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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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Fin-de-sičcle Vienna. It was a turning point in the history of man, a period in which artists and writers began to loosen the shackles of age-old social and moral traditions. It was a period during which Ivan Meštrović would find himself in the mainstream of a revolutionary group of artists attempting to redefine modern culture. In 1900, at the age of 16, Meštrović left his pastoral lifestyle behind and plunged into a world entirely foreign to him, one in which the art of the day was in the process of being intimately joined with the revolutionary modernism of the age. The shepherd boy from Dalmatia had been thrust almost overnight into the cataclysmic Industrial Age.


Although he remained at heart a peasant for the rest of his life, Vienna forever changed Meštrović. Within four years after leaving Dalmatia, he became deeply involved in the turbid social and political environment of 20th century Europe. Almost immediately, he began associating with some of the most influential artists of his age. He arrived in the Hapsburg capital full of youthful enthusiasm, excited at the prospect of entering school and believing, as he later said:


... that a hundred secrets will open themselves before my eyes, and that I shall be able, as if by the touch of a magic wand, to disengage from the rocks legions of heroes whom I see before me in my mind.[1]


Although the political and economic realities of pre-war Vienna did not significantly dampen this enthusiasm, they matured it considerably. Turn-of-the-century Vienna was a maelstrom of activity. The city was at the forefront in the development of new trends in music, art, literature, and psychology. Sigmund Freud was busy constructing theories about the importance of dreams. Otto Wagner was preparing to stretch the boundaries of modern architecture, as was Gustav Klimt in painting. Theodor Herzl was in the process of out-lining a comprehensive plan which was later to take form in the state of Israel, while Gustav Mahler was composing his "music of the future".


Since the 1848 revolution, the city had developed into a cultural mecca, a vast melting pot for people throughout Europe hoping to find a slot in the booming Industrial Age. Clad in his native costume, complete with red Croatian kapa, Meštrović stepped off the train into a new world. He found the streets flooded with others in dress as strange as his own: Czechs, Magyars, and Slovaks. What had a century or so before been little more than a medieval city had been transformed into one of the cosmopolitan capitals of Europe. On a parallel path had come tremendous social, economic, and political change. The age of the Bible was fast being transplanted by the Age of Reason.


The world of art was also being transformed. Artists, frustrated with a life that seemed tame in contrast with the highly publicized scientific community, searched for news formats. Their art suddenly became less representational and more thematic as they began to express their thoughts and feelings about society. The period was characterized by a certain morbidity, seemingly by a desire to shock the ancient empire out of its lethargy. Themes replete with fantasy, hallucinations, visions, and dreams began to appear.[2] Influenced by the dark visions of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, artists became preoccupied with death, violence, and doom. The erotic gained in popularity. In an abrupt transition, artist Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) she his image as the city's leading academic painter and transformed his art into what many Viennese labeled as pure pornography.


The two main artistic bodies in turn-of-the-century Vienna were the Academy of Fine Arts and the Künstlerhaus. Virtually every artist working at the time had ties with one or the other of these organizations. Eventually, however, the more radical artists began meeting in Vienna's innumerable coffee houses where they plotted the overthrow of classical, academic art. At the famous Zum Blauen Freihaus, members of the artistic society Hagenbund met to discuss the new art. At the Café Griensteidl noted journalists and poets such as Hermann Bahr, Arthur Schnitzler, and Hugo von Hoffmannsthall met to debate the issues of the day. The Café Sperl attracted a more exlusive group calling themselves the Siebener-Club or "Club of Seven," and included architects Josef Hoffmann, Joseph Maria Olbrich, and the revolutionary Otto Wagner who was later to have a dramatic influence on the young sculptor from the Dalmatian hinterlands.


Klimt eventually took the initiative and led a group of artists away from the Künstlerhaus, patterning a new artistic organization along the lines of the semi-successful Munich Secession. The year was 1897, only three years before the young peasant from Croatia would take the train from Rijeka to Vienna. It would take Ivan Meštrović only two years after his arrival to gain membership in the exclusive new association, but those initial years would prove to be exceedingly difficult for him, ones fraught with poverty and disappointment.


The Viennese mine owner and industrialist Aleksandar Koenig, impressed with the peasant boy's sculpture, had funded Meštrović's trip to Vienna. However, almost immediately after his arrival, Meštrović felt the sting of rejection as Koenig, who had offered to pay at least part of the young man's studies, apparently reneged on his promise.[3] Despite occasional assistance from various artistic groups throughout his four-year stay in the Hapsburg capital, Meštrović remained deep in poverty.


His comrade for the first several years was one of Koenig's employees, a good-natured Czech named Sycora, a legendary figure in the early history of Ivan Meštrović. Sycora was the first to meet young Ivan at the train station. He guided the wide-eyed peasant down crowded streets to a one-room apartment which Meštrović was to share with the rest of Sycora's family. There was no privacy and precious little room to work. Eating, drinking, love-making—it was all done in that single room. Ćurčin would later say that Ivan learned a valuable lesson in anatomy in Sycora's apartment.[4]' Sycora tried to help Meštrović secure a few commissions, but with little luck. No one wanted to buy sculpture from a 16-year-old shephered boy who couldn't speak German and who had never even seen the inside of an art classroom.


The ever-industrious Czech eventually managed to arrange a meeting between Meštrović and the wife of Otto Koenig (1838-1920), a retired sculpture professor from the Vienna Kunstgewerbeschule.[5] She was hesitant to introduce her conservative husband to an unknown sculptor from Dalmatia, but was finally convinced to lead Meštrović into her husband's art studio in Hitzing, near Vienna.


Otto Koenig possessed only a mild talent for sculpting. He had completed his academic training in Dresden years before and was, in 1900, working primarily in the more commercial decorative arts. But it was an excellent opportunity for Meštrović because Koenig was acquainted with some of the professors at the leading art schools in Vienna, including several at the respected Academy of Art. At his wife's urging, the professor agreed to look at some of Meštrović's models and, apparently liking the raw talent he saw, agreed to help the young sculptor prepare for the rigorous entrance examination into the Academy.


Meštrović proved to be a gifted student. He began by laboriously copying antique sculptures as well as some 18th century busts Koenig had in his studio. Eventually, the Austrian gave the young man more freedom, allowing him to carve a form directly from nature. One of the more important pieces from this period was a portrait head of Koenig himself. Along with several other works, it would later be judged by the director of the Academy to be good enough to allow Meštrović's admission.


Meštrović and Koenig developed a working relationship that lasted seven months. It was disrupted at Christmas when Meštrović secured a small amount of money from a Croatian art association and returned home for the holidays. He very nearly never made it back to Vienna, having difficulty raising money for a return train ticket. However, another artist's association eventually came to his rescue and Meštrović returned in the winter of 1901 to Sycora's cramped apartment.


Almost as soon as he arrived, Meštrović went to see Otto Koenig. He suffered a great disappointment when he found he'd been dismissed from the studio, with the older sculptor saying he was too busy with his own work to resume his duties as a mentor.[6]


It was a miserable winter for Meštrović, one which found him struggling to even find enough to eat. He tried selling copies of Glyptothek sculptures to anyone who would buy. He also visited the Hof Museum where he copied paintings by the old masters. When he didn't have luck selling works from the Glyptothek, he could occasionally unload one of his copies from the Hof Museum.


Although Meštrović struggled to find acceptance in the Viennese art community, his reputation in Croatia was becoming more firmly established. He gained a small respite that spring when, after appeals from residents of his native village, some monetary support came from a Croatian student committee in Vienna. Later, the village of Drniš sent a contribution, as did the Dalmatian National Council and the Society of Croat Artists in Zagreb. Still, it was very little money—amounting to 15 florins a day (about one dollar) — and Meštrović continued to suffer extreme poverty. He would always maintain, however, that this early poverty did a great deal to help shape his theories regarding the purpose of art. He later wrote that:


Throughout life I carried with me an incomparable inheritance, poverty: poverty of my family and my nation. The first helped me never to be afraid of material difficulties, for I knew I could never have less than at the beginning. The second drove me to persevere in my work, so that at least in my own field my nation's poverty would be diminished.[7]


Sycora, undoubtedly feeling he would have this Croatian peasant living with him forever, again came to the rescue.[8] Through sheer persistence, he helped Meštrović obtain an interview with an assistant director of the Art Academy. The assistant was sufficiently impressed with young Ivan 's drawings that he arranged a meeting with the director, Edmund Hellmer (1850-1919). Hellmer, more famous for some of the students he admitted (or, such as Adolf Hitler, failed to admit) to the Academy than for his own works as a sculptor, was a graduate of the Vienna Aademy. His best-known work, located in St. Stephen's Cathedral and executed in 1894, is a monument commemorating the 1683 defense of Vienna against Turkish invaders. He also completed a number of forgettable public monuments scattered throughout Vienna.


Meštrović prepared carefully for his meeting with Hellmer, showing him some of the copies he had made while working with Koenig as well as several drawings. Hellmer was especially influenced by the Koenig portrait and by a copy Meštrović had made of Michelangelo's first Pietŕ. Not only did the Pietŕ help him gain admission to the Academy, it was the beginning of Meštrović's lifelong devotion to the great Renaissance artist.


Over the objections of many faculty members and some of the older students who found Meštrović's work too "natural," Hellmer had the courage to accept him into the class of 1901. But although he had gained entrance to one of Vienna's finest art schools, times did not get much easier for Ivan Meštrović. Poverty continued to plague him, although he was at last able to move from the Sycora household into a tiny apartment just off the Prater.


Disliking the routine of school, Meštrović battled with Art Academy authorities from the first. He enjoyed using the facilities and the large library but rebelled when the professors tried to direct his talents. It was a time of change in the art world, and Meštrović resisted having his ideas influenced by academic sculptors whose work he felt was ensconced in the baroque. In fin-de-sičcle Europe, conventional theories about art were being shed for more revolutionary interpretations. Members of the radical new Vienna Secession made headlines almost weekly. Klimt succeeded in rocking Viennese society with "Philosophy," the first of his three-part University series. Antoni Hanak — who also studied for a time with Hellmer — Raymond Duchamp-Villon, and Georges Minne were all beginning to produce interesting experiments in sculpture, exhibiting a stylized simplification that would later greatly influence Meštrović. Franz Metzner, who was attempting to define broader symbolic themes in his work exhibited a model of his Niebelungen fountain at the Secession as early as 1904. Meštrović's later nationalistic works would reveal the debt he owed Metzner.


In addition to working with Hellmer, Meštrović also studied briefly with another of the leading professors at the Academy, Hans Bitterlich. Younger than Hellmer, Bitterlich was a minor sculptor whose primary work is the Gutenberg Monument located in Vienna. Appointed professor at the Academy the same year Meštrović was accepted, Bitterlich was an outspoken and rather pompous critic when it came to his students. When the young Croatian artist first began his studies there, Bitterlich declined "the glory of evoking genius in an unknown Croatian peasant." [9]


Sculptor Toma Rosandić would tell a similar story about the difficult Bitterlich:


Professor Bitterlich ... was a great opponent to everything that was not German art, and in consequence, in spite of my having passed first in the examination for the Academy, he rejected me. 'You already have a special way of working,' he said, 'and it would be useless to take you up as I could not have any influence over you'. This declaration gave me even more courage to go on in my own way.[10]


Pan-Germanic in his outlook, Bitterlich had a tendency toward out-and-out racism. Meštrović once described an assembly when Academy students were first introduced to Bitterlich. The professor kept emphasizing the German character he wished to give the Academy. Meštrović, already branded a rebel by most of the professors, reportedly shouted "Then why don't you teach in Berlin?"[11] After that, neither Bitterlich or Hellmer would have much to do with him. Nonetheless, young Ivan survived well without the help of the Academy professors. The work being done in their studios was little more than uninspired neo-baroque, and Meštrović had long before been searching for a different style, one that he could call his own.


Later in his career, Meštrović was criticized in much the same way as his professors at the Academy for failing to advance a more modern art. He was often castigated for producing works defined by critics as iconoclastic, merely decorative, often bordering on melodrama. But in Vienna at the turn of the century, the criticism ran to the other extreme. His art was considered so radical it was rarely purchased. After all, who wanted "Consumptive Old Man" or "The Sick Girl" in the drawing room?


Along with such works as "Study of a Hand" and "A Vase," Meštrović was producing sculpture typical of other revolutionary artists working at the time, particularly Maillol and Bourdelle. "Timor Dei," a huge foot crushing a group of people and undoubtedly symbolizing an oppressed society, was shown at the Secession in 1905. Even the titles of his works from that era — notably "The Last Kiss", "Lovers", and "The Sacrifice of Innocence" — show the influence of the Seccession and especially of Gustav Klimt.


Late in 1901, Meštrović held his first showing in the apartment he shared with fellow countryman Tomica Krizman. It was a private exhibit during which Krizman exhibited some of his paintings and drawings and Meštrović displayed several sculptures. Ćurčin viewed the exhibit and reported that Meštrović was silent throughout the affair."[12] Characteristically, the artist smoked one cigarette after another, letting the ashes drop to the floor. It must have been a remarkable sight — Meštrović and Krizman with their untamed hair and sharp, distinct features working late into the night to prepare for this first exhibition. As usual, Meštrović was noncommittal about his work. The only account of the evening comes from Ćurćin who wrote:


Though it was Meštrović who received us and stook us round, I remember quite well that the conversation was carried on from the floor by Krizman, by whdse pronounced kajkav dialect we were agreeably struck.[13]


There is no report how well that private showing went, but it can be concluded it helped prepare Meštrović for his first student exhibit at the Academy later that same year. It was during this yearly showing that Meštrović gained the attention of several Secession artists who had stopped by. At the exhibit, one of his sculptures entitled "Madonna and Child" caused a minor sensation. The work was considered by most to be too natural which meant, of course, that it was thought to be obscene. However, members of the Secession were enthused by the work and invited the young sculptor to exhibit at their next showing. Thus, at 19, the former shephered became a member of a revolutionary new artistic movement. His association with the Secession was to continue off and on for over a decade.


Meštrović also exhibited that same year with the Künstlerbund Hagen, an offshoot of the Hagenbund. The group which introduced Vienna to Bocklin in 1903, to Liebermann in 1904, and to Lovis Corinth in 1906 displayed the works of both Anton Hanak and Meštrović at this early exhibit.[14] Although there were a few newspaper reviews, not much notice was taken of the show. Nonetheless, 1902 had to be considered a very good year for the artist from Otavice. His pockets remained empty, but his ego had been greatly soothed.


By the following year, Meštrović was fast becoming caught up in the activities of what appear to be two conflicting artistic elements: that of the Secession and the art of Auguste Rodin. It ultimately proved Meštrović's genius when it was shown he could successfully pick and choose elements out of such disparate influences and shape them into his own artistic statement.


The master of Meudon first visited Vienna in 1902. He was at the height of his career, having gained international fame after the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900. There, Rodin had exhibited some 200 works, among them a masterpiece entitled "The Walking Man", shown for the first time since he created it in 1877. So taken was Meštrović with his work, he convinced a group of fellow students to go pay homage to Rodin at the sculptor's hotel. There, they were allowed only a brief visit, but it was long enough to make a lasting impression on Meštrović. Not long after, the young Croatian decided to cast away his peasant costume and adopt the soft felt hat and corduroy trousers characteristic of the garb worn by Rodin.


Tempering Rodin's powerful influence on Meštrović's style, however, were a number of sculptors exhibiting with the Secession. Here was a group who had elected to take Rodin a step further, to discard his emphasis on naturalism and instead channel their energies into a more thematic, nonrepresentational art which they thought best defined the age. Beginning with a handful of artists protesting that which they considered to be stagnant and time-worn, in 1897 the group adopted the sobriquet Secession a shortened version of the name written in the charter: the Association of Austrian Artists (Vereinigung bildender Künstler Oesterreichs). In many ways, the group was the Austrian equivalent of Art Nouveau and represented the desire of members to revolt against all that was traditional in the art world. As Schorske says, it was their primary aim to revamp the entire classical tradition.[15] The fear of an impending crisis in the empire, of a vaguely defined horror vacui, combined with a disdain for all which was represented by the Hapsburgs, provided a primary impetus for the movement. Like many of the artists associated at one time or another with the Jugendstil in Germany, Blaue Reiter in Munich or Die Brücke in Dresden, artists associated with the Secession were reacting against real or imagined social and political atrocities.


It is difficult to distinguish the activities of the Secession from similar movements which were sprouting up throughout Europe at the turn of the century. The Jugendstil and Secessionist groups were seen as being philosophically closer than any of the other movements.[16] More so than the Jugendstil, however, the Secession found success by not adhering strictly to any one artistic framework. Painters, graphic designers, sculptors, architects, and craftsmen were all welcome under the golden cupola of the new Secession building.


The founding principles of the Secession were pet fect for promoting an unknown artist from Dalmatia. The Secessionists sought to combat the provincialism of the Empire by introducing what was considered radical foreign and experimental art. In the first issue of Ver Sacrum, the association's official publication, it was written that member artists were seeking:


… art not enslaved to foreigners, but at the same time without fear or hatred of the foreign ... We want to bring foreign art to Vienna not just for the sake of artists, academics and collectors, but in order to create a great mass of people receptive to art, to awaken the desire which lies dormant in the breast of every man for beauty and freedom of thought and feeling.[17]


With Gustav Klimt as president, the first exhibition of the Vienna Secession opened in March of 1898. Such luminaries as Bocklin, Rodin, Klinger, Whistler, and Puvis de Chavannes brought work to be exhibited. The Belgian artist Fernand Khnopff exhibited a large number of paintings which would come to have an important influence on other members of the Secession.[18] The financial and critical success of this first exhibit encouraged members to hold another show right away. In November of the same year, the second exhibit was held in the just-finished Secession building. Designed by architect Josef Maria Olbrich and located near the Academy of Fine Arts, the building itself became a conversation piece due to the strange cupola. The words "Der Zeit ihre Kunst, der Kunst ihre Freiheit" (to every age its art, to art its freedom) carved on the facade seemed an appropriate description of the artistic temperament of the time.


Following the success of the first two shows, Secession members held exhibits often. Before Meštrović arrived on the scene in the spring of 1900, there had been five major exhibitions. The fifth, which opened in September of 1899 and ran through January, was a remarkable collection of drawings by Renoir, Picasso, Carriere, and Puvis de Chavannes. Shortly thereafter, a retrospective of Japanese art was presented. Although poorly attended, it was a brave attempt by Viennese artists to bring the Oriental to Europe. The influence on future artists was great, and opened the way for acceptance of other foreign art by society as a whole.


It was the seventh exhibit, however, which put the Secession on front pages of newspakers throughout much of Europe. This historic show was prepared at virtually the same time the young Croatian sculptor was making his trip to Vienna. When the doors opened, Meštrović was among the crowd which flocked to see Klimt's new painting "Philosophy". The first of his three highly controversial University paintings, "Philosophy revals how interaction with the Secession had changed the Austrian artist's stile. Considered obscene by most, the work soon became a topic of discussion in the media and, eventually, even in Parliament. The series truly defines fin-de-siecle art in Vienna — naked figures and tangled bodies depicting the suffering and humiliation of mankind. "Philosophy", along with "Medicine" and "Jurisprudence", goes a long way in summarizing the tremendous social, political, and cultural changes occurring in Europe at the time. For the most part, the press and public were outraged. Klimt, formerly the darling of the Ringstrasse and one of the kings of academic art in Vienna, had slapped proper society in the face. As a result, he became an overnight sensation.


The public uproar over Klimt painting could not have gone unnoticed by Meštrović. Artistically inexperienced and politically naive, it was most likely incomprehensible to him that a single work of art could cause such debate. Living a sheltered life in his rustic village, Meštrovic certainly never realized that an artist could have so much influence in society. And the progression of Meštrović's work at this stage from experimental to nationalistic shows that he began to give a great deal more thought to the role of the artist in modern society. Before long, such titles as "Timor Dei" and "At the Tomb of Dead Ideals" would be replaced by "The Bard of my People", "A Portrait of King Peter", and "At the Well of Life."


Meštrović saw the fame that "Philosophy" brought Klimt, and also the outrage over the painting. And he knew from observing the political scene in his own country that after great outrage, there can be change. The controversy over Klimt's University series and the work of many other revolutionary artists at the time surely started him thinking about his own talents and how he could best use them to influence events in society.


Despite the debts he owed the more radical artists working in Vienna between 1900-1905, Meštrović never went so far as to adopt all the tenets of Art Nouveau or the Secession. He completed some interesting experiments but resisted the urge to totally dedicate himself to any specific artistic movement. Although he exhibited with the Secession until 1910, he was not an active member after 1905. And even while he lived in Vienna and was considered a contributing member of the association, he found the need to leave the capital each summer and return to his homeland for inspiration.


Upon returning to Vienna following his summers at home, Meštrović was again caught up in the Secessionist movement. During those early years, it was as if he had two distinct artistic personalities, one dedicated to promoting a radical new artistic association and the other to advocating political freedom for an oppressed people. Eventually, the latter personality prevailed.


Due largely to the influence of Klimt and Otto Wagner, by 1905 Meštrović had drifted. away from the Secession. In Klimt he saw a painter who was using his art to influence the way people thought about government and academia. In Wagner he saw a pioneer in modern architecture who was unabashedly revamping the world of design and decorative arts. By studying both men, Meštrović became aware of the power art could have in transforming society. His philosophy about the purpose of art was quickly changing. Reflecting on these early years in his career, Meštrović wrote in 1950:


Even in my first creative days, I was aware of the fact that sculpture is a way of expressinonels feeling or the feelings of the national and ideological group to which the artist belongs. However, I must admit that in my youthful passion for creating, I had no time or 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 feeling and basic convictions are chaotic, if they are not anchored in some unifying idea that transcends time and outlives both us and old epochs?[19]


Unlike a majority of other artists working before the First World War, Meštrović began turning to history for inspiration rather than attempting to document the present or foretell the future. He began searching for a deeper psychological and philosophical stance on which to base his work. He would write that he "discovered very early in my development that I could not subscribe to the slogan L'art pour l'art (art for art's sake), the view that was then almost universally held; that art should serve beauty and esthetic pleasure alone."[20] It was a key decision for young Meštrović to make—one that would greatly influence the direction his art would rake— and corresponds to a time when the influence of the Secession was fading and pressures on him to turn his attention to his homeland were increasing. Had he followed the path Klimt blazed, Meštrović would never have been able to return home — literally and figurativelly. He was a peasant, with a peasant's view of the world. He was not cosmopolitan, as was Klimt, and did not possess Klimt's overwhelming dissatisfaction with modern society. Rather than feeling alienated from his past, Meštrović felt united with it. The esoteric works being produced by the modernists began to run contrary to his entire philosophical orientation, one which had deep roots in the history and culture of his native Croatia. Although Meštrović adopted some of the stylistic tools employed in the age, he remained stubbornly classical in his outlook. His goal was to herald in a new era in sculpture, but one anchored firmly in the traditions of the past.


The four years Meštrović spent at the Academy coincided with the most significant years of the Secession. These were formative years in Ivan Meštrović's artistic career. He witnessed the greatest of the Secession shows, most devoted to the European avant garde. His early works ("Timor Dei", "Laokoon", "The Family", "Luka Botić") were heavily influenced by these exhibitions. The fact that he failed to continue in the avant garde tradition is attributable both to the decline of the Secession and to his growing conviction that he would find more fulfillment — and more commissions — by producing a national art. The political and artistic climate was perfect for an unknown sculptor from a misunderstood Eastern European country. Fueled by the frightening pan-Germanism of the age and all that it implied, as early as 1904 Meštrović began seeing his work as a means to a socio-political end. Thus, even while studying in Vienna, Meštrović started his return to the classical traditions which had formed him — traditions steeped in Arian, Egyptian and Babylonian culture. The classical was fast overtaking the experimental. From that point on, there would be something about his work which remained, as in his country, a cross between the Orient and the Occident, some-thing Roman and some thing Byzantine some thing Attic and Asiatic. His art would act as a link between such opposites.


Meštrović was decidedly audacious in bucking not only the artistic conventions of his age, but the political ones as well. It is that courage which set him apart from the thousands of avant garde artists working at the time, each trying to make a statement about the condition of the world but unable to find a unique way of doing so. Meštrović had that advantage, harbored in his own national character. By 1905, he began thinking about the creation of a huge national monument dedicated to his homeland. A year later, he was totally preoccupied with the project — to be titled the "Temple of Vidovdan" — designed to marry a political statement with an artistic one. Meštrović, therefore, gradually turned his substantial energies away from the Secession and channeled them into promoting a fierce national pride. Spurred on by the increased attention being paid to his art, he began working at a furious pace, often putting in 16-hour days. He abhorred wasting time and gathered around him only those friends who did not interfere with his work. Ćurčin gives a valuable description of Meštrović during these early years of his career:


His wife (Ruža) and I would sit for hours in his room, gossiping about our friends or discussing important national and political questions, whilst he would not speak more than once or twice; all the same, he was following our conversation with interest and liked us to be there. He would work unceasingly, either kneading a mass of stuff, or carving wood, slowly and carefully but at the same time energetically and without hesitation, just as if some one were guiding his hand. Occasionally, when the topic of conversation was specially inspiring to him, he would become loquacious and begin to talk very persuasively and amusingly, just in the same way as do men of great intelligence who are keen observes rather than speakers [21]


It was this keen power of observation which allowed Meštrović to seize the proper moments in history and relate them, by means of his art, to similar events in the present. Tempered by such disparate influences as the Secession and Rodin, Meštrović developed a unique vision of the world, one built on the past so that he could better interpret the present and preserve it for the future. The Croatian painter Ljubo Babić was later to write that:


The greatness and the tragedy of Ivan Meštrović do not lie in the fact that he is an artist of a small nation; his greatness and tragedy are in his works as a whole. His entire sublimated life with all its positive and negative elements was a concentrated urge to break through to his own form of expression, special and completely different from any other, either among his contemporaries or his forerunners[22]


Vienna was little more than a brief interlude in Meštrović's long career. After leaving the city, he returned with a passion to the classical influences of his youth. He drifted away from the abstract art of the avant garde and maintained a closer affinity with Maillol, Hanak, and Epstein than with Lipschitz, Moore, Calder, or Archipenko. He saw modern art as holding few answers to the tragic questions of the age.


"At the Well of Life", exhibited at the Secession in 1904, represents a key turning point in Meštrović' s career. With this work, he evolved out of the more timid experiments of his first years in Vienna. Although the influence of both the Secession and Rodin is obvious, there is something uniquely Meštrović about the sculpture. It is the work of a mature artist with a specific mission. The money obtained from "At the Well of Life" and several smaller works sold to industrialist Karl Wittgenstein allowed Meštrović to escape from Vienna. His subsequent trip to Paris and Rome can be seen as a symbolic break with his youth. However, instead of looking forward, Meštrović kept his gaze turned back. He showed an ever-increasing awareness of past styles and yet infused in them a modern vigor.


It is interesting to note that Klimt was, at the same time, also turning to past styles. It seemed a reaction against the very ideals the Secession had first set out: that is, to liberate art from a time-worn classicism. But artists such as Klimt and Meštrović began to find solace in the more ancient art. Here, there was order and routine in a world going mad. Meštrović wrote shortly after World War II:


Anyone who has followed my work closely will see that my later work grows logically out of any earlier. This can be seen from what I said before. My nationalism was not an everyday affair, nor were the works Idid at that time historical illustrations — they attempted to be an expression of the history of the soul of our nation, the soul which in its essence is general and human.


I do not believe, and neither I think do you, that either individuals or nations are heroic if they fight simply for their own freedom or material gain, but only if they fight for general freedom and for general gain ... It is usual to think of military leaders as heroes; I hold that heroes are those who fight for the greatest ideals of humanity.[23]


To be a great man in a small nation is extremely difficult. In a country where there have been relatively few prominent people, those who achieve greatness are automatically drawn into the political sphere. Meštrović was gradually forced to come into contact with many of the politicians in his country, the petty as well as the influential. By 1904, a year before he would leave for Paris and Rome, he had achieved enough recognition in Vienna that he had become a celebrity in his own country. Within three years he would be a regular at the Belgrade palace. It was also at this time that the Imperial Palace in Vienna began to show an interest in Meštrović. However, when asked to execute several large figures for the facade of a new wing being built on the palace, Meštrović refused the commission, not wanting to sculpt for the government which was denying freedom to his own country.


The story of Meštrović standing up to the Empire soon spread throughout the South Slav nations. By the end of the decade, not only was he recognized as the greatest Slav sculptor in history, but also as one of the nation's leading political activists. His years in Vienna were fast coming to a close. Ivan Meštrović was being pulled back home.



[1] W. Branch Johnson, "Mestrović, the Peasant Genius of Europe," Catholic World, Vol. 130, 1930.

[2] Petar Vergo, Art In Vienna (London: Phaindon Press Limited, 1975), p. 13.

[3] There is no definitive source explaing exactly why Aleksander Koenig did not follow up with payments for Meštrović's schooling, or exactly what he had promised the young sculptor.

[4] Milan Ćurčin, "The Story of an Artist" ,Ivan Meštrović, A Monograph, (London, 1919), p. 83.

[5] Stories regarding Meštrovies days with Otto Koenig vary substantially. The general consensus, however. is that Koenig was induced by his wife to accept Meštrović as a student.

[6] It has never been fully documented why Meštrović did not continue his studies with Otto Koenig.

[7] Hrvatska Revija, September 1953.

[8] Again, there are conflicting stories regarding Meštrović 's admission to the Academy of Fine Art as well as the exact time he left his studies with Koenig. Some authors say Otto Koenig introduced Meštrović to Edmund Hellmer while others maintain it was Sycora who arranged an interview for Meštrović with Academy authorities.

[9] Laurence Schmeckebier, Ivan Meštrović, Sculptor and Patriot (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1959), p. 9.

[10] Ćurčin, p. 83.

[11] Schmeckebier, p. 9.

[12] Čurčin, p. 15.

[13] Ibid., p. 15.

[14] Kristian Sotriffer, Modern Austrian Art (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1965), p. 38.

[15] Carl E. Schorske, Fin-de-Siecle Vienna, Politics and Culture (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980), p. 219.

[16] Vergo, p. 24.

[17] Ibid., p. 26.

[18] Ibid., p. 30.

[19] Liturgical Arts, November, 1950

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ćurćin, p. 22.

[22] Duško Kečkemet, Ivan Meltrović: The Only Way to be Artist is to Work (Zagreb: Spektar, 1970).

[23] Ivan Meštrović, About My Art (New York: Kolo, 1924).