Sculpture by Ivan Mestrovic at the Grafton Galleries in 1917: Critical and Social Contexts

By Prancevic, Dalibor | The Sculpture Journal, May 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Sculpture by Ivan Mestrovic at the Grafton Galleries in 1917: Critical and Social Contexts


Prancevic, Dalibor, The Sculpture Journal


The 1915 solo exhibition of the work of Ivan Mestrovic at the Victoria and Albert Museum is generally considered to be a pivotal point in the establishment of his reputation within the British cultural landscape.1 However, the artist was no stranger to the British public even before he presented his works in the prestigious museum. The press extensively covered his successful exhibitions in Vienna, at the great 1911 Rome International Exhibition, and at the 1914 Venice Biennale. It is indicative that in his reviews the art critic and curator Frank Rutter referred to Mestrovic as a 'new European celebrity'.2 It is an expression that adequately describes the vertiginous rise to glory and public recognition of the then relatively young artist. Nevertheless, it was the exhibition at the V&A that launched Mestrovic into the centre of British social circles. This show, as well as numerous press reviews, facilitated and accelerated contacts between the sculptor and wealthy London clients and socialites, including the Cunards, the Errázurizes and the Gandarillas, whose family members he portrayed. To own a portrait executed by Mestrovic - or some other work of his - gave the owner a certain prestige. The artist's participation in artistic gatherings and at private parties gave him the opportunity to become involved with the contemporary cultural scene, not limited exclusively to the visual arts, but also comprising new literary, musical and theatrical movements.

The enormous archive preserved at the Mestrovic Atelier in Zagreb conserves hundreds of letters which Mestrovic exchanged with esteemed cultural and political personalities in the first half of the twentieth century, thus providing opportunities for the reconstruction of the major part of the network of his acquaintances. Mestrovic established and maintained an impressive personal, even egocentric, social network in London throughout the course of the First World War, derived predominantly from his successful exhibitions.3 The intensity of these contacts varied from a few letters and occasional acquaintances to regular socializing and long-lasting friendships. This article can only indicate a part of that network, and discusses only the major agents; it is based on close scrutiny of the artist's private correspondence housed in his museum in Zagreb. The discussion of the unique archival source presented here should help facilitate further studies of Mestrovic's artistic output and his interrelated social contacts. Even his private network was undoubtedly wider in scope and more complex in structure than at first appears. He particularly nurtured ties with well-known figures of the time, and those with the potential to assist his political endeavours.

As the archive reveals, the artist's communications were initially direct, taking place at soirées, private parties, and musical and humanitarian gatherings. Subsequently it became mostly epistolary; Mestrovic did not always respond in person to the numerous letters he received, but his first wife Ruza assisted him as a kind of amanuensis. Unlike her husband, she mastered both English and French. Many of the questions with reference to social gatherings were answered directly by her, as the examples of letters quoted in this article show. They were often handwritten during the First World War while some time later, during the 1920s, a typewriter was acquired, and eventually it became exclusively used for correspondence.

Mestrovic received many brief written messages and telegrams in London at this time, mostly consisting of invitations to gatherings or soirées. He used to send telegrams when, while preparing exhibitions, he was absent and not able to reach the organizers directly. Mestrovic thus exploited the technology and social conventions at his disposal in order to maintain his contacts.

The artist's critical fortunes present a model for the dialogue between those who supported him and those who did not. …

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