ART LIFE IN SPLIT, 1919-1941


Curators: Božo Majstorović, Iris Slade

Having presented a reconstruction of the First Dalmatian Art Exhibition (1908) in 2010, Museum of Fine Arts Split has decided to take a step further in time and focus, in a kind of exhibition diptych, on the interwar art scene in Split. In the Shadow of a Dictatorship is the second part of the exhibition project Art Life in Split, 1919-1941, and covers the time from the erection of a monument to Gregory of Nin on the Peristyle in 1929 until the outbreak of World War II in 1941. The exhibition will feature over 300 artworks (paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures) by 93 authors from the Museum’s holdings. The first exhibition, entitled In the Gap Between Myth and Reality, realized in 2016, presented the first interwar decade.

With the annexation of Zadar and Rijeka to the Kingdom of Italy, Split became the main administrative, economic, and cultural centre of the new state on the Adriatic, which strongly influenced its demographic and spatial growth (from 25,000 inhabitants in 1921 to 46,000 in 1940). With the reorganization of the state in 1929, Split became the seat of Primorska Banovina. Owing to the regime’s efforts to prove its efficiency against “tribal” politicians, various public facilities were built by the early 1940s. Generally speaking, despite the loyalty of the local authorities to the governing regime and Split’s title of being the “most Yugoslav city of all,” which was not confirmed in any elections, the results were not up to the expectations.

These new circumstances also stimulated artistic life. There were incomparably more exhibitions with regard to the period before the war, and the art market was revitalized. In the interwar period, there were about fifty painters and sculptors active in the city, either permanently or temporarily. Veterans such as Emanuel Vidović, Virgil Meneghello-Dinčić, Ante Katunarić, Angjelo Uvodić, and Branislav Dešković were joined in the first postwar years by Ivan Mirković, Silvije Bonacci Čiko, Mate Meneghello, Radovan Tommaseo, Antun Zuppa, Milan Tolić, Stjepan Baković, Petar Bibić, and others. At the end of the third decade, Vjekoslav Parać emerged, and during the fourth, Petar Smajić, Ante Kaštelančić, Joko Knežević, and Andrija Krstulović, among others. Exhibitions of Ignjat Job and Juraj Plančić were particularly important for the local art scene, and Jerolim Miše, Marin Tartaglia, and Cata Gattin-Dujšin remained in contact with their homeland.

Although relatively populous, the interwar art scene was volatile. Artists were leaving Split, sometimes permanently, and some young talents did not return to the city after their education. The reasons were both existential and artistic in nature. Despite visible progress, there was scarcity of everything, from exhibition venues and ateliers to buyers and commissions. Apart from the short stay of Marino Tartaglia, Split did not attract or retain any significant artist. It is therefore no surprise that interwar Split was not a stage where contemporary artistic tendencies were articulated and promoted. The production of local artists was rather an expression of the setting’s conservatism, which influenced their youthful artistic imagery and the subsequent art practice. It is therefore hardly surprising that the painters rarely reached for the motifs that were internationally current, not to mention the adoption of radical stylistic inventions.

The question is why the Museum of Fine Arts of Primorska Banovina, which opened in 1931, did not particularly affect either the artistic standard or the standard of artists in Split. The museum did not organize exhibitions and thus did not give artists the opportunity to make money. It had an acquisition budget of less than 40,000 dinars a year, and spent almost half of that sum on paintings by unknown dead artists from the past centuries, mostly of no particular artistic value. Instead of being a place for promoting artistic excellence and thus a landmark in the provincial milieu, it became a mirror of that milieu, yet another variant of Split’s “Table of Wise Men,” which ensured enduring pioneering merits, offices, influence, and acquisitions to these “wise men.”

The interwar Split was especially marked by a group of befriended men of influence, such as the Mayor, the Ban, senators and lawyers, bankers, entrepreneurs, the owner of the largest art collection in Dalmatia (over 700 works), Dr Ivo Tartaglia, and the world-renowned artist Ivan Meštrović. The coastal metropolis with its imperial palace was an ideal stage for their artistic and political ambitions. By erecting a monument to Gregory of Nin on the Peristyle, despite strong opposition from the profession and much of the public, they demonstrated their power and influence. Meštrović was not merely an artist and did not share the fate of Split’s everyday art life, nor was Tartaglia a mere disinterested enthusiast seized by the collector’s passion. Behind their creative and collecting fervour one can discern a pragmatic project in whose realization the symbolic and ideological significance of art played an important role.

Thus, Split’s art life took place in the shadow of Meštrović and Tartaglia, in which a special place was assigned to the Ivan Galić Art Salon, whose activity spanned over three-quarters of the interwar period, during which time it hosted more than two-thirds of the exhibitions. From mid-1924 to the end of 1929, over 1,100 artworks were sold at the Salon’s 31 exhibitions, for nearly 650,000 dinars. From the beginning of 1930 until the spring of 1941, 56 exhibitions were held at the Salon, with documented sales of 938 works for 510,000 dinars. In the mid-1930s, the ubiquitous Uvodić dominated both by the number of exhibitions and by that of the sold artworks, although the crisis also halved his sales and profits. Looking at the prices of individual artworks, the highest were those by Miše, whose paintings could sell for as much as 8,000 dinars. Two paintings by the late Plančić were bought at a price of 5,000 dinars, Vidović reached up to 6,000 dinars, while Job’s price ceiling was 3,000 dinars.

Buyers of artworks at the Galić Salon mostly stemmed from the class of college-educated and financially powerful citizens. Concerning the number of purchased works, engineers / architects were the most prominent (194), followed by entrepreneurs (170), lawyers / attorneys (156), merchants (145), and medical doctors (113). The greatest sums of money were invested in art by lawyers / attorneys (113,670), followed by engineers / architects (101,790) and entrepreneurs (100,210). Merchants bought “art goods” worth 91,840 dinars, while medical doctors spent 53,140 dinars. The most generous buyers were political figures (11 politicians bought 119 artworks for 89,650 dinars). Although women spent modest amounts (63 artworks for 18,100 dinars), the presence of forty of them as buyers of artworks should be emphasized. In addition to Tartaglia with 45 acquisitions, ten or more artworks were purchased at the Galić Salon exhibitions by 15 art lovers. Almost half of the 208 works they bought were works by Uvodić (61) and Bibić (32). Not counting Tartaglia, twenty-three buyers invested more than 5,000 dinars (up to 18,600) in artworks, which equalled one monthly salary of a senior clerk or one third of a minister’s or Ban’s salary.