I first became aware of Paja Jovanović, the legendary Serb artist [1859-1957], when I saw the painting Seoba Srba [The Great Serb Migration] on the wall above a fireplace in an apartment on New York’s Central Park West in the 1970’s. Now skeptics will immediately pounce and denounce the painting a forgery. Not so. There is the 1895 original, the one that was to be exhibited at the 1896 Budapest Millennium Exposition but ended up an also ran to the Vršac Triptych which actually won the Gold Medal, the Patriarchate of Belgrade version and the one commissioned in 1945 by Milenko Cavic in gratitude for his protection during World War II that was then owned by Svetozar and Nelly [Kosara] Mandukich.
On the back of that painting is the following legend: “This painting was commissioned by Milenko Cavic and replaces the large original Seoba Srba, [the] endowment of Karlovći Patriarch Branković – and destroyed during the German occupation by Bishop Šarićevom’s Pavelić bandit destroying bands” … “I am transferring this painting, Seodba Srba, in trust to my friends, the family Mandukich [signed] M. Cavic”. That tells the story and that is the provenance of the one I saw many times in New York which now hangs in Belgrade’s National Museum.
Now Nelly Mandukich was not Hollywood beautiful but she was a striking captivating woman. There was the daredevil in her – her father was one of the 14 fighter pilots that made up the fledging Royal Serbian Air Force – that appealed to me. She was part of the “stari Beograd” high society before the war, as were my parents. But the Mandukich family ties to Paja Jovanović hark back to the young penurious artist being smitten by Mila Mandukich, a well-to-do local beauty, during a visit to Vršac in 1883, ties that bind.
During the cold dark winter days of economic sanctions after the collapse of Yugoslavia I would often drop by for a drink and a visit with Nelly in her apartment on Smaj Jovina Street on my way to dinner at the Klub Kniževnika down on Francuska. I was enthralled by her personal stories and gossip of people and events of a bygone world in which Seoba Srba played such an iconic role.
Every Serb child, except for me, has that heroic image indelibly engraved in his mind. Seodba is the archetypical race image that the world associates with Serbs and Serbia. It depicts, in epic brush strokes, the migration and privation, ethnic cleansing really, of Serbs fleeing the advance of the Ottoman Empire in 1690. Led by Patriarch Arsenije, the painting portrays knights, soldiers, warrior priests, mothers and infants with sparse personal belongings, including sheep and goats, in desperate flight.
It is by extension the aftermath of the defeat at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. But it was then in 1995 that I grew to loathe that painting especially after witnessing firsthand the aftermath of Croatia’s Operation Oluja [Operation Storm] aided and abetted the United States. Landing in Belgrade’s Surčin, now Nikola Tesla, Airport I passed convoy after convoy of overloaded cars, trucks, tractors and yes, horses pulling carts heaped with the detritus of destroyed lives going nowhere, a modern version of the earlier Seodba Srba. Broke my heart and made me weep.
Paja Jovanović was a world class artist of the “orientalist” realist academic school, the first Serb artist to achieve international recognition. Serbia, Bosna and Montenegro, their history and people, were his initial subject matter. He indulged his patrons and audience with an idealized mythical world, a world that in fact did not exist. It is for this reason that I found him wanting in 1995. He pandered to a parochial and nationalistic view of the world. To give him his due, he was a child of the times, a time when many artists were shills and, wittingly or unwittingly, part of a vast cultural propaganda machine.
In 1995 I was fed up with “they did this”, “they are to blame for that” and “we are just and right” mindset that encouraged what was wreaking havoc on the territory of former Yugoslavia. His take on reality, much like Norman Rockwell’s benevolent vision of an America that never was and denied harsh reality, fueled the fury.
One day in 1996 I was crossing Belgrade’s Republic Square; you know the place, the one with the Konj, when a white banner announcing a Jovanović exhibit at the National Museum caught my eye. What the hell, I had time to spare, so I went.
I walked into the top floor gallery and was blown away. Surrounding me on all four walls were Paja’s portraits of the rich and famous of the day. The artist had captured the essence of his subjects. You had an austere autocratic King Alexander I Karadjordjevich with a serene Queen Marija; an enigmatic hard to pin down Josip Broz Tito all in blacks and reds; a winsome portrait of his wife Muni in a Gustav Klimt setting; a bluff and vibrant one of the painter Symington. There were others that today I cannot bring to mind.
My love for Paja Jovanović was renewed; all was forgiven. But I will still ignore Paja’s Seodba Srba.
Deyan Ranko Brashich, an attorney, Op-Ed columnist, resides in New York City and is a frequent contributor. He is the author of Letters from America and Contrary Views. His contact and blog “Contrary Views” is at www.deyanbrashich.com