In Zagreb and Split, discover the talent of Ivan Mestrovic: the Croatian Rodin

Ivan Mestrovic is one of the most renowned artists of the early 20th century and described as the most famous in Croatia. Mainly a sculptor but also a painter, architect and writer, he was the first living artist to exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Arts in New York in 1947.

During his career he has always been in contact with other great artists of the time. In Vienna, he shares a studio with Gustav Klimt and is a close friend of the architect Otto Wagner.

He met the French sculptor Rodin, whom he admired and from whom he was inspired at the beginning of his career. The two artists become friends. This influence of Rodin can be seen in Mestrovic’s first major work “The Well of Life”. The work, purchased by the city of Zagreb, is still exhibited in front of the city’s National Theater. Also an architect, he designed several buildings.

Today, his work can be admired in the Mestrovic Museums in Zagreb and Split, in public spaces in several cities in Europe and also in the United States. He is a timeless artist who has always been able to convey strong emotions and messages through his work.

We come over his biography in more detail before presenting you the works to be admired in Croatia, on a stroll in Zagreb or Split.

The life of the artist

First steps

Mestrovic was born in 1883 in Croatia and spent his childhood in the Dalmatian countryside.  At the age of 17, he went to Split to study sculpture and drawing, then tried in vain to join the Academy of Vienna. Being better prepared, in particular by the sculptor Otto König, he managed to enter the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. He met Rodin there in 1902. The French master immediately recognized the talent of the young Mestrovic, 43 years his junior, and they became friends.

He graduated two years later and began to exhibit in Vienna and Prague. He goes to live in Paris, in a studio he rents in Montparnasse. He also spends a lot of time in Bourdelle’s and Rodin’s studio to perfect his style. He creates intensively during 2 years up to 50 sculptures.


First recognitions and successes

In 1910, he exhibited in Vienna with success and part of his work was transferred to Zagreb. The city buys The Fountain of Life (1905) for a public space. He continued to exhibit and became professor and then rector at the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb.

In 1911, it is the consecration: he wins the first prize for European sculpture in Rome for his Fragments of Kosovo, a group of monumental sculptures giving him international recognition. His style is then “secessionist” or “art nouveau”, very appreciated at the time.

Following the horrors of the First World War, he created in a style that was new to him: expressionism and with a mystical religiosity. This style distorts reality to accentuate emotions. However, he also draws inspiration from antique or renaissance works. Mestrovic’s Vestal (1917) is a perfect example of the interpretation of mythology in an Art Nouveau and Art Deco style.

In 1924, he began a series of exhibitions in the United States after a first successful exhibition entirely dedicated to him in Brooklyn. He decided to create a permanent exhibition space for his works in Split, now the Mestrovic Gallery, which he completed in 1939.

The Dark Years of World War II

Italy invaded Croatia in 1941. Then in Split, Mestrovic went to Zagreb and was captured by the Ustashe (a separatist movement supported by fascist regimes that eventually took control of Croatia). On the sixth night of his internment, he was awakened with a start and the order was given to kill him. He escaped punishment and was finally released in 1942. During the conflict, he always refused to conceive works for the fascist regime. He left Croatia to take refuge in Switzerland and create a masterpiece of expressionism Job (1946). This powerful work personifies suffering. It is an outlet for the artist after this traumatic period.

Settling in the USA and posterity

The United States became his adopted country after World War II, where he lost family members. He refuses to live in communist Yugoslavia but remains very attached to his country of origin. He lost two of his children during this same period and his work became marked by mourning and sadness.

He became an American citizen, taught at a university in Indiana and was even elected a member of the American Academy of Sciences and Arts. He died in 1962 and is buried in the family mausoleum he had built in his village of Dalmatia. Already 10 years before his death, he donated his art and possessions to the Croatian state.

Many of his sculptures and paintings are exhibited all over the world, some of them in public spaces. A foundation now manages the Mestrovic Museums and is responsible for bringing his art to life.

Where to admire the works of Mestrovic in Split?

The Mestrovic Gallery and the Crikvine-Kastilac Outbuilding, Split

Mestrovic built a villa in Split with the aim of living, creating and exhibiting at the same time as early as the 1920s. The villa is surrounded by a park decorated with Mediterranean plants and herbs. The entrance is monumental, with steps surmounted by columns but the most impressive is the view of the sea in the distance, without any constructions to obstruct the view. Inside, one really gets to know Mestrovic, his work, his personality, his vision. He also called upon Croatian artists to decorate and brighten the house. This visit is essential during one of your trips to Split

On the same land, he had a 16th century farmhouse renovated, located right by the sea. He wishes to bring a sacred and artistic breath to this building, especially with a chapel decorated with carved wooden panels and other pieces displaying his works.

The Statue of Gregory of Nin

The Statue of Gregory of Nin (Grgur Ninski) is first exhibited in the Peristil in Split. It was removed during the Second World War and then reinstalled in front of the Golden Gate, still in Split. In bronze and 8 meters high, it is one of the most famous works of Mestrovic. Croatians are used to touch the toe of the imposing statue to bring them luck. Gregoir of Nin is famous for having opposed the Pope in medieval times to impose the use of the Croatian language during religious ceremonies. He thus played an important role for the Croatian language, culture and identity. He is portrayed as a powerful, passionate and almost invincible churchman during a speech. Here is an anecdote from a guide in Split : during the renovation of the statue, it was discovered that it is actually hollow and that a person can stand inside.

The Statue of Marko Marulić (1924)

This man is essential to the culture of the country, as the father of Croatian literature during the Renaissance. Split was under Venetian influence. His history is also marked by tragedy.

His statue is located on Trg braće Radić Square in Split, more commonly known as the Fruit Square (Vocni trg). He was the first to use the word “psychology” in writings and was an ambassador for the city of Split, which he particularly liked. He was widely recognized in Europe.

Marulic’s life is marked by a particularly sad event. He would have been the lover of a young woman from a rich family. He and his best friend Papalic shared the same feelings for this woman and alternated to visit her in secret. They had to climb a wall to reach her room. One day, Papalic asked Marulic to take his place, even though it was not his turn. Marulic agreed, but the price to pay was heavy. He later learned that his friend Papalic had been caught by guards and killed. The young woman was not spared. Hardly punished by her father, she was walled up alive. Marulic had thus lost his best friend and the woman he loved. He then took the decision to leave Split to settle in a monastery on the island of Solta.

Map legend
The yellow stars represent the location of Ivan Mestrovic’s works and museums in Split. Take a walk to these places. Click on the stars to see a photo and a description of the works.

Where to admire the masterpieces of Mestrovic in Zagreb?

The Mestrovic Studio

In the upper town of Zagreb, one can enter a modest looking house from the street and discover the Mestrovic studio. We are then surprised by the vast space arranged with a certain modernity in the charming house. Many sculptures of Ivan Mestrovic are dispersed in 4 rooms by themes and styles to make us discover his entire career.

Mirogoj Cemetery

This cemetery is the equivalent of the Parisian Père Lachaise in the Croatian capital. It was embellished by the architect Hermann Bollé between 1879 and 1917, who added galleries. These became a creative space for artists of the time, including Ivan Mestrovic. During an atypical walk through this cemetery, it is amusing to look for the work of Ivan Mestrovic representing a certain Vladimir Besic, a famous painter in Croatia.

The Mestrovic Pavilion of HDLU (Croatian Association of Fine Arts)

Designed by Ivan Mestrovic and completed in 1938, the building was initially dedicated to art exhibitions. It is located on Fascism Square in Zagreb. Its use has varied over the decades, from mosque to museum of the Revolution. In 1990, it was given back to the Croatian Artists’ Association and returned to its original function.

The Statue of Josip Juraj Strossmayer (1924)

Josip Juraj Strossmayer was a powerful religious figure from the region of Slavonia. He was bishop of Bosnia and Syria, but also a politician, to the point of leading the Croatian People’s Party in 1873, in a Croatia then under the influence of the Austro-Hungarian Empire of Franz Joseph. His bronze statue is installed on J.J.Strossmayer Square, near the Croatian Academy of Arts and Sciences. He seems to explain, to be in the middle of a speech.

The statue of Andrija Medulic (1930)

This renaissance painter of Croatian origin is represented in front of the Arts Pavilion, a superb Austro-Hungarian building with a glass roof, on King Tomislav Square. The stone statue seems to be in motion to look at something with interest and energy or to look for inspiration between two brushstrokes.

The Nicolas Tesla Statue, near the Place aux Fleurs (Cvjetni Trg Square)

In the course of his life, Mestrovic became friends with Nikola Tesla. Four years before his death, he commissioned a statue. It is now on display near the Flower Square in downtown Zagreb.

The Well of Life (1905)

The sculpture “The Well of Life” was created in 1905, at the very beginning of Mestrovic’s career, on the occasion of the secession of Vienna. This bronze fountain was exhibited at its present location in 1912, opposite the Croatian National Theater in Zagreb, the capital city. It remains one of his major works. Why is the Fountain of Life a Mestrovic masterpiece? It represents the cycle of life with 10 naked bodies forming a continuous line around the pool. The beings represented are of increasing age, from children to the elderly. All are represented communicating, acting. Only one character stands out: the oldest. He gazes thoughtfully at his reflection in the water and seems troubled. Mestrovic’s talent can be seen in the expressions and feelings that he manages to communicate through his sculptures.

The History of the Croats (1932)

This sculpture is very famous in Croatia. Mestrovic created it to interpret and symbolize the Croatian people. Rumor has it he represented his own mother holding tables with the inscription “The History of Croatians”, depicted in a humble, dignified and strong way. She has the role of guardian of Croatian identity, its heritage and is also a symbol of home. The original statue is made of marble and was “kept” by the King of Serbia after a temporary exhibition. In spite of Mestrovic’s letters, Serbia never returned the sculpture. A bronze copy is now on display in front of the University of Zagreb.

Map legend
The yellow stars represent the location of the Ivan Mestrovic works and museums in Zagreb. Take a walk to reach these places. Click on the stars to see a photo and a description of the works.

Last words
If you are passing through Croatia, we hope that you will want to discover the work of Ivan Mestrovic with your own eyes.

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