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Exhibitions and Projects
Exhibition | 8. 7. 2021 ‒ 13. 2. 2022

Hinko Smrekar


Hinko Smrekar was formed within the Vesna Art Club, a group of young men, dreamers and visionaries, who were often overly sensitive, who suffered from unrequited love or were unable to fulfil their potential. They strived to make something unique, so they focused their efforts on art that would be close to the common Slovenians, without glitter or hidden subtext. To this day, the illustrations of Maksim Gaspari, Gvidon Birolla, Saša Šantel, Ivan Vavpotič and Smrekar make us nostalgic, since they accompanied us throughout our childhood and youth. Even today their characters watch us from calendars and postcards in our homes.

Lack of academic education ultimately benefited Smrekar and enabled him a completely different perspective, evident in his art. Unburdened by the academic study programme, he formed a unique style that was recognizable even to people who did not follow art. He was an autodidact whose drawing technique was perfected to a point even his scenes containing multitudes of people adhere to the rules of anatomy, perspective and composition. His gargantuan body of work includes almost no preparatory sketches, while he often helped himself with photography to make portraits. In most cases we can observe the under-drawing in graphite that was then covered and finished with ink. Drawing with ink and pen was his primary media, often supplemented with watercolour or pastel, but only rarely with gouache. He loved print art and was passionately and sincerely interested in modes of expression offered by different techniques. The technical discipline needed in prints is also evident in his drawings, since he covered entire surfaces with restless strokes and fine dashes and created desired effect by compressing or spreading out his lines.  We do not know how much time he needed for one drawing, but from the testimonies of his contemporaries, Smrekar worked throughout the day, often for more than ten hours. He produced one drawing after another, building a stock that was useful when his illness completely prevented him from working for years.

Smrekar was a peculiarly humorous and insightful observer, who could outline characteristics of human types in a few strokes - he used body language, hand movements, facial expressions or the look in the eyes. He drew the types from everyday life and put them in various narratives. This made the public laugh and it mistook him for a humourist. He resolutely rejected such a label, as well as the notion he was only and exclusively a caricaturist, but was forced to accept it. Smrekar wrote he looked into the Man to find “a sad caricature in opposition of ideal theories and of mostly disgusting practices”, making it plain he became “as much a caricaturist and an almost absolute cynic, like all desperate idealists who lost their faith.”

His artistic talent complemented his reliable sense of the constant phenomena of the times and Smrekar was not only a chronicler of his age but also played a crucial role in spreading new ideals. In Ivan Cankar he did not find only a personal friend but mostly a kindred spirit. Not satire, but the profound confession and reckoning with society is the essence of their works. Resistance to socio-political circumstances that suffocated people’s lives, and mostly the attitude of the ruling society towards the arts and artists, who died early and were rendered irrelevant for their people, are common threads in the works of both men. While Cankar perceived artists in a somewhat sentimental way, Smrekar lashed out at them with gusto, including at himself, art critics and art institutions. “Politics and art criticism are the two careers that require no proof of competence” he sharply wrote in one of his articles, in which he also lashed out at the National Gallery, claiming it had lately completely forgotten that it is first and foremost a Slovenian national institution and that a single painted beehive panel is worth more to us than the entire Louvre or Luxembourg. He took the same position when asked which artists influenced him and said that a small tree from his homeland moved his heart more than all the artistic fashion dictated by Europe.

Smrekar’s courage, openness and honesty are admirable and led not only to his artistic but also historical legitimacy to depict his era and its people. He created a gallery of portraits and caricatures of his contemporaries and with it preserved their authentic nature for future generations. We will probably never know how many details of their professional and private lives or their physical characteristics he captured in his images.

Illustrations for periodicals and books outnumber the socio-political satire and caricatures. Smrekar was a sought-after illustrator who knew well how to take into account the wishes of his clients and how to extract material for his drawing from the text. He also never ran out of ideas.

The exhibition is divided into two parts due to the scope of the author’s body of work and the sensitivity of the material (mostly works on paper). Part One of the exhibition covers the period between 1902 and 1917, showcasing over 160 works of art - illustrated postal cards, illustrations for the books by Ivan Cankar, self-caricatures and caricatures of his contemporaries (he made over 50 of them throughout the years), Slavic Playing Cards and Slavic Tarock, drawings with ethnographic motifs inspired by Slovenian folk songs, socio-political satire and caricature, a cycle of postcards Army in Pictures, large-scale drawings and prints of fairy-tale motifs and scenes from folk superstition and national myths, drawings for the doctor dr. Franc Derganc, drawings made during his imprisonment in Scheifling and illustrations for the story Martin Krpan by Fran Levstik.

Smrekar began writing his autobiography in 1927 and planned to illustrate it as well. Unfortunately, he never completed his work. Only the draft of the introduction remains, in which he put down his memories of from the earliest childhood up to his twelve years-of-age. The draft provides much insight into Smrekar and his family and in it he mentions a range of characters that we come across in his drawings, also.

Hinko Smrekar (video), author: Rok Hace
Hinko Smrekar (video), author: Rok Hace

Author of the exhibition
Alenka Simončič

Tina Buh, Mateja Krapež, Michel Mohor

Conservation-restoration works
Tina Buh

Visual and graphic design
Ranko Novak

Works of art loaned by
Festival Velenje – Velenje Gallery
Miran Jarc Library, Novo mesto
Škofja Loka Museum
Museum and Galleries of Ljubljana
National Museum of Contemporary History of Slovenia
National Gallery of Slovenia
National and University Library, Ljubljana
National Museum of Slovenia
Slovenian Academy of Arts and Sciences
Slovenian Theatre Institute
private collectors

The exhibition was supported by

Part One of the Exhibition
8 July 2021 ‒ 3 October 2021

Part Two of the Exhibition
27 October 2021 ‒ 13 February 2022

Narodna galerija
Prešernova 24
1000 Ljubljana