The Secret Life of Sculpture

Meštrović's works in the photography of Zoran Alajbeg

Photographing Sculpture:
Zoran Alajbeg in Dialogue with Ivan Meštrović

The field of photography is as wide as that of art history itself, every photographer finding themselves in themes that attract them more or are simply closer to him or her allowing them in the best way to show their own creativity and photographic skills.

The photographing of sculpture is almost as old as the invention and very beginnings of photography as medium in the first half of the 19th century. We can find the first photographs of marble busts against a neutral background in the works of one of the pioneers of photography, W. H. Fox Talbot; the importance of the photographic image in the affirmation of the medium and in the perception of the work of sculpture was noted by one of the founders of the discipline of art history, Heinrich Wölfflin, who from 1891 published a series of articles devoted to the analysis of the manner of photographing sculpture, bringing out the advantages and disadvantages of the several different photographic approaches. Many great sculptors of the end of the 19th and early 20th century, such as Rodin, Brancusi, Rosso and others were aware of the complexity of the task of bringing three-dimensional sculptures down to the two dimensions of the photographic image and often formed lasting collaborative relationships with photographers who were able to represent their work best on a flat image.

August Rodin, Meštrović’s great exemplar, knew the importance of photography in documenting as well as in representing and promoting his sculptural oeuvre, and from the 1870s used photography in his artistic practice, taking part himself in all the more liberal approaches to lighting and composition in the photographs of his works.1 Ivan Meštrović, aware of contemporary currents in European cultural and artistic circles, who had a collegial relationship with Rodin during his stay in Paris in the early 20th century, also very early on understood the importance of photography in getting his work noticed and in expanding the understanding of sculpture as medium. From the first decade of the 20th century, paying attention to minute details, Meštrović built up a photographic archive of his works, some of which are actually known to us today only from photographs. Eugène Druet, one of Rodin’s favourite photographers at the turn of the century, was among those artists who took pictures of Meštrović’s sculptures.

Zoran Alajbeg has been photographing the works of Ivan Meštrović for a considerable number of years, creating a remarkable oeuvre for the client, the Ivan Meštrović Museums, joining the star-studded group of photographers who have taken pictures of his works, both during his lifetime and subsequently, for the sake of documentation and for exhibition projects.2 Photographing the cultural heritage is the branch of photography in which Alajbeg has found his artistic vein and shown his outstanding sensibility. Whether this kind of photography is documentary or an interpretative, creative approach to the subject in front of the lens, is a somewhat redundant question.

Photographing sculpture is a demanding assignment that presumes technical skills as well as a facility in looking and interpreting. There are several criteria that photography employed in this way has to satisfy. Far from irrelevant are the camera angle, the frame and composition, the light effects, the choice of natural or artificial lighting in order to respect the wishes of the client, the level of documentarity that is necessary depending on the purpose of the photograph and the kind of publication in which it will be featured, not to speak of understanding the greatness of the work of art and expressing it most effectively in the photograph. Yet it is also important to express one’s own photographic sensitivity, creativity and personal response to the sculpture. The photographing of sculpture in the oeuvre of Zoran Alajbeg is a subtle combination of the documentary and the artistic approach, which, thanks to his sensibility and to the wider cultural context to which he belongs,3 as well as the remarkable ability to respond to all the technical challenges entailed in the photographing of sculpture contributes to the formation of our knowledge about the work of Meštrović.

Zoran Alajbeg has proved the truth of this in the decades of his work, and a somewhat more free selection of the photographs of this exhibition, which he has himself made in concert with curator Zorana Jurić Šabić shows that in photographing the sculptures of the great Meštrović he knows how to let go, to set his own creativity free and allow himself some artistic freedom in the documentation of what is seen. Light and shade do not compromise the materiality of the sculptures, rather emphasise the texture and tactileness of the surface of the marble, wood, plaster or bronze. The effects of light and the angle at which the intertwined bodies in the Fountain of Life (cat. no. 2) are shot emphasise the dynamics and the impressionist vibration of the surface of this Meštrović masterpiece. In the photographs of the sculptures Portrait of an Old Man (cat. no. 5) and The Katunarić Family (cat. no. 4), the impressionist epidermis of the sculpture is still more expressive, and the oblique view and compositional approach create a mood almost of a cinematographic frame. Marble sculptures are depicted with a particularly soft lighting, and the cut frames and freedom of view, for example in the sculpture Psyche (cat. no. 16), which is shown in detail from behind, from the waist down, or the close-up of Reverie (cat. no. 17) play up the element of eroticism present in many of Meštrović’s female nudes. With his manner of shooting and the frames selected, Alajbeg has breathed life into many of the nudes and turned inanimate sculptures practically into live models.

It is from the less characteristic rear side, instead of from front-on, in the exterior, that he takes Cyclops (cat. no. 23), Persephone (cat. no. 25) and Monument to Gregory of Nin (cat. no. 19), which with its poetics and the practically painterly treatment with its hazy grey tones of the background stands out from the other photographs at the exhibition. This photograph belongs to a cycle of b/w photographs entitled Face of the City shown in the author’s solo show at Salon Galić in 2008. As well as shooting sculptures against a neutral, most often light, background, or in close-up with an emphasis on the details, Alajbeg often takes it in the exhibition venue, and with a choice of a wide angle of the interior sometimes gives the sculpture additional interpretive meaning (Passion, cat. no. 1, Olga Meštrović, cat. no. 24). Passion, which shows a female nude huddled in a somewhat uncommon reclining position, becomes little and fragile in the broad frame of the exhibition venue of the Glyptotheque. The wooden relief Our Lady with Angels (cat. no. 8) is taken in close-up, with no background, the photographer thus even more emphasising the repetitiveness of the composition and the flatness of the art work.

Zoran Alajbeg is one of that generation of Split photographers who came to maturity at the turn of the eighties and nineties, under the aegis of the Split Photography Club, which, bringing together professionals and amateurs, had in the previous generations too produced big names in Split and Croatian photography. Alajbeg has ventured his hand at other forms of photography, outside the thematic outlines of the photographing of the Croatian cultural and historical heritage, and in this field too achieved an enviable reputation. More important still, in this only apparently applied photography, he found his own passion and achieved a high artistic level of interpretation. The name of Zoran Alajbeg will without doubt be inscribed alongside those of recognised members of the Split circle of photographers, Nenad Gattin, Zvonimir Buljević, Ante Verzotti and Živko Bačić, who with finely nuanced individual poetics and sensibilities made their names in photographing the art heritage. Alajbeg’s identifiable individual approach to the photographic treatment of the sculptures of Ivan Meštrović will be a lasting contribution to the reputation and reception of Meštrović’s works at home and abroad.

Sandi Bulimbašić


1 For more about the photographing of sculpture: GERALDINE A. JOHNSON, “All concrete shapes dissolve in light”: photographing sculpture from Rodin to Brancusi“, in: Sculpture Journal 15 (2), 2006, pp. 199–222; “Photographing sculpture, sculpting photography”, in: Photography and Sculpture: The Art Object in Reproduction, ed. S. Hamill, M. Luke, 2017, pp. 277–291.; “In consequence of their whiteness: photographing marble sculpture from Talbot to today”, in: Radical Marble: Architectural Innovation from Antiquity to the Present, ed. J. Nicholas Napoli, William Tronzo, 2018, pp. 105–132.
In the last few decades the works of Meštrović have been photographed by Damir Fabijanić, Boris Cvjetanović, Živko Bačić, Filip Beusan and Valentino Bilić Prcić, showing various different sensibilities and aesthetics in their approaches to Meštrović’s oeuvre.
He is employed as photographer in the Museum of Croatian Archaeological Monuments and has since 1992 been dedicated to photographing the Croatian cultural heritage.
4 Of particular interest are Matko Biljak, Božo Vukičević, Tom Dubravec, Jakov Prkić, Rino Efendić, Valentino Bilić Prcić and Robert Matić. For more, see: JASMINKA BABIĆ, “Fotoklub Split u zadnjem desetljeću 20. stoljeća, i na početku 21. stoljeća [Split Photography Club in the last decade of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century]”, in: Fotomonografija Fotokluba Split, ed. Zrinka Buljević and Ante Verzotti, Split, 2004, pp. 193–198; Suvremena splitska fotografija: Life & Art, exhibition catalogue, Fine Arts Gallery, Split, 2003.

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