Friday, 8 October 2010

Mestrovic as a Sculptor in America

LAURENCE SCHMECKEBIER, Journal of Croatian Studies, XXIV, 1983

The virtue of this particular seminar is that it provides a new look at a distinguished personality from strikingly different viewpoints. The participants are conditioned by a variety of language and nationality traditions. They approach the subject with the different scientific disciplines of their respective professions as historians, political scientists, literary critics, and art critics.

And the times are different. The literature on Meštrović is vast, but it stems largely from the first half of this century. The significance of Meštrović, the Sculptor and Patriot[1] that I was able to present a generation ago offers a challenge even more meaningful in these threatening years of the 1980's than during the revolutionary events of the war and post-war period. In reviewing both periods this man towers as one of the great artistic personalities of this century. Not only did he have a major influence on the culture and politics of our time, but he remains as the embodiment of an ideal in which the artist is conceived not as the Romantic individualist, sufficient only to himself, but is an integral part of society and responsible to the spiritual needs and welfare of mankind. Meštrović's career as an artist reveals an almost superhuman effort to achieve that ideal. In this he belongs in the realm of the greatest: Michaelangelo, Bernini, Rodin.

To judge Meštrović the sculptor it is perhaps more useful to look at his work in terms of his competitons rather than artistic traditions and influences in which he was involved. His spectacular career in Europe from 1904 until 1946 is clear and established; his sixteen years as an artist in America were dramatic and frustrating. Both phases seem to reveal that enigmatic quality which Rodin once characterized as "Meštrović the Phenomenon".

From the beginning, Meštrović dealt with no small ideas, but great ones of stature and profound significance. In the spirit of the Paris Pantheon and the German Valhalla at Regensburg, his Kosovo monument was conceived as a national shrine and tribute to the heroic folk tradition. The architectural plan of the concept remained as an idea and model, seemingly unattainable because of political and economic circumstances, but the sculpture he carved, literally/with his own hands, strong and invincible. And they retain that power to this day. Compare this idea and these figures with what his contemporaries were doing in Vienna, France, and Germany: Kaufman's "Vaterlandslied" (1903) and Metzner's "Niebelungen" fountain in Vienna (1904), Bourdelle's "Monument to the Dead" in Montauban (1902), Vigeland's unparalleled "History of Man" sculptures in Frogner Park, Oslo (1905) and the colossal "Battle of Nations" monument (1906-13) near Leipzig. These all were works which Meštrović certainly knew. While the ideas and motivation might be comparable to what he was thinking, and the scale equally gigantic, the figures themselves in those works were weak, mannered and, as sculptural forms, ineffective. Only Rodin was able to embue the forms with the inner spirit and power of a great idea as seen in the richly expressive figures of his Gates of Hell (begun 1890) and the dramatic Citizens of Calais (1884-86).

There were colossal single figures in the tradition of the classic Athena Parthenos, all with their political and national associations: Ludwig von Schuvanthaler's "Bavaria" in Munich (1843-93), Johannes Schilling's "Germania" (Niederwald, overlooking the Rhine, 1883) and of course our own Statue of Liberty in New York harbor (Bartholdi, 1886). Meštrović certainly knew them and I am sure he was not impressed. His answer is to be seen in his own work: the 1928 Victory Monument in Kalemegdan Park in Belgrade and the magnificent "Gregory of Nin" (1929) before Diocletian's Palace in Split.

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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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