Katarina Ivanović

A visit to the National Museum of Serbia in Belgrade turned out to be something of a disappointment, as there were extensive renovation works taking place at the time and much of the museum was closed to the public. There was, however, some compensation to be found as one of the few parts of the museum that remained open was dedicated to an exhibition of work by Katarina Ivanović.

Ivanović was born in 1811 in Veszprém, now in Hungary but then part of the Austrian Empire. Her family were ethnic Serbs and she grew up in the city of Székesfehérvár. A talented artist from her youth, she studied in Budapest, but – remarkably for a woman of that era – also studied at the famous Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. She was fortunate enough to find a wealthy patron, one Baroness Czacki, who funded her move to Vienna in 1835.

800px-Katarina_Ivanovic,_Autoportret_v

Katarina Ivanović – self portrait

In 1840, Ivanović left Vienna to study at the Munich Academy, possibly funded by her patron. It was here that she read about Serbian history and was inspired to paint The Conquest of Belgrade, an oil painting depicting the city’s capture by Serbian revolutionaries in 1806. While she travelled extensively and in fact spent little time in Serbia, she worked in Belgrade for two years during the 1840s and it was here that she painted the work.

The Conquest of Belgrade

The Conquest of Belgrade

She was, though, best known as a portrait painter and her best-known work, a self portrait, resides permanently at the National Museum of Serbia along with The Conquest of Belgrade. She painted a number of portraits of notable Serbian characters including the Princess Consort Persida Nenadović and Simeon “Sima” Milutinović (aka Sarajlija, “The Sarajevan”), a Serb poet, historian, diplomat and adventurer.

Sima Milutinovic

Sima Milutinovic

Persida Nenadović

Persida Nenadović

By the 1870s, she was producing few works and although there are suggestions that she was a largely forgotten figure by this time, she must have retained some influential admirers as she was elected an honorary member of the Serbian Learned Society, later to become the Serbian Royal Academy and ultimately the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts.

Katarina Ivanović returned to Székesfehérvár in later life and died in that city in 1882. Her remains were moved to Belgrade in 1967.

Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau is a relatively recent concept, originating in the late 19th century as a rebellion against classical and formal designs in art and architecture. Its proponents believed that beauty lay in nature and flowers, and plants feature prominently in its designs, which are also marked by asymmetrical shapes, curves and mosaics. Like many new art forms it had its origins in France, but the enthusiasm for Art Nouveau soon gripped much of the rest of Europe.

Everyone has their favourite buildings a the brief sample below is not intended to represent any kind of ‘best’ list. It just happens to contain some buildings we like…

Prague

Next to Prague’s Powder Tower stands the Municipal House. The contrast between the Gothic tower and the Art Nouveau building is stunning. The latter stands on the site of the former Royal Palace, the residence of the king between 1383 and 1485. The palace remained derelict for centuries and the Municipal House was built in the early years of the 20th century.

Municipal House

Municipal House

The building’s main function is that of Prague’s main concert venue, Smetana Hall. There are many other smaller halls and other rooms, plus a delightful café that is open to the public. Here, one can sit with a coffee and take in the superb decoration of the building’s interior. The outside is impressive, too. Above the main entrance is a vast, semi-circular mosaic entitled Homage to Prague.

Municipal House mosaic

Municipal House mosaic

If this is not enough to satisfy your thirst for Art Nouveau, take a trip to Prague’s main railway station, Hlavni Nadrazi. The large departures hall is a 1970s addition and none too aesthetically pleasing, but there is still plenty of the original left and the station’s façade and interior décor remain stunning.

Hlavni Nadrazi

Hlavni Nadrazi

Belgrade

Belgrade is not exactly teeming with Art Nouveau, but there is one building that it’s well worth seeking out. The Moskva Hotel is a glorious peppermint gateau of a building, another early 20th century creation that deserves its accolade as one of the city’s most famous structures. This is another place where you can stop off for a cup of coffee and take in the splendours of the artwork and imagine you’re sitting in the seat that Einstein, Hitchcock or any of the hotel’s other famous guests once occupied…

Hotel Moskva

Hotel Moskva

Vienna

1897 was a big year for Austrian art. Gustav Klimt found the Secessionist Movement, a group of Austrian artists that wanted to move away from tradition. One of its main characteristics was the use of bright colours, so it is rather ironic that the movement’s flagship building is not especially colourful, its façade being simple white and gold.

Secession Building

Secession Building

The Secession Building was designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich in 1897, the exhibition hall opening in the following year. Some of the building’s features were works that were displayed at exhibitions, notably Klimt’s own Beethoven Frieze and the extraordinary Mark Antony statue, created by Arthur Strasser, that stands outside the building.

It is, however, the ornamentation that stands out and gives the building its Art Nouveau character. The whole structure is decorated with gilt laurel garlands and floral patterns, while the most striking feature is the dome, made up of 3,000 gilt laurel leaves. It is this that has led to the building’s (affectionate) nickname of The Golden Cabbage.

Riga

Riga is one of Europe’s most delightful capitals, with its many green spaces and beautifully preserved medieval centre. It also harbours a fine array of Art Nouveau buildings, with around one third of the buildings in the central area being built in this style.

Art Nouveau is everywhere, even in older buildings. The House of Blackheads was set up as a meeting and party venue and has its origins in the 14th century. Its reconstruction, after the Second World War, encompassed the Art Nouveau style and ensures that the building fits in perfectly with its neighbours.

House of the Blackheads

House of the Blackheads

Most of the Art Nouveau buildings are in the New Town, many in the main shopping area. There is, though, no shortage of such buildings and they pop up almost everywhere. There are shops, offices and private houses in Art Nouveau style and there was even an Art Nouveau fire station, built in 1912. The building still exists and today operates as the Museum of Firefighting. There is also a Museum of Art Nouveau for those that cannot get enough.

Firefighting Museum

Firefighting Museum

Ljubljana

Few European capitals can match Riga for charm, but Ljubljana is one of them. With three rivers to call its own, the city is full of bridges and waterfront buildings. There is no better place to see wonderful examples than Prešernov Trg, the city’s main square named after Slovenia’s most famous poet, France Prešeren. Art Nouveau buildings pop up all through the city, from offices, banks, private residences and municipal buildings.

Art Nouveau offices

Art Nouveau offices

Belgrade – Where Two Rivers Meet

It’s amazing how much rubbish is spouted by people you meet while travelling. On the bus from Skopje to Sofia, an English fellow solemnly informed us that we would not be allowed into Serbia as we had Kosovo stamps in our passports. ‘You won’t get past immigration’ he announced confidently. We just nodded. We had another two or three hours on the bus and there are better ways to pass the time than arguing with idiots.

Predictably, nobody at the airport in Belgrade was bothered in the least and the only disturbance to the peace and quiet was from the large rookery outside the terminal building. Rooks, like all corvids, are garrulous birds.

The heart of the city is Belgrade Fortress in Kalemegdan Park. It looks out over the confluence of two great rivers, the Sava and the Danube. There are some thoroughly enjoyable walks to be had both in the hills of the park and down by the water.

A climb to the top of the hill takes you past two unusual churches. The Church of the Holy Mother of God, known as Ružica Church, is a delightful, ivy-covered little building. Nearby is another, even smaller, church, St Petka’s Chapel, which has some superb mosaics in its intimate interior. As ever with Orthodox churches, there’s gold and glitz aplenty.

Ružica Church and the fortress

Ružica Church and the fortress

At the opposite end of the scale is the gigantic Cathedral of St Sava, the world’s biggest Orthodox church. The construction began in 1935, around 40 years after the plan to build the church. Remarkably, work continues to this day, as although the building is largely complete, there is still much to do by way of external decoration.

If Belgrade is loaded with churches, it does not go short of parks, either. Topčider Park is a large park extending into forest on the south side of the city and is just one of around 20 or so significant green spaces in and around Belgrade. There is also a substantial Botanical Garden, where you can have a drink at the bizarrely-named Idiot Bar. Assuming you want to drink in an Idiot Bar, of course.

For walkers, though, there is always somewhere to sit down and have a rest. A walk by the riverside allows plenty of opportunities to stop and look around. The rivers provide a haven for waterfowl and migrating birds and you shouldn’t be surprised to see visitors like little egrets or European bee-eaters. Both white and black storks breed in the area. With the abundance of fresh water, plains and forests in the Belgrade area, there are ample opportunities to see plenty of different birds without trying too hard.

Ducks can get hungry, even on holiday

Ducks can get hungry, even on holiday

Belgrade has a complete mix of architectural styles, often in the same building. The National Theatre is a good example, originally built in Renaissance style, but rebuilt and reconstructed several times since. It still has a Renaissance look, but with hints of Baroque and neo-Gothic.

The National Museum is also a bit of a mixture, with neo-Classical and Baroque elements to it. There is a substantial collection of European and Japanese art, though at the time of this visit, most of the museum was closed for renovation. A small part was open, though this was very interesting, an exhibition featuring the work of the 19th-century painter Katarina Ivanovic. She was a Hungarian-born Serb who studied art in Pest and Vienna and also travelled extensively in Europe. Unfortunately, the prevalent attitudes towards women artists at the time meant that her work did not get the recognition it deserved. Although this was the only gallery open during this visit, the experience was most informative and thanks are due to the helpful young woman who provided much explanation and detail of both paintings and artist.

A building of a slightly fading grandeur is the main railway station, though this may not be true for long, as a new station is under construction. The present station serves many European cities and was once on the route of the Orient Express. Although I would not necessarily recommend it for an evening out, it can be a useful place to take shelter from a sudden downpour and you can keep out of the rain with a very cheap beer and watch the assorted travellers making their way hither and thither.

The Baroque railway station

The Baroque railway station

There are, of course, better places to have a drink or two. One is Biblioteka, which is a comfortable bar with – as you’d expect – books everywhere and a good collection of old photos. It’s a pleasant place for something to eat or just for a few glasses of beer. Even more civilized is the fact that there are both light and dark beers. Some of us need the infusion of a good dark beer to satisfy the demands of our Irish blood.

Unfortunately, independent brewers are difficult to find in Serbia. The larger breweries are owned by multi-nationals and the best hope of finding something a little different is a brew pub. These tend to come and go, but the Black Turtle chain now runs to five pubs in Belgrade and produces quite a wide range of beers.

Mmm, dark beer

Mmm, dark beer

Belgrade has more than enough to keep a visitor occupied and there are regular festivals and fairs of different kinds throughout the year. Food and drink is inexpensive and accommodation should not cost a fortune, either. The centre is very negotiable for walkers, with the exception of a few climbs around the fortress. Public transport is pretty good and isn’t costly – a bus to and from the airport costs less than a pound and you should be able to have a decent amount to eat and drink for the price of a tenner. That just has to be a good thing.