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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 Josip Vidmar. Bakić's proposal could not have been further from what the jury was expecting (considering that the invitation to him was based off of his 1949 Kolašin monument) and their rejection of his Marx & Engels concept model was scathing. The following are some excerpts (as sources relate) from the jury's official opinion, translated here into English: "These are two mannequins, of which the seated character acts grotesquely, like a comic figure from some Russian fairy tale. The place of monumental figures that should symbolize one of the greatest historical ideas, the mise en scene, seems exactly the opposite of the functional purpose of such a monument: disharmonious, more than that, repulsive... for these reasons, the jury believes that the model is thus not eligible for realization." In concluding, the jury recommended that a open design competition subsequently be organized for choosing a more appropriate form for Belgrade's Marx & Engels Monument. Some sources even go as far as to recount stories that Tito himself, when first presented with Bakić's sculpture, remarked that it was "no good", as he felt Marx in a sitting position made him look subservient to Engels. Immediately after this rejection, a separate project was summarily canceled that Bakić was working on with the city of Novi Sad to create a monument to poet Jovan Jovanović "Zmaj".

Two photos of Bakić's 1953 Marx & Engels Monument concept. Credit: Tošo Dabac

This rejection of Bakić's sculpture by the jury resulted in an unexpected backlash from many within Yugoslavia's artistic community. Many artists and philosophical thinkers across the country expressed outrage that not only Bakić's work was rejected so resoundingly, but that it was done so with such belittling and harsh language. Many found jury member Miroslav Krleža's name attached to such sharp criticism especially surprising, as he had just the year before spoken out fiercely against socialist realism, ideological constraints and artistic conformity at the 1952 Third Congress of Yugoslav Writers. Ever since the Tito-Stalin split of 1948 and the ensuing Informbiro period, a cultural shift in art had been slowly gaining momentum which emphasized shifting away from socialist realism (which was seen as excessively formalistic and more Soviet than Yugoslav in nature) and moving instead towards nurturing a culture of more artistic freedom and acceptance. As such, this moment of Bakić's work being scuttled by Yugoslavia's political/cultural authorities acted as a breaking point that instigated many to speak out on Bakić's behalf and defend his artistic style. Sources relate how notable Zagreb art historian Radoslav Putar remarked at the time that "Bakić’s maquette for the Monument to Marx and Engels is the first attempt at a serious approach to the problem of creating a monumental sculpture." Meanwhile, some of the most intense defense came from art historian Milan Prelog, who not only had sharp words of criticism for the jury's decision but also high praise for Bakić. In a 1953 issue of the political magazine "Pogledi", Prelog wrote: "The fact that Bakić had the strength to evolve in his artistic expressions before he stagnated, that he had the strength to embark on new unpaved paths, shows that he is a true artist. And in the present state that our cultural arts finds itself, fighting for its new expression, confronting obstacles and roadblocks in its path, Bakić himself pioneers further development in our country's fine arts." The young artistic minds, creators and philosophers of Yugoslavia had been inflamed by this scandal and it would not only solidify Bakić as a defiant artistic maverick for decades to come, but it would also be remembered as a watershed moment in the artistic trajectory of the country. The situation is best summed up in a observation by researcher Nataša Ilić from a 2008 article on the subject: "The importance of the episode certainly does not lie in the inherent artistic qualities of Bakic’s sculpture, but in the fact that to commemorate the fathers of Marxism, he chose... the artistic movement [modernism] that had only recently ceased to be stigmatized for its bourgeois decadence."

Small bronze cast of Bakić's Marx & Engels sculpture.

In regards to the ultimate fate of the large plaster models of Bakić's rejected Marx & Engels Monument concept that he submitted to the jury for evaluation, they were all subsequently returned to him in 1953, with the works then being stored at his studio in Zagreb at Ivan Goran Kovačić Street. However, just three years later on the night of January 26th, a fire which broke out at Bakić's studio destroyed hundreds of his sculptures, drawings, books and other materials. The Marx & Engels sculpture was among those items lost in the fire (including other notable works of his such as the rejected concept for the Jovan Jovanović "Zmaj" Monument in Novi Sad, as well as his plaster model of the "Eternal Gaurd" Monument for Bačkovica, which was realized in 1955).

Yet, despite these significant losses, research by Nataša Ivančević reveals that a small bronze cast which Bakić made of his Marx & Engels sculpture survived the fire, a bitter memento that he later gave to President Josip Broz Tito as a gift. Ivančević relates how the small sculpture then found its way to the May 25th Museum in Belgrade (today called the Museum of Yugoslavia), located right beside Tito's Dedinje residence complex. Then, in 1980, the museum loaned the sculpture to the newly built "Josip Broz Tito" SKJ Political School in Kumrovec, Croatia [profile page], however, after the school was closed and subsequently devastated in the 1990s during the dismantling of Yugoslavia, the Marx & Engels sculpture was lost and has never been recovered. However, recent investigation done by Zagreb researcher Ivica Župan indicates that one surviving small scale bronze sculpture study which Bakić made of his Marx & Engels concept might still survive in a private collection.

A recent photo of the Marx & Engels Monument in Berlin. Credit: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra/Wikipedia

Finally, it is worth mentioning that another monument dedicated to Marx & Engels which was created in 1986 by German sculptor Ludwig Engelhardt in Berlin bears a striking resemblance to the form and composition to Bakić's unrealized concept, although Engelhardt's was fashioned in a much more realist artistic style. This Berlin monument still remains in place up to the present day.


A New Design Competition

An open design competition for selecting a form for Belgrade's Monument to Marx & Engels was announced on February 15th, 1955, just under three years after Bakić's proposal was rejected. Proposals would be accepted over the course of 11 months. By the deadline of the competition, which was December 31st, 1955, exactly 42 proposals were submitted from artists, architects and other creative teams from across Yugoslavia. The selection jury this time was chaired by Moša Pijade, who was at that time president of the Federal Assembly of Yugoslavia, who presided over 17 additional members that again included previous jury members Miroslav Krleža, Milan Bogdanović and Josip Vidmar, as well as architect Slovene architect Edvard Ravnikar, Bosnian painter Ismet Mujezinović, Croatian politician Đuro Salaj, Montenegrin politician Veljko Vlahović, Serbian architect Nikola Dobrović, among others. The jury began deliberating over the 42 submitted proposals a week after the deadline on January 6th, 1956. All submissions were kept anonymous so the jury was not aware of the design team responsible for them. After several rounds of intense debate and scrutiny of the submissions over several weeks, the juries final results were announced. The selected first-prize winner of the design competition was Belgrade architect Hranislav Stojanović and his team, the selected first runner-up was Belgrade artist Andrija Spiridonović, the selected second runner-up was Belgrade sculptor Miodrag Živković, while the selected third runner-up was Slovene sculptor Lojze Dolinar (who at that time of the competition was working in Belgrade as a sculpture professor). We will now look at each of these top four winning proposals in detail.


First Prize: Hranislav Stojanović

Photos of the first prize concept model submitted by Hranislav Stojanović. Credit: Godišnjak - Muzeja grada Beograda, Vol. III, 1956

The first prize in the competition for the Marx & Engels Monument was a proposal submitted by a design team headed by Belgrade architect Hranislav Stojanović. This concept consisted of what was intended to be a 23m tall two pronged obelisk sitting upon a two-pronged saddle positioned in the center of the square in front of the Dom Sinditaka. Almost resembling a tuning fork, the two pillars of the obelisk would slowly swell as they grew taller, while at the same time the structure would have sculptural reliefs surrounding its lower segments. Positioned in front of the obelisk aiming down the boulevard would be a long thin pool upon which the monument could reflect from and provide a dramatic perspective. However, in order to accommodate the pool, Stojanović proposed that the intersection of the boulevard and Moša Pijade Street be extended further southeast, which would effectively enlarge the square by a significant amount. Writings about the winning of this proposal shower the concept with praise for its originality, boldness and abstractness. Indeed, while several notable obelisks were constructed in Yugoslavia during the late 40s and early 50s (such as at Batina and Fruška Gora), Stojanović's proposal would be a novel proposition. In fact, through the 1960s, several similar upwardly swelling obelisks akin to Stojanović's would be constructed across Yugoslavia, such as at Prishtina and at Rudo. However, despite this proposal winning first prize and being hailed as innovative and unique, it would NOT be realized or constructed (at least not in full). This matter will be examined more closely in following sections.


First Runner-Up: Andrija Spiridonović

First runner-up concept submitted by Andrija Spiridonović. Credit: Godišnjak - Muzeja grada Beograda, Vol. III, 1956

The first runner-up in the competition for the Marx & Engels Monument was a proposal submitted by a design team headed by Belgrade artist Andrija Spiridonović. The central element of this concept was, yet again, a towering obelisk monument which was specified to rise to a height of 54m tall, situated at the center of the square within a circular plaza. The delicate spire would rise from the ground in a series of connected vertical forms which would slowly taper into one fine point. At the base of the obelisk was planned to be a mausoleum, the interior of which Spiridonović had planned to decorate with memorial mosaics. The model of the monument which was presented by Spiridonović to the jury was met with high praise, however, their most significant problem with the concept was his alteration of the square's road intersection into a traffic circle, which the jury felt would impact too negatively on congestion. Interestingly, while Spiridonović's concept did not win the competition, a variation of it would indeed be erected in the square a few years later in 1961 (if only temporarily), though, it was employed to commemorate something entirely different than it was intended to. This matter will be examined more closely in following sections.


Second Runner-Up: Miodrag Živković