Croatia / Zagreb / Art

Man paints Dog

Artist Miroslav Kraljević was the great hope of Croatian painting until his early death in 1913

Self-portrait with Dog by Miroslav Kraljević (1910), Modern Gallery, Zagreb
Photograph by Goran Vranić © Modern Gallery, Zagreb

Croatia was blessed with a golden generation of young artists in the years before World War I. Oskar Herman, Josip Racić, Vladimir Becić and Miroslav Kraljević honed their skills in Munich and Paris before heading for home, their heads filled not just with the latest post-impressionist brush strokes but also racy recollections of a bohemian life lived to the full.

The four seemed destined to dominate the Croatian art scene for decades to come, but things didn’t work out that way. Račić shot himself in 1908, Kraljević died of tuberculosis in 1913, Herman spent his best years abroad, and Becić simply lost his mojo. 

As this career-spanning exhibition at Zagreb’s Modern Gallery reveals, it was Kraljević who was the most gifted of the four. Raised in the Slavonian town of Požega, Kraljević studied in Vienna and Munich before departing for Paris on a state scholarship. He lived in the artists’ quarter of Montparnasse from September 1911 to November 1912, returning home as the subject of a one-man exhibition in Zagreb’s Ulrich Gallery. The show confirmed Kraljević’s status as the great hope of Croatian painting, which made his death in early 1913 all the more of a loss.

Best known of Kraljević’s pictures (and indeed the one that won him the scholarship to Paris) is Self-portrait with Dog (1910), the self-confident portrayal of a young artist at the top of his game and with the world at his feet. The German Shepherd at the bottom of the picture is far from being just an accessory, gazing confidently out of the painting as if to say “this is my picture too and don’t I know it”. The dog almost looks capable of bounding off the wall and giving our pants a friendly sniff before returning to its place on the canvas. 

However it’s as a detailed record of the Kraljević’s Parisian year that the exhibition is at its most gripping. He spent his time in the French capital doing all the things that young artists were supposed to do, hanging out with dandies in cafes, drawing ballet dancers, and painting naked ladies in their boudoirs.   

One picture that few visitors will have seen before is Girl in an Armchair, owned by a private collector in London for many years, and only recently confirmed as a Kraljević original. It is thought to show Zlata Kolarić Klisur, the Croatian writer who met Kraljević as a teenager but didn’t actually sit for him – the artist painted her from memory afterwards, investing the picture with an edgy sensuality that tells us as much about Kraljević as it does the girl. How different this picture is from the subdued and melancholic Self Portrait with Pipe (1912), one of the last that Kraljević ever completed, showing an ailing young man made suddenly aware of his own mortality.

© Jonathan Bousfield

This article was first published in December 2013 to coincide with the Miroslav Kraljević retrospective held at Zagreb’s Modern Gallery from December 19 2013 to April 16 2014.