'Beautiful' or 'kitsch'?: Massive Belgrade statue stirs controversy

·2-min read

A gargantuan statue of a medieval Serbian prince unveiled in Belgrade on Wednesday has sparked a fierce debate: is it a "beautiful" tribute to a historical icon or "monstrous" kitsch spoiling a public square?

The brightly-lit bronze state of Prince Stefan Nemanja, a 12th-century prince considered the founder of the Serbian state, stands more than 23 metres (75 feet) tall in a riverside Belgrade neighbourhood.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has praised it as "the most beautiful thing" he has ever seen.

"This monument is big, because our story is big. It's heavy because our history often was," Vucic said at the unveiling ceremony, which was attended by hundreds.

Yet many critics think quite the opposite, with historians, artists and architects slamming the monument as so gaudy that it "trivialises" the history it is meant to represent.

One prominent architect went as far as to describe it as an act of "urbanistic terrorism".

"It's monstrous, it's kitsch, and it taints the beautiful train station building", historian Dubravka Stojanovic told local newspaper Danas, referring to the nearby former railway hub, a relic of late 19th-century Serbian architecture, that is now dwarfed by the statue.

The monument depicts the sombre-faced prince holding a sword as he stands on an enormous cracked Byzantine helmet that is almost half the size of the monument.

On social media, the image was lampooned as resembling Saruman, a Lord of the Rings character, "standing on a chocolate egg".

- Secret price -

Milja Mladenovic, an urbanism expert, argues that the size of the statue clashes with the spacial layout of the surrounding square, particularly the railway centre which was previously its focal point.

"When viewed through the design of public space, it is very problematic to find (a statue of) that height in the square," she told AFP.

A Serbian conservation association unsuccessfully asked authorities to drop the monument, citing its discordance with the neighbourhood and calling for the money to be used for other badly-needed restorations.

The exact cost of its construction remains unknown.

City officials have said the price of the monument was declared "confidential" until 2023, a year after Belgrade's next municipal elections.

The work's creator, Russian artist Alexander Rukavishnikov, said he hoped Serbs would "get used to the monument".

"Trust me, it won't spoil the appearance of your beautiful Belgrade and I hope they will grow to love it in time," he told public broadcaster RTS.

Belgrade's deputy mayor Goran Vesi has also come to its defence.

"There were different opinions on the Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty... Good artwork always causes different opinions and criticism, and nobody notices the bad ones."

str-mbs/ssm/spm