Zagreb

Ivan Meštrović

more than a year ago

Every country has its national treasures: people or institutions that define that nation; that make it proud or simply make its people a little gladder to be alive than they would have been otherwise. One of Croatia's national treasures is undoubtedly the sculptor Ivan Meštrović. In his work you can clearly see the conflicts and passions that made him, like his statues, very much larger than life.

Many of Croatia's major cities, as well as its small towns and hamlets, boast works that are profound expressions of Meštrović’s powerful and sometimes turbulent character. Stand at the foot of the mighty statue of Bishop Gregory of Nin in Split and the most committed atheist can’t help being instilled with a sense of awe. Gaze at Meštrović’s studies of peasant women, and you can feel the essence of their culture, the artist’s reverence for his roots in the rocky Dalmatian hinterland.

Meštrović was not born in Dalmatia. Around the time of his birth in 1883, his parents moved to the village of Vrpolje in Slavonia, eastern Croatia, in search of work. There, his father Mate, a literate man and a skilled mason, found work as a labourer on the new railway. The family moved back to their home village of Otavice, just inland from Šibenik, when the young Ivan was tiny.

Meštrović was very much influenced by his childhood in the place where the Dinaric Alps plunge into the Adriatic Sea. The terrain is harsh and rocky: there, working with stone is a natural reflection of people’s connection with their environment. The tough conditions contrast with an austere but starkly beautiful culture. The rhythms of life are expressed in song, dance and crafts and are framed by the forbidding backdrop of pale rock against the dazzling blue sea.

The young Meštrović tended sheep; he drank in the ballads of the villagers and the Bible stories his mother recited by heart. He taught himself to read and write by comparing those recited stories with the pages of his father’s Bible. He tried to carve the characters from these tales in wood and stone.

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