Nasta Rojc

Illustration: Tea Jurišić / Fierce Women, detail

6.11.1883 – 6.11.1964

Nasta Rojc was born in Bjelovar in 1883, to politician and lawyer Milan Rojc, and his wife Slava Božić.

As a small child of fragile health, Nasta did not fit in with her peers and had little interest in school. 

To her father’s chagrin, she decided she wanted to become an artist, so the two of them struck a deal: the girl would learn how to cook, and in return, her father would pay for her art lessons. She first studied at Oton Iveković‘s private school in Zagreb, before continuing in Vienna and Munich.

Due to the family’s increasingly poor finances, and at the behest of her father, in 1910 Nasta agreed to marry her friend Branko Šenoa, but under certain conditions. “I refuse to sell myself to anyone, not even my esteemed friend who had already once played the role of my fiancé. I want to remain my own person, to find fulfillment in my profession, and earn my own living,“ she wrote.

Nasta mostly painted portraits and self-portraits, which stand out for the artist’s rejection of the ideals of bourgeois femininity. The self-portraits Me, the Fighter, and Self-portrait in a Hunting Suit are good examples of this. In both paintings, the subject looks directly at the viewer, with a rifle slung over her shoulder. She was a passionate equestrian and hunter in real life, too.

Nasta also worked on the promotion and affirmation of Croatian women artists on the local and international scenes. In 1914, she organized an exhibition in Vienna, where her works were shown alongside those of Mila Wood – the first academically trained female sculptor in Croatia, and two women’s folk art associations from Zagreb and Petrinja. Nasta wanted to get exposure for Yugoslav artists in Prague, Ljubljana, Lviv, and St. Petersburg, but World War I interfered with those plans.

She travelled around England in 1924, painting mostly landscapes. Her solo exhibition at the Gieves Art Gallery in London that year was a great success, so the Women’s International Art club invited her to exhibit with them the following year. She accepted, but not before persuading them to also include the works of Lina Crnčić Virant and Zdenka Ostović Pexidr-Srića. In 1927, at the joint initiative of Virant Crnčić and Rojc, the first Croatian professional association of women artists – Klub likovnih umjetnica (The Women’s Art Club) – was founded, and soon held their first group exhibition at the Art Pavillion in Zagreb. “Our idealism is so great that no problem or obstacle can deter us,” stated the club’s secretary, Reska Šandor.

Soon after the war ended, Nasta met the love of her life, the British officer Alexandrina Onslow. She amicably separated from her husband Branko, and she and Alexandra moved into the house/studio on Rokov perivoj 6, which she had designed herself. 

Nasta’s work attracted the attention of Marija Jurić Zagorka, who asked Rojc to contribute a piece to her paper Ženski list. Nasta’s autobiographical text was published on the occasion of her 50th birthday in October 1933. Two years later, she published another essay, entitled “In the Spiritual World of a Woman Artist”.

In the early 1940s, the Ustasha government confiscated Nasta’s house and studio. In 1943, Alexandrina and Nasta were arrested and placed into custody under suspicion of helping the Partisans. After being released for lack of evidence, they continued to support the People’s Liberation Struggle (NOB).

Onslow passed away in 1949, while Rojc died forgotten and impoverished on her own birthday in 1964. The two women were buried in the same tomb in the Mirogoj Cemetery. Art historian Leonida Kovač wrote that through her work Nasta had demonstrated great civic courage, but ultimately paid the price by being erased from the history of modern art in Croatia. Nevertheless, she has slowly been (re)gaining recognition: there have been several major exhibitions over the last few decades, and a graphic novel based on her life, Nasta Rojc: Me, the Fighter, was published in 2019. Her autobiography Shadow, Light, Darkness is also expected to come out soon.

Rokov perivoj 6, Zagreb

Rokov perivoj is one of the most beautiful parks in Zagreb. The place has served multiple functions over the centuries: it began as a group of orchards and vineyards, then it became a graveyard, and in 1918 the land was given to a group of notable artists to build their studios and residencies. Those artists, including Nasta Rojc, Jozo Kljaković, Ljubo Babić, Robert Auer, and Robert Frangeš Mihanović agreed to repay the city by donating some of their works. For instance, Rojc painted five pieces depicting motifs from Zagreb's past, while Frangeš Mihanović designed the well called Elegy that was installed in the park. Today, a small part of Nasta's legacy is kept at the Šenoa House in Mallinova 27 in Zagreb. In her hometown of Bjelovar, a gallery bearing her name operates as part of the City Museum.