The Secret Life of Sculpture

Meštrović's works in the photography of Zoran Alajbeg

Ivan Meštrović: FOUNTAIN OF LIFE

Vienna, 1905
plaster, h =110, diameter = 182 cm
property of the Meštrović Atelier in Zagreb, inv. no. AMZ-289-293
photography: Zoran Alajbeg, 2013
the exhibition Mestrovic’s Fountain of Life in Split

The Fountain of Life is one of the many public monuments that Meštrović did, the bronze casting now located in the Square of the Republic of Croatia in front of the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb. The circular pool of water is framed with a frieze consisting of human figures of various physical and emotional conditions, creating an exceptionally dynamic composition. The slumbering child and the pensive oldster looking into the pool are juxtaposed to a series of lovers in the prime of life, brim-full of passion, symbolising the various ages of human life, its fragility and ephemerality. The anthropomorphic composition was probably inspired by Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze and by the motifs of naked embracing lovers characteristic of the work of Rodin. The Fountain of Life was presented for the first time at an exhibition of the Vienna Secession, where it occupied a central place in the main exhibition room.


Split, 1906
patinated plaster, 85.5 x 76.5 x 81 cm
property of the Meštrović Gallery in Split, inv. no. GMS-194
photography: Zoran Alajbeg, 2022

The depiction of the Katunarić family is one of a series of portraits of the friends and acquaintances of Ivan Meštrović. Ante Katunarić (1877-1935) was a Split painter, graphic artist, caricaturist, publisher and also the publisher and editor of the satirical periodical Duje Balavac; the two men were connected by friendship and common interests. In this portrait he is shown with his wife and their new-born daughter Jelva. The contours of the heads of the couple and their interlinked arms create a heart-shaped composition in which their daughter is centred, suggesting the close relationship of the couple and their caring parental affection. Particularly featured in the depiction are the expressive and realistically formed hands of Ante Katunarić, whose gaunt physiognomy served as inspiration for other works of Meštrović. The vibrant surface of the sculpture is formed impressionistically and under the direct influence of the sculpture of Rodin.


Split (?), 1906
bronze, 57.5 x 22 x 48 cm
property of the Meštrović Gallery in Split, inv. no. GMS-197
photography: Zoran Alajbeg, 2023

During his studies at the Viennese Academy of Fine Arts, Meštrović was absorbed by symbolist themes of the ephemerality of life, aging and the decrepitude of the human body. At that time he was a member of the Vienna Secession group, and was inspired by the idea of the freedom of artistic representation, because of which he did several unconventional depictions of the body in a state of physical decline. Prompted by the naturalistically shaped portraits of persons in their declining years in the works of Klimt and Rodin, Meštrović boldly tested out the aesthetic standards of art. He explained his viewpoint in the art periodical Pokret in 1904: “my understanding is that which is natural is also aesthetic and what is truthful is also beautiful”. The truthfulness of the depiction of the aged human body is also to be seen in the Portrait of an Old Man, characterised by the sagging skin of the face and neck, the atrophied musculature and the sunken cheeks.

Ivan Meštrović: RUŽA MEŠTROVIĆ

London, 1915
bronze, 85 x 70 x 33 cm
property of the Meštrović Gallery in Split, inv. no. GMS-117
photography: Zoran Alajbeg, 2022

Ruža Meštrović was Ivan Meštrović’s first wife. Born Rosa Elizabeth Klein, she came from Višnjica near Varaždin, and lived in Vienna, where, in 1904, she met Ivan. Ruža was into applied art, sculpture, painting, and drawing, and at the exhibitions would often also show works of Meštrović that she owned. She was thoroughly at home in the intellectual and artistic circles of European milieus and played an important role in Meštrović’s achievement of a reputation in society and art. Ruža and Ivan were married to each other from 1907 to 1925, and during that time her feminine appearance inspired a series of female portraits and figures. This bust captures the elegance and charm of her character, and the decorativeness expressed in the folds of the clothing and the lines of the hair is characteristic of Meštrović’s art at this period.


Cannes, 1917
walnut, 174 x 125 x 9.5 cm
property of the Meštrović Gallery in Split, inv. no. GMS-45
Meštrovićeve Crikvine Kaštilac
photography: Zoran Alajbeg, 2014
the monograph Ivan Meštrović: History of Jesus of Nazareth in Wood

Our Lady with Angels is part of a cycle of twenty eight reliefs showing the Life of Jesus Christ, created between 1916 and 1950. The reliefs were carved in walnut and housed in Holy Cross Chapel, which Meštrović built within the renovated Renaissance villa, creating the artistic and sacred complex of Crikvine Kaštilac (1939−1941) hard by his family villa in Split. Our Lady with Angels is a depiction of the Virgin and newly born Jesus, surrounded with rhythmically deployed cherubim celebrating the birth of the Saviour. Meštrović did the reliefs according to his own inspiration of the moment, neglecting considerations of the chronology of Christological depictions. This relief was one of the earliest done in exile in France during World War I and is an expression of optimism and hope in a better future. The rhythm, symmetry, stylisation and flatness of the depiction place it as a work in the style of Art Déco.


Zagreb, 1924
Carrara marble, 104 x 64 x 58.5 cm
property of the Meštrović Gallery in Split, inv. no. GMS-5
photography: Zoran Alajbeg, 2014

This very markedly stylised and geometrically treated form of a female figure in a pose of contemplation is considered Meštrović’s most consummate embodiment of the style of Art Déco. It is imbued with an exceptional steadiness and harmony, underscored by the position of the lowered head and the drooping gaze suggesting some self-abnegating delving into one’s own psyche. The Cubist, taut conformation of the snowy white marble is characterised by a symmetrical composition softened by the organic forms of the supple fingers and toes. The physiognomy of the face and the hair twisted into a bun on the nape is highly reminiscent of Olga Meštrović, the artist’s second wife. According to the remarks of the Detroit Bulletin of Arts of 1925, this sculpture had even by then won many plaudits, and the bronze version of 1929 was awarded a gold medal in an exhibition in Barcelona.


New York, 1925
plaster, 59.5 x 51 x 34 cm
property of the Meštrović Atelier in Zagreb, inv. no. AMZ-35
photography: Zoran Alajbeg, 2019
the exhibition Meštrović: Imprints of the soul – the Religious Art of Ivan Meštrović

The sculpture Woman in the Rapture of Prayer, also known as “Hope”, is a plaster model for a casting in bronze. It was created during Meštrović’s stay in New York from October 1924 to July 1925, when the artist exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum and in several other American cities. The extremely positive reactions of the American public to Meštrović’s work prompted a large number of purchases of his works, as well as public and private commissions on which he worked intensively in his New York studio. Among them he did this sculpture, a depiction of a woman in the act of praying, in a profound religious fervour. It embodies two opposite ideals concerning the nature of woman that are sometimes interwoven in his art – connotations of chastity and sanctity are in opposition to the sensuality and carnality emphasised by the delicate modelling of the long undraped neck.


Zagreb, 1927
Greek marble, 105 x 87 x 41.5 cm
property of the Meštrović Gallery in Split, inv. no. GMS-6
photography: Zoran Alajbeg, 2013
the exhibition Ivan Meštrović – We thank her…

The dedication of a new-born child to God is a folk custom and a manifestation of the piety of the inhabitants of the Dalmatian Hinterland. Through the act of devotional prayer, mothers would confide the fates of their children to the will of God, in the hope that their progeny would avoid all the woes of life. The figure of a mother in this sculpture is shown with an infant in her arms, look directed at the skies, indicating her dedicated invocation of the divine protection. Her head is framed by the okrug, a diamond-shaped head square worn by the women of Meštrović’s native region. The refinement, simplicity and stylisation are characteristics that might be used to describe the volumes that create this sculpture. It holds a personal and intimate meaning for the sculptor, for in the year that Meštrović made this sculpture, his third child, Marica, was born.

Ivan Meštrović: REVERIE

Zagreb, 1927
stone, 88 x 187 x 405 cm
property of the Meštrović Gallery in Split, inv. no. GMS-13
photography: Zoran Alajbeg, 2014
the exhibition Sculpture and Nakedness – Corporeality and Eroticism in the Works of Ivan Meštrović

The relief Reverie was produced in the interwar period, during Meštrović’s Zagreb period, as it is called, when he was doing a series of female nudes in either relaxed or contemplative poses. This period of his work is characterised by inspiration from the classical style and by the sculptures of Michelangelo; the relief Reverie is an evocation of the figure of Night on the tomb of Giuliano de’ Medici in the Church of San Lorenzo in Florence. The similarity is to be seen in the position of the body and the calm expression on the face with its gentle smile and closed eyelids, suggesting the figure is given over to pleasant dreaming. The artist’s skill in modelling in stone is visible in the different treatment of the surfaces of the sculpture – the roughly carved base, contrasting with the smooth, taut surface that heightens the youthful sensuality of the female body. Just how this motif developed can be seen from several drawings and studies in full volume kept in Split in the Meštrović Gallery.

Ivan Meštrović: WAITING

Zagreb, 1928
marble, 123 x 126 x 87 cm
property of the Meštrović Atelier in Zagreb, inv. no. AMZ-2
photography: Zoran Alajbeg, 2015
the exhibition Sculpture and Nakedness – Corporeality and Eroticism in the Works of Ivan Meštrović

Waiting is one in a series of female nudes that create a dominant motif in Meštrović’s work in the 1920s and 1930s, when he was living and working in Zagreb. It has its inspiration in Antique and Renaissance models. It shows a naked woman in a relaxed seated position, on her face eyelids that are partially lowered and a glimmer of a smile. Although it is carved in hard marble, the figure breathes an exceptional sensuality, and is rendered in taut, rounded surfaces that give off an impression of bodily suppleness. Smooth surfaces create the hair and the soft drapery, which covers one leg, while a roughly rendered surface can be seen only on the base. Characteristic of Meštrović’s sculptures of this period is a certain psychological component of the figure expressed and an introspective immersion into private thoughts, perceptible in the way she holds her body and in her melancholic and pensive gaze.

Ivan Meštrović: AT REST

Zagreb, 1933
stone from Seget near Trogir, 118 x 240 x 92 cm
property of the Meštrović Atelier in Zagreb, inv. no. AMZ-4
photography: Zoran Alajbeg, 2015
the exhibition Sculpture and Nakedness – Corporeality and Eroticism in the Works of Ivan Meštrović

At Rest is one of the characteristic female nudes that Ivan Meštrović was intensively engaged on during the 1920s and 1930s. It is a reflection of his fascination with the female body and the compositional possibilities of expressing both the physicality and the inner world of a woman. The position of the reclining body and the soft, smooth shapes are directly influenced by Michelangelo’s sculptures and antique depictions of sleeping women, particularly the mythological figure of Ariadne in the Vatican Museums. The closed eyes and the calm expression on the face tell of melancholy, spiritual composure and introspection. The naked body breathes sensuality and suggests her surrender to physical and earthly pleasures. The sculpture was preceded by several drawings and sculptural studies. The Meštrović Gallery in Split has an earlier, bronze version of the same motif, entitled Repose (Bacchante) (Zagreb, 1932) in its permanent display.

Ivan Meštrović: CYCLOPS

Split, 1933
bronze, 247.5 x 317.5 x 124 cm
property of the Meštrović Gallery in Split, inv. no. GMS-121
photography: Zoran Alajbeg, 2018
Meštrović Gallery – Catalogue of the Permanent Display

Cyclops is an incarnation of the one-eyed giant who is mentioned in Greek myth as one of the three sons of Gaia and Uranus. Cyclopes are described as strong, hot-headed and cruel; Homer speaks of the breed and about the outwitting of the Cyclops Polyphemus in the Odyssey. All of this served as inspiration for Meštrović in making the sculpture that shows Polyphemus in the fullness of his rage and strength, in the act of throwing stones at Odysseus’ ship. Cyclops is executed in more than life size, consistent with the mythical idea of the size and strength of these hot-blooded giants. The parallel title of one of the studies for this work – Stone from Shoulder – is a direct link with a traditional rural game from the Dalmatian Hinterland.

Ivan Meštrović: PERSEPHONE

Rome, 1946
bronze, 270 x 72.5 x 70 cm
property of the Meštrović Gallery in Split, inv. no. GMS-110
photography: Zoran Alajbeg, 2013

In Greek myth, Persephone, the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, was abducted by the god of the underworld, Hades, who made her his wife. At the intervention of her mother, Persephone was allowed to live on earth from spring to autumn, but in winter was forced to live in the underworld as its queen and the goddess of death. This sculpture shows Persephone in a moment of despair at the loss of her freedom, emphasised with the dramatic expression of calls for help and arms extended to the sky. Meštrović feels for her pain, and in this way expresses his own trauma of loss of liberty while being incarcerated in an Ustasha prison in 1941/1942. In imprisonment he did some score of drawings of a religious nature, later on produced in wooden relief and sculptures that evoke the same kind of emotions of pain and suffering as Persephone.

Ivan Meštrović: JOB

Rome, 1946
bronze, 121 x 106 x 85 cm
property of the Meštrović Gallery in Split, inv. no. GMS-119
photography: Zoran Alajbeg, 2019
the exhibition Meštrović: Imprints of the Soul – the Religious Art of Ivan Meštrović

Several times in his artistic career Meštrović worked the motif of the Old Testament prophet Job, but this particular bronze sculpture grew out of the painful experience of being imprisoned in an Ustasha jail in Zagreb in 1941/1942. The drawing that was its prototype was done in 1941 in jail, on wrapping paper supplied him in secret. Job, patiently suffering the divine trials, is a self-portrait of Meštrović and an expression of his spiritual agony while in prison, where, with the help of faith, he endured loneliness and sickness, in fear for his life. The expression of suffering and inner agitation is emphasised with the contortion that suffuses the whole of the body, with an expression showing an almost audible cry for help and a dynamic treatment of the surface. The first bronze casting of this sculpture was shown at Meštrović’s solo show in the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1947, and since 1955 it has been part of the art collection of Syracuse University, New York, where Ivan Meštrović worked as professor of sculpture.


South Bend, 1956
unveiled in Gata near Omiš
photography: Zoran Alajbeg, 2017

Mila Gojsalić, by descent from the village of Kostanje, Poljica, the former Poljica Republic, is a heroine of Croatian folk legends. According to local lore, in 1530, she saved her people from occupation by the Ottomans. After she had seduced the Turkish invader Ahmed-Pasha, in the night Mila used a torch to blow up the powder magazine of the Ottoman army. She died together with the pasha and many Ottoman soldiers, enabling her people to defeat the enemy army. The Monument to Mila Gojsalić was a gift by the artist to the Poljica people; today it keeps watch over the canyon of the River Cetina in Gata, near Omiš. In 1956 the plaster model was taken from New York to Split in the Jadrolinija ship Slovenija, and is today a part of the museum holdings of the Meštrović Gallery in Split.

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