Yugoslavia 1945–1991: a heritage to be rediscovered

“Architecture. Sculpture. Remembrance” is a research that became a book and an itinerant exhibition, now available online. We interviewed curator Boštjan Bugarič, discussing why the heritage of SFRY carries a lesson for today.

The itinerant exhibition “Architecture. Sculpture. Remembrance. The Art of Monuments of Yugoslavia 1945–1991,” is now online due to the global pandemic. After its presentation in 2019, the event had to travel from the Dessa Gallery in Ljubljana to the other countries that once formed Yugoslavia – namely, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. As part of a larger research carried out by a group of curators, the exhibition and the catalogue collect part of this architectural and artistic heritage of the former Yugoslavia.

In this interview, curator Boštjan Bugarič talks about the need for this heritage to be rediscovered, beyond the fascination that brought it to be exploited in commercial terms. Next 29 November, in the occasion of the anniversary of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), Bugarič and the curators of “Architecture. Sculpture. Remembrance” will develop this topic over a one-day seminar, involving the experts of the MoMA exhibition “Toward a Concrete Utopia. Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980”.

Petrova Gora Monument (1981), Petrova Gora, Croatia, Vojin Bakić, Berislav Šerbetić

Did the exhibition “Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980” at MoMA in New York change the local understanding of modernism?
When we discuss the presentation of Yugoslavian architectural heritage, especially when related to monuments, we shall not forget the exhibition in the Yugoslavian pavilion at the 39th Venice Biennale in 1980. Here, Bogdan Bogdanović, Dušan Džamonija, Slavko Tihec and Miodrag Živković presented their works with the idea of building the new society. Soon after that event, Yugoslavia started falling apart. Balkan wars in the 1990s destroyed a huge part of the heritage of Yugoslavian architecture. It was introduced again almost a decade ago by Croatian Architects Association in collaboration with Maribor Art Gallery in the regionally conceived project Unfinished Modernisations – Between Utopia and Pragmatism. The exhibition at MoMA was a follow up of the existing network of collaborators. Presenting Yugoslavian modernism in New York City’s MoMA was an opportunity to reach the global audience. The exhibition showed how innovative and powerful was the language of Modern architecture on the whole territory of Yugoslavia. Vladimir Kulić, the co-curator of the MoMA exhibition, explained how it “demonstrates that innovative, interesting architecture also existed in what used to be the former Socialist world. Yugoslavia is a great example that tells that the story is much more complicated.”

In Yugoslavian Modernist architecture, aesthetical and structural innovation played a crucial role, was this similar also for the monuments?
Socialist Modernism is specific for Yugoslavia from 1948 through the mid-1970s and early 1980s. Miško Šuvaković states that Socialist Modernism was typical for Yugoslavia because of Tito’s cultural politics, which was aimed at placing Yugoslavia between USA and USSR. This created the need for a new type of art, one being contemporary in its spirit and Socialistic in its content. This created an unusual compound of highly stylised late Modernist art with a demand for Communist patriotic ideology. The self-management also transformed culture, which was created for education, emancipation and control over the working society. The monuments were predominantly designed as abstract sculptural-architectural structures, many made of concrete, which was elevated to the status of a noble material because of its potentialities in shaping and finishing.

Kadinjača Memorial Complex (1979), Užice, Serbia, Miodrag Živković, Aleksandar Đokić

Commemoration played an essential part in Yugoslavian society, and architects took their part really responsibly. How would you explain this contrast between that era and today?
To understand the importance of commemoration, I would like to mention how the memorial sites have been used for commercial purposes. One of the most evident examples is the use of the memorial site Jasenovac, a graveyard for thousands of murdered Serbs, Jews and Roma which became a stage for a sunglass commercial, using only the visual aspect and erasing the whole content of the location, with all the corpses buried underground the concrete flower. The other case is connected with a shooting of a video commercial for a German beer at the location of the monument of Petrova Gora. Besides that, the location will be used for a reality show, where the public space is being rented to a multinational.

 are known because of their unique aesthetics and look like alien creatures or remnants of another civilisation.

Between 1945 and 1990 were erected thousands of monuments dedicated to the National Liberation Struggle. After 1947 the erection of monuments was under a special committee consisting of experts, ex-fighters, and political representatives of the Federation of Associations of the Fighters from the National Liberation Struggle. After WWII monuments looked mostly like simple, realistic sculptures, which later became huge social realistic monuments alike those in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. After the dispute with Stalin in 1948 a new art expression arises - the Abstract Modernism became the main art expression in the territory of Yugoslavia with its innovative approach, monumentality and great landscaping, such as those in Jasenovac, Tjentište and Kozara. These monuments operate not only as abstract structures memorialising a horrific past and victory against Fascism but, additionally, they function as political tools meant to articulate the country’s vision of a new tomorrow.
I wouldn’t say that those monuments look like remnants of another civilisation. This image was created with the photography book entitled Spomenik and published in 2012 by Jan Kempenaers. More than a scientific approach, the author depicts the monuments like creatures in the landscape. Kempenaers’ interest is an aesthetic presentation of the perfect form without the context. His pictures are not carrying names of monuments; they are marked only with numbers. Such an aesthetical presentation denies both the context and why and where were monuments created.

Monument to the Battle of Dražgoše (1976), Dražgoše, Slovenia, Boris Kobe

What were the primary criteria for your selection of monuments for the exhibition?
After the dismantling of former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, it was unknown exactly how many memorial objects were created in total. Still, if their creation were at the same rate that they were built from 1945-1961, the total number would be over 40,000. The situation is way much complicated than it seems because there are no common approaches to both the valorisation and preservation of this heritage, therefore is very vulnerable and easily left to decay. In 2019, Gallery DESSA, ab-Architect’s Bulletin magazine and architectural online platform Architectuul began the exhibition Architecture. Sculpture. Remembrance. The Art of Monuments of Yugoslavia 1945–1991. The curatorial team selected the number of items to be presented based on the high architectural and artistic value of the structures as well as the exceptional contemplative qualities of their spatial designs. Monuments are an uncompromising tribute to humanity, to reverence towards the victims, conveyed through the authors’ individual artistic expression.

With the dissolution of Yugoslavia into individual independent states in 1991, it seems that the need for respecting the remembrance expressed by its memorials is waning. As a result, the present state of repair of the monuments and their treatment varies depending on the region. In some places, the past and the strivings of the previous generations are held in respectful memory while elsewhere the monuments have been abandoned, left to ruin, or even desecrated. Due to their abstract nature, they may be used for very different purposes, such as shooting TV advertisements and music videos, or as fashion runways. Such use of monuments by individuals who have no appreciation or knowledge of the past and therefore, cannot respect it represents misuse as well as contempt for the dignity of the victims and their memory. This is where we started to research, present and discuss legacy, cultural protection and presentation of this important common heritage.

What message can these monuments send to today’s society?
Through their extraordinary artistic language, they remind us of the dignity of human life and death. They are powerful markers of the once common state’s public open space. Their unique architectural and artistic design has placed them on a field of timelessness, which is not constrained by geographic and cultural borders, age, race, or political views. Monuments are ties to the past; they recall the dignity of human life and death. They shall be a remembrance, a reminder that something like that shall never happen again.

Opening image: Makedonium, Monument of the Ilinden Uprising (1974), Kruševo, Macedonia, Iska Grabuloska

Exhibition title:
Architecture. Sculpture. Remembrance. The Art of Monuments of Yugoslavia 1945–1991
Boštjan Bugarič, Kristina Dešman, Maja Ivanič, Špela Kuhar, Eva Mavsar, Špela Nardoni Kovač, Damjana Zaviršek Hudnik
DESSA gallery Židovska steza 4, Ljubljana, Slovenija
DESSA gallery, ab_Arhitektov bilten, DAL, Architectuul
Media partner:
Online exhibition at:
22nd Salon of Architecture Novi Sad

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