In Serbian Country: the paintings of Sava Šumanović

Sava Šumanović (1896–1942), Drunken Boat (1927), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Belgrade Contemporary Art Museum, Belgrade, Serbia. Wikimedia Commons.

This year, we commemorated the centenary of the early death of Amedeo Modigliani. Among those who knew him during the last months of his life was the Serbian painter Sava Šumanović (Сава Шумановић, 1896–1942), whose short life and paintings I examine in this article. One of the most important Serbian artists of the twentieth century, he was prolific and innovative until his death in a wave of genocide during the Second World War.

Šumanović was born into a wealthy family in Vinovci, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and is now in Croatia. As a child he moved back to the family town of Šid, now on the Serbian side of the border with Croatia, in the district of Srem. After the end of the First World War, he started his studies at Zagreb College of Crafts and Arts, from where he soon moved to Paris.

In Paris, Šumanović studied under André Lhote, and made friends with Amedeo Modigliani (who died in January 1920), Max Jacob, and members of the Serbian artistic community in the city. In about 1923, he returned to Serbia, then went back to Paris in late 1925 for over two years.

Sava Šumanović (1896–1942), Nude in Interior (1926), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Few of his paintings from his student and early days in Paris appear to have survived. This Nude in Interior from 1926 shows his initial influence by Modigliani’s nudes, which must have been highly topical at the time. However, Šumanović has been restrained in his anatomical exaggeration, and doesn’t give this woman the long neck typical of Modigliani’s figures.

At this time, he also worked on a precursor sketch for his later Drunken Boat (below).

Sava Šumanović (1896–1942), Parisian Love (1927), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Parisian Love from 1927 shows a young couple sat on a bench in the city of Paris, with a couple of modern motor taxis in the street behind them. Her coat and skirt are very short, only reaching to her knees.

That year, he started painting more ambitious figurative works, setting his figures in outdoor locations.

Sava Šumanović (1896–1942), Luncheon on the Grass (1927), oil on canvas, 163 x 202 cm, The Pavle Beljanski Memorial Collection, Novi Sad, Serbia. Wikimedia Commons.

The first of these was Luncheon on the Grass, perhaps his response to Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863) which had become a classic by that time. These four women have come to bathe and lunch by the bank of a river, seen through the arch of a bridge. Three are still naked after their swim, one at the top left towelling herself dry, but the fourth at the lower right remains dressed. At the right edge the artist includes what must be his self-portrait, although he isn’t sporting the moustache that is shown in his photos and other self-portraits. Their heads are gentle caricatures, with foreheads sweeping back, but not Modigliani’s necks.

Sava Šumanović (1896–1942), Drunken Boat (1927), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Belgrade Contemporary Art Museum, Belgrade, Serbia. Wikimedia Commons.

Drunken Boat, also from 1927, is the finished version of an unusual motif which he had previously painted as a study. Six figures are in a tiny sailing boat in a rough sea, drinking and eating a rather different lunch. Two naked women have their arms around one yachtsman. Another man is at the tiller, at the lower left, and a third beside the mast, at the top right; he’s holding a bottle ready to drink from it. In the foreground, the sixth figure is wearing a long bathing costume and of indetermine gender.

Sava Šumanović (1896–1942), Bar in Paris (1929), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Šumanović’s Bar in Paris from 1929 shows a sailor chatting up two well-dressed women at a bar, with a bottle of champagne poised for opening, in an ice bucket at the left. The women have facial details and quite elongated necks, but the barman’s face is blank.

At this time, he also painted several landscapes in Paris.

Sava Šumanović (1896–1942), Nude Woman (1929), oil on canvas, 100.5 x 81.2 cm, The Pavle Beljanski Memorial Collection, Novi Sad, Serbia. Wikimedia Commons.

This Nude Woman from 1929 is one of the last he painted in the city. The following year, having divided his time between Paris and Serbia, Šumanović settled in the town of Šid in Serbia. During the 1930s, he concentrated on local landscapes, and the occasional nude.

Sava Šumanović (1896–1942), Village House (1932), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Village House from 1932 shows his love of brilliant colours and thick impasto, which is unfortunately not ageing well judging by the cracks visible here.

Sava Šumanović (1896–1942), Winter in Srem (1933), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

If Šumanović’s Winter in Srem (1933) is anything to go by, the cold season in this part of Serbia is bleak, with extensive hoar frost on the leafless trees.

Sava Šumanović (1896–1942), Before Spring (1934), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Before Spring (1934) shows another view of the local countryside as the last of the snow is melting away, and the fresh leaves erupt from their buds on the branches.

Sava Šumanović (1896–1942), Spring in the Shida Gardens (1934), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

His Spring in the Shida Gardens, also from 1934, is decidedly post-Impressionist, perhaps most influenced by Cézanne. These gardens appear to be on the edge of the town of Šid.

Sava Šumanović (1896–1942), Nude Woman in a Red Armchair (1934), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Finding models in a small town like Šid in 1934 can’t have been easy, but Šumanović was successful in getting one to sit for several of his paintings. She’s seen as the Nude Woman in a Red Armchair, and appears in at least two other paintings from the same year.

Sava Šumanović (1896–1942), Šid under Snow (1935), oil on canvas, 81.4 x 100.3 cm, The Pavle Beljanski Memorial Collection, Novi Sad, Serbia. Wikimedia Commons.

In the mid-1930s, Šumanović painted more local landscapes, including this barren view of Šid under Snow (1935) which appears to have stopped in time. Over the next two years he painted a series of groups of nude women, based on a single blonde model.

sumanovicmodel studio1939
Sava Šumanović (1896–1942), Model in the Studio (1939), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

His ingenious Model in the Studio from 1939 is a painting of the artist painting a nude reclining on a rich red settee.

Sava Šumanović (1896–1942), White Vase (date not known), media and dimensions not known, The National Museum of Serbia, Belgrade, Serbia. Wikimedia Commons.

I also have one undated floral still life of a White Vase. He appears to have painted the occasional floral work through much of his career.

In 1939, just before the start of the Second World War, Šumanović had his first solo exhibition in Belgrade, where he showed over four hundred of his paintings, mainly from the last nine years while he had been living in Šid. He lived quietly, painting prolifically, in that town until 1941, when the Nazi Independent State of Croatia was formed and started a campaign of genocide against the Serbs. He was arrested and put into a concentration camp, where he was executed on 30 August 1942, at the age of only 46.

His last major work was a large triptych showing Serbian women at work in the harvest, which he completed shortly before he was arrested.

The largest collection of his paintings is now in the dedicated museum in the town of Šid in Serbia.


Collection of paintings in Šid.

I am very grateful to Michele for drawing my attention to this artist.