MEŠTROVIĆ'S SIGNIFICANCE IN THE FORMATION OF YUGOSLAVIA IN 1918
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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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At the outset of this century the World of the South Slays was stirred by national and ideological transformation. Ever since the decline of the Ottoman Empire the Balkans had aspired to the formations of their own national states, of which Serbia was also a pivot. In the declining Austro-Hungarian Empire this idea had a far greater impact on the Serbian and Croatian revolutionary intelligentsia than on the larger strata of the people. To this process the static, almost paralytic condition of political life in Austria and Hungary proper contributed even more than the disillusionment of the intelligentsia in Bohemia, Slovakia and, particularly, Croatia and Dalmatia. I recall listening to epic ballads about the Balkans rising from their restless slumber to see the light of the sun from the East, announcing a Pan-Slav resurrection led by faraway Russia. I again stress that these were visions of one fragment of the educated elite, ignored and not shared by the majority of the population.
Folk epic poetry, the Bible and Adriatic rocky mountains inspired Meštrović, this son of peasants living in the barren Dalmatian mountains. He gave to his own people a new epic-determined vision of themselves. His intuitive sense was that Michelangelo had read Dante and the Bible, so he also drew his inspiration from the Bible and the national poetry of his people — he told me again and again. The Bible and the folk poetry gave his creative work the epic dimension.
As a child guarding sheep in the Dalmatian mountain Meštrović cut figures in stone and wood. Rustic protoromanic Croatian sculptures of religious figures and early Croatian heroes and kings impressed the young shepherd on his journeys from his native mountains to the Croatian towns and cities on the Adriatic. The Sibenik cathedral inspired him most of all — with its figures by Giovanni il Dalmata, the Brothers Lauranas and many other native Croatian sculptors. Still a boy Meštrović went to Diocletian's Split to learn stone cutting in the workshop of Pavo Bilinić. From Split he went to study at the Vienna Academy which turned him into an accomplished craftsman. His work was shown in the Salon of the Secession, a modernist movement then in vogue, with which his monumental style and vision was in some contrast. Journeys to Florence, Rome and Paris complete his education. In Paris Rodin befriended him. The old French master, as the saying goes, was to concede that his former pupil had a talent nearing his own, and there was no need for him to continue as his instructor.
In a cultural process suspended between East and West Meštrović transformed the vision of ourselves, through his own inspiration and self-expression which he carried on a direct dialogue with the people of his native land and foretold the beginning of our national and spiritual maturity. He always pointed out that the highest value of every people lies in its contribution to the improvement of the cultural community of brotherhood among nations. Indeed, in the period of the decline of the West, Meštrović' s art stood for a regeneration of moral values. Not only in the religious art which he pursued in the final years of his existence, but also in the epic art of his early years when he created such popular figures as Kraljević Marko, Srgja Zlopogledja and Domagoj with his archers, the pessimus dux Croatorum, as the Venetians called him. These figures became more alive than in folk poetry.
His art gave people at home and abroad a more impressive and graphic vision than the written word, could have ever done, even if lovely and poetic. As the outside world knew nothing or very little except for the few translations like those published by Goethe in his anthology of Folk poetry and Fortis' Viaggio in Dalmazia, Meštrović world of stones opened up new insight into our tragic existentialism.
And, here we reach the decisive period of our national drama and that of Ivan Meštrović himself which took place in 1911 when an international exhibition was held in Rome. In protest Meštrović and his Croatian colleagues refused the invitation to exhibit their works in the Austro-Hungarian pavilion and asked Serbia for space to host the Croatian artists. It was there that Meštrović presented the major heroes of the Kosovo cycle such as Jug Bogdan, the Mother of the Jugovićs, the lovely Kosovo Maiden who suffered so deeply that as the folk poetry says "if she would touch a green tree it would wither away", the Croat Strahinjić Ban and many others. The exhibition ushered a new chapter in modern European art. I shall not quote what the most illustrious European writers and art critics of that time, Giovanni Papini, Ugo Ojetti, James Bone and many others wrote. Instead I shall relate the following story:
In 1927 I visited Maxim Gorki at his villa in Sorrento, in Southern Italy between Naples and Capri. He had lived there for many years and was about to return to Russia to die. Gorki, old and sick, rose waving his hands first asked me: "Was Meštrović's Kosovo temple ever built? "No," I answered. "Shame," Gorki shouted, "shame! " Meštrović is the greatest sculptor the Slays have ever had, he and Tolstoy are the greatest creative artists Slavdom has ever had! Gorki after sixteen years still remembered his visit with the Russian writer Amphiteatrov to the Rome exhibition.
Meštrović wanted the Kosovo Temple to commemorate the brotherhood of all peoples who fought at Kosovo, "Field of the Blackbirds," and in other battles in the defense of Christianity against the Turks. He wanted to resurrect the memory of a great defeat at Kosovo when invading Turkish armies slaughtered Serbian and other Christian armies on Saint Vitus Day — Vidovdan — in the fourteenth century. His vision was that the Kosovo defeat would unite all the peoples in the area irrespectively of religion: the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Moslem; all Serbs, Croats, Bulgarians, Greeks, Albanians and even the remaining Turks themselves. Serbian politicians rejected the project for the Kosovo Temple. Although the idea was never realised, some parts of it were integrated in the monument to the Uknown Soldier on the Avala Mountain, where he used his famous Caryathides representing women from all parts of the land.
Meštrović knew the epic cycle of Kosovo by heart and used to recite it to us in his last years. He also knew the epic story of the great figure, the Albanian Skenderbeg, that he discovered in his youth in the book of Father Kačić Miošić Pleasant discourse about the Slavic people. He often recited those verses to us, his younger friends.
The further development of Yugoslavia's internal divisions and conflicts between Serbs and Croats with the aggressive Great Serbian hegemony, the assasination of the Croatian Peasant Party leader Stephen Radić and later of King Alexander persuaded Meštrović to focus on the destiny of Croatia. In the trying times of Serbian oppression Meštrović came out with the statue personifying the Croatian Woman or Mother who holds in her hand a large volume on which is inscribed "History of Croatia," this is what he wanted to defend and perpetuate. The book contains the collection of Laws which made up Pravica — Justice, which Meštrović believed were basic. It was his impressive and convincing protest against the Serbian threat to Croatia's national identity.
Meštrović continued with great power to create the monuments for the cities of Split, and Zagreb. There was great figure of Marko Marulić, the poet of the first Croatian literary poem "Judith"; the figure of Luka Botić, the romantic poet of the love and brotherhood between the Croat Catholic girl and a Moslem boy also a Croat; the monument to Bishop Grgur Ninski who demanded the Croatian language in the Catholic liturgy; and the great monument to the liberal Bishop Josip Juraj Strossmayer, a founder of the Yugoslav Academy and the Gallery of Arts in Zagreb; and many historical monuments for the medieval cities of Dubrovnik and Trogir, and again for Belgrade. All these creative achievements were meant to fill a great cultural void: to overcome cultural retardation and to preach brotherhood, love, tolerance and understanding in a country torn deeply apart.
In the last period of his creative life Meštrović concentrated on the relations between God and Man. This was his "religious" phase dating from his exile in Rome and continued in the United States first at Syracuse University and then at Notre Dame, the Catholic University which was sufficiently foresighted to build him a new studio. It was in Rome where he carved in stone the majestic Pietŕ which Milovan Djilas representing the Yugoslav government wanted to acquire in 1950 and bring back to Yugoslavia. Pietŕ which is at Notre Dame and, a copy of it at the Museum of Modern Religious Art at the Vatican, impress visitors by its dignity, courage and hope in resistance to tragic death and its promise of resurrection.
Meštrović died in South Bend, Indiana, two and a half year after his last visit to his native Croatia. He couldn't avoid meeting Tito, but on condition that he must visit first Archbishop Cardinal Stepinac. Though pressed to return to his homeland, he continually refused to live in a country where others could not enjoy the privileges, comforts and freedom the regime promised to him.
The legacy that Meštrović left to his people may be summed up as follows: a small people finds meaning and a place in the human community only if it enriches mankind with the spiritual and intellectual values which it has itself created. Force and power do not possess the strength which mankind needs to survive. He helped to establish Yugoslavia in the years 1914-18 but suffered deeply from its failure to establish an equal partnership among all its nations, mainly because of the hegemony of one ethnic group upon all others. Meštrović was shattered by his inability to prevent the inevitable civil war which raged between Croats and Serbs in the midst of World War Two. Some of us who were associated with Meštrović in the last years here in the United States and listened to his remembrances of the past were impressed by his decent and firm stand in exile. He left behind him all property, homes and buildings, in Zagreb and Split and preferred to live as a free man, in a one family house, in America. He was not disappointed that his art was not better represented in various New York's modern art collections. Upon arrival in New York however, he had the unprecedented honour of being the first living sculptor whose work was exhibited in the great hall of the Metropolitan Museum. His firm belief was that every true expressive creation would survive the changing modes, tastes and styles of its own times and eventually find its lasting place in art history.
As for the future of Yugoslavia that was the dream of his early years, although he had lived and suffered through this country's many tragedies, he never lost faith in the people, and placed the blames of failure on politicians. He was profoundly disillusioned with Serbian leadership, and came to believe that it was unable to organize a multinational state for it stubbornly insisted on a hegemony which ultimately lead to its disaster. 'Whatever the ultimate unraveling of the Yugoslav drama would be, he believed that, any alternative even separation, would be better than perpetual civil war which ultimately would consume and destroy both the oppressor and the oppressed.
He died convinced that the Croatian nation had reached a level of political maturity which was necessary for entrance into a community of independed states and that she would in fact achieve political and national independence and statehood. Meštrović's Croatia has found its noblest expression in the insistence on the principle of Pravica — the Justice. The Croatians have always fought and suffered for Justice. The Centennial celebration of Meštrović's birth should equally offer to those in Croatia as those dispersed all over the world, in diaspora, the opportunity to express their commitments to Justice and Freedom.