Milo Lazarevic


​   Historical Influences

 Before exploring the specific works of modern sculptors, it is necessary to examine those elements of Yugoslav tradition and history which have had a strong influence on sculpture today. Regardless of whether artists have accepted or rejected the artistic and cultural ideologies of their times, it is important to be aware of these traditions in order to establish reference points for determining the relationship of one work to another and the relationship of the artistic movement to history. Yugoslavia is geographically located half‑way between Rome and Constantinople: both of the cultures represented by these cities have substantially influenced the course of Yugoslav history. The country has also been a stepping‑stone for many conquering armies, and the Turks, Austro‑Hungarians, Germans, French, and Russians have at one point or another all marched through Yugoslavia, leaving various imprints and vestiges of their cultures in their wake.
            Prior to 1960, the first indications of indigenous Yugoslav sculpture in the Orthodox eastern part of the country were thought to be the funereal steles excavated from the Greek and Roman city‑states on the Balkan coast. However, with the discovery by the archaeologist Dr. Dragoslav Srejovic of a prehistoric settlement in the village of Lepenski Vir, a significant new perspective was added to the history of the Yugoslav plastic arts. The settlement consisted of stone and wood houses which were distinguished by the monumental stone sculptures adorning their floors and hearths. These structures, for example, Venus of Lepenski Vir (Fig. 1), which Dr. Srejovic estimates as dating from the sixth millenium B.C., antedate the ancient Middle Eastern and European civilizations and distinguish their unknown sculptor as being "the oldest sculptor of monumental forms in Europe," as well as "the man whose mind conceived monumental plastic visions long before the advent of those enigmatic civilizations of Babylon and the Sumerians." 1
            The symbiotic relationship between the architecture and the sculpture reveals the use of principles of symbolism and harmony, which suggest the underlying spiritual concerns of these primitive people. The sculptures themselves seem to have been based on a belief in the kinship of man and nature and in their common origins.2 The symbolism used to express this theme was that of the fish and the man‑fish, indicating a respect for man's own origins and those of his sub‑human ancestors.
            This appearance of native primitive sculpture has thus far remained an isolated one. The next historical incidence of true, indigenous sculpture to be found in the eastern part of Yugoslavia did not occur until the end of the nineteenth century.
            The explanation for this long period of dormancy has a clear cultural origin. In the fourth century A.D., the fall of Western Roman power in the Balkan Peninsula created an upheaval in the lives of the pagan peoples living there. with the restoration of order, the inhabitants turned to their Byzantine conquerors for cultural nourishment. This source consisted of a diverse mixture of Eastern and Western theologies, focusing primarily on the Eastern components. Artistic expression was determined by religion, and the impact of the oriental cultures predominated. While Western artists have traditionally paid more attention to structure and details of the human form and the material universe, Byzantine art, on the other hand, "in its essence is expressionist, antirealist, symbolic: it is for one thing, primarily two‑dimensional." 3
            Since Byzantine art emphasized non‑plastic and non‑representational artistic vision, there was no need for the sculptural profession. The theological, spiritual focus of this culture was not easily translatable into three dimensional terms. The few sculptures that do survive in Studenica and Decani are almost anomalies, and result from the influences of Romanticism and Western culture.
            The only three‑dimensional artistic medium to be at all explored by the Byzantines was architecture. However, this Serbian medieval architecture had no inherent purpose, but rather existed mainly in the form of cloisters built as places of worship and as surfaces and enclosures for large numbers of religious frescoes. The frescoes themselves were two‑dimensional and without perspective, interest in anatomy, or concern for space. Art existed not for its own sake, but as a medium of communication between man and God. This form of artistic expression was not a result of the artists' ignorance, but rather was due to the abandonment of the Greek classical principles of harmony, proportion, numerology, and symmetry.4 This situation contrasts sharply with that of the primitive settlement at Lepenski Vir where the sculpture and the architecture were mutually supportive and interdependent functionally and aesthetically.
            The medieval style of art in Serbia lasted almost 800 years, far beyond the dates of the actual historical period. There was no baroque art in Serbia; the first reaction against medieval art in Serbia came with classicism. The first real sculpture in Serbia occurred in 1882 with the completion of the monument to the Serbian emperor Mihailo Obrenovic, and with the first exhibition of the works of the Serbian sculptor Petar Ubavcic.5
            For contemporary Yugoslav sculpture, the period of medieval art has had an important meaning; progressive, contemporary sculpture can be shown to have links with the medieval artistic traditions, rather than to strong classical traditions, such as those predominating in Western Europe. This made it somewhat easier for the Yugoslav sculptor after World W'ar II to diverge from these classical principles with which he had very little connection. It was easier for him to return to the non‑classical more abstract representation of spiritual ccncerns.
            The relationship between Serbian sculpture and tradition is fairly simple and direct since there has been one overridina influence on the arts which predominated for all but one period in Serbian history. The period between medieval art and contemporary sculpture in Serbia is therefore a short one. New trends towards a more humanistic classicism have created conditions conducive to a more aestheticizing sculpture, but a need for it existed in the eastern part of Yugoslavia only at the end of the last century.
            This situation contrasts with that found in the areas of Slovenia and Croatia, where Roman culture prevailed. There, sculpture has been an important art form since the fourteenth century. Apulije Onofrio De La Cava brought about elements of Gothic style in Dubrovnik and built two fountains around 1435, while in 1431 the building of the cathedral in Sibenik was begun by the then well‑known sculptor Juraj Dalmatinac, who carved several heads on the facade of the cathedral.6 Many churches in the Adriatic coast region of Yugoslavia also have been in existence since the ninth century. "Portrait of a Croatian Emperor" in the baptistry in the city of Spli‑t was carved in the form of a relief in the eleventh century.
            These examples of Yugoslav Gothic sculpture cannot be viewed as an independent art form, however, since the sculpture was only complementary to the Gothic architecture. Sculpture was used primarily as decoration to fill and animate empty space. Along the columns were placed statues of kings and emperors, and the outside facades as well were decorated with series of figures. These statues visually reinforce the form and characteristics of the columns: as was true all over Europe, Yugoslav Gothic figural sculpture is elongated, rigid, and columnar. This stiffness is further emphasized by the long, stylized clothing and drapery in which the figures are clad. Carving of church furniture was also carried out by professional sculptors. The chorus stools in the cathedral in Trogier, executed by Ivan Budislavic in 1440 are an example. 7

  Sociological Influences

Until the mid‑nineteenth century, Yugoslav art was influenced primarily by the aforementioned and other foreign cultures which had been absorbed into her traditions throughout her history. After about 1870, however, a different system of influences began to make itself apparent. As Yugoslavia became more politically and culturally unified, gui6elines were overtly or covertly handed out to those aspiring to become identified as Yugoslav artists. Since artistic development parallels sociological and economic development, it follows that society has the power to advance or restrict artistic growth. Prior to 1950, the Yugoslav sculptor, even more than the painter, was severely limited in his endeavors, due to the system of patronization which had evolved. Sculptors who were able to make a living from their work could only do so through commissions, usually of large public works. Since this gave the patron total control of the sculptor's style and subject, the public sculpture during the period from 1870 to 1950 followed the lines of academic art. While Brancusi was answering important questions about pure form in Paris, Gabo, Tatlin and Pevsner were altering space with new materials and Arp was creating biomorphic forms suggestive of organic life but abstract in conception, the Yugoslav sculptor was making figurative, representational academic sculpture. Imprisoned by the tastes of his patrons, he was unable to experiment with any of the new styles or to explore any other avenues of expression.
            The two institutions acting as the most influential patrons were the Church (mostly the Roman Catholic Church) and the State. They had the major control of the large spaces open to public viewing which were the only sites where sculptors could place large works. There were also some private individual and group patrons who commissioned smaller works.           

The State commissioned public monuments to honor the memories of politicians, public heroes, and war victims. The Church made use of the sculptors' talents to adorn religious buildings with crucifixes, Pietas, and other sacred and symbolic statuary.
            The commissioning of graveyard art was the most important contribution from the private sector. The richest families continued the Yugoslav tradition of building tombstones bearing portraits of the deceased, usually executed in stone. This custom has been in existence since medieval times, and has provided a major source of livelihood for Yugoslav sculptors.
            A different type of national sculpture was reflected in the production of various coins and medals. These were commissioned by some private societies and clubs, such as hunting and equestrian groups, as well as by some State institutions. Thus, before World War II, there was little evidence in Yugoslavia of any significant type of original or national sculpture, and the sculptor was limited as to what he could hope to accomplish.  
Foreign Influences  

This constriction of styles of the works previously referred to is clearly a result of the financial and political structure controlling the sculptor who made his living through his art. It was not due to a lack of education or awareness of art movements in foreign countries. In fact, since the unification of Yugoslavia in 1918, Yugoslav sculptors have been educated in the important cultural centers of Western Europe, such as Paris, Rome, Milan, and Prague. Italian cultural tradition was particularly familiar, especially to Yugoslav artists living on the Dalmatian coast, who often traveled and studied in Italy. Many Yugoslav sculptors were also educated at the Viennese Academy, but the Academy at that time did not succeed in elevating its image to the standards of even the average European centers like Paris or Milan in any field but architecture.8
            These direct contacts, along with the extensive number of publications from these art centers which were available to Yugoslav sculptors, provided important information about the crucial and definitive changes taking place in the artistic world around the turn of the century. Yugoslav artists encountered Impressionism and the revolution in painting which it heralded. They also confronted the work of Rodin, who almost single‑handedly made the transition for sculpture from the classical to the modern, from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, from sculpture as a representational, rhetorical medium to a formally innovative one.
            Through the friendship between Rodin and the Yugoslav sculptor Ivan Mestrovic, the French aesthetics of Rodin and his artistic progeny Maillol and Bourdelle entered Yugoslavia. This probably constituted the most significant influence from abroad. This French influence stressed the aesthetic or formal aspects, but sculpture of that time was produced with a Salon showing and a narrow circle of patrons in mind. There was a tendency for the sculptors to be quite independent in their studios at this time. But often they were undermined by the social pressure inherent in public commissions which in many cases bent the stylistic form of sculpture toward utilitarian ends.
            At the beginning of World War I, many Yugoslav sculptors left Yugoslavia to journey to independent Switzerland, which at the time was functioning as an international home for artists as well as being the nest for the Dada and Surrealist movements. On their way, they passed through Italy, whose avante‑garde artists were preoccupied with Futurist theories. When they traveled to France, they found an art world absorbed with Fauvism or Cubism. It is interesting that these artistic developments did not exert any visible effect on Yugoslav sculpture. Despite his cognizance of what was happening in West Europe at the time between the two world wars, the Yugoslav sculptor rarely reflected these new styles in his works. He continued working in figurative modes which, although stylized, showed no concern with space per se, which was the predominant interest of the Constructivists and the Cubists at the time. While in Europe, geometricizing, "purified" forms were beinc, created by Brancusi and Moore, spatially‑innovative forms were being invented by Picasso, Gonzales, Boccioni, and Giocometti, and biomorphic abstract forms were being developed by Arp, in Yugoslavia even the best sculptors were carving "national" sculptures and being acclaimed for them. Yugoslav sculpture judged from a national viewpoint seemed progressive, but when compared with parallel European sculpture, it seemed static and conservative.9  A form of art can therefore seem both progressive and conservative at the same time, depending on the standards against which it is evaluated.
            Academic sculpture was not the only area influenced from abroad. Crafts workshops, patterned after the European guild systems, were very popular as sources of education for both craftsmen and artists who were unable to attend foreign academies. These workshops, especially common in Slovenia and Dalmatia, were headed by private masters and included excellent craftsmen working either for the Church or for affluent patrons. Beginning academic sculptors could also often be found there, since the workshops offered the student training and practice in drawing, as well as the opportunity to work in various media, such as wood and stone. The workshops made no pretension to being formal schools, however, and aesthetic education was restricted to the level of representational reproduction.
            A few Yugoslav sculptors who came to prominence after World War I succeeded in elevating themselves above both the popular European influences and the stultifying academicism of the past in order to imbue their work with personal and national character. The two most important were Ivan Mestrovic and Toma Roksandic. These artists succeeded in exerting their individuality through the unique personal presentations of their forms, as well as through the national subject matter they chose as their topics. They were concerned with the principal ideal of the period: unification of the Yugoslavs into a common state. Mestrovic's monumental sculpture was stylized but presented its ideas in human form and corresponded to the national ideal. His works were "sufficiently free in style not to mix the symbol of strength with sentimentality; sufficiently synthetic in observation of movement to keep the idea from failing to convey its message."10.
            Basing his creativity on rich national tradition, Mestrovic wove into his work suggestions of the diverse civilizations, religions, and philosophies that combined to form the national culture of Yugoslavia. His works and their power rescued the Yugoslav plastic arts from a centuries‑long anonymity and impressed the artistic world with their portrayal of human tragedy and moral fortitude. He represented and found form for the strongest human emotions, and built these into a framework with which all could readily identify.
            An example of his ability to combine a powerful Western symbol with a more immediate, specific reference is that of Job (Fig. 2). In this piece he portrays the Biblical Job who endures unimaginable suffering and still retains his faith in God. Yet, Job embodies the hard life inflicted by the Yugoslav environment; it is this suffering itself which serves as Mestrovic's inspiration. By creating the most extreme dis‑'Lortions of the pose and gestures, he achieves in this work the strongest kind of emotional appeal. The head pointed upwards towards the heavens, the open mouth, the frantic expression, the clenched fingers and toes, combine to create of Job the image of a desperate scream, a cry of suffering.
            Mestrovic's contribution to Yugoslav sculpture was qualitatively greater than his immediate impact on sculpture in Yugoslavia, since his career involved a great deal of teaching and exhibiting abroad. The intensive exhibition of his works at the beginning of this century also stimulated the emergence of the critique, since for the first time Yugoslav sculpture had attained a character deserving of written critical attention. Since the Yugoslav plastic arts were now open to a publicly‑recognized form of analysis and criticism, sculptors had to assume more responsibility in justifying the composition and form of their works. At the Third Yugoslav Exhibition in Zagreb in 1908, it was demanded that sculpture must excite and capture its audience by its form, and not merely by its concept.11.
            Toma Roksandic, a contemporary of Mestrovic who worked in a similar style, also expressed through his sculpture emotional ties to the land and its history. He differed from Mestrovic, however, in being "distinguished by a deeper tenderness of spirit and artisan modesty in his treatment of wood, his favorite medium." 12. In spite of these major figures and a succession of other significant artists, the early post‑war artistic movement in Yugoslavia did not manage to free itself from the morass of obstacles to its free development. Yugoslav art in general, and sculpture in particular, had at that point not yet developed a position from which they would be capable of performing the educative, socially and artistically critical functions characteristic of modern art mover‑nents.13.    
  l.Lazar Trifunovic, "Lepenski Vir," Umetnost XIII (1968):l.

3. Edmund Stillmant‑The Balkans (New York: New York Life World Library, 1967), p. 126.

4.Lazar Trifunovic, "Putevi i Raskrsca Srpske Skulpture," Umetnost XXII (1970):

5.Marija Pusic, "Srpska Skulptura 1870‑1950," MSU (1975): 61.

6.Slavko Batusic, Umetnost u Slici (Zagreb: Matica Hrvatska, 1965), p. 61.


8.Spelca Copic, "Pola Veka Slovenackog Vajarstva," MSU (1975): 43.

9.Lazar Trifunovic, "Putevi i Raskrsca Srpske Skulpture," P. 8.

l0.Aleksa Celebonovic, "Yugoslav Sculpture Today," Studio CXLIX (April 1955): iii.

11.Third Yugoslav Exhibition at Zagreb, Serbian Literary Messenger (June 1908): 64.

12 Aleksa Celebonovic, "Yugoslav Sculpture Today," p. 111.

​ l3.Trifunovic, "Putevi i Raskrsca Srpske Skulpture," p. 8.