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Serbian Iliad in Oil by Pavle Paja Jovanović

Jun 24th, 2009 | By | In Featured Articles, Holiday, Weekend

Migration of the Serbs, by Pavle Jovanovic
“Migration of the Serbs”, a masterpiece immortalizing the nation’s plight which propelled Pavle Jovanović to the rank of a national bard

150 Years of Excellence

Serbia has dedicated year 2009 to Pavle “Paja” Jovanović (1859-1957), nation’s greatest academic realist painter alongside Uroš Predić. On the occasion of 150 years since his birth, an exhibition of Pavle Jovanović’s paintings, drawings and sketches is being held from June 16 to July 16, in the town of Vršac (84 km northeast of Belgrade), the great master’s birthplace.

Born on 4 June 1859, Pavle Jovanović was a son of professional photographer Stevan Jovanović, a gifted artist in his own right.

His extravagant talent became apparent in the early childhood, when attending liturgical services with his parents before the iconostasis painted by Pavle Đurković and Arsa Teodorović left a permanent imprint on Jovanović’s aesthetic sensibility, sparking passion for monumental epic compositions that will follow prodigal painter throughout his life and on his many journeys.

“An inexplicable desire to paint and make live images awakened in me before I have learned to read and write. This desire grew with me, until I finally realized I must start painting. This was the beginning of my artistic career, and the Church was my first teacher,” Pavle Jovanović wrote in his memoirs.

As an established, famed artist, highly praised by the critics abroad and at home, where he was commissioned to paint portraits of the members of Serbian royal family (including King AleksandarKing Aleksandar Karadjordjevic and Queen Marija KaradjordjevićQueen Marija Karadjordjević), Pavle Jovanović enshrined his gratitude to Serbian Orthodox Church by painting, free of charge, entire iconostasis for two churches in northern Serbia — Church of Translation of the relics of St. Nicholas in the town of Dolovo, and Saborna Church in Novi Sad, as well as frescoes on the walls of Orthodox Cathedral in Sremski Karlovci (Saborna Crkva).

A Superb Story Teller

He was only 14-years-old when his town church asked him to make sketches for church icons, the task remarkably gifted boy cherished and accomplished with great pleasure, drawing great admiration and praise for his work.

Vrsac Triptych, by Pavle Jovanovic“Vršac Triptych” by Pavle Jovanović, showing scenes of everyday life in northern Serbia drew a lot of praise from art critics and public alike at 1896 Millennium Exhibition in Budapest

He enrolled in Vienna Academy of Fine Arts when he was 16, in the class of professor Christian Grippenkerl, and graduated 4 years later, in 1880.

Jovanović earned a reputation of a formidable artist already during his studies, when his majestic canvases narrating the story of his creed and nation, its folklore, history and heroic epos aroused interest in the richness of culture unknown in the West, even as it flourished right next by. In 1882 he was awarded the prize of Vienna Academy for the best student painting (“Wounded Montenegrin”Wounded Montenegrin) and was given czar scholarship from the personal fund of Emperor Ferdinand Joseph.

The following year, in 1883, upon the recommendation of one of his art professors, Leopold Carl Miller, Jovanović was offered a contract with London art gallery named “French”. According to his memoirs, 23-year-old prodigy was immediately given more than he could ever imagine, a personal bank account, a large private studio with garden, servants and all he may need to keep painting, for as long as he was submitting his finished artwork to Gallery French, which was particularly interested in “oriental motifs”.

His Orient-themed compositions, such as “The Harem”Harem, “Cockfighting”Cockfighting and a number of paintings and sketches — now mostly in private collections — from his travels to Caucasus, Morocco, Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Italy and Spain, which he undertook from London, are from this period. The lyrical “Decorating of the Bride”Decorating of the Bride showing wedding customs and national costumes of southern Serbs (Vranje), and masculine “Fencing Lesson”Fencing Lesson — a glimpse into the life of Herzegovina Serbs, also belong to this cycle.

From Mundane to Sacramental

Jovanović became a member of the Serbian Royal Academy when he was only 29-years-old, in 1888. After his Oriental period in London, he went back to his favorite cycle of themes, narrating Serbian history. His most famous painting, “Migration of the Serbs” (top) depicting massive exodus of the Serbian nation under the Peć Patriarch Arsenije III Čarnojević, fleeing from their southern province of Kosovo and Metohija in front of the savage Tatars and Turks in 1690 (in history also called the Great Migration), was commissioned by the Patriarch of Serbian Orthodox Church Georgije (Branković) and Sremski Karlovci Church Synod in 1895.

Pavle Paja Jovanovic
Pavle Paja Jovanović, at 92-years of age

It was this iconic masterpiece, a monument to Golgotha of the nation bearing the Cross, that has elevated already accomplished artist to the position of a national bard, making his work one of the very few pieces regarded worthy of standing side by side with religious iconography.

According to professor Miodrag Jovanović who opened Vršac exhibition, Pavle Jovanović intended to send “Migration of the Serbs” for his country’s entry at the Millennium Exhibition in Budapest in 1896, but Patriarch Georgije wanted the sheep painted out, to give politically more attractive presentation of the nation, as a counterbalance to the composition depicting Hungarian arrival to the Pannonia region, where they were presented as a nation of knights and noblemen alone.

Jovanović wouldn’t remove the unsightly sheep, so his dazzling Vršac Triptych (above right), showing everyday scenes from northern Serbia was sent to Budapest instead, where it was given a central position and profusely praised by the numerous art critics ever since.

In this period, Jovanović produced a number of monumental historical compositions (including “Takovo Uprising”Takovo uprising, “Czar Dušan’s Wedding”Czar Dusan's wedding and “The Crowning of Czar Dušan”Crowning of Czar Dušan, for which he was awarded the gold medal at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900), as well as some of his most interesting work based on Serbian national epos (“Miloš, Marko and a Nymph”Miloš, Marko and a Nymph, or “Prince Marko delivers justice”Prince Marko delivers justice).


After 1905 he devoted himself to painting portraits in the style of academic realism, showing exquisite delicacy and an impressive range of characters, from the bohemian Painter SimingtonPainter Simington and luscious Lady with a HatLady with a Hat, to pink and proper Mrs. HudsonMrs. Hudson, intense Mihajlo PupinMihajlo Pupin and mysterious MuniMuni, artist’s wife.

In 1940 Pavle Jovanović was given the title of the honorary citizen of Vršac, and in 1949 Yugoslav state rewarded him with the Order of Merit for People of the first category. His life between Vienna and Belgrade became quiet and lonely after his wife’s early passing. He passed away at 99 years of age, on 30 November 1957, leaving a will according to which the urn with his ashes was to be moved to Belgrade, his favorite city which was given most of his works and personal belongings, and where the Legacy of Paja Jovanović was established in 1970. In 1977, the permanent commemorative exhibition of Pavle Paja Jovanović was opened in Vršac.

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