"VATRA I PEPEO"
THE UNPUBLISHED MEMOIRS OF IVAN MEŠTROVIC
JOSEPH E. O'CONNOR
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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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Ivan Meštrović was a secretive man. Despite the many clues that he left behind, despite the prodigious number of sculptures and other works of art that he created, he remains a controversial and enigmatic figure. He wrote to his second wife, Olga, that it took him a long time to begin to trust anyone, and she insists that the only person he was ever completely open with was his brother, Peter.
His considerable literary output is helpful to those who wish to understand him, but it too presents problems. His memoirs, like all memoirs, must be handled with care; sometimes his memory deceived him. But more importantly, they are incomplete. He had a knack for compartmentalizing his life. Uspomene na političke ljude i dogodjaje offers us a glimpse of his political activity but says virtually nothing about his art, his family or any other aspect of his life.
Some of his other writings also have a memoir quality about them. His Ipak se nadam is sometimes referred to as a kind of philosophical or religious memoir, and his Imaginary Conversations With Michelangelo provide some of his views on art. But each one offers only a fragment of his life and work. Like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle they have to be carefully examined and cautiously fitted together.
There is at least one major piece of the puzzle that has received little attention thus far: an unupublished autobiographical fragment of about thirty-five thousand words entitled "Vatra i Pepeo" which is included among his private papers. His son translated the work into English and it is on that memoir that this paper is based.
One approaches the memoir with considerable caution. It deals with the decade of the first World War but it was not written until about 1949-1950, when Meštrović was in his late sixties. It is extremely difficult to tell to what extent he is reading back into the events of the years covered in the memoir some of his feelings from a much later time. Moreover, Meštrović was inclined to treat virtually everything he wrote with something of the artist's imagination. He didn't see reality in quite the prosaic way that we do who traipse after his image. He tells us himself that his real world was the world of his "art and imagination". Or rather that he lived in two worlds, "one illusory though visible to others, and the other real though secret and unseen by other people. I guarded and protected my inner world," he says, "and seldom allowed anyone a glimpse of it".
Despite such cautions the memoir is fascinating. It is not a smoothly polished work, not a finished product. And therein lies its charm. It unfolds with disarming candor. There is a directness, an almost childlike naivete, to his writing that offers an extraordinary glimpse into his secret "inner world".
The memoir is a love story. We know of two women whom Meštrović loved: Ruža Klein, his first wife, and Olga Kesterčanek, his second. This is the story of a third woman, Ružena Zatkova-Khvoshchinsky. Meštrović met her in Rome in 1912. She and her husband, Vasilii, a member of the Russian diplomatic corps, came to visit him in his studio. Meštrovir took an immediate dislike to Vasilii, and one of the weakest elements in the narrative is Meštrović's un-favorable portrait of him. At the same time he was attracted to Ružena. She was charming and beautiful though not, perhaps, as beautiful as his own wife, Ruža.' But she was "full of life and health", "earthly and elemental," he says, and that was very appealing to him.
Meštrović's own marriage, on the other hand, had lost some of its appeal. The picture he paints of Ruža is not a very complimentary one. She was terribly jealous, he says, and often tried to pry into his "most intimate thoughts." He did not like her to visit his studio or to watch him work. She was always wondering whether or not he had fallen in love with whoever's features he was modelling. Moreover, Ruža could no longer have children, and children meant a great deal to Meštrović. Nonetheless, he says, he was loyal; in the ten years of their life together he had never been unfaithful. And he was not looking for an affair now.
In fact Meštrović was somewhat disturbed by his attraction to Ružena. He was prepared to accept he fact that she appealed to him sexually—he believed that the attraction between men and women is always sexual at base. But he was puzzled at the strength of his feeling and wondered if he was caught up in something more, something "supersexual", a spiritual "harmony of souls". The very idea was repulsive to him. "I simply could not accept", he says, "that there was love which did not arise from a sexual stimulus." He wanted nothing to do with a spiritual relationship with Ružena.
Nor did he want a physical relationship, at least not at this point. He was still in love with Ruža, and he was not prepared to leave her. And he had no intention of taking another man's wife. "Allow her beauty and sensuality to inspire your artistic work", he told himself. "But under no circumstances get emotionally involved with her".
Meštrović made no effort to see Ružena again. Their next meeting was accidental, at a concert which he and Ruža happened to attend. He was somewhat surprised, therefore, when Vasilii Khvoshchinsky showed up at his studio several days later and asked him if he would do a portrait of Ružena. "Do you find her face interesting?" the Russian asked.
It was not precisely her face that Meštrović was most interested in when Ružena came to his studio the following week to begin modeling. For reasons that he confesses he did not understand, his "attention kept being drawn downward" so that he "kept extending the portrait to a point just above the knees". What emerged was a three-quarter length figure, a figure without arms, however. Meštrović tells us he never intended to leave it without arms. He forgot them, he says, because he was "concentrating on the contours of the body". He also tells us that the expression which he gave to the face was not exactly the result of conscious intention on his part. She had seemed pale, disturbed, tormented when she arrived at his studio, and that was what emerged in the portrait. It was a legitimate interpretation of her, he believed, but it had imposed itself upon him "without ... (his) conscious volition". He was disconcerted by all this, and he did not feel after only two sessions with Ružena that the portrait was finished. "I still must do something about the arms which I have forgotten to make so far", he told her. It was she who insisted the portrait was finished. "No, you have not forgotten the arms. You saw, or perhaps you felt intuitively, that I am without arms. Leave the portrait as it is. It shows me as I am".
The role of the subconscious in the creative process is always somewhat mysterious. In none of his other writings does Meštrović give as specific and graphic a description of the relationship between the subconscious and conscious as in this memoir. He has written elsewhere, in the manner of Michelangelo, of the "eye of the artist's soul" which sees in the rough stone the finished product even before the artist has picked up his chisel. But in a wonderful passage from the memoir he connects this "inner eye" with his subconscious in a manner so matter-of-fact as to make it seem like an everyday occurrence. He refers to the piece on which he was working when he first met Ružena.
For many nights I had been dreaming of these figures. Sometimes my work progresised smoothly but during other dreams I encountered difficulties. After such negative dreams, I would awake feeling listless and unhappy. Finally, this morning I had woken up with the feeling that I knew how to express through these figures the particular feeling of sadness that hat obsessed me ...
In my dream I had seen the statue completely finished to the last detail. I saw it three dimensionally and from all sides at the same time. Once this happened it was easy for me to complete a statue in my own studio. It seemed to me that at this point I was only copying a figure which had already been completed, as a student copies a statue made by a master. I felt completely sure of myself, serenely calm and so exhilarated that I started humming softly to myself, as I often did when I felt good and my work progressed easily.
Meštrović's subconscious is equally evident in his portrait of Ružena, though in a different fashion. The "forgotten arms" bespoke a deeper truth than conscious reality. He would later discover as their love became explicit that Ružena could embrace neither him or life itself. "If only my missing arms would grow again", she later told him. Similarly in the downcast and tortured expression of her face he unknowingly forecast the torments of the spirit of this woman whom he originally believed to be so "earthy and elemental".
Ružena approved of the portrait; her husband did not. Indeed, he was furiously jealous. It seemed to him to show a woman who had already surrendered herself. Meštrović's wife came to the same conclusion. Years later Vasilii confessed to Meštrović's that he had wanted to kill him because of what he assumed the portrait symbolized and was only prevented from doing so by the intervention of Ružena.
Whether or not Ružena had surrendered in some psychological fashion, Meštrović made no attempt to pursue her. It was Ružena who initiated their next contact. She came to his studio to show him photographs of some Etruscan frescoes which had recently been discovered in a cemetery fifty kilometers from Rome and asked if he would like to go see them with her. The next day, as they wandered through the Etruscan tombs, their conversation touched the theme that would dominate their relationship: the conflict between physical and spiritual love. Ružena disapproved of the pagan sensuousness of the frescoes, their celebration of the pleasures of the flesh. When Meštrović responded that the Etruscans were right and that "Christianity destroyed man's joy of life", she called him a pagan. "There's nothing more magnificent than the Christian vision of eternal life", she said.
Their visit to the Etruscan tombs was the first in a series of trips to the Roman countryside, and with each trip Meštrović's passion for Ružena grew stronger. He thought of her constantly, he says, and couldn't fall asleep at night. They talked of history, civilization and art which pleased him not at all. He did not like to think of her as an intellectual. "It did not become her", he felt. "For me she was the personification of womanhood—beautiful and sensual—and she aroused my sexuality".
Meštrović returned to Croatia during the summer of 1914, and in the confusing months before and after the assassination at Sarajevo he and Ružena lost contact. Again it was she who re-established the connection: she asked if she could watch while he worked on a portrait of Rodin. After the portrait was finished she continued to visit his studio, hurrying in and hurrying out as though she didn't want anyone to see her. On one of her visits she happened to arrive just as he was finishing work on the head of a woman, the features of which were inspired by Ružena. She recognized the resemblance. Meštrović was embarrassed that she had discovered his "most intimate feelings". It was a tense moment and neither of them spoke. He walked around behind the chair in which she was sitting, then suddenly leaned over and touched her hair and kissed her forehead lightly, tenderly. "At that instant", he says, "I had a ... vision—wings had sprouted from this woman's shoulders and formed a sort of aureole around her head".
It was their first intimate physical contact, and the restraints on Meštrović's passion dissolved. He asked when he could see her again, and she responded, "Whenever you like". They agreed to meet the next day, and when Ružena arrived at his studio he immediately took her in his arms and kissed her, passionately this time. But suddenly Ružena went limp, so limp that he feared she would fall to the floor and dirty her beautiful dress. When he kissed her again she was utterly unresponsive, and when he let her go she rushed from the studio.
The next day Meštrović found a note from Ružena under his studio door. She invited him to meet her at the Vatican Museum, in the Fra Angelico room with its atmosphere of "purity and peace". Though she did not say so in the note, she had invited him there to say farewell.
Ružena loved him, perhaps more intensely than he loved her, but his passion frightened her. She loved most, she told him, those artists "in whom the soul has conquered the heart". Despite her own loveless marriage she would not agree to an affair, partly out of respect for Ruža, but primarily because she felt that a physical relationship would corrupt their love. She wanted to elevate their love to a higher, purer plane. Mortal things perish, she told him. "Earthly life is but a shadow of the other life which is eternal". By suppressing her physical desires, or rather by transforming them into something spiritual, she hoped to make their love immortal. "Love which is fulfilled dies, but love which remains unquenched lasts forever".
Having refused his love Ružena seemed to welcome the prospect of death. She spoke of suicide and later told him she had taken up opium to escape the hopelessness of her life. In a dream-like state, her body stiff "as if frozen", she said to him: "I am that lamp which wants to burn in a votary chapel. I want my oil to burn for a vow which I have made—with your help. You must decide if from time to time you wish to look into the chapel where my lamp is burning, through the small window on the locked door, and see my flame consumed to the last drop of oil". In the months that followed she lost her appetite, neglected her health, and soon contracted tuberculosis.
Meštrović was crushed. He had no choice but to respect her wishes, but the end of their relationship hurt him terribly. He had virtually no more contact with her. They met only once more, immediately after the war, in a sanatorium in Lausanne, Switzerland, where Ružena was dying of tuberculosis. He continued his work and his travel and even fell in love, or at least tried to, with Maria Račić in England. But he could not dispel the memory or Ružena. He dreamed about her frequently, dreams so real that they "seemed like hallucinations". And once, in the midst of the war, while his train was stopped in the station at Lausanne, he had the strangest sensation that she was near. He left his compartment to look for her and became so preoccupied with his search that his train pulled out without him. Needless to say, he didn't find her. But she was there, he later discovered, and she had seen him. She was so weak from tuberculosis that she hadn't the strength to call to him.
Meštrović's lingering obsession for Ružena was a constant source of pain for his wife Ruža. She insisted that he "forget that other woman". Yet he could not forget. He continued to feel that his subconscious "communicated in some way with Ružena".
When the war ended Meštrović headed for Zagreb. Stopping on the way in Geneva he was surprised by a telephone call from Ružena who asked if he might come and visit her at the sanatorium. He did so and they spent a few hours together. She was, as he put it, "sublimely happy", apparently fulfilled in her spiritual love for him. He on the other hand was sublimely unhappy, his passion undiminished but now tinged with deep sorrow at her illness. She promised to send him a small book of prayers in verse that she had composed and showed him several "winged angels in flight" that she had painted in tempera on wood. As they said farewell and he kissed her hand, she said, alluding to his early portrait of her, "You love my hands, do you not? They have grown again and they will become wings".
Meštrović never saw her again. In 1923, while visiting some friends in Prague, he learned of her death. When he returned from Prague to Zagreb he found in his accumulated mail Ružena's notebook of verses and a postcard of one of the angels he had sculpted for the Račić Mausoleum in Cavtat, on the back of which she had written: "Today your angel has come to get my soul". The card was dated the day of Ružena's death.
Such in brief is the story of the memoir. But in his conversations with Ružena, and in his reflections on their love, Meštrović also tells much about his values, his view of love and his religious faith.
Meštrović's attitude toward women was utterly traditional, the result, he suggests, of his peasant upbrining. "I thought that God created woman for man", he writes, "and that in return ... (man) had to take care of her and protect her". More specifically, he thought of women as inspiration for his art. He therefore didn't care much for "intellectual women". Their very intellectualism diminished their "sensuality and physical appeal" from which he drew inspiration. "Speaking as an artist", he says, "a relationship with an intellectual woman was totally sterile from a creative point of view ... "Early in their relationship Ružena presented him with several books, and the gesture somewhat irritated him. He suspected that she was trying to inspire him "with her intellect," and he would have none of it. "No, dear lady", he said to himself. "Your mind cannot inspire me. Only your body can do that".
Beyond the realm of art, Meštrović saw the function of women as procreation. He meant nothing demeaning by this for he thought of procreation as the highest form of human activity. He likened the conception of new life to the creativity of the artist and both, he believed, share in the divine. Ružena had argued that physical love was base, but for Meštrović the sexual act was also spiritual. The essence of eternity, he believed, was "energy and repetitiveness", and the person who seeks to perpetuate himself through creation is "in tune with eternity." Love is the force which drives and governs our creativity; love is "the law of eternity." Procreation therefore becomes divine, "the sublime act of womanhood," and the act of love becomes "a pure and holy act because it creates life."
Meštrović's reverence for procreation, his view that sex is holy, is simply an expression of his pantheistic Christianity. He was fundamentally religious, but he was hardly orthodox either in behaviour or in belief. He saw no sharp division between the material and the spiritual, the temporal and the eternal. "All phenomena," he says in his Imaginary Conversations With Michelangelo, "end finally in eternity, thus in harmony. Accordingly, all forms, all expressions, all motions are but the emanations of that constant ... harmonious in themselves".4 In the memoir he is equally explicit: life on earth and the spirit, the heart and the soul, are not in ultimate conflict but in harmony. His objection to traditional Christianity is that too often it emphasized disharmony.
An important figure in Meštrović's view of Christianity is St. Francis of Assisi, whom he sculpted and painted many times in his career. He admires St. Francis "more than all the theologians put together," he says to Ružena, precisely because he combined a reverence for the natural and the supernatural. He bore the stigmata, the special sign of God's affection, and yet "he was also a pantheist. He loved nature and all creation. He called all living things and even inanimate objects ... his brothers and sisters".
Meštrović's memoir is as remarkable for what he leaves out as for what he includes. He says virtually nothing about politics despite the fact that the time-period covered in the work is the most politically significant period of his life. Presumably his reticence results from his having dealt with his political activity elsewhere, yet it still reflects his extraordinary ability to compartmentalize his life.
Similarly he says little about his art with the exception of a few specific pieces. Given the theme of the memoir, it is particularly surprising that he says not a word about the Račić Mausoleum on which he was working during the very years he covers. He does, however, describe the episode that inspired the mausoleum.
Shortly after the war, when Meštrović had recovered from his own near fatal bout with influenza, Ruža told him that Maria Račić had died of the same illness. "It is strange", he responds, "Maria had a premonition of death". And then he tells of his last meeting with Maria in which she asked, "If we don't see each other again, promise to build me a tomb and console me with the hope that death is not the end of our existence".
The Račić Mausoleum is Meštrović s finest architectural creation, an extraordinarily beautiful monument to Maria and the other members of the Račić family who died in the influenza epidemic. It is also, in a very real sense, a monument to Ružena. The theme of angels, so dominant in the sculptures that adorn the mausoleum and decorate the ceiling, is also dominant throughout the memoir: it serves as a leitmotif for Ružena. She has no arms but she has wings, at least in his brief vision of her when They first kiss. And at their last meeting, in 1918, she tells him that her arms have grown again, "and they will become wings". Moreover, she paints "winged angels in flight" which she shows to him with the comment, "These are the children I have conceived with you".
It is not only the theme of angels which links the mausoleum to Ružena; it is the form as well. He describes the wings that "formed a sort of aureole" around Ružena's head, and he reproduces exactly that image throughout the mausoleum. On one of the angels he even reproduces the "wide open eyes that stared into the void" which is how he described a self-portrait of Ružena that he had once seen in her studio. She explained to him then that she had "opened wide ... (her) eyes to see eternity."
Even the enigmatic inscription on the bell of the mausoleum—"Know the mystery of love and thou shalt solve the mystery of death and believe that life is eternal"—is as much a reflection on his relations with Ružena as it is a response to the plea of Maria Račić.
It is Ružena who forced him to struggle with the meaning and mystery of love. She introduced him to another world, he says, a world "even more secret and mysterious than the world of my art". It is she who sacrificed her own life for the sake of an eternal love, she who insisted that "love which is fulfilled dies, but love which remains unquenched lasts forever".
Meštrović never accepted her view. His own love of life, his faith in the harmony of the created and the creator was too strong for him to accept a philosophy which denied the material world for the sake of the spiritual. But the theme of the memoir, and the significance of his relationship with Ružena, lies in his effort to understand the mystery of love and ponder its relation to eternity.
Its is a fascinating coincidence that at the very time that he was working on the Račić Mausoleum, at the very time that Ružena was dying in Lausanne, Meštrović met the woman who would fulfil what he had hoped to find in Ružena —the woman of elemental earthiness with whom he would have the children who meant so much to him, the woman with whom he would spend the next forty years of his life, his second wife, Olga Kesterčanek.
 From a conservation with Olga Meštrović on April 27, 1983. See also a letter from Ivan Meštrović to Olga dated January 18, 1942.
 Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are taken from the unpublished English version of "Vatra i Pepeo" translated by Matthew Meštrović and included in his collection of his father's papers.
 Ivan Meštrović, "Michelangelo", The Slavonic Review, V (December, 1926), 225-241.
 Meštrović's "Imaginarni razgovori s Mikelandjelom" was published in Croatian in Hrvatska Revija (1951-60) and in German in Kunst ins Volk (1955-58). The quotation is taken from an unupublished English version included among the Meštrović papers in the collection of Olga Meštrović.