SMREKAR’S ILLUSTRATIONS OF MARTIN KRPAN
Henrik (Hinko) Smrekar (1883–1942) is considered the foremost Slovenian caricaturist of the first four decades of the 20th century. Smrekar is less known for his book artwork, which earned him a place among the first Slovenian artistic illustrators.1
Smrekar’s formal education in fine arts is relatively modest. He was born in Ljubljana, to a working class family. In 1901, he began his studies at the Faculty of Law in Innsbruck and continued in Vienna the following year. Simultaneously he took a class on teaching freehand drawing (Germ. Lehramtskandidatenkurs) at the School of Arts and Crafts. He joined the Vesna fine-arts club, which was founded by Slovenian and Croatian students in 1903. In 1904, he returned to Kranj. In 1905 he and Maksim Gaspari relocated to Munich, intending to join Anton Azhbe's (1862–1905) painting school. He stayed in Munich for most of the year earning a living by taking occasional orders. In 1911, he and sculptor Lojze Dolinar returned to Vienna and Munich and stayed there for an extended period of time; afterwards he took permanent residency in Spodnja Shishka.
Smrekar’s varied opus is dominated by works on paper. He drew caricatures and satirical illustrations, templates for postcards, drafts for advertisements, honorary and commemorative diplomas, posters, and ethnographic, fairy-tale, and fantasy scenes and illustrations. Occasionally, he also painted and tried his hand at sculpting. »Across the board, in all techniques, except frescoes. Pious and sinful, but always humorous, serious, sad, joyous, grotesquely funny things, portraits, landscapes, romantic and strictly naturalistic national as well as international subject matter – all, which I had seen and felt in the world, both awake and in sleep. In accordance with your wishes and by order I also make a variety of merchandise, particularly as a specialist for advertising purposes.«2
The Jezh [Sl. for Hedgehog] satirical paper was probably the first to publish Smrekar’s drawings. His further illustrations were featured in the Zvonchek [Snowdrop] children’s paper (1903/1904). His works were first exhibited in 1904, at the 1st Yugoslav Artistic Exhibition in Belgrade. In Vienna, he became friends with Slovenian writer Ivan Cankar, whose attention was piqued by a positive review of Smrekar’s drawing at the said exhibition in Belgrade penned by Croatian reporter A. G. Matosh.3 At Cankar’s instigation, publisher Ladoslav Schwentner had suggested the members of the Viennese Vesna society members hold an internal competition. Smrekar won first place and an order to draw the front cover of Cankar’s book Gospa Judit [Madame Judit] (1904).*
Smrekar also provided artwork for other Cankar’s works published by Schwentner. (Krpanova kobila [Krpan’s Mare], 1907, Hlapec Jernej [Servant Jernej], 1907, Pohujshanje v dolinishentflorijanski [Scandal in St. Florian Valley], Zgodbe iz doline shentflorjanske [Tales from the St. Florian Valley], 1908, Za krizhem [After the Cross], 1909, Milan in Milena [Milan and Milena], 1913).
In 1905 and 1906 he drew caricatures for the Osa [Wasp] liberal satirical paper. In 1908 he prepared illustrations for Prvi slovenski humoristichni leksikon [The First Slovenian Humourist Lexicon]. Smrekar’s playing card stencils employing motifs from Slavic folk traditions (the so-called Slavic Tarot) were drawn circa 1910–1912. His first larger undertaking was the illustration of Literarna pratika za 1914 (Literary Almanac for 1914) (1913). Art historian dr. Izidor Cankar touted the Almanac as one of the most beautifully illustrated books printed in Slovenia. »Smrekar is a drawing literate, an illustrator in the true sense of the word; in spirit he is akin to Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel.«4
Smrekar illustrated Levstik’s tale of Martin Krpan at the end of 1917. The book Martin Krpan z Vrha was published by Nova zalozha (the first volume of the children’s series Knjizhnica za otroke) and printed by Katolishka tiskarna, both of which had head offices in Ljubljana. The illustrations were completed in an exceptionally short period of time. Smrekar accepted the assignment on All Saints’ Day (1 November, 1917),5 and the volumes were already printed by Christmas 1917.
On 21 November 1918, the Slovenec newspaper alerted its readers to the hidden message conveyed by Martin Krpan coming out in the middle of the War: »He, Krpan, arrives victorious from the Vinnese court, intending never to return to Vienna again. Does this not contain a metaphor of current times.«6 Austria-Hungary was dissolved on 22 October 1918, and the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs was formed on 29 October 1918, and World War I ended at the beginning of November 1918.
Smrekar penned twelve illustrations in the technique of modern ink drawing. They were printed in monochrome, apart from the front cover depicting Martin Krpan with his club and cleaver axe riding his mare, which was printed in three colours. Smrekar framed the title motif with stylized blossoms, hearts, and seals. He set the scenes in the 17th century, in the Baroque period. He emphasised the contrast between the simple practical farmer hero Martin Krpan and the artificiality of the imperial court. He visually interpreted the antagonist Brdavs as a Turk, the hereditary enemy of European Christianity.
The simultaneous publication of Tolovaj Mataj by Fran Milchinski, illustrated by Ivan Vavpotich (1877–1943), enabled a comparison of the two illustrators.7 In the periodical Ljubljanski Zvon, Dr. Miljutin Zarnik8 penned a favourable evaluation of Smrekar’s and Vavpotich' illustrations: »They also went for the illustrator, who was the most appropriate choice out of all of our artists, precisely for Krpan. In fine arts education Henrik Smrekar is far from Vavpotich’s level, in fact, he is a self-taught prodigy, who bested numerous difficulties of ‘the handicraft of art’ through a routine of hard work and who learned proper drawing to such degree that we can easily describe his twelve drawings in Krpan as honest and serious works, adornment which are a credit to the book. Smrekar outdid himself with these images. He aught to, with a mind to the limitations of his capacity, forever stick to graphic art, black and colour sketching, and perhaps also work in copper etching, which he had previously successfully undertaken as well. /…/ Smrekar has a unique republic of his own, a republic of artistic humour, and there he is the first commissioner at the head of the entire Slavic artistic south. He has no equal among the Croats and Serbs. Though I previously described the dionysical Henrik as self-taught, this was not to say he was dilettante. Smrekar is also generally a great temperament.«9
Reviewers of the book and Smrekar’s twelve illustrations did not overlook »the healthy humour emanating from Smrekar’s conceptions in such a discreet way that children will not perceive it, while the educated will lean into it gladly. This is the point at which both Levstik’s and Smrekar’s creations correspond exemplarily;« wrote Gashpar Porenta.10
Karel Dobida highlighted that Smrekar’s tackled the illustration in an original way, though Dobida did not really consider it appropriate. »He is an entirely self taught satirical talent and the best Slovenian caricaturist, but in my opinion, he ventured outside his realm here; his terrain is and remains humour. He should be given space and opportunity in the funny papers to run his pen wild in synthetic caricatures; there let him compose his fantasies permeated with pointed satire and burning irony.«11
Ivan Pregelj viewed the illustrations as conceived »in the milieu of Slovenian heroic (Turkish) song«. »Brdavs projects a feel of the Arabian Nights, Krpan is closer to H. C. Andersen. Smrekar attempted to express his analogue to the scent of Levstik’s wittiness and healthy indelicacy from within himself and in his own manner.«12
Some critics (dr. Jozha Glonar,13 Anton Funtek14) were not favourable to Smrekar’s artistic interpretation of Martin Krpan. Smrekar responded to professor Anton Funtek in the Jugoslovan newspaper explaining that he faithfully followed Levstik, who wrote that Krpan was stout, strong, and a mighty giant. »Therefore, a remarkable sight! Such men were no rarity in our hills, but Krpan was a ‘phenomenon’.« Krpan’s small head is consistent with his mighty physiognomy, as physiognomy and anatomy specialists know. »The Greek canons are long since invalid (see Michelangelo’s Prophets!) Several serious studies, mister –n-, several studies!«15
Smrekar illustrated books for children, the youth, and adults. In the subsequent two decades, he illustrated the following books: Fran Milchinski, Süha roba [Dry Goods] (1919; the author valued Smrekar as an artist and wanted him to illustrate his works), personal memories of war by Henrik Smrekar – chrnovojnik (1919), Luigi Bertelli, The Emperor of Ants (1927), Viktor Murnik, Sistem brata Krpana v proslavo sedemdesetletnice njegovega odkritja [The System of Brother Krpan: In honour of the seventieth anniversary of his discovery] (1928), F. X. Weiser, Vatomika, zadnji poglavar Delavarov, (1935), Fran Milchinski, Ptichki brez gnezda [Birds Without a Nest] (1936), Wilhelm Hey, Sto basni za otroke [One Hundred Picture Fables] (1936; the fables were adapted for Slovenian young readers by Anton Funtek), Marija Jezernikova, Beli bratec [White Brother] (1937), Davorin Ravljen, Grajski vrabec [Castle Sparrow] (1938), Gustav Strnisha, Satire [Satires] (1938), Vlado Klemenchich, Iz starih in novih chasov [From Old and New Times] (1939), Grisha Koritnik, Na razpotju [At the Crossroads] (1939), Sedem Andersenovih pravljic za modrijane in modrijanchke [Seven Andersen’s Tales for Wisemen and Wise Little Men] (1940), Jozha Vovk, Zaplankarji [People Behind the Pickets] (1941). He also published illustrations in periodicals (these included Odmevi, Nash rod, Koledar Druzhbe sv. Mohorja, Lepa Vida).
Smrekar’s drawing and illustrations followed different examples. Secessionist artistic influences are particularly palpable on his cover of Cankar’s Madame Judit; these are combined with influences from artists of Austrian, Czech, Polish, and Russian realism.
During his time at the Viennese School of Arts and Crafts, he was probably most influenced by professor Anton Josef Ritter von Kenner (1871–1951), who headed the course in teaching drawing. Smrekar’s home library included Herman Knackfuß’s monograph on painter Adolph Menzl from Berlin and Andersen’s fairy tales with colour illustrations by Viennese illustrator Franz Wacik (1883–1938), which he dubbed »Andersen’s Breviary« and hung on it »wholeheartedly like a child«.16 He also kept other booklets published by the Viennese Gerlach & Wiedling publishers.
Smrekar was an exceptionally talented sketch artist and was, according to Sasha Shantl, »unmatched in independent drawing from the top of the head«.17 Without using a model, he was able to breathe character into human figures and animals. He had command of various sketching techniques in pencil, charcoal, and ink, and often stained his sketches using water-colours. He became acquainted with the combination of sketch drawing and water-colours or pastels in Munich.18
2 Hinko Smrekar, »Jaz, Hinko Smrekar, po bozhji milosti excentric-clown slovenskega naroda ...« [I Hinko Smrekar, by God's Grace the Eccentric Clown of the Slovene Nation] (first published in Serbo-Croatian by Nasha knjiga, Zemun 1931/X).
7 Vavpotich illustrated Pesmi [Poems] by Simon Jenko (1896/1901) and Jurchich's Deseti brat [The Tetnth Brother] (1911). – The Spomen-cvjeche iz hrvatskih i slovenskih dubrava miscellany published by Matica Hrvatska in 1900 (to honour the 50th anniversary of J. J. Strossmayer's appointment as bishop wherein Slovenian and Coratian authors took part), contained Vavpotich's illustration titled »Martin Krpan z Vrha« (Martin Krpan is returning home after conquering Brdavs, riding his mare wearing a laurel wreath garland). The public is said to have not been happy with Vavpotich's illustration (according to: E. Gangl (Engelbert Gangl), »Martin Krpan z Vrha«, Uchiteljski tovarish, 1914, no. 18).
8 Dr. Miljutin Zarnik (1873–1940) went to the Fine Arts Academy and Azhbe's school of painting in Munich. In 1896 he graduated in law in Graz. Like Smrekar, he also collaborated with the Jezh satirical paper. He worked for the financial directorship in Ljubljana and after 1904 at the Ljubljana Town Hall. – In 1906, in his capacity as Town Hall secretary and police commissioner, he wrote a report for the Carniolan Land Government, which also covered Fran Tratnik’s, Hinko Smrekar’s, Vladimir Levstik’s and Vladimir Svetek’s appeal. These men were sentenced to five days’ imprisonment and repayment of judicial costs for carousing in the streets of Ljubljana. Zarnik suggested that three of the disruptors of public order be treated mildly, but not Svetek, who is an incorrigible drunkard and cannot be set right by any punishment. (According to: Janez Cvirn, »Vsega je kriv Buffalo Bill / K zgodovini boemskega zhivljenja v Ljubljani pred prvo svetovno vojno«, Zgodovina za vse, 1994, no. 2, pp. 1–10).
Translated from Slovenian by Jaka Jarc
Ivan Vavpotich, »Martin Krpan z Vrha«, Slovan, 1902, sht. 6, str. 173).
Hinko Smrekar, »Martin Krpan«, 1917 (naslovnica knjige).
Hinko Smrekar, »Brdavs na Dunaju«, 1917.