The Early Twentieth Century


In diversity and swift succession of styles, the early years of the 20th century up to the First World War were perhaps the most eventful period in the whole history of European art. In Croatia, too, mutatis mutandis, it was a time of prolific artistic activity and pluralism of styles.

Parallel with the continuity of historicism in all branches of art, we have the monumentalism of the Medulic group, the intimisme of the four members of the Munich circle, the activity of a coherent group of secessionist architects, an individual variant of modernity in the work of the architect V. Kovacic, and also a number of artists of marked individuality - from I. Meštrovic and M. Racki to Lj. Babic and E. Vidovic.

Closer links between writers and artists gave rise to regular magazine columns of art criticism, whose foundations were laid by the writer A. G. Matoš, an erudite figure of the Paris school, endowed with a penetrating mind and exceptional intuition.

The dynamic pace of art movements in the early 20th century was mirrored in the rapidly fluctuating groups of artists. Shortly after their groupation in Croatia, in 1904 they gathered at the First Yugoslav Art Exhibition in Belgrade, and in the following year formed the Society of Yugoslav Artists named Lada. But at Lada's first exhibition in Sofia, a breakaway group of young Dalmatian artists already appeared. Led by E. Vidovic, in 1908 they founded the Medulic Society in Split, thereby ending the monocentrism of Zagreb so typical of the 19th century.

Whereas the foundation of the Society of Croatian Artists in 1895 was an act of organic separation of the young from the old, the conflict of the new, the Medulic group (Vidovic, Meštrovic, Racki, Krizman ... ), with the traditional in the domain of art had an ideological orientation and a clear political direction, although artistically heterogeneous. Its programme was based on the national tradition of the South Slav peoples, but less in order to revive the national artistic style than to increase political awareness of the national identity. Resisting tendencies to disregard the Slavs on the part of the Austro-Hungarian ruling circles, artists championed the idea of South Slav unity and placed themselves in the service of the struggle for independence from Austria-Hungary.

The neo-Romanesque bell-tower of Zadar cathedral by T. G. Jackson (1894) and Bollè's neo-Gothic spires of Zagreb cathedral (completed in 1902) are the last major historicist landmarks on urban panoramas, inspired by a belated romantic enthusiasm for restoring historical monuments.

The culmination of architecture in historical styles is linked in Zagreb with the activity of the largest building firm at the turn of the century, Hönigsberg and Deutsch, which was responsible for a series of large buildings in the new squares and at street junctions, most of them historicist, but also with some bizarre combinations of styles (for instance, Venetian Gothic, English arches and French rococo ornamentation all on the same edifice). At the same time, the style of Viennese Secession, under the influence of Otto Wagner, was adopted for a number of buildings designed for the same firm by the architect V. Bastl in the period up to the First World War. Outstanding among these are the Ethnographic Museum (1901) with a large dome and sculptures by R. Valdec, and the Chamber of Commerce and Crafts building beside it, which together established the relationship of the theatre square (Kazališni trg) to Savska St. Also notable are two corner buildings on Jelacic Square, one with a huge model of a bottle incorporated into the corner (an advertisement for a popular massage oil, 1905; the house was altered to the flat style of the twenties by A. Behrens), and the other decorated with monumental reliefs of glazed ceramic by Meštrovic, with muscular figures representing various occupations.

The most consistent example of the secessionist desire to revise completely the appearance of the townhouse and free it from tradition and formal conventions is the Kalin house in Zagreb, faced with glazed brick, with floral decoration and original metal balconies inset with glass. (V. Bastl, 1903).

 

In the period up to the war, a group of Zagreb architects: A. Baranyai, I. Figer (the sanatorium in Klaic St., 1908), Podhorski, Sunko and others, designed numerous secessionist residential buildings in the city and detached family houses with gardens. The University Library (Lubinsky, 1912) with its stylised elongated division of windows through the entire facade of the building, its immense copper dome and impressive simplicity, forms a link between secessionist and expressionist architecture. But even

in the secessionist period - as in earlier epochs - architecture displayed a certain restraint, perhaps in response to contemporary criticism of the secessionist style and decoration.

At the beginning of the century, Zagreb reacted promptly to the stimulus of the Secession, the first international style of modern Europe, as testified by the number and quality of the monuments. But buildings in this style can be found in other towns as well. The architects Nakic (house, 1903) and K. Toncic (sulphur baths, 1903, and Croatian Culture Centre, 1908) were active in Split, while in Osijek, V. Aksmanovic was responsible for a fine secessionist project for the regulation of the new quarter with a double avenue of trees, imaginatively designed two-story dwellings with small front gardens, and the cinema (1912) at the end of the prospect.

A programme for including Croatian architecture in progressive European trends was published as early as 1900 by V. Kovacic in his article Modem Architecture in the magazine Život. Criticising historicism, he put forward the idea of the Croatian Modern style, postulating that architecture must, above all, be "individual and contemporary", but - in contrast to the excessive subjectivism of the literary movement - Kovacic asserted that it should also be practical and comfortable, citing the new type of English family house and O. Wagner, whose student he had been in Vienna. Like the artists of the Munich group in the domain of painting, Kovacic raised the method of approaching architectural design to a fitting intellectual level, and the architect's sense of responsibility to a high ethical standard.

He directed the attention of architects to the whole range of activities from

interior decoration to urban planning, as can be seen, in particular, in his commitment in his writings and projects to the protection and re-evaluation of the cultural heritage (his plan for the regulation of Kaptol, Dolac and the Jesuit Square in Zagreb).

His work is distinguished by restraint and a purist moderation, and by the use of reduced forms of historical styles subjectively reworked into a new entity: the Tuscan Renaissance loggia on the top floor of the Frank house (1910); the simplified structure in the Venetian-Byzantine tradition of the central dome of the church of St Blaise (1913); the truly monumental design for the Stock Exchange (1924), where the striking contrast of projecting and recessed elements on the main facade with its massive columns counterpoints the firm, relief-like rhythm of the windows on the side walls. The interior is dominated by a neo-classical dome. Kovacic's design was to be completed by H. Erlich. Seemingly unaffected by his collaboration with Loos on the Karma villa in Swizerland, Erlich reverted in his later works to historicism and eclecticism, through carrying on Kovacic's aims in his functional family villas and refined interior decoration. Besides Frangeš, R. Valdec was prominent among the sculptors of the period. He, too, took part in combining sculpture with architecture on the building of the University Library (the tympanum) and on the roof of the Ethnographic Museum, where his huge concrete statue crowns the building and serves as a counterpart to the dome. His particular contribution is several effective portraits of eminent persons, such as Bishop Strossmayer, Iso Kršnjavi, the writer A. G. Matoš, and the art critic V. Lunacek. Impressionist in finish, with a note of humour, some of them resemble Daumier's busts (humorous expressionism).

In the first decade, Ivan Meštrovic, the greatest Yugoslav sculptor of

the first half of the century, and the most controversial (in his relationship of ideology and form), appeared on the scene. His biography begins romantically with the discovery of the talented boy from a tiny village in the Dalmatian hinterland, an authentic peasant lad-sculptor of unquestionable individuality, and the forming of a society to support his studies in Vienna (1901). In the prewar period, the young Meštrovic passed through two distinct phases with opposing and contradictory elements that were to distinguish - and, perhaps, partly explain - his whole vast opus over seven decades of tireless work: the intimiste, humanist and Rodinesque (Well of Life, 1905), as against the monumental, heroic, literary-pathetic and mythic, with its reliance on tradition and under the influence of Metzner (the design for the St Vitus' Day Shrine - Vidovdanski hram, 1907 -1912).

Thanks to Meštrovic's inventive approach to the task of creating a public monument with which the passer-by has direct contact, the Well of Life is a major achievement in the development of the sculptural fountain in modern times. With its uncoventional iconography, its lively figures rhythmically arranged around the spring of water, and powerfully expressive faces and gestures, this bronze cylinder of intertwined bodies, their surface treated impressionistically, recalls Rodin's finest creations.

Me9trovi6 was never again to achieve such power and concentration, artistic complexity and classical simplicity as in this youthful work. Perhaps this loss of spontaneity should be ascribed precisely to the other component already mentioned, the ideological preoccupations which the master imposed on himself, thereby subordinating -his talent to the doctrine of deliberate monumentalism and the direct propagation of ideas.

Endeavouring to draw the attention of cultural circles in Europe to the aspirations of the Croats for liberation from Austria-Hungary and of the South Slav peoples for unification, Meštrovic became active on the political plane. As an act of protest, in 1911 and 1912, together with Racki, Krizman and Babic, he exhibited in Rome in the pavilion of the Kingdom of Serbia instead of the Austro-Hungarian, and in 1915, during the war, showed his work in London and other British cities. Even earlier, at the Viennese Secession exhibition of 1910, he had attracted attention with his Vidovdan cycle of monumental stylised figures of medieval epic heroes (Kraljevic Marko and others), symbols of the common struggle of the South Slavs against the Turks.

In the absence of a task worthy of the sculptor, in the 19th century Rodin had designed his famous Gates of Hell, a vast figural composition for the portal of a non-existent building, of which the best known figures are The Thinker, Adam and Eve, The Three Graces, etc. Megtrovic's design for the St Vitus' Day Shrine, on the other hand, is a work of sculpture which grew in scale into an architectural composition, and in its own way could be interpreted as the sculptor's revenge for a century of neglect. In composition, Megtrovic's monument is a reproduction of Diocletian's mausoleum and the medieval bell-tower of Split cathedral, but the tower is composed of human bodies, like a surrealist gymnastic excercise, a "pyramid" of colossal athletes. Though exaggerated in scale and style, it is not lacking in power, and some of the individual figures of the Vidovdan cycle are truly impressive, like the medieval knights and heroes Marko Kraljevic, Miloš Obilic, etc.

It is interesting that in this period Meštrovic spent two years in Paris, at the height of the most tumultuous events in the field of the visual arts, but remained quite untouched by these, seeking inspiration only: in museums - the collections of monumental art of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt in the Louvre, and later in London. After the First World War, Me§trovi6 came to Zagreb and built a studio there. In the thirties, he also acquired a house and studio in Split. During the occupation (1942), he fled to Italy and later to the United States, where he worked and taught until the end of his life, continuing the link of Croatian and Yugoslav art with America established by his monuments to Indians in Chicago (1928).

In the early years of the 20th century, parallel with monumentalism, the influential "Munich group" of intimiste painters: J. Racic, M. Kraljevic, V. Becic and O. Herman, was quietly active. Each of them had a strong individuality. They differed, too, in their destinies: two died young (Racic in1908, Kraljevic in 1913), while Becic and Herman were still painting in the, second half of the century. What was common to all of them in the period, from 1905 to 1914, besides their studies under Habermann in Munich, and in the case of Racic and Herman also under the Slovene A. Ažbe, was their new, structurally modern approach to the work of art, the fact that they "intellectually and consciously, and not merely ostensibly, adopted the principles of modern art" (A. Schneider on Kraljevic).

Despite the superficial classification of this group among the impressionists in earlier interpretations, these painters, in fact, "do not go for the play of light which dissolves the solidity of the painted object". On the contrary, in their work "construction takes the place of analysis and volume is created by colour" (B. Gagro). In opposition to academicism, in Munich they supported the French tradition, thinking of Manet, but when Racic went to study in Paris, his tragic death four months later, regardless of its actual cause, was in a sense symbolic of the gap that separated him from the truly avant-garde movements in art. However, one of his last paintings, Pont des Arts, reminds us that in that turbulent turn-of-the-century Paris there were some excellent painters working in a contemporary idiom quite different from the avant-garde experiments. Racic might well be included in the Nabis group, alongside E. Vuillard or Vallotton; like theirs, his last pictures and Paris watercolours (In the Cafè) will quietly endure the test of time. His interior, Mother and Child, although imbued by a different, tragic, emotional colouring, also belongs to this intimiste circle.

Kraljevic, on the other hand, succeeded in Paris in giving free rein to his temperament in expressionist drawings and in paintings whose structure is achieved by means of colour. Drawing on the legacy of Cèzanne and the fauvists (Self-Portrait and Portrait of a Little Girl) and of Picasso (drawings), Kraljevic created a markedly individual opus of high quality which belongs equally to Croatian art and the Paris school.

After a phase of Marees-like melancholy symbolism, Herman was to follow his own style of liquified picturesque forms and expressive bizarre colours, while Becić alone, retaining a clearly recognisable, pronounced voluminosity, was to remain faithful to the original aims of the group.

Besides the numerous works of art in which medieval motifs served as ideological and political symbols, mention should be made of two symbolist pictures by Croatian artists of a topical nature whose artistic value and symbolic significance earn them a place in an anthology of European art of the First World War. These are The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy of M. Rački (1916) and The Black Flag of Lj. Babic (1919), both devoted to the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian state.

In his gouache, Rački succeeds in translating the secessionist decorative and ornamental method into a powerful statement and in creating, with exceptional imagination, a visual symbol without any admixture of literary elements: a soldier stands to attention on an empty grey field, while behind him sways a black and yellow snake (the colours of the Austrian flag).

In Babic's painting, in which the sole echo of the Secession is the elongated form, the subject is a large black flag hanging like a guillotine over a dissipated company of people dressed in gay, sumptuous colours. The complexity of the artistic associations condensed in this work ranges from Altdorfer's Alexander's Battle and Watteau's Embarkation for Kithera (sharing with the latter the message of an age in decline) to the flag as a motif in fauvist paintings, but the unrepeatable originality of The Black Flag sets it apart from all trends and styles. In its free and imaginative selection from the cultural heritage in order to achieve a new, individua creation, his method is somewhat similar to that of V. Kovacic in architecture, but judged by absolute standards, Babic's exceptional work must undoubtedly stand higher on the same scale in the history of European art.



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