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Exhibitions and Projects
Exhibition | 14 Dec. 2023 – 17 Mar. 2024

Drawings of Janez Potočnik in the Collection of the National gallery of Slovenia

Within the history of Slovenian art, Janez Potočnik stands as a unique enigma between the generation of Baroque painters and the generation of artists of Romanticism, or Biedermeier respectively. In view of the fact that he did not belong to the painters of Layer’s circle in Kranj, it seems reasonable to regard his oeuvre as a direct succession of Baroque tradition, with Anton Cebej of Ljubljana as its last representative. The meaning of Potočnik’s painting lies mainly in bourgeois portraits, although his first images of the rising middle class are schematic, rendered rather awkwardly and painted without real creative imagination. It has been believed so far that the quality of Potočnik’s rather ample oeuvre gradually declined, which was ascribed by authors to his handicap, for he was held to have been deaf and speech-impaired. He has left behind a bundle of academy drawings, outstanding in their ambition, now housed in the National Gallery of Slovenia and the National Museum of Slovenia. Older authors reported that Potočnik had studied at the Vienna Academy, but Izidor Cankar and Viktor Steska could not find any positive evidence to this fact, so Cankar believed that the drawings had been made in Carniola.

Izidor Cankar was misled by the erroneous reading of the surname in the matriculation register of the Vienna Academy for the year 1775, which was read Pogatshnigkinstead of the correct Pototschnigk, painter. This correction confirms that Potočnik was indeed enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, at least in the academic year 1775/1776 – two of his drawings are dated 1776. Even more: almost half of the surviving drawings are copied from the examples by Jakob Matthias Schmutzer (1733–1811), director of the Kupferstecherakademie (Copper-Plate-Engraving and Drawing School) that was in 1772 integrated into the Academy. Schmutzer, being director, decided on the admission of candidates also after this year. He had two blind children himself, and for this reason he possibly had more compassion for the deaf painter; very likely he was his mentor. It was Cankar who already expressed some doubt about the degree of Potočnik’s handicap. Namely, Potočnik was able to write, since a private tutor was employed in their family, but before going to study in Vienna, he must have been trained as a painter somewhere in Carniola. He signed and mainly also dated more than half of his works documented so far, numbering more than a hundred.

Between 1772 and 1778, Jožef Potočnik, Janez’s younger brother, was also staying in Vienna, studying law at the University there and most probably taking care of his elder brother. However, Janez remained in the imperial city only for two semesters of the academic year. There may have been two reasons. First, the students who failed to reach the required standards after the first year were dismissed. And second, in September 1776, his father Gašper Potočnik died, which possibly had such a negative impact on the family’s budget that it was impossible to provide for two students in Vienna.

When compared to Schmutzer’s examples, Potočnik’s drawings show his copying skills, whereas his drawings after live models are weaker. He proves to be the same also in his later painting work. Where he could rely on a concrete example, he was much more effective than in compositions of his own invention. This double characteristic can be traced from the very beginning of his artistic production. The models by Baroque predecessors were gradually losing topicality, which Potočnik was unable to compensate for with his own creativity. Scarce biographical data nevertheless show that he lived in Ljubljana as a painter on his own, supporting his aged mother, as well as his sister who ran the household and died at the same address fourteen years after him. The bundle of Potočnik’s drawings from the Academy bears historical testimony and is exceptional by its extent and ambition in our heritage but exerted no significant influence on the painter’s oeuvre, as Izidor Cankar has already observed.  

The exhibition includes 58 drawings, 2 canvases and 1 watercolour.

Author of the exhibition
Andrej Smrekar

Project leader
Katra Meke

Conservation-restoration works for the exhibition
Tina Buh

Exhibition set-up
Andrej Smrekar, Matic Tršar

The works of art were loaned by
National Gallery of Slovenia
National Museum of Slovenia

The project was supported by

14 December 202317 March 2024
National Gallery of Slovenia
Narodni dom Gallery
Cankarjeva 20
1000 Ljubljana