This month’s Object of the Month at the Historical Museum of BiH is Antun Augustinčić’s Carrying the Wounded. The theme was a significant one for sculptures in the former Yugoslavia, and Augustinčić returned to it repeatedly in the two decades after the end of the second world war. The carved piece in marble, in the museum’s collection, probably dates to the years immediately after the end of the conflict. Before the siege of 1992-95, this impressive carving was on prominent display in what was then the Museum of the Revolution; sometime during the siege, the sculpture was (rather unceremoniously) removed to the basement, where it has remained ever since. Soon, however, this significant work will be brought up from the basement and into public display again; a difficult technical process, and a major event for the museum.
When Carrying the Wounded was first progressed from paper idea into three dimensions, Augustinčić was operating in a crowded sculptural market, with a huge and intensive demand for work. In the forties and early fifties, sculptors such as Vojin Bakić, Frano Krsinić, Kosta Angelo Radovani, Dimo Todorovski, and Ksenija Kantoci, all worked alongside Augustinčić to produce the monuments, sculptures and intimate portraits that both commemorated the experience of the second world war, and enshrined the particular interpretation of the the new Yugoslav state of those events, for future generations. In the two decades that followed the war, Augustinčić was to become the most prominent of this generation of academic sculptors, and was seen by many as the “court sculptor” of Tito. His striking portrait of Tito, made in bronze in 1947-8, can be found all across the former Yugoslavia, in public spaces and in historical museums.
Our sculpture under consideration, however, considers one of the central narratives of the partisan struggle that is largely forgotten in our times- the treatment of those who were sick or who had been wounded in battle. A central tenet of the partisans was that the sick and injured should be cared for and on no account left behind to be captured by the enemy. Only in extreme circumstances- such as in the darkest moment of the German offensives in 1943 and 1944- were some of the wounded left. The theme of caring for those who could not help themselves fitted ideologically, not only with the portrayal of the partisan struggle, but also the kind of society that the Communists wanted to build in peacetime.
Augustinčić certainly had an interesting career. Born in Klanjec in Croatia in 1900, he had trained in Zagreb under Ivan Meštrović, before spending two years in further study at the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The effect of Meštrović’s powerful personality, and his engagement with the Renaissance figurative tradition, placed the emergent practice of Augustinčić very much as part of the dominant trends of the 20s; legibly figurative, but also hinting at elements of modernism- here and there some art-deco stylisation and a grappling with the hard work of carving direct in stone. In addition to exhibitions throughout Royal Yugoslavia in the 1930s, he was also commissioned to make an equestrian statue of the authoritarian Polish president, Marshal Josef Pilsudski. By the time of the Axis occupation of Yugoslavia, Augustinčić was in mid career; a talented academic sculptor, with a European profile, without much in the way of commitment to one aesthetic style or another. Therefore, he was perfectly placed to build his career in post-war Yugoslavia, as this dextrous sculpture illustrates very well.
Carrying the Wounded shows three figures emerging from the block of stone. In the centre, the wounded individual looks exhausted and weak, his head head aloft in a pose of dignified suffering, is supported by two comrades bearing his weight; the figure to the wounded man’s left seemingly supporting and steering his wounded frame, the figure to the right bearing the weight in a crouched stance. The composition is meant to evoke Pieta sculpture, and also has strong echoes of the portraits in bronze of working class subjects by sculptors such as Belgium’s Constantin Meunier.
Versions of Carrying the Wounded were also made in bronze, and in the Augustinčić museum in Klanjec a very late plaster version, unfinished, is on display. The sculptor returns again and again to the same tripartite composition, with each of the figures as legible individuals yet, as emphasised as part of a greater whole. In this version, there is also a real interest from the viewer in the material. We can see these figures, as they were carved, emerging from the block of stone, and compare the sculptural finish with the remains of the original block in its raw, untreated, rough stae; a rare insight into sculptural process.
Augustinčić died in Zagreb in 1979. His sculptures, like those of his professor, Meštrović, can be found across former Yugoslavia, although the only dedicated museum to his work can be found in his small home town. The sculptor left his work to the town of Klanjec, just a few years before his death.
Words: Jon Blackwood
Photographs: Jim Marshall