The art historian France Stele observed that, after the four baroque painters Valentin Metzinger, Fortunat Bergant, Anton Cebej, and Franc Jelovšek, there has been no generation of painters as distinctive as those who belonged to Slovene Early Modernism. By analogy, this generation is again represented by four distinguished painters: Rihard Jakopič (born and died in Ljubljana 1869–1943), Ivan Grohar (born in Spodnja Sorica above Železniki 1867–died in Ljubljana 1911), Matija Jama (born and died in Ljubljana 1872–1947), and Matej Sternen (born, in Verd near Vrhnika 1870–died in Ljubljana 1949). The main advantage of these four eminent representatives of the Association of Free Artists known as Sava (savani) over the slightly younger Vesna Club of artists (vesnani) was their experience. In the 1890s all four achieved a certain standard of artistic competence, which they then abandoned at the turn of the century only to substitute by a more modern paradygm. If the preceding generation of realist painters had remained more or less within the domain of the established salon realism, which could be followed through every European centre all the way back to Paris, the Sava painters chose to adhere to a more radical artistic paradigm – impressionism, although it was generally regarded in Europe already as a popular rather than an innovative style.
Their intervention coincided with the general reorientation of artistic streams in the large European centres. In Paris, for instance, Fauvist painters moved from the decorative surface of the neoimpressionist division of tones and the decorative, all over surface composition towards a more impulsive, more directly improvised structure of the painting. Expressionist painters in Berlin, and soon afterwards also those in Munich, responded in a similar way to the variety of initiatives concentrated around Art Nouveau institutions, where linear decorativeness was given particular prominence in Jugendstil and Viennese Art Nouveau. The defiance of the avant-garde, which in Central Europe also included some more concrete social goals, in Slovenia met with a pro-nationalist reception.
In Slovenia, stylistic metamorphosis took place under political circumstances, fatefully determined by the national interpellation. The struggle for national institutions in all spheres of social life was also an appeal to the artists to declare their position towards the identity and uniqueness of »Slovene« art. Regardless of whether the major artists cherished any national feelings or not, they were not exempt from the national interpolation taking part in the formation of national art. The story of the above-mentioned members of the Sava Association of Free Artists perfectly illustrates these defining conditions. It was only through reception that their painting could achieve the aura of the national. The stylistic expression which sprang from it dominated the Slovene artistic life for half a century – until the death of the last member, M. Sternen in 1949.
In 1899 the liberal literary-publicist circle in Ljubljana initiated the foundation of the Slovene Art Society, which organized the first art exhibition in the first year of the new century. The exhibition was an opportunity to establish a kind of public record of participating painters and sculptors, as they came from virtually every part of Central Europe. However, when the second exhibition exposed the need to single out the »Slovene direction« from the material, the conflict between the opposing streams and interests caused the dissolution of the Society. Owing to their exclusiveness and control of the selection of the works exhibited and the arrangement of the exhibition itself, the Sava painters created a tremendous stir. Conservative criticism proclaimed the event inadequate on the grounds that the generation of painters was young and immature, whereas certain critics flatly politicized the discourse by calling the painters Foreigners. All these disqualifications had one thing in common: the paintings exhibited could not represent what the public imagined to be the national character of art.
The reason for such a general and fervent disagreement was the fact that the kind of landscape painting that prevailed in the second exhibition could not be promptly internalized and justified by the competent public in terms of the ideological argumentation of the new, »unambitious« (unpretentious) painting. It was only at this late stage that a real challenge was addressed to the artistic establishment, which governed by literary turned art critics. Their position was still based on the traditional academic hierarchy of genres, reflected in their insistence upon »high, programmatic art«.
The period between 1900 and 1904 was reportedly open to several opportunities. Mayor Dr. Ivan Hribar, for instance, needed programmatic institutional art in support of his strategy of national emancipation and the establishment of Ljubljana as the national centre. Hence his commissions of works such as depictions of the emperor and the painting Slovenia Paying Homage to Ljubljana (Slovenija se klanja Ljubljani) for which he himself designed the iconographic programme. It was Ivana Kobilca who executed this painting, though she later regretted having done so. The Vesna painters, who had retreated to the centre of the Empire, were exploring the realm of nostalgic folklore and the fantastic. Peter Žmitek attempted to give monumentality to the genre by shifting it to the format of historical picture; consequently, his painting Beggar with a Toy Church (Berač s cerkvico) received great praise even from such a prominent critic as Dr. Ivan Prijatelj. However, the methods for conceptualising the new landscape painting of the young generation of painters within the national ideological framework were tackled only in 1904 by the Viennese art critics.
The scandal associated with the second exhibition of the Slovene Art Society was the first avantgarde moment in Slovene artistic life. The young generation, which seized the nascent institution in the name of artistic quality, was unable to hold its position. Partly of their own accord and partly on account of the circumstances, the painters Ivan Grohar, Rihard Jakopič and Matej Sternen withdrew to Škofja Loka, while the painter Matija Jama retreated first to the Sotla river region and later to Kordun and Lika in Croatia, where they all pondered the possibilities of establishing themselves abroad. However, none of them was successful in this. Jama was not able to obtain the means to travel to the Dachau marshes, where he so eagerly wanted to paint. Surprisingly, Jakopič spent one semester with the aged Hynais in Prague, which probably fell somewhat short of his expectations. Grohar’s sudden withdrawal to Vienna, where he remained only until the exhibition, seriously undermined his health. Nevertheless, he set himself a firm goal – to prepare an exhibition in Vienna, in the Miethke Salon, but he had to make a considerable effort to win support from his friends.
The circumstances of the success of the Miethke exhibition were highly complex and have still not been satisfactorily explained. The exhibition brought the painters financial success, moreover, they received favourable, albeit short-lived, recognition in Vienna. The fact that the Viennese critics granted the painters who had been rejected in Ljubljana a new artistic position on the map of the empire had a direct bearing on their reception at home. In a few years the public was willing to see this episode as a biblical parable of the rejected stone which became the cornerstone. Jakopič’s painting Autumn Birches (Breze jeseni), Jama’s The Ampera Landscape (Partija ob Amperi), and Grohar’s Spring (Pomlad) represent the character of the exhibition in the best possible way. As far as the iconography and technique of the paintings were concerned, the critics discerned certain Slavonic elements in them, tinged with the western tradition in its most relevant aspects (even neoimpressionism was mentioned in this connection), but above all they were able to perceive enough will power in this group to shake off eclecticism and form a recognizably idiosyncratic style. These very expectations, however, were not entirely realised. In the search of their own style, the Sava painters subsequently reached a little too far into impressionism’s past.
When Ivan Grohar returned from Vienna, he began to dominate public life in Škofja Loka. His work Larch (Macesen) was the second of his large paintings, executed at home while still influenced by the painter Segantini; afterwards he drew inspiration from contacts with Rihard Jakopič’s artistic and, broadly, intellectual views. Consequently, Jakopič conceived a series of paintings of the Kamnitnik hill above Škofja Loka as well as those of birches, which manifest a strikingly broad use of the register of painterly techniques. While the heavy material naturalism of the painting Kamnitnik in the Rain (Kamnitnik v dežju) is well-known from his work of around 1900, his replication of Monet’s colour crust in the small Kamnitnik under Snow (Kamnitnik v snegu) is executed to perfection. However, the divided palette and the rhythmical brush strokes in Sunny Hillside (Sončni breg) are even more astonishing. This exquisite painting, which unfortunately cannot be traced in the reception of Jakopič’s early opus, is of all his works closest to neoimpressionism. It is possible to place all his works between these two extremes.
Jakopič, Grohar and Jama all participated in the exhibition which took place in the Secession building in Vienna in the late winter of 1905. The committee, however, accepted only one painting from each of them. Grohar thus put on view once again his painting Spring (Pomlad), which had successfully been exhibited the previous year, whereas Jama’s painting cannot be firmly identified. Jakopič was introduced by his work Winter (Zima), dated 1904, a motif of Stara Loka. This very painting, which indisputably aspires to a more ambitious stetement and a synthesis, reveals a step backwards from the stylistic crossroads, as defined by the critics of the Miethke exhibition: not in the direction of the decorative impulse of neoimpressionism and subjective expression (Grohar’s paintings were said to be »roughcast«), but rather towards the recasting of the path charted elsewhere more than two decades before.
From the winter of 1904/1905 onwards Grohar, with incredible energy and vehemence, conceived a number of ambitious paintings. These iconic images of pure landscape as well as landscape with figure manifest a tremendous concentration and vital power. Monet’s late paintings are even more profoundly woven into Grohar’s creativity than the Viennese critics perceived. His psychologically-penetrating interpretation was based on his observations of the interplay between light and colours. The motifs are encapsulated in a dreamlike vision resulting from intense contemplation. However, this was a gradual process.
At the outset, Grohar’s Snowstorm in Škofja Loka (Snežni metež v Škofji Loki) was motivated by his utopian intention to execute a large painting immediately before the natural phenomenon. Such a plan may be perfectly feasible in small format such as, for instance, his View from My Window (Pogled z mojega okna), but almost impracticable with a painting of twice the size. Judging by the composition of this work, it is impossible to draw the line between the result of the original campaign and that of the studio treatment. By and large, it is highly improbable that the painting was finished »by the end of the snowstorm«. The lesson which the painter learnt from this experience was that painting is the act of creating an impression of something, and to capture it one has to develop the necessary apparatus as well as the necessary routine. A large number of the winter motifs from his classical Škofja Loka period are technically-conditioned. With whiteness as a basis, it was easy to effectively apply the divided palette and to control the interplay of contiguous colours.
It seems that Jakopič’s departure from Škofja Loka in 1906 resulted once again in the intensification of the symbolist note in Grohar’s works. He began not only to resume his preoccupation with the figure, but he also focused the composition along the vertical axis, so that the objects like the church or the apple tree in the painting Apple Tree in Blossom (Cvetoča jablana) seem to breathe like living organisms. However, the most prominent paintings from this period are considered to be The Štemarje Yard (Štemarski vrt) and Fern (Praprot), in which the emptied centre and light effects support the colour spectacle to such an extent that the eye is already fascinated by the sheer materiality of the colour surface, whereby analogies with natural phenomena are more the consequence of the persistence of habit than the spontaneous hierarchies of looking at the painting.
At a later stage, the material evidence of the painterly process becomes more congruent with the evidence recorded by his contemporaries. The motif, after all, proves to be a matter of study, as exemplified by the oil draft and drawing for the painting Potato Harvest (Krompir). Grohar was known to have worried very much about »losing his motif«. He was aware that, in order to harmonize matter with mood, it was necessary to work out the method to execute the painting. The direct transposition of nature into the painting, whereby the painter would act merely as a technical medium, proved impossible. This is manifested in the paintings which, on account of excessive attempts to achieve perfection, create an impression of the weariness of the surface. We are led to believe that the Slovene adoption of the French experience of this manner of expression was largely instigated by theory.
The character of Matija Jama was in sharp contrast to that of Grohar. While the latter preferred to plunge into his selected subjetc-matter with the utmost emotional intensity, the former would adopt some distance from his motif. Due to this intellectual distance from the world, he was justly labelled as the most orthodox among the Slovene impressionists. Only very rarely would Jama allow the light phenomenon to be transformed by the atmosphere. The bright light, at times in contrast to the shadow, in the paintings Houses in the Snow (Hiše v snegu), Bridge on the Dobra (Most na Dobri), and A Quarry (Kamnolom), radiates with such intensity that we are constantly aware of the process of viewing. Such retinal painting had hitherto been unknown in the Slovene tradition. Only the painting Willows (Vrbe), characterised by the misty veil, created in cooperation with other aspects by the even, pasty application of paint in narrow traces of the brush, can reach deeper than the screen of the sense apparatus.
Matej Sternen is, of all the four impressionists, the painter of mostly urban-oriented motifs. More than anyone else he adhered to figural themes and, even in his early period, he created one of the icons of the time – The Red Parasol (Rdeči parazol). Northern influences in this painting are evident, albeit not authoritatively so. Sternen managed to surpass them by rendering suggestively the colour transformation of light and the reflections of the surface. The small canvas Street in Munich (Ulica v Münchnu) is a rare example of cityscape painting in the Slovene art of that time, displaying a whole chain of initiatives at the end of which there is a hint of Caillebottes’ manner of photographically composed scenes. Equally rare in Sternen’s opus is the motif in the painting Spring Sun (Pomladno sonce), suggesting a daring comparison with Cézanne’s painting Le Clos normand (1885/86). However, all these French models, which only perform the function of a catalyst, were adopted by Sternen via German painters such as Fritz von Uhde, Lovis Corinth, and certain others.
The heroic period of Grohar’s complete absorption in the flickering light of landscape, rising from the spiritual compensation for existential misery, was transformed before his death in 1911 into a spiritual catalyst of symbolic themes. After his return to Ljubljana in 1906, Jakopič’s work became dominated by the internalized visualisations of reflective absorption. The paintings By the Lamp (Pri svetilki) or At the Piano (Pri klavirju) draw on images still based on the effects of light phenomena in the middle-class interior, which is, in terms of approach and artistic problems, fairly close to the virtually life-size compositions by Sternen, On a Divan (Na divanu) or Woman Playing the Violin (Violinistka). In the second decade, this intimate world was to grow with Jakopič, into a metaphor for the human soul, as exemplified in the painting Memories (Spomini). The vigorous palette, which we come across first in Sunny Hillside (1903), then in Križanke in Autumn (Križanke jeseni), dated 1909 and demonstrating festive vivacity, in Memories (1912) almost dissolves the contours of the objects into a glimmer of colour patches, and the mood into the inner experience of the absorbed psyche. Around the year 1912 most paintings were executed in this very manner.
At the turn of the second decade the critics had already observed that the avantgarde impulse in Slovenska Moderna, which had been founded on impressionism, was beginning to lose its vital power. The middle class developed a taste for landscape cast in a colour dance of light and melting contours which it understood as »Slovene«. Its supporters organised a campaign for the rehabilitation of the painters immediately after the Miethke exhibition, which they sustained at the Yugoslav exhibitions in Belgrade in 1904 and Sophia in 1906. However, a marked change in the reception of impressionism occurred with the reaction of the right-wing of the critical spectrum to Grohar’s painting Sower (Sejalec) in Trieste in 1907. This work epitomizes the Slovene myth - the stolid nation of peasants facing an unforeseeable future. When the painting was exhibited for the first time, the critic meaningfully missed the time of the action, namely an early and foggy morning which is in fact high noon!
Impressionist painting became the mental image of the native landscape, providing the bourgeois patron with comfort and escapism into pastoral worlds. It found its audience in the social class which strove to acquire self-confidence and power beyond national economic and political life. The authority of such an image cast long shadows. They reached as far as the beginning of the second half of the century, more often than not preventing the younger modernist movements from establishing their position in Slovenia. Paintings such as Jakopič’s depictions of the river Sava and his still-lifes, Jama’s Circle Dance (Kolo) or Snow in Tivoli (Sneg v Tivoliju), and Sternen’s later nudes as well as his depictions of middle-class women in interiors, all confirm the vitalism of stylistic persistence which, in the artistically- declarative sense, presented the younger generation of painters with high standards. This is further supported by the attempts at political discreditations after the First World War, when the issue of the national in art once again became highly topical.
In 1912 Jakopič was still able to strongly stamp his influence on Slovene art, largely thanks to paintings such as Memories and others. Four years later, when he executed The Green Veil (Zeleni pajčolan), he swung back to the allegorically-oriented portrait of the 19th century. In the next three decades, all three fellow-painters, without the prematurely deceased Grohar, created with rare intensity. In spite of all, the time was marked by the occasional emergence of extraordinary works, albeit works which deserve such a label only as far as the framework of an individual opus and the production of a given generation is concerned, because the more progressive artistic trends were already taking over the podium. With respect to their artistic-aesthetic and cultural-historical significance, the achievements of this generation have, as yet, not been surpassed in the Slovene artistic activity of the twentieth century. The rise of Slovenska Moderna, on the other hand, is the climax that can be compared only to the achievements in the artistic production of the late 15th and mid 18th centuries in Slovene territories.