Sculpture and Politics – Ivan Meštrović’s Monuments in Europe and the United States of America
by Dr Barbara Vujanović
The 20th century was the century of monuments in Central Europe, especially in the period after the world wars. As a result of the establishment of new states in the period after the First World War, there was a need for public sculptures that would affirm history and tradition and anticipate the new ideology. Croatian sculptor and architect Ivan Meštrović (Vrpolje, 1883 – South Bend, Ind., USA, 1962) readily accepted this challenge. His student years in Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century were marked by the influences of Art Nouveau, Symbolism and Impressionism. In 1908, after his arrival in Paris, Meštrović changed his stylistic and thematic interests and started working on the cycles of Kosovo and Prince Marko, inspired by folk legends, songs and the historical event of the Battle of Kosovo (1389).
The sculptures, which were to be united in the unrealized St. Vitus Day Temple (1908–1912), embodied a departure from Rodinism toward monumentalism and archaism, as well as elements of Archaic, Assyrian, and Egyptian art. The presentations of the cycles as part of his solo (e.g. exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London in 1915) and group exhibitions in Zagreb, Rome, Vienna, London and other cities in the pre-war and wartime periods were highly political and proclaimed the South Slavic, Yugoslav orientation of the sculptor and his compatriots, the colleagues of his generation. Meštrović’s artistic activities and his role as a co-founder of the Yugoslav Committee secured his position in the newly established state, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (1918–1929), i.e., the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1929–1941).
At the beginning of the 1920s, Meštrović settled in Zagreb and became a professor and dean of the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb. The interwar period or the ‘Zagreb period’ was the most fruitful period of the sculptor’s monument production. He developed numerous executed and unrealized projects of public sculptures for the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, as well as for other European, North and South American countries. This talk will give an overview of Meštrović’s monuments, showing his versatility and ability to connect with the current stylistic moment, classical monumentalism. I will also analyse Meštrović’s capacity to sublimate the character of the person he depicts or an allegorical source, transposing it first into the medium of sculpture and then into public space. Meštrović’s projects for Croatian, European, North and South American cities represent a cross-section of his oeuvre, and are representative of various national histories and politics in the turbulent first half of the 20th century.
Dr Barbara Vujanović is Chief Curator of the Ivan Meštrović Museums, Meštrović Atelier in Zagreb. She regularly publishes reviews and articles, and devises the curatorial concepts for solo and group exhibitions of modern and contemporary art. She was engaged by the British Museum to conceive and curate the exhibition ‘Rodin: Rethinking the Fragment’ for three UK venues (2018 – 2019). She is the author of the book The Mark of Meštrović in Zagreb (2017) and co-author of Ivan Meštrović and the Czechs: Examples of the Croatian-Czech Cultural and Political Reciprocity (2018).