As an art medium, drawing conveys a certain aura of immediacy, almost physical contact with the artist’s hand, gesture and fleeting emotion at the pivotal moment when his artistic vision is taking its first, visible form. When it comes to Ivan Meštrović, an artist with a boundless supply of creativity who expressed himself in many artistic forms, upon closer examination of his drawing oeuvre we are provided with an insight into the very beginnings of his creative genius, regardless of the final medium in which his vision would eventually be executed. And although Meštrović used to say, with artless humility, that drawing is not his business, a vast oeuvre of a thousand and a half drawings listed so far, of which nearly 600 are kept in the Meštrović Gallery, gives a completely different impression. Whether they are brisk sketches, deft croquis, numerous studies or elaborate drawings that become autonomous artworks in their own right, Meštrović has shown, in this medium as well, a confident hand, a sense of space, an affinity for narrative, as well as his characteristic inclination towards the monumental.
With the exception of a small number of early drawings of decorative elements and ornaments and subsequent architectural drawings, Meštrović’s drawings show a continued focus on the representation of the human figure. They are studies of the human body, in which he explores different positions, movements, compositions, but also manages to convey the psychological state, emotion, expression… Even when he situates the body in the context of a certain space, the focus is again on the human figure, gesticulation and expression, as well as the dominant phenomenality within the scene. In Meštrović’s consideration of monumental solutions, his composition of religious scenes or numerous variations of the nude form – man is always the main vehicle of ideas, emotions or states of mind.
Honing His TalentThe first time Ivan Meštrović presented his works to the public was as a 16-year-old boy, when he exhibited drawings of folk heroes, with verses he had composed himself, at the Bojčić Inn in his native Otavice. So even though these first childhood drawings have not been preserved, their descriptions speak of Ivan finding inspiration in folk epic poetry – a theme that would occupy him for a long time, and will culminate a decade later in the magnificent ensemble of sculptures belonging to the so-called Kosovo Cycle. The earliest extant drawings, however, were created in Split in 1900, during Ivan’s apprenticeship in the stonemason’s workshop of Pavao Bilinić. Exhibited here for the first time, they provide an insight into the first steps in honing his talent. Meštrović’s early drawings were created under the mentorship of Bilinić’s wife Regina (née Vecchietti), a skilled painter who made sketches for altars and grave monuments for the stonemason’s workshop (Kečkemet 1959: 12). Although made based on usual academic templates, the earliest extant drawings by the future sculptor have a certain charm, which Kruno Prijatelj pointed out when they were first shown to the public (1959: 25):
„They show us the first seeds of the future creator, the first signs of talent awakening, they are the first intimation of individual sensibility, whose creative act will produce form. The charm of the earliest works becomes even greater when we know that this talent emerged on its own, autochthonously, independently (…).“
The true drawing fantasies that Ivan Meštrović created in Vienna in 1904 – 1906, are all the more fascinating, and confirm his development, within a very short time, into an excellent draughtsman capable of depicting the human body in exquisite detail, of conveying the psychological state, and presenting the tangible ambience of finished scenes. They were created during Meštrović’s studies in Vienna and we recognise them as drawings of symbolist affiliation. They are independent works of art, often illustrations made from literary template, characterised by a distinct narrative, the sense of space and specific atmosphere, with characters brought to life by movement, expression, and gesture. The rich iconography of Meštrović’s Vienna drawings has always intrigued researchers of his oeuvre.4
Thanks to their studies and meticulous deciphering of symbols, we are today able to interpret his symbolist drawings with ease. Among them, the illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy, with impressive scenes of the imaginary underworld, are a particular standout for their sheer number and intensity of the artist’s imagination.Specific political circumstances and rising national consciousness, however, caused a turning point in his future artistic direction. Drinking from the wellspring of oral tradition, folk epic poetry and mythical history of Old Slavs, will soon become the trigger for the formation of the awe-inspiring sculptural Kosovo Cycle. But, before he immortalised the folk heroes and their widows in sculptural form, he translated stories and motifs from folk history, which he had known since early childhood, into elaborate drawings. In them, legendary heroes such as Prince Marko, Banović Strahinja and Miloš Obilić occupy a prominent place, as well as mythical female characters embodied in the archetypes of a submissive bride, a grieving widow, a wailing mother, a magical fairy…
Compiling the first detailed list of artworks created heretofore, to be published in his London monograph in 1919, Meštrović omitted drawings, despite undoubtedly creating many of them in the first two decades of the 20th century. In addition to the aforementioned symbolist drawings, on the eve of and during World War I, he created numerous paintings and drawings with religious themes, the most common motifs being Madonna and Child, angels, representations of the Life of Christ and Crucifixion, and saints and apostles. A reflection of the creative and spiritual need, they exude an intense emotion, later becoming calmer in a rich decorative expression that the linearity of drawing was well suited for.
The early 1920s marked a watershed moment for Meštrović, when drawing became an art form of equal value and he started to exhibit them regularly as part of his solo exhibitions. He started to show drawings during his American tour of 1925 – 1926, after which it became an established practice6. They were mostly drawings created in his New York studio, more than a hundred of the signed and dated pieces. The sale price, which is still visible on the back of several of these drawings, in the amount of a few hundred dollars, speaks of their high market value. Owning a Meštrović drawing obviously implied some sort of prestige, because a considerable number of them were acquired, both for private and museum collections.7.
In 1932, Meštrović selected a considerable number of drawings to be exhibited at his 4th solo exhibition in Zagreb. In the preface to the exhibition, he pointed out that he is organising it ten years on, in order to show “what he has been creating, regardless of when, for whom and where”. We would also add – irrespective of the medium, because among the many representative sculptural works, he also showcased 37 drawings. Among them we recognise the drawings created in New York in 1925 (Prophet, cat. no. 95, Woman with Child, cat. no. 97, Abduction, cat. no. 43), rendered in the pastel technique, the thick contours and clearly defined volumes of which make them possess an almost sculptural character. Describing the drawings of his great artistic role model, the Renaissance master Michelangelo, Meštrović identifies the same feature that could be used to describe his New York drawings (2010: 239):
„Of course, his drawings and frescoes always have a sculptural character, they are clear and definite, with firmly drawn lines and strong outlines. They are not, like a painter’s, bodies observed in space, as they appear, but they are viewed separately, with their own internal structure, as they really are.“
In the formal sense, he came closest to his role model in numerous studies for the decoration of the dome of the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer, that is, the family tomb in Otavice. Michelangelo’s sybils, prophets and the ignudi from the Sistine Chapel are a special focus of the sculptor’s study, and their positions and manners in which the bodies sit on the imagined parapet of the vault become the basis for a future, never finished project of painting the dome in the family tomb. The drawings rendered in the charcoal and chalk technique, the soft texture of which enables modelling in fine transitions of light and shadow, evoke the voluminous bodies of imaginary figures. An elaborate iconographic program at the intersection of the sacred and the profane, which pays tribute to art and religion as mankind’s greatest spiritual creations, is a dialogue with Meštrović’s spiritual teacher and a return to the models and achievements of the celebrated Renaissance master.
In accordance with Meštrović’s thesis that he is primarily a sculptor, the largest number of drawings are indeed a preparatory stage for sculptural execution. Upon closer examination of the Meštrović Gallery drawing collection, we notice that almost half of them relate to studies for future sculptural projects, public monuments, but also preparatory drawings for the execution of paintings or prints. At the beginning of every project is a drawing – both as an initial sketch and a study elaboration.
Meštrović often said that the vision of an artwork is always most complete in his thoughts, where it is manifested in an almost finished form. True skill, however, lies in converting that vision to reality, first in numerous sketches and studies, which are often made in haste, like a fleeting spark of creative fever. This is precisely why an insight into these initial studies and drawings represents a view into the very essence of creative genius, into the very moment he is trying to bring his artistic vision to life. As Meštrović points out, these first notes contain a special value (2010: 238):
„(…) it often happens that in sketches and studies, even if they have flaws, there is something that is more impressive and powerful than in the finished works, because they are a more immediate expression of the spiritual side of the idea.“
This spiritual idea is sometimes translated to paper with just a few linear strokes that tell of a clear vision with full authority, and sometimes it is conveyed in strong outlines, with modelling that hints at the volumes and quality of the surface of the chosen permanent material. Later, as the sculptor himself explains, knowledge and skill will come into play when it comes to the finishing of the ultimate product, which is clearly visible in Meštrović’s sculpture in the harmonious composition, technical refinement and treatment of the sculptural surface.
Spiritual ReliefLastly, we should mention the moments in Meštrović’s life when the only possible creative expression was drawing. At times due to illness, and periodically because he was unable to secure conditions to work in sculptural form, he would turn to paper or canvas. In 1941, in the maelstrom of war, when he was incarcerated in the Ustasha prison on Savska Cesta in Zagreb, drawing became the only means of expression. Because creative work is a dire need for Meštrović, even in moments on the edge of human existence, in a prison cell: “… I was drawing all day long, which provided me with great spiritual relief” (Meštrović 1993: 307). The religious motifs he then rendered in drawing epitomise Meštrović’s traumatic experience of war, and despite widespread destruction, he still managed to find meaning in them, a message and a consolation.
The Artist’s Day-Dreaming and Soliloquy
The variety of drawing forms – from random sketches, through detailed studies to independent drawings, mastering of different techniques – pencil, India ink, pastel, charcoal and chalk, and ultimately, the variety of formats – from drawing ideas on tiny pieces of paper to drawing in almost life-size dimensions, offer us an insight into the incredible creative production of Ivan Meštrović, who always emphasised continuous work as the best formula for success. We also notice that a considerable number of drawings are drawn on both sides, which speaks volumes about a man who also worked in his free time, probably finding respite from the physically demanding sculptural work in drawing form. A detail from Meštrović’s interview in Time Magazine vividly illustrates his creative élan even at 70 years of age:
„When sculptor Ivan Meštrović was once asked how he spent his spare time, he looked puzzled for a moment, then blurted a characteristic answer. ‘Work’, he said, and turned back to the job at hand. Meštrović is a sculptor of the old school, and he goes at it with a blazing intensity; he has been known to do as many as nine major works plus a score of minor pieces in a single year.“9
The collection of Meštrović’s drawings in the Meštrović Gallery shows his creative process in all of its nuances, it intrigues with the wealth of iconography, points to and reminds us of his numerous achievements in other media, but it also reveals works which never came to fruition – unexecuted projects that remained recorded on a piece of paper. In his drawings, he had conjured an intriguing iconographic program that he envisioned painting on the vault of his own tomb, the never-realised tomb of the poet Kranjčević, the sculptural decoration of the Zemun Bridge, as well as the architectural vision of projects that were never built, like the Vidovdan Temple, the Church of Christ the King, and the Church of SS. Cyril and Methodius. An indeed, a closer inspection of the gallery collection, and bearing in mind that it maintains the largest collection of Meštrović’s drawings in general, gives us a comprehensive overview of this segment of his artistic creation, as well as Meštrović’s entire artistic activity.
Observing the development of drawing in the first half of the 20th century, the art critics Monroe Wheeler and John Rewald paid special attention to the drawings of sculptors. In their opinion, good sculptors make good draughtsmen, because the sculptor thinks instinctively of the definition of form, and his drawing is “a search for reality in sculptural terms” (1945: 13). In addition, draughstmanship is a much more practicable means of exploration than canvas or clay, and by its nature it becomes “the artist’s day-dreaming and soliloquy, his examination of artistic conscience, without pretence or self-deception” (1945: 9). It is especially charming that when it comes to Meštrović, alongside his day-dreaming in drawing form, we often have before us the materialisation of his artistic visions in the final chosen medium – painting, sculpture or architectural project. The sum of all this reveals the prodigious oeuvre of one of the most productive and influential Croatian artists of the first half of the 20th century.