The Dynamic History of Memorial Mosaic Art in Yugoslavia

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

The practice of large scale mosaic art in the geographic region of the former Yugoslavia has a history going back thousands of years, from the villas of the Roman time period, to the artwork of the Abrahamic religions and well beyond. As such, when time came in the newly formed Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1945 to begin establishing its own practices for creating memorial works to honor the events of WWII, it is thus not surprising that mosaic art was employed as one of the creative conduits for this task. However, this output of memorial mosaic art did not begin right away in Yugoslavia. Previous to WWII, mosaic art in this region was mainly reserved for sacral and religious art, so it was not until the 1960s that the country's artists truly began exploring this means of expression as a tool for honoring fallen fighters, victims of fascism and the socialist revolution. At that point, massive mosaic works dedicated to such ideas began to manifest in numerous location across the country created by a multitude of artists and craftsmen. While only comprising a small amount of the total monumental output of Yugoslavia, this artistic trend of mosaic memorial creation continued up until right before the dismantling of the country in the early 1990s.

Yet, it must be noted that when looking at the dynamic output of memorial and public mosaic art created in European socialist nations during the mid-to-late 20th century, Yugoslavia is not necessarily the first country that comes to mind (with it much more being remembered for its creation of highly ambitious abstract concrete monuments). It is instead the Soviet sphere, specifically Ukraine, which is much more often remembered for its impressive commemorative and political mosaic art, with whole websites and books dedicated to the subject. However, just as with their monuments, Soviet mosaics were also an art form restrained by the rules and ideological bonds of the Soviet government's Socialist Realism artistic theory. Yet, in the case of Yugoslavia (who also adhered to Socialist Realism initially), the country's President Josip Broz Tito instigated a political split with the USSR's Stalin in 1948, which resulted in all things Soviet, including Socialist Realism art theory, slowly fading from mainstream cultural practices. So, while this artistic shift not only affected memorial sculpture (as this website well documents), it is important to mention that it also affected other artistic expressions such as mosaic art. As a result, the memorial mosaic art of Yugoslavia looks hugely and dramatically different than the Soviet-era mosaics you might find, for example, in a mosaic-dense region like Ukraine.

However, while much has been done to look at Ukrainian and other Soviet-sphere mosaics comparatively and as a unique body of artistic work, this has not yet been done for the memorial mosaics of Yugoslavia. While I have written about a significant numbers of mosaic art memorials in great detail through my development of the Spomenik Database website, I have not yet brought a large number of them together to be examined and evaluated as a group. In looking at them in this way, it is illuminating to observe the restraints of Socialist Realism slowly being shed over the decades and the artists beginning to indulge in a free reign of creative expression when approaching their design of their mosaic memorials. For instance, while some of the earlier Yugoslav works are more traditional and austere (more in line with Socialist Realism), such as the 1957 work at Ivanjica by Đorđe Andrejević-Kun, by the 70s and the 80s, such artists as Gligor Čemerski and Petar Mazev are fully immersed within abstract expression and deconstructed figurative depictions. But at the same time, it is interesting to note how other mosaic artists use their creative freedom to explore the realm of folk art or even choose to maintain certain artistic aspects of Socialist Realism.

In this article, we will start by examining the very earliest memorial mosaic art which manifested in Yugoslavia during its early years, while following the progression of mosaic monuments up until their last incarnations in the 1980s.

1953: Monument to the Victims of Rab Concentration Camp, Rab Island, Croatia

A photo of the memorial mosaic and the Rab Concentration Camp memorial complex on Rab Island, Croatia.

Name: Monument to the Victims of the Rab Concentration Camp

Location: Kampor, Rab Island, Croatia

Author(s): artist Marij Pregelj

Year created: 1953

Coordinates: 44°46'58.7"N, 14°42'41.9"E

Description: The Rab Concentration Camp was a WWII Italian-run facility near the town of Kampor on Rab Island that operated from July 1942 to July 1943. The camp primarily housed civilian Croats, Slovenes and Jews, with sources indicating that several thousand perished here during the war. A memorial complex and cemetery was established here after the war in 1953, designed by famous Slovene architect Edvard Ravnikar. One of the elements integrated into the memorial space was a large canopy covered mosaic wall created by Slovene artist Marij Pregelj. This work was among the first major memorial mosaic projects completed in the new socialist Yugoslavia, making it a unique example of the emergence of the country's mosaic art style.

The work is composed of two suffering and emaciated figures stretched out horizontal in either direction, both meant to depict Rab concentration camp victims. The upper of the two figures clearly seems to be symbolic of a "Christ-like" figure, very akin to "pietà" depictions of Christ, as the mosaic figure has a similar frail body, white loin cloth and chains on the hands and feet possibly representing Christ's "Holy Wounds". The figure stares at and reaches towards the Yugoslav red star at the right corner of the scene, no doubt as a way of conveying that from here is where salvation is achieved. The bottom figure hangs his head low as he faces towards the left of the scene, where we see an Italian Fasces and gallows at the left corners, both surrounded by burning houses, vicious wolves (representing the Italian occupiers) and dead horses (representing lost of freedom). Also seen on the left are burning hay racks (representing suffering Slovenes) and burning oak trees (representing suffering Croatians). As the tiles move to the right, the horses come back to life (representing newly found freedom), while the wolves die, which rejuvinates all elements of the scene. Next to the red star is a tile showing two oak trees joined by a triple peaked mountain, which represents unity between Croatians and Slovenes (as the mountain stands for Triglav, the most important Slovene symbol). This work serves as a pivotal early example of Yugoslav commemorative mosaic art in a post-Socialist Realism landscape while also hinting at this new country's burgeoning artistic direction.

1956: Monument to Fallen Fighters, Vranjic, Croatia

A photo of the memorial mosaic called Monument to Fallen Fighters at Vranjic, Croatia.

Name: Monument to Fallen Fighters

Location: Vranjic, Croatia

Author(s): Marinko Benzon

Year created: 1956

Coordinates: N43°31'53.5", E16°27'50.5"

Description: Roughly 4km north of the Split Old City is the small village of Vranjic, situated on a narrow rock outcrop that juts into the bay. Just as you enter the village passing over the causeway, you will see a beautiful memorial mosaic installed into a curved stone wall which is dedicated to about 60 local victims who perished during WWII/People's Liberation Struggle. Created in 1956 by local Vranjic artist Marinko Benzon, this vibrant mosaic depicts a dynamic scene of fighters marching to war, as well as families mourning their departure. Interestingly, the scene is also populated by very surreal elements, such as a skull-faced fish swimming in the sky and a giraffe's head poking out of a pile of weapons. On the left and right edges of the mosaic is a list of fallen fighters, while at the center is a poetic inscription which roughly translates into English as "You have not returned to your native land at the morning of the celebration of our beloved homeland, but you shine in the face of its people, and they grow into light and into the wings of power, 1941-1945."

1957: Monument to the Revolution, Ivanjica, Serbia

Name: The Monument to the Revolution

Location: Ivanjica, Serbia

Author(s): Đorđe Andrejević-Kun

Year created: 1957

Coordinates: 43°34'53.9"N, 20°13'45.2"E

Description: Situated at the north end of Ivanjica's City Park is a large memorial mosaic wall which is titled "Monument to the Revolution". At roughly 10m wide and 4m tall, it is often cited as the largest open-air mosaic in Serbia and was created in 1957 by notable Belgrade artist Đorđe Andrejević-Kun. The scene depicts eight armed Partisan fighters charging forward (with a red dressed female fighter among them), with several of the fighters calling back to encourage more people to join the fight. The fighters in front of the charge wave a large red Yugoslav communist flag while an injured fighter lays on the ground at the middle of the frame. Interestingly, this mosaic work is crafted in a style much more akin to Socialist Realism when compared to the two previous works on this list. There figures are all highly idealized and conventional depictions of "glorified revolutionaries" with little to no artistic stylization, while the action is very dynamic and typical of Socialist Realism archetypes of the time period. Major restoration work was completed on this monument in both 2008 and in 2015. It is protected as a immovable cultural asset by the Serbian government.

1957: The Worker's House Mosaic, Trbovlje, Slovenia

A recent image of the Worker's House Mosaic at Trbovlje, Slovenia.
A close up image of the Worker's House Mosaic at Trbovlje, Slovenia.

Name: The Worker's House Mosaic

Location: Trbovlje, Slovenia

Author(s): artist Marij Pregelj

Year created: 1957

Coordinates: 46°08'60.0"N, 15°02'38.1"E

Description: Adorning the southwest wall of what was originally the "Worker's House" (Delavski dom) in Trbovlje, Slovenia is a massive series of mosaic murals dedicated to the region's mine workers which were all created in 1957 by famous Slovene artist Marij Pregelj. This location was home to a worker's collective as early as 1914, which served the needs of local miners and laborers. This was especially crucial, as Trbovlje has a long storied history of coal mining. During the early Yugoslav-era in 1957, the original buildings were demolished and this large modern expansive "Worker's House" was built in its place. The building's mosaic, which consists of four main sections, is among the largest outdoor mosaics in Slovenia. This colorful and dynamic work depicts mine workers preforming various duties, which also showing their daily lives, as well as symbolic messages of love, war, peace and unity. The form of the figures are very stylized and animated, similar to the approach that he used in his Rab mosaic just four years earlier. This mosaic was such a critical success for Pregelj that he was awarded the Prešeren Award in 1958, which is the highest artistic commendation handed out by the Slovenian government. It gained protection as an immovable cultural asset in 1996.

1958: The Two Memorial Mosaics at the Slovenia National Assembly, Ljubljana, Slovenia

Name(s): The Ljubljana Liberation mosaic and the Battle of Dražgoše mosaic

Location: National Assembly building, Ljubljana, Slovenia

Author(s): Ivan Seljak-Čopič, Marij Pregelj and the workshop of Alfio Tambosso

Year created: 1958

Coordinates: 46°03'04.9"N, 14°30'04.2"E

Description: The grand complex of Slovenia's National Assembly building was designed by famed Slovene architect Vinko Glanz between 1954 and 1959. Contained within the building are a wealth of amazing artworks and sculptural compositions. From the elaborate lobby at the front entrance are two stairways on opposite east and west sides of the room, which both contain large memorial mosaic wall murals at their first landing. The east stairwell contains a mosaic dedicated to the 1942 Battle of Dražgoše, which was installed here in 1958 and designed by Slovene artist Ivan Seljak-Čopič. The mosaic scene here depicts a group of Partisan fighters during the battle on the famous Biček's Rock fighting back the German troops. Two Partisans are shown at the center of the scene falling after being shot, while the village of Dražgoše burns around them.

Meanwhile, in the west stairwell is the second memorial mosaic mural which is dedicated to the Liberation of Ljubljana in 1945. This work was also created in 1958 and designed by Slovene artist Marij Pregelj. The mosaic depicts Ljubljana citizens tearing down the barbed wire fence that surrounded the city during WWII, while also dismantling the gallows on which so many civilians were killed during the war. On the left of the scene kneels a tortured female personification of "Ljubljana", while at the center is a woman in white holding up a sickle & hammer, symbolizing the Yugoslav socialist revolution. The Partisans tearing down the fence in the background can be seen stepping on the "Imperial Eagle", a symbol for Germany.

It is interesting to note that while both of these mosaic murals are by different artists, they look curiously similar. This is because both murals were constructed by the same craftsmen of Italian artist's Alfio Tambosso workshop. While the unique artistic styles of both artists come through, the shared material/color choices and expert craftsmanship used by Tambosso in constructing both murals gives both works a unifying and continuous appearance. For info about visiting the National Assembly building, see THIS link.

1958: President Josip Broz Tito mosaic, Bihać, BiH

A vintage photo showing the Worker's University and the large mosaic dedicated to Josip Broz Tito.
A recent close-up photo of the large Josip Broz Tito mosaic located on the side of what was originally the Worker's University.

Name: The Tito mural at the "Worker's University"

Location: Bihać, BiH

Author(s): artist Vojo Dimitrijević

Year created: 1959

Coordinates: N44°48'43.5", E15°52'04.7"

Description: In the city center of Bihać, right next door to the AVNOJ Museum, is a civic community complex called "Dom Kulture" (The House of Culture), but was originally organized in 1959 as a "Worker's University". The building is of a rectangular shape which is designed in the International Style of architecture. The most striking feature of the building is a large colorful abstract mural dedicated to Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito on its east facing side, which was created by Sarajevo artist Vojo Dimitrijević. Crafted in a highly imaginative style of geometric abstraction, it is among the first memorial mosaic works in Yugoslavia to delve so deeply into portraying ideas in such a simplified and gestural form. The scene consists of a field of colorful overlapping shapes, through which can be seen the unmistakable silhouette of Tito on the right side of the mural painted in red. Below Tito's head is depicted the town of Bihać and its bridge over the Una River, with it all appearing to be in flames, but a red Yugoslav star symbolically shines overhead. The the left of the scene is a mysterious abstract figure who is holding tight their left leg with a bloody foot, while next to the figure is a bloody shoe on a stick. While it seems clear this is some nature of injured Partisan fighter, it is not clear if it has some deeper symbolic meaning. This mosaic still exists in good condition up until the present day.

1961: The "Partisan Monument of 1941" Mosaic, Užice, Serbia

A close-up view of the "Partisan Monument of 1941" mosaic in Užice, Serbia.
A view of the "Partisan Monument of 1941" mosaic in Užice, Serbia. Credit: Milos Arnaut

Name: The "Partisan Monument of 1941" Mosaic Mural

Location: Užice, Serbia

Author(s): Marinko Benzon

Year created: 1961

Coordinates: 43°51'21.6"N, 19°50'25.0"E

Description: Located high on an upper wall of a residential building right in the city center of Užice, Serbia (at the northwest corner of Partisan/City Square) is a mosaic which depicts a design known as the "Partisan Monument of 1941". This memorial mosaic was created by Split-born Croatian artist Marinko Benzon in 1961 on the 20th anniversary of the uprising against fascist occupation during WWII. The scene of this mosaic is composed of a Partisan fighter holding a Yugoslav flag as he gestures back towards his fellow fighters to charge forward, all framed by a star motif. Behind the scene is a background consisting of the red, white and blue of the Yugoslav flag. The very traditional and austere appearance of this mosaic is the result of it being based off of design motif which was used for a medal of the same name that was awarded to Partisan fighters who were early joiners of the resistance movement in 1941 and survived all the way until the end of WWII. The medal design was originally created in 1946 by Antun Augustinčić and Đorđe Andrejević-Kun. Over 27,000 of such medals were awarded by the Yugoslav government. While this mosaic mural is in relatively good condition, it is often overlooked by passers-by as a result of the noise of the bustling city and traffic below.

1962: The May 25th Museum mosaic, Belgrade, Serbia

Name: The May 25th Museum mosaic