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 five or six artists and two art centres – Ljubljana and Ptuj. Etchers from Ljubljana 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. Among the Ptuj printmakers Luigi Kasimir and his wife Tanna Hoerness dedicated their careers to the graphic arts. Luigi’s sister Elsa married a northerner Jan Oeltjen. They pulled prints occasionally through the early 1930s, and in their oeuvre we can find also the motifs from Ptuj and its surroundings.
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 dry-point, 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.
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 under Šantel’s mentorship 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.
Luigi Kasimir and Tanna Hoernes established an internationally renowned printing enterprise in Vienna, while they spent the private part of their lives in Ptuj. Their highly perfected technique of colour etching and aquatint as well as lithography bypassed the Impressionist idea of the artist’s print. They reached back to the tradition of the Impressionist predecessors as well as to the romantic and Biedermaier aesthetics of the picturesque pursued in the urban environment. Elsa Kasimir pulled a dry-point here and there only. Jan Oeltjen, however, was familiar with etching at least from 1905 when he linked up with the Munich Society of Etchers. His etching style was based on the models of Adolf Schienerer and Max Liebermann, who were familiar with Impressionist achievements. His lithographic series Sunday was markedly influenced by Oskar Kokoschka, while he linked up with Max Pechstein and Karl Scmidt-Rottluff after the First World War, which is evidenced in his woodcuts. These prints bring him closer to the Expressionist tendencies of the artistic circles in Ljubljana after 1920.
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.
National Gallery of Slovenia in cooperation with Božidar Jakac Museum of Art and Art Gallery of Maribor
Author and Editor
Prints lent for the exhibition by:
Goriški muzej, Grad Kromberk; Moderna galerija, Ljubljana; Narodna galerija, Ljubljana; Narodni muzej Slovenije, Ljubljana; Pokrajinski muzej Ptuj; Umetnostna galerija Maribor; zasebni lastniki v Ljubljani in Kostanjevici na Krki
The exhibition and the catalogue were subsidized by the
Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Slovenia