Journal of Design History Advance Access published June 26, 2007Journal of Design History Vol. 20 No. 2 doi:10.1093/jdh/epm007
Designing IdentitiesReshaping the Balkans in the First Two Centuries: The Case of SerbiaBratislav Pantelic
It is not an easy task to imagine ones nation in the Balkans. The elusive and complex interrelation of ethnicities and shared traditions in this region are the result of centuries of mixing and blending in complex social and cultural processes. Nationalism imposed ethnic and religious denominators upon these vague cultural entities, writing ethnic and national histories, appropriating and inventing traditions to impart ethnic exclusivity. Imaginaries of cultural uniqueness have been developed by each of these groups and shaped according to a visual code believed to be innate or to echo ancient traditions. This article focuses on the Serbian situation. It looks at some representative examples of the visual arts, architecture and material culture to examine how national uniqueness has been visualized in the past two centuries and to understand how changing perceptions of national or ethnic designs have accompanied and accompany identity changes in this volatile region.Keywords: architecturedecorative artsnational identitynationalismSerbia south-eastern Europe
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The beginningsAn unsuspecting observer of the many political rallies during the crises of the 1990s in former Yugoslavia would have been perplexed at the mixture of iconographies: communist banners featuring the hammer and sickle, old Serbian standards with real or invented royalist insignia, ags of socialist Yugoslavia with the red star, all mixed together with pictures of Serb nationalist leader Slobodan Miloevic , Saint Sava, the twelfth-century founder of the Serbian church, and Draa Mihailovic , the leader of the royalist resistance in the Second World War. Among the plethora of conflicting, ideologically opposed symbols were reproductions of icons and images of places sacred to Serbdom, notably the medieval monasteries of Kosovo. Such conation of past identities sums up two centuries of the Serbs experience in their vain attempts to forge a viable identity. It all started when Herderian Romanticism and its messianic vision of the Volk ignited dreams of liberation and unity amongst the South Slavs divided between the Austrian
(later Austro-Hungarian) and Ottoman empires. Instead of binding them even more closely together, however, nationalism divided them. Defining a nation entailed construction of ethnic identities that would differentiate these communities that had lived side by side for centuries. But how does one delineate ethnic belonging if these groups share the same core cultural traditions and language? Linguistic variants, the dialects and subdialects of the common language, came with settlement patterns and migration; as myths, beliefs and customs, they reected regional specics that often overlapped political boundaries. It was upon such uid cultural entities, formed around kinship communities and often rather vague religious afliations, that the nation builders of the nineteenth century imposed ethnic denominators.1 The story of the nation, woven from episodes in history and legend and often blurring the distinction between fact and myth, provides a semblance of historical authenticity and is accepted as indisputable truth and testimony to cultural continuity. The national imaginary within is an equally dreamlike world that contains the entire body of real or invented 1
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traditions, ranging from religious beliefs and customs, dress, songs and cuisine, to ethical standards and moral values. To these ethnic attributes we should add ancient heroes, sacred places and monuments that testify to the glory of the nations past.2 These markers of cultural identity are shaped into a visual framework using a formal and symbolic language that is believed to be innate to the group or to echo ancient traditions, an aesthetic that reects afliation with broader cultural contexts with which the group may claim afnity or descent: it is a visual code that denes identity.3 For two centuries now, perceptions of nationhood in the Balkans have been in constant ux; over and over national histories have been written, traditions have been invented, languages and cultural legacies have been constructed. As the themes of linguistic, ethnic and cultural belonging mutated so did their visual expressions. They were designed and redesigned in a continuous process of assertion and denial: new identities overwrote previous ones, adding layer upon layer of memories and traditions to the imaginaries of national or ethnic uniqueness.
Writing the narrativeThe rst signicant remapping of traditional values began in the early eighteenth century among those Orthodox Slavs who had ed their Ottoman-ruled homeland and settled in Austrian Habsburg territory. For these rural kin communities, adaptation to a modern centralized state was a painful process that entailed relinquishing customary beliefs and lifestyle; for the clerical establishment, exposure to secularism meant ceding much of the control they had enjoyed in the Ottoman Empire. Eventually they adapted: the peasants became citizens; not long thereafter they were to become Serbs. It was in Karlowitz (Sremski Karlovci), the seat of the Orthodox Church in the Austrian monarchy, that archaic Byzantine models in icon painting were replaced with the vibrant colours and formal abundance of the Baroque visual language. As the new aesthetic imbued traditional religious imagery with new life, Baroque and classicist designs transformed the church architecture. These developments gave rise to secular arts and literature that were to position the Orthodox Slavs within the intellectual framework of central Europe. When later in the century Dositej 2
Obradovi, the rational-minded advocate of the Enlightenment, contested the deep-rooted clericalism, he provoked an intellectual discourse that was to disrupt traditionalist values. New generations brought new challengesfrom Josephine anticlericalism to Romanticism and ideals of nation. The most contended issue that arose in the early nineteenth century was the linguistic reform of Vuk Karadic despite ; violent opposition from the conservative ecclesiastical establishment, his new Serbian language, constructed out of one of the Slavic dialects, set the groundwork for linguistic-based nationalism amongst the South Slavs of the Habsburg empire: the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.4 The story that these Romantics told was not unlike the narrative widely accepted today. At the centre of the narrative is the notion of perpetual victimization, starting with the loss of statehood after the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 and followed by ve centuries of suffering under the Turkish yoke. But this, we are told, did not subdue the Serbs. Throughout the Ottoman centuries, their identity was kept alive in Orthodox monasteries, those centres of learning where liturgies celebrating the holy kings and patriarchs of the medieval Nemanyid dynasty perpetuated collective memories of ancient glory.5 The Habsburg Serbs perceptions of their brethren under the Ottomans resonated well in this narrativein-the writing; they were the alter ego, primitive but pure, and a repository of archetypal myths and traditions that had only to be awoken. When in 1814 the language reformer Vuk Karadic published in Vienna a body of popular epics that he had collected amongst the Orthodox Slavs in the Ottoman provinces, they were embraced by the Romantics as the voice of the ages: the living memory of the nation passed down from time immemorial. In reality, the largely peasant Orthodox population in the Ottoman Empire had accommodated to Ottoman society and adopted Ottoman culture albeit transformed and ultimately perceived as indigenous or Orthodoxwhich they came to regard as their own perennial traditions. The church did survive the collapse of the medieval state; in fact the restored Serbian Patriarchate at Pec was even more powerful, with jurisdiction extending during the two centuries of its existence (15571766) to nearly all territories inhabited by the Christian Slavsa true Orthodox theocracy within an Islamic empire.
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Frescoes and icons painted in this period suggest a continuing veneration of the Nemanyid saints among the church elite, but that does not say much about the general population. Are we to assume as nationalist historiography would have us believe that such memories of the medieval past were sustained among the Orthodox population, and that they reected a widespread national sentiment maintained by the church?6 If we refer to the oral poetry collected by Vuk Karadic we shall notice that the , Nemanyid times, celebrated in the nationalist discourse as the high point of the Serbian achievement, are not as prominent as one would expect; it would appear that the common people, dispersed in selfsustaining kinship communities, did not relate to the medieval kings of some distant past. Their epics were not knightly romances of chivalry but tales of legendary or semi-legendary heroes endowed with supernatural powers and vengeful Christian saints with pagan attributes. Barely literate village priests who themselves did not understand the archaic Slavonic language of the very liturgy they celebrated let alone the faithfulwere hardly in a position to disseminate proto-Romantic ideas of medieval glory and lament lost statehood. It is even doubtful that they managed to preserve the Christian faith, whose vestiges