slovenia, all war-torn territories recently liberated from Axis control (Photo 1)... so, in other words, Tito wished to create a single cohesive unified country comprised of land inhabited by both the recent war's victims as well as some of its perpetrators. Admittedly, that idea by itself was a significant challenge, but to also create suitable, appropriate and unifying memorial sites for the purposes of commemorating and honoring the horrors, tragedies and victories of that war in a way that would satisfy those victims and victors (while avoiding instilling resentment and hatred among the perpetrators and defeated groups), and that could at the same time satisfy the interests of the communist political apparatus, proved to be a challenge almost equally as great for this new nation as the war it had just won.

Photo 1: Yugoslavia's partitioning during WWII

Uniquely Yugoslavian

During the initial decade after the war, many war monuments were commissioned across Yugoslavia crafted in what was then the traditional approach to war memorial creation, which was the figurative style of 'socialist-realism' (Photo 1) borrowed from the Soviet Union (USSR). Such notable examples include the Monument to the Battle of Batina on the Danube and the Iriški Venac monument on the summit of Fruška Gora (Photo 2).

Rabochiy i Kolkhoznitsa of sculptor Vera

Photo 2: Worker & Kolkhoz Woman, Moscow, Russia

However, feelings towards the style socialist-realism began to sour as relations between Yugoslavia and the USSR themselves soured during the 1940s & 1950s, with Tito refusing and combating Stalin's efforts to make Yugoslavia a 'Soviet satellite-state' within its Eastern Bloc of nations (Photo 4). Because of this political strain, Tito made an effort to de-emphasize Yugoslavia's Soviet connections (both politically, culturally and artistically), resulting in Yugoslavia looking instead further abroad to the burgeoning artistic movements of Western Europe & America in order to search for new sculptural inspiration for embodying Yugoslavia's Partisan heritage. As a consequence, anti-fascist WWII sculptural memorials began to spring up across Yugoslavia in plastic styles such as abstract expressionism, geometric abstraction, earthworks (land art), minimalism, etc... sculptural approaches never before employed in memorial construction at such a level and at such a scale (Photo 5). With this stylistic approach, several of Yugoslavia's cultural and political goals were accomplished at once.


Photo 3: The Iriški Venac monument on the summit of Fruška Gora, Serbia

Josip Broz Tito, TIME.JPG

Photo 4: President Tito on the cover of TIME magazine

Firstly, Yugoslavia would have a series of distinctly 'Yugoslavian' monuments to use as a tool to forge its distinct culture and identity (wholly separate and unique from their Soviet neighbors)... structures that would represent a pivot away from Soviet thinking and a Soviet identity embodied in the formalistic and authoritarian 'socialist-realism' style of monument building. Socialist-realism was tightly-controlled style dominated by life-like military-busts or romantic dramatically posed figures adorned with heavy-handed symbols (sickle-and-hammer motifs) and surrounded by viscerally sculpted hero-soldiers and noble workers (Photo 6)... it was a style that frowned upon artistic creativity and instead strictly emphasized political messaging. In avoiding this visceral heavy-handed representative sculptural approach, Yugoslavia would, firstly, blaze a unique identity for the nation -- but secondly, and maybe more importantly, many, including Tito, felt that using this new style of decontextualized abstraction in memorial construction might aid in country's ethnic and religious reconciliation, which we will explore in the next section.


Photo 5: An early example of an abstract monument in Zagreb, Croatia by Dušan Džamonja


Photo 6: A socialist realist styled memorial sculpture in North Korea

A Shrine to Reconcilliation

Through this shift from the socialist realism style to a more decontextualized abstract style of monument building, it was hoped that Yugoslavia could create a shared language of universalism between conflicting groups, acting as spaces of solace, reflection and forgiveness for all viewers... objects for the victims which could stand as testament to the crimes of the perpetrators, yet without creating resentment and bitterness within those who may have been part of atrocities during the war.


Photo 7: The highly emotional 1969 monument to the Khatyn massacre at Khatyn, Belarus

Through these amorphous, imaginatively shaped forms of concrete and steel (Photo 2), people were meant to see an optimistic future and a reconciled past, a proud, unified and healed Yugoslavia. This was an idea in sharp contrast to what was often the more traditional form of commemorative monument building at the time, which often employed graphic and intense imagery focused on invoking within the viewer intense feelings of past horrors, old suffering and unforgotten crimes (Photo 7). In Yugoslavia, many within the political elite feared that such trauma-inducing monuments in that more traditional style could not only incite furious ethnic tensions among the recently defeated Yugoslav Axis collaborators (such ex-Ustaše and Chetnik fighters), whom Tito desperately wanted to peacefully integrate into his new Socialist Federal Republic, but also, it was feared a more traditional style could invoke ethnic, religious or regional nationalism, something Tito very much wished to suppress for the sake Yugoslav unity and cultural cooperation.

Symbols of a New Tomorrow

Meanwhile, the ambitious space-age and streamlined modernist stylings of these monuments is a further component to understanding these structures (Photo 8). Through the creation of these hyper-forward-looking forms, Yugoslavia hoped to embody and shape a national collective vision which aimed towards an optimistic and hopeful future defined by unity and symbolic universalism. After their WWII victory and political revolution, Yugoslavians began to see themselves as a pioneering, forward thinking nation of determined relentless people that were set and ready to pursue an idyllic dream of a collectivist utopian society organized through Worker's Self-Management. Many saw the opportunity to cultivate an egalitarian society wholly separated and unrestrained by those 'antiquated' hindrances of ethnic-nationalism, religious sectarianism, and class conflict, issues which many saw as direct instigators of the region's past wars. It was these myths and ideologies which the creators of the spomeniks hoped to ingrain and imbue in the mind of each of his citizens who were confronted with them. Instead of monuments built in historical artistic styles which spoke of the past, Yugoslavia instead created a series of monuments which redefined the shape of 'sacredness' in order to help a nation look towards the future... so perhaps people could look upon them and stop being a Croatian, or a Serb, or a Slovene, etc, and instead, be excited about becoming a better Yugoslavian.


Photo 9: A view of the interior of the Sava Center in Belgrade, Serbia


Photo 10: A 1977 issue of the magazine 'Galaksija'

It notable to add that this forward-thinking future oriented mentality was not a phenomenon in Yugoslavia which was restricted only to their monuments. The modern futurism aesthetic was one which could be found in many aspects of life. Most predominately, such trends could be seen manifested in Yugoslav architectural designs of the era, such as the Sava Center in Belgrade (Photo 9) or the Skopje Masterplan project after the city's 1963 earthquake. However, modernism and futuristic design approaches even found their way into the daily life of the mundane, such as the modular K67 kiosks created by Slovene designer Saša J. Mächtig. Even popular Yugoslav publishers of the era latched onto this future-oriented cultural atmosphere with magazines such as 'Kosmoplov', 'Galaksija' (Photo 10) and 'Sirius', all which catered to readers interested and excited about a technological and space-age world.

This background helps one to understand how abstract monuments thus would not have stood out at something strange or unusual in the... they would have blended and dovetailed into the overarching artistic and architectural aesthetic of the time period.

Monuments to the Revolution

A further component to examine in the "future oriented" aesthetic of these abstract and streamlined monuments is that such design qualities were integral in these works being understood as "Monuments to the Revolution". The socialist revolution which had brought Tito to power in Yugoslavia struggled with the paramount question of how exactly to memorialize and continually remind the country of the 'importance' of the revolution. Much of the Yugoslav symbolic political imagery of the period was always communicating concepts such as "progress", "forward motion" or "the future", such as the Yugoslav political poster in Photo 11 showing Tito surrounded by large pointing arrows "leading the way". The paradoxical aspect of the idea of creating a monument to a revolution is that a monument is a mechanism which encourages one to look to a established and concrete past, while the concept of a 'revolution' is future oriented, aimed upon change and uprooting the established past. Academic researcher Gal Kirn poses this issue in the following terms:

"Why should one remember a revolution as a past event, if revolution can be, perhaps should be, conceived as an unfinished task and a process that is open to the future? If history is considered as open-ended, then the only meaningful memorial practice in the case of revolutions is to keep the place of transformation open for further change (and to do so without falling back on the avant-garde role of educators leading the masses)."

The question of what is the best way of "formalizing the revolution", as Kirn explains, was even pondered by the artists and sculptors of Yugoslavia who were commissioned to create such works. If the revolution is unfinished, how can it be memorialized without risking it being solidified within a fixed position? Kirn asserts that it was through the Yugoslav political establishment's cultivation of abstract monuments that this goal was achieved. Through the use of these abstract and modernist memorial forms, the concept of the 'revolution' could be understood as ever changing, as their amorphous, geometric and non-descript forms possessed the fluid quality of having their symbolic language constantly re-interpreted, re-imagined and re-explored through the passing decades... not only by the viewer, but also by the political apparatus who might wish imbue them with new messages and meanings as changes to the party's idea of the 'revolution' itself occurred. In other words, the abstractness of these monuments are not so much trying to conceal or hide political messages as much as they are simply leaving that topic continually open to discussion. As a result, it should come as no surprise that many abstract Yugoslav-era Partisan monuments themselves carry the official name "Monument to the Revolution"... as Kirn so eloquently states, they "celebrated something that was won by Partisans in the past, but only on the condition that this process continue to exert its emancipatory universalist promise into the future."


Photo 11: A political poster showing Tito flanked by arrows


Photo 12: A group of young people working on a Youth Work Action project at Kozara National Park

As a result, the spomeniks worked towards creating something akin to a 'permanent revolution' for Yugoslavia, in the sense that their visual language and symbolism could always be refreshed and renewed by those in power in such a way as to prevent the idea of 'revolution' itself from ever becoming stale or antiquated in the mind of the populace. This may seem like somewhat of a unusual endeavor, but it was a very real concern for the political elite of Yugoslavia. What was feared was that as the children who grew up in Yugoslavia after the revolution reached maturity in relative comfort and security, they might not develop any sort of connection or meaningful relationship with the concept of the 'socialist uprising and revolution' since they themselves did not participate in it. As such, the political elite of Yugoslavia did everything in their power to continually emphasize the importance of the revolution and the People's Liberation Struggle to the younger generations to ensure they did not lose touch with the foundational principles of the country.

Such efforts were achieved through programs like Tito's Pioneers political youth organization and the Youth Work Action projects (Photo 12), both of which employed the spomeniks as central instruments and fulcrums around which collective work was done and social/political activities were held.

Meanwhile, a final aspect to explore in this idea of monuments to the 'revolution' which always look ahead into the future is recognizing that the Yugoslav regime's overarching narrative of ethnic-unity had very little to say about the pre-Yugoslav past. As Mraović & Begić explain, "when it came to narrating the pre-Yugoslav past, [the government] could not compete with the existing narratives reinforced by religious [and ethnic] discourses". As such, it was imperative that when constructing a new over-arching Yugoslav narrative, along with a network of symbolic memorial markers to emphasize and embody that narrative, it was critical that all symbols must speak of the presnent and the 'future just around the corner', while avoiding any reminders of the ethnic and religious narratives of the pre-Yugoslav past. Along similar lines, researcher Nina Stevanović explains the spomenik project as an "ideological programme that strived to create an official interpretation of the past in order to gain control over the society in the given present." Yugoslavia was meant to be a planned society with a planned narrative and ideology, constructed from the ground up. And this constructed nature of Yugoslavia's philosphical underpinnings was not a point of shame, but instead, a point of pride! Another very good quote by Mraović & Begić helps to explain:


Photo 13: A view of the construction of the seemingly 'immovable' monument at Kozara, BiH

"Yugoslavia... was an ultimate expression of social constructivism... a revolutionary system almost openly declaring its contingent and constructed nature. No wonder then the size and grandeur of the socialist monuments! The system, revealing itself as openly “under construction” (in permanent revolution), had to ground its symbolic regime literally into the ground, and to make it, if not indestructible, then at least immovable. (Photo 13)"

Perhaps Tito's government sensed the inherent fragility and vulnerability of the new Yugoslav identity they were constructing and, thus, felt that it needed to be embodied through a series of symbolic markers so impressive and daunting that they themselves would help work to dissuade anyone from ever attempting to test challenge it. The subsequent conflicts of the 1990s in Yugoslavia reinforce how right they were in harboring fears of such a fragility. Yet interestingly, it is often because of the 'indestructible' and 'immovable' nature of many of these monuments that their messages and legacy hauntingly continue to carry on and linger into the present (to the annoyance of many of the reiong's contemporary national governments), even almost 30 years after the dismantling of Yugoslavia.

A Choice of Style

It is important to note two crucial things about these Yugoslav monuments: firstly, not every one was directly commissioned by Tito or the Yugoslav government themselves... secondly, the design styles for the monuments were not directly prescribed to the sculptors/architects/artists/etc by the government. Many of the monumental works were initiatives wholly or partially instigated by individual towns, municipalities, veteran's groups, etc, celebrating their own personal Partisan and anti-fascist memory, culture and heritage. "In that case", you might ask, "why do so many look so similar?" or seem to share a similar design typology or take on the form of abstract design?  The phenomenon of many of the spomenik's general move towards abstraction can be attributed to collaborative design competitions and the jury selection process. To understand this, it firstly helps to explain a bit about the history of monument creation in Yugoslavia.


Photo 13: Just a few of the +40 rejected entries for the 1975 Monument to the Revolution in Ljubljana

In the pre-1960s era, the construction of the vast majority of memorial spaces were largely un-directed and spontaneous in their creation. A few select early major projects created in the Socialist-Realism style in immediate post-war period were directed by the government planning project, however, in the first 10 years of Tito's Yugoslavia, about 80% of the monuments were completely organic and grassroots in their construction, often simply being initiated by local village leaders or small veterans groups. These organically created works often took the shape of modest plaques, simply stone markers and basic memorial tombs made by local stone masons or artisans. However, after 1960, in order to institute a more regimented and less-chaotic system for the creation of monumental works in Yugoslavia, the state run veterans group known as SUBNOR assumed all responsibility in directing and coordinating Yugoslavia's creation of monumental structures. When a monument project was announced by SUBNOR, they would proceed to organize a "monument planning commission" who would assume responsibility for and oversee the monument's creation.

Instead of hand-selecting an artist to create the monument (as had been the traditional approach to such tasks in previous eras), these commissions instituted a more democratic means of selection: 'design compteitions'. In these competitions, artists and architects could freely submit their own concepts and design proposals based on the parameters for each respective project (Photo 13). These advertisements would either be 'open calls', for which anyone could submit proposals, or they would be 'closed calls', where the planning commission would choose designs offered from a particular pre-selected group of candidates. These competitions generally only gave the participating artists and architects very rough ideas of what the monument was hoped to look like, often only speaking in terms of "inspiring" or "triumphant" or other such generic language. It was left completely up to the participant's imagination to go from there as far as how artistically daring or ambitious they would be with their submissions... and they were often quite daring! It is also important to note that being the monument projects often demanded the creation of a wide spectrum of elements (sculptures, memorial buildings, earth-works, etc), the submitted proposals were often assembled by multi-disciplinary teams of creative individuals (sculptors, painters, architects, landscape designers, etc).

model and Tito.jpg

Photo 15: Miodrag Živković presenting his Sutjeska monument concept to President Tito

When all design proposals were received, the monument commission would select a jury (usually made up of artists, architects, art critics, as well as politicians, party representatives, veterans and military leaders) who would collectively and anonymously select a winner among all submitted proposals (Photo 15). It is through this jury selection process that the trends of sculptural modernism we see within the spomeniks begin to establish themselves. Firstly, as these juries contained politicians as well as artists, selection compromises could be made that were not only politically favorable, but also artistically innovative. Furthermore, many jury members served on multiple juries for multiple monument projects, perhaps resulting in patterns of stylistic choices and preferences. Yet, it also must be noted that as most of the artists and creative personalities serving on these juries hailed from politically-aligned state-run institutions... something which helped facilitate the selected proposals by these juries to more closely reflect the state's desired political aesthetics. However, even despite political machinations, the implementation anonymous design competition and multidisciplinary juries unquestionably resulted in the selection of artistically ambitious and daring works of art were that may never have been otherwise considered for monumental applications.


In fact, the competitions themselves were thought to have been significant in shaping the modernist artistic trajectory of Yugoslavia all together. For instance, researcher Aleksa Korolija points out, the artistic collaboration of design competitions were "seen as the best way for professionals to compete in creativity and originality... [and] favoured the exchange of ideas, opening to foreign influences... and helped reshape the disciplinary boundaries of architecture", while Croatian academic Sanja Horvatinčić explains in this paper: "...competitions began to play the central role in generating a new theoretical discourse on war memorials, as well as on public art and the production of space in general".

 When viewed as a single unit, this carefully constructed network of these abstract memorials existed then (and still does to this day) as an ambitious testament to cultural planning and one nation's intent to communicate a shared ideology and history through public art.

Influence from Abroad

Furthermore, it must be mentioned that because of the openness between Yugoslavia and the west that was cultivated as a result of their 1948 split with the USSR, Yugoslav artists and architects had much greater freedom to travel abroad and study compared to those in other communist states. As a result, the artistic collaborations occurring during monument design competitions even further fostered the sharing of and experimentation with cutting-edge ideas in the artistic and design world (which largely included modernist expressions). In addition, Yugoslavia's openness to host American and Western European modern art exhibition tours, such as the famous New York City Museum of Modern Art exhibition in Belgrade (Photo 15) in the summer of 1956 (and a second in 1961), worked significantly to influence Yugoslav artist and architects with the modern stylings of global art and design trends.

Belgrade art show1.jpg

Photo 15: A view of the 1956 exhibition in Belgrade of modern art from the MoMA in New York City [source]

It is also interesting to note that this cultural shift towards modernism in Yugoslavia during the 50s and 60s occurred not at the behest of Yugoslav President Tito (as many wrongly assume), but almost, one could say, despite his personal feelings, as he initially harbored very negative feelings towards the style in the 1950s and early 60s, even going so far as to make a speech in 1963 describing "abstract art as an ‘unacceptable foreign implant’, incompatible with ‘our socialist ethic’, that is trying to ‘derail us from our revolutionary path’ ". However, while Tito was initially skeptical of the usefulness of modern art, many others at various levels within the Yugoslav government embraced its usefulness for memorial architecture... a perspective which Tito would eventually adopt as well.

History Decontextualized

During the Yugoslav-era, there was a significant taboo culture around speaking publicly and openly about the horrors which had occurred during WWII, especially those horrific incidents between the various Yugoslav ethnicities and the incidents committed by the Partisan/communist forces. As such, there was a general encouragement for people to subscribe to, as Mraović & Begić puts it, the "politics of leaving things unsaid". The abstract and decontextualized style of much of Yugoslav memorial architecture can then be understood as an extension of the Yugoslav government's approach towards decontextualizing the horrors of WWII into an abstract concept in the minds of the nation as a method for preserving "Brotherhood & Unity". From the government's perspective, to allow the horrors of WWII to be publicly examined and up for debate (as far as blame, victimization, casualty numbers, etc) would be to invite in the specter of ethnic, religious and nationalistic tensions and turmoil. Thus, the amorphous and undefined shapes of the monuments mirrored the amorphous and undefined nature of the national discourse of WWII's horrific legacy in the region.

However, it is important to note that these sensitive taboo incidents of "histories that shall not be spoken" were not forgotten by those who were affected or emotionally touched by them. They became part of Yugoslavia's 'secret history', which was a history that was told only behind closed doors and passed down through families in whispers. As we will discuss in the next section, it was these 'secret histories' that would end up having great ramifications for the eventual fate of the Yugoslav monumental heritage.

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