Book review: Meštrović in Prague

Ivan Meštrović (1883-1962) is best known as the leading Croatian member of the Vienna Secession before the First World War. A symbolist sculptor who was heavily influenced by the work of Rodin early in his career, he went on to develop a quite distinct expressive, hieratic, sculptural language, which, in keeping with his Catholic upbringing, was often imbued with religious themes and subject matter. Born in Slavonia (in eastern Croatia), he moved to Vienna in 1900 at the age of seventeen, where he studied under Otto Wagner and the sculptor Edmund von Hellmer, gaining his first exhibition with the Secession in 1905, and enjoying the patronage of Karl Wittgenstein.[1] Before the War he moved initially to Paris, then to Zagreb and then Rome. In many respects he can be regarded as a typical representative of the transnational art world of central Europe in the early twentieth century, yet this view runs up against his politics, which were strongly marked by nationalistic beliefs and his commitment to the promotion of Yugoslavism and political independence for the south Slavic peoples. Hence, when he gained international fame, it was as a Yugoslav rather than as a Habsburg subject. He won the grand prix at the Rome International Exhibition in 1911 but, provocatively, he exhibited in the Serb pavilion, with a cycle of sculptures including a depiction of the fourteenth-century legendary Serbian figure of Prince Marko, and a design for a temple commemorating the 1389 Battle of Kosovo Fields.[2] In 1915 he was granted a solo exhibition in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London – followed by another in the Grafton Galleries in 1917 – and exhibited again in 1919 in a group exhibition of Yugoslav artists in Paris.[3]

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Ivan Meštrović: The Meštrović Pavilion in Zagreb, Croatia, 1938 – photo: Diego Delso / Wikimedia Commons

After the First World War Meštrović enjoyed considerable public prestige in the new state; he was appointed director of the Academy of Arts in Zagreb, and the popularity of what was referred to as his ‘strong’ style – in the 1920s he become the exponent of a pared down muscular classicism –   led to numerous commissions for public monuments. He also designed one of the architectural landmarks of Zagreb, the so-called Meštrović Pavilion (1938).[4] His political views increasingly shaped his interwar output, which was devoted to celebrating heroic patriotic figures such as Bishop Gregory of Nin (1929) and Bishop Josip Juraj Strossmayer. In 1942, after a brief period of imprisonment at the hands of the Ustaše regime in Croatia, he moved, following Vatican intercession, to Rome, Switzerland and then, in 1946, to the United States, where he lived the remainder of his life.

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Ivan Meštrović: Statue of Gregory of Nin in Nin, Croatia, 1929 – photo: Amphisbène / Wikimedia Commons

Meštrović’s life spanned major periods of political, social and cultural upheaval in the twentieth century, and while Croatia does not fall into the scope of our project, examination of his career is instructive when considering the continuities and disruptions in central European art. That is one of the purposes of the new book Ivan Meštrovič and the Czechs, too, although its main focus is the specific relationship Meštrović enjoyed with the artistic and cultural world of Prague. As such, it is part of a wider growing interest in contacts not only between Vienna (and Budapest) and the other artistic centres of the former Habsburg Empire – a recent exhibition at the Belvedere explored Zagreb modernism and its relation to Vienna – but also between those different centres. For all his espousal of Yugoslavism, Meštrović is treated primarily as a Croatian artist in this book, and hence it is the connections between Prague and Zagreb that are at the centre of its concerns. Its chapters cover four themes: (1) Meštrović’s personal involvement and collaboration with Czech artists; (2) The Academy of Arts in Prague and its wider role as a point of contact between Czech and Croatian artists; (3) Wider political connections between Yugoslav Croatia and Czechoslovakia; (4) Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk as president of Czechoslovakia.

It is a little-explored topic, but this well-researched volume highlights the depth of the collaborations between Meštrović and his Czech contemporaries, and in so doing casts light not only on the sculptor but also on interwar Czechoslovakia. Prague before 1918 is often seen as secondary to Vienna as an artistic centre but this study makes clear that it was a viable alternative destination for many Croatian artists and continued to be so after the War. The book itemises a number of artists who trained in Prague, such as Petar Pallavicini (1887-1958), Robert Jean Ivanović (1889-1968) and Frano Kršinić (1897-1982), amongst others. They may not have had the international profile of Meštrović, but they were all accomplished artists in their own right. However, it is the latter who stands at the centre of attention, and he presents a compelling story. Already in 1903 he was exhibiting with the Mánes Association of Fine Artists in Prague, an event that prompted considerable curiosity in the Czech press. This was the first of several exhibitions of his work in that city, as a result of which he became close to a number of Czech artists, most notably, Bohumil Kafka. In 1908, when Meštrović exhibited at the Salon d’automne, a bust of Kafka was one of the works submitted, an homage, as the authors state, to their personal friendship and also to central European artistic networks. It is worth noting that his famous Well of Life (1910) monument in Zagreb was actually cast by the firm of B. T. Srpek in the town of Brandýs nad Labem, just outside of Prague, one of a number of collaborations with the foundry. While in Rome at the outset of the First World War Meštrović also became acquainted with the Czech artist Růžena Zátková, of whom he executed a bust now in the National Gallery in Prague.

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Ivan Meštrović: Well of Life, 1905, Zagreb – photo: Roberta F. / Wikimedia Commons

These kinds of transnational contacts were, in one respect, commonplace; Meštrović was not even the only Croatian artist of note to be based in Prague. The painter Vlaho Bukovac (1855-1922) was a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts from 1903 to 1920. Yet this book does present a hitherto neglected topic. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is its focus on Meštrović’s work with President Masaryk. It is already established that the latter had an active interest in the visual arts, but, thanks to the work of Damjan Prelovšek and Bruce Berglund, it is the Slovene Jože Plečnik (1872-1957) – a professor at the Academy of Art and Design – who has most commonly viewed in this context.[5] This is above all due to his work on the renovation of Prague castle and his design for the Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord (1929-1932). As Barbara Vujanović demonstrates in this book, however, Meštrović also enjoyed good personal relations with the Czechoslovak president – whom he first met in Rome during the War. Indeed, the contacts he cultivated were highly advantageous since he was one of the first to be awarded a Czechoslovak passport, in 1918, which enabled him to travel to Zagreb. Later he spent some eight or nine days staying with the Masaryks, where he executed portraits of both of them due to a commission by the American businessman Charles Crane. This was the first of a number of encounters; Masaryk wrote warmly of Meštrović in his memoirs, the authors note, and in 1926 awarded him the Order of the White Lion, one of the highest honours that could be bestowed by the new state.[6] Meštrović was also invited to be a jury member for the competition for the national memorial on Vítkov Hill (which was won by Kafka) and then, in 1933, he had a major retrospective in Prague on his 50th birthday.

Masaryk evidently admired the sculptor’s work, but he was equally drawn to Meštrović’s political views and that much of their contact was informed by discussions of political events, most notably, questions to do with Slavic self-determination.[7] Indeed, central to this book is a keen sense of art as a vehicle of cultural diplomacy and the wider significance of Meštrović’s involvement in the Prague art world. As Marijan Lipovac argues in a useful chapter outlining wider Czech-Croat relations, this was a reciprocal relationship: Czechs were a notable presence in Zagreb cultural life, particularly amongst the professoriate of the university of Zagreb. In addition, mutual interests and social and political affinities underpinned numerous kinds of collaboration. Prior to 1918 Masaryk envisioned a federation of Slavic territories in which Czech lands would be linked to Croatia by a land corridor between Austria and Hungary. After the collapse of Austria-Hungary this sense of shared interest led to the creation of the Little Entente in 1921 by Czechoslovakia, Romania and what was then still called the Kingdom of the Slovenes, Croats and Serbs. This book does well to place artistic exchange in this wider political and historical context. And while the exigencies of the present dictated policy, it is evident, too, that these post-war alliances were also driven, to some degree, by an attachment to common bonds that dated back to the Habsburg era.

One curious omission from this volume is Alfons Mucha (1860–1939). We get no sense of the kind of relation he had with the sculptor. Of course, it may be that Meštrović did not have any personal contact with him, but the two artists had much in common, not least in the support provided to both of them by Crane. In his monumental cycle of paintings, the Slav Epic (1910–1928), which would have been possible without Crane’s patronage, Mucha presented a heroic vision of Slav history and myth in which the South Slavs figured prominently. His work thereby bore strong similarities to Meštrović’s sculptural treatment of the heroes of the past. Yet as Marta Filipová has argued, when Mucha presented his cycle of paintings as a public gift to the Czechoslovak nation, it was greeted with a degree of embarrassment. It seemed like a relic of an earlier age.[8] It is some irony, therefore, that Meštrović achieved a much more positive reception, given that he was promulgating a not dissimilar outlook. In this context it is worth noting that the book avoids the thorny issue of Yugoslav cultural politics; while it documents Meštrović and Masaryk’s shared dismay at the state of politics in Belgrade, the sculptor is still presented unambiguously as a Croat, when in fact his identity was rather more ambiguous.

One might have wished for some other issues to be followed up a little – particularly when it comes to the art historical significance of his Prague connections. Kafka and Meštrović became personal friends, and one is entitled to speculate that the latter may have played a role in the decision to award Kafka the commission for the Vítkov Hill memorial, now dominated by his sculpture of Jan Žižka. This friendship and the popularity of Meštrović indicates the continuing importance of academic sculpture in Czechoslovakia, but there is a darker side to this, too, for many of the classical figures of the Yugoslav sculptor exude an authoritarian presence that stands at odds with the putative democratic values of the interwar republic. It is worth, noting, too, that the reactionary Viennese art historian Josef Strzygowski, who was otherwise hostile to artistic modernism, thought very highly of Meštrović, praising, for example, his archaicizing mausoleum (1920-21) for the Račić family in Cavtat, near Dubrovnik, and Meštrović spoke equally highly of Strzygowski.[9] It might, of course, be objected that such concerns are beyond the scope of this volume. Nevertheless, one might note that the esteem in which he was held in Czechoslovakia at the very least might encourage us to revise our image of the interwar art world in Prague. Not simply the centre of the avant-garde, as Derek Sayer has argued, the art and cultural politics of the capital were rather more complex.[10]

Brought out in a bi-lingual edition, this is a highly welcome publication, although one might wish that a native speaker had been consulted to avoid some of the more noticeable grammatical and syntactical errors. Nevertheless, this is a highly informative book that provides fresh insight into Meštrović and artistic and cultural exchange between Zagreb and Prague in the first half of the twentieth century. It also invites reflection on long-held assumptions about the two cities, their artistic character, and their inter-relations.

Matthew Rampley

Barbara Vujanović, Dalibor Frančević, Marijan Lipovac and Jiří Kuděla, Ivan Meštrović i Česi: primjeri hrvatsko-česke kulturne i političke uzajamnosti / Ivan Meštrović and the Czechs: Examples of the Croatian-Czech Cultural and Political Reciprocity (Zagreb: Ivan Meštrović Museum, 2018)

[1] Irena Kraševac, ‘Ivan Meštrović und sein Wiener Mäzen Karl Wittgenstein,’ in Gregor Kokorz and Helga Mitterbauer, eds, Übergänge und Verflechtungen: Kulturelle Transfers in Europa (Bern, 2004) pp. 75-98.

[2] Aleksander Ignjatović, ‘Images of the Nation Foreseen: Ivan Meštrović’s Vidovdan Temple and Primordial Yugoslavism,’ Slavic Review 73.4 (2014) pp. 828-58.

[3] The positive reception of Meštrović in Britain is explored in Dalibor Prančević, ‘Sculpture by Ivan Meštrović at the Grafton Galleries in 1917: Critical and Social Context,’ The Sculpture Journal 25.2 (2016) pp. 177-92, and Ann Compton, ‘Some Reflections on the 1915 Ivan Meštrović Exhibition and the Emergence of One-person Shows for Sculptors in Britain,’ The Sculpture Journal 25.2 (2016) pp. 169-74.

[4] A recent publication documents the history of the pavilion: Barbara Vujanović and Vendula Hnídková, Meštrovićev znak u Zagrebu architektura: 80 godina Meštrovićeva Paviljon / The Sign of Meštrović in Zagreb Architecture: The 80 Years of the Meštrović Pavilion (Zagreb, 2018).

[5] Damjan Prelovšek, Jože Plečnik 1872-1957 (London and New Haven, 1997); Bruce Berglund, Castle and Cathedral in Modern Prague: Longing for the Sacred in a Skeptical Age (Budapest, 2017).

[6] Tomáš G. Masaryk, Světová revoluce za války a ve válce 1914-1918 (Prague, 1938)

[7] Vujanović notes that Meštrović provided detailed accounts of his meetings with Masaryk in his memoirs.

[8] Marta Filipová, ‘ “What shall we with it?” Finding a place for Alfons Mucha and his Slav Epic,’ Austrian History Yearbook 46 (2015) pp. 203-27.

[9] Strzygowski contributed an essay on the mausoleum to Ivan Meštrović, Gospa od andelâ: zadužbina porodice Račić, Cavtat / Our Lady of the Angels: A Memorial Church of the Račić Family in Cavtat / Muttergottes der Engel: eine Stiftungskapelle der Familie Račić in Cavtat (Zagreb, 1937).

[10] Derek Sayer, Prague Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History (Princeton, 2013).

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