MACEDONIA – TRADITION AND CONTEMPORANEITY
Numerous books have been written about Macedonia. Collected together in an imaginary world library, they would occupy a space which would be awe-striking in its vastness and one could easily lose one’s way strolling among the shelves, through the dark corridors of this labyrinth.
Macedonian history has been interpreted in multitudinous different ways, from different aspects and viewpoints. It has been usurped, falsified, supplemented and altered. Frequently written by others, it has been adjusted to their interests. Mysterious cartographers and geographers have broadened and narrowed its borders, counted and recounted, wiped off and added place-names, measured and remeasured its mountains and rivers… The individuality of Macedonian culture has been disputed, the Macedonia word has been banned, and in the years of silence and oblivion things were given different names, difficult to pronounce and yet more difficult to remember. Statues of kings and gods have been demolished, old temples have been ruined, church walls have been smeared with thick layers of mortar and new saints have been painted on them. Old manuscripts have been burnt, the records and inscriptions on graves have been erased, entire libraries of books written in a language unintelligible to the conquerors have been destroyed or carried away. In the dizzying depths of this destructive whirl the most significant creative achievements produced during the centuries in these areas have disappeared forever.
Nonetheless, despite all attempts, despite the conquests and centuries-long domination, despite the merciless plundering and destruction, divisions and redivisions, migrations and deportations, and naming and renaming on the long path through time, the Macedonian people has preserved its individuality and the individuality of its culture.
MILLENNIA UNDER EUROPE’S STARRY SKY
Surrounded by high, almost impassable mountains, Macedonia is a closed geographical entity in the heart of the Balkan Peninsula. Insofar as geography has no significance without man, one thing is certain: Macedonian geography, due precisely to the pervasiveness and the identification of man with the land, has turned into a holy thing” (Ante Poposki). Its valleys full of graves and rivers by the banks of which terrifying battles have been waged, lakes with churches and monasteries built around them, mountains with hermits’ caves, gorges where one can still hear the roar of horsemen from far-off countries who departed leaving devastation behind them determine not only the geographical concept of Macedonia but do much more: they denote points where temporal and spatial coordinates meet; toponyms containing within themselves a complex of general and lasting values with the symbolic significance of holy and inalienable places in the collective consciousness even today determine our attitude towards the world. Understood as real or imaginary areas drawn on the topographical map of Macedonian culture, they enable us to comprehend the relations established between History and Geography.
Macedonia is a crossroads where East and West meet, a territory where European and Asian civilisations unite to create new values and an area where great and mighty empires have clashed. Attractive to the conqueror, it has been crossed by foreign armies in their devastating expeditions, but also by the creative routes which carry the contributions of the world’s greatest cultural centres. At the same time it is a place of permanent encounter between the past and the present.
There is almost no nation towards which destiny has been less favourably disposed than it has been towards the Macedonian. Its past resembles horrifying, spine-chilling night-time stories in which the reflections from the fire flicker and dark shadows of horsemen gallop. Campaigns of conquest, slaughter, mass graves, uprisings and defeats, voices lamenting over the slain, tears that burn the hands like melted wax from the slender candles on the graves – this is the bloody outcome of the Balkan cosmogony.
Balkan historiography is an apologue of endless wars, conquests and conquerors, kings and nobles, conspiracies and murders. What it does not record, what cannot be found in the old manuscripts and parchments, in the documents with blood-red seals, is the constant, unwavering endeavour to endure in the face of conditions undignified for a human being, to leave behind an ineradicable trace in the face of misfortune and suffering.
Above the din of battle, the rivers of blood and the towns in flames, above the armies radiant in armour and the flying flags, like a rainbow over Macedonia’s dark relief a different image appears unexpectedly: a strong light penetrates the clouds and among the snowy mountain peaks Macedonia’s lakes shine like mirrors. Here the land is blessed. Fire-red roses blossom and auriferous rivers run. The fields and vineyards are fertile and abundant. Some of the fundamental spiritual initiatives that reformed the world have been transferred westwards from here. Here started Alexander the Great’s unrepeatable venture when Macedonian warriors set out to conquer and unite the world; luxurious palaces were built here with marble columns, sculptures and mosaics; Christ’s apostles brought Christianity hither and began its spread though Europe; here the Son of God spoke in Slavonic for the first time, the Slavonic alphabet was invented and the language of Macedonian Slavs became the fourth official language in which Christianity was spread around the world. Here, in the ninth century, beside the White Lake, the great educator, poet and preacher Clement of Ohrid laid the foundations of Slavonic literature; in Ohrid, which became a centre of culture and enlightenment, the first Slavonic university, which educated 3,500 students, was founded; through Clement, Nahum, Angelarij, Konstantin Bregalnicki, Crnorizec Hrabar and a multitude of other successors, the Ohrid school of letters grew into a movement of enormous potential; Ohrid, a lighthouse of knowledge and religion, became the most powerful spiritual metropolis in the Slavonic world; thousands of churches and monasteries were built here, frescoes and icons were painted while the West was still an underpopulated and dark region sunk in the mists; the fascinating world of Islamic architecture was displayed in Macedonian towns, whereas in the village churches, as in little caskets full of gems, glittered the unrepeatable achievements of a gradually-disappearing thousand-year-old art, leaving brilliant traces.
Created by dreamers, Macedonia defies all denials.
The Macedonian people surviving in this Balkan area was to find its permanent support precisely in this culture. It would establish its creative gift despite historic tempests, the horrors of war, suffering, plunder and obstruction in order to maintain its cultural identity, creating values that would bridge the abysses of time.
Small stone tools, bone artefacts decorated with simple drawing, ceramic vessels, terracotta statuettes of the Great Goddess, posthumous gold masks of rules in emulation of the mighty Egyptian pharaohs, a bronze head of the god Dionysius lost in the mountains above Skopje after some barbarian attack, foundations of constructions, fallen columns, huge piles of stone with chisel marks, three-dimensional ornaments and reliefs, records and inscriptions, temples, luxurious palaces with marvellous mosaics, marble sculptures, Greek theatres and Roman amphitheatres, viaducts and bridges, Early Christian basilicas and martyries, Orthodox churches and monasteries, icons and frescoes, mosques, madrasahs, Turkish baths and covered markets, old manuscripts, holy books and apocryphas, mysterious deities from the East, Greek, Roman and Slavonic gods, the Slavonic alphabet -Glagolitic and Cyrillic, heavy and rich woven fabrics embroidered with gold, silver-plated weapons, fascinating wood-carvings on iconostases, exquisite embroidery and resplendent ornaments on folk-costumes – all this is only a part of the heritage that determines our cultural tradition: the entangled interaction of reciprocal influences, the mutual intertwining and pervasiveness of often antagonistic cultures and civilisations whose fertile criss-crossing and grafting on this soil has enabled art to flourish.
This cultural sediment, stratified layer upon layer in the course of time, often interpenetrating, at times interwoven as a consequence of powerful tectonic movements, intersected by scorched areas of barren ground, betweeen which outstanding works of art glitter like precious stones, form the firm soil in which contemporary Macedonian culture is rooted and on the basis of which it develops.
The defining of these cultural layers and the determining of their chronology would be a futile enterprise if it did not uncover the golden thread which through the sedimented layers of time has lasted up to the present.
From distant epochs the swift-flowing rivers of time bring us only unrelated and scattered fragments, components of one-time entities, objects which when touched turn into dust, words lost in the rustle of the centuries, scarcely legible manuscripts… Sometimes, in some exquisite creative achievement preserved from time’s destructive elements under the dark layers, for a moment, the radiance of someone’s exalted inspiration illuminates the dark areas like a lightning flash and the spiritual landscape of a long gone epoch is revealed in front of us. These fluorescent traces of the spirit in the substance are frequently the only signposts that can lead us back and enable us to endeavour to grasp the essence and the significance of the messages of the past.
Navigating against the current along the river of time, discovering buried towns and settlements in the sand, restoring ruined temples and palaces, putting together the fragments of sculptures, cleaning darkened pictures and elucidating old manuscripts means returning to our origins. If all the traces of the past were only a disorganised heap of events, images and words, if we did not believe that these monuments, objects and manuscripts were reverberations of words uttered long ago, addressed to us, the play of the gleams on a seemingly tranquil surface concealing a vast treasure and places full of secrets beneath, if we did not believe that these were signposts on our way they would not have the magic power that attracts us and in an amazing manner determines our attitude to ourselves and the world today.
We are witnesses to the agony of a world with the idea of progress as its driving force: the constant scientific and technical development which should provide a society of wealth and happiness. The dogmas existing up to now and the global world projects have been losing their appropriateness. As never before, contemporary humanity is exposed to innumerable equally plausible and acceptable interpretations. The image of the world has been split into numberless reflections and again we are standing in front of the open sky full of twinkling stars.
The symolic and mythical thought suppressed in the post-industrial phase of civilisation’s development, the discovery of dark domains in the unconscious and the huge creative potential of that which is imaginary point to another, different dimension of human existence. The attempt to regain the lost balance in a world which has no time to remember, and which projects its wishes and hopes into the future, takes us back to the past, to tradition and the inexhaustible forms of expression created in a time when art had a different meaning and human life a different sense.
The question is whether in a world without god, without its own metaphysical dimension, at a time when we have pronounced the death of Art and Philosophy, we can regain the vanished values. Have the holy images and symbols lost their significance for ever? Are they only petrified remnants of a distant past, the imprints of the spirit of a time when even the most complex truths about man and the world were discovered directly, though the experience of the sacral?
The crisis of contemporary civilisation and of its spiritual and historical categories has caused a violent severing of connections between man and nature, the individual and the community, the subject and the object, whereby the world has come to appeared as an alienated reality.
Contemporary civilisation reached after the holiest traditions and wished to bury all sources. Excited by the speed of machines, travelling along the modern highways of brilliantly illuminated cities, we have forgotten the hidden forest paths leading to the sacred places.
DISCOVERY OF TRADITION
To the European West, 19th century Macedonia was still a “dark vilayet”, a country with picturesque customs, folk costumes, songs and dances, a land with secrets in abundance, where at every step one comes across archaeological rarities and objects of interest, objects with which, in fact, the museums of Europe were being enriched. However, the profound and all-embracing social changes that currently impact upon Macedonia are accelerating the course of history. Accepting European cultural values and civilisational acquisitions, the traditional way of life has been abandoned and the view of the world has altered. The eschatological notions of heaven and the final salvation which is to take place only after the Day of Judgement have been transferred from the scope of eternity into history.
A “contemporary myth of Europe” is being created which, reduced to the concept of the West as a place of achieved human happiness and welfare, optimistically opens up perspectives of a rapid development. While the process of Europeanisation, especially marked in the urban areas from the middle of this century, has encompassed all walks of social life, there have already emerged strong reactions against the uncontrollable currents carrying Macedonia with them. Macedonian intellectuals from this period have posed the questions of how to catch up with Europe while at the same time preserving their identity, and of how to protect themselves from the arrogance of the conquerors, from the foreign cultures and languages, as well as from the seductive promises of the neighbours – already well-established nations.
At the moment when these dramatic changes are taking place, there also appears a primary emphatic interest in the country’s own tradition. The battle to discover and make sense of our autochthonous cultural past commences which, taking on the dimensions of a national cultural programme, grows into a bloody battle for the present and the future. Works of folk culture in which the sense of our historic endurance through time is concentrated take on the significance of a starting-point towards which a whole generation of Macedonian educators, writers, poets and revolutionaries turn in search of their own identity. The awareness that the sum of the values this people created and has preserved from destruction and oblivion is their cultural heritage – folk customs, orally transmitted data in place of a birth certificate and as a negation of falsified identity papers, issued by the captors, which conceal what we are – determines and directs the process of the constitution of the nation which has already begun.
Macedonian art has been moving for more than a century between the local and the global, the national and the universal, between the necessity to preserve the individual and the need to be a part of the great cultural synthesis of the West.
From Grigor Prlicev’s Serdarot(The Sirdar, 1860) through Koco Racin’s Beli Mugri (White Dawns) to Radovan Pavlovski and Bogomil Guzel’s poetic Manifesto (1960), through the poetry of Aco Sopov and Blaze Koneski to Slavko Janevski’s grandiose literary opus Kukulinski ciklus (Kukulian Cycle) the inexhaustible spring of folk creations, of Macedonian myths, legends and traditions, and of the tragic historic experience building up layer upon layer in the collective memory, keeps welling up in Macedonian literature, instigating new inspiration from under the ground and from the darkness of the past.
In contrast to creative works of literature, a sharp division towards the end of the 19th century severed the last threads connecting Macedonian fine arts with a thousand-year-old tradition. Bourgeois art was soon to fade away into romantic sunsets but already, with the appearance of Macedonian modernism in the 20’s of this century, the process of linking up with contemporary movements in European art had begun. Accepting and, with some delay, following the tempestuous changes in European art, Macedonian artists have shown an increasing interest in participating in these rapid currents, as well as an interest in their own art tradition.
From the discreet, subtle influence of direct contact with the achievements of the fine arts, first of all with the Byzantine art of Nikola Martinoski (the obsessive repetition of the motherhood motif and his Mothers as a concealed remembrance of the icons of the Mother of God in front of which the flame of the icon lamp twinkles, lighting up the dark corners of children’s dreams) and the folk creations which are the fine humus in which Ordan Petlevski’s new and marvellous forms germinate, through the formal undertakings of stylistic and iconographic solutions in Borko Lazevski’s “cubist oratorium”, to the moment when in 1960 the Mugri (Dawns) group raised the question of using the many-layered artistic experience, and Dimitar Kondovski created his icons and Tomo Sijak his musandras (cupboards), formulated as sacral, cult objects; from Vladimir Georgievski’s fascinating visions to Gligor Cemerski’s “stylistic exercises”, the descent into the depths of our past continues, the past of our people, and the recording of Macedonian secret hieroglyphics by means of more and more differentiated creative handwriting.
The whole of our cultural heritage is dramatically refracted in contemporary art where, surpassing its own boundaries, it passes into the universal. In their uninterrupted communication with the past but also in their critical and transhistoric synthesis, Macedonian painters, deeply rooted in their time and land, produce works of general and lasting value. This penetration into the past’s depths and investigation of the cultural layers has a large scope which encompasses the suggestions of prehistoric art, ancient Greece, Hellenistic cosmoplitanism, Roman eclecticism and Slavonic spirituality. Thus Macedonian artists, in their diligent search for their creative identity, tend to contemplate with an essentially up-to-date approach the relevant components of the whole Mediterranean and all of the cultural layers it contains without exception – Boris Petkovski notes this in his work Mediteranot i nie (The Mediterranean and Us).
Today, when we demand of art that it enable us to touch reality, when we demand of it that it restore the world’s scattered image, it is indispensible that it be open to the experience layered up over centuries.
Descending into the dark abyss of the subconscious where the deepest layers of the psyche lose individuality and, withdrawing further into the darkness, pass into the collective memory, Aneta Svetieva finds emotionally charged archaic forms.
On the battlefield where the angel and the demon fight, at the point where the world’s horizontals and verticals cross, where heaven and earth, past and present meet, in this crucifixion Vladimir Georgievski discovers a personal creative sign for the sum of human suffering.
Sometimes in the works of Macedonian artists different lands from a world full of gods appear, as a longing for a lost Arcadia, for the innocence of the first glance and touch, when for the first time the miraculous and terrifying world is revealed. In these works, as in Rubens Korubin’s pictures, the forgotten spaces of dreams are sensed, sunlit spaces where man and nature are still an inseparable unity.
Modern “nomads” like Simon Semov wander around vast spaces and distant ages searching for jewels to be incorporated into their works to shine unexpectedly, disclosing completely new meanings.
In immediate touch with leading creative achievements, like mediaeval Macedonian frescoes and the works of the great Western European art masters, Gligor Cemerski rediscovers art’s secrets, creating new mythical images for his time.
The complexity of this research induces Macedonian artists to find the grounds of their philosophical view of the world in the pursuit of the “contemporary myth”, a pursuit in which they surpass the borders of individual experience and endeavour to approach the sources of collective memory, Today when artists are united in their attempts to reach a direct and complete experience of the world and to fulfil their dream of distant ages when man was a part of nature’s great rhythm and when the world did not appear lifeless and empty, they turn their glance backward, towards the past’s eminent creative achievements and towards epochs like the Middle Ages, in which the deepest and darkest human secrets were revealed through art. In elucidating the past’s mysterious inscriptions, the axiomatic images that display reality’s complex structure are discovered.
Modern tendencies, the programmes of which are directed against aestheticism, give art back its ontological status. The abandoning of aesthetic subjectivism in order to reconquer the primal reality, the disrupted unity between man and the world, and the discovery of man’s deep secrets and of the entangled knots in the thread connecting man to the world raise the issue of a new attitude towards tradition.
There are still unsolved secrets. Deep in the ground there lies buried an insufficiently explored treasury which archaeology has still to discover. New discoveries will expand the knowledge of our past. Scattered multicoloured stones will be composed into new mosaics and new paintings will be found under the old mortar of the churches. Old manuscripts will be reread and history’s psalm-writers will discover new truths. New pages of Macedonian cultural history will be written and with admiration we will discover our cultural heritage, proud of its being an inevitable part of the world’s treasury of artistic and cultural wealth. In fact, what is still to be done is to discover the precious treasure buried deep inside us, and the effort of doing so will not be futile, for it is the most valuable thing we can give as our contribution to the world. Developing on the soil of a glorious and rich past, Macedonian culture may suddenly flourish again and, as many times before, give the world a new impetus.