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Prophet of Yugoslavism

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Ivo Banac's book on the origins and creation of the first Yugoslavia in 1918, first published in 1984, has become a classic. Not only does it explain how the state was created but it gives us a basis for understanding the causes of its eventual destruction. It also provides fascinating insights into the life and times of all of the key people of the period. Here Banac discusses the Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović (1883-1962), who was passionately Serbophile and pro-Yugoslav, something which was not so unusual at the time and is often forgotten today. He begins by discussing Meštrović's plans for the never realised Kosovo Temple, to commemorate the battle of 1389. He began work on the project in 1904 and its dome was supposed to be "bigger than St Peter's."

Meštrović's powerful sculptures, fleshy widows mourning the loss of their menfolk in the battle, blind guslars, chanters of heroic songs, and Kosovo heroes, attracted wide attention and were much imitated, inspiring a peculiar quest for the national style, moreover a unitary Yugoslavist style, pursued by the principle artists of the Croat Secession. The high point of this movement was the exhibit of the Medulić Society in November-December 1910, in Zagreb. Under the motto "in spite of unheroic times," the exhibition followed the themes of Prince Marko, the legendary hero of Serbian folk epic. In Meštrović's words, "proud the fighter for justice and humanity, the defender of the oppressed...He does not tolerate foreign misdeeds and humiliations and prefers to die rather than submit to injustice. This Marko is our Yugoslav people with its gigantic heroic and noble heart."

In 1911 the Italians held their International Exhibition in Rome to celebrate the city's fiftieth anniversary as the capital of a united Italy. The Serbian Pavilion was built at the instigation of Meštrović, "as a way of allowing his group to show independently of the Austrian and Hungarian displays."

The charged political atmosphere of the event, heightened by the great artistic success of "Serbian" art, was underscored by the fact that fourteen of the twenty-three exhibiting artists at the Serbian Pavilion were Croats (181 works) and four were Serbs from Austria-Hungary (22 works); only five, with 33 works, were Serbs from Serbia....Meštrović's success at the Rome Exhibition established him as the "Prophet of Yugoslavism." It was understood, of course, that the aesthetic side of the Rome manifestation, as enviable as it was, took second place to its ideological importance, "because [wrote one commentator] in its essence, the national principle in art triumphed in Rome, presenting to the Croats and the Serbs, through the medium of Meštrović's synthetic spirit, the genius of our art, which is as unitary as the national spirit [of the Croats and Serbs] is one and the same." Meštrović, a "born Dalmatian Croat, entered into the spirit of the Kosovo epopee so deeply that even the easternmost Serb could not have done better, making him a greater Serb than most Serbs." Meštrović's heroes, unlike Michelangelo's Moses, could not hold their fury. They instilled the will for struggle and revenge and were a source of undying national energy. Meštrović, the lapidary poet of the "Yugoslav race", was seen as the Messiah of Yugoslav unitarism, pointing the way to national salvation.

The National Question in Yugoslavia: Origins, History, Politics. Ivo Banac. 1992.
[pp. 204-5 / Cornell University Press]

April 2007
Tim Judah

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