In May 1951, the gallery of ULUS (The Association of Fine Artists of Serbia) in Knez Mihajlova Street, put on the historic Petar Lubarda’s exhibition. May 1st (Labour Day) festivities, which gathered people in universal merrymaking, marked the birth of a new epoch of Yugoslav painting. The exhibition attracted a large number of people, both art lovers and random passers-by; it was reviewed by the media, art critics, and essayists. Lubarda displayed something new and different, something that significantly and more vigorously shook the public. Lazar Trifunović compared it with a “comet” that hit the centre of Belgrade. By this exhibition, he presented his new visual language, at the same time inspiring others to seek their own. Nobody was indifferent to Lubarda’s art.
The subsequent participation at the Biennial of Sao Paulo in 1953 further approved relevance of this new visual expression, which was awarded with the selection committee purchase prize, and followed by some monumental public commissions realized in the Palace of Serbia: the mural Kosovski boj (The Battle of Kosovo) from 1953, and paintings Put u kosmos (Journey to Cosmos) from 1962 and Velika štafeta ljudskog razuma (The Great Relay of Human Sanity) from 1965. His artwork would also find itself hanging on a privileged spot at the first Conference of the Non-Aligned Countries, where his painting Prometeji novog veka (Prometheuses of the New Century) adorned the stage behind the rostrum in the hall of the Federal National Assembly, resulting in a three-month long trip to India and exhibitions in New Delhi and Mumbai. Lubarda’s superiority in the Yugoslav art map was asserted by numerous national and international accolades and major public engagements. His art in the ‘50s triggered a “new creative renaissance”, presenting him with the role of the cultural attaché of Yugoslav art, whose artwork served to solidify new democratic tendencies of the state.
In his text “Petar Lubarda – the State Painter“, published shortly after the artist’s death, Dragoš Kalajić, uses this unflattering term with the aim of acknowledging this Lubarda’s role, although the author himself regards it as “some sort of insult”. He levelled Lubarda’s artistic metamorphosis with that of the state, observing that “horizontal and vertical complexity, synchrony and diachrony of Petar Lubarda’s work of that period (the 1950s) gives significantly deeper, higher and wider insight into the new Yugoslavia’s content than mere political chronicle.”
Lubarda’s art as a chronicle
Perceiving Lubarda’s art as a chronicle is in line with the artist’s personal believes that art’s role is to mirror reality; it should have social character and actively co-participate in the community’s construction and achievements. Lubarda weaved in his painting what he felt as personal and close to him: Montenegrin landscape, literature, folk poetry, while looking up to the old masters exhibited in galleries and museums, claiming they were “his only school”.
His art communicates by the recognisability of its motifs: the raven as a harbinger of doom, “The Battle of Kosovo” — the well-known composition from the national history — elicits the conflict and mindlessness of war, whereas divine inspiration is embodied in the image of a folksong singer. The artist himself once said that national tradition was being transformed in his consciousness and haunted him in both dreams and reality. Taking over and re-shaping the legacies of the past make Lubarda one of the most notable representatives of the Post-War Modernism and one of the greatest interpreters of the national pathos and ethos. Paintings Bitka na Vučjem dolu (The Battle of Vučji Do), Srđa Zlopogleđa, Kosovski boj (The Battle of Kosovo), Gavran, Guslar i Narikača (Raven, Gusle-player and Mourner), were recognized by the then art critics as a revolutionary advancement of Serbian painting, while today they are considered his most significant artworks. Lubarda himself said that in this, post-war period, he started talking in his true language. The power of this visual language was highlighted by Momčilo Stefanović, observing that Lubarda “sang The Battle of Vučji Do with the artistry of a gusle-player”, while Miodrag Protić compares looking at The Battle of Kosovo with reading an ancient drama.
Folk tradition also served as a starting point for a less famous Lubarda’s painting The Goat’s Ears of Emperor Trajan, painted shortly before the artist’s death, in 1972. It is kept in the Heritage House of Petar Lubarda, the artist’s home where he lived and worked from 1957 until his death in 1974. The story is deeply rooted in Serbian tradition; it was recorded by Vuk Stefanović Karadžić in 1829 after he heard it from Gruja Mehandžić from Szenttamás in Zemun lazaret (a military hospital), and published in Vienna in 1853 in the anthology Serbian Folk Tales. It is about Trojan the emperor, who had goat’s ears and tried to keep this embarrassing fact a secret by killing his barbers. One barber was clever and discrete enough to save his life; however, he needed a relief from holding it back, so he dug out a hole, spilled the emperor’s secret in it, and buried it. In time, there grew a tree. One day, a shepherd passed there with his herd. He decided to have some rest under the tree and make a pipe from one of the braches for fun. When he blew into the instrument, it poured out: “The emperor Trojan has goat’s ears“.
Lubarda’s painting illustrates the moment when the pipe announces the truth about the emperor’s ears. In the lower right corner of the painting, there is Lubarda’s autograph in green colour. It illustrates the following rhyme:
Try asking a poet, he thought to himself,
for telling the truth is what poets do.
A poet there came, and did write an ode:
Trajan, the emperor, they lie to you.
With you they have power, without you there’s none,
your downfall is what the courtiers dread
So here is the truth that no one dares say:
Goat’s are the ears adorning your head.
The emperor’s wrath slain many a poet,
he hopes with their death the truth disappears,
but the shepherd still sings, and the pipe still plays:
The emperor Trajan has got goat’s ears
The emperor Trajan has got goat’s ears
(For the purpose of this text translated by M.K.)
The piece of poetry was penned by Vera Lubarda, the artist’s spouse, who wrote them by hand in a notebook, indicating they were made during a visit to Đerdap, in July 1972. This painting was the artist’s present to his wife for their 26th wedding anniversary. It also mirrors a specific historical and social moment: it reflects social circumstances of the state after the constitutional changes of Yugolavia, which resulted in the rise of national conflicts.
Lubarda’s emperor is named Trajan instead of Trojan — the name by which he is found in folk tradition, and in the same form borrowed by literature. The different name was not an accidental mistake, but an intentional allusion to the Đerdap region which was, at the time, in the focus of attention of Yugoslav public. Since the times of Trajan’s reign, the region hadn’t seen any significant construction or economic endeavours, until in 1964, preparatory work for the realization of the largest and most ambitious project of SFRJ took place: building of the hydroelectric power plant Đerdap 1.
The preparatory works for hydroelectric power plants construction involved the terrain probing, which led to discovering of a completely new and original culture of Lepenski Vir in 1965, bringing about controversy and becoming an obstacle to the project realization. Starting up the first aggregates in 1970 was a result of the 6-year long efforts and difficulties, unavoidably accompanying endeavours of such scale. They also involve casualties; in this case they included flooded settlements, archaeological localities and monuments, among which the locality Lepenski Vir itself. Over 8.000 residents from Yugoslav and another 14.000 from Romanian side had to be relocated. The hydro-electrical system ceremonially started operating on 16th May in 1972 —the same year when Lubarda painted The Goat’s Years of Emperor Trajan.
The symbolism of the Trajan’s portrait is obvious: adorned with a laurel wreath, he unequivocally impersonates the government. Interpretation of both the pictorial language and poetic text presents us with the meaning of the piper’s figure. His identity can already be guessed in the very first line of the illustrated poem “Try asking a poet, he thought to himself, for telling the truth is what poets do.” Lubarda himself believed that art should reflect reality, refuse to be servile or agreeable, but inventive; he would level painting and poetry, claiming that he what he was doing was more writing than painting. The shepherd in the painting is the artist himself – the harbinger of truth –acting as a symbol which proclaims the truth of the unattainability of the regime’s rule. Unfortunately, Lubarda would not live to see fulfilment of his painting’s prophecy, as he died in 1974.
Lubarda never gave up on the visual language he presented that May of 1951, refining it and moving the limits of its objectivity. He remained faithful to his own art theory, developed in the early ‘50s and based on the belief that art is sublimation of the experienced reality. Stanislav Vinaver wrote in 1951: „I shall not wait for a hundred years to pass“, appraising Lubarda’s painting as remarkable and the artist as a grand painter. Lubarda’s work did not just record but actively shaped the historical period, being its vocal witness event today. It has been 69 years since the exhibition in Knez Mihajlova Street, when Lubarda displayed his vision of painting, but his artistic content continues to write new chapters in the history of Serbian painting.
Anonim (D. A.) „Jedan trenutak sa…“ NIN br. 10 (13.05.1951)
Anonim (D.S.) „1001 noć na platnu“, Večernje novosti 3, novembar 1971: 8.
Dragoš Kalajić, „Petar Lubarda- državni slikar“, Delo knj 20. god 20., br 4 (1974): 422-428.
Lazar Trifunović, Studije, ogledi, kritike 3, prir. Dragan Bulatović, Beograd, Muzej savremene umetnosti, 1990.
Momčilo Stefanović „Izložba Lubarde, Milosavljavića i Aralice“ u: Studije, ogledi, kritike, prir. Radmila Matić Panić i Ješa Denegri , Beograd, Muzej savremene umetnosti, 1988: 135-139.
Miodrag B. Protić, Savremenici, likovne kritike i eseji, Beograd, Nolit, 1955.
Ješa Denegri, Srpska umetnost 1950-2000. Pedesete, Beograd, Orion art, 2013, 117-129.