Sunday, June 08, 2014

split the difference

Yesterday was supposed to have been an art day.

You know the background.  I saw very few shore excursions that interested me when I signed up for this cruise -- until I decided to turn it into an art tour.  My European sojourn would be bracketed by a visit to the Matisse and Chagall museums in Nice and to the Peggy Guggenheim collection in Venice.  In between, I would visit the Meštrović gallery in Split.

You also know how that plan started.  The Matisse-Chagall trip was cancelled; not enough participants.  Yesterday, I received news that the Guggenheim excursion has also been cancelled; not enough participants.

But I am a resilient traveler.  I went to Nice on my own and spent a great day with Matisse.  I will do something similar in Venice -- even though we have been warned there is a two-day political protest rally that could affect logistics.

As you can imagine, I was a bit shocked when the Meštrović tour actually launched.  It turned out, though, I had made a terrible mistake.  What is worse, it was a predictable mistake.

I thought the gallery was far enough away from the usual tourist spots that I could walk the gallery in peace.  The fact that there were 45 people on my bus should have put paid to that hope.  And, when we arrived, we were but one of five buses.

The stop was too crowded and too brief.  Apparently, I had not read the trip summary carefully enough.  In addition to the gallery, the tour was to stop at a Roman cemetery and -- surprise! -- another medieval walled Croatian town.

I should have abandoned the tour at the gallery and spent the rest of the day with what would have been a worthwhile experience.  But I didn't.

Meštrović designed the place as a home for his family and as a display case for his sculpture and painting.  He was not destined to live long in his Croatian home, though.

When he was born (1883), Croatia was still a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  And his life would reflect the turmoil of his country through the twentieth century.

Apprenticed in Split and trained in art in Vienna, he was a pioneer in art nouveau sculpture.  But he was also quick to adapt cubism and primitivism elements into his works, as well as gothic and manneristic influences.

His friendship in Paris with Rodin also affected much of his work giving it a massive, tactile feel.  I once had a friend who told me I had a painter’s eye for sculpture.  He didn’t mean it as a compliment.  I tend to like sculptures where the visual plane is flattened.  (It could have something to do with my lack of depth perception.)

That may be the reason why Meštrović sculptures have always fascinated me.  Walking around his works, you realize how successful he is in flattening the image without distorting it.

What ended up distorting his life was the tragedy of twentieth century Europe.  Favoring the independence of Croatia from the empire, the Austrians prevented him from returning home at the outbreak of the First World War.  Fearing he would leave Croatia at the start of the Second War War, the fascist-friendly Ustaše arrested him.  His first wife was killed in the Holocaust.  His brother was imprisoned by the red Tito regime that came to power after the war.

A man of principle, Meštrović refused to live in Yugoslavia as long as it was ruled by the communists.  Instead, he settled in Indiana, taught at Notre Dame University, and died there as an American citizen.

I would probably like his art even if he had been a communist.  Knowing that he was a man of liberty and principle who opposed imperialism, fascism, and communism makes me like his art that much more.

The gallery is filled with an ever-changing collection.  But the piece I found most compelling was a clay study he created for a pieta piece.

The viewer's eye is immediately drawn to the elongated body of Christ.  However, the grieving female figures, whose bodies are twisted in agony in reflection of their own grief, become secondary to the central figure of God, who powerfully draws the limp body of his son toward him.  It is a powerful piece.  With echoes of Michelangelo.

The finished piece is in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart chapel at Notre Dame.  I have only seen photographs and copies of it in the past.  But seeing the study was like seeing the piece for the first time.  I need to put South Bend on my next art tour trip.

A tour where I will set the pace.

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