Slovenia retrieves its “Ambassadors of Art”

Works of Art from Yugoslav diplomatic missions

Nikolaj Omersa: A View Through a Window in Piran. Oil, canvas, from the residence of the former SFRY in Vienna. Photo: National Gallery Archives.

An exhibition has opened in Ljubljana of important Slovenian works of art once displayed in diplomatic missions of the old Yugoslavia, to which Slovenia belonged until independence in 1991. Some 200 works of art have been gradually brought back since 2003.

An exhibition has opened in Ljubljana of important Slovenian works of art once displayed in diplomatic missions of the old Yugoslavia, to which Slovenia belonged until independence in 1991. Some 200 works of art have been gradually brought back since 2003.

Works of art in diplomatic missions and residences are very important because an ambassador represents a president of a certain country in the host country, and the embassy is de jure territory of the guest country in the host country. Works of art are therefore indicative of the place ascribed to art in our life and our society’s attitude to art, the power of our artistic output and lastly the level of education and sophistication of our representatives. The exceptional place and significance of fine arts thus arise from the simple fact that such pieces are permanently on display at the premises visited not only by citizens who come as clients, but also by important personalities of the host country and other representatives of the diplomatic community. 

The exhibition entitled “The Return of Ambassadors of Art – Works of Art from the Yugoslav Succession” is on display at the National Gallery of Slovenia i n Ljubljana until 6 September.

It features 68 works of art, i.e. the ambassadors of art. The broader public can now view these beautiful masterpieces which once decorated the walls of buildings at prestigious locations around the world. The exhibition includes the selected works once displayed at diplomatic missions and consular posts of the former country in Berlin, Bern, Budapest, Vienna, Graz, The Hague, London, Madrid, Milan, Paris, Prague, Rome, Thessaloniki, Stockholm, Trieste, Warsaw and Zurich. The exhibition includes 32 paintings and 36 works on paper by 34 Slovenian artists.

All the works of art returned to Slovenia so far will be later exhibited at diplomatic missions and consular posts of the Republic of Slovenia abroad, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other official Slovenian diplomatic premises.

Long and difficult journey

France Mihelič: Musicians. Oil, canvas, from the residence of the former SFRY in Paris. Photo: National Gallery Archives

The journey to obtain these works of art was long and strenuous. For this purpose, the successor states formed the expert group for negotiations, which has been operating since 2002. The group is examining inventory lists of Yugoslav missions and photographs of works of art and unanimously decides on what works of art belong to which successor state according to the national origin of the artists or where they worked, and to which artistic circles they belonged. 

Matej Sternen: Interior. From the residence of the former SFRY in Paris. Photo: National Gallery Archives

The first 13 works of art from Washington and Paris were returned to Slovenia in 2003. To this date, some 200 works by Slovenian artists have been returned, most of them came from neighbouring countries where works by Slovenian artists most frequently embellished the diplomatic premises.  

The former Yugoslav consulate general in Trieste housed particularly the works of Slovenian artists living in the Trieste region, such as Lojze Spacal, Avgust Černigoj, Bogdan Grom, Jože Cesar and Avrelij Lukežič. A special section is dedicated to these artists at the exhibition. 

At this point, the priceless works by the Impressionists, which were housed at the residence of the diplomatic mission in Paris, must be highlighted. The paintings by Matija Jama, Spring Birches, and Matej Sternen, Interior, are two of the most important pieces of Slovenian art at the diplomatic missions of the former state.   

The artistic interior decoration is not only a matter of updating the artistic fund with a sense of artistic quality, but also a matter of maintaining works of art. Fine works of art are frequently the most expensive items of the interior décor of the rooms where they are displayed. The National Gallery of Slovenia would therefore like to raise awareness that this is also part of our cultural heritage, a part of the face we show the world, and emphasise that the interior décor of our diplomatic missions is not just any interior design, but a symbolic representation of our community, culture and identity. 

Text by Urška Kramberger Mendek