During my last visit to Belgrade, the National Museum (Narodni Mujez u Beogradu) was still undergoing a massive fifteen-year restoration. It reopened, so yesterday I spent three hours exploring the Museum, a “cradle of history and Serbian culture”. The Museum is magnificent! Viewing the exhibitions was educational, and I left the Museum in a brain stupor, struggling to process the vast amount of information presented.
With over 400,000 objects, it presents a “comprehensive story of the Serbian people, Central Balkans, and Europe”. Exhibits include items from prehistoric times to the late medieval period, representative works of key styles and movements, and the artistic achievements in national and European art from the Middle Ages to the 20th century.
I did minimal research before visiting and more afterwards. Weekly thematic guided tours are available, so I’ll return to take one. At best, a single visit only provides a micro-cursory view of the exhibits, and Serbian history is complex, at least to me. The Museum is closed on Mondays and free to visitors on Sunday.
The National Museum is located on Knez Mihailova Street in Republic Square behind the Prince Mihailo Monument. Its location is the former site of the famous Dardanelles tavern, a “meeting point of the cultural and artistic elite of the time”. Demolition of the old tavern marked the beginning of the transformation of Republic Square. It was followed by construction of the National Theatre and the Monument to Prince Mihailo, after leveling Stambol Gate – the “firmest and best-built” of four gates placed on the way out of Belgrade.
The building was created in 1902-1903 for the Fund Mortgage Bank, one of Belgrade’s oldest banking institutions. In 1930-1933, it expanded into the Serbian State Mortgage Bank. The building was damaged during World War II bombings in 1944, and reconstructed in 1946. In 1950, it was remodeled for the National Museum which opened in 1952. The museum central dome was restored several years later in 1955-1966.
When creating the Museum, exhibition designers Igor and Irena Stepančić and Jelena Stefanović strived “to provide open insight into art and the past through a balanced combination of conventional and innovative settings”. Several architects, designers, and contractors contributed to the long-term project.
The National Museum building is considered a “representative example of public palaces in Belgrade’s architecture from the late 19th and early 20th century”. It’s proclaimed a “cultural monument of great importance”.
Period Collections – Prehistory, Antiquity, Middle, New, Modern
Collections focusing on Serbian history and art include an immense chronological period from the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) to the 20th century. A European painting exhibit depicts international art.
Serbian history is told through archeology exhibits. After the middle ages, the exhibits focus solely on Serbian and European art from the Renaissance through the 20th century. Artefacts appearing on three levels in 5000 sqm (54,000 sq. ft.) of exhibition space “tell their own stories about history and arts”:
- 45,000 prehistoric, antique, and medieval archaeological objects
- 287,000 copies of ancient, Byzantine, and Medieval coins and new century medals, plaques, and décor
- 16,000 paintings, graphics, drawings, icons by Serbian, Yugoslav, and foreign artists
- 1000 sculptures, figurines, masks
- Medieval frescoes and icons from Orthodox monasteries and churches
- Works by European artists such as Rubens, Dega, Renoir, Matisse, and Picasso
Atrium Permanent Collection
The atrium exhibit is a permanent archaeological collection from the Paleolithic period (2.5 million years ago to 10,000 B.C.) to ancient Greece and Roman culture and art. The exhibits illustrate how these civilizations affected ancient Serbia. For the “setup,” representative material is singled out to “speak about everyday life in the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze, Iron Age, Roman, and Late Antiquity” periods.
In the medieval object exhibition, spaces are divided into ten thematic units representing the early medieval period to the First Serbian Uprising. Objects include jewelry, ceramics, icons, frescoes, massive stone plastics, works of art, and objects of applied art. The rich colors and stunning images of the icons are spectacular!
The Post-Byzantine art collection “safeguards the art of Serbian people created during the Turkish rule in the Balkans between the 1459 fall of the Serbian Despotate in Smederevo and the First Serbian Uprising in 1804“.
I loved the second part of the exhibition displaying the works of 18th and 19th century Serbian painters. The last segment on this level contains a selection of drawings and graphics of foreign and domestic authors.
The exhibition space on the second floor consists of the paintings of foreign artists and 20th century Yugoslav painters, most of them were new to me.
The works of painter Sava Šumanović, including Women Bathing (On the Beach), were “singled out for their artistic significance, representationalism, and monumentality”. Šumanović’s paintings from the mid-1920s feature “female nudes and semi-nudes, single or in a group, in simple or complex compositions, most often landscapes, in the spirit of moderate post-cubist or neoclassicism stylization”.
Some of the Museum’s “most valuable artefacts are drawings of European artists created in the period between Realism and Classical Avant-garde”. These include the works of Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Auguste Rodin, and Pablo Picasso. A special group of drawings in the Museum are “among the highest achievements of individual author’s, such as Odilon Redon and Henri Matisse“.
20th Century Drawings and Yugoslavian Graphics
The collection of Yugoslavian painters is the largest collection and one of my favorite exhibits in the Museum. It contains more than 5,000 drawings, graphics, pastels, collages, photographs, posters, graphic maps and blocks, and graphic stencils representing the development of graphic art and drawing in Yugoslavia and Serbia. I especially enjoyed the beautiful detailed drawings of versatile artist Ivan Radović – photos don’t do them justice.
Yugoslav paintings are indicative of the socialist realism movement during and after the war and artworks created in 1920s and 1930s in the periods of Yugoslav Modernism and Avant-garde. Now that I’ve done basic research on this, revisiting these paintings will be worthwhile and make them more meaningful.
Serbian Art 18th -19th Century
Serbian art from the 18th and 19th-century shows both the art movements and history of the people. You can recognize Serbian themes and traditions and see how art from the rest of Europe affected Serbia. I thoroughly enjoyed this section, but further research is required to fully understand the period!
European Art 14th – 20th Century
The foreign art galleries focus on European artwork outside of former Yugoslavia. It’s interesting to observe how these movements influenced Serbian art. The highlight and core of the collection is a “gift of Slovak painter Berthold Lippay from the year 1891, when the National Museum received 70 artworks of Italian and Venetian artists”. The most represented and important segments of the art collection are Italian, French, Flemish, Dutch, Russian, and Austrian. Many of these painters were also new to me, including Hieronymus Bosch, a fascinating painter from the late Middle Ages. Bosch used his art to “portray the sins and follies of humankind and show the consequences of those actions”.
I took tons of photos and have attached several in no particular order. Another new discovery was Moscow Schnitt, a favorite cake in Belgrade. I haven’t tried it yet but plan to!
More later – da!
Serbian history IS complex. I read Bridge over the River Drina by Ivo Andric for a little background. The contents of that museum are amazing. Definitely one for a gallery at a time.
The nice thing about a longer stay is there will be time to go back. I saw one other person visiting the museum, but guards monitor every inch. The icons were especially fascinating! Going to visit Novi Sad and Sremski Karlovci tomorrow.