FRAN TRATNIK’S PAINTING
Fran Tratnik was a painting virtuoso and one of the first Slovenian fine artists to perceive drawing as artwork in its own right. His large-format drawings, which he entered in group exhibitions at the start of the previous century, prefigure the expressionist period in Slovenian art. He is considered the link between the first generation of modern artists (impressionists) and early expressionists. Tratnik’s high quality painting remained overshadowed by his drawing; even the catalogue of the retrospective exhibition and the monograph issued at the occasion of the artist’s seventieth birthday pay comparably little attention to his painting, though he painted throughout all his creative periods. Tratnik’s body of drawings is relatively small like his painting, which is presently represented in mere tens of paintings. Occasional discoveries of Tratnik’s previously unknown paintings and writings mentioning formerly displayed paintings not all of which remain known today, lead us to believe that we only know fragments of Tratnik’s painting and that his opus has thus far not been sufficiently examined.
Fran Tratnik entrusted Kristina Brenkova with an anecdote, less well known than the more often cited story about his satirical drawing on the school blackboard, which first apprised his teacher of his talents. Tratnik explains how his father brought him a box of oil paints and brushes from Celje. The boy asked his blind nanny Mica, which saint he should paint on the almost meter-high canvas. Mica asked him to depict her patron saint Mary in the clouds. A carpenter built him a frame. The praise of neighbours and family encouraged Tratnik to go to the presbytery in Rechica and ask the parish priest to hang the painting on the altar. The priest gave him a twenty-coin, told him to be a good boy, but replied that the painting could not be hung on the altar. »I went weak at the legs, picked the wrapping paper from the floor, clutched the painting under my arm forgetting the twenty on the desk. It stayed there. Restless, I returned home with my painting across the Savinja River gravel, painting under my arm. When it got dark I went to sleep in the hayrack with it. The following morning I took ‘Mary’ to the affiliate church Kokarje, I drove a spike into the wall by the main altar and hung it there. There it hangs to this day – a reminder of my youthful disappointment.« 1
Tratnik received modest early instruction from artist Gosar in Celje. In 1898, he went to Prague to enrol in the academy of fine arts. He was too young to be accepted. He stayed in Prague perfecting his skills on his own, drawing various motifs and reading books on painting. The following year, upon presenting his drawings, he was allowed to take the entrance exam. At 18, in spite of insufficient previous education, he became a regular student at the academy in Prague.2
At the academy, Tratnik was mostly taught by painters. He spent a semester painting under Prof. Bohumir Roubalik and another semester sculpting under Prof. Václav Brozhík. He did not succeed in finishing the five-year specialist programme because his family was unable to lend him sufficient financial support. During the holidays his father suggested Tratnik stay home and make a living painting for churches. In 1902, the support of Celje based lawyer Jozhe Sernec enabled him to enrol at the academy in Vienna; after losing this funding he continued his studies in 1903 at the academy in Munich. In his first semester he took Karl Marr’s religious painting class, transferring to specialist classes under Prof. Angel Jancek in the second semester. During his time in Munich, he coined a friendship with painters Walter Trier and A. Eberl.3 He also became acquainted with Anton Azhbe, who lent him financial support4 and possibly at least occasionally visited Azhbe’s painting school.5
In 1905, he exhibited his oil painting »The Burnt« (1905) at the Munich Kunstwerein. The painting depicted burnt remains of Tratnik’s native village and received a positive response resulting in a few orders from art dealers.
In August of 1905 (i.e. mere days after the death of Anton Azhbe), Tratnik took up residence at Hotel Ilirija in Ljubljana, offering to paint portraits of Ljubljana’s townspeople; he was also willing to take other painting orders at a modest price. Slovenski narod recommended his services at the time, stating that he recently frequented Azhbe’s school in Munich.6
In fall of 1905, Tratnik returned to Prague. He took specialist painting classes with Prof. Hanus Schwaiger (1854–1912), who became Tratnik’s favourite academic teacher and soon after also became his friend. Tratnik believed, however, that Schwaiger and his other teachers left no lasting impact on his work.
He gained artistic repute through publishing caricatures in Czech and German papers. The caricatures he drew for the satirical paper Osa [Wasp], issued in Ljubljana between 1905 and 1906, were among the first he published.
At the time, Tratnik intended to travel to Paris with Vladimir Levstik but could not afford to. He got paid for the only known painting he’d produced while residing in Ljubljana (Valvasor’s portrait, 1906).7 With part of the fee left over after he’d paid his debts, he was able to purchase a ticket to Munich.8
A reference in the Slovan journal, stating Tratnik was in Paris in 1908 allows for the possibility of at least a short sojourn in this artistic metropolis.9
In 1909 Tratnik returned to Prague. He socialized with painter Antonin Slavichek (1870–1910) and Prof. Swaiger. His paintings were sold by the Tópich and Lukezh art dealers. In 1909 he became a member of the Czech Mánes. He took part in the 1911 Mánes’ exhibition in Hagenbund, Vienna with the painting titled »The Blind«. At the time the Neue Freie Presse compared Tratnik to Goya.10 Vojeslav Mole notes similarities between Tratnik and the Czech painter Karl Myslbek.11
With the exception of his afore mentioned stay in Ljubljana, Tratnik lived abroad; he spent seven years in Prague, and five years in Munich. His artistic expression was shaped outside any connection to Slovenian environment. About 250 of his works remained in Czech,12 many stayed in Germany. Several works, which he created in the Gorishko region were destroyed during World War I.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, the Slovenian public was somewhat aware of Fran Tratnik by virtue of drawings he published in the Slovan journal (»Winter in Winter«, 1902/1903, no. 2, »Judas’s Final Journey«, 1902/1903, no. 5, »In the Courtyard of the Witch«, 1905, no. 9, »After the Beggar’s Season«, 1908, no. 4, »The No-Good Son«, 1908, no. 5) and in Dom in svet (»Lenore«, 1906, no. 7, »The Lone Traveller«, 1906, no. 11). He also took part in the 1904 Yugoslav art exhibition in Belgrade (he exhibited the landscape »The Village of Kokarje«).
He was deemed the best Slovenian drawing artist. Next to paintings by impressionists, his drawings professedly stood out at the third Slovenian art exhibition in 1909, where he also showed his painting »The Blind in the Sun«. Three people with extinguished eyes extending their faces into a ray of glaring sunlight, suffering and inextiguishable longing reflected in every line on their bodies. This is the scene captured with near monumental tragedy in the interpretation of Tratnik’s skilful strokes. /…/ The graphics section of the exhibition features nothing on even remotely such a high level.«13
The drawing of the blind is a symbolic vision of a group of three yearning for light. Their faces are sickly and suffering, their eyes have no pupils. Bodies of the two men drawn as though melded into a single trunk represent their shared fates. The body of the woman is bent in acquiescence.
Stanko Vurnik defined »The Blind« as »the most monumental artwork of Slovenian Modern Art«;14 Tratnik’s precise drawing technique and soft transitions between body shapes reminded Josip Regalij of sculpting of the Rodin school.15 Tratnik’s motif of »yearning for the light«16 along with his symbolic expression of content and attention to social issues have often been compared to the prose of Ivan Cankar.
Tratnik was more than a symbolist. His early works make him a precursor to Slovenian expressionists, or in fact the first Slovenian expressionist (represented among others in »Crime« (1905) and »From the Madhouse« (1907)). Tratnik’s drawings revealed social misery. The drawings »Victims« (also titled »From the Shadows of Life«, 1912) and »Famine« (1913) could compare to the drawings of Käthe Kollwitz, who depicted the abject existence of the Berlin proletariat. Expressionist emphasis can also be detected in Tratnik’s caricatures published in Czech satirical papers (for example Kopřivy, 1908/1909). In his caricatures he often used sharp strokes, as though drawn by a knife, and drew grotesque figures.
Tratnik’s drawings display a manifestly emphasised humanist component. His selection of motifs (beggars, gypsies, workers) demonstrates a deep affinity for people pushed to the brink of society. In one of his »aphorisms about art« Tratnik, who was a prolific writer, noted: »The artist who wishes to recognise true beauty, must delve deeper into life, into pain and suffering, where he must be lead by love and compassion; for therein lay the hearth where the human soul is purified, not in superficial life of leisure and enjoyment.«17 He confided the following in Janko Kralj: »The bitterness of destiny lead me deep into life, where I sinned and prayed; suffering was already sweet to me; and all of this was fused by my heart in its mirror igniting suffering in my soul. And as though wiping a tear from my eye, I would now and then, with blundering hand of little skill, trace in a drawing a glimpse from a hard life…«18
Tratnik’s decision to move to Bilje near Gorizia was tied to his tuberculosis and an order to paint Mihael Voshnjak’s portrait in Gprizia. The most important piece from his Gorizia region period is the painting »Work in the Field« (1914). He devised figures of three farming women individually and tied them together in the painting to form a single indivisible organic whole. Their bodies bent under the weight of their toil follow the undulation of the wheat field. Another work devised as an apotheosis of farm work was his drawing »The Sower« (1915).
Izidor Cankar published Tratnik’s studies for individual figures of the »Work in the Field« as well as other drawings in Slovan. He also comments on Tratnik’s landscapes. »Tratnik is doubtless our finest drawing artist and should he not limit himself to graphics alone, he would be the most prominent personality of our modern painting, a painter-leader. At the same time, his artistic propensities are such that he would not only attract to himself a younger artistic following, but also rouse vivid interest in the audience reconciling it with the direction of present-day art, a task at which many others have failed. His work is both beautiful and ‘beautiful’.«19
Izidor Cankar also paid attention to Tratnik’s painting at the twelfth art exhibition in 1916, »It is interesting to observe, the level of internal accord between Tratnik the drawing artist we knew thus far and Tratnik the landscape painter, which is manifest in the exhibited oil painting. The technique is unalike, the motif dissimilar, but the spirit remains the same: a spirit of formal cleanliness, clarity, constraint and the fundamental essential sense of quiet sorrow and resignation.«20
The quote in Slovenski narod at the occasion of his fiftieth birthday is less reliable; it draws attention to the fact that since 1912 Tratnik also painted landscape and townscape motifs. »He painted many resplendent landscapes at home, all of which are exemplary in their emotional profoundness and innovative harmony of colour. Some delightfully merry, others deeply elegiac and even melancholy.«21
In 1916, Tratnik made six drawings for his Refugees cycle published by Umetnishka propaganda Ljubljana. Drawings accompanied with Alojz Gradnik’s verse show mothers with children and old men from the Gorizia region, which took refuge in Ljubljana. Like the blindness motif, he would also revisit the refugees motif.
Fran Tratnik is believed to have undertaken painting more intensely his third time living in Prague, initially drawn in by the Czech impressionist Antonin Slavichek.22
After World War II, he began regularly exhibiting his oil compositions in addition to his drawings. The May 1920 17th art exhibit in Jakopich’s Pavilion also included the entire range of Tratnik’s artistic opus, from drawings such as »Blacksmith« (1908), »Beggars« (1920) et.al. to newer paintings (»Suzana«, »Old Man«, »Mira«). France Stelè designated Tratnik »painter in the black&white vein – graphics« and drew attention to similarities between his painting technique and Rihard Jakopich.23
Tratnik’s impressionist painting technique dematerialising the physicality of the »Redhead« was reminiscent of Rihard Jakopich. Using the same means, he could emphasise colour dynamics or a sense of patina (»Old Man’s Head«).
The 1921 19th art exhibit in Jakopich's Pavillion included seven of his paintings (»Blind Woman«, »Students«, »Mother and Child«, »Inspiration«, »Pianissimo«, self portrait, portrait). »Employing impasto, relying solely on paint, no painting implements, Tratnik creates a diverse milieu of colours elevating his models from a realistic environment into a fantastic world of coloured apparitions. The furthest in this direction is his self portrait.«24
The composition »Blind Woman« stood out for its autobiographical nature. Tratnik’s nanny Mica was blind from birth. »Blind Mica carefully watched over us, for her sight was supplanted with a developed instinct, hearing, and sense of touch.«25
In this composition, Tratnik depicted the experience of light and shadow using colour blots. The blind woman does not see light, but senses it and yearns for it. »Blind, feeling her way through her surroundings, she intuits light with the reactions of her retina to colours, such as we experience closing our eyes and turning towards the sun and light; Tratnik transferred them to the environment of the Blind Woman, allowing the spectator to intuit what is going on in the eye of the poor woman feeling her way towards the light.«26
Tratnik often alternated between techniques. He separated colour layers and assembled them differently in »Blind Woman« than in the composition »Prophet« painted the same year. Later a line emerges from the weave of his colour tissue that bounds the painted figure motif and its essential ingredients. His positioning of rounded three-dimensional figures, modelling with paint, and stylising the physicality of the flesh bring Tratnik’s painting in the 1930s close to new materialism.
Tratnik’s »Bosom« was the only reproduction featured on the cover of the catalogue of the 1933 joint exhibit of Slovenian artists, while his »Blonde« (1936) appeared on the cover of the first issue of Umetnost magazine. At the time, the painting was in the possession of Dr Izidor Cankar. Tratnik painted several similar »Redheads« or »Blondes« with ample half-bare bosoms.
A telling example confirming our assumption that many Tratnik's paintings have been lost, is a group of paintings that appeared at the first exhibition of Celje artists in May 1938 in the small hall of the Celje Union. A reviewer of said exhibition mentions »The Sitting Woman«, »Mary«, »Repose«, Catherine of Celje«, »which represents the feminine beauty ideal of Tratnik’s ‘Redheads’«, »Mother and Child in the Field«. Tratnik also displayed drawings (studies for »Foundry«, his composition for the primary school in Bezhigrad).27
Tratnik was also interested in monumental figural artistic composition. He painted his large »The Blind« composition to the order of Ban [Governor] Dr Marko Natlachen, for the home for the blind in Kochevje.28
He never painted social motifs in colour, these corresponded with the dark harmony of graphite and charcoal drawing. He did, however, undertake painting grand scenes of farming work. His »Spring« and »Summer« (320 x 220 cm) were ordered by the Ljubljana municipality for the new Bezhigrad primary school.29
In 1939, Tratnik won third place in a procuring competition for the painting adornment of the Gubernatorial Palace in Ljubljana with his studies for »Running from the Turks«, »Peasant Uprising«, and his allegories for slavery and justice.30 He was also preparing studies for the grand compositions »Timber Rafting« and »Hop Growing«, which he was purportedly painting for the hall of the Town Savings Bank in Celje.31
Translated from Slovenian by: Jaka Jarc
8 In: Zoran Krzhishnik, Fran Tratnik, Retrospektivna umetnostna razstava, Museum of Modern Art Ljubljana, 1951, pp. 10–11. – Chronological order of certain events in Tratnik’s life and determining his artistic development in most texts, artistic reviews, and other articles are at times disputable.
14 In: »Slikar France Tratnik«, Slovenec, 1931, 127. – Stanko Vurnik (1898–1932) was preparing a study for a miscellany that was to be issued at Fran Tratnik’s fiftieth birthday. (in: -o. (Bozhidar Borko), »Petdesetletnica slikarja Frana Tratnika«, Jutro, 1931, 131).
29 »Pomlad« [»Spring«]: central figure – gardener fastening a just grafted sapling, sower behind him walking a ploughed field, left – bent woman farmer with hoe and basket of potatoes, child playing with flower, background: village, herd of sheep, Kamnik mountains illuminated by morning sun. / »Poletje« [»Summer«]: Woman harvester wipes her sweaty brow with her right hand holding a sickle, a sheaf of wheat in her left. Back left – mower sharpens scythe, right –young mother nurses her child a wicker basket with fruit and a tablecloth before her, Background: wheat field, Shmarna gora and Karawanken range with Storzhich bathing in evening sunshine. (in: Marijan Marolt, »Tratnikova 'Pomlad' in 'Poletje' v ljudski sholi za Bezhigradom«, Slovenec, 1937, 211; Davorin Ravljen, »Dve veliki umetnini Frana Tratnika«, Jutro, 1937, 213). – Slovenec published two details from both compositions, and Umentost (1977, 1) a study for the sower of »Pomlad«.