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Today's Hours
Museum: 10:00 AM - 7:00 PM
Gardens: 7:00 AM - 5:30 PM
Dzigurski, Alexander
(1911-1995)
Specialty: Paintings
View Artwork
When Alexander Dzigurski was born on February 1, 1911, it was into a land
already stained by conflict and entering a period of even greater
adversity. An ethnic Serb, Dzigurski was born in the region of Backa, then
part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Some miles to the south was the newly
independent principality of Serbia. The kingdom of Serbia had originally
been established in 1166, but after its defeat at the Battle of Kosovo in
1389 became part of the Ottoman Empire for the next 500 years. A few
decades before Alexander's birth, a portion of the former kingdom had
regained its independence following the defeat of the Ottomans in the
Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. But Backa, part of Vojvodina (the former
northern section of the kingdom of Serbia), remained part of the
Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had taken it from the Turks in the 18^th
century. It was considered administratively part of the Kingdom of Hungary
though it was ethnically diverse, containing among other groups, large
numbers of Serbs and Croats who periodically revolted against the control
of the Empire. In the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, the independent principality
of Serbia regained some of its former territories, but not the northern
provinces, including Vojvodina, which were still held by the
Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1914, a Serbian nationalist assassinated
Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Empire, striking the
spark that ignited World War I. At the age of 7, Alexander Dzigurski had
never known his country to be at peace.

There was little peace at home either; Alexander showed an early interest
in the arts, an inclination discouraged by his father Jovan, a wheat
farmer. Nonetheless, with the support of his mother and the Serbian
Orthodox Church, Alexander was able to attend the School of Art in
Belgrade while living at the Monastery Rakovica and earning his keep doing
restorations of old iconostases and painting portraits for private
families. In the meantime in the aftermath of World War I, the Kingdom of
the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes had been established in 1918, encompassing
the previous nations of Serbia (including Vojvodina this time),
Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia-Slavonia, and Dalmatia. King Peter
I of Serbia became monarch of the new country, succeeded by his son
Alexander I in 1921. Two significant events occurred in Dzigurski's life
in 1929: he graduated from art school, and the king who shared his name
established dictatorial powers after Croatia sought independence, renaming
his subjugated kingdom Yugoslavia. Dzigurski seemed unaffected at first;
as a gifted student, he was allowed to study abroad at the Academy of Art
in Munich, Germany. But, toward the end of 1930, he volunteered for two
years in the King's Navy. This experience impacted greatly on his
attraction to marine subjects, as well as the familiarity that allowed him
to paint seascapes of unusual power.

After his military service, Dzigurski married his longtime girlfriend
Lenka, despite the objections of both fathers, and opened his first studio
in the city of Novi Sad, supporting his family with ecclesiastical
commissions. In 1933, his daughter Jelena was born. But her childhood
would be as riven by political strike as her father's had been. In 1934,
Alexander I was assassinated by a Croatian sympathizer. Because of the
youth of his son, Prince Peter, his cousin, Prince Paul, was appointed
regent. Overwhelmed by events as Nazi Germany and fascist Italy moved
toward World War II, Prince Paul signed the Axis Pact on March 25, 1941,
hoping Yugoslavia could avoid direct conflict. Instead, his action so
outraged his people that a coup was staged two days later and Paul and his
family confined in exile in Kenya for the remainder of the war. In
retaliation, Hitler ordered the invasion of Yugoslavia on April 6.
Dzigurski was drafted into the Yugoslav army that same April, but most of
his unit was taken prisoner within weeks. He managed to escape and joined
his wife and daughter in his old home town of Stari Becej. But he soon
learned the Nazis were planning to arrest him and likely send him to the
Russian front as forced labor. Instead, he and his family went to Belgrade
where he signed contracts to work in Germany. But on the trip to Germany,
they managed to escape and fled to Vienna where he found work as a
housepainter and they all managed to survive till the end of the war.

After the war, he returned briefly to Yugoslavia, but when Tito, who had
led a provisional government as head of the guerillas called Partisans in
1943, took control of the country, abolishing the monarchy and
establishing the Communist Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia in
1945, Dzigurski fled to Italy. For several years, he established himself
as a fine artist in Rome, but with the support and financial aide of the
Serbian Orthodox Church in America, he was able to bring his family to
Pennsylvania in 1949. He began his art career in the U.S. by painting
iconostases for nine Pennsylvania churches. In the 1950s, he and his
family began traveling around the States and Dzigurski began to branch out
into landscapes, particularly of the Rockies in California, where he
eventually settled. He also started producing the ocean views and
seascapes that became his forte: a New York Times critic referred
to him as "poet of the sea". Dzigurski himself once declared that the
solitary beauty and grandeur of his mountain and ocean scenes were a
metaphor for the freedom and peace he had enjoyed since coming to America.

Though depression led Dzigurski to stop painting after the death of his
beloved Lenka in 1968, he found new inspiration when a broken arm led to
his introduction to nurse Dorothy Dravis, who became his second wife.
Their son Alex has followed in his father's footsteps, becoming an artist
in his own right. Alexander Dzigurski died in 1995. His work is featured
in a number of museums and private collections, including three works,
Seascape, December Sunset, and Moonlight, Carmel, in
the R.W. Norton Art Gallery's permanent collection.

Everl Adair, Director of Research and Rare Collections