The Secret Life of Sculpture

Meštrović's works in the photography of Zoran Alajbeg

Ivan Meštrović: PASSION

Vienna, 1904
bronze, 47 x 90 x 51 cm
property of the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts Glyptotheque, Zagreb, inv. no. MZ-674
photography: Zoran Alajbeg, 2015
the exhibition Sculpture and Nakedness – Corporeality and Eroticism in the Works of Ivan Meštrović

The sculpture shows the figure of a naked woman in a reclining but contorted position. The figure depicted diagonally merges with the background on which she is lying, creating a couch, something like a nest. The alternative names for the work, Longing for Passion and The Desire for Passion tell of the body being imbued with an erotic charge, with desire leading the woman to despair. Meštrović formed the sculpture in reaction to the oppressive system of social conventions at the beginning of the 20th century, which stigmatised and condemned extra-marital unions. Meštrović knew the weight of this condemnation for himself, since at that time he was living, unmarried, with Ruža Klein, his first wife. The female figure depicted, then, might be interpreted as a victim of the structure of conservative worldviews and the refusal to countenance sexual freedom, mainly aimed at women.

Ivan Meštrović: GIRL SINGING

Vienna, 1906
bronze, 45 x 41 x 35 cm
property of the Meštrović Gallery in Split, inv. no. GMS-171
photography: Zoran Alajbeg, 2022

From 1903, Ivan Meštrović was a member of the Viennese art group Secession, founded on the idea of getting away from the conservative, academy art of the Viennese milieu. This work was created in this period, and the influences of Secession can be traced in the lyrical manner in which the female figure is handled, the model for it being Ruža Klein’s younger sister, Olga. Meštrović’s liking for the sculpture of Auguste Rodin is shown in the impressionist treatment of the sculptural surface. Taking his cue from Rodin, Meštrović plays with the light and shade, which are interwoven in the restless surface formed with soft transitions. The plaster cast of this work, together with four more Meštrović pieces including the Fountain of Life (1905), was shown at the 26th Secession exhibition of 1906. The Austrian reviewers were quick to declare Meštrović the leading sculptor of the movement.

Ivan Meštrović: MILOŠ OBILIĆ

Paris, 1908
plaster, 247.4 x 114 x 61.5 cm
property of the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts Glyptotheque in Zagreb, inv. no. MZ-114
photography: Zoran Alajbeg, 2015
the exhibition Sculpture and Nakedness – Corporeality and Eroticism in the Works of Ivan Meštrović

The sculpture Miloš Obilić was created as part of the Kosovo Cycle, which Meštrović shaped from 1908 to 1909 in his Parisian studio. The cycle was inspired by the Battle of Kosovo Field, which took place in 1389 and marked the beginning of the fight of the South Slavs for freedom from foreign rule. Although the cycle was never completed, it did give rise to a series of sculptures showing national heroes and their widows. Miloš Obilić is a mythical hero who killed the Ottoman Sultan Murat I in the Kosovo battle, and for this reason became the hero of numerous Serbian epic poems. Here he is shown in his vigour and dynamic movement, giving an impression he was captured while running a race. The concentrated frowning expression on his face suggests the pronounced internal tension of the character.


Leeds (?), 1917 (?)
plaster, 92 x 48 x 71 cm
property of Meštrović Atelier in Zagreb, inv. no. AMZ-317
photography: Zoran Alajbeg, 2023

The portraits of contemporaries that Ivan Meštrović produced during his creative lifetime tell of the social and political context of his time. Each portrait is a story for itself, and closely connected to the events of his life. The portrait of Dorothy Una Ratcliffe was done during Meštrović’s time in Britain, related to his solo show at the Victoria and Albert in 1915, when he did a number of portraits of members of British high society. Dorothy Una Ratcliffe was a British poet, novelist and collector of books, manuscripts and other documents. Meštrović imbued her portrait with her exceptional love of literature, showing her in a moment when she is lost in reading a book. With the works of this period, Meštrović stood out as one of the leading representatives of the European Art Déco style.

Ivan Meštrović: DISTANT CHORDS

Rome, 1918
bronze, 237 x 121 x 69 cm
property of the Meštrović Gallery in Split, inv. no. GMS-86
photography: Zoran Alajbeg, 2013
Meštrović Gallery – Catalogue of the Permanent Display

Music had a powerful impact on Ivan Meštrović even in his earliest childhood, spent in the little village of Otavice in the Dalmatian Hinterland. He grew up listening to the sounds of vernacular singers and gusle artists, reading and reciting the folk poems and writing his own verses. Figures making music, then, are a frequent motif in his work, and in the period just after the end of World War I they arose out of the wish for the return of a carefree life, peace and harmony. Just such an optimistic spirit is breathed by the sculpture Distant Chords, a female figure composedly playing a lute. The sculpture is formed in simple, rounded volumes, with stylised folds of the drapery and lines of the hair, the elegant, elongated fingers that adroitly pluck the strings of the instrument. When the subsidiary title of Muse is taken into consideration, the figure can be interpreted as an allegory of or the patron saint of music.

Ivan Meštrović: ANGEL WITH FLUTE

1918– 1921
walnut, 140.5 x 24 x 14 cm
property of Meštrović Atelier in Zagreb, inv. no. AMZ-247
photography: Zoran Alajbeg, 2019
The exhibition Meštrović: Imprints of the Soul – the Religious Art of Ivan Meštrović

The work of Ivan Meštrović after World War I was marked by the reduced and elegant forms characteristic of the style of Art Déco. Such features can be remarked in the sculpture Angel with Flute, consummately shaped in an elongate piece of walnut wood. The smoothly worked glossy surface of the body is in contrast with the rough surfaces of his hair, wings and background, on which it is easy to see traces of the woodcarver’s chisel. The static slender body of the angel recalls the bodies of archaic sculptures of nude youths, kouroi; he did the same type of figure for the Račić Mausoleum in Cavtat (1920/1922). In Meštrović’s words, the motifs of musicians in this post-war period came into being as his “expression of the wish for and feeling of harmony between us and all things”.

Ivan Meštrović: PSYCHE

Zagreb, 1927
marble, 207 x 61.5 x 67 cm
property of the Meštrović Gallery in Split, inv. no. GMS-2
photography: Zoran Alajbeg, 2014

In Greek myth the figure of the mortal Psyche is the embodiment of a femininity and beauty that outmatched even the goddess Aphrodite. This sculpture is one of the best productions of female nudes in marble inspired by the Renaissance and Antiquity in Meštrović’s whole oeuvre. The figure is shown in contrapposto – a balanced positioning of the body typical of the sculptures of those periods. The gesture of head rested on shoulder and the calm expression of the face with its lowered lids is an indication that this figure is delving into its own thoughts and dreaming of being reunited with her spouse, god of love Eros. Psyche is also a personal interpretation of the work Meditation (Inner voice) by French sculptor Auguste Rodin, whose work had a huge impact on Meštrović’s. In 1913 he was promised as a gift a plaster cast of Meditation, but in the circumstances of the impending war, he never received it.

Ivan Meštrović: PSYCHE (detail)

Zagreb, 1927
marble, 207 x 61.5 x 67 cm
property of the Meštrović Gallery in Split, inv. no. GMS-2
photography: Zoran Alajbeg, 2014

Ivan Meštrović: FEMALE NUDE

Zagreb, 1927
plaster, 188 x 55 x 44 cm
property of Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts Glyptotheque in Zagreb, inv. no. MZ-566
photography: Zoran Alajbeg, 2016
the exhibition Sculpture and Nakedness – Corporeality and Eroticism in the Works of Ivan Meštrović

This sculpture was created in what is called Meštrović’s Zagreb period, when he sculpted a number of sensual female nudes, resting and relaxing. In this period he was most inspired by European classical and Renaissance statuary, as can be seen from his collection of photographs and reproductions, which contains depictions of the antique sculpture Venus of Cyrene. The Female Nude is a modern interpretation of the motif of Venus as she combs her hair after emerging from the sea. He also found inspiration in the art of contemporaries like Aristide Maillol and the La Bande à Schnegg group of sculptors. Taking their cue from Maillol’s sculpture Mediterranean Woman / La Méditerranée, his female figures evince the Mediterranean melancholy, the indulgence in everyday pleasures. This is perceptible in this sculpture too, the appearance of which radiates the Mediterranean spirit, a state of mind characterised by calmness and optimism.


Zagreb, 1927
bronze, 758 x 397 x 180 cm
unveiled in 1929 in Split
photography: Zoran Alajbeg, 2008
the exhibition Face of the City

Ivan Meštrović took an active part in the cultural and political advancement of the city of Split in the first half of the 20th century, and did several monuments for its public spaces. In 1929 he donated to the city his Monument to Gregory of Nin, which was first erected on the Peristyle, the heart of Diocletian’s Palace, exciting fierce criticism on the part of both critics and the general public. Grgur Dobre was bishop of Nin and chancellor of the Croatian royal court in the first half of the 10th century. He championed the use of the Old Slavonic liturgy and the preservation of the national identity. And it was because of this national symbolism that the Italian fascist government had it removed from the Peristyle in 1941; in 1954 it was put up again in front of the Golden Gate, in a position it occupies today. Gregory of Nin is a statue of imposing proportions, almost 8 metres in height. Folk lore has it that touching his toe will bring good luck.


Zagreb, 1930
stone from Seget near Trogir, 312 x 224 x 40 cm
Church of the Most Holy Redeemer, Otavice
photography: Zoran Alajbeg, 2017
monograph Church of the Most Holy Redeemer – Ivan Meštrović in the Context of his Native Region

From 1928 to 1930 Ivan Meštrović was engaged in building his own family mausoleum, the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer in his native village of Otavice. He worked on the drawings for the mausoleum’s sculptural programme for several years, the relief Eternally Crucified remaining the only constant in the drawings. It is placed in a niche above the stone altar and shows Christ being borne by a six-winged seraph. In spite of the title of the work, Christ is not crucified on the cross, and the wounds on his body and the crown of thorns are omitted. The peaceful expression on the face of the angel, the archaic smile and the conical hairstyle recall depictions of deities in eastern religions. The greatest similarity is with the sculpture of the Buddha from the Hindu-Buddhist complex of Angkor Wat, a photograph of which Meštrović kept in his archives. This work is an expression of the artist’s untypical religious beliefs, suffused with eastern philosophy and his own optimistic aspirations for eternity in the life beyond the grave.

Ivan Meštrović: OLGA MEŠTROVIĆ

Split, 1935
Greek marble, 58 x 42 x 28 cm
property of the Meštrović Gallery in Split, inv. no. GMS-985
photography: Zoran Alajbeg, 2018
Meštrović Gallery – Catalogue of the Permanent Display

Olga Meštrović, née Kesterčanek, was Meštrović’s second wife, and mother of his four children. She was a magister in pharmacy and was co-owner of a druggists in Dubrovnik, whom Meštrović met in 1920, when he was building the Račić Family Mausoleum in Cavtat. He did several portraits of her and her face was several times used for his sculptures of female figures. Since with Olga he achieved his long lasting desire to be a father, he would often equate her appearance with the maternal ideal. This portrait of Olga shows a woman with a resolute expression on her face, hair swept into a bun, stressing the maturity and steadiness of her character. The bust was carved from the same piece of marble as the classic work History of the Croats (Zagreb, 1933), and the natural colour and texture of stone are still to be seen in the lower part of the sculpture.

Ivan Meštrović: HAPPY YOUTH

Rome, 1946
plaster, 193 x 70.5 x 84 cm
property of the Meštrović Gallery in Split, inv. no. GMS-33
photography: Zoran Alajbeg, 2022

Right after World War II, in 1946, Meštrović went back to Rome, where the American Academy let him use a studio at Monte Gianicolo for eight months. In his Rome studio, the artist did a number of sculptures, including Happy Youth. Although most of them conjured up the painful experience of war and imprisonment by the Ustasha in Zagreb, this sculpture, with its carefree, optimistic and youthful spirit stands apart from these issues. Some sources say that this is a depiction of Persephone in her glee just before being abducted by Hades to the underworld, or at the moment of celebration when she goes back to earth. An obvious indication of joy is the smile that dominates her blithe face, the élan in the position of her body and her long unfastened hair. The model for Happy Youth was Meštrović’s younger daughter Marica.

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