While in the Soviet Union socialist realism was the dominant style during the 1930’s, in Yugoslavia it reached its peak in the first years after the Second World War. Numerous scholars have analysed broad social impacts of socialist realism in the Soviet Union, but only recently a few have focused on its application in Yugoslavia. Among those are the studies of Goran Miloradovic, who also recorded how the Yugoslav audience accepted such style of art.
The idea behind socialist realism was that workers should be able to ‘read’ their own lives from exhibited paintings and erected monuments. The Communist Party wanted artists to depict élan, and ardour for work both in the cities and in the countryside. Artists were expected to visit some of the numerous construction sites of the Yugoslav five-year industrialisation plan, and to get inspiration while workers constructed bridges, large dams, highways, “Youth railway”, shipyards, New Belgrade, collective farms, etc.
Artists also had to “remember” Partisans’ heroism during the war, their marches during winters, hunger, tiredness, and Partisans’ “unbreakable will” to liberate the country. Sufferings and heroism had to be a pervasive motif. Numerous Yugoslav artists were eager to create such works. Boža Ilić was famous for his painting of the construction of New Belgrade, and for a painting “Vjazma”, which depicts a scene of horror and tragedy – in a cave one child survived the fascists’ massacre of women and children; then Partisans found him, saved him and gave him a name Vjazma. As one description of this painting said: the unit of Partisan takes this child, cares about him with a lot of tenderness and guides him towards a new and better life.
Likewise, “Witnesses of horror” is a painting by Djordje Andrejevic Kun, telling a story of horrified civilians as they witnessed inconceivable war crimes of fascists.
There were numerous similar works exhibited in Belgrade on mayday 1949. On the other hand, paintings reflecting post-war period, almost always had work as their central theme. For example, Marko Celebonovic painted collective work in the countryside, following the most dominant political issue of 1949 – collectivisation of agriculture:
Another dominant political issue was “liquidation” of illiteracy, so Radenko Misevic presented a work in which young teacher helps an older peasant women to learn to read.
The idea was that every peasant woman had to start her “cultural elevation”, to be able to administer a collective farm herself.
As Liza Bihalji-Merin explained in 1949, in the pre-war Yugoslavia people were detached from art and that had to change. People were supposedly exploited and didn't have enough physical strength to enjoy art, while capitalists kept them illiterate and away from art so they could be exploited even more.
New cohort of artists, according to Bihalji-Merin, grew together with the Partisan movement in war, and was connected with workers as they shared the same communist ideology. However, workers also had to do their own part, and to get some trainings (probably from the press) to understand art, as they were not used to it.
Liza Bihalji-Merin was shocked when she saw Western art in Paris and New York, explaining that those “squares and circles are primitive, as if they were painted by children.” Of course, she referred to avant-garde, later well accepted in Yugoslavia.
Socialist realism was a dominant form until 1952, when Miroslav Krleza read a paper on freedom of literary expression at the Congress of Yugoslav writers. Socialist realism was quickly abandoned, opening space for Yugoslav artists to explore their creativity and join the main artistic trends of Western Europe. One of the consequences, however, was that some socialist realism authors such as Boza Ilic were marginalised, and their artistic qualities very neglected.
Bihalji-Merin, Liza. ‘Približavanje radnog naroda problemima umetnosti’. Radnica 1 (January 1949): 15–16.
———. ‘Umetnici u izgradnji novog života’. Žena danas 61 (July 1949): 21–22.
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