A Song and A Prayer for Mothers

1942 Mother and Child, Zagreb

For the first half of the 20c Ivan Meštrović was a cultural force to be reckoned with. His sculptures are monumental–in scale, influence and number. Over the course of his 79 years Meštrović created 3000 sculptures. Many of these public art works are found in US and European cities and in galleries devoted to his work in Zagreb, near Otavice, in Split, and at Notre Dame and Syracuse Universities where he taught from the time he immigrated to the US in 1947 until his death in 1962.

Meštrović consistently was inspired by motherhood. Immigrant Mother, installed in 1960 in Milwaukee’s Cathedral Square Park reflects the close relationship he had with his mother, Marta Kurobasa, and his compassion for the plight of refugees. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee rededicated Immigrant Mother in 2017.

During WWII Meštrović refused to cooperate with Hitler and the Nazis. Vatican intervention rescued him from incarceration and imminent execution by fascists. After immigrating to the US Meštrović returned to his homeland just once to visit an imprisoned Cardinal Stepanić, to meet with leader Josef Broz Tito, and to sign off his estate including 400 sculptures to the Croatian people.

Small in stature, Meštrović was born in 1883 in Vrpolje, Slavonia but spent his childhood in Dalmatia. His talent was recognized at 16 when he apprenticed as a stonecutter in Split. From there he was accepted to a prestigious art school in Vienna. Almost immediately his work drew attention. In 1905 The Well of Life fountain was praised by artist Auguste Rodin, who called Meštrović ‘the greatest phenomenon among sculptors.’ Meštrović was part of the Secession Group of Vienna which included Gustav Klimt. Meštrović’s bold, often heroic figures possess emotional, poetic qualities found in Croatian folklore and music.

This 1925 bronze of Olga Meštrović feeding Tvrtko idealizes motherhood and family life. Olga Kesterčanek was Meštrović’s second wife and the mother of their four children, Marta, Mate, Maria and Tvrtko. His first wife, Ruža Klein nurtured his early career but could not bear children. She lived near Olga and Ivan until her death. In 2019 blogger Ed McDevit comments on possible economic motives regarding Meštrović’s Chicago commissions and on his complicated family life.

1932 History of Croats, Zagreb

The History of Croats pays tribute to Meštrović’s mother and to Croatian culture. His mother was the model and her dress inspired by Dalmatian folk costume. This figure is holding a book with Glagolitic script, and is seated in signature, triangular shape possibly symbolizing the Christian Trinity. At this point in his life Meštrović status as an immigrant and refugee may have enhanced his world wide reputation. A solo exhibition of his work in 1947 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was the first of its kind. He was sought after as an artist-in-residence and professor. Meštrović and his family settled in Syracuse where he taught from 1947 to 1955. His sculpture of Persephone on Syracuse University’s campus celebrates the female form and myth. He became a US citizen in 1954 in a ceremony presided over by US President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Meštrović spent from 1955 to 1962 teaching and working at Notre Dame University where the Snite Museum of Art has a gallery devoted to his work and his Pieta in the Basilica of Our Lady is recognized as a seminal interpretation.

1925, My Mother, Art Institute of Chicago

Mother and Child is sited in front of a health center in Drniš, near to Otavice where Meštrović grew up. Drniš residents suffered greatly the 1990s war which pitted Serbs against Croats. Although Meštrović was committed to Croatian nationalism, he was an admirer of Serbian culture and history. Examples of his sculpture and architecture can be found in Belgrade and other places in Serbia and Kosovo.

“My art is expressed in hard wood and stone, but that which is in art is not in wood or stone, it is outside time and space. Art is a song and a prayer at the same time.” 

Ivan Meštrović, About My Art, 1933

Mother Teaching Her Child To Pray was displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in a solo exhibition in the 1910s. This bronze is dated 1925/26. It is a testimony to the enduring appeal of spiritual and humanistic themes Meštrović rendered over his lifetime, and to continued interest in his work.

1928 The Bowman and The Spearman, Chicago

Today Meštrović is being re-evaluated as part of The Chicago Monuments Project. The Bowman and The Spearman was commissioned by lumber merchant Benjamin F. Ferguson’s Foundation(they also funded Laredo Taft’s Fountain of Time and Fountain of the Great Lakes) and sponsored by Art Institute of Chicago to mark the entrance to Grant Park. Meštrović sculpted and cast these monuments in Zagreb. They were transported via trains and ships in pieces to Chicago where they were reassembled and set on pedestals designed by Holabird and Roche. Intended to invite a skyward gaze, Meštrović removed weapons from Indians hands against the advice of his patrons. An expert analysis of Meštrović’s historical significance–and of the current controversy is explained by art historian Roko Rumora .

Like Meštrović, artist Dessa Kirk creates compelling works which blend history and myth. This piece created from old Cadillac parts is titled Magdalene. It was installed in 2004 between The Bowman and The Spearman as part of the city’s Art in Garden Project. It evokes Chicago’s motto City in a Garden/Urbs in Horto (c 1830s) and may suggest new stories that mottos and monuments tell.


Mother and Child https://www.slideshare.net/michaelasanda/croatia17-zagreb3

Immigrant Mother https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immigrant_Mother

Photograph of Meštrović https://www.wikiart.org/en/ivan-mestrovic

Olga Meštrović feeding Tvrtko https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Meštrović_Atelier,_Zagreb_08.jpg

History of Croats http://www.studiacroatica.org/jcs/24/2411.htm

My Mother https://www.flickr.com/photos/93051314@N00/92807374

Mother and Child https://www.total-croatia-news.com/travel/46168-hidden-dalmatia-drniski-prsut-and-mestrovic-roots

Mother Teaching Her Child to Pray http://www.sothebys.com/ru/auctions/ecatalogue/2009/19th-and-20th-century-european-sculpture-l09730/lot.87.html

The Bowman and The Spearman, Marie Scatena

Magdalene http://www.publicartinchicago.com/chicago-grant-park-magdalene-by-dessa-kirk/%20S

Published by marielscatena

Curious about the ways place shapes experience. Grateful for people who share their time, hopes and dreams with me. Inspired by stories that bring light and love into the world.

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