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27 Oct 11

A Monochrome Memory of Belgrade

Photos from the early twentieth century recall an era when the capital was more like a village – and the menfolk wore moustaches.

Andrej Klemencic
Belgrade Insight Belgrade

An exhibition of images by Aleksandar Aca Simic, the man regarded as Serbia’s first photojournalist, offers a glimpse of a bygone era in Belgrade. But while the historic and artistic worth of the pictures is beyond doubt, their presentation is disappointing.

The exhibition of about 100 black-and-white photos, entitled The Belgrade Nomad, is divided into five sections. Three of these – Reportage, War and City – cover the period between the late 1920s and early 1940s, when Simic was a photographer at Politika, the Belgrade-based daily newspaper. The Changing City section presents photos from the period after World War II.

The exhibition is drawn from the hundreds of images that Simic sold to the Belgrade City Museum in the 1960s.

The first of the three rooms contains large portraits of the man himself, along with information about his life and work.

Although the exhibit is in Serbian, you have no need to feel ashamed if your comprehension is not up to scratch. The text that accompanies the images is so dense that even a native speaker of the language would have trouble following it.

The first room leads into a dark space, where a series of photos are presented in the form of a 15-minute video. This appallingly edited film zooms in and out of the photos so fast that it is impossible to focus on the details.

One photo of a Belgrade actress from the 1920s is adapted so that she appears to blink twice as her image rolls from one end of the screen to the other.

The video is set to the music of the American composer, George Gershwin. The soundtrack is initially unrecognisable – perhaps because of the quality of the speakers, or because the performance is so poor.

Speaking of music, it remained a mystery to me why the duo which performed at the opening of the exhibition only sang English and American songs. Surely a display of photos from Belgrade’s past afforded a good opportunity to perform music from the city’s substantial heritage?

After the long introductory sentences on the black walls of Room One and the infamous video, you enter the main exhibition space.

This is a relatively large, well-lit room with black-and-white photographs on the walls and tables.

The exhibition begins in earnest with the Reportage section. Belgrade comes across as a true hub of the southern Slavic nations, judging by images of students protesting against Italian policies in 1926, or of a Dalmatian admiral holding the flag of the Royal Yugoslav navy. The scenes also show that Yugoslavia before World War II was a functioning country.
It is difficult not to notice the fashions of the time, with the obligatory moustache giving a burlesque appearance to even the manliest of men.

Older visitors at the opening were particularly keen to pinpoint the exact locations displayed in the photos. Groups of men and women, with an average age of around 60, argued over where pictures had been taken and how much of the old architecture still remained.

The evolution of the Belgrade landscape can best be seen in the sections entitled City, and Changing City. According to curator Darko Ciric, the exhibition tries to show how the appearance and character of the capital “changed from that of a large Oriental village to a modern city”.

Ciric added that while Simic frequently focused on new architecture in his early years, later in his career he also took photos of a “Belgrade which was slowly disappearing – thus preserving the memory of the former buildings for future generations”.

The People section is particularly moving, as it shows the immense poverty of street-cleaners, roadside booksellers, market porters and workers. Here you can also see another of the exhibition’s weaknesses – good photographs need space to breathe and it is almost a crime to place them so close to each other.

For instance, I would have completely missed the witty image of the Belgrade Opera football team in the sea of photos, had I not been alerted to it by another visitor.

Another jewel of the exhibition, hidden among five photos on a similar theme, dates back to the 1920s and shows a woman in traditional Serbian costume holding a telephone. The childish joy on her face suggests she may be using the machine for the first time.

The exhibition is accompanied by a 300-page catalogue, which covers Simic’s entire body of work. The book is printed on poor-quality paper and again compresses an abundance of good photographs into a very limited space –truly a pity. Printing one photo per page would have made the quality of Simic’s work more apparent. The producers, however, seemed keen to serve an audience that wanted to see as much of the former city as possible.
This is the first regular exhibition by the Belgrade City Museum in the building of the former Military Academy. The show is a good opportunity to take a peek at this impressive building.

The Belgrade Nomad can be seen at Resavska 40b until November 15th.

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