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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter IV. Aesthetic modernism and collective identities

Art and nationalism

Antun Gustav Matoš
Traduction de Iva Polak

Texte intégral

1Title: Umjetnost i nacionalizam (Art and nationalism)

2Originally published: Zagreb, Obzor, 28 January 1912

3Language: Croatian

4The excerpt used is from Dragutin Tadijanović, ed., Antun Gustav Matoš III: Kritike, eseji, studije i članci, polemike, putopisi, feljtoni i impresije (Zagreb: Zora – Matica Hrvatska, 1967), pp. 117–122.

About the author

5Antun Gustav Matoš [1873, Tovarnik (near Vukovar, east Croatia) – 1914, Zagreb]: writer and journalist. After graduating from the gymnasium in Zagreb, he attended the Military Veterinary Academy in Vienna in 1893. In 1894 he defected from the Austro-Hungarian army and fled to Belgrade. Between 1894 and 1898, Matoš lived in Belgrade as a freelance journalist, and later, left for Paris, where he would spend five years living a bohemian life. He was heavily influenced by Paul Verlaine, Charles Baudelaire and Stendhal. Besides, Maurice Barrès’s doctrine of nationalism had a formative impact on his work. Between 1904 and 1908, he lived again in Belgrade, where he became known as an outstanding writer and essayist, an outspoken critic of realism and naturalism in art and the Yugoslav idea in politics. After the Austro-Hungarian government granted an amnesty in 1908, Matoš went back to Zagreb. He was cherished as one of the leading Croatian artists and as one of the most outstanding ‘opinion makers’ of the time. In 1914, he died of lung cancer. In the Croatian national canon, Matoš is labeled as the most outstanding modern Croatian writer after Miroslav Krleža. He is regarded as the founder of full-fledged artistic modernism, and especially of modern Croatian literary criticism, as well as being a pioneer of essay and travel writing. In the 1990s, he was highly praised as the founding figure of turn-of-the-century Croatian liberal nationalism, since he argued for Croatian independence and against the idea of South Slav unity, simultaneously recognizing the Serbs and other national minorities in Croatia as self-standing political subjects.

6Main works: Iverje [Fragments] (1899); Novo iverje [New fragments] (1900); Ogledi [Essays] (1905); Vidici i putovi [Horizons and roads] (1907); Umorne priče [Tired tales] (1909); Naši ljudi i krajevi [Our people and lands] (1910); Sabrana djela [Collected works] (1935–1940, 1973).


7Turn-of-the-century Croatia experienced tightly intertwined political and cultural transformations. These were launched by the so called Napredna Omladina (Progressive youth), the group of students who left Zagreb to continue their studies in Prague after the anti-Hungarian riots in 1895. Inspired by Tomáš Masaryk’s political thought, the ‘Youth’ shifted from the exclusivist political Croatism advocated by the Stranka prava (Party of Rights) back to the idea of Croat–Serb national oneness, becoming thus the spiritus movens of the foundation of the Hrvatsko-Srpska koalicija (Croat–Serb coalition), the political coalition which dominated Croatian politics up until the South Slav unification of 1918 (see Frano Supilo, The memorandum to sir Edward Grey). The ‘Youth’ contested the late romanticist canon dominant in contemporary Croatian literature, which glorified the Croatian medieval state right tradition. Initially, the ‘Youth’ had launched an appeal for the autonomy of art. However, inspired by Hippolyte Taine’s positivist definition of literature as a mirror of specific socio-political contexts, they soon began to propagate the social-nationalist canon. The ‘Youth’ envisioned literature as the mirror of national life, namely the living conditions of the people, and of the views of the so called ‘national intellectuals.’ For them, literature was an instrument for spreading the democratic national idea. However, by the late 1800s, when the Croat–Serb coalition advocating the South Slav political project entered a coalition alliance with the Budapest government, their political and literary ideas were contested by the Mladohrvati (Young Croats), the group of young intellectuals gathered around Antun Gustav Matoš. Politically, the ‘Young Croats’ followed the original Stranka prava idea of the Croatian political nation (see Franjo Rački, Yugoslavism). At the same time, however, they recognized the political subjectivity of Croatian Serbs, thus distancing themselves from the exclusivist ethnic and Catholic idea of Croatism advocated by the contemporaneous mainstream faction of Stranka prava, the so called Čista stranka prava (Pure Party of Rights).

8Under Matoš’s influence, the ‘Young Croats’ explicitly separated politics from literature, embracing simultaneously the principle of aesthetic autonomy, and understanding art as the expression of the extraordinary, talented individual. However, Matoš’s followers in the early 1910s, such as Tin Ujević, Ivo Andrić and Miroslav Krleža, abandoned him both artistically and politically. Artistically, they became inclined towards the rising avant-garde trends, especially futurism, all of which Matoš refused due to their presumed anti-aestheticism and disdain for national history and tradition. Politically, at the climax of the popularity of the idea of South Slav unity on the eve of the First World War, the next generation of ‘Young Croats’ adopted the idea of the integral Yugoslav nation, subsequently becoming the leaders of the Nacionalistička omladina, the successor group of the ‘Progressive Youth’ (see August Cesarec, The national question and our missions). The ‘Nationalistic Youth’ developed the idea of an integral Yugoslav nation, subsequently supplementing it with the cultural idea of the Yugoslav heroic character. Heroism was allegedly embodied in the Serbian warrior character, and was to be imposed on the Croats and Slovenes with the aim to replace their legalist statehood ideas. These ideas were seen not only as the obsolete feudal obstacles to south Slav unification, but also as the results of “degenerative” foreign (primarily Austrian and Hungarian) influences on Croat and Slovene “national mentalities.”

9Matoš’s entire life and work, especially his Zagreb years (1907–1914), were mostly characterized by a constant polemic with his political and artistic opponents from the ‘Progressive Youth’ generation, and especially with its two leaders, Milan Marjanović and his Serbian counterpart Jovan Skerlić. Although the political dispute between Yugoslavism and Croatism constituted the background, the polemic was based primarily on different views of the national significance of art, although all three figures were influenced by social-Darwinist theories about an ongoing contest for the survival of unique national cultures. Hence, although Marjanović and Skerlić advocated a rationalistic understanding of art, they both stressed the notion of a South Slav folk culture, considered as the only authentic expression of South Slav mentality, and hence perceived to be the only true source of artistic inspiration. In particular, Skerlić denounced aestheticism, which he perceived as an expression of decadent individualism. He advocated instead the social and national function of literature, as well as the role of the artist as the leader of national awakening. Folk culture was perceived by the ‘Progressive Youth’ to be at the root of national mentality, as it was uncorrupted, in their view, by German and Magyar influence. Skerlić, therefore, pleaded for a popular literature which would tap into folk culture and, at the same time, shape it according to the dictates of the national spirit.

10The article ‘Art and nationalism’ presented here summarizes the arguments which Matoš used to contest the views of Skerlić and Marjanović. It was written when the claims for the pro-Yugoslav role of art reached its peak due to Serbia’s political agitation on the eve of the First Balkan War (1912). Matoš believed that his opponents’ claims about art neglected its aesthetic essence. He, instead, saw the national role of literature in the expression of the autonomous aesthetic sensibilities of the individual. This view is informed by Maurice Barrès’s conception of national character as the cumulative achievement of talented individuals grounded in tradition. Matoš refused both the notion of “autonomous folk spirit,” as well as the ethnic idea of the nation. Hence, he rejected the concept of Croat–Serb national oneness, grounded in the idea of the linguistic and ethnic sameness of the South Slavs. Inspired by the original Stranka Prava idea of the Croatian political nation, Matoš located national identity in its historical-political traditions, which, he argued, constituted the basis of national mentality. As he regarded traditions to be to some extent the result of foreign influences on national life, Matoš advocated Croatian receptiveness towards the influences of foreign cultures. He claimed that the artist should always adapt foreign influences to the mentality of the nation, thus elevating national culture, even if the people were unwilling to accept these appropriated ideas. The only case where Matoš made an exception was the German one, since he was afraid that the ongoing process of Germanization would finally destroy the Croatian national mentality. In fact, Matoš’s discourse testifies to the ambivalence of aesthetic modernism, which was also witnessed by the ‘rationalist positivism’ of Skerlić and Marjanović. Under the influence of Barrès’s earlier writings, Matoš contested the mediocrity and anti-religious materialism of bourgeois society, whose incarnation in Croatia he had found in the political circles of the ‘Progressive Youth.’ Instead, he emphasized the idea of the Croatian soil and the notion of aristocratic personality, embodied in the historical tradition of Croatian nobility. However, Matoš did not follow Barrès’s later shift toward the anti-democratic organic perception of society and toward imperialism, remaining a strenuous advocate of democracy, which he perceived as having been corrupted by the oligarchic ruling classes.

11During socialist Yugoslavia, ‘Art and nationalism’ was interpreted as an appeal for the autonomy of art and literature. However, in the 1990s, the text was reframed in the overall interpretation of Matoš as the apogee of Croatian liberal nationalism, opposed to the prevailing Yugoslav idea. Hence, the text was read as the expression of the liberal-democratic conception of the role of literature in the nation-building process.


Art and nationalism

  • 1 Branimir Wiesner-Livadić (1871–1949): Croatian literary critic and theoretician. One of the most p (...)

13Discussing recently nationality and art in the journal Savremenik, Dr. B. Wiesner Livadić1 complained about exaggerated nationalist tendencies in our art criticism and—as is usually the case—he is and is not right. Our criticism really is too nationalistic when it evaluates works of art through a purely or even a party nationalistic-oriented lens (which seems to be true in most cases), and is not nationalistic enough because in its analysis of art for people’s sake, it does not question whether the artist is in accordance with the soul and style of the people. This is because an artifact is only an expression, a symbol of specific features of a complicated and mysterious but uniform and individual psyche of the people. Notwithstanding Mr. Wiesner Livadić’s standpoint, Hamlet is an Englishman as are Shakespeare’s other protagonists: an Englishman by virtue of his spleen, his humor, his Puritanism and his canto. All real art is national simply because international art cannot exist since there is no international artistic expression: an expression that would be understandable to the same degree to all nations around the world and that would not have a national genesis.

14Not all forms of art are national in the same way. Literature and poetry are the most national forms because they are connected to national languages. Music, architecture and plastic arts are not so much determined by expression, but are, as literature, an expression of a special national character and soul. It is true that some styles of architecture (Classical, Romanesque, Gothic) have become international, but they originated as national. Nationalism and internationalism are not contradictory terms in art as they are not always contradictory in politics.

15Since each great work of art which is primarily a national product can always become an international commodity, artistic nationalism (unlike political nationalism) does not imply negation of foreign values. On the contrary, it is exactly the richness and diversity of various national cultures which represent a precondition for a major symphony of the comprehensive international development. Today, Europe is more cultured than in the era when it had to have just one language and one style. Since each nation represents a string of the national lyre of humanity, each representative of the specific national soul is, accordingly, also a representative of humanity. Molière, Dante, Goethe, major poets and artist are bearers of the genius of their race. Only as such could these crystallized national souls have become lighthouses of humanity.

16This national moment in art was established long ago, and Taine has tried to systematize it in his theory, according to which an artist and a work of art are the result of race, milieu and moment, in other words, primarily national circumstances. Leaving aside to what extent this method is correct for analyzing an artist as a member of a society and insufficient for establishing all that is individual, special, distinctive and unique in an artist, there is no doubt that a work of art can be national even if it is not a result of national influences. A work of art is not the simple result of the social action of an artist, but an expression of his reaction.

17An artist is not merely a consequence but is, at the same time, the cause of social influences. Accordingly, the greater the artist, the greater the discrepancy among these influences. Hence, we could say that a great artist is the one who has influenced people more than people have influenced him. Consequently, a national artist can be a representative of national opinion and feeling, but can also be a reaction against such ideals and tastes of the people. Moreover, he will remain national because he is that nation for the simple reason that he is a member of that nation. Edgar Poe was against all American values of his age. He was a visionary in contrast to utilitarianism, an idealist in contrast to positivism, and an aristocrat in contrast to American democracy. He died without being understood by anybody, but he has still become the most national American writer with pure American values such as originality, the desire to bluff, a sense of the unseen, a bizarre, utmost individualism, and a sense for technical and scientific development. Popularity does not equal nationality. Goethe was not popular. The nation is an artist only via its individuals, frequently unknown and unacknowledged. The nation as a collective is a barbarian. Folk songs have not been made by a nation but buy an unknown individual and the value of a nation is measured in the extent to which production of better individual values is higher. There are souls that contain the national soul of the whole nation, yet there are nations without a national soul.

18The Croatian nation has had such periods among its unintelligent intelligentsia. An artist can be more national that the nation itself because he is the expression of the emphasized features of the national temperament.

19Hence, every art is national and demanding art to be national equals demanding ice to be cold or fire to be hot.

20Since every nationalism is a form of fight, art also participates in that fight either directly or indirectly. Art is also a form of dominance, conquest, international cultural conflict, it is an expression of vitality and living national ability, and a form of resistance of the national soul, but only as long as it remains pure art, as long as it is not biased by serving inartistic purposes. Shakespeare has conquered Europe. He has done more for spreading the English language than all the English admirals and politicians put together. He has been the most important vehicle for spreading English nationalism not because he is the greatest English nationalist, but because he is the first playwright of modern humanity. The Italian plastic Renaissance has not conquered the world because it is nationalistic, but because it has become the model for humanist beauty as the most refined form of the Italian soul.

21French literature could not have conquered Europe before and after Napoleon if it had only spread the ideal of French nationalism. Its major impact occurred exactly at the time of the French classicist authors and the Encyclopaedists, in the era of Racine and Diderot, when there was practically no nationalist thread in French writing. Among the German writers who have contributed most to the spreading of the German spirit and thought, and accordingly to the indirect spread of German nationalism, are exactly those souls who have challenged German nationalism: writers such as Goethe, Heine, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. In other words, every major art is patriotic, but a major artist need not be a patriot.

22Recently nationalism has been replaced by patriotism, so since every great art is supposed to be nationalistic, now it is demanded that all art should be patriotic. This does not only mean demanding from art, which primarily represents a free expression of beauty, to be biased and inartistic, but it also means limiting the emotional means of artistic expression. This is as if Liszt or Paganini were not allowed to use more than one musical scale. The artist successfully presents life and humanity in its totality and affects the whole being of the man because he refers to the total human sensibility and the totality of the soul in which patriotic impulse is just a single note, a single string. Accordingly, art that is only patriotic only fulfills a small, minimal need of our emotional life. Poets who are only patriotic are minor poets, but, in this respect, we should not confuse poets of freedom with patriotic ones, because the homeland and nation can be the very negation of true freedom without which there is no art. The whole England rose against Byron, and Heine is not highly regarded by a huge number of Germans.

23Recently there have been nationalist, patriotic doctrines that, ostensibly in the interest of the pure national style, are against all non-national artistic influences, as if there were such thing as pure national art and a racially pure and unique nation. The basic motifs of folk poetry are the same all over the world. There is no such thing as authentic folk poetry as there is no such thing as authentic aesthetic poetry. Hence, to preserve folk tradition means to remain under external and extra-national influences which contributed to the very creation of the tradition. Basic emotions such as fear, love, religious ecstasy, courage, etc., as well as aesthetic needs are the same among all peoples, which means that the content of art is mostly the same and what changes is its form, its expression to determine a specific national soul. Hence, it is completely irrelevant whether the content of art is developed under national or extra-national influences. All Indo-European and Arian tribes share the same mythos in their folk tales. Shakespeare used plots from all literatures and Hamlet was written under the influence of Montaigne’s philosophy; Corneille was a pupil of the Spaniards, Racine was influenced by Euripides, the French classicist authors were pupils of classical antiquity, the romanticists were under the influence of German and English literature, and yet nobody will dispute the purely national features of the poetry of La Fontaine and Musset. The Russian novel developed under the influence of non-Russian literary movements, but still bears a measure of Russian nationalism because each non-national term can be transformed with a retort of a strong national artistic temperament into a new national artistic value, a new expression.

24The strongest and the most vital are those artistic cultures that are—as is the case of Goethe—available to a growing number of influences, giving them forms of specific national expression because the content is subordinated to the form since the latter represents just a new modification of the former. Accordingly, imitation, a mere appropriation of foreign artistic models, is superfluous because it represents repetition and not analysis, a formality and not experience, a mere copy and not creation—as is the case with many of our ancient Dalmatian books. Our art will become national when it becomes European, i.e. when it will reflect authentic Croatian expression, a special national form of the spirit filled with European contents. Only the weak spirits—as a weak economy—are afraid of foreign competition, which is why they use protectionist methods of exclusive nationalism.

25There are strong artistic temperaments which use powerful patriotic feelings to evaluate domestic and undermine foreign art. Dostoevsky admired only that which was Russian. During his travels, he belittled Paris, Italy and Germany in comparison to Russia. Gogol, too, turned into a chauvinist of a similar kind, but it was exactly these two authors that depicted Russia as hell. The same kind of exclusive nationalism has recently appeared in the most cultured of nations, but only as a consequence of antinational and even inartistic imported doctrines. Kipling is an imperialist as is the former socialist D’Annunzio.

26Barrès and Maurras in France fight against collective, antinationalist tendencies and German cultural influence because this German influence on a higher French culture and art can only seem inferior, hence destructive. Major national cultures such as the French and English ones can be exclusively national; they can build the Great Wall of China around themselves because they are the leading cultures of the world. However, they are still influenced by foreign cultures: Shaw by German and Russian culture, Rodin by Italian, while Beethoven’s music is all over Paris.

27If this is the case with major cultures, how can it be different with smaller nations such as ours since we cannot even imagine artistic national exclusiveness?

28Hence, our art shall become national in the proper sense of the word only when it becomes great, when it is written in a great and pure Croatian style. Our folk tunes have not been processed artistically and have not found their Chopin.

  • 2 Ivan Meštrović (1883–1962): the most outstanding Croatian sculptor at the turn of the century, pro (...)
  • 3 Robert Frangeš-Mihanović (1872–1940): one of the most outstanding pupils of Meštrović.

29Our painters are already studying the Croatian landscape, and our sculpture has found a new expression for historic heroism in Meštrović2 and new forms for our field work and our contemporary energy in Frangeš3. In literature, there is a growing awareness of the purity of the Croatian language and style. Our nation is among the first in Europe according to its artistic talent, mostly in poetry, music and the plastic arts, but we are hardly making ends meet in art because our own language and national life is in danger. These terrible conditions affect every Croat and, accordingly, every artist, the defender of the honor and destiny of his homeland because free national art can emerge only in a free homeland. It is the very need to establish free Croatian art that compels the artist to become first and foremost patriotic, and if our criticism warns our artists to fulfill this duty above all other duties, it does not breach the principles of free art, but does just the opposite: it defends them.


1 Branimir Wiesner-Livadić (1871–1949): Croatian literary critic and theoretician. One of the most prominent members of Croatian literary modernism in the 1880s and 1890s. He advocated the autonomy of art and cosmopolitanism, against tendencies that favored the instrumentalization of art for national purposes.

2 Ivan Meštrović (1883–1962): the most outstanding Croatian sculptor at the turn of the century, promoter of the “South Slav heroic racial soul.”

3 Robert Frangeš-Mihanović (1872–1940): one of the most outstanding pupils of Meštrović.


Iva Polak (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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