Enfilade

On Site: Looking for the Habsburgs in Serbia

Posted in Member News, on site by Editor on August 20, 2011

Eighteenth-Century Encounters: Novi Sad, Serbia
By Michael Yonan

Petrovaradin Fortress, Serbia (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

THANKS TO THE hospitality of a former student, Višnja Kisić, this year’s summer travels took me into a region of the former Habsburg Empire much less well known than Bohemia or Hungary. This is Vojvodina, a flat, largely agricultural area that forms an autonomous province within modern Serbia.

Plan of Novi Sad (Ratzenstadt in archaic German) and the Petrovaradin fortress, 1745

Vojvodina is not too familiar to English-language art historians. Mentioning Serbia might bring to mind the rich legacy of medieval monasteries in the country’s south, the scattered Ottoman architecture that remains after centuries of Turkish rule, or perhaps Belgrade’s extensive heritage of Communist architecture. Imagine my surprise when I discovered substantial eighteenth-century sights in and around the regional capital of Novi Sad, Serbia’s second largest city.

The city itself has an almost perfect eighteenth-century pedigree. It was founded in 1694 as a new settlement across the Danube from the Petrovaradin Fortress, a large military structure that was instrumental in the Austrian army’s defense against the Ottomans. Novi Sad developed rapidly in the eighteenth century and still maintains its historical core with beautiful civic, domestic, and religious edifices. Unlike Belgrade, a sprawling and rather hectic place, Novi Sad has a much more relaxed feel that recalls Vienna or Budapest and bespeaks its Habsburg heritage.

J. K. Winkler, Virgin and Child, print, 1762

There are excellent museums in Novi Sad that would be of great interest to American scholars. For eighteenth-century specialists, the highlight certainly is the Gallery of Matica Srpska, where I was privileged to give a lecture on July 19. The gallery is the most important museum of Serbian art, and the quality of its holdings is impressive (“Matica” means “queen bee” and is used in Slavic countries to designate institutions of cultural promotion and scholarship). The museum is home to a gorgeous collection of painted religious images and carved wooden church outfittings, as well as an extensive group of eighteenth-century Serbian Orthodox prints. In addition, there are numerous painted portraits from the eighteenth through twentieth centuries, academic history paintings by Serbian artists, and galleries of modern art. The real standouts for me were the beautiful Orthodox rococo church outfittings. These are composite constructions of gilded wood and paint that adorned Orthodox churches, usually altars and iconostases.

Teodor Kračun, "The Prophet Gideon," 1776

Orthodox Rococo? For many Enfilade readers, this must come as a huge surprise. I suspected that such art existed at the point where Catholic regions abutted Orthodox ones, but had never encountered it in person, nor knew much about it. Art Historian Dr. Branka Kulić has researched this material extensively and written about how local painters worked with craftsmen trained in Vienna to produce a fascinating synthesis of rococo and Byzantine traditions. Later examples break somewhat with the strict rules of icon representation to incorporate greater three-dimensionality and naturalism into their works, and these traditions continued well into the nineteenth century. As Dr. Kulić has noted, artists produced such imagery for churches across the region, not just in Novi Sad, and they can perhaps be understood as visual manifestations of this region’s multivalent social, economic, and religious structure.

Personally, I was struck by of how many fascinating things remain to be encountered in eighteenth-century art, how much can still surprise the curious investigator, and how diverse this century’s visual and material production really was. It also brought to mind how inconsistent the narratives we tell about art’s history can be, and how the desire to see some
things clearly necessitates obscuring others from view.

Teodor Kračun and Arsenije Marković, "The Descent of the Holy Spirit and The Council of Prophets with the Holy Virgin," 1775-1780

There are also significant eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century sights in the nearby cities of Sremski Karlovci and Zemun, as well as the more distant town of Vršac, all of which have preserved pockets of eighteenth-century architecture. And in Novi Sad there is yet another museum worth visiting, this one for modern art: the Pavle Beljanski Memorial Collection, a fascinating example of a high-quality private art collection installed and housed entirely according to its collector’s wishes.

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Michael Yonan is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Missouri-Columbia. His book, Empress Maria Theresa and the Politics of Habsburg Imperial Art, appeared earlier this year from Penn State University Press.

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  1. […] Michael Yonan has a fascinating post at Enfilade on eighteenth-century art and architecture in Novi Sad, Serbia.  Particularly interesting are his observations on rococo details in Orthodox churches: Orthodox Rococo? For many Enfilade readers, this must come as a huge surprise. I suspected that such art existed at the point where Catholic regions abutted Orthodox ones, but had never encountered it in person, nor knew much about it. Art Historian Dr. Branka Kulić has researched this material extensively and written about how local painters worked with craftsmen trained in Vienna to produce a fascinating synthesis of rococo and Byzantine traditions. Later examples break somewhat with the strict rules of icon representation to incorporate greater three-dimensionality and naturalism into their works, and these traditions continued well into the nineteenth century. As Dr. Kulić has noted, artists produced such imagery for churches across the region, not just in Novi Sad, and they can perhaps be understood as visual manifestations of this region’s multivalent social, economic, and religious structure. […]


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