VISIT TO THE BIRTH PLACE OF THE GREAT Croatian sculptor IVAN MEŠTROVIĆ
During my childhood and youth, I had, I believe like everyone else, several hobbies and various ‘idols’. I would cut out photos and articles related to them from newspapers and paste them into notebooks. In the past, they were mostly actors and singers, while today this ‘line-up’ is different. So much has changed since then. Not just me but the world around me as well as the way I gather information and photos. I no longer paste photos into special notebooks and don’t collect thumbnails for albums. Magazines have been replaced by the internet, and I have replaced famous actors and singers with people of a different profession.
One of them is Croatian most famous sculptor – IVAN MESTROVIC.
Travelling and exploring the locations and attractions they hide are a part of my life today. I didn’t stop collecting stories and pictures related to them. Only, that I am writing and photographing them myself now.
Those wonderful 40s, freedom and middle age.
HOW I ‘FELL IN LOVE’ WITH MEŠTROVIĆ
I have heard about Ivan Meštrović countless times, but I actually ‘discovered’ him during a visit to the Meštrović Gallery in the city of Split as part of a seminar for a tourist guide. That’s when I actually first encountered the story of his life. Although the gallery in Split is really impressive, and his works are unquestionably beautiful, special and inspiring, the reason why I ‘fell’ on Meštrović then was actually himself. Everything about him has become magically appealing to me since that day.
His whole life path, everything he created during his life puts him in that category of people who seem to be out of this world. He gained world fame, originating from a small village in the Drniš region in the hinterland of Šibenik. In addition to being a great artist, he was also a man who did not follow the trends of his time and managed to stay true to his ideas, beliefs, passions and creativity. At least that’s how I experience him, so the story of him is not only a story of his works of art but also a life full of incredible events.
Although it had no influence on him, I am immensely glad that the most prominent Croatian sculptor was born in Slavonia.
For years I travelled on the route of two cities of Split and Osijek, between Dalmatia and Slavonia. On that road is also the Brod-Posavina County, the area of Slavonski Brod town, as well as the village of Vrpolje where our most famous sculptor was born. I passed the building of the Ivan Meštrović Memorial Gallery countless times. I’ve seen it so many times, not paying too much attention. In a way, it was invisible to me.
And then there was a moment of enlightenment and ‘falling in love’ and I became curious and interested in everything that had to do with Meštrović. After that, I not only noticed the Memorial Gallery every time I passed by, but I literally began to long to visit it. And so one sunny autumn day in 2017, my wish came true. My friend Elvira and I headed to Vrpolje, the place where the story of our great artist began.
A sunny day in autumn in Slavonia is a special experience. The trees ‘dress’ in a garment of intense warm colours and illuminate the gloomy autumn in a lively, yet dignified way. The day couldn’t have been nicer and the company better. Elvira, not only has she been my friend for some three decades, but she is also a conservator-restorer, well-versed in the knowledge of art, architecture and history. She is phenomenal in storytelling and interpreting boring professional terminology so I am always interested in going on trips with her, especially this type.
PLACE OF BIRTH OF IVAN MEŠTROVIĆ
ONCE UPON A TIME IN A VILLAGE IN SLAVONIA
Ivan Meštrović’s mother and father once lived in Otavice, a small village in the inland Dalmatia of the town of Šibenik. Ivan’s father Mate was a widower with his daughter when he met and then married Ivan’s mother, then eighteen-year-old Marta, in 1881. The Meštrović family lived a difficult life, marked by great poverty. In the same year that Mate and Marta got married, Matin’s father decided that the newlyweds should join the villagers who were going to the northeast of Croatia, Slavonia, looking for a job. Rich, fertile with land and livestock, Slavonia at that time attracted many families from other poor areas.
Fate brought them to the Slavonian village of Vrpolje, where they did not live in much better conditions, but they had some kind of job. For a year and a half, they lived in a railroad wagon converted for housing. Mate worked on jobs related to building the railroad, while Marta worked on tying the grain into sheaves, a job more suitable for women.
On the feast of the Assumption, 08/15/1885 a great Croatian, but also world-famous sculptor and artist was born as the firstborn son of this young family. They decided to name him after Mata’s father Ivan. And the church where he was baptized the next day bore the same name, the Parish Church of the Nativity of St. John (in Croatian language is Ivan) the Baptist.
Many years later, Martha often spoke to her grandchildren about those times. One of them, Marija, recorded everything in her book “The Life and Work of Ivan Meštrović”
The following year, the whole family returned to Dalmatia and the village of Otavice where Ivan spent his childhood. Ivan Meštrović was never in Vrpolje again. Somewhere I found information that once he passed through his native village by train on the way to Đakovo. Who knows, maybe the same railroad his father built.
PARISH CHURCH OF THE BIRTH OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST IN VRPOLJE
It is a baroque church from the 18th century where several of Meštrović’s works are kept today. One relief is above the baptistery and the other on the right side of the altar. Statue of St. John the Baptist, whose casting was approved by the widow Olga Meštrović, is located behind the altar.
The only reliable information about the birthplace of the great sculptor is recorded in the registry book of the parish church. In addition to John’s name, the names of his parents, godparents and the priest who baptized him are written in it. He was baptized under the surname Gabrilović because the Meštrović family then bore that surname as well. Later, when he became famous, Ivan kept only one for practical reasons.
MEMORIAL GALLERY OF IVAN MEŠTROVIĆ VRPOLJE
The lady that works in the Memorial Gallery was a real pearl, full of knowledge that she was happy to share with us. She led us through the gallery and church where the great artist was baptized, giving us a bunch of information along the way. It’s hard for me to describe the respect I felt in doing so, feeling deep gratitude and happiness for being there at all. I believe that this is how all those who visit the birthplaces of their favourite actors, writers, football players or any person they sincerely admire feel.
SOME INTERESTING INFORMATION RELATED TO THE GALLERY:
- In Vrpolje, since 1936, there has been a great desire to mark it more significantly as the birthplace of the great Meštrović.
- The first attempt in that direction was the founding of the Cultural and Artistic Society “Ivan Meštrović” on March 3, 1957. The goal of the founders was to build a place, a memorial building, a museum where his work would be kept and celebrated.
“I am interested in your cultural endeavors and your intentions, regardless of whether you associate them with my name, just as I am interested in every educational endeavor in our Croatia. When you build the House of Culture in Vrpolje, I promise to give you some of my work and some drawings for your Museum. I will not be able to give you any information about my work, because I did not collect it, but you will collect it yourself in time.
Wishing you the best success in your cultural work, I warmly greet you and take note.
Sincerely, Ivan Mestrovic
– from a letter sent to Dr. Ivo Tomašić 06.04. 1957. “
- From the very beginning, the society was in contact with Ivan Meštrović who was living in the USA at the time. The great artist showed considerable interest and the following year presented them with a plaster cast, “Mother’s Care / Mother and Child” (Vienna 1905). Later, this work will be cast in bronze and erected in 1968 as the first public monument in Vrpolje.
- Due to the death of Ivan Meštrović in 1962 and the lack of financial resources, the company closed down in the first half of the 1960s, and the construction of the gallery was postponed.
- Enthusiastic people from Vrpolje did not give up on their idea, the Cultural Society “Ivan Meštrović” was re-founded in 1967.
- The memorial gallery finally started to be built on his birthday on 15.08. In 1969, right next to the parish church where Meštrović was baptized. The story about building this gallery is another beautiful story about how much we can achieve together. It was financed by the then Yugoslav republic and municipal funds for culture with the help of local companies and, most importantly, the people of Vrpolje themselves. The second wife of the late artist, Olga followed their efforts with great interest, approval and sympathy.
The memorial gallery in Vrpolje was officially opened on June 3, 1972. years.
Initially, it operated with a permanent display of 20 borrowed plaster sculptures. In the period between 1974 and 1989, thanks to the approval of Meštrović’s heirs, especially his wife and daughter Marija, and the funds available to the gallery, 17 bronze sculptures were cast and one work was purchased to create their own holdings of his works.
The memorial gallery in its permanent exhibition today has 35 of Meštrović’s works, 21 of which are in its ownership.
Unlike his other galleries, this one is not so grandiose. She is more modest, but also more intimate. Somehow they feel ‘blood, sweat and tears’, the will, pride and perseverance that the people of Vrpolje invested to make Vrpolje better stand out as its birthplace. Also, the enthusiastic employee of the Memorial Gallery really did her best to better portray his work, the circumstances of the time, the gallery and the church where he was baptized.
In my opinion, Vrpolje undoubtedly has a lot of space for additional content, which can take full advantage of the fact that Ivan Meštrović was born there. I wish I could have experienced a little more of that time he was born. For example, see a replica of the wagons in which people lived then, where they were placed, what clothes were worn, what they ate and in general what life was like in that part of Slavonia at the end of the 19th century.
Vrpolje and not only Vrpolje, but also Brod-Posavina County and Slavonia should proudly point out much more, in fact out loud that Ivan Meštrović was born here!