Updated: Jan 29, 2022
Unquestionably the most iconic and monumental building in New Belgrade (and perhaps of the whole Yugoslav-era) is the “Palace of Serbia”, as it is today called, located in the city’s Central Zone. Originally known as the Federal Executive Council building (“Savezno izvršno veće” or “SIV” for short), this facility was intended to house the Presidency of the Government of the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. However, in addition to housing the office of the presidency, it also hosts one of the most stunning collections of modern art in the country.
When construction of New Belgrade began in 1948 at the confluence of the Sava and Danube across the river from old town Belgrade, this building was the very first to undergo construction, as it was meant to be the complex around which all other structures in this new capital city would be focused. The original competition for designing the SIV was won by a team of designers led by Croatian architect Vladimir Potočnjak. Not long after work began on the SIV, efforts were halted because of Yugoslavia being kicked out of the Cominform as a result of a political rift that formed between Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito and the USSR’s Stalin. Only the rough exterior concrete walls of the complex were completed at the point of construction ceasing. Work on the SIV subsequently began again in 1955 after this political crisis was resolved, however, during this seven-year hiatus in construction, architect Potočnjak had passed away. As a result of this untimely death, Serbian architect Mihailo Janković was appointed to take his place as lead designer. Yet, during that seven-year hiatus, the architectural tastes of Yugoslavia shifted considerably, with the classicist and socialist realism characteristics of Potočnjak’s original design appearing outdated and no longer aligned with the country’s new political climate and artistic tastes, which were now gearing more towards modernist sensibilities and international architectural trends. As such, Janković, who had been a student of Le Corbusier and studied at the famous Bauhaus school in Dessau, Germany, redesigned the project, taking it in a direction that was considerably more streamlined and contemporary.
When it was unveiled to the public around 1961, this grand and luxurious new government building was seen as the crowning achievement in Yugoslav architectural achievements. Its wide curved sweeping arms and floating entrance pavilion with a horizontal flat glass facade (reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye) gave the building an imposing yet delicate appearance that sat gently on the banks of the Danube River. New Belgrade was constructed as a city for ALL Yugoslavia and the SIV was meant to be the building to embody that idea. With as outwardly stunning as the SIV’s exterior was, the interior, which was also personally designed by Janković, was equally as impressive. While one could speak at length about the many fascinating details hidden within the SIV’s palatial complex, the most distinguished series of rooms within its chambers are an arrangement of seven salons right at the core of the building. These seven salons are dedicated to each of the six former republics, plus a central Yugoslav-themed salon. Being that this was a building for every Yugoslav republic, every republic, thus, would have a room within it where it could be showcased. While much writing has been made about the SIV and its history, little has been written exploring in detail the artwork, symbolism, and design of these seven salons. This article will explore each of the salons, investigating its major artworks, its themes, its authors, its creators and how it all fit together within the SIV as a unified whole.
The Salon of Yugoslavia
As the central salon and most pivotal meeting spot in the entire governmental complex, the Yugoslavia Salon is a jaw-dropping space showcasing monumental works of art. Measuring 40 meters by 20 meters, this immense hall could easily accommodate 2,500 people. The first and most noticeable feature of the hall is a gigantic chandelier at its center (which many sources credit as being the largest in the world). Consisting of over 4,000 lights that shimmer and reflect through an equal number of shards of cut glass and crystal, this 18 meter wide circular fixture peers down into the room like a gigantic radiant eye. The chandelier, whose crystal came from the famous Vienna-based chandelier-maker “Bakalowits”, is positioned directly above a large glass dome, which brings even more brightness into this space. As this eye chandelier and dome flood light across the room, they illuminate a sprawling parquet hardwood floor composed of an intricate pattern of triangles, squares, and diamond shapes that operates as a perfect stage for this monumental space. As you step upon this parquet floor when entering the room from a bank of six tall wood panel doors (which enter from the “Serbia Salon”), one immediately sees the three central art pieces which dominate the Yugoslav Salon – two frescoes on the right and left walls of the room (one in red, one in blue) and a large triptych mosaic at the center of the room. Let us first examine the frescoes.
The fresco on the left-hand side of the hall, dominated by its red tones, is the work titled “Flight into the Cosmos” (“Let u kosmos”) by famous Serbian painter Petar Lubarda, which was installed in this salon in 1962. Lubarda himself was one of the most important abstract artists of the Yuglsav-era and in addition to this fresco at the Palace of Serbia, he has additional famous large scale works in Belgrade installed at the Dom Sindikata, titled "Industrialization" and at Novi Dvor, titled "Battle of Kosovo". Spanning the full 20-meter length of the room and covering an area of roughly 100 meters square, Lubarda's “Flight into the Cosmos” fresco exists on a gigantic scale and stands most certainly a monument unto itself. The composition of the painting is dominated, firstly, by its red background, upon which is layered abstract swirls of black and white paint that streak across the scene upwards in a dynamic and dramatic fashion. Sources indicate that Lubarda is attempting to depict the Biblical character Saint Elijah, who was carried up to heaven on a chariot of fire after splitting the River Jordan. In examining the fresco with this depiction in mind, one can see what appear to be galloping horse legs protruding from the furious mass on the right-hand side of the scene, which lead downwards in a line towards a circular white swirl, which is no doubt the chariot with Elijah riding upon it. This allegory is most likely being used to symbolize Yugoslavia rising dramatically from the ashes of WWII, hurdling towards what was hoped to be an optimistic future, meanwhile, the red field the whole scene transpires upon can be viewed as the fire of the chariot, but also, symbolically, it is the blood spilled during the war as well as the red banner upon which Yugoslavia’s socialist revolution was fought. Further, the work can be interpreted in a more universal way, as well, seeing it as a symbol of the aspirations of humanity and the skywards trajectory of society’s spirit.
Next, on the opposite end of the hall from Lubarda’s “Flight into the Cosmos”, we see another massive 20 meter wide fresco mural by Serbian folk artist Lazar Vujaklija that is titled “Roads of the new Yugoslavia” (“Putevi nove Jugoslavije”). Dominated by the contrasting color blue from Lubarda’s work, Vujaklija lays out before us a scene of idyllic beauty of curving sweeping roads traversing the landscape of Yugoslavia, over mountains and through forests, stopping at small villages along their way. Among the scene are numerous smiling faces, a trademark staple of Vujaklija’s work, as well as his ever-present white doves of peace who keep watch over the countryside. Among these smiling faces are two warriors, positioned on either side of the scene – the one on the left holds a sword and a white flower (perhaps symbolizing the duality of war and peace), while the warrior on the left holds a sword and hands forward a red bird (perhaps symbolizing the power of the socialist revolution). Sources describe this work as representing Yugoslavia as a meeting-point between the east and west. As such, the two large pinwheel shaped features on the right and left edges of the work could thus be seen to embody the hegemonic powers of Soviet-sphere and Warsaw Pact on one end and the NATO powers of Western Europe and America on the other end. Yet, despite the divergent polarity of these two forces, Yugoslavia is seen here in Vujaklija’s fresco as a “bridge” between them, with roads being depicted in the scene leading directly towards both powers. This interpretation very much plays into the role that Yugoslavia saw itself in during this era of the mid-20th century, as an intermediary power between the East and West, which is further evidenced with the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) forum created by Tito, along with India’s leader Nehru and Egypt’s leader Nasser. The NAM was a collection of global states that refused to align themselves with either the Soviet blocs or with the NATO powers. In fact, the very first meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement was held here in SIV building, with its primary meetings being held in this very room. So, all of its participants would have looked up towards Vujaklija’s fresco and immediately understood its symbolic meaning and its importance in presiding over those geopolitical events.
Meanwhile, at the center of the room on the main wide wall is an enormous triptych mosaic by Serbian artist Mladen Srbinović that is titled “The Creation of a New Yugoslavia” (“Stvaranje nove Jugoslavije”). Spanning nearly the entire 40m length of the room, it is most likely the largest indoor mosaic mural that was created during the Yugoslav-era (and remains the biggest in Serbia). The focus of this mosaic work is the central-most panel of the set, which is composed of a massive diverse group of men and women singing and playing instruments in a choir-like formation, all while trumpets and horns blare out all around them and people throw their arms up into the air. This raucous celebration appears to represent the people of the new Yugoslav socialist state proclaiming their job and excitement at the creation of their new homeland. Meanwhile, on the left and right of this central scene, we see the two adjacent panels depicting the working class laboring to create and build this new country. Yugoslavia went through an incredible industrialization after the end of WWII, which resulted in prosperity and modernization the likes of which the country had never seen. The mosaic scene on the left depicts two men and two women gathered around some type of piston-driven engine producing a glowing yellow light. The figures raise their hands up to this light in an almost worshipful way, thankful and in awe of this industrial power. Then, in the mosaic panel on the right, we see a man standing in front of what appears to be an intricate machine with large rotating gears, his arms are raised in excitement. Next to the machine operator stands a husband and wife in close embrace. The woman has her right hand extending as she holds up a flower, no doubt a symbol of peace and optimism. Srbinović’s composition does an excellent job at embodying the enthusiasm of this new nation and capturing its momentum in dynamic and symbolic detail.
Finally, the last pieces of artwork to mention in the Yugoslavia Hall are two abstract tapestries on either side of the main bank of entrance doors into the salon. Firstly, on the left side of the doors is an orange and white tapestry by Priština artist Matija Rodiči, while, secondly, on the right side of the doors, is a tapestry by Belgrade artist Branislav “Sube” Subotić that bears a circular motif.
Being that this is the largest and most elegant of the salons, this room often holds massive gatherings, governmental meetings, press conferences, galas and other official functions. It is most often seen with a huge oval-shaped perimeter conference table that encircles the entire hall. It can easily fit over fifty people comfortably sitting along its length.
The Bosnia & Hercegovina Salon
Situated between the Serbia Salon and the Croatia Salon (similar to real life) is the Salon of Bosnia & Hercegovina (BiH) (also sometimes referred to as the “Brown Salon”). The interior design of this salon was carried out by famous Sarajevo architect Zlatko Ugljen [profile page], who is notable for his approach of merging together modernist styles with traditional Bosnian vernacular motifs [learn more here]. Firstly, it is notable to point out that this room is much smaller and more subdued than the grand and resplendent Salon of Yugoslavia, with a simple white ceiling and walls in a combination of flat white and polished maple wood paneling (a stylistic trademark of Ugljen). Matching the walls, the floors are also completely covered in a simple straight-laid maple hardwood surface. This design is very much meant to operate as an architectural gesture to traditional Bosnian vernacular design and interior layout, which are typified by their employment of wood and white plaster walls. While the room has no elegant chandeliers, as some of the other salons do, the white walls a glowing maple wood are the primary source giving this room its character of radiant warmth. Originally there was an elaborate sculptural chandelier in this salon, created by Pančevo artist Zoran Petrović, but, for some reason, it was removed in the 1990s and replaced with basic fluorescent lighting. On the hardwood floors of the salon are a series of white cream rugs outlining various sub-sections of the space. The only flourishment on the cream field of these rugs is a fluttering of reduced leaf and petal shapes moving across the pattern as if they are blowing through a spring breeze.
While the Bosnia Salon is certainly a more modest room than other of these salons, it can, however, boast the largest of all of the tapestries in any of the salons. Hung prominently in the middle of the space is a tapestry titled “The Forest” (“Šuma”) that was designed by Sarajevo artist Vojo Dimitrijević, along with Branko Subotić, while the tapestry itself was embroidered in the famous weaving craft house “Ćilimari” in Sarajevo (which today operates as the Embassy of Japan). Dimitrijević, the main designer of the tapestry, is also responsible for the famous “Death to Fascism” stained glass window panel that exists at what was originally the “Museum of the Revolution” in Sarajevo. This ~10-meter tall tapestry consists of an abstract scene of long vertical shapes rendered in an array of reds, purples, browns, greens and other muted organic tones. As a clear reference to the title, these shapes represent the forests that spread out across the landscape of BiH, with some of Europe’s oldest forests being found at the heart of this country (such as the primeval forests of Perućica at Sutjeska National Park). This majestic and magnetic tapestry works perfectly in carrying on the theme of natural and organic warmth that permeates this salon.
There are two more additional pieces of art that exist within the BiH Salon worth mentioning. Firstly, on the wall next to the door going into the Serbia Salon is a small expressive painting by Serbian artist Petar Lubarda that is titled “The Bumpy Rock” (“Kvrgava stena”) from 1951, depicting what appears to be a mountain scene (possibly in BiH). Meanwhile, on the wall next to the door going into the Croatian Salon is a small abstract painting titled “Seascape” (“Morski pejzaž”) by Montenegrin painter Milo Milunović.
The furniture in this room is of a typical 1960s mid-century style with playfully patterned upholstery and standard matchstick wooden legs, all arranged into several intimate groupings, similar to how a traditional smoking lounge or parlor would be staged. This furniture arrangement further adds to the warmth of the room and its more familiar setting compared to some of the other more grand and resplendent halls.
The Croatian Salon
Entering from the BiH Salon through a set of sliding wooden doors, one can find the Salon of Croatia. Measuring roughly 22 meters by 10 meters, the interior design work for this space was originally overseen in 1960 by the notable Croatian architect Vjenceslav Richter (himself famous most notably for designing and decorating many of Yugoslavia’s national pavilions at events around the world). The most dominant feature of this salon that unquestionably imbues it with its characteristic atmosphere is the 22-meter long floor-to-ceiling fresco that fills up one whole side of the room. Titled “Drystone Wall” (“Gromače”) and painted by Croatian artist Oton Gliha, the fresco depicts Gliha’s interpretation of the loose stone boundary walls seen across Croatia’s Dalmatian region, particularly on the islands such as Krk. Capturing the intricacy of shape, color, shadow and texture was the primary focus of Gliha’s artistic career, as he spent more than 45 years of his life (up until his death in 1999) in an evolving effort to capture the essence of this distinct cultural subject of Dalmatia from hundreds of different perspectives. This iteration here in the Croatian Salon is among Gliha’s largest attempts in this life-long endeavor (second only to the immense ceremonial curtain he painted for the National Theatre in Rijeka in 1981).
The second significant object in this salon which greatly contributes to its ambiance is the long room-length chandelier that occupies the room’s central ceiling. Sources report that this fixture contains over 2,500 individual crystal lights and weighs over 9 tons, making it among the largest in the world. Meanwhile, underneath the chandelier on top of the hardwood parquet flooring lays a spacious room-size rose-colored rug. The rug is of a relatively simple design, with the entire center laid out in the solid rose color, with only the edges of the rug decorated with an interlacing zig-zag design. This simplicity and restraint of the rug successfully provides a pleasing color and textural contrast from Gliha’s painting, effectively amplifying and complementing the painting rather than detracting or distracting from it (which would have been the case if the pattern on the rug were excessively busy). However, as of 2021, new photos indicate that the rose rug has been replaced with a different much smaller rug.
There are two additional works of art within this room that bear mentioning. The first is a modest oil on canvas painting (roughly 3m x 1m in size) hung on the wall to the right of Gliha’s fresco painted by Sremska Mitrovica artist Lazar Vozarević that is titled “Sutjeska”. Sources also cite that a tapestry titled "Reminiscences of Dubrovnik" by Croatian artist Jagoda Buić should also be on display within this salon, however, her work does not appear visible in recent photos I have seen of this space.
From observing recent photos of this salon, it primarily seems to be staged and used for catering and dining purposes for galas, ceremonies and official governmental events.
The Macedonia Salon
One of the most atmospherically distinct spaces of this series of rooms is the Salon of Macedonia (also sometimes known as the “Red Salon”), which is accessed via the Salon of Montenegro. While this region is today known as the country of “North Macedonia”, I will continue to refer to it as the “Macedonia Salon” since it was the original name of this space. Arranged by Macedonian architect Dragan Bošnakoski, this salon contains a much darker, more relaxed ambiance, with it being designed to exude the feeling of a “mejhane”, a traditional folk style of restaurant or tavern that can be still found in small villages and towns across the Macedonian region. In the spirit of the mejhana, the room is surrounded, in part, with rich wood paneling, with these darker tones offset with white plastered walls above the built-in bank of deep-cushioned red sofas. The ceiling of the salon is particularly unique, being coffered in wood with an interlocking geometric diamond pattern, all stained in a deep color that blends with the wood paneling around the room’s walls.
Bringing further rustic warmth to the room is a burgundy red carpet stretching from wall-to-wall, at the center of which is a traditional blue medallion pattern. From this coffered wooden ceiling hangs a set of three intricate chandeliers that are distinctly modern yet, at the same time, invoke the traditional style of kerosene lamps one might find burning inside of an old smoke-filled mejhane. The last element that works to contribute to the traditional mejhana atmosphere of this salon is the delicate metal screen partition at the entrance door opposite the rosettes. The finely cut screen features a geometric hexagon pattern composed of hundreds of “M” shapes, no doubt representing the name “Macedonia”.
The central artistic feature on the walls of this salon is a pair of 2 meter wide wood-carved rosettes hung together on the back wall of the room. These exquisite works, carved with master craftsmanship, are from the craft school of Slave Atanasovski Krstanče in Debar and showcase the woodworking skill for which the region is highly renowned. Also on the wall above the bank of red sofas is a mountain landscape painting by Macedonian artist Lazar Ličenoski, who is credited as being on of the first Slavic impressionist painters, as well as being described as "one of the most authentic Macedonian painters of landscape". In terms of the art, sculpture, craftwork and furniture in this salon, every single piece was created by artists and craftsmen of Macedonian origin. In fact, this is the one salon in the SIV to exclusively host arts and crafts ONLY by artists from the region the salon is dedicated to.