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

Location: Belgrade, Serbia

Author(s): artist Boško Karanović

Year created: 1962

Coordinates: 44°47'17.0"N, 20°27'07.6"E

Description: Located in the Dedinje neighborhood of Belgrade is the Museum of Yugoslavia. Constructed next to Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito’s official Belgrade residence, the original name for the museum (until 1996) was the “Josip Broz Tito Memorial Center”. One of the central buildings of the memorial center was a facility called the "May 25th Museum" (created by architect Mihailo Janković in 1962), which acted as the museum complex's main entrance, as well as the repository for Tito's official gifts and Relay of Youth batons. Crafted in the International Style of architecture, the main decorative feature of the building's front facade is a massive tile mosaic mural at its very center overlooking the museum's entrance. This mosaic was created by Belgrade artist Boško Karanović, who was notable as being one of the founding members of the Belgrade art collaborative "Grafički kolektiv". Depicted within the scene of this monochrome mosaic are six highly stylized figures (possibly symbolizing the six republics of Yugoslavia), three of which are carrying rifles (representing the Partisan fight for freedom during WWII), while three others are carrying buckets (representing Yugoslavia's post-war reconstruction). At the center of the scene is a pile of what appear to be broken sticks, whose meaning is not clear.

Even at the time of its unveiling, this mosaic mural was controversial. Sources relate that famous Belgrade art critic and National Museum director Lazar Trifunović made the following remarks about the mosaic upon its unveiling in 1962: "...What is this mosaic here for and what is its purpose?... If the idea was that the mosaic should demonstrably, and like a poster, symbolically show what is in the museum, then I wonder what kind of a symbol is represented by six bloodlessly stylized figures doing morning gymnastics in a manner that had already been done in our paintings since 1947 and 1948... If the intention was for these six figures to personify the six republics and the brotherhood of our peoples, then this naïve, pathos-laden mosaic is a failed example of such an attempt."


1962: Memorial Mosaic to the Battle of Sutjeska, Belgrade, Serbia

Name: Battle of Sutjeska Memorial Mosaic

Location: at the Palace of Serbia or SIV, Belgrade, Serbia

Author(s): artist Marij Pregelj

Year created: 1962

Coordinates: 44°49'11.0"N, 20°25'38.1"E

Description: One of the most significant repositories in Belgrade for large-scale Yugoslav-era artwork is the Palace of Serbia, which is also sometimes is also called the SIV ("Savezno izvršno veće" or "Federal Executive Council"). This massive government complex was completed in 1959 and its construction overseen by architect Mihailo Janković. Of the many artworks contained within the SIV is an impressive memorial mosaic by Slovene artist Marij Pregelj which is dedicated to the 1973 Battle of Sutjeska. Installed within one of the SIV's primary stairway atriums in 1959, this massive mosaic stands at roughly 18m wide and 6m tall, with some sources asserting it to be the largest single piece of artwork in the building. Contained within the mosaic are hundreds of highly stylized figures of Partisan fighters which are all shown to be boxed in from all sides by Axis forces. Some are charging forward, some are tending to wounded fighters, some are getting shot at from a German bunker, some are even being attacked by dogs. The drama and action are to heights of unimaginable scale and this work most certainly stands as Pregelj's highest artistic achievment. In a 2018 news interview, Slovene art curator Martino Vovk is quoted describing this mosiac mural in the following terms: "Pregelj presented this almost mythological moment of the victorious history of the People's Liberation Struggle in a completely modern way. It was not ideological propaganda, but an independent, autonomous, glorious, monumental work. Sutjeska is a symbolic parable of a community in agony on the path to liberation, transcending the firmness of both history and time."


1963: The Mosaics at the Monument to Brotherhood & Unity, Landovica, Kosovo*

A vintage postcard image of the Monument to Brotherhood & Unity at Landovica.
A vintage image of President Tito laying a wreath at the Brotherhood & Unity Monument at Landovica.

Name: Memorial Mosaic at the Boro & Ramiz Monument

Location: Landovica/Landovicë, Kosovo*

Author(s): artist Hilmija Ćatović

Year created: 1963

Coordinates: N42°15'17.5", E20°40'55.0"

Description: Situated just south of the small village of Landovica/Landovicë is the former location of the Monument to Boro and Ramiz (also called the "Brotherhood & Unity" Monument). The two young men that this monument is dedicated to, Boro Vukmirović (an ethnic-Serb) and Ramiz Sadiku (an ethnic-Albanian) became close friends through working with the Communist Party of Yugoslavia and were both heavily involved in helping to organize the Partisan uprising against Italian occupation. However, on April 7th of 1943, both Boro and Ramiz were traveling from Đakovica to Prizren when they were captured and executed by Italian and Albanian occupation forces along the road just east of Landovica. They were so close that they reportedly refused to be executed separately, as were thus both shot as they clung to each other in embrace. After WWII, the story of Boro and Ramiz was mythologized heavily within Yugoslav society, with it being used as one of the archetypal embodiments of the idea of "Brotherhood & Unity".

In 1963, a monument was built at the location where they were shot and was dedicated to their memory. The primary sculptural element of the monument was an abstract geometric depiction of an embraced Boro and Ramiz composed in concrete (created by Miodrag Pecić & Svetomir Basara), while next to the sculpture was a large mosaic wall designed by artist Hilmija Ćatović. In the above black & white photo of it, President Tito can be seen laying a wreath at the foot of the mosaic. This is one of the few clear images depicting the mosaic (if only partially). I have yet to discover a clear photo illustrating the composition of this mosaic wall. From this glance, it appears to depict several figures which look to be Partisans and people in uprising. In 1999, this monument was completely demolished and in its place was built a 'Martyr's Cemetery' (Varrezat e Dëshmorëve) for Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) soldiers who died during the March 1999 Battle of Jeshkovës. If anyone has images of this monument or this mosaic, please contact me. For more info about this monument, see my profile page for it HERE.


1963: Memorial Mosaic to Fallen Bulgarian Fighters, Niš, Serbia

A view of the Memorial Mosaic to Fallen Bulgarian Fighters in Niš, Serbia.

Name: Monument to Fallen Bulgarian Fighters

Location: The Ledena Stena area of Niš, Serbia

Author(s): [unknown]

Year created: 1963

Coordinates: N43°18'55.1", E21°51'09.4"

Description: Roughly 1km northwest of the famous Bubanj Memorial Park in the Niš suburb of Ledena Stena is a memorial complex which commemorates Bulgarian fighters who aided Yugoslav Partisans in combat efforts towards the region's liberation from German occupation towards the end of WWII. Built in 1963, the central component of the memorial is a large mosaic wall (~4mx5m). Behind the mosaic is a collective tomb where the remains of over 2,000 Bulgarian fighters are interred. The composition of the mosaic appears to be a highly abstract landscape scene of ruin and destruction with a dead tree at its center and a solemn setting sun on the horizon, while unusual barbwire-like forms streak across the scene. The work's bold use of shape and muted tones on a stark white background creates an atmosphere of contemplative clarity around the crypt, further communicating that it is a space of mournful respect. Nothing about the mosaic indicates that it is dedicated to fighters of Bulgarian background, but instead uses the abstract nature of the mosaic to take a more 'universal' approach to commemoration. Interestingly, this is among the first memorial mosaics in Yugoslavia that is completely abstract with no figurative elements or depictions whatsoever.

Since the end of the Yugoslav-era, this monument has repeatedly targeted with graffiti and defacement by anti-Bulgarian vandals, even as recently as 2018. As of 2019, a large section of the lower left side of the mosaic has been completely destroyed. Such defacement has led to official protests by the Bulgarian government towards Serbian officials for not better managing the site. However, despite this vandalism and neglect, annual commemorative events continue to be held here.


1963-1981: The Memorial Mosaics of Joko Knežević, Dalmatian coast, Croatia

A recent photo of the memorial mosaic wall in Drašnice, Croatia.
A vintage image of the Memorial Mosaic to Fallen Fighters located in Mimice, Croatia.

Name: Knežević memorial mosaics of the Dalmatian Coast

Location: Drašnice, Mimice & Omiš, Croatia

Author(s): Joko Knežević

Year created: from 1963 to 1981

Coordinates: Drašnice work: N43°13'03.7", E17°06'35.7" (other two unknown)

Description: During the era of NOB monument construction in Yugoslavia along the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, there were very few examples of monuments which took the form of mosaic art. The three primary examples which were created during this time period were all the work of one artist: Joko Knežević. Born on the Dalmatian coast near the town of Omiš in 1907, Knežević spent most of his artistic career working on creating artwork in and around his the region where he grew up. While trained as a painter, Knežević came to be recognized as the first great Croatian mosaic artist of the 20th century, creating many hundreds of unique mosaic portraits during his life. After making a large mosaic mural for the Museum of Sinj depicting the 1715 Battle of Sinj, Knežević was commissioned in 1963 to create the first of his memorial mosaic works, which was a Monument to Fallen Fighters at the Adriatic village of Mimice, Croatia (just 5km east of his hometown). This Mimice mosaic was of a very stylized nature, almost "cubist" in style, depicting mourning women and children as their Partisan sons went off to war. In 1974, Knežević created a second mosaic monument at Drašnice, another nearby coastal village south of Omiš. This work, titled "Women of Biokovo" commemorated the women who gave their lives during WWII. It was crafted in a much more traditional figurative style, showing a woman bravely and defiantly bearing her chest as she is about to be executed by Italian soldiers.

While both of the above mentioned memorial mosaics which Knežević created still exist to present-day and are in good condition, a third memorial mosaic dedicated to Partisan fighters which he crafted in his hometown of Omiš in 1981 was subsequently destroyed and removed during the early 1990s.


1966: The "Bosna" Mosaic, Sarajevo, BiH