In 1911, Ivan Meštrović, a Croatian sculptor raised in Dalmatian backwater and educated in Vienna, who was hailed as one of the greatest of his generation and a successor to Rodin, caused the first of many political stirs in his life.
Instead of exhibiting his monumental, secession-inspired works to show the glory and grandeur of the imperial Austro-Hungary during the 1911 international art exhibition in Rome he decided to show his masterful works inside the pavilion of the Kingdom of Serbia, which has just emerged victorious out of a trade-war against Austro-Hungary and whose campaign to emancipate Southern Slavs and ensure their full political rights has put it on a crash course with both of its neighbouring empires, Ottoman (from which it emerged) and Austro-Hungary (which increasingly intended to destroy it).
During that memorable exhibition, this 28-year-old unlikely genius, not only turned his back on an Empire whose subject he was, but also created a series of iconic works which will put in stone not only the Serbian Kosovo-Battle centric national mythos which was shared with other South Slavs between northern Aegean to the Julian Alps. Meštrović devised as a series of symbolism and secession inspired works which were intended to be part of the gigantic Vidovdan (St Vitus Day) Temple to commemorate the central event of South Slavic epic poetry, the disastrous Battle of Kosovo of 1389, and its central message of persistence of a people and its culture despite near-destruction.
His plan started in 1908, when Austro-Hungary annexed Bosnia, and during his three year sojourn in Paris, he sculpted muscular, angry heroes of this battle who were known to South Slavs and Albanians of all faiths: Srđa Zlopogleđa, Banović Strahinja, Kraljević Marko and Miloš Obilić. Beside these heroes he also wanted to convey the full tragedy of Ottoman (or indeed any imperial) conquest in sculptures of defiant widows with children and fallen soldiers, but also of hope and defiance through national memory, with sculptures and friezes depicting gusle players, wandering bards who recited epic poetry and maintained historical memory across the Western Balkans.
His plan was deeply provocative. Firstly, Gazimestan in Kosovo polje, where his mega-monument was to be built, was still part of the Ottoman empire in 1911. Secondly, the idea of South Slavic political and cultural unity, let alone independence, was an anathema for Austro-Hungarian Empire which, in 1848 experienced a huge turmoil due to increased calls for greater political representation of its constituent non-Germanic nations, and pitted various subject nations against each other to prevent further hardship.
Artistically this was also a gamble for Meštrović. Not only were his works deeply political works but they also relied on somewhat obscure references, although Serbian epic poetry since early 19th century enjoyed a certain level of popularity around Europe, especially among romantics and free thinkers like Goethe, Nietzsche and the Finnish national poet, Runeberg. In the end Meštrović managed to create art which transcended its initial purpose, by referencing and transcending classical models to create powerful representations of struggle, strength, mystique and sentimentality.
Meštrović’s Kosovo cycle, considered his best, managed to wow the audience in Rome and he received the first prize for sculpture, while his fellow secessionist Gustav Klimt won the first prize for painting with his allegorical painting Death and Life.
Two years later, Serbia and its Balkan allies, won the first Balkan War and pushed the Ottomans from Kosovo, Methoija , Sandžak and Macedonia. Meštrović was, of course, jubilant (he designed the Victor to commemorate the occasion), as were many of his fellow Croats who saw this as a chance for liberation of all South Slavs from the imperial yoke. During WWI, Meštrović worked tirelessly as member of the Yugoslav Committee to support the Serbia, and his Kosovo cycle sculptures were exhibited to great acclaim in London’s V&A Museum in 1915 to rally the British public behind its ally, Serbia (a marble bust of Banović Strahinja is still on display there).
After the Serbian victory in 1918 and creation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later Yugoslavia), Meštrović became the official court artist and still maintained a role in politics – he was even offered the job of the Prime Minister at one point, which he declined. Although he won some of the most important commissions in the new Kingdom, from the monument to Victory Kalemegdan (repurposed from the Balkan War monument) to the Monument to the Unknown Soldier at Avala, his Kosovo temple was never built (due to the lack of funds and political will). As he grew older and the new country experienced crises, Meštrović started drifting away from his Yugoslav idealism.
During WWII, he was farrested by the Ustaše in Split and was to be executed in Savska Cesta prison but was freed at the insistence of the controversial Catholic cardinal, Stepinac, after agreeing to exhibit at the Independent State of Croatia Pavilion at Venice Biennale in 1942. He used this opportunity to escape, first to Switzerland in 1943, and then, in 1946, to the USA, after refusing to return to the newly established Socialist Yugoslavia.
You can visit an exhibition of Meštrović’s works, mostly from his Kosovo cycle, at Belgrade’s Narodni Muzej between 17 December 2019 and 2 February 2020.