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The Nonconformists

Nick Miller

Chapter 5. The Suicide and Rebirth of the Painting: Mića Popović, 1959–1974

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  • 1 Lazar Trifunović, “Mića Popović,” (exhibition at the Salon moderne galerije, October 17 – November (...)

…a painter from the family of rebels and spiters, a magician and a fire-swallower in the Serbian marketplace, writer and maker of B-movies, homeless person and bohemian, thinker and impassionate, brilliant technologue and skilled craftsman, a modern who dreams about muddied highways, student of the French and lover of the Spanish, one of those intellectuals with the heart of a poet which only our crazy and troubled time could create.
Lazar Trifunović, 19631

1Mića Popović, the homeless bohemian magician described by his friend, art critic Lazar Trifunović, spent the 1960s in a swirl of creative activity and change. Even though his work was varied and often apparently chaotic, it was unified by its engagement. Popović remained devoted to the notion that his society should be one in which equality reigned, and whenever Yugoslavia’s leaders seemed to betray that goal, he responded.


  • 2 Gligorijević, Odgovor, 75.
  • 3 Gligorijević, Odgovor, 71–72.
  • 4 Gligorijević, Odgovor, 72.
  • 5 Lazar Trifunović, quoted in Merenik, Ideološki modeli slike, 102. See also Trifunović’s discussion (...)
  • 6 Milica Maširević, “Svetlost učestvovanje,” in Intervju (Belgrade) February 17, 1989, 40. The phras (...)

2In 1983, his 60th year, Popović lamented that he had wasted much time in France: “in old age, our fear of lost time begins to torture us, we realize that only a few years are left to us, a few months. In Paris, I fear, I lost precisely those years which would be precious to me now.”2 Most of the 1950s may have been wasted, but six months that he spent on the Ile de Brehat in 1956 were not among them.3 There, he said, “I ‘discovered’ the richness of non-formed material and totally gave myself up to this new discovery, which would lead me to informel a year or so later.”4 His discovery had been made already by a generation of European and American abstract expressionists, but it fit naturally into the progression of Yugoslav artistic development, which had stagnated. By the late 1950s, the dominant movements in painting had become—in the eyes of the more critical painters and critics—conformist, tolerating no contact between the painting and “social reality,” rendering them completely disengaged.5 Popović’s adoption of informel “was a direct rebellion,” in his words, against this superficial “socialistic aestheticism,” as Serbian critics referred to the phenomenon of artistic and literary disengagement.6

  • 7 Merenik, Ideološki modeli slike, 102.
  • 8 Lazar Trifunović, “Samoubistvo slike,” in Politika (Belgrade) October 27, 1963, 3.
  • 9 Trifunović, Slikarstvo, 76.

3L’art informel was a varied movement that included painters as diverse as Jackson Pollock, Antoni Tapies, and Wols, depending on one’s definition. According to Lazar Trifunović, its most influential Yugoslav critic/sponsor, informel negated “everything that destroyed the painting as such, above all, pure color; it had to revive an inventiveness that had grown tired; and it had to free art of the terror of geometry.”7 Thus Trifunović referred to informel as “the suicide of the painting.”8 According to Trifunović, “Belgrade informel appeared at the end of the fifties as a natural and spontaneous reaction to the first signs of alienation in our society.”9 Popović himself later characterized the time:

  • 10 Gligorijević, Odgovor, 78.

As a participant in the adventure of informel, I remember that there was some nausea, something unpleasant and unhealthy in the spiritual climate, some irresistible need to send it all to hell, to burn the bridges which linked us with tradition, to stick out our tongue at the stale story about the bright future. To a number of painters out in the world and at home it was as if the end of the fifties truly foretold the flames of the future 1968!10

  • 11 Čelebonović, “Razgovori.” This interview is not paginated.

4Everything from painting tradition to the stale rhetoric of Yugoslav socialism to a worldwide climate of disgust combined to produce in Popović and other informel painters a desire to destroy. And beyond all that, Popović noted, “informel appeared in the epoch of the cold war, in a period of very serious threats to the future of humanity, and artists naturally reacted very strongly to those general problems.”11

  • 12 Mića Popović, U ateljeu pred noć (Belgrade: Prosveta, 1962) 50.
  • 13 Popović, U ateljeu, 171; Miodrag Protić, Srpsko slikarstvo XX veka (Belgrade: Nolit, 1970) v. 2, 4 (...)
  • 14 Čelebonović, “Razgovori.”
  • 15 Trifunović, Slikarstvo, 78–79.

5Popović was not the first Serbian painter to move to informel; Branko Protić preceded him, and others would join them. And, informel was a broad category that included many different approaches which designated differences in the level of physical involvement of the painter, use of color, mode of application, etc. Popović was first exposed to it in 1956, when he saw some examples in a gallery in Paris, and his first impression was that “informel…demands a definitive, rough, and literal elimination of form, drawing, and color from painting, to the benefit of pure material.”12 Two years later, after viewing the work of the Spanish painter Antoni Tapies and his exhibit at the 1958 Venice Biennial, he was more enthusiastic: “The painting is coarse—at once powerful and noble. The insistence on material is not superficial and not a question of fashion. The paintings have the character of mineral deposits and leave open the doors for association (philosophical, ethnological), for human self-recognition, for national self-recognition.”13 Popović later asserted that informel was a logical step for him, as he had, as early as “Of Fog, of Bones…” realized that “neither color nor drawing were as important to me as material. I think that I admitted to myself at that time that I needed to concentrate my work on the material plane…which led me to informel.”14 Popović’s informel period implied a move “from poetics to technology,” as he “did not keep a single element of his previous painting, not the means, not the application, he changed it all.”15

  • 16 Bora Ćosić, “Teatar Miće Popovića,” in Sodoma i Gomora (Belgrade: Nolit, 1984) 175.
  • 17 Čelebonović, “Razgovori.”

6Bora Ćosić once wrote that Popović decided “to destroy” when he adopted informel, and that in so doing he “touched the highest stage of freedom of which any painter could ever dream…”16 The implication is that informel allowed Popović to destroy in his quest for isolation and absolute freedom, for his own liberation as a painter. Destruction and isolation would seem antithetical to the project of engagement, but Popović and others agree that his work as an abstract expressionist was in fact engaged. “Generally, I think that informel was a sign of sharp social engagement and not, as many think, the fruit of purely artistic evolution and problematics…the causes of the appearance of informel were found primarily in the social philosophical sphere.”17 Were engagement limited to the variant adopted by communist intellectuals like Ristić, Krleža, and Ćosić, by which a constructive, optimistic, didactic, even utopian imperative was understood, informel would hardly qualify as engaged. But, Popović saw himself as engaged, just in a less programmatic endeavor:

  • 18 Čelebonović, “Razgovori.”

When we speak of engagement, then we should not think of narrow political-social engagement, rather…of a means of defining relations with the community, of presence in social processes, of witnessing of them, most often indirectly. Engagement in art is not a social/political…but a constant impulse towards the truth, a type of amplified courage to face facts.18

7By responding to the anesthetized cultural climate of the late 1950s, by responding to the choices available to human beings in the late 1950s—communism? capitalism? east? west?—Popović saw himself as leveling the landscape, returning to square one in an effort to allow people to begin anew.

  • 19 For a fuller discussion of the uproar, see Trifunović, Slikarstvo, 84.

8Trifunović divided Popović’s informel work into two phases: “black” (1959–63) and “colored” (1964–69), referring obviously to the color schemes that dominated each period. Popović held two major independent exhibitions of these paintings, the first in 1960 in Belgrade at the Museum of Applied Arts, the second in 1963, also in Belgrade. The phases were divided by a short-lived, government inspired attack on informel, sponsored by advocates of the realist school in literature and painting.19 Although the attack was inspired by careerism, it did focus on one obvious characteristic of informel by which the regime could not have been pleased: its emphasis on destruction, its rejection of anything that prettified reality, its questioning of rationality, its implicit rejection of social reality. And, in spite of the fact that the attacks on informel came to an end quickly, the period that followed them saw Popović revive elements of the painting that his first phase of informel had rejected: the use of color, the use of objects, and a move towards figuration, however obscure the figures might be.

  • 20 Gligorijević, Odgovor, 42.

9Popović was still a seeker, no matter how much informel seemed to fulfill his promise as a painter. In film, in particular, he found new ways to express himself. In fact, he was probably as much or even more curious and adventurous as a filmmaker than he was as a painter—in this, he resembled Mihiz in Zadar, as Popović described him: “more modern…amateurs, it seems, always dare to do more and go farther than professionals.”20 Where his informel paintings represented his destruction of existing models, his flight from social reality into an unconstructed interior, his films would confront the past and the present of Yugoslavia more directly. In this, they were a clear indication of the direction his painting would take after 1968, with Scenes. Popović produced five feature films: “The Man From the Oak Forest” (1963), “The Swarm” (1966), “The Stone Despot” (1967), “Thugs” (1969), and “Burduš” (1970). Together they constituted a significant contribution to the Yugoslav “New Film” and “Black Film” movements of the 1960s, which was dominated by the better-known and often (but not always!) more accessible work of Živojin Pavlović and Dušan Makavajev. Popović’s films are not thematically unified, however.

10There is no simple summation of his work as a filmmaker, but we can say that his films mirrored—either led or followed—his work as a painter. Thus “The Man From the Oak Forest” could be called his “informel film.” “The Man From the Oak Forest” is a brooding study of a fictional “poet of death” named Maksim, who engages in ritual acts of murder in Četnik-held Serbia during the Second World War. It is unquestionably the least accessible of Popović’s films; it has no clearly articulated or “relevant” message. Before the Second World War, Maksim was a servant, probably to the man who would become the local Četnik vojvoda. Once the war begins, he lives on the Četnik side of the divide, although there is nothing in the film to tell us that he has any particular loyalties. Maksim lopes through the forests in which he clearly feels most comfortable, lurking in the dark in the local graveyard, accosting travellers and locals. The outbreak of war has allowed this man to find satisfaction in the most elemental release of murder, by slitting his victims’ throats, which he ritually follows by urinating. When he believes that he has discovered the existence of a cache of gold ducats, his actions become more directed—to finding the gold, to (perhaps) finding sexual release with the woman who would lead him to the gold. In the end, he is destroyed by his obsession with the gold: the woman is a partisan who would have him killed, the gold doesn’t exist, Maksim is shot down in a driving rain storm—one force of nature destroying another—and he crawls back to his forest to die.

  • 21 Daniel J. Goulding, Liberated Cinema: The Yugoslav Experience (Bloomington: Indiana University Pre (...)

11“The Man From the Oak Forest” could not escape official attention even before its release, when censors ordered Popović to rid the film of evidence that Maksim’s infatuation with the partisan woman might have been welcome. One historian has said that the regime couldn’t tolerate a Četnik treated sympathetically, but it also seems likely that the censors would not put up with an examination of the war period in which explanation is reduced to the irrational.21 The regime, in other words, could not be expected to accept a film in which a servant gets his revenge on society by engaging in blood/urination rituals rather than joining the partisans. The film’s photography, murky, textured, with purposeful but mechanical action, lends it to comparisons with informel, as do the incessant blocked and isolated images of entangled tree branches and roots, their texture hiding/revealing the form of Maksim as he emerges. The destructive impulse and the reduction of all action to the most elemental, brutish level renders “The Man From the Oak Forest” the “suicide of the film” as surely as Popović’s informel represented the “suicide of the painting.” Stripped of understandable motivations and storylines about progress and perfection, both the film and the painting style were explicit rejections of Marxist rationality. They were also, however, unspecific in an era when roiling discontent with the nature of Yugoslav socialism had yet to coalesce around particular issues and complaints.


12Popović’s “suicidal” phase did not outlast the 1960s—by 1968, he had once again undergone an almost complete transformation. That transformation, caused by social tumult in Yugoslavia, produced his “Scenes Painting” (Slikarstvo prizori) as well as his “Scenes films,” “Thugs” and “Burduš.” None of them can be understood outside of the political and social context. The mid-1960s were a time of great change in Yugoslavia, as the state’s leaders struggled to create a workable economic reform while maintaining the state’s ethnic and political balance. The fall of Aleksandar Ranković, the crisis of the dueling language proclamations of 1967, the Croatian Spring, and the lurking uncertainty regarding economic and constitutional change all bespoke a general lack of direction. But 1968, the year of assassinations (Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King), student rebellions in France and Poland, and the height of the US war in Vietnam, was also to bring critical events to Yugoslavia that would illustrate just how tenuous was Tito’s hold on his country’s stability. Dobrica Ćosić would leave the League of Communists in May/June; Yugoslav universities, most importantly Belgrade University, would be wracked by student demonstrations in June as well; and the first postwar Albanian rebellion would occur in Kosovo in November. Although they failed in all of their objectives, the student demonstrations have left a deep imprint on the psyche of subsequent generations of Serbs. Interestingly, non-Yugoslav students of the university movements of 1968 rarely even include the Belgrade events in their analyses. However, to this day, a small but influential segment of the Serbian intellectual community remains convinced that the student demonstrations of 1968 were the last great chance for Yugoslav communism to fulfill its promise.

  • 22 This version of the first night of the movement is drawn from a letter to the student magazine Stu (...)

13The student movement began innocuously on the night of June 2, 1968, around 10 pm, when a number of students living in dormitories in New Belgrade tried to crash a concert put on for the benefit of a local workers’ brigade.22 Members of the brigade fought with the party-crashers, and the police were called in. The police separated the two groups, but the disturbance had already brought more students into the streets, where they milled peacefully if edgily. At about 11 pm, though, riot police in helmets and carrying batons arrived and tried forcefully to drive off the students. Soon thereafter, some students commandeered a fire truck, from the top of which they took turns exhorting their fellow-rebels, who numbered perhaps four thousand by midnight, to peacefully march to the federal assembly in downtown Belgrade. Shouting “Jobs For All,” “Workers-Students,” and “Tito-Party,” the students made their way to an underpass leading into the city, where they came upon a cordon of riot police, who allegedly stoned them. The students responded with stones of their own, and the police began to encircle them. When the students set the truck ablaze, shooting was heard from the railroad track that crossed the highway. The “underpass” became one of the lasting symbols of the first phase of the student rebellion, which was a movement of rage at police brutality.

14The heart of the action on the second day, June 3, remained the underpass, where students continued to gather on the trip to Marx and Engels Square, in downtown Belgrade, to protest the violence of the night before. Here leaders of the party, including Veljko Vlahović, Miloš Minić, Stevan Doronjski, and the head of the Belgrade party, Branko Pešić, came to attempt to keep the students from continuing their trek to the city center. The students called on their constitutional right to demonstrate, and appealed to the revolutionary pasts of the party negotiators: “Comrade Veljko, do you remember Spain?” But while Vlahović sat down on the ground to talk with a group of the demonstrators, Pešić announced that they would get to Belgrade “over my dead body!” Meanwhile Minić, the ill-tempered prosecutor at the trial of Draža Mihailović in 1946, demanded to know who had approved the “beating of children.” The tableau revealed a party at the crossroads, with students calling its bluff. Demanding what the partystate promised, whether it was jobs or the right to demonstrate, the students reminded Vlahović of his own idealistic beginnings, while a bureaucrat like Branko Pešić wished only to keep that riffraff from the center of his city.

  • 23 A famous article in Borba referred to the students in its title as “Young Sheep, White and Black.” (...)
  • 24 “Kolaž mišljenja o studentskoj akciji,” in Književne novine (Belgrade) June 22, 1968, 11.

15The nature of the student movement changed during the day on June 3. Two factors propelled the movement forward: the behavior of the police, which was more brutal than the occasion had demanded, and the writing of the press, which gave the impression that the students were nothing more than a self-interested rabble.23 From a fairly unfocused series of protests and clashes with the police in the vicinity of the underpass, the students were able to pull together a more coherent and organized movement centered on the university buildings downtown. Students, under leaders drawn from the League of Students of Belgrade University, occupied the Law, Philosophy, and Philology Faculties, the Academy of Fine Arts, and other buildings, and created “Action Committees” which coordinated the protests. Here, in the occupied university buildings, a disorganized series of demonstrations was transformed into a sophisticated protest against changes in the nature of Yugoslav socialism under the pressure of the economic reforms that had begun in 1963. Nonetheless, the party and state apparatus, with the press as their weapon, portrayed the movement as nothing more than a crude demand for full employment. For instance, Draža Marković, the president of the Republican Committee of the Assembly of the Socialist Republic of Serbia, condemned the students during the movement: “Right now, the slogan of full employment goes against progress in this country…Full social equality means withdrawing from the principle of distribution according to work, means in fact Mao Tse Tung’s equality in paupery…”24 But even though some segments of the party wanted to believe that this was just a series of incoherent demonstrations by students who feared not getting good jobs when they graduated, there was more to the student movement.

  • 25 Mirko Arsić and Dragan R. Marković, ‘68: Studentski bunt i društvo 2nd ed. (Belgrade: Istrazivačko (...)
  • 26 Arsić and Marković, ‘68: Studentski bunt i društvo, 86.

16One of the first student “resolutions” appeared on June 3 in the student village in New Belgrade. Signed by the “Action Committee of the Demonstrators,” it demanded (to summarize) that social inequality be eliminated in Yugoslavia, that employment opportunities be opened up for new, talented university graduates, that the League of Communists “democratize” its decision-making processes, and that universities be given more resources and be democratized as well.25 The slogans that the students used included “We Fight for a Better Man, Not a Better Dinar,” “The Revolution is Not Yet Finished,” “Against Enrichment at the Expense of the Worker,” “We’ve Had Enough of the Red Bourgeoisie,” “Self-Management From Bottom to Top,” “Tell a Bureaucrat That He Is Incapable, and He Will Show You Just What He Is Capable Of.”26 On balance, if slogans chanted and displayed reflect ideology, the students were at least as upset by corruption in the party as they were by their own lack of jobs.

  • 27 Pavlović, Ispljuvak pun krvi, 58. The letter is printed in full with a list of signatories in “Stu (...)
  • 28 “Podrška pisaca Srbije beogradskim studentima,” in Književne novine (Belgrade) June 8, 1968, 3.

17The days of the occupation of the university buildings (the students renamed the university “The Red University of Karl Marx”) brought new dramatic images, including the actor Stevo Žigon reciting portions of “The Death of Danton.” An independent group of Serbian writers wrote the students on June 4: “With excitement and admiration we follow your struggle which has become a question of conscience for every honorable person in this country. We heartily greet your courage to emphasize not the narrow needs of the university, but to initiate and revisit essential questions of freedom, truth, and justice in a socialist society.” Many writers who were offered the chance to sign this letter refused, because it originated outside of the Serbian Writers’ Association, and others disagreed with the wording (Borislav Mihajlović Mihiz refused to sign until the words “our socialist society” were changed to “a socialist society”).27 The signatories included Mića Popović, Mihiz, Vera Božičković-Popović, Žika Stojković, Danilo Stojković (an actor and brother of Žika), and another 37 cultural figures. The following day, the UKS approved its own letter offering full support to the students.28

  • 29 29 Tito’s speech is reproduced in full in Arsić and Marković, ‘68: Studentski bunt i društvo, 117– (...)
  • 30 Arsić and Marković, ‘68: Studentski bunt i društvo, 119.
  • 31 Arsić and Marković, ‘68: Studentski bunt i društvo, 119.

18On Belgrade television on June 9, Tito gave a speech which brought the student movement to an end, to the initial joy but eventual chagrin of many of its participants. Tito was masterful and apologetic. The Presidency and the Executive Committee of the Central Committee of the League of Communists had been meeting since March, he said, to deal with the problems facing the state. Just as they were about to make public their responses, the student demonstrations broke out. “That was our mistake.”29 They had met that very day to consider the student movement: “There is not a single person—and at the meeting there were 55 leading comrades—whose opinion differed on the question of the solution of student problems.”30 But that did not mean that Tito believed that the student movement had retained its purity: “In a word, there was infiltration of those elements which wanted to exploit this situation for their own ends.” They included “various tendencies and various elements, from the most reactionary all the way to the most extreme, pseudo-radical elements among whom there is a reflection of Mao Tse Tung’s theories.”31 In the most famous portion of his speech, however, Tito paid homage to those among the student demonstrators who had acted out of the most loyal and consistent motives:

  • 32 Arsić and Marković, ‘68: Studentski bunt i društvo, 120.

Thus I must say here today that I am happy that we have such a working class. And I can also say that I am happy that we have such a youth, which has proved itself mature. The most recent development in the universities showed that 90 percent of the students among our socialistic youth cannot be poisoned, does not allow various djilasites, rankovićites, maotsetungites, and the like to use them as an opportunity to worry about the students while they actually try to achieve their goals. Our youth is good, but we need to pay more attention to it.32

  • 33 For the most complete discussion in English of the student movement and especially its conclusion, (...)

19Tito’s speech was greeted by the students as an affirmation of their positions. A week later, the Central Committee of the LCY met to approve its “Guidelines,” which amounted to a further acknowledgment of the failure of the League to adequately address issues of concern to the students.33

  • 34 Pavlović, Ispljuvak pun krvi, 53.

20Tito’s speech followed a week of wrangling within the party over how to end the student movement. His speech of June 9 is now considered to have been decisive, because it ended the occupation of university buildings before two dangerous, and seemingly inevitable, developments might occur: first, that workers might join the students, and second, that the League of Communists within the university would lose control of the movement. Had, for instance, the “Action Committees” that the students established alongside the official student organizations ever gained the upper hand, the government would have had a much more volatile situation to deal with. The reasons why neither of these dangerous developments came to pass included the fact that the press was busily characterizing the students as under the influence of various “enemies” (djilasites, etc.) or as selfish materialists insistent upon getting well-paying jobs. Živojin Pavlović later described a conversation with a female acquaintance, in which the effect of the press campaign was clear: “How about the students?” he asked her. “‘They should be hanged along Terazije,’” she answered, with “hatred from the bottom of her soul.”34 Also, the student leaders remained calm and in control of their comrades during the occupation. Ultimately, though, the success of Tito’s speech was founded (for perhaps the last time) upon the love of the students for him: how else to explain their glee upon hearing what amounted to a speech full of banalities? He asked them to accept his apologies for not taking better care of them and they did so.

  • 35 Petar Ignja, “Studentsko pitanje—materijalno,” in NIN (Belgrade) February 11, 1968, 4.
  • 36 Borisan Džuverović, “Studenti ne traže milostinju,” in NIN (Belgrade) February 18, 1968, 4–5. In a (...)

21Mića Popović, the seeker of social equality, was as certain to be moved by the student movement as Ćosić had been certain to react to the end of his supranational dream. There were good reasons for the students’ discontent. They were influenced by critical thinkers within Yugoslavia (primarily those of the Praxis group), and they had examples to follow. Problems with the universities were well-publicized before the movement began, and they went beyond the question of employment and into the realm of ideology. For instance, enrollment at Belgrade University grew between 1960 and 1965, but the percentage of students with stipends fell from 25.5 to 14.2.35 Furthermore, the percentage of working class and peasant children in the university fell from 15.1 to 12.4 between 1962 and 1967.36 The satirical magazine Jež constantly harped on the problems of unemployment, the development of a “red bourgeoisie,” and the university. Indeed, it would have been a real dereliction of duty had the central committee and the presidency not been discussing these problems before the student movement began.

22Furthermore, critical thought about the nature of self-management and Yugoslavia’s path to a socialist future had erupted in the mid-1960s in response to reform plans formulated on the party level. The Praxis group had made it their business to attack corruption in the real world of Yugoslav administration and the economy, including the emergence of a new class of privileged communists and the persistence of Stalinist forms of authoritarianism in Yugoslavia. March 1968 saw student demonstrations in Poland; the spring and summer of 1968 witnessed the Prague Spring; and finally, May 1968 saw the grandest student rebellion of that summer, in France, where millions of workers and students went on strike, entire factories and even one city were turned into workers’ communes, small children struck their classes at school, the Left Bank burned, and revolution seemed a real possibility.

  • 37 Mihailo Marković, Svetozar Stojanović, Ljubomir Tadić, Zagorka Golubović, Božidar Jakšić, Nebojša (...)

23Regardless the predictability of the student rebellion, and even though Tito was conciliatory, the League of Communists would be less so in coming years. Student, the magazine of the League of Students which had placed itself in the service of the student movement, was purged of radical elements. The leaders of the movement, including the legendary Vladimir Mijanović (known as “Vlada Revolucija”), would be persecuted repeatedly over the next two decades. The alleged tutors of the revolutionaries, eight Serbian philosophers and sociologists who were regular contributors to Praxis, were finally fired from their positions at the University of Belgrade in 1975. They are still referred to as the “Belgrade Eight,” although they are less united today than they were then.37


  • 38 Gligorijević, Odgovor, 31.
  • 39 “Yet his work was by its nature and concepts too ambiguous to give much uneasiness to the Franco g (...)

24Nineteen-sixty-eight's most important result was to unmask the myth that social equality had been achieved in a self-managed Yugoslavia. With paint and canvas, Mića Popović expressed this unmasking. In 1971, he unveiled his Scenes Painting, a selection of figural paintings that was an apparently radical departure for a painter who had been a dedicated abstract expressionist for well over a decade. His first Scenes exhibition came in April and May 1971, in the salon of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade. He showed twenty-three compositions, of which several involved multiple paintings (totalling thirty five individual canvases). On first glance they were a heterogeneous group, with several still-lifes, a few disconnected portraits, a modest series of portrayals of a Yugoslav guest worker, and a serial self-portrait of the painter engaged in calisthenics. For Popović, Scenes’ key departure is that the paintings are figural; he had abandoned such painting after “The Village of Nepričava” in 1952. Popović said his move was motivated by his perception that abstract painting had exhausted its potential for innovation as art. Although abstract painters had nurtured the illusion that their art acted as a form of resistance to power in authoritarian societies such as his own, Popović had concluded by 1968 that “power…understood that abstract painting posed no danger…”38 Tapies, Popović’s role model in informel, is an excellent example of that phenomenon. By the 1960’s, his work had come to enjoy a special status in Spain, and it surely did not act as a source of opposition to the Franco regime.39

  • 40 Trifunović, Slikarstvo, 105 ff.
  • 41 Trifunović, Slikarstvo, 91.
  • 42 Trifunović, Slikarstvo, 99.
  • 43 Čelebonović, “Razgovori.” Petković was Popović’s photographer on “Thugs” and “Burduš.”
  • 44 Gligorijević, Odgovor, 95–96.

25Trifunović, the art critic who knew Popović’s work best, identified three separate subthemes within Scenes: cameral painting, social-critical painting, and metaphorical painting.40 He attributed the move to Scenes to three sources of inspiration: certain physical qualities present in Popović’s informel paintings; Popović’s work in film; and the student movement, which proved to Popović that the Titoist system was bankrupt and that Yugoslavia needed the bracing pessimism of critically engaged painting.41 The similarities between informel and Scenes are straightforward: both emphasized materials to the detriment of color, and both integrated everyday objects into the painting. In this sense, Scenes continued Popović’s journey of exploration of materials begun with “Of Fog, of Bones.”42 The various groups of paintings from the 1971 exhibition also clearly betray Popović’s recent immersion in the techniques, frustrations, and revelations of film making. Popović credited a film photographer, Aleksandar Petković, rather than some other painter, as his major source of inspiration for Scenes. He also referred to his canvases as “scenes” rather than “paintings,” which is at least evidence of his own intent to follow on his film experiences.43 Examples of obvious filmic influence include the multiple “breakfast” scenes, which show Popović’s fascination with light and perspective, and Morning Calisthenics of Miodrag Popović which illustrates Popović’s interest in capturing movement on the canvas. In addition to those, Popović designed At the Beginning of March This Year in a Circle of Friends to work as a hexagonal enclosure: the viewer would enter and listen to taped recordings of the voices of the five friends whom Popović portrayed (with himself as the sixth), reading from their own work.44 This composition fused the painted image with the spoken word in ways reminiscent of filmmaking. The student movement’s influence was also obvious in Scenes: Popović was moved by the student rebels to adopt a more aggressive social posture, a posture which is evident through much of Scenes. Thus Scenes is not much remembered for its material basis, its relationship to film, or its fusion of the painting and the spoken word. It is remembered for its social engagement.

  • 45 Mića Popović, “Povoda termina: Slikarstvo prizora,” introduction to the catalog Slikarstvo prizora (...)

26Popović hesitates to come clean on this count in his catalog notes.45 He reported that in the past he had “fled from my social ‘I’ like the devil flees a cross….I feared insulting something holy.” By embracing his “social ‘I’,” Popović implied that he was now brave enough for social engagement. But Popović immediately qualified his own statement by asserting that “Scenes painting is not, in any case, political painting.” What is it, then?

  • 46 Popović, “Povoda termina.”

Its ambitions should be more to make one happy, or, at least, to be a corrective. And I wish only to witness. TO WITNESS! I love this word which Ionesco gave dramatic and SUFFICIENT meaning. I wish to participate and to witness. I do not want to take anything, not even a position. I don’t need to. I do not answer questions which I have not asked myself. To view and to witness. But also to paint.46

27For Popović, this “witnessing” becomes something pure, universal, and dispassionate. Popović’s introduction, taken in this light, seems to miss, or possibly cloak, the point of his own paintings. Even if he insisted on his role as a mere witness, others rejected his argument. Lazar Trifunović wrote that

  • 47 Trifunović, Slikarstvo, 103.

Popović says that he wishes to witness, but he is not a registrar who photographs all that passes before his camera; he chooses—the aspect of life, the social context, and the theme; his documentarity focuses inevitably on that before which he pauses; the choice was not made incidentally or only because of the visual interest of the motif, but on a foundation of human and political convictions.47

28If we accept the characterization of Popović as a camera, we must also acknowledge that the camera is in fact incapable of dispassion, and with Trifunović, reject Popović’s claim to be nothing more than a witness.

  • 48 Popović and Klunker, Mića Popović, 154.
  • 49 Gligorijević, Odgovor, 31–32.

29His claim should not be dismissed without some reflection, however. It is likely that the genesis of his use of the term “witnessing” was in the relationship of his Scenes to earlier socialist realist painting. Popović could not escape such comparisons, given his abrupt transition from abstract to figural painting and his own earlier ambivalent attitude towards socialist realism. Heinz Klunker, one student of Popović’s painting, described Scenes as “the first true Socialist Realism—the first pictorial expression of the truth about the reality of socialism—and not only in Serbia.”48 Popović actually endorsed the comparison: “At that time I wrote and asked is not the return to realism, even to socialist realism, the only possible solution? By socialist realism in new and changed circumstances, one might understand a wide range of critical engagement, something, indeed, fundamentally totally opposed to any sugar-coating of reality.”49 But socialist realism had never promised to tell the truth about socialism; it had emphasized the didactic, rather than purely representative, task of painting in a society undergoing socialist construction. It demanded that painting act as prophecy, describing not a society as it was, but a society as it would/should be. Therefore, Popović’s Scenes were never a “true” socialist realism. Aside, then, from the accident of language, there is no authentic relationship between Scenes and socialist realism. Nonetheless, language does matter, and “socialist realism” was an evocative but by 1971 empty concept that Popović could invest with the meaning missing in the original phrase. Popović’s witnessing, seen in this light, is a response to the ideologized witnessing of socialist realism, a code for a realism with the blinders off.

30There were two lines of evolution in Scenes over time, from 1969 to the early 1980s, when Popović’s production began to slow. The first is that in the earlier phase, through the mid/late 1970s, Scenes’ commentary was generally universal, whereas later they began to address ever more narrowly Serbian concerns. In the earlier phase, Gvozden the guest worker stood as a universal symbol of alienation in the modern world. By the late 1970s, however, Gvozden became obviously Serbian, his settings meant to create a purely Serbian picture than one reflective of general concerns. The second line of development saw Popović introduce and then emphasize a critique of totalitarianism. Here the universalism of the earlier Scenes is sustained, but in a different direction than the social commentary implicit in the guest worker cycle. The socially engaged Scenes paintings were best exemplified in 1971 by the four depictions of Gvozden, a fictional Gastarbeiter, one of the hundreds of thousands Yugoslavs who left their country to seek employment in Germany and other parts of Europe. Gvozden Spends the Night on the Way to Germany, Gvozden Relieves Himself Before His Trip Begins, Gvozden Blows His Nose on the Platform of the Niš Train Station, and Gvozden Goes on a Temporary Stay: the paintings portray workers who must leave Yugoslavia to earn a living, and the titles reinforce that sense as starkly and evocatively as the paintings themselves. Gvozden reflected one Yugoslav reality, but Popović viewed him as one example of a universal phenomenon:

  • 50 Čelebonović, “Razgovori.”

I think that in general the man who is extracted from his home, extracted from his nest and placed elsewhere, is part of the modern drama. I sense that it is a problem around the world. I don’t like the word alienation, but the man who is outside his own skin is a tragic personality, characteristic of our times…I am certain that although France has no guest workers, I could find some other question to ask to undertake some other witnessing.50

31It should be obvious from this that Popović was not fixated on the guest worker as Serb at this time; he was, instead, a reflection of the broader tragedy of modernization and population shifts that characterized all societies.

  • 51 William Zimmerman, Open Borders, Nonalignment, and the Political Evolution of Yugoslavia (Princeto (...)
  • 52 Zimmerman, Open Borders, 75.
  • 53 Zimmerman, Open Borders, 76.

32The guest-worker became an institution in Yugoslavia by the late 1960s; there would be so many of them that Yugoslavs would refer to them as a “seventh republic.”51 The phenomenon began in the early 1960s, accompanying the economic reforms and political liberalization of that era. Whereas before that point, working outside of Yugoslavia had been considered officially “in contradiction to socialpolitical norms,”52 afterwards it came “to be identified…as one of the key defining features, along with market socialism and self-management, of what was distinct and positive in the Yugoslav socialist variant…”53 For those more critical of the phenomenon, open borders served less an ideological purpose and more to alleviate some of the economic pressure brought by market reforms, which resulted in immediate unemployment inside Yugoslavia. Of course, it was normal for the Yugoslav communists to frame an economic (or cultural, or political) necessity as an ideological innovation and justification for their own power.

  • 54 Zimmerman, Open Borders, 82.
  • 55 Zimmerman, Open Borders, 84.

33Regardless the justification, the number of Yugoslav workers abroad soared between 1960 and 1979: 18,000 in the former, 680,000 in the latter year, with a peak of 860,000 in 1973. (These figures do not include family members who accompanied the workers, which one author estimates brings the total to 1,080,000 Yugoslavs abroad in 1979.54) In the early years (1960–1969), the guest-worker tended to be from Croatia: 56 percent of total workers abroad in 1960, down to 37.8 percent in 1969. The Serbian numbers rose significantly in the same period: from 10.6 percent in 1960 to 27.1 percent in 1969.55 Considering nationality rather than republic of origin, the numbers show that in 1971 guest-workers of Croatian nationality were heavily over-represented (39 percent of workers, 22.2 percent of the population of Yugoslavia) and Serbs were quite under-represented (28.5 percent of workers, 39.9 percent of the population of Yugoslavia). Members of different Yugoslav nations would tend towards different destinations: the Croats and Bosnians to Germany, the Serbs to Germany but also in higher proportions to France and Austria, the Macedonians to Australia. The phenomenon, then, was neither uniquely Serbian in origin (quite the contrary), nor uniquely German in destination.

  • 56 Gligorijević, Odgovor, 84.

34Popović’s vision of the guest-worker was personal, of course; he chose to emphasize this particular picture of humiliation, and it was a picture that responded to the attitudes of many Yugoslavs, if not necessarily to the reality of the fate of the guest-worker. Popović borrowed the character of Gvozden from his film “Thugs,” the name chosen for its “strength, firmness, and sturdiness” (the word actually means “iron”). Perhaps it is no accident that another Gvozden was Ćosić’s tragic victim in Far Away is the Sun. For his model for Gvozden, Popović used Danilo Stojković, Žika Stojković’s brother and the actor who had played Gvozden in the film. “Thugs” examines the lives of two brothers (Gvozden and Isidor) at the end of the Second World War. Partisans, they had been soldiers and executioners at the end of the war. When they are demobilized, they return to their home village to discover it destroyed, their house gutted. They inhabit it, however, and use its environs as a playground on which they continue to play war even as life is supposed to return to “normal.” Discovering that they had both secretly brought their automatic weapons home as souvenirs, they eventually sink so deeply into their more fulfilling lives in battle that they have a shootout and kill each other. Needless to say, the film’s depiction of partisans as aimless and pointless killers at that glorious moment when the country was being remade did not resonate with the authorities, who persistently refused to allow the film to be seen until at least the mid-1980s.56 The painted Gvozden is not so far removed from a film depiction. One of the first group of four “Gvozden” paintings in 1971 included Gvozden Relieves Himself Before His Trip Begins, which is taken almost literally from the film; the only difference is that in the film, the scene is a frontal view. At other points, Isidor urinating on a wall and the two of them carrying their boxed belongings on their shoulders would be recalled in later Gvozden-cycle Scenes paintings. Gvozden, Stojković, individual scenes, all illustrate the permeability of Popović’s film and painting at this time.

  • 57 “Burduš” was then made into a long-running television series called “Musikanti” (The Musicians), w (...)
  • 58 Jevtić, Sa Mićom Popovićem, 80.

35Equally critical to understanding the intricate weave that Popović’s films and painting created at the beginning of “Scenes” is the fact that his final film, “Burduš” (1970), actually offers an alternative fate for Isidor. “Burduš” examines the life of a singer/bassist in a bar band in contemporary Serbia.57 Popović did not rate it highly himself.58 Living a classic life of quiet desperation, Burduš is a man of limited intelligence and ambition. After being abandoned by his wife and swindled by his friend, he speaks about emigrating to a man at the Swedish embassy, who suggests that he go to Germany (“they’re accepting new workers”). “Me, to Germany…” he says quietly, as if he can’t imagine going there. Eventually he does decide he must leave, to give his ex-friend and ex-wife “a little space,” but even after learning the German for his three most important words (“bread…love…and freedom”), he can’t scrape the money together for the ticket. In the end, he is rescued from his trip by the reappearance of his friends and wife on the railway station platform. Burduš is a character living on the margins of Serbian society, and his story is told with a much lighter touch than that of Gvozden via Scenes. And (in spite of the fact that Burduš is almost certainly a gypsy in the film) Popović makes sure that the viewer understands that this Burduš is related to Gvozden, of both “Thugs” and of Scenes. Midway through the film, Popović intersperses footage taken straight from “Thugs,” in which Gvozden and Isidor (played by the same actor who plays Burduš, Jovan Janičijević) execute a German officer. Isidor, dead at the end of “Thugs,” returns to the living in Scenes and in “Burduš,” as an alternative fate to that which he suffered in “Thugs.”

  • 59 Gligorijević, Odgovor, 88–89.

36The Gvozden of Popović’s imagination grew up in a “house of stone where every miserable little meadow is seized by a harsh and stinting God.” He fought hard in the war because “the light of faith in justice could illuminate and fortify him…” After the war, forced to “seek bread outside of his country, to exist…among people whose language he does not know…,” Gvozden “feels that in some important way he was tricked and that there is no way to make up for it.”59 The cycle (which continued to grow until the late 1970s) is certainly poignant. The paintings accentuate the workers’ loss of personality, but balance it with the singularity of Gvozden himself, who, in the person of Stojković, is anything but physically ordinary. The four Gvozden paintings from 1971 are a modest group that nonetheless established the parameters of the cycle immediately. There was little overt politics; the only one to take an obvious political swipe is Gvozden Spends the Night on the Way to Germany, with its reversed window painting celebrating the May 1st “workers’ day holiday.” Degradation is the dominant theme, with Gvozden blowing his nose over his shoulder in one, and defecating in another. All of the paintings are linked to the train station, the loneliest and most exposed of places. Popović meant to highlight the quiet tragedy of Gvozden, and the striking features of Popović’s model Stojković raise him from the grey assemblage of the workers who head into temporary exile. Gvozden thus carries us from the invisible to the personal—he is one of that faceless crowd, but he also becomes an extremely suggestive single example of the degradation of the life of the guest-worker. Stark now, the Gvozden paintings would become more creative and more free-ranging over time.

  • 60 Ćosić, “Teatar Miće Popovića,” 178.

37If the Gvozden paintings were the most poignant, it took little imagination to understand the thrust of Popović’s witnessing among the others. A series of still-lifes portray black bread and yoghurt cartons of the sort that Belgraders regularly bought on the street in lieu of breakfast; he would offer no floral and fruit arrangements in Yugoslavia in 1971. “Continuing this negative tradition, Mića extended it to add new elements to that universal trash heap: conserves, old alarm clocks, broken pots, and finally bread and onions, the basic food of the worker, guest worker, tramp, and lumpenproletariat.”60 Then there is a portrait of Vuk Karadžić in which Vuk’s most pronounced physical attribute, his wooden leg, projects out of the painting as if to declare his imperfection, the unvarnished reality without the usual attendant romance. Another remarkable painting, or set of paintings, exhibited in 1971 was At the Beginning of March This Year in a Circle of Friends. This multimedia work included large portraits of Mihiz, Stojković, Ćosić, Antonije Isaković, Lazar Trifunović, and a self-portrait of Popović himself arranged to enclose an open space. Once one entered the room formed by the paintings, one could listen to the recorded voices of each figure represented, reading aloud from a piece that each chose. At the Beginning of March This Year in a Circle of Friends highlighted personalities who were already considered suspect by the regime, for varied reasons, most of which we already know.

38Critics found the exhibition bracing and provocative. Slobodan Novaković, writing for the satirical Belgrade biweekly Jež, drew attention to the desultory tone of most of the paintings:

  • 61 Slobodan Novaković, “Mića bez iluzija!” in Jež (Belgrade) May 14–20, 1971, 25.

Popović’s “scenes painting” has no illusions about itself, but it has no illusions about us, either. In place of illusions, Popović offers us black bread, a passport for Germany, yoghurt, a temporary residence permit abroad, pasteurized milk, the wooden leg of Vuk Karadžić…, lousy workers’ lodgings with sweet May Day slogans… the new paintings of Mića Popović are indeed without illusions!61

  • 62 Dušan Djokić, “Zapis o ‘slikarstvu prizora’ Miće Popovića,” in Umetnost (Bekgrade) no. 29–30, Janu (...)
  • 63 Djokic, “Zapis,” 45.
  • 64 Djokić, “Zapis,” 46.
  • 65 Novaković, “Mića bez iluzija!” 25.

39Dušan Djokić, writing for the Belgrade art journal Umetnost, identified the same qualities in Scenes that Novaković spotted, albeit less snidely. “Perhaps as never before, in our short and disordered history of the conquest of modern painter’s language, has painting so loudly and caustically spoken out.”62 “Moving from informel to Scenes,” Popović had passed “from the transcendental vision of the abstract landscape, an informel of ulterior brutality and existential nothingness to a no less stunning, monumental presence of the figure, expressed with cynical and cold objectivity…”63 “Mića Popović has with his ‘witnessing,’ which presupposes the harmonization of thought and action…articulated a personal interpretation of the hell of the individual… with bitterness and resignation…”64 Novaković also professed to fear for Popović, noting that his paintings would not likely be met with a friendly reception by the government: “Mića Popović is the first to recall the fact that social painting can exist in socialism too. But that is not to say that in socialism, Mića can exist,” he wrote, only sort of facetiously. “Mića Popović recognizes that till now he had fled from the social ‘I’—fled like a true thug…. But, all things considered, Mića Popović will, after this exhibition of ‘Scenes,’ again have to flee somewhere…”65

  • 66 Gligorijević, Odgovor, 96.

40But not yet. In 1971, the entire exhibition was evaluated a success or failure on purely artistic grounds, even though it included potentially tendentious works. It is difficult to believe that in 1971, for instance, the choice of “friends” in Popović’s hexagonal painting did not annoy the authorities; but, undoubtedly because other events, primarily the Croatian mass movement, dominated the government’s attention, this exhibition passed under the radar. But, by the end of the year, the ferocity of the national movement in Croatia finally brought other alleged examples of nationalism like Scenes under the regime microscope. When Politika’s award committee agreed unanimously to give its year-end award to Popović for Scenes, the party ordered the newspaper not to do so, and the award was not given for that year.66

  • 67 Some of the history of the postponement and of his own involvement can be found in Ćosić, Piščevi (...)

41Popović exhibited Scenes two more times in Belgrade in the 1970s. His 1974 show would have included 130 new paintings, but it was shut down on the morning it was to open, thanks largely to one collage (entitled Formal Painting) which presented Tito and Jovanka Broz with Dutch royalty alongside Gvozden, some prostitutes, and other Scenes luminaries. The juxtaposition was too provocative for the authorities, who first asked that Popović remove the painting, and when he refused, determined that the show should be postponed (although it never was rescheduled).67 It became a potent symbol of state oppression of the arts for Serbian intellectuals. As the dramatic Bora Ćosić put it,

  • 68 Ćosić, “Teatar Miće Popovića,” 177–78.

The sixth of June, 1974, the exhibition of Mića Popović, announced and set up in the Cultural Center in Belgrade, did not open, that is it was closed before it received the public, by an internal administrative ban. If anything, this ban speaks of the influence which it appears one artist was still in a position to bring to his surroundings. Popović became one of the central phenomena of our art because he also counted as attractive, modern, exaggerated, dark, strong, clever, bad, dangerous, charming. A magician.68

42The catalog of the 1974 exhibition created as much of a stir as the paintings themselves. In the catalog, which was published but then pulled from circulation, Dobrica Ćosić commented on the paintings. Ćosić’s interpretation of Popović’s work in Scenes is one that has lasted, to be reinforced by Popović himself, especially in his 1986 speech upon entry into the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences. For Ćosić, Popović’s art was “super-civil”:

  • 69 Ćosić, Mića Popović, 61.

super-civil is supposed to mean the seeing and recognizing of reality above and outside of general consciousness and ruling conventions. The super-civil in art is the passion for those truths of reality and life which exceed general moral, political and cultural consciousness; those are truths which do not respond to general criteria and norms; these truths are not connected to pragmaticutilitarian goals and interests; super-civil truths are truths which tend to the universal, which have universal human content. To have a super-civil position, that simply means to love people and life above the useful, moral, political, beautiful, national!…This super-civil position is convincingly present in Mića Popović’s Scenes painting…69

43As he would with his own writing, Ćosić staked a claim here for Popović’s Scenes as a source of transcendent truths. These truths, not being “connected to pragmatic-utilitarian goals and interests,” thus existed outside the framework of communism and specifically the communist regime in Yugoslavia.

44Ćosić’s catalog notes not only introduced Popović’s paintings, they introduced Serbs to Simina 9a. Never before had the existence of such a commune been mentioned; the friendship of its members was no secret—Belgrade’s intellectual community was quite small, and everyone knew each other. But in these notes, Ćosić created a myth that served the needs of many Serbs at that particular moment. In short, he offered up himself and his friends from Simina 9a as a collective reminder that there had once been pure, uncorrupted souls to be found in Serbia, people who valued real, substantive discussion of the fateful issues of the day, nonconformists who rejected sycophancy. The fact that many of them had suffered for their beliefs, their independence, in recent years served to demonstrate to readers that one could hold onto one's soul; at high cost, perhaps, but never too high for the genuine freethinker. A quick perusal of the catalog reveals that Simina 9a nurtured the character of such freethinking victims of the Tito regime as Mihajlo Djurić, Pavle Ivić, Borislav Mihajlović Mihiz, Mica Popović, Dejan Medaković, Bata Mihajlović, and others. These people had placed themselves front and center as truth-telling opponents of the regime in recent years. It is also important to note that Ćosić began in these notes to portray himself in a way that would become familiar to Serbs thereafter: as the misguided true-believer who now understood—from his experience on the inside—just how destructive Titoism really was.

  • 70 Ćosić, Mića Popović, 9.

45Ćosić’s prose not only reinforced the image of these men as truthful and brave, but it did so in a mournful language that would become common in the work of Serbian opponents of the Tito regime. He introduced in these pages the intellectuals’ search for truth, which would become the guiding vision of the intellectual opposition movement in Serbia. He began his notes by quoting Camus: “The truth must be constructed like love, like reason. Nothing at all is given or promised, but everything is possible for him who agrees to try or to open himself to danger.”70 The description he gives of the inhabitants of Simina 9a is designed to demonstrate that all of them—no matter their ideological starting points—sought that truth. Ćosić describes Mihiz as he writes “In which Direction”; as Bata Mihailović defends Stalin; as Popović devotes himself to painting; as he tells Mihiz that Stalin understood poetry better than anyone else, because he had mastered the science of history; as Mihajlo Djurić spends five hours a day in the university library in search of knowledge; no matter their ideological commitments, these were people who argued with each other, defended their positions, and later achieved greatness thanks to their love of ideas and their love of freedom. Like Ćosić, Popović had been drawn to the revolution by its promise, but repulsed by its reality. Ćosić found the general source of Popović’s inspiration in his “generation,” and the specific inspiration in Popović’s participation in the life of Simina 9a after the war.

  • 71 Ćosić, Mića Popović, 19.

The generation to which I belong with Mića Popović was fatefully defined by war…and for us, in our spiritual essence and our psychology, the end of the war was not the end of the war. For our generation, that end represented the beginning of “the future”;… to us, freedom above all else meant a return to humanity; a renewed recognition, experiencing, and originating of decency.71

  • 72 Ćosić, Mića Popović, 49.

46But they had all suffered for their free-thinking ways. “Individualism, imagined as the greatest expression of liberty, has turned into slavery…,” Ćosić quoted Popović writing in his diary in 1962.72

  • 73 Ćosić, Mića Popović, 16–17.

Our generation evinces an honorable restlessness regarding ourselves and the world, the technical and consumer civilization, world, and society in which we live, with its hierarchy of values and negation of lasting, higher values, the subordination of the spiritual values to money or power…have become for our generation a fateful question of anthropological meaning. Seeking its answers on the road to historical existence, our generation continues to utterly exhaust itself in ideological battle and demolition; above that battlefield the smoke of resignation hangs high.73

  • 74 Ćosić, Mića Popović, 17.
  • 75 P.R., “Dim Dobrice Ćosića” in Komunist (Belgrade) July 22, 1974, 4.

47For Ćosić, Popović’s Scenes (and his own literature, of course) represented truth in the face of totalitarian lies. “For people need the truth especially when it is not valued…Mića Popović has answered with these Scenes. We have every reason to pause before them; to ascertain their truths, to seek ourselves in them.”74 The fact that the government shut down the exhibition only confirmed Ćosić’s assertions, and was a constant source of pride for Popović thereafter. Regime-friendly critics assailed Ćosić’s catalog notes, focusing especially on the “smoke of resignation hanging high over the battleground,” which served for Ćosić as a literary complement to the offending paintings: all brought doubt on the achievements of the revolution, all proclaimed Titoist optimism a great hoax.75


48Like Dobrica Ćosić, Mića Popović began to doubt the ability of communism in Yugoslavia to answer his expectations, which, unlike Ćosić’s, were never abstract or transcendant. Ćosić expected socialism to bring about fundamental changes, in the essence of humanity, in the nature of mankind. However, like the utopian socialists of the early nineteenth century, Ćosić had difficulty describing the nature of the journey that his humanity would take from its sordid present to its ideal future. When he began to sense a lack of commitment among his fellow Yugoslav communists to that goal, he lashed out at them and reoriented his vision, which nevertheless remained abstract. Popović looked for change not on that grand scale but on the street. He believed that Yugoslav socialists should try to create a better world, a world of equality and plenty. Popović lived in a different socialist universe than Ćosić, and whereas Ćosić was initially upset with what socialism could not accomplish, Popović would be disappointed by what socialism actually wrought in Yugoslavia.


1 Lazar Trifunović, “Mića Popović,” (exhibition at the Salon moderne galerije, October 17 – November 7, 1963) introduction to catalog.

2 Gligorijević, Odgovor, 75.

3 Gligorijević, Odgovor, 71–72.

4 Gligorijević, Odgovor, 72.

5 Lazar Trifunović, quoted in Merenik, Ideološki modeli slike, 102. See also Trifunović’s discussion in Slikarstvo, 71–73.

6 Milica Maširević, “Svetlost učestvovanje,” in Intervju (Belgrade) February 17, 1989, 40. The phrase “socialistic aestheticism” was Sveta Lukić’s.

7 Merenik, Ideološki modeli slike, 102.

8 Lazar Trifunović, “Samoubistvo slike,” in Politika (Belgrade) October 27, 1963, 3.

9 Trifunović, Slikarstvo, 76.

10 Gligorijević, Odgovor, 78.

11 Čelebonović, “Razgovori.” This interview is not paginated.

12 Mića Popović, U ateljeu pred noć (Belgrade: Prosveta, 1962) 50.

13 Popović, U ateljeu, 171; Miodrag Protić, Srpsko slikarstvo XX veka (Belgrade: Nolit, 1970) v. 2, 436.

14 Čelebonović, “Razgovori.”

15 Trifunović, Slikarstvo, 78–79.

16 Bora Ćosić, “Teatar Miće Popovića,” in Sodoma i Gomora (Belgrade: Nolit, 1984) 175.

17 Čelebonović, “Razgovori.”

18 Čelebonović, “Razgovori.”

19 For a fuller discussion of the uproar, see Trifunović, Slikarstvo, 84.

20 Gligorijević, Odgovor, 42.

21 Daniel J. Goulding, Liberated Cinema: The Yugoslav Experience (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985) 96.

22 This version of the first night of the movement is drawn from a letter to the student magazine Student of June 4, 1968, quoted in Živojin Pavlović, Ispljuvak pun krvi (Belgrade: Grafički atelje “Dereta,” 1990) 19–184. Pavlović’s diary of the student movement was originally published in 1984, only to be banned and destroyed by government censors.

23 A famous article in Borba referred to the students in its title as “Young Sheep, White and Black.” The black sheep were, of course, the rebels of the university. “Mlado žito i kukolj,” in Borba (Belgrade) June 10, 1968, 1.

24 “Kolaž mišljenja o studentskoj akciji,” in Književne novine (Belgrade) June 22, 1968, 11.

25 Mirko Arsić and Dragan R. Marković, ‘68: Studentski bunt i društvo 2nd ed. (Belgrade: Istrazivačko-izdavački centar SSO Srbije, 1985) 79–80.

26 Arsić and Marković, ‘68: Studentski bunt i društvo, 86.

27 Pavlović, Ispljuvak pun krvi, 58. The letter is printed in full with a list of signatories in “Studentima beogradskog univerziteta,” in Književne novine (Belgrade) June 8, 1968, 2.

28 “Podrška pisaca Srbije beogradskim studentima,” in Književne novine (Belgrade) June 8, 1968, 3.

29 29 Tito’s speech is reproduced in full in Arsić and Marković, ‘68: Studentski bunt i društvo, 117–22.

30 Arsić and Marković, ‘68: Studentski bunt i društvo, 119.

31 Arsić and Marković, ‘68: Studentski bunt i društvo, 119.

32 Arsić and Marković, ‘68: Studentski bunt i društvo, 120.

33 For the most complete discussion in English of the student movement and especially its conclusion, see Rusinow, The Yugoslav Experiment, 229–39.

34 Pavlović, Ispljuvak pun krvi, 53.

35 Petar Ignja, “Studentsko pitanje—materijalno,” in NIN (Belgrade) February 11, 1968, 4.

36 Borisan Džuverović, “Studenti ne traže milostinju,” in NIN (Belgrade) February 18, 1968, 4–5. In an article published on June 9, 1968, the numbers were even starker: from 1960 to 1967, the raw number of stipends fell from 14,000 to 3,000; from 1961 to 1967, the number of children of working class origins fell from 15.3 to less than 10 percent of the student population; see Sergije Lukač, “Koreni studentskih nemira,” in NIN (Belgrade) June 9, 1968, 7.

37 Mihailo Marković, Svetozar Stojanović, Ljubomir Tadić, Zagorka Golubović, Božidar Jakšić, Nebojša Popov, Dragoljub Mićunović, and Trivo Indjić.

38 Gligorijević, Odgovor, 31.

39 “Yet his work was by its nature and concepts too ambiguous to give much uneasiness to the Franco government.” Edward Lucie-Smith, Movements in Art since 1945: Issues and Concepts 3rd ed.(London: Thames and Hudson, 1995) 74.

40 Trifunović, Slikarstvo, 105 ff.

41 Trifunović, Slikarstvo, 91.

42 Trifunović, Slikarstvo, 99.

43 Čelebonović, “Razgovori.” Petković was Popović’s photographer on “Thugs” and “Burduš.”

44 Gligorijević, Odgovor, 95–96.

45 Mića Popović, “Povoda termina: Slikarstvo prizora,” introduction to the catalog Slikarstvo prizora (Belgrade: Salon Muzeja savremene umetnosti, 1971).

46 Popović, “Povoda termina.”

47 Trifunović, Slikarstvo, 103.

48 Popović and Klunker, Mića Popović, 154.

49 Gligorijević, Odgovor, 31–32.

50 Čelebonović, “Razgovori.”

51 William Zimmerman, Open Borders, Nonalignment, and the Political Evolution of Yugoslavia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987) 82– 83.

52 Zimmerman, Open Borders, 75.

53 Zimmerman, Open Borders, 76.

54 Zimmerman, Open Borders, 82.

55 Zimmerman, Open Borders, 84.

56 Gligorijević, Odgovor, 84.

57 “Burduš” was then made into a long-running television series called “Musikanti” (The Musicians), which followed the fates of the group of musicians from the film.

58 Jevtić, Sa Mićom Popovićem, 80.

59 Gligorijević, Odgovor, 88–89.

60 Ćosić, “Teatar Miće Popovića,” 178.

61 Slobodan Novaković, “Mića bez iluzija!” in Jež (Belgrade) May 14–20, 1971, 25.

62 Dušan Djokić, “Zapis o ‘slikarstvu prizora’ Miće Popovića,” in Umetnost (Bekgrade) no. 29–30, January–June 1972, 46.

63 Djokic, “Zapis,” 45.

64 Djokić, “Zapis,” 46.

65 Novaković, “Mića bez iluzija!” 25.

66 Gligorijević, Odgovor, 96.

67 Some of the history of the postponement and of his own involvement can be found in Ćosić, Piščevi zapisi (1969–1980), 159–66.

68 Ćosić, “Teatar Miće Popovića,” 177–78.

69 Ćosić, Mića Popović, 61.

70 Ćosić, Mića Popović, 9.

71 Ćosić, Mića Popović, 19.

72 Ćosić, Mića Popović, 49.

73 Ćosić, Mića Popović, 16–17.

74 Ćosić, Mića Popović, 17.

75 P.R., “Dim Dobrice Ćosića” in Komunist (Belgrade) July 22, 1974, 4.

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