by Kryssa Burakowski
The cultural fingerprints of the Austro-Hungarian Empire can still be found all over Zagreb, a city that was under the rule of the Habsburg monarchy for centuries. Its mark can be clearly seen in the traces of the fin-de-siècle Vienna Secession movement across Zagreb. Croatian architects of the period, many of whom trained in Vienna, have left a legacy of beautiful art nouveau architecture. There are numerable examples since considerable reconstruction was necessary after a large earthquake in 1880. (It’s just a shame that the further from the centre you go, the more desperately in need of a lick of paint some of these buildings seem to be.) Perhaps the most obvious example of art nouveau style would be the Kuća Kallina (Kallina House), completed in 1904.
When I arrived in Zagreb, I was lucky enough to catch the end of an exhibition at the Galerija Klovićevi Dvori bringing together art from Croatian artists and members of the Vienna Secession (the most famous being Gustav Klimt). Yet in an ironic twist, my favourite paintings of the exhibition were not at the exhibition at all. For me, the highlights of the display were copies in monochrome of the three paintings Klimt had made from 1900-1907 known as the Faculty Paintings. Made for the ceiling in the University of Vienna’s great hall, they were destroyed in 1945 by SS troops retreating from Austria. Criticised for being inappropriate, the paintings were never accepted for their purpose.
Each painting tackles one of the oldest topics of study: jurisprudence, medicine and philosophy. What I found most interesting was the physicality of Klimt’s images. Instead of using symbols for the subjects, the areas of study are personified – but not by creating one being encompassing the key features of each subject. Philosophy sees human figures drifting in the cosmos, some clasping their heads in their hands. Medicine shows a mass of human bodies crowded around a skeleton, as well as the mythological figure Hygeia. The three female figures in the foreground of Jurisprudence are surrounded by a swirling ribbon of darkness while another figure, head-bowed, is in the clutches of the tentacles of a giant octopus.
It seems that, ever since ancient times, people have found it useful to understand or explain concepts and phenomena by creating humanoid characters, like the gods of the ancient myths. Klimt incorporates these classical ideas into his pieces with characters like Hygeia, as well as using more vulnerable, mortal human shapes. And these classical themes just keep returning. Zagreb’s architecture is also notable for the sheer amount of decoration on many of the buildings. There are so many figures that it has even given rise to a weeping-angel-like urban myth that they come to life at night to roam the city streets.
Gargoyles, decorative faces, statues, friezes and caryatids: carved human faces and stone bodies are everywhere above street level, watching over the people walking below.