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The Saga of Belgrade's Marx & Engels Monument and Square

Updated: Mar 4, 2021

The city of Belgrade has many wonderful public squares, each of which has its own special and unique history. However, the one square in the city that encapsulates more than any other Belgrade's Yugoslav-era experimentation in and debate over art, culture and politics is Marx & Engels Square (today called Nikola Pašić Square). Created from scratch in the center of Belgrade as Yugoslavia's socialist period began in 1945, it was named after the two fathers of "scientific socialism", with city political leaders having grand ideas about the square operating as a hub for proletariat gathering. However, things did not go to plan. Efforts to erect a reverent monument to Marx & Engels at the center of the square led to political and artistic scandals, as well as half realized concepts that never fully manifested. As the years went on, what was supposed to be the city's center of socialist thought and action operated during the 1960s as a site of large-scale protest and unrest (the kind of social action the city's authorities weren't so happy about) and then morphed during the 70s into the city center's largest parking lot. The story of Marx & Engels Square is a fascinating saga... of artistic evolution and unrealized hopes, of politics and culture clashing against each other, of protests, of rock concerts, and the forging of a city's identity.

A vintage Yugoslav-era postcard view of Marx & Engels Square.

The Development of Marx & Engels Square

Even before the start of WWII, the area at the intersection of Dečanska Street and King Alexander Boulevard in Belgrade was being eyed by city officials for redevelopment. During WWI, most of Dečanska Street was destroyed, so much of the new construction that sprang up was disorganized and poorly laid out. Being so close to the National Assembly Building, ambitions aimed towards creating a grand public square at this location. However, in the year just before the war, that street corner was occupied by a famous kafana called "Topola", as well as the District Court Building. Yet, before much work could begin towards this goal, WWII began, which ultimately resulted in the area around Dečanska Street & King Alexander Boulevard being again pummeled with bombs (by both the Allied and Axis forces), thus leaving much of the intersection devastated and in ruins. As Josip Broz Tito the Communist Party of Yugoslavia came to power after the end of WWII in 1945, the opportunity was firmly taken by the new Belgrade administration and its city planners to finally develop this intersection into a proper square. Huge swaths of ruined buildings were subsequently demolished and cleared away in order to make room for the square, furthermore, significant earthworks were also required to level out the undulating terrain of this new space into a flat uninterrupted plateau.

Image of the Topola Kafana at the corner of Dečanska Street & King Alexander Boulevard. Credit: Arhitektonska enciklopedija Beograda/L. Mladenović

Dubbed "Marx & Engels Square" after the two famous Communist theorists Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, this name was to reflect the goal of Belgrade authorities that this new square would be the beating heart of the city's labor class, where workers would come together in vibrant and impassioned mass gatherings. The first motion made towards achieving this lofty goal was completing the centerpiece of the square, the "Dom Sindikata" (or "Trade Union Hall" in English). This effort began in 1947 and was conceived by Belgrade architect Branko Petričić. To make way for this project, much room had to be cleared, particularly the former District Court Building, which housed the Gestapo's secret prison during WWII. As such, its demolition became quite symbolic. Also around the time of the beginning of this construction of both the Dom Sindikata and the square complex, the name of King Alexander Boulevard was changed to "Boulevard of the Red Army". In fact, the work force initially tasked with the construction of the Dom Sindikata was Soviet laborers. Architect Petričić completed the complex in 1957 after 10 years of construction (a prolonged duration which was ironically the result of politically-rooted labor conflicts). He designed the building style of Socialist Realism, with additional influences from early 20th century modernism, all displayed through the structure's stark unadorned facade. Though unadorned, the Dom Sindikata's front facade elegantly curves across the plaza in such a way that it excellently frames the square, standing tall and enveloping almost as if it were a theatrical stage upon which Belgrade's workers could dramatically gather and celebrate en masse. Interestingly, the building's architecture also borrows heavily from its famous neighbor, the modernist icon "Palata Bioskopa - Beograd", completed in 1941 by Grigorije Samojlov. This stylistic relationship could be evidenced by seeing the two buildings seamlessly transition between each other as the block moved around the corner from Marx & Engels to Terazije Square.

A late 1940s image of the former District Court Building before demolition.
A 1950s image of Marx & Engels Square under construction, with demolished District Court Building at the center.
A vintage 1950s image of the newly built Dom Sindikata.

By the time the Dom Sindikata was completed in 1955, the Marx & Engels Square was nearly completed and fully realized as a socialist ceremonial square. Final alterations to the square to this extent were also made that year when offices of the party's Central Committee took over the building opposite the Dom Sindikata, which was before then called the Privileged Agrarian Bank (built in 1934 by architects Petar & Branko Krstić), but today operates as the Historical Museum of Serbia. One last critical addition to the square that completed it as a center for socialist discourse was the newspaper "Borba", which was the official party paper of the Yugoslav government, taking over the offices of the first Serbian daily "Vreme" just across the street from the Dom Sindikata (that today operate as the "Novosti" newspaper). This era of completion of Belgrade's one "socialist square", with all of its ideological components in place, was accompanied as well by some symbolic street name changes around the square, with Boulevard of the Red Army having its name changed to "Revolution Boulevard" and Dečanska being changed to "Moša Pijade Street" (named after one of Tito's closest political confidantes). With the square fully prepared, all that was left at this point for Belgrade's city planners was to construct an appropriate monument in honor of the namesake of Marx & Engels Square. This is the moment where Zagreb sculptor Vojin Bakić enters the story.


Rejection of the Vojin Bakić Monument Proposal

Born in what is today Bjelovar, Croatia in 1915, Vojin Bakić [profile page] was a brilliantly trained academic sculptor who put his artistic efforts towards designing monumental commemorative works for Yugoslavia almost as soon as WWII ended. However, it was with his memorial sculpture dedicated to the victims of fascism in Kolašin, Montenegro in 1949 that won Bakić considerable praise and attention at the highest levels. A figurative work steeped in the style of Socialist Realism, the bronze sculpture at Kolašin depicted a man and a woman triumphantly rising up in revolutionary action. With the success of the Kolašin monument, it was at this point in 1949 that authorities in Belgrade extended to Bakić a personal and exclusive invitation to submit a proposal for a "Monument to Marx & Engels" that would sit at the center of the Belgrade's Marx & Engels Square. With several years granted to formulate a design concept, Bakić immediately set to work putting together a proposal. However, it was at this very moment in time that Bakić was undergoing his own personal aesthetic crisis, grappling with his desire to escape the confines of artistic realism. In a 1969 interview [related in this paper], Bakić speaks of this dilemma in the following terms: "I immediately sensed the danger inherent in that realism; in that levity, as it were, and the temptation to lapse into mannerism, repetition, and empty rhetoric. And that did happen with my monument in Kolašin, which I wish I had never started."

It was with this new artistic mindset of breaking free from the confines of the formalism which was at the heart of Socialist Realism that Bakić approached creating a design for the Monument to Marx & Engels. For three years Bakić labored over this monument's shape, constantly changing and revising his ideas, with each iteration hinting at a new expression. He focused intently on reducing the figurative form down to more fundamental sculptural gestures, with his efforts aimed more upon communicating geometric brushstrokes of the two historical characters rather than attempting to depict them in any nature of "realist" form. A 1952 self-portrait that Bakić created during this conception period for the Marx & Engels Monument (1950-1953) gives us an impression of his creative thought process during this formative moment of artistic re-invention in his life. However, in going down this path of abstract expression, he was putting himself at hazard with Yugoslav officials, who still very much in the early 1950s, sources recount, viewed abstraction in art as a sign of "social elitism and bourgeois decadence", as well as a symptom of foreign-influenced "Westernization". Even President Tito himself was known to speak out against abstract art during the 1950s and early 60s, for example, during a speech Tito made at the 1962 Youth Congress, he related the following sentiments:" Does not our reality supply sufficient subject matter for creative artistic activities? But the majority of young artists have been paying the least amount of attention to this reality. They escape into the field of abstract art, instead of showing our reality." During the early 50s, Zagreb-based artist collective EXAT 51 was a group in Yugoslavia firmly against state-prescribed socialist realism and openly advocated for free artistic expression, yet, while Bakić was not one of their members, he was no doubt inspired by their struggle.

In 1953, Bakić finally completed his concept proposal for the "Monument to Marx & Engels". His idea consisted of the figures of the two men, with Engels standing and Marx sitting in front of him. Engels holds his hands behind his back while Marx rests his upon a book on his lap. Both figures stare straight forward at the viewer in a piercing manner, almost as if they are having their photos taken. In fact, Bakić remarks in a 1969 interview that he based the composition of this work on late 19th century family portraits, relating how he was attempting to capture how one's wise and dignified grandfathers might sit down together for their first photograph. Meanwhile, all fine detail in the figures is stripped down to the point where sharp edges and angles are the primary means for defining the form. Through this reduction of features to a series of geometric planes, the play of light and shadow over the forms creates sharp contrasts (especially in the faces), resulting in a ghostly and penetrating aura, all the more heightened by the intense gaze. This sculptural concept epitomized a gigantic artistic shift for Bakić from the Kolašin monument he had made just a few years earlier, a change would permanently re-align his creative trajectory and affect all future projects he would undertake for the rest of his life.

A photo of Bakić's 1953 Marx & Engels Monument concept. Credit:šo Dabac

However, while this sculpture had a deep and lasting impact upon Bakić, the same cannot be said for the jury assembled to critique it. When it was completed in 1953, Bakić submitted his proposal in its final form to the official committee tasked with evaluating whether his proposal would act as an appropriate solution for the Marx & Engels Monument. Though the final concept model was only 2.5 meters tall, Bakić envisioned the final form of the monument in the square to be 7 meters tall and carved from a block of Jablanica granite. The evaluation jury he submitted his work to consisted of three members: Croatian writer and poet Miroslav Krleža, Serbian writer and literary critic Milan Bogdanović, and Slovene literary critic and politician