For centuries straddling the boundaries between East and West, the territory of Serbia had been divided among the Eastern and Western halves of the Roman Empire; then between Byzantium and the Kingdom of Hungary; and in the early modern period between the Ottoman Empire and the Habsburg Empire. These overlapping influences have resulted in cultural varieties throughout Serbia; its north leans to the profile of Central Europe, while the south is characteristic of the wider Balkans and even the Mediterranean. The Byzantine influence on Serbia was profound, firstly through the introduction of Eastern Christianity in the Early Middle Ages. The Serbian Orthodox Church has had an enduring status in Serbia, with the many Serbian monasteries constituting cultural monuments left from Serbia in the Middle Ages. Serbia has seen influences of the Republic of Venice as well, mainly though trade, literature and Romanesque architecture.
Serbia has five cultural monuments inscribed in the list of UNESCO World Heritage: the early medieval capital Stari Ras and the 13th-century monastery Sopocani; the 12th-century Studenica monastery; the Roman complex of Gamzigrad-Felix Romuliana; medieval tombstones Stecci; and finally the endangered Medieval Monuments in Kosovo (the monasteries of Visoki Decani, Our Lady of Ljevis, Gracanica and Patriarchal Monastery of Pec).
There are two literary monuments on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme: the 12th-century Miroslav Gospel, and scientist Nikola Tesla’s archive. The slava (patron saint veneration), kolo (traditional folk dance) and singing to the accompaniment of the gusle are inscribed on UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists. The Ministry of Culture and Information is tasked with preserving the nation’s cultural heritage and overseeing its development. Further activities supporting development of culture are undertaken at local government level.
The Byzantine Empire had a great influence on the culture; Serbs were initially governing the Byzantine and Frankish frontiers in the name of the emperors and were later through their sworn alliance given independence, baptized by Greek missionaries and adopted the Cyrillic script, with Latin and Catholic influences in the southern regions. The Serbian Orthodox Church gained autocephaly from Constantinople in 1219, whereas Stefan the First Crowned was declared King by the Pope. The Republic of Venice influenced the maritime regions in the Middle Ages. The Ottoman Empire conquered Serbia in 1459 and ruled the territory for several centuries, the consequences of which suppressed Serbian culture. Meanwhile, in northern regions Habsburg Monarchy expanded into modern Serbian territory starting from the end of the 17th century, culturally bounding this part of the nation to Central Europe rather than Balkans. Central Serbia was the first to emancipate as the Principality of Serbia in 1815, and started to gradually expand into Ottoman and Habsburg-held regions.
Following Serbia’s autonomy after the Serbian Revolution and eventual independence, the culture of Serbia was restrengthened within its people.
Traces of Roman and early Byzantine Empire architectural heritage are found in many royal cities and palaces in Serbia, like Sirmium, Felix Romuliana and Justiniana Prima, since 535 the seat of the Archbishopric of Justiniana Prima.
Serbian monasteries are the pinnacle of Serbian medieval art. At the beginning, they were under the influence of Byzantine Art which was particularly felt after the fall of Constantinople in 1204, when many Byzantine artists fled to Serbia. Noted of these monasteries is Studenica (built around 1190). It was a model for later monasteries, like the Mileseva, Sopocani, Zica, Gracanica and Visoki Decani. In the end of 14th and the 15th centuries, autochthonous architectural style known as Morava style evolved in area around Morava Valley. A characteristic of this style was the wealthy decoration of the frontal church walls. Examples of this include Manasija, Ravanica and Kalenic monasteries.
Icons and fresco paintings are often considered the peak of Serbian art. The most famous frescos are White Angel (Mileseva monastery), Crucifixion (Studenica monastery) and Dormition of the Virgin (Sopocani).
Country is dotted with many well-preserved medieval fortifications and castles such as Smederevo Fortress (largest lowland fortress in Europe), Golubac, Maglic, Soko grad, Belgrade Fortress, Ostrvica and Ram.
During the time of Ottoman occupation, Serbian art was virtually non-existent, with the exception of several Serbian artists who lived in the lands ruled by the Habsburg Monarchy. Traditional Serbian art showed Baroque influences at the end of the 18th century as shown in the works of Teodor Kracun, Zaharije Orfelin and Jakov Orfelin.
Serbian painting showed the influence of Biedermeier and Neoclassicism as seen in works by Konstantin Danil, Arsenije Teodorovic and Pavel Djurkovic. Many painters followed the artistic trends set in the 19th century Romanticism, notably Djura Jaksic, Stevan Todorovic and Katarina Ivanovic.
Important Serbian painters of the first half of the 20th century were Paja Jovanovic and Uros Predic of Realism, Cubist Sava Sumanovic, Milena Pavlovic-Barili and Nadezda Petrovic of Impressionism, Expressionist Milan Konjovic. Noted painters of the second half of 20th century include Marko Celebonovic, Petar Lubarda and Vladimir Velickovic.
Anastas Jovanovic was one of the earliest photographers in the world, while Marina Abramovic is one of the world leading performance artists. Pirot carpet is known as one of the most important traditional handicrafts in Serbia.
There are around 180 museums in Serbia, of which the most prominent is the National Museum of Serbia, founded in 1844. It houses one of the largest art collections in the Balkans, including many foreign masterpiece collections. Other art museums of note are Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade, Museum of Vojvodina and the Gallery of Matica Srpska in Novi Sad.
Medieval Serbian art
Serbian medieval heritage includes Byzantine art, preserved in architecture, frescos and icons of the many Serbian Orthodox monasteries. In the Early modern period, Serbian visual arts began to be influenced by Western art, culminating in the Habsburg Monarchy in the late 18th century. The beginning of modern Serbian art is placed in the 19th century.
Currently, Europe’s oldest known civilization was discovered in Serbia, namely Lepenski Vir and Vinca culture. In Serbia, Archaeological Sites of Exceptional Importance (Serbia) are numerous and have the highest level of state protection under the Law on Cultural Heritage. See: Prehistoric sites in Serbia and Prehistory of Southeast Europe for artefacts and sculpture found at the archaeological sites of Lepenski Vir.
Geographically Serbia was always part of the Roman Empire whether it was ruled from Rome or from Byzantium. The Roman ruins are found throughout the Balkan Peninsula.
We know little of the lives of the painters, craftsmen (engravers, goldsmiths, woodcarvers), builder/architects of medieval Serbia, of their studies, their schools, and their commissions. Slowly, however, we’re beginning to learn. But in the course of centuries experience in painting frescoes, miniatures, icons and the iconostasis, there undoubtedly arose arts and crafts workshops where a younger generation of painters and skilled craftsmen could learn the techniques of the masters.
Church architecture developed under the patronage of the medieval Serbian state. The most distinctive piece of medieval Serbian architecture was the Studenica monastery founded by Stefan Nemanja, the founder of medieval Serbia ca. 1190. This monastery also featured significant works of art including its Byzantine style fresco paintings. Its church also features extensive sculptures based on Psalms and the Dormition of the Theotokos. UNESCO added this monastery to its list of World Cultural Heritage sites in 1986. It was the model for other monasteries at Mileseva, Sopocani and the Visoki Decani. The influence of Byzantine art became more influential after the capture of Constantinople in 1204 in the Fourth Crusade when many Greek artists fled to Serbia. Their influence can be seen at the Church of the Ascension at Mileseva as well as in the wall paintings at the Church of the Holy Apostles at Pec and at the Sopocani Monastery. Icons and frescoes also formed a significant part of church art. At that time, King Vladislav founded a monastery and a church at Mileseva in Raska, where his court painters worked on wall painting free from the strict canon law tradition. The influence of Byzantine architecture reached its peak after 1300 including the rebuilding of the Our Lady of Ljevis (ca. 1306–1307) and St. George at Staro Nagoricane as well as the Gracanica monastery. Church decorative paintings and religious arts and crafts also developed further in the period.
The Visoki Decani monastery in Metohija was built between 1330 and 1350. Unlike other Serbian monasteries of the period, it was built with Romanesque features by master-builders under the monk Vitus of Kotor. Its frescoes feature 1000 portraits portraying all of the major themes of the New Testament. The cathedral features iconostasis,
hegumen’s throne and carved royal sarcophagus. In 2004, UNESCO listed the Decani Monastery on the World Heritage List.
There was a further spate of church building as the Serbian state contracted to the Morava basin in the late 14th century. Prince Stefan Lazarevic was a poet and patron of the arts who founded the church at Resava at Morava with the wall paintings having a theme of parables of Christ with the people portrayed wearing feudal Serbian costumes.
Manuscripts were another significant feature of Serbian medieval art. Miroslav’s Gospel features lavish calligraphy and miniatures and is a significant artwork as well as a notable work of literature. The Chludov Psalter dating from the 14th century is beautifully decorated and was probably owned by a high-ranking noble. Serbian princes were well known in the 15th century for supporting manuscripts employing scribes and artists to create manuscripts besides icons and frescoes.
Gabriel Millet, a French archaeologist and historian was the first to bring Serbian art to the attention of the West in 1919, along with Serbian-American scientist Michael Pupin, who gathered an international team of scholars and public figures to support the preservation of architectural heritage during and after the Great War. In 1918, Sir Thomas Graham Jackson refuted the notion that Serbian art was nothing more than a branch of Byzantine art and showed that Serbian art had an original character of its own.
Orthodox fresco painting represents the peak of Serbian medieval art. Its birth went in line with the creation and development of medieval Serbian state, but unlike Serbian state it didn’t cease to exist during the Ottoman occupation. While Serbian architecture has seen mixed influences of both Byzantine and medieval Italian states, fresco and icon painting remained deeply rooted in solely eastern byzantine tradition.
Frescos were being painted under the patronage of Serbian rulers, as the highest form of religious decorative form. Following the political expansion and military growth, the 13th and 14th century are marked as the period when the biggest amount of newly built or existing sanctuaries have been decorated, mostly by unknown artists. Studenica monastery has been built in 1196 under the patronage of Stefan Nemanja, the founder of Nemanjic dynasty, and ever since it enjoyed the care of Stefan’s descendants as the archi-model. Its most representative fresco, The Crucifixion, was made twelve years later, in 1208, on the blue background brought into contrast with golden-yellow of Christ’s bare crucified body. In the second half of 14th century an unknown artist painted monumental The Dormition of the Virgin in Sopocani monastery, which remained the supreme achievement of byzantine painting tradition.
However, the most famous Serbian medieval fresco is the Myrrhbearers (or the “White Angel”) from the Mileseva monastery, painted in 1235, on the southern wall of the church. It depicts Archangel Gabriel sitting on Christ’s grave. The identity of its author is unknown. In the 16th century, the White Angel was over-painted with another fresco, and so was
hidden until the 20th century when the fresco was restored. This fresco was sent as a message in the first satellite broadcast signal from Europe to America after the Cuban Missile Crisis, as a symbol of peace. Later, the same signal, containing the White Angel, was transmitted to space in an attempt to communicate with extraterrestrial life forms.
Another notable mention is the fresco of Serbian Queen Simonida, the fourth wife of Serbian King Stefan Milutin, in Gracanica monastery.
16th and 17th centuries
The Ottoman conquest of Serbia during the 15th century had a negative impact on the visual arts. The Serbs became part of the Rum Millet (Christian community), and were regarded as a lower class (rayah). The Serbian nobility was not integrated into the Ottoman state system, and the Ottoman government abolished the church. As the nobility and church were the main sources of patronage for architects and artists, the Early Modern period is considered an artistically less productive period in Serbian art. Despite the general trend, notable monuments were built. There was some resumption of artistic endeavour after the restoration of the Serbian Patriarchate in 1557.
Baroque (18th century)
Traditional Serbian art was beginning to show some Baroque influences at the end of the 18th century. Painting of the Early Baroque did not create a homogeneous group of painters. It developed under the Russian-Ukrainian and Southern Balkan basis and the influences that had slowly arrived from Western European art centres. The first generation of Baroque painters nourished on the learnings of the Russian painters. The work of Balkan icon painters continued in the Habsburg Monarchy throughout the 18th century. The works of others Hristofor Zefarovic who came originally from southern parts of the Balkans (once known as Old Serbia), created in the spirit of the Levant Baroque, relied on the transferred experience of Italian Renaissance art and the Byzantine tradition, which resulted in a distinctive model of Baroque icons.
High Baroque art was reflected in the firmer cultural orientation towards Vienna, as well as church and school reforms. The changes are visible in the works of Teodor Kracun who in his work represents a significant step towards understanding the actual Central European art. The retrospective Orthodox heritage confronted the emphasized emotionality and the movement as a fundamental element of artistic expression. Scenes are placed in the real world, Christ and Mary are depicted according to the rules of the secular ruler iconography and rely on graphic templates from popular illustrated Bibles.
The emergence and development of Late Baroque painting had been determined by the cultural and political changes of the time of Joseph II. Conceptual changes in the era of enlightened and learned man – the Enlightenment – marked the last decade of the 18th century. The learned artist, traveling the European capitals of Art, accepts and implements the ideas of the Enlightenment reforms. Neoclassicism as the style of the new era, based on the ideas of the Enlightenment, would not jeopardize the ruling Late Baroque conception in the first decades of the next century.
19th century drawing and painting
Printed magazines with engravings became a popular method of communicating through art, of both religious and irreligious themes. The printing of engravings of figures of prominent Serbian rulers fitted in the ideas of continuity of Serbian statehood. Monasteries on Fruska Gora and other ones in the Metropolitanate of Karlovci issued engraved magazines in which protector saints with monasteries were represented. Graphical arts of the 18th century were the first class documents of appearance and condition of monastery buildings before photographs. In the last decades of the 18th century, the written word suppressed visual arts as the main communication activity in religious magazines, with graphical arts becoming more and more used in illustrated books.
In the first decades of the 19th century a new graphic technique of lithography experience a real boom in the countries of Western Europe. Serbian artists gradually introduced it to the history of national arts in the 19th century. In contrast to modest attempts of scarce individuals, the lithography becomes an important branch of Serbian art only with the emergence of Anastas Jovanovic. Independent printed magazines on religious themes which prevailed in the 18th century became scarcer in the 19th century, only accounting for a part of the graphic production. As a medium very suitable for spreading political ideas, lithography dominates with national-historical themes. Sketch portraits and templates for lithography were dealt with by Serbian painters, such as Uros Knezevic, Steva Todorovic and many others, while being technically performed in Pest and Vienna by various lithographers. At the end of the 19th century, popular oleographs appear, as the first reproduction of popular works, most often with motifs from folk life and depictions of historical figures and events.
Under the influence of the ides of Enlightenment and Rationalism, at the end of the 18th and beginning of 19th century, Serbian art came to leave baroque pictorial poetics and acceptance of the aesthetic ideals of the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, characterized by eclecticism of different stylistic expressions, of the late baroque to neo-classical. In addition to religious painting, which was still dominant, the portrait gains an increasing importance. Portraits complete the picture of the new society created in that time and point to the idea of a permanent memory of individuals within the family or the wider community. The gallery of characters, in addition to church prelates and priests, senior officers, significant places is taken by eminent members of civil society from the first decades of the 19th century: lawyers, university professors, writers, wealthy merchants, and their wives, the status shown by marked clothing and jewellery. Stylistic features of paintings of that era: a balanced composition, precise modelling, rigorous academic drawing, colour of reduced register.
In the 1830s the Serbian art scene is added by a generation of painters who transferred Bidermeier and Nazarene art programs from Central Europe. As a stylistic expression that deeply permeated the Serbian art at that time, Biedermeir was most suitable for the wide layers of citizens that concerned about themselves, their family and home. In the changed social circumstance in which the middle class had become the bearer of social changes, the family becomes the basic unit of modern society and the main scene of private life. Awareness of family is confirmed and visualized in family portraits, in group or of some of its members. Family portraits depict the social status of the family, but at the same time they have a private character and are part of narrow family cult. In addition to portraits, Biedermeir painting is also focused on the Genre art and Still life. The most important representatives of the Biedermeier expression in Serbian painting are Konstantin Danil and Katarina Ivanovic.
In the mid-19th century Serbian artistic creativity was marked with the reception of content and design of civil works (Biedermeier), but at the same time the development of a program of historicism. For the penetration of Romanticist conceptions, education and stays of Serbian painters in Vienna and Munich, as well as trips to Italy, were crucial. Social and political conditions contributed to the Romantic expression in Serbian art accomplishing its highest achievements in the late 1860s and beginning of 1870s. In stylistic and thematic view, Romanticism brought notable innovations: greater freedom of strokes and composition, warm colours complemented by the play of light and shadow. Most Serbian artists of that period reflected national-historical content in painting compositions, however, the client needs kept iconography and portrait painting popular. Some examples of notable Romanticist painters include Djura Jaksic and Steva Todorovic.
In accordance with the general ideas of Historicism, as the dominant characteristics of the culture of the 19th century in the European context, the top role in the process of constituting national identity was held by events and figures from national history. They represented a representative of the golden age of the nation, which in Serbian culture of the 19th century was equated with the period of the rule of the Nemanjic dynasty. The idealization of a glorious past, regardless of whether it was based on real facts or myth, it was the main tool in the constitution and the homogenization of the nation. This idealized past was directly at the service of the glorification of the present, which emphasized the idea of rebuilding the former Serbian glory. These ideas are directly reflected in the visual art of the epoch – historical compositions, but also patriotic scenes that illustrate the events of the recent past are gaining more and more importance. They praise the nation through the idealization of events and personalities, becoming at the same time engaged means of communication with the aim to awaken national and patriotic feelings.
In the last decades of the 19th century, Serbian painters began to stay at Munich as a centre of education and its Academy of Fine Arts, which compared to the Viennese, was more avant garde and progressive. However, the larger number of them remained faithful to the Vienna Academy where the education system was still based on constitutional education, traditional practices, and technical skills. The highest level of Academicism in Serbian painting of the late 19th century are portraits of Paja Jovanovic and Uros Predic.
Orientalism indicates interest in Oriental scenes in the visual arts of the 19th century. Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, the conquest of Algeria, as well as travel books and other literary descriptions, encouraged the enthusiasm and imagination of artists. Islamic countries of the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa had become the preferred travel destination for many artists. Scenes of squares, bazaars, harem and various folklore events entered European painting. Orientalism rarely had a purely documentary character and more often depicted the enthusiasm of Europeans for beauty, vividness, and allure of the unknown and exotic world. The wild nature and unusual customs, combined with gorgeous colours and light, had become a great inspiration to European artists. During a long period of education, Paja Jovanovic, along with classes at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, attended the School of historical painting of Leopold Müller, famous for its oriental motifs. There is no doubt that Miller’s crucial lessons determined his painting preference. Noting the increased interest of Europe to the events in the Balkans, he travelled during the holidays to Albania, Montenegro, Dalmatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia gathering sketches and studies of the life of the Balkan peoples. Precisely these themes brought Paja Jovanovic worldwide fame and popularity.
In the last decades of the 19th century, with Serbian painters attending the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, Realism entered the Serbian art scene. In stylistic view, Realists, succeeding the Romantic agitation, brought calm and order in painting. In Serbian painting Realism never took root in the true sense, in the symbiosis of thematics and techniques. Serbian painters, taught artistically to express in a new form, return to be faced with the difficult solvable problems of adapting the conditions of an economically, socially and culturally underdeveloped environment, which was unwilling to accept new social themes which European Realism advocated. Serbian painters, therefore, continue to paint portraits, religious and historical compositions.
The transition to realism was also gradual and slow. Painting of nature and common folk were not only easily accepted and the painters had even more difficulties when they tried to introduce new elements into church art. With the realist disappears the long prevalence of Vojvodina in art and that Belgrade becomes not only the political but also the cultural and artistic centre.
Modern visual arts
The first school of art in Serbia was set up in 1895. Many of the students went to study in Western Europe, especially France and Germany and brought back avant-garde styles. Nadezda Petrovic was influenced by Fauvism while Sava Sumanovic worked in Cubism.
Milena Pavlovic-Barili was the most notable artist of Serbian modernism.
After World War I, the Belgrade School of Painting developed in the capital with some members such as Milan Konjovic working in a Fauvist manner, while others such as Marko Celebonovic working in a style called intimisme based on the use of colours.
Socrealism was the dominant school after World War II with the rise to power of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia. However, that period did not last long – during the 1960s, Serbian artists started to break free from the constraints of the Communists. The Mediala group featuring Vladimir Velickovic, Leonid Sejka and Olja Ivanjicki was formed in the 1970s to promote Surrealist figurative painting. Serbian art was split between those basing their works on the traditions of Serbian work such as frescoes and iconography and those exploring international styles.
Applied art and design
Applied art and design through the centuries have evolved in Serbia through crafts. The wealth of forms, the variety of materials with powerful colour schemes and ornamentation folk art represented a strong stimulus for the affirmation of applied art, which in the second half of the 19th century, gets its first artists in Serbia. End of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century were marked by the work of individual personalities, each of whom made a significant contribution to the development and the history of applied art in Serbia.
Maga Magazinovic, philosopher and choreographer, was one of the most important figures of contemporary physical practice in Serbia before the Second World War. The emancipation of the body in her work was realized through the application of gymnastics, dance and physical education. During the ‘60s and ‘70s history of the contemporary dance developed in the framework of performance art, body art and happenings.
Marina Abramovic is the most prominent Serbian performance artist. Active for over three decades, she has been described as the “grandmother of performance art.” She pioneered a new notion of identity by bringing in the participation of her observers. Her art focuses on the theme of “confronting pain, blood, and physical limits of the body,” while relying on the extent of these discomforts based on the actions of her audience members.