A VERBAL SKETCH TO ACCOMPANY THE VISUAL PORTRAIT OF ALENKA SOTTLER
This essay came about as a reflection on the exhibition of works by Alenka Sottler (Bezhigrajska galerija l, 19. 5. – 25. 6. 2010), one of Slovenia’s best middle generation illustrators who has succeeded in breaking onto the international illustrating scene. The exhibition included illustrations for children with coloured pictures for Cinderella by the Brothers Grimm, 2006, some black and white illustrations from World Fairy Stories, 2004, and Svetlana’s Fairy Stories, Svetlana Makarovich, 2008 as well as a black and white illustration of Moses and the burning bush which was created after an invitation from the Museo Diocesano di Padua for the exhibition I Colori del Sacro, 2007. Besides the small selection of works displayed in the gallery which are from the artist’s most recent period, this essay also discusses the artist’s black and white pictures from Illusions by Alenka Sottler and Niko Grafenauer, 2009, and the illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales, 2000, in which it seems Alenka for the first time used abstract white lines on a black background, symbolising waves on the sea. She also uses black and white planes in combination with thin lines with which she draws figures, objects, and black and white decorations with which she complements well the refinement of the author’s story.
The main characteristic of Alenka Sottler’s art is her gradual transition from painting and graphics to the world of illustration. She does not shy away from exploring visual narrative with which she illuminates and deepens literary texts aimed at all generations. About the illustrations in the book Slovenian Poets on Transience, 2000, she writes: “I used earthy pigments, dried clay and soot (smoke from a candle), content which best illustrates transience. I also used frottages, which bring fleetingness to mind.” That is just one example of the painter’s constant search for the visual equivalent of words. Will she one day illustrate mainly poetry for adults?
A desire for excellence and a deep relationship with literature accompanies all her work in which the recognisability of her visual “handwriting” varies depending on the literary basis, while the beauty of the illustrated creations and the magical light in them are permanent features of her expression. Alenka’s recent style continues to see a combination of sculpted figures and objects, and diverse slender lines with which she creates whole scenes which make a graphic impression. Faithfulness to tradition, especially to the early renaissance, and modern visual sensitivity seep from the illustrations of Cinderella which Alenka says represent an end to one of her creative processes.
In her later works, Alenka creates timeless fairytale scenes by combining the realistic recognisability of figures and objects with abstract visual expression. This is particularly obvious in ambiences in which the artist uses light and dark lines to create a mysterious light, building up the scene using multiple layers, which increases not only the attractiveness but also the spiritual dimension of the images.
The narrative power and aesthetic appearance of the artist’s illustrations are the same in black and white and colour illustrations. At this point we can maybe repeat what she wrote in an article in the magazine Otrok in Knjiga (2000, pp. 62–64) entitled A look at my work – Illustration. She writes: “Material is everything. By this I mean art material – colours, paper, inks, pens, brushes, printing material. Its properties are the law, from them grows the idea. The whole point is that with material I create conditions on paper which awaken the imagination, bring to mind associations and surprise; I begin to play. Then everything depends on the feeling that there is the right amount of everything…"
When we attempt to create the illustrator’s visual portrait, we find we can capture it despite the small number of illustrations from the past decade. Just as actors bring to life on stage characters from a dramatic text, illustrators create heroes from various literary texts. And just as the actor must bring to life the character through his acting, which he does by understanding and experiencing the literary hero and the space and time in which he is placed, the illustrator too must for everything that happens in an illustrated book find visual depictions, which come from the literary source, and the illustrator’s rational and emotional experience of the heroes. Without interpretation no art is possible.
Looking through the illustrations of Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales, Cinderella, Svetovne and Svetlanine pravljice and the illustrations of Moses convinces us of the complexity of Alenka Sottler’s art, which matures from immersion in art and literature. And in Illusions we come across two completely autonomous creative personalities, the poet Niko Grafenauer and the artist Alenka Sottler. In Illusions, words and illustrations become independent visions of the world through two languages of art. Or to put it another way: Alenka Sottler, while reading Grafenauer’s poems for the planned poetry collection Secrets began depicting a sombre world, coloured with the unconscious. The very suggestive, purified visual tale/confession in black and white tempera brought Niko Grafenauer to withdraw his planned Secrets collection in exchange for Illusions, for which he wrote new poems to accompany Alenka Sottler’s pictures. The new relationship between the two artists brought about a picture book for adults which even more powerfully than before draws attention to the illustrator’s independence, which made the poet adapt to the illustrator. This is a rare occurrence in illustrated books. Often it is first the text which is created and which the illustrator supplements with artwork. Globally there have for some time now been appearing illustrated books without words, e.g. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in pictures only which was presented at the Bologna children’s book fair in 2009, and received a special award.
Thanks to Grafenauer’s kind gesture for Illusions, we have in Slovenia acquired a book of great quality which opens up a new chapter in the field of monumental picture books for adults and probably also a new challenge in Alenka Sottler’s artistic career.
If the illustrations for Wilde’s Fairy Tales, with the use of abstract lines, are the beginning of the artist’s expression of the past decade, then the depiction of Cinderella consists entirely of colourful and diverse lines making up realistic figures as well as sometimes almost manneristic fairy tale scenes or multiple scenes with a hint of renaissance.
Of all the artist’s many particularities in Cinderella, the most prominent may be the birds as a visible poetic emphasis of the fairytale whose playfulness is particularly attractive for children. The artist’s intellectual visual game is, it seems, specially expressed by the refined intertwining of richly nuanced coloured lines. In Cinderella, Alenka Sottler follows tradition and is at the same time modern. She herself says that “she wanted to paint the real Cinderella who does not tear the fairytale thread.”
Svetovne pravljice were a challenge for the artist which demanded not only a wealth of visual ideas to illustrate the international fairytales but also exceptional visual discipline and original solutions to create a harmonious ensemble. The illustrations in black and white tempera, the already tested “graphic” construction of images and the design for the book by Peter Skalar are exceptional achievements.
Similarly to the way she illustrated Svetovne pravljice, Alenka Sottler also illustrated Svetlanine pravljice in a Slovene-English book containing sixty of the author’s favourite tales. The painter depicts animals, plants, objects and fantasy beings using her characteristic intertwinement of accurate descriptions, sometimes in compositions, sometimes individually. The refinement of her visual expression with the alternation of black and white lines with which she creates particularly attractive fairytale scenes, and animals with distinct characters which she sets in these scenes, is like a pendant to Svetlana’s combination of prose and poetry. In this way the painter makes use of an original storyteller’s narrative to support the writer’s literary expression.
In the illustrations of Moses, the duality of the realistic depiction of the figures and the otherworldliness of the scene is connected with the harmonious whole of the artist’s suggestive and aesthetic expression, similarly to the depiction of the fairytales. The mysterious light which illustrates the burning bush is also similar; the structure of the entire composition is smoother in the case of Moses. The artist’s unfailing instinct dictates a balanced relationship between “scientific” punctuality and artistic imagination.
Alenka Sottler’s investigative spirit will certainly also in future connect her with illustration; either she will follow writers with visual means, or she will reveal to them her inner world, her view of life and her response to it.
Alenka’s best achievements will probably combine both approaches. Her intellectual openness to life and her emotional reactions to it lead to a critical stance which can result in visual creations which will not be tied to any text. Illusions is a clear indication of this. However, her complex artistic nature may at the same time remain devoted to the children’s world of fairytales, and we believe that her artistic credo will, regardless of the content of the illustration, remain faithful to visual perfection and aesthetic expression, in short: to beauty as a synonym of what is good.
Alenka’s creative roots are in the Slovenian visual tradition, she is acquainted with the broader art world and her comprehensive human reactions to events in the world of today are what make her individual visual narrative a suggestive whole which combines elements of painting, sculpture and graphics. We can expect that her restless investigative and sensitive nature will continue to surprise us and that her artworks will never be superficial.
Translated from Slovenian by Marko Petrovich