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PAJA JOVANOVIĆ’S BELOVED WOMAN FROM MUNICH IN THE ARTIST’S STUDIO FOR THE FIRST TIME AFTER 113 YEARS

The painting Nude Woman in front of a Mirror (Naked Bertha), painted in Munich in 1895–1896, is exhibited at the Museum of Paja Jovanović for the first time. On the occasion of the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the artist's birth (in 2009), this exquisite work of art, which has been part of a private collection since 1903, was first exhibited in Serbia. The painting, which had been almost unknown until then, would soon come in the focus of expert interest. The identity of the woman in the painting has been discovered after more than one hundred years owing to the preserved manuscript of the artist's memoir, which was bequeathed to the City of Belgrade along with Paja Jovanović’s belongings. By discovering the relationship between a woman known to the artist’s experience and the depicted woman, i.e. a woman from the artist’s life and the woman on canvas, we have managed to grasp an intimate part of the artist’s personal biography that was not known to the public.

This superb nude, perhaps the best ever painted by Paja Jovanović, will be publicly displayed from June 23 to September 22, 2016, owing to the courtesy of the owner, for which we are sincerely grateful.

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At the age of twenty-five, in 1884, Paja Jovanović settled in Munich, to stay there for eleven years, with fairly short or rather long interruptions. As a young and vigorous artist, who was a laureate of international and local awards and was financially rewarded for his work, Paja Jovanović lived an unrestrained and turbulent life. Although he refused to give an account of the Munich years in his memoir, considering them a waste of life in the most beautiful years of his youth, he still referred to them on several occasions, always associating them with the same woman, Bertha. This section of the memoir was, apparently, not intended to be published, at least not in the form in which it was written, but it still reveals to us the artist’s sensual and emotional side.

And then this Bertha: my athletic Valkyrie girl. I have exhausted all of my energy in these daily wrestling and gymnastic struggle with her...

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And then this Bertha: my athletic Valkyrie girl. I have exhausted all of my energy in these daily wrestling and gymnastic struggle with her...

Paja Jovanović mentioned Bertha in several places, not trying to conceal the nature of their relationship and offering a verbal portrait of her personality.

Therefore I wipe from my memory (the things I am reluctant to remember) ... Bertha with a gun – shooting while jumping through the window (and the other desperate nonsense) – for my foolishness and all the inconvenience that embittered my life in Munich.

It will be difficult to say good bye to Bertha ... I cut with a sharp knife – and a great pain, all ties with Bertha [though] she has already become a part of me – the surgery was really risky but this had to be so...

The motive underlying the creation of the painting also determined its purpose. The artist brought the painting with him from Munich to Vienna but he neither exhibited it at official exhibitions, nor did he have it reproduced in illustrated magazines and advertised for gallery sales. Owing to a profoundly personal value that the painting had for him, Paja Jovanović kept it in his studio, away from the public eye. It was only after eight years, in 1903, that he agreed to sell it. The Nude Woman in front of a Mirror, as a visual souvenir, was an alternative for leaving the past behind without renouncing it. By leaving a conscious and deliberate visual record, Paja Jovanović saved Bertha’s figure from oblivion, while denying her absence and confirming her presence in his personal history and time.

D. Vanušić

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