Albeit the idea of establishing the Museum of Contemporary art in Serbia is as old as contemporary art itself, it became possible to realize it today, in a socialist society, in the middle of the 1960s, after nearly 15 years of conversations, initiatives, work.
Building it, Serbia and Belgrade aimed at showing national and Yugoslav contemporary art concurrently―the former as a part and parcel of the latter. Thus, one of the most developed and recognized art forms obtains its home in the capital city: for the first time it is possible to see what was produced during the 20th century in this field in our geographical and spiritual coordinates at one place, and under one roof. Thanks to the fact that in its permanent section it showcases the development of the Yugoslav, and in its periodical section, through successive occasional exhibitions, also the values of foreign art―the Museum, i.e. Belgrade, should become the centre of our, and gradually one of the centres of international art life; so the views which divide the development and the place of our contemporary visual culture into the period before and the period after its foundation are not altogether unfounded.
To fulfil its primary mission the Museum―for all of these reasons―took on a difficult enterprise of composing a unique vision of the Yugoslav art of the 20th century starting from the artwork as a result, as an objectified value. It is solely through objectified value, true and authentic, that the major moments in its development and historical periods are reconstructed or indicated. Its very recognition, selection and integration into this vision are based, however, on several principles, adopted and put to work after undertaking complex theoretical and historical studies in general, and on the grounds of really available collections in particular. What we deal with here is the organic unity, the principle of aesthetic value as a condition for acquiring real historical value and the principle of the primacy of historical as opposed to individual timeline.
The principle of organic whole and real dialectical understanding of history had influence also on the treatment of artistic individuality. Certain authors were not presented at only one spot but―when they are relevant for the flow of the artistic vision―on several spots so as to be brought to the fore in their apogee.
The display at the Museum is keeping with the principle of organic unity in several directions. Firstly, the events, individuals and works pertaining to same tendencies are brought together in such a manner that only in the framework of the same stylistic blocs different cultural centres are distinguishable; where and when it was feasible, movements strikingly characteristic for particular environments were singled out. (…) The principle of organic whole and real dialectical understanding of history had influence also on the treatment of artistic individuality. Certain authors were not presented at only one spot but―when they are relevant for the flow of the artistic vision―on several spots so as to be brought to the fore in their apogee. This goes for those who, undergoing changes, create in one period, and especially for those living and working in all three of the periods examined.
The other and main principle is consistent application of standards inherent to art. It is well-known, however, that―since the system of relations and norms in which and after which they developed is fundamentally disturbed―criteriological issues in our century grew complex more than ever. As an affective reduction of a general insight, obsessed by the idea of totality, modern art became “inscrutable”, “difficult”. Simple formal structures are often inversely reciprocal to intricate structures of content. Even when it is obvious and clear as an object, an artwork is unclear in its meaning, origin and goal. After successfully coming to terms with formal and structural issues, the ones of semantical nature, and then the most abstract and difficult ones, namely axiological issues, inseparable from the content, and thus from the social role of art, have arisen.
For these reasons the Museum display couples resolve with caution on the road to the basic goal: showcasing the development of our art not through the works of documentary, but, if possible, of anthological character. This means that as intrinsically aesthetic, artistic criterion is given upper hand over historical one; more precisely―historical conclusions are reached first and foremost, and often solely, by taking into account specific critically and aesthetically relevant material, drawing on the conviction that artistic value is not the consequence of historical value, but vice versa.
The display is thus understood critically: as an anthology, a sum of factual, in as much as possible high-aspiring pieces. Nonetheless, it is important to emphasize that between an anthology and a museum display with high requirements and criteria there is a substantial difference. Most importantly in that two anthologies can mutually be almost overlapping, encompassing same poems and texts; two museums, on the other hand, are quite different even when they share the same conceptions: their collections always consist of different works. As opposed to a poem, a painting, as a unique thing sui generis, cannot be at two places at the same time. This is what grants originality, but imposing limits as well, to each museum. (…) The display that the Museum opens with will, after all, in the course of years be constantly improved and extended.
These principles are carried out throughout each of three periods.
As introductory, the period from 1900 to 1918, is portrayed succinctly, with the best of the available exhibits. It chiefly includes the era of Impressionism with the emphasis on those currents wherein pure Impressionism is surpassed by trailblazing the new roads in the art of the 20th century. (…) The second period, from 1918 to 1941, more dynamic, complex and longer, marked by more developed art life, is portrayed in greater scope and in a much diversified way; many of our artists during this period went through a number of phases that are often mutually continuous or discontinuous. (…) The third period, after 1945, as the most developed of the three, with the largest number of individuals and tendencies, as well as cultural centres, is portrayed also in considerable length, with its essential currents and values. The thread of social painting, militant Realism, new Humanism, colouristic Expressionism, and neo-Surrealism is what connects it with the preceding one.
— Miodrag B. Protić, 1965