In the last decades of the 19th century, the Slovene artistic scene was revitalised by the new generation of academically-educated sculptors, which established entirely new quality criteria in sculpture production in Slovenia. The Slovene sculpture of the 19th century was thus marked by the gradual decline of the baroque and craft carving tradition. Academic realism, introduced by Alojzij Gangl (born, Metlika 1859–died, Prague 1935), applied new formal principles to a number of public monuments as well as portrait and genre sculpture. These realistic tendencies were soon joined by those artists who adhered to naturalism, Rodin and also Art Nouveau features. Consequently, the sculpture of the first decades of the 20th century was characterised by a variety of styles and orientations, all testifying to the revitalisation of Slovene sculpture. The majority of these artists obtained their education from the Viennese Academy of Fine Arts, where they adopted new, at least partially modernist, views with which they attempted to keep abreast of contemporary modernism in painting.
Alojzij Gangl may be considered the pioneer of the revitalisation of Slovene sculpture. Between the years 1885 and 1888, while he was a student at the Viennese Academy, he created the first national public monument to the poet Valentin Vodnik (1887–1889). Another important achievement of Gangl’s is his sculptural decoration of the Provincial Theatre (as it was known at the time, it is currently called The Opera House). His draft for the sculpture Genius of the Theatre (Genij Gledališča), dated to the beginning of the last decade of the 19th century, draws on the baroque picaresque tradition, at the same time manifesting the influences of J.-B. Carpeaux and A. Rodin.
The portraits of Fran Šuklje (1886), who supported Gangl when he was a student, and Josip Stritar (1894) are typical examples of realist portrait sculpture, albeit still marked by some baroque precepts. With his sculpture Humouresque – A Jew (Humoreska – Žid), dated between 1905 and 1910, Gangl managed to create an instant, picturesque impression of the figure, set in front of a background which suggests the dynamic and lively configuration of the space. While executing this work, he was probably influenced by M. Rosso, the most important sculptor of the impressionist movement.
Alojzij Repič stands as the most significant promoter of academic realism. In the permanent collection he is represented by his portrait of Jurij Šubic, from his long series of depictions of Slovene artists.
Ivan Zajec (born and died, Ljubljana 1869–1952) was undoubtedly one of the most outstanding sculptors of this period. After completing his studies at the Viennese Academy, he continued to work in Vienna, where he also executed his best-known sculpture–a monument to the poet France Prešeren.
The works of Ivan Zajec kept by the National Gallery exceed in number those of all other sculptors, however, the permanent collection displays only selected items from his enormous opus. In his work, Zajec characteristically combines different styles and experiments with a variety of genres. Moreover, his sculptures betray certain features which he adopted during his study visits to Italy, Munich, and Paris, where he became fascinated with Rodin’s sculpture. His work Startled Satyr (Prestrašeni Satir) goes back to the time when he was still a postgraduate student at the Viennese Academy in 1894, and is executed in the neobaroque academic style. The monumental sculpture Adam and Eve (Adam in Eva) or Expelled from Eden (Izgon iz raja), dated 1896, which belongs to the same Viennese period, was influenced by the Italian renaissance.
The work The Cossack’s Dream (Kozakove sanje), from the beginning of this century, is an example of a sculpture made in the new style, with a melancholy note, wrapping the central figure in the impressionist image of an imaginary space. Zajec introduced this work at the Salon Exhibition in Paris in 1905. Zajec’s last work from the permanent collection is the bas-relief Conflagration (Požar), dated at around the year 1910. This sculpture, which was evidently modelled on Rodin, brings together the vivid, dynamic image of movement, and an emphasized sharpness of outline and impression of space.
The central artistic figure of this first generation of Slovene sculptors was without doubt Franc Berneker (born, Slovenj Gradec 1874–died, Ljubljana 1932), who was also educated at the Viennese Academy of Fine Arts. He was the only sculptor to have taken part in the noted Miethke Exhibition of the members of the art group Sava in 1904. Berneker is also the author of probably the most beautiful public monument in Ljubljana, the sculpture Primož Trubar, located on Prešernova cesta.
It is noteworthy that Berneker crossed the threshold of modern expression and thus in many respects superseded the academic standpoints of his mentors. After completing his studies, until the outbreak of the First World War, he lived and worked in Vienna, where he also became acquainted with the works of the Belgian sculptor C. Meunier. While still a student at the Academy, his teachers familiarised him with the artistic principles of the leading sculptor of the time, A. Rodin. Consequently, Berneker developed a picturesque, modern approach to the plastic form, entirely subjugated to his own vision and expression rather than to mere realistic imitation. The majority of his works presented in the permanent collection were executed in his Viennese period such as, for instance, the lovely portrait of two little girls in marble, Zdenka Vidic and Mira Ban, dated around 1907. The female portrait or Female Head (Ženska glava) from 1909, is a bust created in the Rodin style, which is evident from its clear, simplified forms as well as from the typical rough modelling of the lower part of the sculpture, presenting a contrast and tension with the perfect design of the head. The bronze sculpture Portrait of a Girl (Portret deklice) is one of Beneker’s most striking works, stylistically also modelled on Rodin’s ideals.
The group Victims (Žrtve), which Beneker carved in white marble in 1906, is a modern work in form as well as in thematization pertaining to the fin-de-sičcle sentiment of suffering and the tragic. A similar theme can be found in the sculptor’s most monumental work, Catastrophe (Katastrofa) or Drama (Drama), dated 1905. This sculpture was introduced at several exhibitions abroad while still in plaster. Its original title, Drama from the Revolution (Drama iz revolucije), is self-explanatory as it illuminates the theme of the figural group of three innocent victims of the meaningless, sporadic violence. The small bronze sculpture The Drowned Couple (Naplavljenca), completed around 1903, develops a similar motif; with this masterpiece Beneker demonstrated a remarkable ability in the modelling of figures and thus created one of the most outstanding works of art in modernist sculpture in Slovenia. Here, the descriptiveness of the realistic treatment of the surface has completely given way to the vivid and lively substantiality, whereby the base of the relief displays its own, autonomous semantic potential, complementary to the whole.
Svetoslav Peruzzi (born, Lipe on the Ljubljana Barje 1881–died, Split 1936) spent only a short creative period in his homeland, since from 1910 until his death he lived in Split (Croatia). Among other places, he studied at the Viennese Academy, and soon made his reputation with his monument to the Emperor Franz Joseph (1903, later remodelled into a monument to Fran Miklošič). His sculpture is notable for its placid realistic tone as much in his work Reclining Female Nude (Ležeči ženski akt), dated 1904, as in his numerous portraits, two of which are also exhibited in the permanent collection, those of the painter Gvidon Birolla (1904) and the Protestant writer Primož Trubar (1907). However, symbolism in its Viennese Secession variant is the main stylistic feature of the portrait Let Us Love One Another, Let Us Not Give up (Ljubimo se, ne vdajmo se) from the year 1903.
Among the sculptors whose works represent the creativity in Slovenia until the First World War, Lojze Dolinar (born, Ljubljana 1893–died, Ičići near Opatija 1970) happens to be the youngest one. Largely under the influence of I. Meštrović, Dolinar developed his personal style only between the wars. The Gallery’s permanent collection exhibits two of his early sculptures from his rich opus, Group with Unicorn (Skupina z enorogom) from 1913 and the statue Blind Man (Slepi) from 1912. The latter is a profoundly modern work, whereby the form is totally submitted to the artist’s expression.