Thursday, August 15, 2013

Remembering Ivan Meštrović

Today is the 130th birthday of Ivan Meštrović (1883-1962), the Croatian sculptor and architect and, starting in 1955, professor of sculpture at the University of Notre Dame.

Much of his early work commemorated such epic moments from Slavic history, as he attempted to foster the pan-Slavic cause in his native country The Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame has many of his works. He was artist-in-residence at the university and resided in South Bend, Indiana, until his death [1].

Bellairs mocked Meštrović as "Professor McTrash" and said he was the artist who created the "magnificently sculptured frieze" above the entrance to the University of Notre Dame Biology Building; the frieze is said to "depict the Spirit of Smallpox being routed by the armed figures of Cortisone and Formaldehyde" (Scholastic: "a scholarly attempt").

Alfred Myers says Meštrović was a perfect fit for Notre Dame as the artist "was drawn to religious subjects and worked in what I would describe as a post-Michelangelo style, powerful figures but with expressions reflecting Twentieth Century angst.” Myers also recalls he and Bellairs once spotted Meštrović in South Bend:

“the two of us were emerging from a downtown movie theater after having seen a Hollywood mangling of The Brothers Karamazov (1958) when we spotted Meštrović in the crowd, by himself, wearing a beret, with sort of a hangdog what-the-hell-am-I-doing-in-South Bend look. Bellairs said to me, ‘He'll probably rush up to you and say 'At last! I've found the perfect model for my new sculpture, The Spirit Of Loutishness!’’ Score one for John on that round, but I generally gave as good as I got on such exchanges.[2]”

Charles Bowen remembers Meštrović as part of another story about Jean Charlot (1898–1979), a French-born American painter and illustrator:

"A member of the University of Hawaii faculty, Notre Dame twice brought Charlot to the campus to teach summer courses in fresco, the artist’s specialty. Frescos are created by applying paint to plaster while it is still wet, so a fresco class needs something more than canvas in the way of art supplies - it needs a wall, which implies a room, which implies a building.

"Meštrović had his own studio where he taught the graduate students; it was attached to, but not part of, O'Shaughnessy Hall of Liberal and Fine Arts, which had been built just before John and I arrived on campus for the first time. Most of our classes were taught there, and so were the art classes.

The main entrance of the building led through an imposing Great Hall with not much on the walls, and Charlot thought it would be an excellent place for the fresco he and his summer class were going to create. However, this proposal was vetoed by Father Charles E. Sheedy (1912-90), Dean of the College of Liberal and Fine Arts (1951-69) and ruler of the building. Instead, Charlot was told his class could create their fresco on the wall of the student lounge.

This might have been all right if the student lounge had been even halfway imposing, but it was, in fact, a total afterthought: an ordinary classroom-sized room on the basement level into which a soft drink machine, a coffee pot, and some cheap plastic chairs and tables had been stuck when the authorities realized students would be hanging around the building between classes on days when it wasn't pleasant enough to go outside. The only other thing I remember about this mostly unmemorable room is it smelled strongly of cement. [3]"

Father Charles Sheedy, C.S.C. (1912-90)
During the summer (June 18 - July 15, 1955) Charlot created the piece entitled Fresco Class in Action [4]. Bowen believes the painting was an audition of sorts, as it was rumored if reaction to the painting was positive then Charlot would get to do a fresco on the wall of the Great Hall the following summer. When students returned for the fall term they found one wall of the student lounge covered with an impressive fresco depicting Charlot and his summer students at work on, of all things, a fresco.

“Underneath was a Latin quotation to the effect it was jolly good fun to work as brothers in unity. It was good, and it certainly spiffed up the squalid lounge, though the small dimensions and low ceilings of the room didn't suit the heroic figures in the fresco as well as a larger space would have.

"The following summer Charlot arrived in South Bend ready to start on a wall on the Great Hall, but again was met with resistance from Father Sheedy. Instead Charlot could paint the opposite wall in the student lounge. Charlot was angry, of course, but he had come all the way from Hawaii, students were waiting for him, and he couldn't walk out without disappointing them. So he agreed. Charlot decided the subject of his students' collective effort would be Meštrović and his grad students at work.

"Charlot did not admire Meštrović. The great Croatian sculptor had done his best work in the heyday of independent Yugoslavia, between the world wars. Now he was in exile from the Communist regime, and he was an old man whose great creative days were over. The university had spent a large amount of money (remember the private studio) to lure him to South Bend, because it was desperate to have a noted artist (and a Catholic one) in permanent residence on the campus. I don't know whether Meštrović's sense of self-importance had been inflated by this treatment, or whether he just had a naturally big ego, as many creative people of course do, but certainly Charlot had found not found him friendly and thought the old man was subject to delusions of grandeur. [3]"

The second fresco, Meštrović's Studio, was painted between July 9-17, 1956 [5].

"The fresco took shape on the wall opposite the previous summer's work. Like the first, the work was crowded with muscular figures on a heroic scale, deeply engaged in artistic work, and surrounded by the tools of their trade. Almost half of the picture was taken up by students working on a huge head that was the face of Meštrović, neatly caricatured, with an enormous compass used to measure the huge, beaky nose.

"The mural was created section by section - because the plaster had to be wet when paint was applied - but the lower right corner of Charlot’s second mural remained devoid of activity. When they finished their final day of work, the corner was still undone, and Charlot, who was to depart for Hawaii the next morning, said not to worry, he would finish it.

"Charlot worked alone, late into the night. After the artist's departure the next morning, Joe McDonnell, an art student I knew and the source of this story, was summoned to the student lounge by Father Sheedy. In the lower right corner of the finished fresco, on a table meant to be empty except for a couple of lumps of clay, stood a tiny terracotta figurine. It was a wicked caricature of Sheedy himself, with his biretta on his head and the little cape worn by Holy Cross fathers around his shoulders. ‘Can you get rid of that?’ the distraught dean asked. Joe explained this was impossible; the paint had penetrated the plaster, and there was no way to remove the offensive caricature without destroying the fresco. (I assume this is true, but Joe might have exaggerated a bit; he had been Charlot's student and was of course on his side.) So the little figurine remained in the picture for all of us to see when we came back in the fall. Charlot's Revenge! By the way, McDonnell didn't tell me this story directly; he told it to Andy Connelly and I got it from him. I may have introduced distortions, but the gist of it is true.[3]"


  • [1] Wikipedia: Ivan Meštrović
  • [2] Correspondence with Alfred Myers.
  • [3] Correspondence with Charles Bowen.
  • [4] "Fresco Class in Action", The Jean Charlot Foundation, the University of Hawaii.
  • [5] "Mestrovic's Studio", The Jean Charlot Foundation, the University of Hawaii.

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