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
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
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
Name: The Worker's House Mosaic
Location: Trbovlje, Slovenia
Author(s): artist Marij