Meštrović was invited to Belgrade in 1913 to give sculptural form to the aspirations of the new kingdom. In the public works that followed he forged his monumental and severe classical style. Today, the city is dotted with these impressive figures: the Victor in Kalemegdan, turned to face the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire; Gratitude to France for the soldiers lost in the First World War, or the huge Monument to the Unknown Hero at Avala with its giant and impassive peasant women, mothers of the seven slavic states and of all the boys who died. These were the years when Meštrović was known abroad as ‘The Serbian National Sculptor’. Croatian-born and Roman Catholic, he was committed to a united slav state. This led him to engage with the orthodox heritage of Serbia, one of the first and most ambitious projects being the fifty Kosovo Maidens (1908-12). The evident byzantianism of this public art – angular, simple, archaic – evolved as a patriotic idiom. His general impact is evident too, notably in a pair of figures struggling with powerful horses designed by Tomas Rosandić for the Parliament of Yugoslavia in 1938, and now called the National Assembly of Serbia.
The Meštrović Atelier is one of several museums devoted to the artist’s work in the region. This one is located in Zagreb, just behind the old square and it was developed around the house and studio where he lived and worked for twenty years (1920-42). The buildings, along with 147 sculptures, were donated by the artist to the People’s Republic of Croatia in 1952, two years before he took American citizenship. It was opened to the public in 1969, and still has a house-like feel. They have preserved the original appearance – kept the furniture and the frescoes – but turned the studio into a prize-winning gallery and added a marble atrium to the front. On display: 123 works spanning the first four decades during which Meštrović rose to fame and then settled in Zagreb, until he was arrested and left. It is a museum where you will find sculpture in the most traditional sense: materials of marble, wood and bronze; subjects like the female form and themes – whether national, religious, or mystical – given physical forms that are not just rooted in the past or somewhere, at least, between the power of antiquity and his renaissance and modern masters (Michelangelo and Rodin) but in highly personal identities, of his mother for example (History of the Croats) or of his wife Olga. For more information see Ivan Meštrović Foundation: http://www.mdc.hr/mestrovic/home/home-eng.htm
Ivan Meštrović (1883-1962) is a croatian sculptor whose transnational journeys exemplify in a heroic but tragic way the complexities of the region. By many, he is considered to be one of the greatest sculptors of the twentieth century, and his beginnings are reminiscent of Michelangelo. He leaned to carve from a stone-cutter in Split. Friends found him a patron and he moved to the city (Vienna, Academy of Fine Arts, 1901-1906). By 1908 he was in Paris, working alongside the most famous sculptor of the day (Auguste Rodin). He returned to the Balkans, settling in Belgrade in 1911. The same year, he was awarded the gold medal at the International Exhibition (Gustav Klimt getting the gold for painting). Critics were now describing him as the ‘greatest sculptor since the Renaissance’. But he continued to move. From Belgrade he decamped to Rome (1911-13) then settled in Zagreb (1922-41), for twenty years teaching, carving, casting and writing. As well as working as a sculptor, he was also an architect and a professor. He was the Director of the Art Institute in Zagreb, Rector of the Academy, a Member of the Academy of Sciences and Arts in Belgrade and in France an Officier de la Légion d’Honneur. Meanwhile, monumental exhibitions were being held all the over world.
Then came the Second World War. In 1941, he was arrested by the Ustaše and imprisoned. His wife died, her family were gassed and with the help of the Vatican he escaped to Venice. From Italy, he moved to Switzerland and reached the United States in 1946. He settled in Syracuse and became a Professor of the Sculpture at the University. In 1947, the Metropolitan Museum in New York held the first ever single exhibition for a living artist; in 1953 he was honoured by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The following year, in 1954, he became an american citizen, President Eisenhower conducting the ceremony at the White House in Washington. Meštrović was a prominent anti-communist and remained active in Croatian exile circles. He died in Indiana in 1962 and is buried in the family mausoleum in Otavia. So, born in Slavonia; raised in Dalmatia; trained in Austria; worked for the Kingdom of Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia; committed to Yugoslavia; exiled in America; buried in Croatia.