Friday, 1 October 2010

Mestrovic in Vienna


MICHAEL MULNIX, Journal of Croatian Studies, XXIV, 1983

Fin-de-siècle 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
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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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