Light in the Darkness of the First World War

Nadezda-Petrovic-kosovski-bozuri-Gracanica-1913A recent exhibition in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, “Light in the Darkness of the First World War: The finest creations of the protagonists of Impressionism in Serbia”, joined other events commemorating the centenary of the beginning of the First World War in Europe. Under a symbolic title referring not just to the impressionists’ interest in light and its effects but also to destruction and general horrors of war (light in the darkness), the exhibition focuses on the Serbian art scene of the period and its finest creations.


First presented to the public in the National Museum in Belgrade and later moved to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Banja Luka, the exhibition hosted works of some of the most prominent Serbian modernists: Nadežda Petrović, Milan Milovanović, Kosta Milićević and Mališa Glišić. Outlined in the introduction to the exhibition by its author, Ljubica Miljković, is a comparison between Impressionism in Western Europe and its Serbian adaptation, with a firm acknowledgement of its local variant developed a few decades after its appearance in other artistic centers in Europe.


Impressionism in Central and Eastern Europe developed primarily at the end of the 19th century, with its Serbian variant producing the most important works somewhere in the years from 1907 to 1920. While the western variety flourished in the atmosphere of relative peace of the last decades of the 19th century, Serbian impressionism emerged and gained its momentum before and during the Balkan wars and the first world conflict. Differences which developed from diverse social and political circumstances in which artists worked, translated into choice of subjects and topics rather than into formal artistic execution. Serbian artists studiously employed the potential of flickering light to transform objects, to disintegrate them in order to render a new image of reality, divested of its firm material forms. Even local art critics initially remained fateful to their western colleagues, in general unacceptance and derision of the new artistic form.


Staying within the stylistic framework of Impressionism in which primacy is given to color and light instead of to form and accurate depiction of reality, artists utilized this new painterly expression to map and save from oblivion some of the places important for the history of the First World War in Serbia and Europe. They worked in precarious conditions of being war illustrators, nurses, and official painters in the Serbian Army which brought to their gaze the horrors of war daily, and which influenced the topics and motifs they used in their works.

Miličević-Potamos on Corfu

Nadežda Petrović worked as a nurse during the War and later died of typhoid fever in a military hospital in 1915. Mališa Glišić was a war painter for the Second Army in both Balkan Wars and World War One and died in 1916 after a short illness, while Kosta Milićević and Milan Milovanović, who were engaged as war painters with the Supreme Command of the Serbian Army, died in 1920 and 1946 respectively.


The exhibited paintings guided the viewers through a fascinating visual travel, where one could trace the path of the Serbian Army moving through the region during the wars, from Serbia, to Macedonia, Albania and Greece. Images of Belgrade suburbs and Kosovo fields in Petrović 's paintings, executed in a broad, gestural manner were followed by Ohrid and Corfu in paintings by Milovanović and Milićević. Numerous exhibited paintings of local landscape, including villages and less urban spaces, seem to show a heightened interest in the pastoral and rural, in contrast to the fascination with the urban, city spaces of their western peers.


However, as Serbian art historian Simona Čupić notes, landscape paintings of this period do not designate just an image of the land, but are packed with symbolic meaning. They are not solely the representations of the land, for they also mark the emblematic topography of the nation in which landscape is transformed into historical paintings of the land as a metaphor for nation. The inclination towards representation of the national painting disguised as a landscape painting by Serbian artists went in line with the general tendency of the new Serbian state to link itself to the past and to affirm its historical continuation through the visual politics based in well-known national topos.  


Besides the introductory placards with short biographical and historical info, the exhibition, although comprehensive in its representation of some of the most remarkable paintings from the early 20th century in Serbia, lacked a more structured approach which would clearly connect paintings to particular events and historical and social circumstances which influenced their thematic scope. Left as it is, the exhibition permitted viewers to admire technical bravura of the artists, and to bask in the radiant and luminous colors of the Impressionist palette, unobstructed by a more elaborate contextual framework.


Biljana Purić holds master’s degrees in Film Aesthetics from the University of Oxford, and Gender Studies from the Central European University. She previously worked as media lab assistant at CEU and has been actively involved in film and art teaching and scholarship both in Serbia and abroad.