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Mestrovic: Motherhood and the Victor

Kalemegdan Victor - flickr-dungodung
Statue of the " Victor" in Kalemegdan. Photo: flickr/ungodung

Today the golden statue known as "The Victor" towers above Kalemegdan fortress in Belgrade at the confluence of the Danube and the Sava. This statue has become the symbol of the Serbian capital. However it was never supposed to be here, having been part of a project by Ivan Mestrovic, the great Croatian and Yugoslav sculptor, for something else. Mestrovic was born in Dalmatia in 1883 and died in the US in 1962. His life, times and work encompassed many of the greatest moments of the drama of the Yugoslav story and today his work can be seen from Belgrade to Zagreb to the temple of Njegos, the Montenegrin poet and prince, which crowns Montenegro's Mount Lovcen. In 2008 a new book about Mestrovic was published, one which is rather different from any previous one. It is memoir about Mestrovic written by his daughter Maria Mestrovic who has lived most of her life in Argentina. It is a fascinating mix of the story of her father and of her reminiscences and it is valuable reading for anyone interested both in the sculptor and his life and times. The book was edited by Marcus Tanner, whose own history of Croatia is represented in this literary walk. Another extract about Mestrovic can be found here. This is the story of "The Victor" which began in the aftermath of the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 which saw Serbia take Macedonia and Kosovo. At the time Mestrovic was living in Belgrade. Nikola Pasic, then the Serbian prime minister, was one of the dominating political figures of the time, both in Serbia and later Yugoslavia.

For Mestrovic, the Serbian triumphs were a sign that the independence of the Croatian people was at hand. It was this that drove him to support the project of a future confederation of southern Slavs united to Serbia: a Yugoslavia that would span from the frontier of Italy to Albania, encompassing Dalmatia's coasts and islands.

Pasic invited Mestrovic every week for lunch or tea at his residence to discuss the political situation. Since these meetings only included the two of them, the conversations were confidential.

To celebrate Serbia's victories in the Balkan wars, the government commissioned Mestrovic to design a monumental sculpture, the imposing Fountain of Terasije, which would be erected in Crown Prince Aleksandar Square and tower over the Hotel Moskva.

Because of its huge size, the municipality of Belgrade had a hard time finding a large enough space in which to build it. Finally a gymnasium at a primary school solved the problem. There, Ivan, working intensely for eight months, created a number of figures, some cast in bronze, others in stone. The column of the huge fountain and the rim of the shell would be decorated with masks and lions in bas-relief. The central figure, the Victor, would be a warrior standing 15 feet tall, an eagle in his hand. According to the contract, the sculptor had to pay all his expenses including his salary. When he received his first bank disbursement, most of it went on materials and labour.

The composition never appeared. After the outbreak of war in 1914 halted all construction, the figures were destroyed except for the statue of The Victor, which was erected in Kalemegdan Park in 1928.

What makes this book particularly valuable are its insights into Mestrovic the man, as opposed to just the artist. These are some of Maria Mestrovic's reflections, sparked by her account of when her father met Ruzena, the "gorgeous" Czech wife of the Russian diplomat Vassily Khvoshnisky, in Rome at the time of the World Exposition in 1911. Ruza Klein, who is referred to here, was Mestrovic's wife. The scene took place at an evening with friends as Ruzena began to play Debussy on the piano:

As she placed her hands on the keyboard, Mestrovic observed her gestures while Ruza, by his side, tried to monopolize his attention. Seated behind Countess Khvoshinsky, he took in her long nape and generous hips. This was his idea of femininity, for Mestrovic was not attracted to intellectual women, saying intellectuality diminished women's sensuality and extinguished physical passion. For that reason, Mestrovic avoided talking to women about politics, philosophy, or theology. He did not take their talents too seriously. To him, feminine inspiration expressed itself most purely in motherhood. Motherhood and artistic creativity were on a level plane. The product of a deeply patriarchal society, Mestrovic could never, deep down, admit that women could be as creative as men. That would have meant admitting the equality of the "weaker" sex. As for a sterile woman, that was really a tragedy. Such biological failures best redeemed themselves by devoting their time to loving other children.

Mestrovic: The Making of a Master. Maria Mestrovic, edited by Marcus Tanner. 2008.
[pp.  72-73 & p. 63 / Stacey International]

January 2009
Tim Judah

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