Oto Bihalji-Merin is one of the most significant art historians in the former Yugoslavia. He is particularly credited for promoting the naive art of Yugoslav artists in the post-war period and for spreading the ideas of engaged art in the interwar period. We visited his legacy in Belgrade and spoke with the journalist Andrej Ivanji, who collaborated closely with him in his youth.
Oto Bihalji-Merin was born in Zemun on January 3, 1904, as the third child in the family of David Bihali and Klara Šenman, who were of Jewish descent. Later in life, due to various circumstances, he changed his surname to Bihalji-Merin.
Throughout his long life, Oto engaged in art criticism, literature, painting, and became one of the most important intellectuals in Yugoslavia. He wrote under the pseudonym Peter Tene, or Pjer Merin, during the interwar period when, as a communist-oriented activist, he published in European publishing houses.
Journalist Andrej Ivanji, with whom we collaborated on this article, had the opportunity to meet Bihalji in his youth.
Andrej Ivanji described Oto as follows: "Bihalji was one of the last intellectual dinosaurs and witnesses of the emergence of the communist idea of the twentieth century. His presence seemed confusing to young people, at least to me. He insisted that I address him informally. To me, a kid in my eighties, he stubbornly used the formal address until I finally managed to break through his language barrier. An old tradition from the communist party, he said; German social democrats still address each other informally today."
Despite various manipulations with the concept of communism, worn out due to idolatry, influenced by kitschy, melodramatic, intrusive partisan films and education, the Youth Relay, and other nonsense, besides Bihalji, I managed to understand that the idea of communism is essentially a simple idea of fighting for a fairer society, unrelated to borders and state order. Because of Bihalji's critical views, he was not popularized in Tito's Yugoslavia, and because he was a communist, he certainly won't be celebrated in today's Serbia. I think he wouldn't mind
Oto Bihalji- Merin collaborated and corresponded with numerous famous personalities of the 20th century, from Brecht, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, through Malraux, Sartre, and Gorky, to Hemingway and Faulkner. His social and intellectual engagement during the interwar period was dedicated to the struggle against the rising fascism in Italy and Hitler's National Socialism in Germany.
In Belgrade, he studied painting and art history, and continued his studies in Berlin, where he began publishing literary and philosophical texts in German. Thomas Mann considered Bihalji one of the best stylists in the German language. Together with the philosopher György Lukács, he worked for the renowned German magazine of left intellectuals, "Die Linkskurve" (The Left Curve).
Written by: Angelina Mladenović
Special thanks to Andrej Ivanji.