Expressionism

„the religion of modern man’s nerves”
(1913 - 1916)

Works created during World War I show that at this time Meštrović was reaching out more vigorously for religious motifs. Spurred by the overall atmosphere and the events of the war, he created works that embody universal human suffering, making use of an expressive, dramatic visual language: “The feeling of the general suffering of mankind then occupied a more important place than the suffering of one’s own people. The need for the rebuttal of the particular evil inflicted upon us passed over into the need for the rebuttal of evil in general, wherever it was and whoever was inflicting it on whom.”

Virgin with Children (Visit of the Little John)

Belgrade, 1913
aluminium, 95 x 65 x 6 cm
owned by the Meštrović Atelier in Zagreb, inv. no. AMZ-217

On the relief of Virgin with Children, an intimate scene from the New Testament is depicted in very shallow working, devoid of any attributes hinting at religious aspect. He achieved an outstanding concentration by counterpointing the richly linear, decorative graphisms of the Virgin’s dress and hair and the outlines of the naked bodies of the boys, and the compact bounding of the composition in its niche framing. The dynamic of the scene is defined in relation to the heads of Jesus and John placed in profile and the contrasting gesticulations of their hands – those of Jesus outstretched and John’s clasped in a statement of adoration. The Madonna’s semi-frontally directed face has the portrait features of Meštrović’s first wife, Ruža Klein, who precisely at that time became aware that she would never be able to be a mother, which gives the work a personal as well as a religious stamp.
(B. V.)

Head of Christ

Rome, 1913
walnut, 60 x 34 x 33 cm
owned by the Meštrović Gallery in Split, inv. no. GMS-40

Meštrović’s Head of Christ in wood contains all the elements of the Expressionist tendency to depict the human soul and the intensity of emotional states: the halted moment of pain, the emphasis on the individual detail – of taut tendons in the neck, sunken cheeks, the deep lines. In each detail he expressed the distraction of the soul and distortion of the spirit – the changed appearance of man whose life has been radically and irreversibly changed. As Dalibor Prančević (2017: 87) has observed, “this is a depiction of the dying Christ, a fragmentation of the crucifixion already assumed”.
(Z. J. Š.)

Head of Christ

Rome, 1914
bronze, 66 x 30 x 27.5 cm
owned by the Meštrović Gallery in Split, inv. no. GMS-74

By creating the bronze Head of Christ the sculptor emphasises the moment of suffering and pain, focusing on the facial expression distorted by pain. Like the last breath, life leaves the afflicted body, looming out of the dark cavity of the wide open mouth, leaving behind it a mere ripple of vibration of the epidermis of the ribcage at expiration.
(Z. J. Š.)

Head of St John the Baptist

Rome, 1914
bronze, 59 x 20 x 24.5 cm
owned by the Meštrović Gallery in Split, inv. no. GMS-630

Expressionism was to come into its own in the Head of St John the Baptist, abandoning all kinds of realism and re-forming the external into the sign – the internal state of the soul being mirrored in corporeal form. The over-dimensioned wide open eyes and the void of the oral cavity seem to be emanating loss, meaninglessness and nothingness. The unnaturally elongated shape of the head, the sagging skin and prominent bones, the roughly cast locks of the hair, almost in the Gothic manner consistently tell of the ascetic nature of John the Baptist. But they also show the frailty and powerlessness of the individual.
(Z. J. Š.)

Pietà

Rome, 1914
bronze, 46 x 37 x 22 cm
owned by the Meštrović Atelier in Zagreb, inv. no. AMZ-261

The bronze Pietà is a work of small dimensions but powerful expressiveness. With this reduced visual language, in which he came the closest to the avant-garde, the artist managed to convey the emotional experience of the poignant moment of the death of Christ. In the centre of the composition is the dead body of Christ in which death is present in many details: the sunken, drawn face, the unnaturally retracted and drained abdomen and the totally attenuated and bony limbs. The Son’s flagging body is in opposition to the strong and stable figure of the mother providing him the support of her strong legs. Although the details of the faces are hardly visible, particularly of Christ and Mary Magdalene, who is kissing his dead hand, the depiction is suffused with an expression of great sadness and grief.
(Z. J. Š.)

Luke the Evangelist I

London, 1915
bronze, 58.5 x 32.5 x 24 cm
owned by the Meštrović Gallery in Split, inv. no. GMS-71

Luke the Evangelist, whose face reveals the characteristics of a Meštrović self-portrait, can be recognised from his iconographic features. Beneath his left arm, with which he holds a book (the Gospel) there is an ox – animal that, as symbol of sacrifice and the Passion, also characterises his gospel. The scrawny and unnaturally angled limbs and the drawn face with the prominent lined forehead are details that make a dramatic effect on the observer.
(Z. J. Š.)

Matthew the Evangelist

London, 1915
bronze, 56 x 18 x 26 cm
owned by the Meštrović Atelier in Zagreb, inv. no. AMZ-268

Besides Luke the Evangelist, Meštrović did other individual gospel writer figures, retaining the sharply angled line of the composition, the main vehicle of the emotions. Matthew the Evangelist is the peak of human figural distortion, of the kind that is hard to find in Meštrović’s figures.
(Z. J. Š.)

Moses

London, 1915
bronze, 62 x 36 x 53.5 cm
owned by the Meštrović Gallery in Split, inv. no. GMS-653

The works created during the Great War are most powerfully permeated with the emotion of profound disappointment that like a psychological portrait marks the whole period. Apart from that, the sculptor often uses gesticulation, some forceful thrust or movement as additional visual sign with which he endeavours to convey messages and emotions. For example, Meštrović’s Moses, who with powerful impulse shows the need to keep to the divine commandments in a time that breaks down all before it. This active principle in the depiction of the prophet’s ire and anger, which is additionally heightened by the rhythmical folds of his cloak, might be explained as Meštrović’s commentary on the war and a call to an energetic fight against evil.
(Z. J. Š.)