Memorialis Liber by Vladimir Bogdanovic – by Jelena Banjac, MA



The series of paintings Memoralis Liber by Vladimir Bogdanović is a complex and a well-thought-out artistic expression as well as a turning point of a kind in his creative work so far. The title of this opus resembles the ancient writing Liber Memorialis by Lucius Ampelius, where the universal history from the earliest times until the reign of Emperor Trajan is presented in a concise summary. The writing has been intended for those who desire to learn of what the universe and its elements consist of, what the world contains, and what the human race has done. The artist has presented his own perspective on the figures and events which we should remember, so that they serve as a warning, in 49 compositions with the topics from the mediaeval history of Serbian people, which he sees as a history of wars and tribulations.

The opus Memoralis Liber was preceded by a series of paintings created upon the bombing of Serbia (in 2000), which is characterized by a distinction in comparison to Bogdanović’s creative work until then, which had been a rational and cold approach to drawing and painting, with a predominantly metaphysical relation to reality. Facing the direct warfare experience produced a burst of colours and emotions in his works, as well as free motion and an expressionistic approach. The topics were not explicitly war-related. On colouristically rich canvases the author painted birds – the symbols of peace and freedom, which sink, or they raise over the dark whirlpools of the reality of war.

The motif of the bird is also found in the earlier pieces of art in the Memoralis Liber series. However, these works do not represent a dramatic artistic experience. Bogdanović re-establishes the discipline and control over his canvases, and so the continuity shows in his overall creative work. Still, the artist has not left the war- and warfare-related topics, but he deals with them in a completely personal manner. It seems that the thoughts about human tribulations and suffering have never left him. In his autobiography, Vladimir Bogdanović says: My grandfather Ilija survived through two Balkan Wars and two World Wars and the Goli Otok, I survived through one World War and this one – (our) civil war, which, well, my sons lived to see, too. War! The infinite abhorrence, disdain. War camps again, “trough the valleys and over the hills of our proud country”. We haven’t learned anything! And who has said it, who has lied to us that everything belongs to us, even the arrogance of forgetting?

In the early pieces of the Memoralis Liber series – The Paint(er) (2008) and The Prestidigitator (2008), the character of the works of the previous Bogdanović’s series of paintings is still being manifested. The stylised bird on the black and red background of the canvas might stand as a symbolic notion of the artist himself, while the strange being with a ragged light contour on a bright red background owns some of the characteristics of the paintings yet to come.

We are introduced by Vladimir Bogdanović into his deliberations on burdensome topics – war and tribulations, by the composition Moloch (2008), that is to say – a horrible monster with a head of a bull, which devours everything. In the religious ceremonies of the ancient Mediterranean cultures, children were sacrificed to this monster, which, as it was believed, removed the evil and stopped the desolation. The author warns us of the fact that since the ancient times there has been living this absurd idea of stopping the evil by using the evil, when infatuated people no longer have the rule over their will and actions, which we are referred to by the composition The Prestidgitator (2008). In the ancient times people also sang about battles and heroic feats. On the piece Aed (2008) the artist paints an associatively-abstract idea – of an ancient wondering singer and poet, who, like our mediaeval folk singers and minstrels, spreads folk tradition by singing and playing a kithara. By the piece Argonauts (2010) Bogdanović gives a symbolic message about life as a journey and a sail on the sea full of temptations, with a prize in the end, achievable only by the courageous and persistent seekers. A symbolic artistic presentation Memoralis Liber (2011) is a base for the interpretation of the series of paintings which serve for remembrance and warning. On the blood red background open arms are presented, with open palms, which from the underground, that is from the past, reach the silhouettes shown as two tumuli, bounded by a light contour. The present rests on them – two trees with stylized crowns. The artist communicates that everything we are and have is the fruit of the past events and actions of our precursors and predecessors, their decisions, suffering, spilt blood and lost lives. Thus we are obliged to remember them and, with remembering their sacrifice, winnings and losses, to build our own present and future.

With stylized presentations of mediaeval cuirassiers on the pieces Conqueror (2008) and Warriors (2008) the author introduces us into a historic story which gives warning. Numerous are the figures from the Serbian mediaeval period whose sacrifice, as Bogdanović believes, we must not forget, and the suffering of them all stands above the crucifixion of Christ on the painting The Gothic Melancholia (2008). The Memoralis Liber opus also contains a gallery of imaginary portraits of male and female rulers, knights and warriors, widows and nuns from the national mediaeval history. This is about poetic visions of historic figures, that Bogdanović has, by using specific processes and solutions, brought to be almost a sign or a symbol.
The associative composition Simonida (2008) shows a Serbian queen of ill fate who was, as a child, sacrificed for peace between Serbia and Byzantium. She is shown with fists over her eyes, which suggests the fate of the fresco of her in the monastery Gračanica. The painting Jerina (2008) shows a Serbian female despot – with arms raised, of a black body, who was, as the legend says, called the Cursed because of her brutality. The most important mediaeval female poetess and a contemporary of the sufferings of Serbs in Kosovo, Jefimija, was painted with a bird on her head by Bogdanović – on the piece called Jefimija (2008). The composition Olivera (2009) shows another victim of a political marriage of the mediaeval Balkans. As a pledge for fulfilling the vassal obligations of Serbia towards Turkey, the daughter of Lazar the Emperor of Serbia was married to Bayezid I, who had executed her father. In the painting Empress Milica (2009) Bogdanović showed a wise princess, who ruled Serbia after the Battle of Kosovo, having preserved its statehood in difficult circumstances. In the gallery of portraits which serve to remind or warn is also the painting Emperor Dušan (2009). The picture shows a mighty statesman who proclaimed the empire, raised the archbishopric and patriarchate and enacted the constitution of the Emperor Dušan’s Code, but he had come to the throne by blinding his father and taking him off the throne. The portrait Urosh the Weak (2008) also has its place in this opus. It shows the young and inexperienced Serbian ruler with whom the Serbian mediaeval state and the dynasty of the Nemanjic ended. In the painting Miloš (2010) Bogdanović presented a Serbian knight who, having killed the Sultan Murad, sacrificed himself in order to prove wrong the rumour that he is a traitor. Bogdanović showed him with a sword in his hand, laying on the chest – as a sign of being faithful and true. The setting of the “The Prince’s dinner” composition (2011) has been resolved following the examples of the mediaeval presentation of the secret dinner. The author showed the event with five participants sitting at the laid out table. Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović, shown in the painting Lazar the Emperor of Serbia (2009), chose the Kingdom of Heaven by defending his country and the people at Kosovo. Bogdanović showed the Duke with a shield on his chest and a sword put behind his head so that it forms a symbol of a cross and indicated Lazar’s sacrifice and suffering. The stylized upper body figure shown in the painting Despot (2011) raises his hands towards the heavens praying, helplessly opening another pair of arms. Many claimed the right to the despotate of Djuradj Branković, which the artist shows as a third pair of arms – laterally on the figure, while a red palm is coming down from the heaven as a symbol of the presence of the God and his protection. One of the most famous heroes of his time and a person of a tragic fate, whose feats have been the subject of Serbian folk epics and the oral tradition is shown in the piece Marko (2012). Bogdanović has shown him as a serious character, with his right arm laying on his chest and the head as a stylized mace – his trademark characteristic. In the Memoralis Liber portrait gallery the artist has also included the painting Holy Warriors (2011). The composition of three cuirassiers armed with swords and shields, the fighters and victims for the faith was set following the examples of the fresco compositions of the temples of the Moravian School.

The portraits show significant figures of mediaeval Serbia – as busts, stylized, with the characteristic triangle eyes, with a sad face expression, without portrait characteristics but with recognizable attributes. The compositions of his poetic visions of the historic figures were built by the author on uniformly coloured geometrized surfaces, bounded by wide contours. In each painting there is a motif of an arm or an open stylized hand. This motif will be present in other paintings of the named series, as well.

A special whole of the Memoralis Liber opus is comprised of compositions which show battles and fights. The most monumental and central piece of the series is 1(2)3(0)8(10)9 (2010). The name of the painting hides the year in which the Battle of Kosovo happened and the year in which the painting was made. As the author claims, even since his high school days he has been obsessed with monumental topics. Ever since he had seen Lubarda’s The Battle of Kosovo (1953) he became occupied with the topic and he also painted the battles of Mišar and Čegar. In the composition 1(2)3(0)8(10)9 (2010) he has shown the clash of the two armies, the confrontation of their light cavalries and cuirassiers with shields and spears, interwoven in the commotion of the battle. He built the stylized figures of people and horses by using uniformly coloured geometrized surfaces, in the shades of blue, green and brown, with red shades being accented. Beside showing the symbols and the attributes of the conflicted parties, the author bounded the figures of the Serbian soldiers with light ochre contours, while the Turkish soldiers were bounded with light green. The key event of the Serbian history in the mediaeval time – the horrible defeat and the death of many, including the Lazar the Emperor of Serbia, temporarily stopped the spread of the Ottoman Empire and brought the Serbian state in a vassal position. In the paintings Squire (2011), Conflict (2011), Necropolis (2011), Crash (2011), Attack (2012), Entourage (2012), Foray (2012), Negotiation (2012), Shield (2012), Battle Contest (2012) and Rampart (2012) the author has presented dynamic inserts from the battles and clashes of the two sides, expressing artistically the whole repugnance of the act in which a man attacks a man with an intention to destroy him. The symbolic painting The Messenger (2010) shows the deliverer of the tragic news. He hits his fists against his chest, and instead of head there is a bird, like a black raven. The bird of black wings is also present in the painting The hand of Damian (2010), and among Bogdanović’s motifs which serve as a warning there is also a rare sort of a duck, which used to nest in the Kosovo Polje. It became a part of national myths and it is woven into the legends and the tradition of the Serbian people. In the composition Utva zlatokrila (eng: Ruddy Shelduck; latinski: Tadorna ferruginea) (2011) there is a bird of golden wings sinking and falling with numerous hands reaching out towards it and numerous spears pointed at it with an intention to destroy this precious being. Reminding and warning are also the many patrons of the mediaeval Serbia. In the piece The Patron (2010) the painter shows an act in which the donor, symbolically presented as an open palm, gives or raises a temple for the salvation of his soul and the souls of his close ones, the temple being symbolically shown with three stylized domes.

The Memoralis Liber series paintings are characterized with purity, precision and technical perfection. By structuring the compositions with specifically stylized forms and shapes, the artist embodies the content of his works. He builds the compositions with elements free of any recognizable characteristics. According to his understanding, the form does not represent the expression of the content, but it causes it – produces it. The dynamic structures of his pieces of work were built by the artist with geometrized shapes and surfaces – uniformly coloured – in pastel shades of pink, ochre, violet, grey, blue, olive green and red, bounded with wide contours of light colours. Each composition had been previously thought through. Although they give an impression of simplicity and being reserved in the process, they are, actually, the result of being thought-out and of a several decades long painting practice.

The manifold of interpretation and reading Bogdanović’s artistic poetics is surely inseparably connected with his literary work and deliberations on the topics which occupy him. The poetry of this artist is in continual accord with his painting. The painter in him builds a poetic word, while a poet in him builds painting pieces of work. Such interweaving is a characteristic of his whole artistic work. Like allegories with a little moping, sadness, but also irony, the distinct works of Memoralis Liber opus are in a strong connection with the author’s attitude. In the basis of the multilayered artistic and thoughtful structure of the Memoralis Liber opus there is a deeply humanistic moral: each war and each conflict is a breakdown for both the defeated one and the winner. Shuddered over the human suffering and tribulations throughout the history, the artist takes his weapon – the brush and words – and rises against the vicious circle of oblivion and warns us.

Jelena Banjac, MA