Miroslav Kraljević is undoubtedly the key figure of Croatian painting in the first half of the 20th century. His role and importance were recognized both by his contemporaries and even more by the generation that came immediately after his premature death. Some of them, whom we may call his followers, remembered how they visited Kraljević’s two exhibitions in the Zagreb Gallery Ullrich as young men. For example, the painter Milivoj Uzelac mentioned an event that remained permanently and fatefully etched in his memory – the exhibition by Miroslav Kraljević at the Salon Ullrich in the late fall of 1912. The atmosphere was marvelous, said Uzelac. We were tiptoeing through the exhibition, out of respect. (…) It was already then that Kraljević left an impression on an entire generation. (…) We were silent and we observed. It was my first and deepest impression. All the key protagonists of the painting scene, formed during the 1920s, spoke about this exhibition by Kraljević, as well as of the second posthumous one held only a year after the first one, as the turnin point in modern Croatian painting. Before returning to Zagreb after having spent one year in Paris, Kraljević himself considered his forthcoming exhibition as an event that would not pass unnoticed in the small, provincial surroundings. It is the duty of us, the young, to come to Croatia and struggle and work in our own home, he said at the time to his young colleague Ljubo Babić, and added: Look, I am going to Croatia, to Zagreb and I am going to exhibit my works, I know what it is like over there and what I am in for, but I am still going.
After Kraljević’s death in April 1913, his young colleagues turned his opus into a myth of the new, the modern and the original; a myth of something that enriched national art by introducing vital forces into it, liberating it from the traces of the past. This feature of the New was could be recognized, first of all, in the radical rejection of all literary and symbolic content in painting, in a detachment from academic rules, in a realism rooted in Manet and the impressionists, in the introduction of Cézanne’s doctrine of the structure of a painting, and finally in an uncompromising deviation from academic norms. Kraljević’s introduced into Croatian painting series of innovations and so-called pure painting cultivated by the great sources of 19th century French art. That were clearly recognized by younger painters who tried to structure their own expression on his principles.
After studying painting, which he began in Vienna and completed at the Munich Academy, and after a respectable opus finished in 1911, he turned his compass from Vienna and Munich towards Paris. Although Paris was not completely unknown at that time to Croats, because its best aspects had touched Croatian painting through the works of the Vlaho Bukovac and Josip Račić, it was a city of art that functioned as a depreciated currency, in which one was supposed to know and be able to recognize true painting value. What Kraljević recognized and brought to Croatia was on a completely new iconographic potential. What distinguished Kraljević from all other Croatian painters of the time was his superior sense of belonging to the world that he painted and drew, the world of the modern metropolis. He discovered the value of flaneurism and demonstrated it whether by painting the streets, parks, coffee shops and theaters of Paris or the idyllic world of his native Požega in the heart of Slavonia.
The extremely abundant and varied opus by Miroslav Kraljević, concentrated in a mere five years of intense creativity (1908-1913), was a starting point for a series of the great figures of 20th century Croatian painting (Milivoj Uzelac, Marijan Trepše, Vilko Gecan, and Milan Steiner), who defined what he had not managed to achieve because of his premature death. In other words, even as adolescents, they recognized the spirit of a new age, represented by the expressionism that Kraljević intuitively discovered in some of his late works, and they introduced this option into Croatian painting, at first sporadically during World War I, and in its fullest sense in the years immediately after it. Kraljević’s greatest contribution to Croatian painting lies in the fact that his work articulated an entire generation, which fully developed those theses which he, due to his short life and effective creation, managed only to outline. No other role model was as important as Miroslav Kraljević to the generation that matured during the World War I and confirmed their expression during the exhibitions of the Zagreb Spring Salon. If we take into consideration that the most valuable part of Kraljević’s art is concentrated in a single year – the last year of his life (1912-1913) – then the power of this art, indeed, has a special meaning.
Miroslav Kraljević was born into a well-regarded aristocratic family while his father was serving in an administrative post in Gospić.
Miroslav Kraljević completed elementary and high school in Zagreb and Gospić; but he also spent one high-school year in Požega, the home of his father’s family, which he considered his home town.
Miroslav studied law in Vienna and attended a painting course run by George Fischoff.
He abandoned his study of the law and totally dedicated himself to art.
He enrolled in the printmaking school of Mortiz Heymann in Munich.
Miroslav Kraljević enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, class of Hugo von Habermann.
At that time, other Croatian painters were studying in Munich: Josip Račić, Vladimir Becić and Oskar Herman.
His friends at that time were Vladimir Becić, Oskar Herman, Nasta Rojc, Erna Šaj, the Polish - Romanian painter Karl Ewald Olszewski.
After the end of his education in the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, he returned to Požega, from which, after a short time, he went to Kraljevica, a town on the sea, in the vain hope of being cured of his advanced consumption.
Back to Požega again, he was met by a number of commissions for portraits; his return to his home ground also resulted in a number of outstanding portraits of his family, landscapes, still lifes and animal paintings.
Kraljević exhibited at the exhibition of the Croatian Society of Art in Zagreb, where his outstanding qualities as a painter were observed and highlighted by Izidor Kršnjavi, head of the Religion and Teaching Department, and by poet and essayist Antun Gustav Matoš, without doubt the greatest authority Croatian reviewing and criticism had ever had.
As a result of these successes, he was awarded a scholarship and left for Paris, where he worked at the academy of La Grande Chaumière and painted some of his best portraits, self-portraits, genre scenes and views.
This was a year of euphoric painting and drawing, with a superlative elaboration of previous experience and bold investigations of new ideas and idioms.
At the same time that his talent was burgeoning in Paris, Kraljević increasingly thought of going back home.
His first one-man show in the Ullrich Salon in Zagreb was attended by excellent reviews.
In Zagreb, Miroslav Kraljević died of consumption at the age of 27.
Five Kraljević oil paintings were included in the 23rd Exhibition of the Venice Biennale.
The exhibition Miroslav Kraljević – A Retrospective Exhibition was opened in the Modern Gallery in Zagreb marking the centenary of the artist’s death, constituting the biggest exhibition to date of this Croatian painter of the soul.