Friday, 7 September 2012

Splitting for Croatia

When my wife proposed that our summer wander would be Croatia this year, I grumbled silently at all the major art shows I could be missing in Munich or Berlin, London or Paris, all easily accessible from my Eurocenter in Weimar. Then I remembered my first Croatian visit, clearing my mind from summer teaching in London in 1974: a film festival on animation in the capital Zagreb, not to forget the post mortem of folk dancing in a hill village North of Z. Those rural ladies were so beguiling in ignoring my “urbane” fumble stumbling.

But what finally turned me on was the festival director’s enthusiasm for a local celebrity sculptor named Ivan Mestrovich (1883-1962.) He had left a sizeable collection of his diverse works in stone, wood, and metals to the city. My fading memory moved me to “Split” in the Wikipedia. Damn, he had made it his home town, with special emphasis on his own home—now a major museum- on a hill overlooking the Adriatic, as stunning a seascape I was to goggle at for hours after as exhaustive a scrutiny I have ever given a personal collection. (Hilly guided Danny in a DDR-like naked romp under the sprinkler in the garden between the museum and the sea.)

While I starting reading his daughter Maria’s recent biography of her father, “Ivan Mestrovich: The Making of a Master” (London: Stacey International,2008). Be sure to visit the museum store where I bought this book and a dozen postcards of his work. And chatter with the Moldovan young lady curator-manager with fluent English. The book is worthy of the sculptor whom Auguste Rodin ( later his pal in Paris) rated Mestrovich with Michelangelo. She sadly reported that after the Serbs lost their war with the Croatians ,the museum attendance halved. It was the first of the endless ongoing evils we observed that that useless war of liberation had left throughout the beleaguered country. We hiked to the nearby Church he had graced with a sequence of wooden wall sculptures of the life of Christ. Yards from this holy temple, Croats swam and sunned.

Spoiled by my summers at Birchloft with its sugar sand of Lake Huron, I excused myself to read the Herald Tribune in a cafĂ©. Hilly and Danny gingerly deployed among the Adriatic stones.(This is the most rocky country I have ever encountered, with some of which stones young Ivan taught himself secretly to carve—including a foot for a crippled cousin!) Daughter Maria is as good at describing the harried history of Croatia as she was at describing her father’s rise from the deepest poverty to his final finish as the internationally renowned Artist in Residence at Notre Dame.

It was Notre Dame president Father Hesburgh and Ivan’s joint nose thumbing at Tito who wanted the artist’s prestige to give glamour to his new Communist country! They wanted (successfully) to spring Archbishop Stepinac from a Commie jail. Incidentally, Tito had a penchant for collecting attractive residences all over Croatia, a phenomenon that was only now returning those show places to their original families. Talk about leftwing droits de seigneurs! To return to our apartment, we strode along the rocky seacoast teeming with locals and internationals proving to their girl friends –or the world in general how brave they were to dive from perches a hundred feet or higher.

Our “apartment” (my wife ordered it by internet) overlooked the main train and bus station, an aberration that irritated my wife’s early morning snoozing—but gave Danny and me thrilling perspectives on the tourists coming and going. And Mr. Valentino picked us up at the late plane. Otherwise we’d have spent the first night cruising! There is a free weekly paper you should pick up at the airport for places to stay and visits to take. We flew Air Berlin from Leipzig.

In a Commander 400 turboprop, the squeeziest plane I’ve ever flown in –since two seater U.S. Navy planes. 72 seats and only a few windows. The “treat” was ludicrously cheap and unappetizing, followed by a drink that advertised eyecare. Tacky. When I asked the senior of two stewardesses if they had a map that showed over what countries we were flying she curtly barked NO. And when my wife inadvertently forgot to drop cards to relatives in the Croatian mail box, the same “Lady” barked NEVER when we asked her to fly them back. Try Croatian Airlines!

But the highlight of our three day stay was a ten hour trip into the Adriatic. The fiftyish captain and his 21 year old son were the “crew”. Providentially his girl friend’s old boat had half sunk off an island. He used the old craft as a dock to accommodate mid sea swimmers. I still thrill at the recollection of Danny stuffed in the circle of a life saver, tethered to the ladder by a strong rope, dogpaddling after his mother .The boat is named Mariner. His wife is by it at breakfast time at the main wharf to book for the next day’s 9:30 a.m. departure. The captain is an excellent cook of fresh fish at a generous lunch. (You may want to wear ear plugs: Captain,Jr. is obsessed with Bob Marley and Bruce Springsteen.)

But the lasting pleasure is Maria’s biography. Ivan almost didn’t survive at birth. Dirt poor, his mother had to work in the fields for survival. Her women coworkers helped the birth and then used their clothes to carry her back home.No Schooling. Ivan taught himself to read. When a Viennese industrialist gave Ivan’s pastor money for the poor, the pastor urged him to support Ivan in Vienna, at the heart of the Secession, with architect Otto Wagner and painter Gustav Klimt as teachers.

There he was, speaking not a word of German! His energy and drive persuaded the authorities to be accommodating. His entire life is interwoven with the Croatians fight for freedom. He left for America to spite Tito. In 1954, Dwight Eisenhower invited him to the White House to give him an American passport. If you’re ever in South Bend, Indiana, his Notre Dame collection is splendid. His last gesture of sharing, an admirable artist who ought to be better known.

A version of this piece is published by Broad Street Review.

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