ON RELIGIOUS ART
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Journal of Croatian Studies, XXIV, 1983, – Annual Review of the Croatian Academy of America, Inc. New York, N.Y., Electronic edition by Studia Croatica, by permission. All rights reserved by the Croatian Academy of America.
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On April 11, 1954 Ivan Meštrović was awarded the "Christian Culture Award" given annually by the Assumption College, Windsor, Ontario, Canada. This is his address of acceptance.
When Rev. Father Murphy wrote me a short time ago informing me that the Christian Culture Award Committee had decided to bestow upon me the 1954 Christian Culture Award and asked if I would accept, I replied that I would consider it a great honor which I would accept with great satisfaction. At the same time I asked Father Murphy for a little favor: while I was glad to be personally present for the Award ceremonies, I wanted him to have someone read for me these few words of acceptance. He graciously consented but must have wondered, as I am sure many of you present are wondering, why I chose not to read my own address. The reason is this: my medium of expression is the plastic form; and I discover that even in my native tongue the spoken word has not been the most effective way of expressing what I think and feel. Besides my English is still far too clumsy for such a solemn occasion as this.
Since this Award has been granted to me principally for my religious works, may I be allowed to confine my remarks to this field. Even in my first creative days I was aware of the fact that sculpture is a way of expressing one's feelings or the feelings of the national and ideological group to which the artist belongs. However, I must admit that in my youthful day passion for creating, I had no time nor desire to subject these feelings to a closer scrutiny and analysis. I selected for my works the themes from life as I saw it or as I imagined it to be. But I soon came to the realization that a wide gap existed between my views and the views of the ideological group to which I thought I belonged.
Moreover, I noted a wide divergence of views among those supposed companions of mine. This prompted in me another thought. Was it possible to accomplish anything significant and lasting in the field of creative art if one's feelings and basic convictions are chaotic, if they are not anchored in some unifying idea that transcends time and outlives both us and our epoch? I may say here parenthetically that many modern artists seem to fail to realize that the expression of one's own subject and ephemeral feelings without some deeper philosophy of life cannot result in anything enduring. Their works seem to be the products of a state of mind that can be described as follows: "I want to create something different myself but am uncertain as to what self is ... "
Going back to my story, I discovered very early in my development that I could not subscribe to the slogan "L'art pour rare' (Art for Art's Sake), the view which was then almost universally held, that art should serve beauty and aesthetic pleasure only. I asked myself: What constitutes beauty? Is every aspect of life beautiful? Is everything beautiful that has been created in visual art and poetry? For instance, is everything beautiful in Dante's Inferno or Michelangelo's Last Judgment? Obviously not, if by beauty we mean that which is pleasing to the eye and delightful to the mind. What then is beauty? Is it not the same as goodness, as the Greeks thought? Or, should not the order be reversed so that the good embraces the beautiful, i.e. that the beautiful is only that which is good, or more precisely, that which aims at the greatest common good?
The artistically effective then is not the same as the beautiful. Besides the forms and lines which give joy and delight to the eye and the mind, there are those which are not pleasing. The latter are needed to make the former stand out. Discords are there to throw harmony into focus.
Such questions have tormented my mind, as they probably have many of my contemporaries in the beginning of our century. In vain did I search for answers to these problems in the books of professional aestheticians and philosophers. Despite their best intentions, I could clearly see that they themselves had no solutions.
Meanwhile some momentuous events were taking place in the world and I took an active part in them. Before and during the first World War, I had thrown in my lot with one side of the conflict, in the conviction that it fought for human ideals, a more humane social order, equality, justice, and freedom for all men and all nations. But my experience during that war led me to the realization that this was not the case even for the side with which I was associated. For there was cruelty and false propaganda on both sides. I realized that evil cannot be combated with another evil, and that harmony cannot be established by sowing discord and preaching hatred. War, no matter who wages it, is a common evil which reduces man to the status of half-animal and destroys all human values, both material and spiritual.
Perplexed and confused, I retired to a small neutral country to try to find, at least, a solution to my personal spiritual problem.
With me I took the book which in my childhood I had read without a great deal of understanding; only the memory of its poetic beauty had still lingered in my mind. But now I understood it: I knew then that this book contained not only unmatched beauty but also the profoundest wisdom. The book was the New Testament.
Inspired by the great drama of the Son of God becoming flesh, I started to work on the themes taken from the life of Jesus of Nazareth. It was then that I carved in wood the scene of Crucifixion. Many people did not like it because it was not-aesthetically pleasing. They found the Crucified Christ too emaciated and disfigured. But the Crucifixion scene was not meant to represent the historical Jesus nor His supreme sacrifice. It was intended to depict the crucifixion of His idea, the perversion and disfiguration of the teachings for which He came into this world and for which He died on the Cross.
There are more and more people today who have come to the conviction that one of the main causes of the tragic events of the recent past as well as those which loom on the horizon, is the fact that modern man has all but forgotten the great teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. The blame for this rests not only on our contemporary despotism, but, unfortunately, on a long list of talented men of science and art who have not foreseen the corroding complications and destructive consequences of their doctrines. This atmosphere of unbelief, this tragic state of man cut off from the very axis which holds and moves everything, has had repercussions on all domains of human activity, including that of art, which in the most significant periods of civilization worked hand in hand with religion — an ennobling and spiritualizing factor in human life.
Christian civilization, in our days, finds itself locked in a mortal struggle with the forces of secularism in varying forms and degrees. Many people fail to realize that Christianity, by waging the fight for its principles, defends also the foundation of the democratic way of life; for the concept of the dignity of each man and the equality of all men stands and falls with the Christian view that man is created in the image of God. Thus the Church is in the front lines of the battle against the onslaughts on human freedom.
A moment ago, I mentioned my wood carving of the scene of the Crucifixion. The piece of wood on which I carved the Crucifixion has an interesting story which I would like to share with you. I was in Geneva, Switzerland, when I was seized by the desire to carve the Crucifixion. Every available oak had been bought by the factory which manufactured rifle buts, presumably for both warring sides. I had a hard time to acquire from the factory a few boards for relief. I was unable to get the whole piece of the trunk because they had all been sawed up. Finally, I discovered one trunk that had not been sawed off: It was withered and had stood with its roots in the soil and was not considered good for rifles because it was assumed that the wood was probably decayed. When I started to work on it, I discovered that it was solid and whole. The lumberman told me that it had been imported. I was surprised to learn that it had come from Croatia, my native country.
That same piece of wood was later returned to Croatia, transformed into the Crucifixion scene. Today it stands there, in a small Chapel, in the country where the Catholic Church is being crucified daily. The head of that suffering Church is Cardinal Stepinac, my compatriot, my dear friend, of whom I and all Croats are proud. I am sure that our feelings are shared not only by all the Catholics throughout the world but also by all men of goodwill everywhere who cherish freedom of spirit.
In vain do the Godless and restless men, who are today making weapons in the hope of enslaving the world, think that the trunk of the Christian tree is withered. It will outlive and outlast the forces of evil in my native land and throughout the whole world. He who has conquered death will conquer the destruction of His teaching.
I have now finished saying all that I wished to say. If nothing else, I have probably proven the statement made at the beginning: that words are not my best medium of expression. It remains only to express my deep gratitude for the high honour you have bestowed on me. It has been a great privilege to be here with so many distinguished people and high Church dignitaries, with whom I share the same ideals. Thank you once more for thinking so highly of my modest artistic efforts as to consider them a contribution to Christian Culture, which I would define with St. Paul as consisting of three things: Faith, Love, and Hope. Faith in God, love of our fellowmen, and the hope in the final victory of good over evil.
 Published in Croatia Press, vol. 8, no. 137, May 1954, p. 3-7 under the title "Message of Ivan Meštrović, Christian Culture Winner 1954."