If we try to imagine the beginnings of modern printmaking in Slovenia we can truly talk of first impressions in more ways than one. Before the first blossoming in 1921, printmaking was a rather hermetic discipline limited to the names of three or four local artists, who took up the art for their own individual reasons and were not, apart from Saša Šantel, overly occupied with it. To these exceptions we can add Helena Vurnik, who had already conquered the basic techniques during her studies and occasionally made Secession-style graphic prints using etching and aquatint. The Sternens tried out printmaking solely by teaching themselves. This is why their proofs can be classed as the first prints in Slovenian modern art, and the first impressions in the personal oeuvres of the Slovenian pioneers of modern printmaking.
We find original printmaking influenced by illustration in the works of the Vesna club members. Saša Šantel first tried out woodcuts after 1908, and returned to Munich to study printmaking in 1913. Hinko Smrekar first began working with printmaking before he was called up into the army in 1915. He produced some fairytale motifs using a combination of etching and aquatint, or mezzotint. The technical achievement of Smrekar’s prints can be compared to those of Helena Vurnik. Her graphic oeuvre was mainly produced in Vienna before 1915. As in the work of Smrekar and Šantel, the prints of Helena Vurnik also display the traditional trade discipline of arts and crafts schools. In their oeuvres, the impressions that arose from applicative and illustrative intentions only rarely achieved the independence of an artist's print. They approached emancipation through technical experimentation and low print runs, which gives their intentions a sense of intimacy.
In his later life, Sternen claimed that he began to use the classical etching technique on occasions by teaching himself, and already at Ažbe’s school in around 1902/03. He also resolutely placed the time when his interest in the technique dwindled to 1906/07. He mostly tried out etching and drypoint, as well as soft ground etching (vernis mou) and monotype. A large part of his graphic prints represent copies following the erotic images of Félicien Rops, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Max Klinger and probably others. He chose to emulate artists who were innovators in printmaking techniques. He regarded prints with the eyes of a painter, looking for painterly effects. Finally he limited himself to monotype only, but he always intertwined unusual treatments and additions into the technique, which makes it difficult to describe with more precision. In his bequest, several prints have been signed by his wife Rozalija Klein-Sternen. Among these, the etching At Etching draws special attention since this is the earliest example of self-reflection in Slovenian printmaking. Most of the prints by both Sternens disclose at first glance that they were not intended for the general public and are a sort of artist's proofs. Collectors, however, should be careful with individual sheets because some of the plates still exist and prints might have been occasionally pulled from them.
As soon as we enter the third decade, however, from its threshold a new world opens up in Slovenian printmaking. The first prints were predominantly connected to the turn of the century art nouveau, the Vienna Secession and Munich. In 1921, Tone Kralj was still looking back to Klimt and the Wiener Werkstätte, while Veno Pilon brought an ambition motivated by social preoccupation from Prague and Florence, which could not be compared to anything like it before. At the same time Božidar Jakac cut his first poetic woodcuts and, from Prague, introduced into Slovenian art the images of enchantment over the urban environment, which remained picturesque despite social distress. It is only from here that the real perspective of Slovenian creative printmaking opens out, which reached its climax in the second half of the century with the so-called Ljubljana School of Graphics.
Exhibition to complement
27th biennial of graphic arts
Ljubljana, 6. 9. – 28. 10. 2007
Curator of the exhibition
Lenders to the exhibition
Galerija Božidar Jakac, Kostanjevica na Krki
Moderna galerija, Ljubljana
Narodna galerija, Ljubljana
Narodni muzej Slovenije, Ljubljana
Zasebna zbirka, Kostanjevica na Krki
Zasebna zbirka, Ljubljana
Project was made possible by Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Slovenia
4 September–28 October 2007
Narodni dom Gallery