Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Bitola & Kruševo

Mount Pelister from Stiv Naumov street, Bitola
Well, my first day working on my project today, and what an absolutely remarkable day it's been.

I arrived in Bitola yesterday- the second largest city in Macedonia. It's a fairly interesting place, known as "the city of the consuls"- during the latter days of the Ottoman empire, Bitola was a centre of diplomacy, with many countries basing their representatives here. There are still a dozen or so consulates here today, although how active they are is a moot point.

"Sirok Sokak", Bitola, Monday evening

The centre of Bitola is officially called ul. Marsal Tito (Tito Street), although no one actually calls it that- it's known by everyone as Sirok Sokak (Wide Street)- in the dimensional, rather than the Scottish, sense of "Wide". This is also a remnant from Ottoman times in Macedonia. Sirok Sokak is the main social and shopping street in town; I'm just back from there, and it is absolutely mobbed- at 9.30 on a Tuesday night, in a manner frankly unimaginable in old stomping grounds such as Dundee or Perth. At the top of this thoroughfare, there is a statue of the ancient Macedonian king, Phillip II, a melodious clocktower, and two very impressive mosques. Behind the mosques a little bit, there is the Stara Carsija or old bazaar. In Ottoman times, this was a centre of artisanry and trade- apparently, at one time, 250 different trades were crammed into this claustrophobic rabbit warren of narrow streets. There are still trades there today, albeit in far fewer numbers; the main source of business now seems to be leatherwork, parts for 1980s cars ranging from Yugos and Ladas to Escorts and Sierras, and, er, a shop selling scarves for the local football team, FK Pelister Bitola. Pelister are at a low ebb however, having been relegated from the Macedonian Prva Liga last season- so they really must be dreadful.

Dalmatinska ulica, Old Bazaar, Bitola
Bitola is not a city for the street-sign dependant map readers amongst you. Street signs, even in the city centre, border on the non-existant, whilst directions to other vaguely important places- Skopje, for example- seem to date from the Yugoslav era and have either worn away or are falling off the lamp-post. One has to navigate by a mixture of landmark, repetitive walking, and osmosis. It's a city, too, where clear signs of the Yugoslav past remain; not only the obligatory regular monuments to fallen partisans from the great struggle of 1941-44 (the Bulgarians had been booted out of here by late 1944, by the Macedonian partisan brigades), but also street names that have mostly been replaced in other ex-Yugoslav countries. Here, streets are still named after Lenin (Leninova), and long forgotten Yugoslav Communists such as Eduard Kardelj, Ivo Lola-Ribar, Boris Kidric, and Ivan Milutinovic. Partisan heroes are also commemorated- Stiv Naumov- alongside martyrs of the Illinden period. Macedonia seems to have the least amnesiac relationship of all the republics with the Yugoslav past. For every Macedonian nationalist, who bemoans the "lost" parts of Macedonia, in present-day Greece, Bulgaria, and Albania, you'll find someone who bemoans the end of Yugoslavia, and the apparently easier life of those times.

Kruševo from the Martinovski museum
Enjoyable though Bitola is- another real livewire of a place at night- the spectacular highlight so far has been today's trip to the little mountaintop village of Kruševo, about 30 miles north-by-north-west of Bitola. I drove there this morning for my first day of research, and after hesitantly sputtering along a slippy and rutted tarmac road, which featured spectacular hairpin bends for the last twenty or so kilometers, I was richly rewarded.  As well as being a modern day ski and winter sport centre, Kruševo is significant both in Macedonian history and the Macedonian present; firstly, as the seat of the Illinden uprising of 1903, against the rule of the Ottoman empire; secondly, as home to the "first Macedonian modernist" Nikola Martinovski; and, thirdly, as home and location of a memorial to the "Macedonian Elvis Pressley, Tose Proeski. It's also, nearly 4,000 m above sea level, the highest town in the Balkans.

I began by trying to find the Martinovski museum, eventually discovering it at the end of a narrow cobbled street, about ten minutes from the centre of the town. It is located in a lovely old town house with spectaclar views of the rooftops and the surrounding mountains. A grey working donkey, tethered to a pile of logs, was honking and braying loudly into the bargain, just below the museum walls, in between munching on what seemed to be a gigantic pyramid of carrot peelings.

Nikola Martinovski, Wet Nurse, 1948.

Nikola Martinovski died a few weeks before I was born, in early summer 1973. Five years before his demise, the federal Yugoslav government provided the money to buy this handsome building in Kruševo and do it up, to house the majority of his paintings. In 1924, Martinovski left Macedonia for Bucharest, where he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts for three years; after completed his studies in Romania, he spent 1927-28 in Paris, spending time working at the Grand Chaumière, under de la Bissière and Moise Kisling.

On his return to Yugoslavia in 1928, Martinovski participated in the first showing of contemporary art in the Macedonian capital, and was part of a pan-Yugoslav modernist grouping called Oblik ("Form"). He was to spend the next 45 years in Skopje, with regular visits to Kruševo and to Paris to see old friends. Martinovski was a good example of the strong Francophile orientation that inter-war Yugoslav painting had; his work shows a thorough understanding of the work of Modigliani, Matisse and Chagall. During the war, Martinovski contributed visual images and propaganda to the partisan struggle; a study of a partisan, completed in 1944, still forms an important part of one of the rooms.

Martinovski's wartime work and pre-war fame ensured that he was well-placed to play an important role in the Yugoslav art world, during the presidency of Tito (1945-80). He exhibited regularly in Skopje and Belgrade, and was a significant academician and art world politician in the 50s and 60s. In the post-war period, Martinovski chose to concentrate on the themes of family, motherhood, and social studies of everyday life in Kruševo. This collection is extremely interesting and wide ranging, featuring oil painting, drawings and lithography. Although Martinovski is little known outwith the former Yugoslav countries, his work is well received and popular; in Macedonia, his work enjoys the same kind of status that a Fergusson or Peploe does in Scotland.

The extraordinary monument to the Illinden uprising (1972-74)
The real surprise of the day, however, was the monument to the Illinden uprising, on the crest of the hill about 2kms from Kruševo town centre. Briefly (you can read the wikipedia article linked to above), the Illinden uprising involved macedonian and Bulgarian peasants rising against ottoman rule, in 1903; a ten day "independent republic" or Kruševo was declared. The Ottomans put down the revolt with pitiless harshness, liquidating the independent political leadership, conducting a wholesale massacre of the civilian population of the town, and handing out long sentences of imprisonment or deportation to many survivors.

The monument to this tragic incident in Macedonian history was first conceived as a project by the federal Yugoslav government in 1972; the remarkable structure was opened to the public in August 1974. Conceived by the sculptor Jordan Grabuloski and his architect wife Iskra, this is probably the most unusual and extraordinary building that I've ever seen. Featuring biomorphic sculptural reliefs, beautiful blue and green ovoid stain glass windows, and an exterior that is part Rollerball, part over-sized limpet mine, part Le Corbusier on powerful hallucinogens .

In Yugoslav times, the monument was supposed to stand as a symbol of the centuries-long struggle for Macedonian freedom from oppressive imperial rule; a struggle that, back then, was supposed to have reached its peak with the establishment of a Socialist Republic of Macedonia, within a broader Yugoslav federation. The interior decorations present the Illinden uprising as a premature revolutionary outburst doomed to failure from the outset, lacking the necessary Marxist understanding of history alongside atavistic nationalist sentiment. In this way, the monument marks the appropriation of a nationalist uprising by a broader state-socialist, Titoist ideology; it opened on the 71st anniversary of the uprising but, more importantly back then, it also marked the thirtieth anniversary of the first meeting of ASNOM (the Anti-Fascist Liberation Council of Macedonia- the wartime military-political umbrella body that resisted fascist occupation in this part of the world).

Whilst the main accounts of the Yugoslav partisan war, by Milovan Djilas and Vladimir Dedijer, focus on the struggle against the Germans and Italians in Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia, here in Macedonia the struggle was run almost independently, under the leadership of Svetozar Vukmanovic-Tempo; Tempo accepted Tito's overall supremacy in Yugoslavia, under AVNOJ (Anti-Fascist National Liberation Council of Yugoslavia), he had a largely free hand in Macedonia to conduct resistance to a rather savage occupation by Bulgaria. Little is available in English on the subject of the partisan war in Macedonia.

Stained glass glows through one of the main portholes of the monument
These days, of course, the Communist iconography is little understood, and the Communist interpretation of Macedonia's development is flatly rejected as outdated and anachronistic; the building now is a cradle of Macedonian nationalist sentiment, with a new nationalist narrative from Illinden, to secessionist upheaval in the 1920s, to independence in late 1991, now suggested. Aesthetics aside, it is this tension in function that makes the structure so fascinating; as a monument to the Macedonian past, filtered through the Lens of Titoist and Yugoslav ideologies, now re-interpreted for a post-Communist present. the building is at once a virtuoso display of the vibrancy and invention of Yugoslav socialist modernism, at the same time as being a contemporary tombstone for a thoroughly dead ideology.

A giant portrait of Tose Proeski faces his monastery and memorial
 Just how much has changed since the disintegration of the Yugoslav federation in the early 90s can be witnessed by the monument to the Macedonian folk and rock star, Tose Proeski, which occupies a large space at the bottom of the hill, under the Illinden monument. Before his death, Proeski invested heavily in a monastery and space for spiritual contemplation; he was killed, at the horribly young age of 26, in a car crash in Croatia, in October 2007. I know nothing about Proeski's music, but he is one of the few figures in post-Yugoslav times who has an eager following all over the Balkans. Several busloads of tourists were in attendance at his memorial and monastery today, and local flower, teddy bear and bottled water sellers were doing a brisk trade out of the back of their Stojadins.  Religion was grudgingly tolerated in Tito's era but the emergence of Proeski as some kind of uncanonised saint in the last four years shows just how quickly the Macedonian Orthdox faith has expanded to fill the yawning ideological void left by the end of Titoist socialism.

Tomorrow I'm off to Prilep, the artist's colony and tobacco town. I've had a great start to my work today, if Prilep proves to be only half as interesting as Kruševo has been today, then I'll be content.

PS, if you're not on facebook, you can still see the full photo set relating to this article here


  1. Hi Jon,

    Found your blog by chance on twitter, and I found your write up about Macedonia entertaining, enjoyable, thorough and quite accurate. As my family hails from Bitola, I was familiar with the history of the place. I would have recommended a visit to the ancient town of Heraklea (on the outskirts of Bitola), a town founded by King Filip II (Alexander's old man). But I did learn something from your write up that I hadn't known much about before - Nikola Martinovski. I thank you for that, as I am always interested in learning of the history of my parents' homeland.

    Just wanted to say hello and thanks for bringing to light info on a little known country with a big heart - Macedonia.

    Keep up the good work, I plan to follow you on your adventures.


  2. Hi Filip- thanks for this- glad that you found it enjoyable, and that there weren't many inaccuracies. I am now in Skopje for the next ten days, so I shall be writing some more from here: after that, to Serbia.

    all the best