Saturday, September 15, 2012

Ivan Mestrovic - Artist and Croatian patriot

I picked up Ivan Mestrovic: The Making of a Master at the Mestrovic Museum in Zagreb. It was our last day in Croatia and I had already become an enthusiast of his work as a result of visiting the Mestrovic Museum in Split as well as having seen numerous other examples of his sculptures in our travels. Maria Mestrovic’s (daughter) provided a beautiful story of Ivan Mestrovic’s development as an artist, placing his massive contribution to 20th century sculpture in the context of his love for his country and the deep religious convictions that inspired so many of his works.

The first encounter with Mestrovic was during our first days in Zagreb. We found one of his earliest (1905) sculptures in front of the Croatian national theater. After encountering “The Fountain of Life” (picture to left) we were eager to see the Mestrovic Museum in Split that served first as the Mestrovic family home and was later donated to serve as a museum. The Mestrovic Museum in Split is an amazing environment – quiet, serene and conducive to viewing Mestrovic’s magnificent sculptures in a complementary and natural setting overlooking the Adriatic sea.

Just below the Mestrovic ville on the hillside overlooking the sea, is another of Mestrovic's great contributions to art - a restored 16th century summer house was converted to the Crikvine - Kastilac.  It is in the chapel that Mestrovic's lifetime work is housed.  The picture to the right is of the wooden sculpture of the Crucifixion and around the room on either side of the altar are 28 wood reliefs depicting the birth and life of Jesus.  The theme of religious expression recurred throughout Mestrovic's life but the Crikvine is the most personal of all his creations.

Mestrovic’s early works were influenced by the Secession movement as it emerged in Vienna in the early 20th century. However, his real genius was more fully recognized when Mestrovic and the aging master August Rodin established a friendship and mutual admiration for each other’s works. Besides Rodin’s influence on Mestrovic, one of the most fascinating aspects of Mestrovic’s art is its influence in the U.S.A., and particularly in Chicago, our home in the U.S.A. The monumental Indians on horseback in Grant Park were commissioned and installed in 1928 for a total sum of $150,000. Film clips from the period show Grant Park in the early stages of what has now become the incredible public gathering space of Millennium Park.

As one of the most famed artists of Croatian ancestry, Mestrovic was frequently courted by royalty or aspiring political leaders who sought to exploit his popularity as a patriot to advance their political purposes. Although Mestrovic attempted to stay above politics there were times when he simply could not remain aloof from the strife in his own land. In one example, his hope that the Serbs would bring unity to the region was dashed when he realized that, after being victimized themselves, they were willing and even eager to persecute other cultural and religious groups – particularly the many Muslims of Kosovo and Macedonia. Dominance by the Habsburgs, Italy, Germany, and eventually the forces of communism brought great anguish to Mestrovic and his family. After a period of imprisonment, he eventually fled to America in 1947, where he first served as a faculty member at Syracuse University and then at the University of Notre Dame. He continued to be highly productive during his years in America, the result of which is the presence of his work in most of the great museums in the country as well as in private galleries and many other objects of public sculpture.

On the closing day of our Croatian tour, we made the point of taking a bus back into Zagreb specifically to visit the other Mestrovic home that has been turned into a museum. This museum had more works by Mestrovic than even the Split home/museum and it was nestled among the many other buildings and homes in the old upper town of Zagreb.

The wiki site for Mestrovic is very helpful and, if you are interested, it is worth a browse. I was very drawn to Mestrovic’s work and look forward to visiting the many places throughout the world where his works are on display.

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