Croatian sculptor, architect and a poet Ivan Mestrovic (1883-1962) was born in Dalmatia while Austro-Hungary was still holding a firm grip over much of the Balkans. His talent was discovered at the age of sixteen, by the stonecutter from Split, Harold Bilinic. He took a boy as an apprentice in 1899, willing to help him pursue serious artistic studies. In 1900 he managed to find a sponsor for Mestrovic, and the boy was sent to Vienna in 1901. He was admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts and finished his studies successfully. As an admirer of Otto Wagner, Mestrovic accepted the concept of unity between sculpture and architecture, and his statues were often followed by architectural projects of a surrounding ambient. He exhibited with the rebellious artists of Vienna Secession and approached the circles of Gustav Klimt and August Rodin. In the years following his graduation (1905) Mestrovic became internationally renowned not only as an artist but also as a spokesman of Southern Slavic unity.
Ivan Mestrovic was an important adherent of the Yugoslav idea at the turn of the 20th century. However, his vision of Southern Slavic state differed significantly from the one achieved after the World War II. Mestrovic never accepted Josip Broz Tito’s communist Yugoslavia and died as a citizen of USA. Nevertheless, he sent many statues and projects back home from his voluntary exile and even accepted some commissions by the Yugoslav regime. Monumental sculptures and mausoleums he left behind make some of the most memorable sights of Zagreb (Croatia), Belgrade (Serbia), Lovcen (Montenegro) and Chicago. His art is a journey through religious, political and literary history of Southern Slavs and reflects the complexity of their identity. Perhaps the most compelling of his works – The Vidovdan Temple – was never finished and even its model had a strange destiny. First praised and rewarded, then lost, then found but abandoned, only recently has it been recovered, still causing mixed feelings. Let’s take a closer look at this controversial project.
The Vidovdan Temple
Born in Vrpolje and growing up in Otavice (Dalmatia), Mestrovic was exposed to both Croatian and Serbian cultural heritage. Epic poetry of Serbs captivated his imagination mainly because of the powerful and tragic poems of the Kosovo cycle. This cycle describes the events before and after the big battle at the Kosovo field, where Serbian army under the Prince Lazar Hrebeljanovic, fought the Ottomans led by sultan Murad I. While the battle is historical, the exact date is disputable; according to the legend it took place exactly on St. Vitus Day (“Vidovdan”) on 28th of June 1389. Serbs were defeated but the Ottoman side also suffered great casualties. Both Prince Lazar and sultan Murad I were slain. Ottoman progress into the Balkans was halted for some time. During the Serbian national revival in the 19th century, Vidovdan gained particular importance – once again the bravest warriors were needed to fight the Ottomans at any cost. Epic songs of all cycles were carefully collected by Vuk Karadzic, Serbian philologist prominent in Vienna, who introduced them to the international audience. Figures such as Goethe, Ranke and Pushkin admired the Kosovo cycle and it became paradigmatic of little nations standing up against the huge empires.
Perhaps the last aspect was the most inspiring for the young Mestrovic, who believed that all Southern Slavs should overthrow the burden of an imperial rule. As Serbs had already achieved this goal, ending the Turkish rule in 1870’s and proclaiming monarchy in 1882, the sculptor held them exemplary for the neighbouring nations. While his native Croatia was still under Austro-Hungary, he decided to participate as a member of Serbian pavilion at the World Exhibition in Rome 1911. This move was a strong political message urging for the liberation of Croatia and its federal union with Serbia. Mestrovic displayed the architectural model of a monumental project – The Vidovdan Temple. It was conceived as an ambient for over a hundred of sculptures illustrating the Kosovo cycle. Small number of the statues was already finished and put to display in Rome. Some of them were clearly influenced by August Rodin and Art Nouveau, while others featured strong connection to Egyptian and Archaic Greek aesthetics. The Temple’s architectural elements are also reminiscent of Egyptian and Greco-Roman style, but its layout follows the sign of a cross.
Mestrovic wanted it built at Gazimestan – the exact part of the Kosovo field where Vidovdan battle took place. He saw the heroism through suffrage as the common feature of all Southern Slavs. For him Kosovo battle was more important as a symbol than as a historical event. The Vidovdan Temple was a monument to Southern Slavic freedom and bravery; the latter was already proven while the former was yet to come.
This entire project achieved great recognition and won the gold medal in Rome, 1911. Four years later 1915 Mestrovic displayed it again in Victoria and Albert museum in London. This time he was already a founding member of the Yugoslav Committee, officially formed some months before the exhibition. It is clear that showing Vidovdan temple and its statues at the end of the war, in a country which led the Entente, was a political act. Mestrovic wanted to focus the attention of the Allied forces towards the Yugoslav idea.
The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was indeed formed after the World War I, and renamed into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929. However, the Vidovdan Temple was never built. It was too huge and too expensive for interwar Yugoslavia. After the World War II communist authorities did not welcome such a concept. The model had mysteriously disappeared from London and lost for more than 20 years. It was found in late 60’s in New York and quietly transported to the provincial museum of Krusevac, Serbia. At that time, Mestrovic was already living in USA, disappointed by the development of Yugoslavian idea. The model along with the statues remained as a heroic vision of Southern Slavic unification which did not really go according to Mestrovic’s dreams.