Croatian Artists: Preserving Our Father’s Legacy


CroatiaWhen you see Villa Marijan for the first time, your eyes are drawn to the white stone building cradled into the green hillside of this northern suburb of Dubrovnik, Croatia. Then you see the sculptures – busts, sensuous statues of women and abstract figures of human beings.

Yet the sculptor is nowhere to be found, and the villa is run by his sons.

Maro and Neven Kockovic are rebuilding – rebuilding their home and lives in Dubrovnik, and rebuilding their father’s legacy as an artist. It’s hard to say which is the most challenging. Maro, 25, and Neven, 24, lost both of their parents just a few months before Croatia declared its independence in 1991. Both events forced them to leave their home, a large villa filled with the sculptures created by their famous father, artist Marijan Kockovic.

Maro Kockovic, age 25, runs a TV commercial production company.

Maro, 25, now lives in Dubrovnik and runs a television commercial production company, while Neven, 24, studies double bass at the Academy in Skopje, Macedonia. Even as Croatia refashions itself after war, Croatia’s artists are also re-emerging. But the only collected exhibit of the man who sculpted over 300 pieces and fashioned 250 tapestries is in the garden of the Villa Marijan.

“His work has been sleeping for almost 15 years,” Neven Kockovic, Mr. Kockovic’s younger son, says. “To many young artists, his work is yet unknown, but we plan to change that.”

Marijan Kockovic sculpted busts of President John F. Kennedy , Josef Broz Tito and Yul Bryner. Sophia Loren bought some of his works, and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton visited his villa when they were in Dubrovnik filming a bio-epic of Tito’s life. He created works for the Sears Tower and hotels and factories around the world.

Marijan Kockovic was known simply as “Marijan of Dubrovnik” during a 45-year career that ended with his suicide in 1991. Since then, Croatia has become an independent country, and Croatian artists are once again exhibiting their works. Yet Marijan is no longer well known, even in his home country.

Maro and Neven are working to change that.

Neven Kockovic, 24, is a musician studying double bass at the Academy in Skopje, Macedonia.

Born in Zagreb in 1923, Marijan Kockovic fought in World War II, serving aboard a US PT boat and as a captain in the British Navy during that time. After the war, he attended the Fine Arts Academy in Ljubljana and taught there and in Sarajevo before moving to Dubrovnik. He gathered many honors during his career, including receiving the title of academician in Italy, for his achievements in the field of art, Maro says.

But then came the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Just as the war between the regions was breaking out, tragedy also struck the Kockovic family. Marijan committed suicide in his home on May 30 1991, one day before his wife, Slobodanka Djokic-Kockovic, also an artist, died after a prolonged battle with cancer. Slobodanka Djokic-Kockovic had been in a coma for six days before dying. Maro was 14 and Neven was 13 at the time. One month later, Croatia declared its independence.

“We had our school break for summer, and we had time to get a grip and to think about what was best for us,” Maro says. “You can imagine what I could decide when I was 14 years old, and that was almost nothing, except the fact that I wanted to stay in Dubrovnik in our house.

Between September 1991 and 1993, Maro and Neven lived with their mother’s sister in Nis, Serbia.

“Since none of our relatives were living [in Dubrovnik], we had to choose. We could go to orphanage or to go to our aunt’s place in Nis, Serbia,” Maro says. “We didn’t want to go to [an] orphanage.”

Maro and Neven returned in 1993 after persuading the Croatian ambassador to Hungary – who coincidentally knew their father — to give them an entrance visa back into their country. Maro and Neven are now hoping to recapture some of their father’s prominence to assure his legacy.

Dubrovnik is once again the “jewel of the Adriatic,” with lovingly repaired terracotta roofs on the houses within the Old Town.

“Young artists are not familiar with ‘Marijan’s’ art,” Neven says. “People need to be reminded, and that is what we are trying to accomplish.”

Although both sons regret the 11 years that elapsed between their parents’ death and their new efforts, the young men were busy reconstructing their own lives after the war.

“Some of the guilt for that belongs to us, but most on the situation that we were in,” Maro says. “The main problem of Marijan’s name being forgotten is that we were too young to work on his heritage or to continue with art business, and the time passed quickly. We had to run our own lives.”

Currently, the Kockovics rent out rooms in their house to visitors, taking advantage of the surge in tourist trade. The city of Dubrovnik has once again retaken its position as jewel of the Adriatic, but signs of the war remain. Shrapnel and shell marks dot stone walls and pit streets in places, while new tiles in the city’s famous tile roofs are of a different shade of terracotta.

The contrast between the new and old tiles testifies to the fact that more than 68 percent of the old city was destroyed during the bombing of the city between 1991 and 1992. About $55,000 worth of damage was done to the house during the war and in a 1995 earthquake, Maro says.

Just as the city has been rebuilt, Kockovic’s sons are rebuilding Marijan’s reputation. The artist’s atelier has been reopened, and Neven and Maro plan to reestablish relationships with academic institutions.

One of Kockovic’s sculptures on display in the gardens beside the villa.

“We will contact some big art colleges in the world about projects of summer schools, seminars and workshops in the villa Marijan, so artists from all around the world can be surrounded with 50 statues in the garden gallery and atelier and can work in the right ambience during their vacations,” Neven says.

But just as Croatia is coming to terms with its past, art, and artists’ roles during the Tito years are being examined, with some being judged as political exponents. In 1978, Tito posed for the artist four times during 1978, and Marijan made seven busts in marble “with Tito’s blessing,” Neven says.

One bust was given to Tito on his birthday 1978, while two of those seven are in the family’s possession. One of the two is on display, nestled into the green shrubs near the villa’s main entrance.

Neither brother thinks their father’s current anonymity is linked to his work during the years of the Yugoslav federation, including the sculptures of Tito, but Maro admits that there are lingering tensions.

“Some of the people are not happy because Tito was a friend of our father, and he visited the house and posed for him,” Maro says. “We are not afraid, and we are willing to work with his heritage because he was an artist and not a politician.”

Looking outside of Croatia, Maro and Neven would also like to see another international tour for their father’s artwork. Marijan toured the United States extensively over his 35-year career, with exhibits in Philadelphia, New York and Washington DC, among other locations. He also ran a summer program in sculpture in Dubrovnik in 1972 for Hope College of Holland, Michigan.

Marijan Kockovic called Dubrovnik “pure energy.” It’s hard to disagree, given this view of the Adriatic Sea from the villa’s balcony.

“We plan to contact some big art philanthropists, some galleries and some of the celebrities [Kockovic knew] that are still alive to help organize an art expo-show,” Neven says. “We hope in time those traveling exhibitions will become self-maintained.”

But even as the young men consider exhibitions abroad, the goal is to bring people to the artist’s home city of Dubrovnik, which both sons love, as their father did.

“He did [a] lot of things for Dubrovnik, which he loved the most,” says Maro. “He used to call it ‘pure energy,’ and I agree with him. It’s such a beautiful town with such a unique local population.”