I’m often asked why I do the things I do. Why I teach, why I collect, why I’m doing this blog. I can only think of my late kum Rastko Aleksandrov, who was an excellent cardiac surgeon but an even more passionate birdwatcher. He travelled the world photographing bird species, and published a book on the migratory birds of Serbia. Kum Rastko told me once that people devote a different kind of energy to their hobby than to their job, no matter how much they love what they do for a living. This has stuck with me, and it rang true when I began learning more about Nikola Arsenović, one of the most prolific ethnographers to document South Slavic costume, and one of the most obsessed people in his field during his time.
Arsenović was a Slavonian Serb, born in a village outside of Osijek in 1821, when that region was still part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He trained as a tailor, and his apprenticeship took him to Budapest, Vienna and even Paris. When it came time to settle down, he married and opened a shop in Vukovar, where he tailored both the western-style clothing becoming commonplace in Austro-Hungarian towns, as well as what he called “narodna odela” – “national clothing”, pieces of folk costume that people often ordered from craftsmen. (he was also a capable tailor of vestments for the Orthodox clergy of Vukovar and the rest of Srem province). Was his choice of trades the result of his love of folk costume, or vice versa? We’ll never know; so little documentation exists about his early life. Yet, whichever the scenario, his love of folk costume quickly became a passion, and then an obsession.
In 1866, Nikola departs Vukovar, leaving his wife and four children behind, to travel those parts of Austria-Hungary that were inhabited by Southern Slavs. He may have been inspired by Romanticism, or the burgeoning Illyrian Movement, an offshoot of Panslavism that sought to unite the Southern Slavs in a single country. Illyrianism had gained great proponents among the Serbian and Croatian intellectuals and leaders of Austria-Hungary, most notable Bishop Juraj Strossmayer in Arsenović’s home district of Osijek.
At his own expense, Arsenović travelled Croatia, Slovenia, Istria, Dalmatia, the Adriatic coast, Hercegovina and Montenegro all in that first fateful year. Along the way, he earned his keep by tailoring and by selling watercolours on historic themes, or the occasional commissioned portrait. After a brief return home, he struck out again to thoroughly examine the cultural heritage of Vojvodina. Despite his enormous curiosity and drive to document the national costumes of his people, it must have been a lonely life. There is no record of any regular communication with his wife and children; he traversed the Balkans rather anonymously; and his watercolours were not particularly valued at the time. Nevertheless, his zeal and his enthusiasm for his perceived mission – the total documentation of the material culture of the people who were emerging to be called “Yugoslavs”. In doing so, I believe that he honestly felt that he could contribute to and somehow hasten the unification and brotherhood of the people he called his own.
He didn’t quite become famous, but her certainly gained the attention of several key people. The Hungarian Royal Association of Tradesmen praised his work, and expressed its wish for him to do for the Magyars what he was doing for the Southern Slavs. The Austrian Geographic Society proposed that they acquire his watercolours of the costumes of Istria and Dalmatia in particular, as a valuable addition to their knowledge of the Slavs of their empire. This was just one of many expressed wishes of such acquisition, yet much to his frustration, these lovely ideas never bore fruit.
Eventually, having caught the eye of some Serbian ethnographers and artists, he was sponsored to come and live in Serbia by Prince Milan Obrenović himself. This was quite an honour for Arsenović, and it offered him the chance to continue his work and expand his portfolio with an entirely different spectrum of costumes. In 1879 – 1880, he travels the recently independent Principality of Serbia extensively, and is particularly captivated by the southernmost costumes. Vranje, Niš, Pirot, Gnjilane all are added to his collection. In the same time period he also explores Sarajevo and Brod; no record of any stay in Vukovar exists. The circumstances of the total lack of communication between him and his family remain a mystery.
You would think that someone sponsored by the Prince would prosper in a new setting, but in Arsenović’s case, after a brief period of successful research and documentation, his fortunes faltered. His dream was to eventually publish his collection of watercolours and drawings in a series of albums for educational and home use. Everyone who gave him the time to listen to his proposal and see his copious works simply loved the idea. It was invariably greeted with enthusiasm and with promises to seek out funding or otherwise put in a good word for him… but that’s where it most often ended. His many appeals for funding and attempts to sell his collection were ping-ponged from ministry to ministry and from one organization to another. Eventually he fell into debt and was only given a loan by the National Museum if they held his watercolours as collateral – effectively preventing him from selling anything. A frustrated Arsenović wrote to the Ministry of Education,
“Моју збирку већ одузела Српска Влада и налази се у његовој државини, а тиме је спречена мени свака зарада па немам куда да купим ни леба а много мање што друго, а да просим недоликује ми као једном вештаку и зато морам да скапам од глади и назеба на највећу срамоту Српске Владе…”
”My collection has already been taken away from me by the Government of Serbia and is being held as their own property, thus preventing me from any earnings with which to buy bread or much less anything else, and while begging is not something a man of my talents ought to do, the fact that I waste away from hunger and cold is a great shame to the Government of Serbia…”
Arsenović even considered suicide at one point. He did have some important friends and supporters though: Mihailo Valtrović, director of the newly established National Museum, and artists Uroš Knežević and Đorđe Krstić, among others. When they got word of the runaround their friend was getting, and aware of the obstinance of the Minister of Education, Dušan Matić, they undertook an organized appeal to get Arsenović a government stipend and to assist with his debts.
Still, the damage of this ordeal was done, psychologically and physically. In poor health, Arsenović died of a stroke in Belgrade, 1887. He was buried in Belgrade’s New Cemetery (Novo Groblje), established just a year earlier. Sadly, as a result of cemetery expansion and restructuring in the 1920’s and 1930’s, the grave of Nikola Arsenović has been lost to us.
Nikola Arsenović was never more than an adequate artist. His works would today perhaps be considered naive art, at best. However, his attention to detail was unsurpassed. Like many other artists, he was not truly appreciated until well after his death. He set out to record in as much detail as possible the traditional clothing of the Southern Slavs. In regions of mixed population, he never made ethnic distinctions, and he made great efforts to portray the work and festival costumes of both urban and rural Slavs. His personal struggle is rife with situations in which he is offered lame excuses, empty words and shirked responsibilities. Combined with his own naivete and his lack of resourcefulness, his life slid into despair and his noble mission forgotten for decades afterwards. An idealist, obsessed with a cultural mission, that his countrymen recognize as valuable in principle but not in practice; this, this is where Arsenović’s story personally speaks to me.
In one of his final diary entries, Arsenović expressed his continued and firm belief in the value of ethnographic work, both documentation and collection, and the importance of training future generations in the skills needed to preserve a heritage that he knew was already slipping away. As to why ethnographic education mattered, he felt it a necessary requirement:
“…како би се једном и ми Срби са осталом Европом напредним народима успоредити, и себи на радничком пољу, материално благостање и сталну будућност утемељити могли”
“…so that one day we Serbs can be compared to the other progressive nations of Europe, and that through this work, we lay the foundations for our own material well-being and a continued future”.
Nikola Arsenović’s importance was recognized after his death by those close to his supporters, and those open-minded enough to see his legacy with clarity. The Serbian Learned Society (Srpsko Učeno Društvo) saw in him a promoter of Yugoslavism. Sima Trojanović, founder of the Belgrade Ethnographic museum, gave the full collection of 414 watercolours and drawings a good home, noting that even in the three decades that had at that time passed from Arsenović’s death, barely a trace of some of these costumes remained. Nikola Zega, a later curator of the Ethnographic museum, compared Arsenović to Vuk Karadžić; what Vuk was to language and immaterial culture of the Serbs, so was Nikola Arsenović for our material textile heritage. He wrote, in 1923:
“То што нам је Вук о народном оделу оставио, допунио је сликама Никола Арсеновић. Кад се слике Арсеновићеве упореде са описом Вуковим, наћи ће се поудуарности, наћи ће се многи аљетци, које Вук укратко описује, у сликама Арсеновићевим пошто су одела на свима Арсеновићевим сликама верно и марљиво израђена.”
“That which Vuk has left us regarding folk costume, Nikola Arsenović augmented with his pictures. When Arsenović’s images are compared to Vuk’s descriptions, they correlate; we find the many garments briefly described by Vuk in all of Arsenović’s paintings, faithfully and meticulously executed.”
Arsenović’s main biographer, Ljiljana Gavrilović, characterizes him as a misunderstood visionary, sidelined by the inability of the politicians of his time to accept his ethnographic work, with no political agenda, as useful. Gavrilović sees in his life story a cautionary tale for those Serbs working in the various areas of culture out of love and interest, rather than for political or monetary gain. Thus, to those people who devote their lives and passion and energy to all things ethnographic, I will conclude: our task may be Sisyphean, but it is of utmost importance that we continue doing it.
For further reading:
Arsenović, Nikola, Mitar S. Vlahović, and Bosiljka Radovicć. National Costumes of Serbia in the Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade: Water-colours by Nikola Arsenović, 1823-1885. Belgrade: Magazine “Jugoslavija, “, 1954. Print.
Gavrilovic, Ljiljana. “Balkanski Kostimi Nikole Arsenovića.” Academia.edu. Web. 12 May 2017
Gavrilović, Ljiljana, Nikola Arsenović, and Dragana Radojičić. Jugoslovenski Etnograf Nikola Arsenović. Beograd: Srpska Akademija Nauka I Umetnosti, Etnografski Institut, 2006. Print.
Pantelić, Nikola, and Miodrag Đorđević. Narodna Umetnost Jugoslavije. Beograd: Jugoslovanska Revija, 1984. Print.
Pantelić, Nikola. Etnografski Muzej U Beogradu, 1901-1984. Beograd: Etnografski Muzej U Beogradu, 1984. Print.
Zec, Tatjana. Srpske Narodne NosÌnje: Iz Albuma Nikole Arsenovića. Beograd: Etnografski Muzej, 2004. Print.
Zega, Nikola. Zbirka Nikole Arsenovića. Narodna Starina, vol. 2 n. 5, November 1923.