MY MEMORIES OF IVAN MEŠTROVIĆ
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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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Ivan Meštrović grew up in my father's generation, and knew my grandfather, three of grandfather's daughters, as well as several of his sons. I myself was born in 1909, grew up between the two World Wars, and did not meet Meštrović before World War II. To my generation, Ivan Meštrović was considered the most famous living Croatian; we were proud of his artistic achievements. In a country politically and ideologically much polarized, this great man's political stance and ideological orientation were of paramount importance. Speaking very generally, we saw him as a staunch supporter of Yugoslav unity; we heard that during World War I, together with Frano Supilo and Ante Trumbić, he advocated the creation of a Yugoslav state following the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian empire. In the '20s and '30s he was known to us as an intimate friend of King Alexander Karadjordjević.
However, during that time the Croato-Serbian animosity progressively worsened. To be a Yugoslav meant that one was not a good Croatian ideologically. Meštrović was also considered to be a liberalac, i.e. a sort of secularist — a person who disregards forms of established religious worship. To be anti-Yugoslav and to be a church-goer were in many instances closely connected. It was also very well known at that time that Meštrović had made religious sculptures, but many of our contemporaries interpreted these as simply conventional artistic subjects. He was commissioned, for example, to decorate St. Mark's Church in Zagreb. The commissioner, Msgr. Rittig, himself an advocate of Yugoslav unity, was considered a political anomaly as a priest of Yugoslav orientation.
In the fall of 1941, after the establishment of the Independent State of Croatia, I went to the University of Rome to teach the Croatian language. At the same time, Meštrović was imprisoned by the new regime. He describes that painful experience in his Uspomene na političke ljude i dogadjaje (Memories of Political Men and Happenings). Released after several months, he was allowed to go to Italy; in 1942 we met in Rome. After a short stay there, Meštrović withdrew to Switzerland. Later, as the war ended, he returned to Rome with his wife, two sons and a daughter. Since he did not wish his sons to attend an Italian secondary school he asked me to be their private tutor. Although I continued to teach at the University, my monthly salary was sufficient to support my family for only the first half of the month — the stipend I received from Meštrović saw us through to the end of the month. At the same time he asked me to translate his "Conversations with Michelangelo" into French, which I think he did mostly to help me financially.
In 1947 Meštrović accepted a position at Syracuse University; in 1955 he moved to Notre Dame University. Also in 1955, upon opening its 75th anniversary celebration, Marquette University, where I was teaching by that time, conferred upon Meštrović an honorary degree. I, as a Croatian, was asked to read the following citation: "Ivan Meštrović: a patriot whose genius expressed with epic power the indomitable spirit of his beloved Croatia. 'The greatest phenomenon among the sculptors', said the immortal Rodin. The tyrant could not conquer him whom the freedom of American citizenship won for us. His strong impulse toward God called forth from his remark-able prolific genius creations of power, deep reverence, and startling originality. The timelessness, vitality, and monumental dignity of his work have justly won for him the acclaim of being one of the greatest religious sculptors of all time. Because he reflects the essence of the classical spirit with startling clarity, remarkable splendour and astonishing variety of design, he has merited the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa". For me it was a privilege to extol a man whom I admired so much.
During the ensuing seven years I visited Mr. and Mrs. Meštrović several times with my wife and our youngest son (the artist had a particular fondness for children). I spent long hours in the evenings listening to the recounting of his many experiences. He would often say "You should know this ...", with the implication that he was handing down something important to posterity. We have to remember that Meštrović's education was, until the age of 15, oral tradition only. Writing later about his fellow peasants he described his own upbringing: "The peasants carried on the Croatian artistic tradition, and from the villages there poured forth poetry, heroic ballads, and lyric songs, many of them containing hundreds of verses. The peasants chanted and recited these verses at every gathering, keeping the spirit of the nation alive and the cultural thread unbroken". I know of no immigrant who would long so deeply for his lost fatherland: he was attached to his native language, to his people. He said that some of his best sculptures remained in his native mountains: in an intense vision he saw their shapes in the Dinaric mountain chains.
In the '50s and '60s Professor Eterovich and I worked on an encyclopaedic survey of Croatian culture. Professor Meštrović was pleased to write a foreword for it, and this appeared in the first volume of Croatia: Land, People, Culture, published by University of Toronto Press in 1964. We dedicated the entire work to Meštrović because he supported us morally through the long years of work.
According to my notes written at that time, on January 26, 1962, Meštrović went to his atelier at Notre Dame University. After an hour he returned home and told his wife and daughter Marica that he didn't feel at ease and wished to rest. When he awoke he found speaking difficult. His doctor was called, but it was not until two hours later that his substitute arrived. Marica accompanied him to the hospital; because of inclement weather and her broken hip, Mrs. Meštrović remained at home. When his wife arrived a bit later, Meštrović smiled. During the following few hours he sighed several times Bože moj (My God), and, after receiving extreme unction, he expired at 9 p.m. Many times he had expressed the desire to work to the last day of his life.
The funeral services were held at the main altar of the Notre Dame University Chapel. The Master's Pietŕ was displayed at the side altar. Since the weather was unusually stormy, many could not reach South Bend, Indiana, among them being Bishop Hurley from St. Augustine, Florida, whom the artist had befriended after the war. Father Theodore Hesburgh, president of the University, celebrated the mass and the local bishop Msgr. Grurka delivered the eulogy, ending it with a few words in Croatian.
Croatians came from all parts of the United States to see off their great fellow countryman. After the services some of us visited the artist's atelier, where his student Turkalj showed to us Master's last statues. Among them we saw another Pietŕ expressing profound reverence for the Son of Man and the faith in God's mercy. Touching was the sculpture Father and Son, which the sculptor made after his son's tragic death in the fall of 1961. When in December of that year I had asked him about his son's death, he said: "Never mind it, that's very sad". In America, during the last fifteen years of his life, Meštrović was generally considered a profoundly religious sculptor,
As I have pointed out, between the two wars Meštrović was not regarded as a man of faith. When I met him personally I quickly realized that he was indeed a very religious person, permeated with high moral principles. He firmly believed in the existence of God and in man's absolute dependence on God. He couldn't imagine a life without God and a people without religion. I believe that he is projecting himself in the following description of Croatian people: "Christian or Moslem, the Croatian takes his faith seriously. Religion forms the basis of his personality, and he cherishes it as a gift. There is no doubt that this deeply-anchored religious faith has been the source of the strength and spiritual inspiration which has enabled the Croatian people to survive individually and as a nation throughout centuries of struggle".
He used to say that all religions lead to the same God. According to him, Christ's teachings contained the most perfect religious expression among men. On the other hand, he didn't have great appreciation for the main Catholic religious practices: mass, sacraments, dogmas. The last time I met with him was on December 8, 1961, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Knowing that I was a firm believer of that dogma, he told my friend Fr. Eterovich jokingly in my presence: "Even his wife Jelka must have a hard time believing in that".
Yet a belief in a real transcendent power was deeply rooted in him. Speaking of death he wrote: "In the moments of that vital turning point, when the thread of life breaks, before his eyes a man sees his children, his wife, his relatives and friends, even his whole nation, whom he is leaving behind. He does not feel an absolute separation, on the contrary he feels he will be with them perhaps more than before". Immediately after his death, his daughter Marica wrote a short article in which she said that her father was always ready to forgive even his own enemies. She continues: "The most precious legacy he left to all people of good will was summarized by him in these words—'Love one another and forgive one another' ".
After the assassination of the Croatian leader Stjepan Radić in 1928 and the violent death of the Serbian king in 1934, the idea of Yugoslav unity collapsed. Meštrović was aware of that evident change. On the eve of World War II, Radić's successor Vladko Maček reached a compromise with the Serbian politician Dragiša Cvetković, and a new Croatian unit, called Banovina Hrvatska, was created within Yugoslavia. Recalling that critical moment, Meštrović, who was well informed in that instance, told me later: "The Croatians were dissatisfied because they didn't get enough, and the Serbs were convinced they gave away too much".
Due to his artistic pursuits Meštrović traveled extensively during the first half of his life between Vienna, Paris, Rome, London and Chicago. In him the artist and the patriot were intimately connected. He also realized that the big Western nations didn't have great under-standing of the plight of his small nation. He sensed their instinctive dislike for "Balkan rivalries." He disliked bringing his country's domestic disputes before foreigners who could hardly distinguish between so many odd sounding names. Such was his understanding that in 1945, immediately after the war, when invited by the Yugoslav Partisans to visit an exhibit of pictures showing war atrocities committed by their adversaries, Meštrović told the representative of Tito's government: "Why did you bring all that stuff? Haven't you gotten over that paranoid fever? Do you want to convince the world that we are barbarians? All those pictures have been seen in Chetnik, Ustasha and Partisan publications. The victims and their killers have different names, that's all, according to the different accusers. A foreigner will not distinguish Chetniks from Ustashas and Partisans, but he will conclude: they are all from the same country, the same kind of people, all bandits".
Although Meštrović was imprisoned by Ustashas and morally suffered greatly during that detention, he always attempted to tone down any criticism of that regime. For him, Croatia was his country, no matter who was in power there. As years went by and the new Yugoslav regime became more oppressive toward Croatians, Meštrović felt closer and closer to his people. As a gesture of this he donated his 24 wood carvings depicting the life of Christ to a church in Split, and asked that votive masses be celebrated once or twice yearly. The artist was both saddened and angered when the Yugoslav government tried to delay the opening of the chapel. It was a time at which for many Croatians in the country Ivan Meštrović was a living symbol of opposition to an anti-religious and anti-Croatian government. At such times of national frustration even little things become significant. American Croatians like to buy exported Croatian wines, cordials, and similar drinks. Yet like his fellow countrymen he would also complain about bottle labels whereon one read the legend "Product of Yugoslavia"; at the same time the plum brandy was labeled "Serbian slivovitz".
At the beginning of 1957, some time before President Eisenhower was to receive President Tito, I received the following letter from Meštrović: „Please translate into English the enclosed letter, which I intend to send to Mr. Dulles. I know that Tito's visit is already decided upon, and that my letter will have no effect, but I am doing it to put my conscience at peace. Especially try to formulate skilfully the question that as a precondition Tito should release Stepinac from prison before his own visit to Washington. I am sure that Americans would feel better and Tito himself would feel safer”. The following is the translation of the letter I sent him:
Dear Mr. Dulles:
I hope you will not be surprised by this letter. I write both as a citizen of this country and as a former citizen of Croatia (Yugoslavia), who cannot be insensitive to the destiny of that unfortunate country. These two facts, I trust, give me the privilege as they certainly impose the duty to send you these words on the occasion of the persistent report that the present Yugoslav ruler Josip Broz Tito will officially be received in Washington, D.C.
I do not claim any competence for judging whether or not it is profitable for the U.S. to receive the dictator of a strictly Communist regime, ruling by brute force against the will of 90 percent of his subjects whose hopes are all turned toward freedom-loving America. According to my unimpechable sources, the U.S. is the most popular nation among the Yugoslav peoples, even among most communists. That is the real picture of the popular disposition in Yugoslavia.
When I recently asked a reliable and competent informant what would be the attitude of the people and army of Yugoslavia in case of an East-West conflict, I was told: 'In the case of a pro-communist venture, a general disintegration would be quicker than in World War II. On the contrary, if the regime should choose to side with the U.S., all Serbs and Croatians, disregarding national and religious differences, would accept this fighting because the eyes of all are directed toward America.' From that point of view the American program in Yugoslavia has been successful. It has been the people's physical and moral support. Yet there is no doubt that the reception of the head of the dictatorship in Washington will greatly weaken this positive spirit, just as it is certain that Belgrade government will take advantage of this opportunity to crush their popular opposition.
Among the many limitations of freedom under Tito, the most grievous one is a religious persecution, especially against the Catholic church and its clergy. Cardinal Stepinac, the archbishop of Zagreb, has become the symbol of resistance to this persecution, and thus the most popular person in the nation. Leading communists have admitted to me that he was unjustly condemned. If we keep in mind that all this is generally known, I cannot but consider with dismay the disappointment of the Yugoslav people and the weakening of their hope in America, if Tito should be received in Washington by the President. This attitude is certain to be the attitude of all Croatians in Europe and here. As you know very well the same attitude will be shared by Catholics and all other freedom-loving citizens in this country. In consequence would it not be wise for the U.S., and Tito himself, to make Tito's reception in Washington conditional upon the complete release of Cardinal Stepinac and his return to his dignity together with the cessation of the persecution of the Catholic church?
I am confident that, without losing sight of political realities, President Eisenhower will be animated by the spirit of Jefferson and Lincoln and other great American leaders who pledged to make this country a bulwark of freedom and human dignity.
Later on Meštrović wrote me: "I sent the letter and now it is in God's hands. Of course, this will not change their decision, but it might make them think of the condition I suggested, the more so that I heard they received many protests in connection with Mr. Tito's visit. As I told you Mr. Dulles was very receptive to my suggestions when I asked him to help Stepinac in his sickness. He helped him as much as he could.
Meštrović denounced the communist and the Ustasha rules, yet in both ideologies he knew how to find at least something positive. For him, Tito happened to be the ruler of Croatia at a certain moment in its long history, and he wanted to believe that even Tito could do some good. In 1959 Meštrović visited the old country. As soon as he arrived in Zagreb he went straight to the village of Krašić where the Cardinal was interned; nobody stopped him on his way. For him, Stepinac embodied justice, the perennial Croatian longing for justice. Stepinac was truly a martyr in his eyes. Afterwards he visited Tito in his summer residence on the Brioni Islands. Among other things, Meštrović complained to Tito that the oppressive Serbian rule in Bosnia would transform that land into a complete Serbian province. Tito assured him: "As long as I am here, Bosnia will never become Serbian".
In 1959 Ena G. Macnutt published a reader for the deaf children under the title Hearing With Our Eyes. She described the lives of some great men, among them Ivan Meštrović. She began his story with these words: "More than 50 years ago a little boy was living in the village of Octavia (instead of Otavice) in Serbia (instead of Croatia)". And the story ends: "He is one of the greatest sculptors in the world. When the Serbians tell stories to their children now, they will tell about Ivan Meštrović". When I called Meštrović's attention to these and similar mistakes, he encouraged me to warn the writer, telling her that the story would be closer to the truth if "Serbia and Serbian were replaced by Croatia and Croatian". Mrs. Macnutt graciously took those suggestions into consideration and added that her story inspired many a young man. Such mistakes about Meštrović occurred often in other countries too, and caused resentments among Croatians. Correcting these errors seemed, to Meštrović himself, a Sisyphean task.
Ante Trumbić and Ivan Meštrović, as we have seen, were considered the founders of Yugoslavia. In 1918 they brought about the dream of Gaj, Strossmayer, Rački and others. However, Trumbić died in 1938 and Meštrović in 1962, both convinced that the Yugoslav dream was a nightmare and that Croatians must materialize the dream of Ante Starčević and live by themselves. By a strange twist of history, Yugoslavism had led to atheistic communism. In the midst of that development, Meštrović, before World War II, had prophetically pointed to the triumph of Spirit and national freedom. On the occasion of the consecration of the Church of Our Lady in Biskupija near Knin, which Meštrović restored with his friend painter Jozo Kljaković, the sculptor composed a prayer that was publicly read in 1938. Therein he said: "The Spirit will conquer just as the sun conquers fog and darkness ... These builders of factories and furnaces think that human souls can be kneaded by violence and injustice as one kneads dirt when mixed with water ... " He concludes the long prayer: "Not even one just desire will remain unheard; not even one prayer unanswered. What grandparents do not see their grandchildren will behold; the promised kingdom will come, that kingdom in which a man will not be a wolf to another man, but a brother to his brother. Man will not be subjected to other men, but to justice, love and truth."
In the first period of his artistic activity, which goes to World War I, Meštrović stressed power and strength embodied in national heroes. His motto was Usprkos nejunačkom doba (In spite of non-heroic times). The war atrocities and the Yugoslav failure gradually broadened his view of life. His wooden Crucifix made in Geneva towards the end of World War I, his Pietŕ made in Rome in the '40s after his imprisonment, and his Job made in South Bend, Indiana in the late 50s, after Cardinal Stepinac's imprisonment and internment, expressed his profound belief in the redeeming power of human suffering. With stoic perseverance he intensified his efforts, his enormous power of work, as if he would have liked to justify Camus last words in his famous essay: Il faut imaginer Sisyphe beureux. We might paraphrase it: In spite of all, Sisyphus is happy.
On the eve of World War II Meštrović's prayer was not heard in his country. But now my generation and especially those who follow us see in him a great Croatian who, to use his own words, announces a glorious Sunday after a Good Friday.
Postscript: My memories of Ivan Meštrović also recounted in the journal Hrvatska Revija, first issue for 1983. The above is not a translation; rather a complement.
 Eterovich. Francis H. and Christopher Spalatin (ed.), Croatia: Land, People, Culture, part I (Toronto, 1964), p. X.
 Idem, ibid.
 Uspomene na političke ljude i dogadjaje (Zagreb, 1969), p. 296.
 See Meštrović's conversations with prominent Serbians Slobodan Jovanović, Bob. Marković and Bogdan Popović in Uspomene ... pp. 256-262.
 Uspomene ..., p. 352.