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  • Writer's pictureMatthias

Art nouveau in the city

They still do exist and happen, these moments when even as a quite well-travelled and very open-minded person you're feeling just a little ashamed of your own limited perspectives. This is exactly what happened to me on my very first trip to Subotica. In my defense, it was the first time I had left Belgrade and seen another Serbian town. But my immediate reaction (accompanied by my head bowed in embarrassment) was: "Wow, I did not expect places as beautiful as this in Serbia!" More or less fortunately, that is no different for many people born in Serbia, which is why my head quickly recovered and could be lifted in time to really enjoy this extraordinarily artistic town to the fullest.


Sadly that is something day-to-day visitors have a way easier time with than actual residents, the main problem with Subotica being these days (and years) that not only not much is happening, but even worse: less and less. The young people migrate and emigrate – the local bilingualism and dual citizenship for Hungary (and therefore the EU) make it exceptionally easy – and life and opportunities dwindle accordingly. Event and cultural venues have been closing down for a long time, and so has the town's only vegan restaurant (that couldn't possibly have had many fans to begin with). One district of Subotica is even holding a Europe-wide record for suicides. Keeping all these things in mind while walking through the city center easily breaks your heart – this unique place seriously deserves a happier life!


Photo by Sanja Kostić

What makes Subotica so special, not only in Serbia but also as a town in general, is its architecture. Seemingly half the city was built art nouveau style whereas the other half seems to try imitate it. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries Subotica and Budapest were closely connected, both being part of the same state. And while the whole of Europe was going through quite a few changes Subotica was at the peak of its architectural development, thanks to the always helpful financial prosperity. Fun fact: back in the 18th century it was even bigger than Zagreb and Belgrade.


Ultimately it was the proximity to Austria-Hungary that made the Viennese art nouveau, the Secession style, predominant here. Its representatives, much like their Western European colleagues, held the opinion that the age of industrialization would lead to the disappearance of art, which is why it needed to be integrated into everyday life as strongly as possible. Well, congratulations, ladies and gentlemen, you have succeeded and excelled!


Photo by Sanja Kostić

Flagship and showpiece among the several local structures is undoubtedly the colossal city hall (gradska kuća), built 1908-1912 (four years for a large-scale construction project – take that, present time) to the designs of Budapest-based Marcell Komor and Dezsõ Jakab. Then as now most of Subotica's urban life took and takes place in its sizeable shadow: markets, festivals, drinking coffee and eating ice cream (especially at Pelivan, a family business serving since 1923). Visiting the impressive building is practically a must and if you're already admiring the exterior's attention to detail you surely will be amazed by the hand-painted walls and ceilings inside, not to mention the wall tiles from Hungarian Žolnai ceramics. Guided tours of 1-2 hours meet Tue-Sat at 12 pm at the main entrance and cost 150 RSD.


Subotica's population might surpass 100,000 by just a little, but that doesn't keep the majority of that from speaking of "city center" and "out-of-town" when referring to the city hall and pretty much everything further than 300 m away from it. I myself would probably at least include the pedestrian zone Kozor in the center that directly leads away from the main square Trg Slobode (Freedom square) and offers various opportunities to window-shop and have a coffee. And definitely take a stroll down cute backstreet Matije Korvina, and not only because it's named after my namesake Matthias Corvinus (1443-1490), whose imposing physique even personally welcomes you to the street. Passing the former King of Hungary and Croatia, King of Bohemia as well as Duke of Austria, who conquered large parts of the Habsburg Hereditary Lands which he ruled from Vienna, you will find just a handful of coffeeshops, restaurants and other things to explore.


Photo by Sanja Kostić

Just a stone's throw away another prime example of Subotica's art nouveau awaits. In case you've arrived in town by train it might very well have welcomed you already since Ferenc Raichle's Palace (Palata Rajhl Ferenc) is located right across the train station. Originally conceived and built by the eponymous architect Raichle Ferenc as an admittedly quite lavish home and workplace it is covered with stylized hearts made of iron, ceramics and mosaics whereas inside it used to house an office, a large dining room, an indoor garden (which also served as a ballroom) and a smoking lounge.


It may be hard to believe, but Raichle liked to live in opulence – he liked to travel, to collect and to furnish his personal palace. Probably three of the main reasons why he went bankrupt in 1908, just four years after completing his modest home which quickly went under the auction hammer. Raichle himself went on to move to Budapest, eventually recovered from bankruptcy and was able to enjoy life and art well into old age.


He would certainly be pleased to see his palace as the city's Modern Art Gallery (Savremena galerija) that it is today. Founded in 1962 in order to display and discuss contemporary Yugoslav artists of all fields the gallery soon moved into the Raichle Palace and is still staying true to its original purpose today. If you want to learn more about the gallery (and its home) try ask for curator Jasmina, who is always more than happy and enthusiastic to chat about her work and workplace.

Photo by Sanja Kostić

On pretty much the other side of town – but even closer to the center – another unique structure completes Subotica's most prominent art nouveau trinity in town (while there are still plenty more examples to discover). The locals consider their synagogue (Subotička Sinagoga) from 1902 by aforementioned Hungarian duo Komor and Jakab one of the most beautiful in this part of Europe – and they might be right since the design actually once won second place in the Szeged synagogue architecture competition (yes, that's a thing, apparently). Serbia offering Judaism Hungarian art nouveau style – come on, I dare you, look me in the eye and tell me this word combo is not truly unique!


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