Meštrović’s father was a stonemason, and at the age of sixteen Ivan Meštrović was apprenticed to a stonecutter in Split named Pavle Bilinic. Benefactors from his village and a mine owner from Vienna later raised funds to send the talented Meštrović to the Vienna Art Academy. This transition was difficult for him because upon arriving in Vienna he knew no German and had had no formal schooling. Meštrović’s father was the only literate person in Otavice, and Meštrović had taught himself to read at the age of twelve. Nevertheless, Meštrović flourished at the Vienna Art Academy. He became good friends with August Rodin and his early sculptures display an Impressionistic style in common with Rodin. Rodin once said that Meštrović was a greater artist than himself.
Meštrović’s greatest influences, however, were the Croatian culture and people. The history of Croatia was the subject matter for most of his early sculptures, particularly heroes from the epics he had heard as a boy and Croatian peasants. His love for his country and deep desire to see the Croats flourishing and free was not only expressed in his art, but also through political activism. At the beginning of World War I he supported the Yugoslavian Committee of National Liberation, an organization formed to resist Italy’s attempt to seize parts of Dalmatia as a demand in exchange for supporting the Allies. His high profile as an accomplished artist made this political activism dangerous for him.
Meštrović was becoming a renowned artist. A show in Zagreb lead to the emperor of Austria purchasing one of his works. He became quite popular with Britons who were sympathetic with his concern for the fate of Eastern Europe. His artwork inspired his people and lead to a celebration of Slavic culture throughout Britain through concerts, lectures, literature, architecture, and other artwork. They welcomed Meštrović shows in London, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. During this period Meštrović spent time living in Belgrade, Paris, Cannes, Rome, London, and Otavice. At the outbreak of World War I, Meštrović found himself in Split, but was forced to flee to Italy because he was in danger from the Austro-Hungarian authorities for his vocal political convictions.
Meštrović spent the interim between World War I and World War II living in Yugoslavia. During this time he divorced his first wife, Ruza Klein, whom he had married in 1904, and later married Olga Kestercanek, with whom he had four children and spent the rest of his life. He became a professor and spent twenty years as the director of the Art Institute of Zagreb. He donated all his wages from this position so that poor students like he had once been could study art. In the 1930s in Split he built himself a mansion, a small convent named Crikvine, and the Chapel of the Holy Cross, for which he began working on 28 wooden reliefs depicting the life of Christ, along with a crucifix. It took him until 1954 to complete this project.
World War II plunged Meštrović’s life into tumult. Immediately prior to World War II, Ivan Meštrović insulted Hitler by declining his invitation to exhibit in Berlin, with Hitler to open the exhibit with Meštrović. At the outbreak of war, Meštrović was arrested and held in Savska Cesta prison for five months. This was a terrible experience. He passed the time in his cell sketching plans for future religious sculptures, including his Pieta. The Vatican eventually got him released. After his release from prison, Meštrović lived in Rome for a time, but then moved to Switzerland, thinking it safer. There he faced a yearlong severe illness along with worry over his brother and one of his daughters, who had not been able to join the family in Switzerland. His daughter eventually arrived in Switzerland, gravely ill, but his brother was imprisoned. His first wife died in the course of the war, and, being of Jewish ancestry, thirty of her family members were murdered in the Holocaust.
After World War II, Meštrović returned to Rome for a while, unable to bring himself to accept Marshall Tito’s invitation to return to Yugoslavia, whom he detested. He accepted a position as professor at Syracuse University in 1947, moving his wife and his youngest son to America. He had a show in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art that year, the first one-man show ever to take place there. Seven years later President Eisenhower made him an American citizen. In 1955 Father Hesburgh, president of the University of Notre Dame, asked Ivan Meštrović to come to teach and work at Notre Dame. Meštrović accepted the invitation, considering Notre Dame to be the perfect environment to continue his religious sculpture. Meštrović taught at Notre Dame until his death in 1962.
The end of Meštrović’s life was saddened by the deaths of his daughter Marta and his son Tvrtko. Four of his last works were a reflection of the grief from those deaths. He visited Yugoslavia one last time before his own death, where he met with Marshall Tito and was able to come to a certain amount of understanding with him, and at which time he donated 59 of his works to churches, convents, and communities in his homeland at the request of his people.
Now Meštrović’s works dot Notre Dame’s campus, bringing beauty and spiritual reflection to the landscape, chapels, and even North Dining Hall. Furthermore, Meštrović inspired many students and his influence can be seen in other sculptors’ work on campus.
“[M]y later work grows naturally out of my earlier. . . . [T]hey attempted to be an expression of the history of the soul of our nation, the soul which in its essence is general and human. . . . Immediately after the Balkan War, and even more after the First World War I came to believe that the ideals of one nation are too small. . . It was following the thread of these ideas and emotions that brought me to the Bible. A feeling of the general suffering of man then took a stronger place than for the suffering of a single nation. The need to overcome one particular evil, our evil, widened into need to overcome evil in general wherever it was and whosoever it was. . . The best way to fight against evil is to pray to God; and to struggle for the beautiful means to sing his praises.”
-- “About My Art” (Kolo, NY, 1924).
“My art is expressed in hard wood and stone, but that which is in art is not in wood or stone, it is outside time and space. Art is a song and a prayer at the same time.”
-- “About My Art”
“I believe that the sun will some out and warm the earth. I believe that women will bear children and the fields crops. I believe that love and blistered hands will always build and not destroy. It is only the mindless and the parasites that destroy. I believe that evil men will not prevent the good. I believe that chemistry will not destroy and neither will it lead to the salvation of mankind. I believe that prosperiety is not the prime mover of the world and that stock exchanges, banks and customs barriers will not bring harmony, nor wealth nor justice. . .”
-- Preface to catalogue of exhibition in Zagreb, 1932.
“As in other things so too in art our century is not the worst, only it suffers more than other centuries from a longing for what it is not, and from imagining that it is what it is not. For example, in no previous century has so much been written about the individual and the original, and in almost no century has there been less that in fact is individual and original. . .”
-- Preface to the Monograph, 1933.
The Ivan Meštrović Foundation
Lauck, C.S.C., Rev. Anthony J., Dean A. Porter, Steven Alan Bennet, and Dan Vogl.
Ivan Meštrović at Notre Dame. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame/Snite Museum of Art, 2003.
Keckemet, Duško. Ivan Meštrović. Translated by Sonia Wild Bicanic. Edited by Dragutin Zdumic. Zagreb: Spektar, 1970.
Ivan Meštrović Papers, University of Notre Dame Archives.