MEŠTROVIĆ'S AMERICAN EXPERIENCE
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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 first considered going to the U.S. at the time of the 1911 International Exhibition in Rome, where his figures for the Kosovo Temple were shown in the Pavillion of the Kingdom of Serbia, causing a great deal of excitement in the art world. In later recollections, Meštrović did not indicate exactly who first suggested an exhibit in America, but it seems that the idea originated with some Americans Meštrović met in Rome. By the time World War I started, a number of Meštrović's works had been crated for shipment to the U.S. and it was only at the last moment that the plan had to be scuttled.
So it was only at the end of 1924 that Meštrović's first American exhibit opened at the Brooklyn Museum. At the time Meštrović was at the height of his artistic fame and popularity in Europe. The New York press coverage of the Brooklyn exhibit was extensive and enthusiastic as indicated by the article published in the now defunct Brooklyn Eagle. From New York the exhibit went on a U.S. tour, to Chicago Art Institute, to Los Angeles and elsewhere. Several museums purchased Meštrović s sculptures. The Brooklyn Museum acquired the white marble Angel Gabriel, the Chicago museum a marble carving of Meštrović's mother and a small bronze of Moses.
Meštrović also received a number of important portrait commissions, including that of Herbert Hoover, who was to become President. Meštrović also made a portrait of Hamilton Fish Armstrong, the longtime editor of Foreign Affairs, who was influential in U.S. foreign policy. Many years later, after Meštrović returned to America in 1947, he stubbornly refused contact with Armstrong insisting that the latter had asked him to make his bust, but had failed to pay for it. Characteristically Meštrović refused to remind Armstrong of the debt.
During Meštrović's first American stay, which laisted eight months, from December, 1924, throught the summer of 1925, he received the important commission for two equestrian Indians for Grant Park on Chicago's Michigan Avenue. The choice of the subject as well as the artistic treatment was left entirely to him. In payment he received $150,000, at a time when the dollar was worth far more than it is today and when he was not required to pay income taxes; the money came from the Ferguson Fund. Meštrović returned to Zagreb to make the Indians, which were also cast there in the Bubanj foundry, then disassembled, crated, shipped to America and reassembled in Chicago. Meštrović returned briefly to America in 1926 in connection with the Chicago statues.
Meštrović's impression of America was largely formed during his first stay in this country, in 1924-1925. He lived several months in New York City and developed an intense dislike for life in the great metropolis, the haste, coldness, indifference, the rudeness and the activity that never stops. He also disliked the self-advertising, public relations and superficial social gregariousness that he felt were essential for success in the U.S.
In an unpublished manuscript, Meštrović said that he hated to attend large gatherings, that he felt terribly uneasy because of his poor mastery, particularly of English, that he felt a complete stranger and was certain that people who came to meet him had exaggerated expectations and consequently that when they saw him in person, inevitably were disappointed. He had very little formal academic education, his background was that of a peasant, he lacked the easy social grace that is required of the famous, when they mingle with the powerful, wealthy and well born. Meštrović carried these feelings throughout his life. They were important in his decision, when he returned to the U.S. in 1947, to go to Syracuse in upstate New York, and later, in 1955, to Notre Dame in Indiana, far away from New York City.
At the same time, Meštrović had a positive attitude toward life. He rarely, if ever, complained about anything. It is therefore interesting, and uncharacteristic, that he wrote during his 1925 stay in New York about being terribly depressed, even of having dark thoughts of suicide. He wrote of walking the streets of Manhattan and having the sensation that everybody was looking at him in a hostile way. Even though these were passing feelings of despair, they are the only references to deep depression in the thousands of pages he wrote about his life, encounters, travels and conversations.
The end of World War II found Meštrović stricken with phlebitis in Geneva, Switzerland. To occupy himself during his infirmity, when he could not sculpt, he wrote constantly. His old friends in the U.S., notably the sculptress Malvina Hoffman and attorney Artur Nikolorić wrote him in Switzerland, urging that he come to America. At the same time, he was visited by representatives of Tito's Yugoslav revolutionary government—I remember specifically Dr. Nikola Nikolić, a physician—who kept pressing him to return home.
Meštrović hesitated, having heard about the mass killings and arrests carried out by the Communist regime. In 1946, Meštrović went to Rome where he obtained a studio at the American Academy. Malvina Hoffman, who was socially well connected, helped persuade Myron Taylor, the former U.S. Steel chief, and later Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, to sponsor a one-man show by Meštrović at the Metropolitan. This was the first time the museum presented a one man show by a living artist. Malvina also spoke to William P. Tolley, the Chancellor of Syracuse University, who right away offered Meštrović the position of sculptor in residence at the university.
The offer of a job at Syracuse and the prospects of the Metropolitan exhibit made Meštrović's move to the U.S. a realistic alternative. Meštrović was unable to make any sales during the war. The family lived spending part of the million gold Swiss francs that Meštrović had been paid in 1940 by Romania for the two gigantic equestrian figures of King Carol I and King Ferdinand. (The statues were apparently carefully dismantled by the Russians in 1945 and taken to the Soviet Union). The balance of this money made it possible for Meštrović to move to Italy in 1946, to complete carving the great marble Pietŕ which he had modeled in 1942, and to cast a number of other statues which he made in an enormous burst of energy in 1946 in Rome, and which constituted the bulk of the Metropolitan exhibit the following year.
Meštrović's hesitation about returning to Yugoslavia were high-tened by the harrowing experience of imprisonment in a Zagreb jail in 1941. He described the prison experience in his memoirs published by the Hrvatska Revija in Buenos Aires in 1961. (A somewhat edited version was published in Zagreb by the Matica Hrvatska, in 1969.) As he says in his memoirs, he came within minutes of being killed, when the executioners received countermanding orders over the phone. This experience, however, left a lasting impression on Meštrović. It was all the more painful because he was almost killed by his own people.
Meštrović did not think that the Tito regime would imprison him. But he feared that he would be forced to serve the regime with his art and that Belgrade would use him for its propaganda ends. He told me on a number of occasions that it would have been impossible for him to work in peace in Yugoslavia. How could he—he said— live comfortably in his palatial villa in Split, when his friends and other people were being persecuted and imprisoned?
He liked living in Italy, particularly Rome. He liked the Italian climate, which reminded him of his native Adriatic Croatia. He liked the Italians, their emotionalism and warmth. He liked the Italian landscape and ambience. Besides his homeland, Italy was the country where he felt most at home. Rome held many happy memories of his younger years. He lived there from 1911 to 1915 and still had many close friends from those days, such as Dr. Angelo Signorelli, Papini, and others. It is there that he met Ružena Zatkova Khvoshinsky who had such a tremendous impact on his art for a decade or more. But financial consideration made it impossible to remain in Rome. The money in Switzerland was running low and he had many people to help and support, not only his immediate family, but sons-in-law, relatives and friends in desperate need. So America seemed the only realistic alternative to returning to Yugoslavia.
He did not go to the U.S. in January, 1947, with any particular enthusiasm and I do not think that he planned to settle permanently. Rather, on the basis of his earlier American experience, he hoped for substantial sales over the next several years. By then, he hoped post-revolutionary conditions in his homeland would have settled sufficiently for him to return. Alternatively, he would settle in Rome or possibly Spain.
But things often do not turn out as planned. Meštrović's Metropolitan exhibit received enormous publicity. All the major newspapers and magazines wrote about it, The New York Times, the now defunct Herald Tribune, Life, Time, Newsweek, and so on. The publicity was overwhelmingly positive, though perhaps superficial and perfunctory. There were a few negative voices, mainly from those who regarded themselves politically and aesthetically progressive, and who saw Meštrović's art as reactionary, with its stress on religion and traditional values, and the Metropolitan exhibit as part of America's mounting anti-Communism of the Cold War.
Despite the laudatory media coverage, Meštrović's sculpture no longer had the broad appeal in the artistic world which it had enjoyed earlier, in the initial decades of the century, when Meštrović's art was novel, innovative, iconoclastic. Meštrović art was symbolic, his treatment of figures often highly stylised. He drew his subject from religious sources, the Judeo-Christian Bible, as for instance his numerous renditions of Moses, Job, Jesus, the Pietas, and so on. Another source of his inspiration was Greek classical antiquity (Prometheus, Icarus, Atlantis, Persephone, etc.).
Through his statuary he sought to express revulsion against war, destruction, senseless human suffering, while at the same time idealizing motherhood, traditional values, the consolation of religion. Also, by mid-century, his artistic style—his combination of extreme stylisation and apparent realism—seemed outdated and passé. It was a period of the triumph of the non-representational and abstract in art.
Meštrovićs Metropolitan exhibit was followed by others across America—Cleveland, Dayton, Boston, Washington. Meštrović had hoped that some wealthy art patron would purchase his Pietŕ and donate it to the Metropolitan. But this did not happen. After the New York show, the Pietŕ was stored at the Metropolitan for years—it was far too heavy to go on tour across the U.S: until the museum indicated that it could no longer keep it because of overcrowding of its storage facilities. It was then that the Pietŕ was moved to the church on the Notre Dame campus. The university purchased it in 1962, after Meštrović's death.
In the 1950s, Meštrović's art was far outside the mainstream of contemporary art. Another problem, I think, was that historians found it difficult to categorize Meštrović's sculpture within the various schools and trends of present day art, and often left it out altogether from their surveys.
There was still another dimension to the problem of Meštrović's declining popularity, entirely of his own making, or rather the result of his personality, his outlook and his attitude. He had no feeling for and no understanding for the importance of advertising and publicity in the art business. He was shocked and angry when a reputable and highly successful New York art dealer offered to find clients for his sculpture, in return for a 33 percent sales commission. Whenever he spoke of this incident, he would recall how art dealers had ruined Rodin in his old age, and how the French master had died in dire financial straights.
He preferred to have his younger brother Peter act as his manager and financial adviser. Though Peter was a likeable and decent man, he was extremely indolent and a poor businessman, who simply did not possess the qualities required for success in America. In the U.S., as he had done in younger years in Yugoslavia, he lived off and on with his older brother. He got up late, went for long walks, read The New York Times, and spent many an afternoon at the movies. In the evenings he would type Meštrovie s correspondence slowly, with one finger. He stubbornly clung to the philosophy that the key to success was patience. He did not allow anything to upset him.
The Metropolitan exhibit and all the others that followed over the years did not bring Meštrović the hoped for major commissions which would have given him financial independence. So he was forced to supplement his small professor's salary with the last of the money he had in Switzerland and which he eventually transferred to the Chase Bank in New York.
By the early 1950s he finally did get a number of commissions, but though some of them were for very large statues, the financial rewards were minimal. Thus for instance, he was paid only $32,000 for the 24 foot statue of "Man and Freedom" that adorns the facade of the Mavo Clinic's diagnostic building. Meštrović's Syracuse University studio, a converted barn which he shared with students, was too small to make the enormous statue in one piece. So he made it in two parts, separately—the lower body separately from the torso, head and arms—and to my great surprise the two sections fit perfectly when they were joined together.
On several occasions, the Tito government offered to purchase Meštrović's statues (including the Pietŕ), or alternately, to offer him generous commissions. The monetary offers were considerable, but Meštrović stubbornly refused to accept any money, though he did make a number of monuments for Yugoslavia free of payment, as for instance the statue of Prince Bishop Petar Petrović Njegoš, for his mausoleum atop Mt. Lovćen.
Under these circumstances Meštrović was never able to reach the point where he could give up teaching. Meštrović was unhappy with his studio facilities at Syracuse which were quite inadequate for his needs. This was one of the main reasons he decided in 1955 to accept a Notre Dame offer to move to Indiana. He was promised a brand new studio exclusively for his use. He was 72 when he left Syracuse.
At that point, Syracuse University bought several of his best pieces for its art collection.
When Meštrović was not working on some statue or other, or writing something, he would talk about Yugoslav politics. For a while he kept in Syracuse an old friend, Pavle D. Ostović, who doubled as a secretary and companion, while writing under Meštrović's supervision a book titled, The Truth About Yugoslavia, which sought to offer a balanced account of Yugoslav history and Croat confederate strivings. No publisher could be found to print the book at his own risk, so Meštrović, Peter and three Croatian friends put up the money for the book's publication by Roy Publishers.
Meštrović enjoyed himself most when some compatriot from Yugoslavia would visit him in Syracuse and later South Bend, or when he spent a few days in New York, Washington or Chicago meeting Croatian friends, such a Bogdan Radica, Jozo Poduje, Rev. Dominik Mandić, Karlo Mirth, and many others. On those occasions he felt comfortable and expansive. He would speak for hours about the past—about King Alexander, the Serbian Radical party leader Nikola Pašić, about his Croatian associates in the World War I Yugoslav Committee in Exile, Frano Supilo and Ante Trumbić, about the poli-tics of Yugoslav unification and the deepening divison brought on by the Serbo-Croat conflict in the interwar period. All of these stories were told in Meštrović's memoirs, Remembrances of Political Leaders and Events. Meštrović always told the same stories in very much the same words. His Croatian, and sometimes Serbian listeners, would listen with great attention.
On rare occasion, when he felt particularly good and was in especially congenial company, Meštrović would recite the national epic poetry about Prince Marko and his horse Šarac, Musa Kesedjija, the Albanian outlaw who was a greater hero than Marko, but whom Marko managed to kill by treachery with the help of his fairy protectress, the so-called Bosnian "women's' " love poetry and the verses of Andrija Kačić-Miošić, the 17th century Franciscan poet. Meštrović knew by heard literally thousands of verses which he had learned as a boy in the village from his father, his grandmother and others.
Meštrović's political activities consisted largely of interventions on behalf of the imprisoned Archbishop (later Cardinal) Alojzije Stepinac. He repeatedly went to New York to see Cardinal Francis Spellman and other Catholic prelates to get them to pressure President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to intercede with Belgrade for Stepinac's release. He firmly believed in Stepinac's total innocence of the charges which had been brought against him by the Tito regime. Meštrović was also convinced that Stepinac symbolized the Croatian resistance to Communist totalitarianism and that a greater measure of religious freedom in Croatia would contribute to greater human freedom in general.
Meštrović knew CIA Director Allen Dulles from the wartime years in Switzerland, and through him had met his brother John Foster Dulles. While urging the U.S. to extend economic and military assistance to Yugoslavia after the 1948 break with the Soviets, Meštrović also tried to persuade U.S. officials to pressure Tito into granting more internal freedom to the people. He refused, however, to get involved in America's Cold War anti-Communism. He refused association with CIA-sponsored Committee for a Free Europe and turned down a $500 per month no-obligation stipend that had been offered him by the Committee for a Free Europe. (The Committee was disbursing similar payments to Dr. Vlatko Maček, the leader of the Croatian Peasant Party, as well as other exiled Yugoslav politicians of the pre-World War II period).
As I mentioned earlier, after eight years at Syracuse University, Meštrović moved to South Bend, Indiana. By this point he had received a number of commissions from churches, mostly Catholic and some Protestant. He also sold Old Testament figures, such as Moses and Jeremiah, to Jewish temples. The financial rewards were mostly modest. But as far as Meštrović was concerned, he preferred doing statuary for religious institutions rather than for government departments. I remember the commission he received from the New York Public Works Department to make six reliefs for the facade of a hospital, at $2,000 a piece (he was being paid by the square foot, in accordance with a scale set by the National Sculpture Society). Meštrović was totally uninspired by the subject matter. The only appealing figure in the reliefs is that of a young nurse, inspired by the lovely daughter of Public Works Commissioner Zurmullen.
The New York hospital reliefs illustrate Meštrović's creative problems in the U.S. Neither the American landscape nor society interested him; he did not understand American society, its dynamism, struggles and tribulations. His reaction was to isolate himself as much as possible from America while living and working here. He consoled himself with the thought, expressed on several occasions, that the artist is always an exile, whether living in his own country or elsewhere.
In his writings, he said that he had always drawn inspiration from his native milieu, the rugged, barren landscape of the Dalmatian "Zagora," and from the physiognomy of its people, which he rendered in so many of his statue, particularly the Kosovo period, in all its elemental vigor and roughness. He said that he did not need to live permanently in his country to nurture his creativity. In fact from the age of 17 to 36, he had lived abroad, in Vienna, Rome, Paris, London, Geneva, Cannes. But except for the years of the First World War, he had returned to his homeland on visits every year, he had gone to his native village of Otavice to see his family and the friends of his youth, he had gone to Split, and to Zagreb, and to Belgrade, in Serbia. He felt that these visits were essential to his artistic inspiration, that through these brief contacts he replenished his energy and creative inspiration, even though he felt that his own people did not understand him and that even among them he was forever isolated and alone.
In his younger years, his works had also been inspired by various women to whom he had been physically attracted. Much later, in his sixties, he wrote that these encounters were not important to him as sexual experiences, but as a source of aesthetic and artistic inspiration. He was drawn particular to women with full breasts and broad hips which he connected with woman's essence, her life giving role. On the other hand he claimed to dislike women intellectuals for intellectuality deprived them of essential feminity. Of course, much of Meštrović's statuary is of himself and express his feelings, thoughts and perceptions, at various stages of life. Thus there is a great resemblance between Meštrović and his renditions of the prophet Moses; Meštrović's is Bishop Gregory of Nin with his arm raised in defense of Croatian church liturgy, and thus of Croatian national identity. He is Marko Marulić, the Remaissance poet who wrote "in Croatian verses", that stands within the walls of Diocletian's palace in Split (as a child I was convinced that this was a representation of my father).
Meštrović is also St. Rock in the Cavtat mausoleum of the Račić family, and the dog at the saint's feet is not the saint's dog, or a dog in general, but Meštrović's dog when he was a boy, whom he had to shoot because the animal was diseased. He did not think it right that his father Mate should kill the animal, for the dog was his, and the responsibility was his. So he took the animal behind the house to shoot him and the dog kept looking straight into his eyes, as if he knew everything that was going to happen. "Throughout my life", Meštrović told me, "I have seen the eyes of this dog looking at me". And there is, turned into stone, head lifted, looking at Meštrović in the Cavtat chapel.
Many of his earlier works were inspired by his first wife Ruža Klein, by Ružena Zatkova-Khvoshinsky, the Czech wife of an imperial Russian diplomat whom he met in Rome in 1912, who obsessed and tormented him for years until she died of tuberculosis in a Swiss sanatorium. She inspired his various Vestals, the winged angels adorning the Cavtat chapel, for he said that when he first kissed Ružena on her forehead he had a split second vision of wings rising from her shoulders. Many of the female nudes of the 1920s are inspired by Meštrović's second wife, my mother, Olga Kesterčanek. For instance she is the dreamy Woman by the Sea, she is Contemplation, and many others. In his later years his inspiration seemed to ebb at times. My mother understood this and felt sorry. She had been very beautiful when young and was sensitive to the physical transformation brought on by what Milton aptly called, the "shipwreck" of old age.
He drew from his remembrances of things past in old age, the memories of people, places, and encounters of long ago. In an interview that was published in the quarterly Hrvatska Revija on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, Meštrović said that no matter how far the frail tree of his life had been blown by life's tempests, it drew nurishment from the barren, stony soil from which it had sprung.
By the late 1950s Meštrović health was failing and this in addition to perennial financial worries made it impossible to contemplate retiring to some Mediterranean country, as he would have liked. My mother said that after his visit to Yugoslavia in the summer of 1959, which suddenly and temporarily energized him, Meštrović might have gladly returned to his homeland to spend at least part of each remaining year, if she had encouraged him. But she did not wish to live in Yugoslavia; her memories of her life there with Father between the world wars, surrounded by his friends and hangers-on, were not pleasant ones. Too much of the time she had felt neglected, abandoned and ignored while he was absorbed by his art and sought relaxation in the company of friends. Already in his late 70s, infirm and tired, he could not make the decision to go home.
The last two years were difficult ones. Meštrović's health was failing. He suffered a stroke that left him partly paralysed for months-and affected his vision permanently which, of course, made it difficult to work. But he resisted infirmity, he kept going to his studio even. though at times he did not have the strength to work. He would simply sit in the studio for a while, amidst his statues, before returning home. Then in the fall of 1961, his son Tvrtko took his life in Zagreb. Meštrović was shattered by this event. He found it difficult to believe that Tvrtko was a suicide, and at times of deep depression, suspected foul play.
Meštrović's was convinced that Tvrtko's death would soon be followed by his own. In a letter he wrote at the time, he compared himself to a tree, two of whose branches had been broken away (an allusion to the death of Tvrtko and the passing of his daughter Marta, in 1949, when she was only 25). During the last months of life, in his Notre Dame studio, Meštrović made a series of statues representing an old man—himself—ni deep despair, and also a Pietŕ in which the crucifixion of Jesus represents Tvrtko's tragic death and his own grief.
I think that he did not have any regrets when death came. In the afternoon of January 16, 1962, he suffered a mild stroke at home. At this point, weak and unable to hold up his head, he said to mother, "Da bar svrši". (If only it would end). It did that evening at eight. One of the great winged angels from the Cavtat chapel had come to take his soul.