Get to Know the First Lady of Yugoslavia through the Partisan and Fragonard Exhibition

The current exhibition in the Gallery of Matica Srpska, which was implemented in partnership with the Museum of Yugoslavia, is widely talked about in Novi Sad. Of course, it is about The Partisan and Fragonard. Collection of Jovanka Broz exhibition, about the former first lady of Yugoslavia. The setting brings an authentic journey through the life of this beloved and somewhat mysterious person who spent the last part of her life alone and forgotten. We talked to the authors of the exhibition, and with their help, we tried to answer the question: who is Jovanka Broz and what kind of woman was she? Of course, to find answers to these questions, be sure to save the afternoon to visit the exhibition, which will last until 28 August.

Jovanka Broz was a communist Cinderella, as many called her, but also gave her the roles of a Yugoslav co-ruler, as well as someone who wanted to carry out a coup d’etat. How did a person who was famous in the East and the West during the twentieth century, just like her husband, come to complete isolation? And how did a girl born in the countryside get married to the greatest son of Yugoslav nations and nationalities? Even the sources do not agree on that, and you will often hear several versions of many important events from Jovanka’s life.

From Partisan to Tito’s Secretary

Jovanka Budisavljević was born in the village of Pećane – which her ancestors allegedly named after Peć in Kosovo, where they come from – in today’s Croatia in 1924. Apparently, Nikola Tesla was her cousin! At the age of 17, Jovanka joined the partisans to fight the occupiers in World War II. She was wounded in the war, she had typhus, and she lost her father and two brothers. After the end of the war, she received two orders for bravery, and she was also the holder of the Commemorative Medal of the Partisans and had the rank of lieutenant colonel of the Yugoslav People’s Army. In the new, peaceful Yugoslavia, she was reassigned to the Marshall’s Office, i.e. the office of Josip Broz, where she later became his personal secretary. Marshall was 55 at the time and had three marriages behind him, and was just recovering from the loss of his last love.

Love for Jovanka – On the Second Place

Jovanka allegedly saw Tito for the first time during the war. The two were married in 1952. There is no consensus on how this marriage came about. Namely, some claimed that she was chosen ‘from the leadership’ as the future marshall’s wife; others insinuated that the very leadership estimated that the marriage of an ethnic Serb and an ethnic Croat would show in practice how ‘brotherhood and unity’, the ideology of the creators of the new Yugoslavia, looked like. Of course, the third option is that between them, a striking and important marshall, and a beautiful and young girl, love simply erupted.

In Žarko Jokanović’s book ‘My Life, My Truth’, Jovanka stated as a loveable detail of her married life that Tito made her coffee every morning. However, she came only in the second place in his life – after his love for power. Despite that, Yugoslavia and the world met the first couple of the country as a harmonious couple who enjoy life, travel and socialize with world leaders, members of royal families, intellectuals and stars. However, if this sounds like a fairy tale – it’s just one side of the coin

Intelligent, Brave and Always Armed

Namely, Jovanka was a child from the countryside. She could not be in the ‘team’ that surrounded Tito, being younger and uneducated. Apparently, Tito made an effort to provide her with etiquette classes. She also enrolled in the Faculty, the World Literature, although she never graduated.

However, Jovanka Broz did not lack intelligence. According to her own words, the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement was her idea. For Tito, she was the ‘last circle of protection’, practically a bodyguard who had to react if all other attempts to protect him failed, and that is why she always had a gun with her.


Jovanka Broz as a Thorn in the State Leadership Side

Loved by the people, especially women all over Yugoslavia who imitated her, Jovanka was often a thorn in the side of the state leadership. Some believed that she was plotting and had state ambitions. The marriage of Jovanka and Josip Broz had becoming an item on the agenda at the meetings of the Presidency of the SFRY, and at over fifty meetings main and only one item! The couple’s relationship definitely got worse in the early seventies. Jovanka later claimed that she was trying to protect the president from the influence of various ‘agents’ that she noticed everywhere, and Tito ordered the League of Communists to establish a special commission to deal with ‘the case of comrade Jovanka’, from which all those meetings followed. The real truth about the agents was never revealed, and Jovanka was declared paranoid and Tito was advised to divorce. The divorce never took place, but the two separated, and she was forcibly placed in isolation.

Downfall after the Title of First Lady

When Tito was ill and operated on in Ljubljana, she was not allowed to visit him – or, according to other sources, Tito refused to receive her. The last three years of his life they did not see each other, and not only that: in 1977, at the reception of the British Minister of Foreign Affairs, she was last seen in public life. After his death, she was placed under house arrest, and some sources claim that she was not even planned to be at the funeral – but Indira Gandhi conditioned her arrival on hers. That is how Jovanka managed to greet her husband for the last time.

The years that followed would be difficult and humiliating for every human being, and especially for the first lady’ who carried that title while the country was at its zenith. Jovanka was forcibly, at night, under the threat of weapons and after the confiscation of property, moved to a villa on the Boulevard of Peace, where she will spend the next decades of her life in inhumane conditions. She was constantly under the supervision of the security services, which was ordered by the then head of the service, Stane Dolanc. In the book ‘My Life, My Truth’, she claimed that he was a German spy and that he was part of the Hitler Youth. Jovanka has been rumoured for years to write memoirs that could discredit some state leaders, which could be at least one of the reasons why she was placed in isolation. As we know today, such memoirs do not exist

Poverty and Isolation for 33 Years

After Tito’s death, Jovanka was threatened with murder, but also with the murder of her two sisters. After some time, she found dresses and furs that were not confiscated, torn at the seams, because they suspected that she could hide microfilms and other information there. Letters written to her by friends never arrived, and when they called her on the phone, they couldn’t get her. This was just an introduction to years of isolation. The villa on Boulevard of Peace was a ruin, with leaking windows, damp walls and no heating. After Tito’s death, Jovanka spent her life in poverty, without a pension, in the company of a gardener, with contacts with a close circle of relatives and friends. However, in this ruined villa, she tried to recreate the space in which she lived with Tito – as much as she could.

Works of Art as Witnesses to Jovanka’s Story

Exactly the space in which Jovanka lived for the last 33 years of her life are the subject of the exhibition ‘Partisan and Fragonard’. As the co-authors of the exhibition Ana Panić, curator of the

Museum of Yugoslavia and Nikola Ivanović, curator of the Gallery of Matica Srpska explained to us, the idea for the exhibition came when a Commission was formed three years after Jovanka Broz’s death with the aim to identify the objects that were isolated and transferred to the Museum of Yugoslavia in the summer of 2017. A smaller part belongs to fine, more applied art, with some needlepoints, inlaid woods, children’s works, jewellery, clothing, utility items, music records, books, etc. Given the condition of the objects, it was clear that they needed urgent conservation and restoration treatment, and they immediately turned to old friends, applying the previous model of cooperation.

‘The preparation of the exhibition went exactly as we imagined,’ said Ana Panić and Nikola Ivanović. ‘When you have a professional and dedicated partner in your work, then there are not many difficulties. Technical things passed easily, however, the most difficult part of the task was at the very beginning – to choose an adequate methodology and really understand and read this collection, and then present it to the audience in a receptive way. We understood it as a collection of memoirs curated by Jovanka Broz, and dedicated it to the story of memory, forgetting and memories as integral parts of our lives.’

What Do Jovanka Broz and Fragonard Have in Common?

Our interlocutors and authors of the exhibition point out that the most important thing was to understand the heterogeneous fund of paintings that was in front of them at the beginning, and discovering the authors of certain works, as well as the way Tito and Jovanka Broz came to them was the most challenging. After that, it was necessary to put these works in a certain context and understand what significance they had for Jovanka Broz herself. The authors revealed to us why this is the name of the exhibition and what the partisan Jovanka and Fragonard, a painter from the 18th century, have in common.

‘Opposing the partisan to the French rococo painter Fragonard, we wished to point out how heterogeneous the art fund we present at the exhibition is, and to point out this strange and sometimes bizarre synthesis of objects united only by the names of Jovanka and Josip Broz as a ruling couple. With the title of the exhibition, we suggest that through the objects that surrounded her, we wished to re-examine what kind of Jovanka and what roles of her we see by looking at all those dead things that have lost their primary meaning as in a huge museum without a curator. Do we see Jovanka the first lady, or Jovanka who has been a model for generations of her peers and younger women? Do we see Jovanka the partisan? We are interested in whether her multiple identities are woven into a collection housed in an imaginary museum whose only curator was Jovanka Broz, and whether they can be read from the paintings she saw every day in her house,’ conclude Ana Panić and Nikola Ivanović.

The exhibition was created in cooperation with the Gallery of Matica Srpska and the Museum of Yugoslavia within the Heroines programme arch of the European Capital of Culture. You can see the exhibition in the Gallery of Matica Srpska until 28 August, and the expert guide through the exhibition is implemented every first Friday of the month: 3 June, 1 July and 5 August at 19.00, as well as every weekend in two terms – 1 p.m. and at 5 p.m.

Partner of the Heroines programme arch is Erste banka.

Author: Tihana Smiljanić

Photo: Promo/EPK

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