Tag Archives: Art History

Mitrinović, Art Collector

Last week we treated Bradford University students and staff to a lunchtime introduction to the Mitrinović Collection – and mince pies! I thought I would share one of the documents that sparked some interest amongst the group here on the Eleventh Hour.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that Dimitrije Mitrinović had friends in the art world, including Wassily Kandinsky and the German Expressionist painter Gabriella Münter. His interest in art began early on in life, and he studied art history at university as well as writing about contemporary art in various publications as a young man. Mitrinović also collected works of art, and a few weeks ago I came across a wonderful letter from E.L.T. Mesens, then one of the co-directors of The London Gallery, that sheds some light on his collection.

NAF 1-8-2-13 Letterhead, The London Gallery

Mesens lists paintings Mitrinović had bought from the gallery, and the prices he had paid. He also lists works he had sent Mitrinović on approval, giving us an insight into one of the ways in which Mitrinović acquired paintings.

Letter from The London Gallery [crop - list of paintings bought]

It is quite astonishing to come across such distinguished names in an ordinary file of correspondence, reminding us that in 1939 individual collectors could still afford to buy works by such artists as René Magritte and Paul Klee whose works would now go to major institutions. The art market has certainly changed! Even so, many of those who attended our session last week were curious about where Mitrinović found the money to support his art habit. It’s an interesting question, and one I haven’t entirely resolved, beyond knowing that he had some income from the Yugoslavian government and was notorious for being able to winkle money out of his supporters! It must also be said that Mitrinović could be very generous, and letters in the archive show him giving artworks to friends and championing ventures like the Richmond Art Club (now Richmond Art Society).

Beyond shedding light on Mitrinović’s own tastes for Surrealism and Cubism, this letter might be of interest to curators, art historians or others interested in the provenance of particular works and how they were received.

NAF 1-8-2-13 Letter from The London Gallery, Messen's signature [crop]

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Fog of War, Letter from Gabriele Münter

The most affecting document I’ve come across so far in the Mitrinović Archive is a letter from the German Expressionist artist Gabriele Münter (19 February 1877– 19 May 1962), written to Dimitrije Mitrinović in 1914. The two became friendly whilst Mitrinović was studying in Munich, having met through Münter’s relationship with Wassily Kandinsky. Dimitrije Mitrinović was caught up by the outbreak of the First World War and at just about the last moment, fled to England (see the story here). Gabriele Münter herself hurriedly moved to Switzerland, and as a result of these rapid flights the two had evidently lost touch. Here Münter re-established contact with her friend. Her anxiety is clear from her opening words, “How are you? Where are you?”.

NAF 1-3-1 Letter from Gabriele Munter, copy, p.1

Münter entreated Mitrinović to write, reminding him to use German in case his letters were checked by the censors, so they would get through easily. She herself wrote in somewhat broken English to make sure her own letter would reach him.

Gabriele Münter is another fascinating character who turns up here in the Mitrinović collection. During the Second World War she hid her own paintings, those of Kandinsky and others from the Blaue Reiter group in her house. The works were condemned as ‘degenerate’ art by the Nazis and, if found, would have been destroyed. Despite several searches, the works Münter hid were never found and she was able ultimately to donate a significant part of her unique collection to the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich. On her death, in accordance with her wishes,  Münter’s house in Murnau was made into a museum dedicated to her art and that of Kandinsky.

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Fan Mail from Bloomsbury

A charming letter for the Eleventh Hour this time. John Herbert Sprott (1897 -1971), known as Sebastian, was a member of the Bloomsbury Set. Sprott studied the moral sciences at Cambridge, and would ultimately become a distinguished professor of Philosophy and Psychology at Nottingham University, writing influential works on sociology. He is now perhaps chiefly remembered as one of John Maynard Keynes’ lovers, maintaining a friendship with Keynes and keeping his links with the Bloomsbury group, particularly E.M. Forster, even after his departure for Nottingham.

NAF 1-8-1-4 Letter to Mestrovic from Sebastian Sprott 1919 [cropped]

In 1919 Sprott was a young man who attended an exhibition in Brighton of the works of the Croatian sculptor and architect Ivan Meštrović, and was almost completely over-awed to meet the artist himself. Sprott gathered his nerve to write this piece of fan mail that survives as part of the Mitrinović Archive. Mitrinović and Meštrović were good friends, and on occasion Mitrinović lectured on his friend’s art, although it’s not entirely clear why or how this letter came to be in Mitrinović’s possession.

NAF 1-8-1-4 Letter to Mestrovic from Sebastian Sprott 1919 [detail]

Sebastian Sprott wrote in what feels to me like very correct schoolboy French, telling Meštrović that meeting him was one of the proudest moments of his life. He asked the artist for an autograph, saying that his work had “un effet extraordinaire” on him. Sprott even threw in a Serbian proverb, “Nema smrti bez sudjena dana” (“There is no death except on the destined day”), perhaps to try and impress Meštrović with his knowledge of Southern Slav culture, and express his belief that all the big things in life are governed by Fate.

Sprott isn’t Mitrinović’s only connection to Bloomsbury. Mitrinović lived in the area for many years, and his followers and various groups had their headquarters at 42 and 55 Gower Street, close to the British Museum. As an avid scholar, Mitrinović made good use of the Reading Room. I am hoping to uncover further connections as I catalogue, as it seems so likely that there could have been overlaps between these educated, intellectual circles operating in the same small corner of London at the same time. If you know of any, please do get in touch and let us know! Otherwise, watch this space.

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Moving in Elite Circles: the Blutbund Letters

Mitrinovic's Notes, 'Optimizam' [cropped]

In 1913 -1914 Dimitrije Mitrinović was studying art history in Munich, then one of the centres of the art world. Inspired by Kandinsky’s work and writing, he formed a friendship with the artist and his partner, Gabriele Münter.

Kandinsky and Mitrinović were both convinced of the need for radical change in the world, and felt that this should be led and achieved by the best minds in Europe, and particularly by artists whom they saw as prophets capable of seeing an alternative order. In order to spread their ideas, they set out to publish a Yearbook with articles on cultural and political subjects, as a follow-up to Der Blaue Reiter Almanach (The Blue Rider Almanac) produced by Kandinsky in 1912.

Kandinsky and Mitrinović made contact with Frederik van Eeden (1860 -1932), a Dutch psychiatrist, writer and founder of an intentional community, Walden, and the German philosopher Erich Gutkind (1877 – 1965). Gutkind and van Eeden shared their belief in change being initiated by the intellectual elite, then spreading to wider society. They called for the creation of a “Blutbund” (Blood Band, or Union), bringing together leading figures to effect change. Mitrinović worked furiously to get both the Blutbund and Yearbook off the ground, rattling off letters to politicians, writers, philosophers, philosophers, writers, social critics, political thinkers and leaders across the arts from across Europe and further afield. Amongst those he approached were H.G. Wells, Walter Schücking, Édouard Schuré, Dr. Rudolf Eucken, Ezra Pound, Ivan Meštrović and Stanisław Przybyszewski.

Letter to Erich Gutkind from Mitrinovic 1914 [cropped]

This draft letter to Erich Gutkind is just one of many from this period that survive in the Mitrinović archive here at Bradford. Written in German, Serbo-Croat, French, Russian and English, fortunately some were also later translated by Mitrinović’s circle. To me, Mitrinović’s large, rapid scrawl seems to embody his enthusiasm, conviction and the tremendous energy that he put into the Blutbund and Yearbook project. Although Mitrinović himself was not well known, the fact that he was willing to contact such distinguished men, pitching his vision for the future of Europe and humanity, shows great confidence and perhaps also that sense of great importance and urgency that he attached to his work. This particular letter has a rather nice postscript in which Mitrinović apologies for his imperfect German, but hopes that Gutkind will appreciate what we might call any ‘happy accidents’ that might have crept in.

Letter to Erich Gutkind from Mitrinovic 1914, postscript [cropped]

Sadly for Mitrinović, the First World War put paid to the Blutbund. Nationalist feelings ran high, with the group splitting along broadly German/ non-German lines. A group founded on the idea of creating a fairer, more peaceful world was undone by war. The Yearbook was never produced, despite Mitrinović seeking out contributors again in 1916.

Letter to Kropotkin, London August 1914

Part of what I find fascinating about Dimitrije Mitrinović is his complete refusal to let any setback crush his optimism. Within days of arriving in England as a penniless refugee, he was writing one of his Blutbund letters, urging Peter Kropotkin, the prominent anarchist to support the movement. After the First World War, and doubtless in light of the collapse of the Blutbund, Mitrinović changed tack. Instead of the new world order starting with an elite working to influence the world around them, he would start with more ordinary people who were willing to develop themselves on intellectual and emotional levels. Many in the group he gathered around himself from the 1920s onwards were deeply influenced by his ideas and some would remain devoted to him for the rest of their lives.

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Welcome to The Eleventh Hour!

This blog is my space to share interesting finds from the Mitrinović archive, part of the University of Bradford’s Special Collections. This collection represents the life’s work of Serbian-born philosopher, poet and thinker Dimitrije Mitrinović and the New Atlantis Foundation established after his death to carry on his projects and encourage the study of his ideas. Find out more about the New Atlantis Foundation, now the Mitrinović  Foundation, here. For futher information on Dimitrije Mitrinović, try the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (your public or university library should have a subscription).

NAF9 11th Hour Blog Header

We’re currently at the start of an exciting project to catalogue the complex records created by Mitrinović and his circle, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading about some of the interesting items I’m unearthing. Mitrinović was in contact with philosophers, thinkers, writers and artists across Britain, Europe and further afield. His friends and contacts included Wassily Kandinsky, Ivan Meštrović, Gavrilo Princip, Erich Gutkind, Nobel Prize winner Frederick Soddy, H.G. Wells, Gabriele Münter,  and A.R. Orage. Mitrinović believed in the value of the wisdom of the past, and encouraged the study of works from all periods of history on religion, philosophy, sociology, psychology, and the arts. He created a library, which also fortunately has survived and his now divided between the University of Bradford and the University of Belgrade. Mitrinović’s wide-ranging interests and the fruits of his studies are also reflected in the archive, meaning there really is something to interest almost anyone here!

And why ‘The Eleventh Hour’? Dimitrije Mitrinović was constantly establishing and dissolving various groups in pursuit of his aim to radically alter society, the economy and politics. In 1931 he established The Eleventh Hour Flying Clubs, which became known as The Eleventh Hour Group. The name conveys the sense of urgency that ran throughout his many ventures. Groups of individuals all working towards personal and societal transformation were the cornerstone of Mitrinović’s approach to achieving utopia. It seemed fitting to take the name of one of his groups and use it to help bring this collection to a wider public.

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