MEŠTROVIĆ AS A SCULPTOR IN AMERICA**
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Journal of Croatian Studies, XXIV, 1983, – Annual Review of the Croatian Academy of America, Inc. New York, N.Y., Electronic edition by Studia Croatica, by permission. All rights reserved by the Croatian Academy of America.
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The virtue of this particular seminar is that it provides a new look at a distinguished personality from strikingly different viewpoints. The participants are conditioned by a variety of language and nationality traditions. They approach the subject with the different scientific disciplines of their respective professions as historians, political scientists, literary critics, and art critics.
And the times are different. The literature on Meštrović is vast, but it stems largely from the first half of this century. The significance of Meštrović, the Sculptor and Patriot that I was able to present a generation ago offers a challenge even more meaningful in these threatening years of the 1980's than during the revolutionary events of the war and post-war period. In reviewing both periods this man towers as one of the great artistic personalities of this century. Not only did he have a major influence on the culture and politics of our time, but he remains as the embodiment of an ideal in which the artist is conceived not as the Romantic individualist, sufficient only to himself, but is an integral part of society and responsible to the spiritual needs and welfare of mankind. Meštrović's career as an artist reveals an almost superhuman effort to achieve that ideal. In this he belongs in the realm of the greatest: Michaelangelo, Bernini, Rodin.
To judge Meštrović the sculptor it is perhaps more useful to look at his work in terms of his competitons rather than artistic traditions and influences in which he was involved. His spectacular career in Europe from 1904 until 1946 is clear and established; his sixteen years as an artist in America were dramatic and frustrating. Both phases seem to reveal that enigmatic quality which Rodin once characterized as "Meštrović the Phenomenon".
From the beginning, Meštrović dealt with no small ideas, but great ones of stature and profound significance. In the spirit of the Paris Pantheon and the German Valhalla at Regensburg, his Kosovo monument was conceived as a national shrine and tribute to the heroic folk tradition. The architectural plan of the concept remained as an idea and model, seemingly unattainable because of political and economic circumstances, but the sculpture he carved, literally/with his own hands, strong and invincible. And they retain that power to this day. Compare this idea and these figures with what his contemporaries were doing in Vienna, France, and Germany: Kaufman's "Vaterlandslied" (1903) and Metzner's "Niebelungen" fountain in Vienna (1904), Bourdelle's "Monument to the Dead" in Montauban (1902), Vigeland's unparalleled "History of Man" sculptures in Frogner Park, Oslo (1905) and the colossal "Battle of Nations" monument (1906-13) near Leipzig. These all were works which Meštrović certainly knew. While the ideas and motivation might be comparable to what he was thinking, and the scale equally gigantic, the figures themselves in those works were weak, mannered and, as sculptural forms, ineffective. Only Rodin was able to embue the forms with the inner spirit and power of a great idea as seen in the richly expressive figures of his Gates of Hell (begun 1890) and the dramatic Citizens of Calais (1884-86).
There were colossal single figures in the tradition of the classic Athena Parthenos, all with their political and national associations: Ludwig von Schuvanthaler's "Bavaria" in Munich (1843-93), Johannes Schilling's "Germania" (Niederwald, overlooking the Rhine, 1883) and of course our own Statue of Liberty in New York harbor (Bartholdi, 1886). Meštrović certainly knew them and I am sure he was not impressed. His answer is to be seen in his own work: the 1928 Victory Monument in Kalemegdan Park in Belgrade and the magnificent "Gregory of Nin" (1929) before Diocletian's Palace in Split.
Meštrović in America after his arrival in 1946 is a story yet to be told. Following the miseries of war and exile, ill health and frustration, he was received in this country with honor and acclaim, great publicity, and an unprecedented retrospective exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum. While there was much talk about commissions and teaching positions for the distinguished refugee, it was Chancellor William Pearson Tolley and Syracuse University who took him in. The situation for Meštrović, however, was anything but ideal. Funds were limited, work facilities inadequate, students ill-prepared to think and work on the monumental scale of the master, and universities at that time were still not ready to assume the responsibilities of patronage and practical support of the artist.
Whether it was the genius of the artist, they sculptor's capacity for hard work, or the simple faith of the Croatian peasant which he always maintained, Meštrović managed to work his way through to a solution which, while tragic in many ways, still remains a source of inspiration and satisfaction.
This is his own personal achievement, not society's nor the patrons', the Church, or the Government. Perhaps one could claim that it was the University which made Meštrovie, the sculptor in America, possible, but at both Syracuse and Notre Dame this was a slow learning process. The idea of an "artist in residence", in the one case to provide inspiration for aspiring young artists, or a famous master to teach religious art for the Church in the other, was hopeful, but naive, and became effective only through years of patient and creative effort. Today, twenty years after his death, the two centers of Meštrović influence and the greatest collections of his work in America are located at Syracuse and Notre Dame Universities.
To clarify Meštrović's historical position as a sculptor in America, one might again compare him and his point of view with that of his competitors here. He knew about our great national monuments. What his reaction was when he saw them has never been recorded.
With his background he certainly was sympathetic to the ideas and motivation of the Statue of Liberty, but its sculptural form he would just as certainly have recognized as empty and lifeless. In the nation's capital there were the famous monuments to our national heroes: the Washington obelisque, the Lincoln and the Jefferson memorials. Big and impressive as they are, with their superb and elegant materials and beautiful park settings, from his point of view they were little more than over-blown cemetery monuments.
During those years there was much publicity about Gutzon Borglum's gargantuan Mount Rushmore Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Billed as "The Shrine of Democracy", the "World's Greatest Sculptural Work", it involved the serene portrait-busts of America's greatest heros on a scale unprecedented in the history of mankind (the 60-foot heads are proportionate to men 465 feet high). What a magnificent idea — to carve a mountain of gleaming, ageless granite into heroic figures as a shrine for the edification of future civilizations. Michaelangelo and his patron Pope Julius II were in-spired by that kind of idea. So was Meštrović in his Kosovo project.
But what was the result? As one drives along the winding, picturesque highway leading to Mount Rushmore, one discovers the figures as part of a relief carved into the mountain, rather than the elementary concept of the mountain as a total form out of which the figures are released. In spite of their tremendous size, the busts have the essential character of old-fashioned salon or mantel-piece sculpture.
This is the concept that Meštrović had in mind when he heard Bourdelle's boast that he — Bourdelle — was the one who executed most of Rodin's late sculpture while he was working in the master's studio as assistant. "Ha!" said Meštrović, "you should tell that to a sculptor!"
The other basic factor in the understanding of Meštrović in America is that by the time he arrived here the general trend in contemporary art had moved overwhelmingly toward the modern point of view in the United States as it had in Europe. By this is meant, not only the interest in abstract art, but the basic emphasis on the artist's means of expression — his constant search and experimentation with new forms, new materials and new techniques. The artist is beholden neither to patron, church, or government, but only to himself and the spiritual drive for expression which he incorporates.
Meštrović seldom criticised abstract artists or the modern point of view. He had always gone his own way and for fifty years had remained far ahead of his time. For him art was a means to an end, not an end in itself. In post-war America there were indeed monumental projects under way. Alexander Calder, Henry Moore, Jacques Lipschitz, Picasso, Dubuffet, many of them gigantic structures fabricated by industrial means on the basis of small models or maquettes.
The only comment I ever heard which might reflect Meštrović's attitude on these matters was in response to my enthusiastic description of a large, primordial-type reclining figure by Henry Moore. He looked at me, put his hand on my shoulder and shook his head as he smiled. "Mr. Schmeckebier, when an Englishman goes crazy, he's really crazy."
For the new world of the post-war era, Meštrović's most positive statement appeared in the various studies for a projected monument to the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. From his own background of heroic tragedy which we have followed from Kosovo to the studies of Job done while languishing in prison, he conceived a gigantic figure of Moses striding forward as leader pointing to the Way of the Future, against a vast panorama of Migrating Peoples in relief. After years of work in the old tudio-barn at Syracuse, the project was lost in the bickering of committees and fund raisers and the full-scale models still remain crated in tragic storage.
Today, as we look back on the sixteen years of Meštrović's career in America and the twenty years since his death, we could admit that perhaps he was one of those who, like Thomas Mann, were "survivors from a nobler era," that the New World and the revolutionary culture of the later Twentieth Century have no use for the ideas and accomplishment of Meštrović, the Phenomenon.
Yet, look again. The political and social tensions of this century are still with us, changed, expanded into global proportions and even more awesome than before. The economic boom and prosperity of the past generation has begun to wane and one faces a new depression, on a world-wide scale.
Here the peasant stone cutter from the granite mountains of Croatia still has a message. It is the artist's doctrine of hard work, great ideas, and the dream of salvation through love and sacrifice. The story is told in his writings and his life as a political activist, but it is also told with superb conviction in stone and bronze.
To a new generation of modern artists, that message has a particular meaning. After a century of experiment and probing into hitherto unknown forms of expression, young artists have appeared with even bolder fantasies, comparable in many ways to Sputnik and the epochal trip to the moon. Look, for example, at Christo's Valley Curtain project in Rifle, Colorado — a gigantic red curtain stretched across a mountain valley, built at a cost of $800,000 over a five-year period, with no other purpose than to prove it could be done. Or again, his Running Fence, twenty-four miles of white plastic fabric strung on a twelve-foot structure from the mountains north of San Francisco, California, down into the sea. "It's beautiful!" said one of the workers, "no one ever thought of an idea like that."
With this enthusiasm, the highly sophisticated technology, and the many social, political, environmental and human factors involved, "Just think," said Christo, "what would happen if I could accomplish the building of a Running Fence from West to East through Berlin in divided Germany: such an idea would be much more powerful than the brutal reality of the present stone wall."
Works of similar scale and audacity appear in recent ventures in "Earthworks," such as the gigantic Spiral Jetty built in Great Salt Lake, Utah, by Robert Smithson in 1970, and the Robert Morris 1979 project for the reclamation of a huge abandoned gravel pit in King County, Washington, where strange and seemingly quixotic concepts suddenly became involved with vital problems of environment. Thus, vast areas of deserts, swamps and industrial wastelands can be manipulated back into aesthetically meaningful living space. Similar directions involving large-scale environmental projects appear in the work of SITE, an acronym for "Sculpture in the Environment," a group headed by James Wines, who is a well-known sculptor and architect and who had been one of Meštrović's most talented younger students at Syracuse. The emphasis here is more on architecture and large-scale site planning, but the motivation is much the same.
Working in a parallel, though slightly different direction, are the Utopian dreamers such as the artist-engineer-philosopher Buckminster Fuller with his space-enveloping Geodestic domes, and the architect Paolo Soleri, whose fantastic project for a "town on a table mountain" for two million inhabitants, and theories of the Metropolis of the Future (as published in his "Arcology, the City in the Image of Man," 1969) caused a sensation in the 1970's.
Meštrović was indeed a survivor from a nobler era, but for the cultural historian the period of his activity in America is one of transition. The American accomplishments in all branches of the arts since 1946 are stupendous, but they lack the sense of direction, stability and responsibility that characterize the great cultural epochs of the past. The renewed study of the career, the ideas, the writings, and above all the sculpture of Ivan Meštrović will serve to clarify this slow drive to cultural maturity.