July ‘Object of the Month’ Mladen Srbinović ‘Bosna’ 1964 / 66

Sarajevo Culture Bureau has teamed up with the Historical Museum of Bosnia & Hercegovina to work of the new ‘Object of the Month’ project. Ever month we present an object of interest from the museum’s collections and analse it. In the future, talks on these objects are also planned. Stay tuned. Our first object is the iconic mosaic by Mladen Srbinović, running the length of the museum’s stairwell.

Mladen Srbinović “Bosna” 1964-66

Mladen Srbinović, Mosaic, Historical Museum of BiH, 1964-66

Mladen Srbinović, Bosna, Historical Museum of BiH, 1964-66

July’s Object of the month features the one image that you really cannot avoid looking at in the Historical Museum; the gigantic mosaic, featuring a carefully designed historical narrative of Bosnia and Hercegovina, by the academic painter, professor and mosaic-maker Mladen Srbinović.

Srbinović was born near Gostivar, in present-day Macedonia, in 1925. He trained as an academic painter at the Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade, graduating in 1951, and from then on had a prolific career as a painter, and as a maker of mosaics for public buildings. In the wave of new building in post war Yugoslavia, mosaic makers were much in demand, to provide striking decorative content for these new public spaces, a content that was also political and historical in nature.

Srbinović’s career was at its height in the 1960s. He was awarded an international prize for painting at the 1961 Biennale in Sao Paolo, Brazil. At around this time, his biggest public project to that date was commissioned; the mosaic Stvaranje Nove Jugoslavije / The Creation of a New Yugoslavia. This was erected on a wall in Mihailo Janković’s gleaming new Federal Executive Council building in Belgrade, completed between 1947 and 1959. Srbinović worked on this large scale mosaic for much of 1962.

Mladen Srbinović ‘Stvaranje Nove Jugoslavije’, 1962, Federal Executive Council Building, Belgrade

The successful completion of this high profile mosaic (a triptych piece) cemented Srbinović’s reputation as one of the foremost artists to turn to, for public building commissions. In the following year, the new Museum of the Revolution, designed by Boris Magaš, Edo Smidihen, and Radenko Horvat, was completed in Marin Dvor in Sarajevo, with construction having begun in 1958. Srbinović was asked to provide a mosaic, dealing with the historical development of Bosnia and Hercegovina, which would run the length of the brightly lit new stairwell.

Boris Magaš, Edo Smidihen & Radenko Horvat, Museum of the Revolution, Sarajevo, 1958-63

In Yugoslav times, a “Museum of the Revolution” was an explicitly ideological institution; there to educate the citizens on the history and politics of Yugoslavia, as well as to display objects and make entertaining and interesting exhibitions. This didactic educational function was key, and every aspect of the museum had to make a contribution to the political education and development of visitors. It is in this context that we can begin to think about Srbinović’s Bosna mosaic.

Redundant brackets on the walls of the museum’s stairwell suggest that the mosaic was highlighted, or spotlit in some way, in the pre-1991 museum. The alteration of the characteristics of the mosaic under intense light became apparent during Jim Marshall’s recent photographing of the work; the seam of red that run through the composition, which can appear dull and inert in natural light, glitters and animates the intricate narrative that the artist has composed. red of course was the colour of revolutionary socialism, but also has a broader historical significance; the spilling of blood and human struggle and sacrifice that brought Bosnia to where it was, historically, when the new museum opened.

Stylistically the work is similar to Srbinović’s mosaic in Belgade. The cypher-like faces in the mosaic take us in a phased journey through the history of Bosnia and Hercegovina. There is a dizzying mix of historical periods; skulls and plant like forms are mixed in with living human heads, underlining the dialectical progress of local history.

Witty manipulations of form are also evident throughout the mosaic;  technical and medical instruments, from contemporaray Yugoslavia, are shown growing out of the forms of religious buildings, and giving way to the organic shapes of an agricultural harvest. Heads from each of Bosnia’s periods in history; from Illyrian times, the mediavel kingdom, the Ottoman period, and the Yugoslav period, are visible. The Yugoslav prescription of Bosnia as one land consisting of three different peoples (Serb, Croat and Muslim), is alluded to with the presence of an orthodox cathedral, a Catholic chapel, and a minaret, in the top right hand panel. The way that these religious structures give way to peacetime forms of advanced technology, suggests a unity of the BiH people against Axis occupation during the Second World war- a historical generalisation masking a much more complex reality.

"Bosna" mosaic, heads (detail)

“Bosna” mosaic, heads (detail)

Ultimately, the purpose of the mosaic was to suggest to the viewer that, in socialist society, Bosnia and Hercegovina had reached its most advanced and prosperous state. Earlier peasant revolutions, against Ottoman and Hapsburg rule, are obliquely alluded to; these uprisings are presented as premature and doomed to fail, in advance of the “historical inevitability” of the socialist revolution in Yugoslavia. The presence of the forms of scientific and technological advance, as well as agricultural abundance, suggests that BiH’s independence and national security were guaranteed in a Yugoslav family of nations.

Such historical interpretations are of course rather simplistic and utopian for today’s visitors. Nonetheless, even if the historical narrative presented in the picture is no longer applicable in contemporary times, still the mosaic can be enjoyed simply as a beautifully composed mosaic, one of the most striking in the former Yugoslavia. Srbinović went on to complete mosaics for the local parliament in Krusevac, Serbia, dealing with the theme of historical Moravian Serbia; perhaps his best known mosaic work was finished in 1989; Zaštitnik Terazije /The Guardian of Terazije, right in the very centre of Belgrade.

Mladen Srbinović, Zaštitnik Terazije, 1989. Trg Terazije, Belgrade.

Mladen Srbinović, Zaštitnik Terazije, 1989. Trg Terazije, Belgrade.

Srbinović was appointed to both the Serbian and Macedonian academies in the 1990s, having enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a professor of Fine Art at the academy in Belgrade (he retired as a full professor, in 1988). He died in the Serbian capital on 12 May 2009.

Mladen Srbinović shortly before his death, 2009

Mladen Srbinović shortly before his death, 2009

We are always interested in finding out more about our objects of the month. If you have any memories of the installation of the mosaic, of the artist, or have any ideas of your own about its interpretation, please do not hesitate to contact us, we will be delighted to hear from you. Object of the Month if meant to be an interactive discussion, so new ideas and information are always welcome. Email sarajevoculturebureau@gmail.com

Words: Jon Blackwood

Photographs of the Mosaic: Jim Marshall

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