Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Mestrovic and the Victoria and Albert Museum

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Mestrovic and the Victoria and Albert Museum

Article excerpt

The staging of an exhibition of the work of Ivan Mestrovic (fig. 1) by the Victoria and Albert Museum in the summer of 1915 might seem, one hundred years later, little short of a miracle. Britain was engaged in a world war that had already engulfed the whole of Europe, had drawn in much of the British Empire and was eventually to involve the participation of the United States and Japan. And yet, ironically, it was the peculiar circumstances of the First World War that were directly instrumental in bringing the exhibition to fruition. At this time of political turmoil and a time when the museum was not particularly concerned with the contemporary, let alone foreign contemporary sculpture, the exhibition happened against all the odds. It was a huge success on many different levels: it was a triumph of cultural diplomacy, an exemplary affirmation of a young foreign sculptor and a great success for the museum's director and staff. More than 70 sculptures were shown in South Kensington and a catalogue was produced. At the end of it, the museum organized the storage and transport of the works to other exhibitions in the UK and abroad.

In describing the lead-up to the Mestrovic exhibition it is important that two misconceptions be corrected. The first, often repeated in monographs and articles about Mestrovic, is the myth that he was the first living sculptor to have an exhibition in the V&A. The second is the question of his Croatian nationality, since in the museum correspondence he is consistently described as Serbian. We shall discuss this issue later in this article.

The first living sculptor to have his work displayed in the V&A was Auguste Rodin. In a minute dated 2 October 1914, the museum's director, Sir Cecil Harcourt Smith, wrote:

I should explain that the Rodin loan of sculpture to which he refers has come about as follows. During the summer a private exhibition of modern French art was arranged in Grosvenor House, which included perhaps the most representative collection of sculptures by Rodin that we have yet had in this country. Owing to the war, it has been impossible to send these back to France, and M. Rodin, through the intermediary of the sculptor Tweed, offered to deposit them for the time in this Museum ...

Personally I may say that I detest most of Rodin's work, but there is no doubt, as Mr. Maclagan says, that when the history of modern art comes to be written Rodin's sculpture will bulk large as an important factor. We already as you know, possess a life-size bronze by him, which was presented by a body of subscribers some time ago, and there is no doubt that he is held in high public estimation by a large circle in England. On this consideration, and since it seemed to be a time for indulging in international amenities of this kind, I agreed to accept the loan, the more so as it has been intimated that Rodin has given a half promise that he will present to the Museum an important work of his own.1

Later in a letter to Eric Maclagan, the Keeper of the Sculpture Department, the director wrote:

I feel however that the circumstances of this case are quite exceptional: as I understand it, we are invited to give house room (and incidentally exhibition space) to some 21 sculptures by Rodin (with the possibility that others might be lent) for a time unnamed, or at least until the 21 can be returned to Paris: and there is an implied probability that Rodin would present a statue to us later on.

I do not, as you know, personally share the common admiration for Rodin's work - at least not to the common extent but I fully realize that he does, and will, occupy an important place in the history of modern sculpture: and apart from the obvious reasons of policy and international courtesy, I think that we should accept the offer and that (if the London public can bear any distraction from the war) it should arouse a great deal of interest.2

The Rodin loan paved the way for the Mestrovic exhibition, both in principle and in practice when it came to the decision on where to exhibit it. …

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