Hinko Smrekar’s satirical series from 1933
In 1933 (he was an artist approaching his 50th birthday at the time), the caricaturist, visual satirist, illustrator, painter and printmaker Hinko Smrekar (1883–1942) created a series of ink wash drawings, World’s Reflection, which is considered to be the pinnacle of his visual satire. Smrekar intended to publish his World’s Reflection in the form of a folder or album.
The series of around 40 ink wash drawings (43 x 33 cm, ink, partial shading with indigo or sepia, mostly signed HS – 1933), which he created in a relatively short period of time was in Smrekar’s opinion not complete. He was discouraged from continuing on a grand scale by the feeble response from the public and from publishers who only offered him half the price he asked for all the drawings.
Smrekar broke his own rule of only appearing at exhibitions on rare occasions. With the help of the Ljubljana Salon Kos, he exhibited World’s Reflection on several occasions: for the first time in the Jakopich Pavilion in September 1933, then at the trade fair in Ljubljana in 1936, and in Maribor and Celje in 1938.
Smrekar had several drawings from the World’s Reflection series printed on postcards. He also made efforts to exhibit the series abroad. He corresponded with publishing houses in London, Prague, Munich and Vienna. In 1936 he asked his friend, the publicist and editor Bozhidar Bork (1896–1980), to help him find a publisher in Prague; he hoped for an exhibition in the art shop F. Topich near the National Theatre in Prague. His old schoolmate Walther Klemm (1883–1957), a famous German printmaker and professor at the school of art in Weimar acted as an agent for him at the Bavaria publishing house in Gauting near Munich; but everywhere it seemed too risky to publish the work of an unknown Slovenian artist (from: Karel Dobida, Hinko Smrekar, Ljubljana 1957, pg. 20). Finally, a Viennese publishing house began to show interest in the series but the Second World War was approaching. As he did not achieve the success he anticipated with World’s Reflection (he only sold one drawing from the series, the drawing “Pravica” [“Justice”] was bought by the Ljubljana court house), Smrekar turned his attention to other artwork. Later, half of the series was purchased by the Drava Banovina, “half of it being kept in reserve because the morals of Carniola cannot so easily stomach nudes of fat women from 1936,” commented Miljutin Zarnik (from: Artem /M. Zarnik/, “Hinko Smrekar in pictures and caricatures”, Domachi prijatelj, 1940, pg. 98).
Smrekar devised the series as a kind of general cross-section of social conditions in which “all of humanity is alive, rejoicing and suffering in a strange mixture of paranoia and cyclical madness – from the cradle to the grave”, as he wrote in 1930. With the individual drawings he reacted to various global phenomena of his time. He touched upon the economy, politics, art and science. He warned about violence, depravity, cruelty, decadence, exploitation of the individual, false charity and hypocritical philanthropy. He paid special attention to the disintegration of spiritual and moral values.
In 1927, he personified the human vices in a series of hand-coloured wood engravings The Deadly Sins. Six years later he decided to condense his sombre artistic visions of individual social phenomena in complex multi-figural scenes. Smrekar’s friend, the illustrator Elko Justin (1903–1966) wrote: “Those were really grand drawings, shocking images of future war, death and sadness; but the drawings filled with the artist’s terrible dreams finally disappeared from the whole series” (Elko Justin, »Hinko Smrekar and his pictures”, Tovarish, 1948, no. 41).
Smrekar’s artistic commentaries on social realities are based on bringing aesthetic elements (the characteristic interpretation of figures, mastery of the spatial definition of the motif with lines, the overloading of the drawing and the saturation of scenes) and autobiographical elements (an original satirical-critical relationship with reality, a rich artistic imagination, a fondness for creating fantasy motifs) together into a complex whole.
Individual drawings from World’s Reflection series are based on the visualisation of their titles, which Smrekar poured off into artistic motifs. Symbolic and allegoric formulations are common (expression through artistic allegories was fairly widespread at the beginning of the 20th century) as well as artistic metaphors.
The “Angel of Peace” (the drawing is known also as the “Peace Angel”, “God of War” or “War”) is a hardly noticeable figure with a palm branch in one hand, standing by the feet of the god of war Mars. Mars is a terrifying creature with two sets of airplane wings and a gasmask on its head (during the First World War poison gases were feared as much as the atom bomb was after the Second World War; in 1927 Georg Grosz depicted Christ with a gas mask). The god of war is sitting on iron fortresses and tanks; his legs are resting on warships and submarines and from between his legs protrudes a mighty “phallic” cannon. In his hands he holds Pandora’s Box, or rather a time bomb on which stands a small group of helpless diplomats who are negotiating about peace.
The drawing was meant to serve as a reminder of the horrors of the First World War and as a warning regarding preparations for a new world conflict. Smrekar was not alone in his artistic antimilitarism. The “Angel of Peace”, and works with similar motifs – e.g. the drawing by L. J. Jordan “Robot” from 1917 and one of the most famous drawings by the Austrian printmaker and illustrator Alfred Kubin (1877–1959) “War”, which Kubin drew in several versions (for the first time in 1901/1902), – belong to a series of antiwar artworks (prints, drawings, pictures etc), which began to appear in the High Middle Ages and stretch past Callot, Daumier and other artists to the modern age.
The fear that the horrors of the First World War with millions killed and twice as many injured should not be repeated was also the key to Smrekar’s ink drawings “Ode to the World War” (“Hymn of Thanksgiving for the War” or “The Harp of Death”), which can be linked to Daumier’s famous lithograph “Song of Peace” from 1871. Smrekar drew the god of war, Mars, or perhaps the “money Moloch” (different interpretations also appear in other drawings from the series) in the middle of a patched circus tent. On his head he has a crown of knives; he is sitting on a bag of money and is singing and playing to crippled human figures. A skeleton (war hero), bearing a laurel wreath, has climbed onto the crosspiece of the harp (coffin): “He is depicted, playing – on the instrument of human passion = a starved skeleton, wrapped in the desire for glory, which is getting an echo from the coffin. The skeleton is decorated with pendants of various awards from holy and secular authorities. A great mass of people are gathered around the monstrous instrument – they are literally crammed in like matchsticks, human money worshippers who are staring, devotedly bowing, sighing from starvation, all engrossed and following the money monster’s every move. They are staring at it with feverish greed in a nervous throb, staring and staring into the sinister cauldron of voices from the coffin and its cadaverously hollow echoes.” (Elko Justin, “Hinko Smrekar in his pictures”, Tovarish, 1948, no. 41)
The pen drawing “The god of our age”, which Smrekar originally wanted to entitle “Modern-day Pharaoh”, shows a steel robot in a pharaoh-like poise with an Egyptian cross in one hand and a sceptre, which is being transformed into a whip, in the other. In the robot’s head, which is covered with a crown, there is a “rachitic financier”, who is controlling the robot with the help of a wire mechanism. In the background there are futuristic skyscrapers and factory chimneys and flocks of aeroplanes are flying in the sky. The robot, who is a personification of the international cartels, is being venerated by great masses of people.
“Smrekar ridicules lies, hypocrisy, brute force, moral decay, charlatanism, materialism. Smrekar’s caricatures are intellectual and not emotional; Smrekar is dissecting rather than creating. He is lashing out at what is disgusting in order to show the light as the opposite. He shows scabies as they really are. He describes with cynicism those people who want to lead humanity in this day and age. Satire has the greatest moral value and stems from moral depths. Smrekar’s ‘World’s Reflection' series is as yet the most comprehensive Slovenian work of caricature, even if the drawings are not without flaws, the compositions are crammed too full and some drawings contain too much superfluous background detail so that the main idea is not sufficiently in the forefront. Sometimes thoughts are also not communicated understandably and directly enough. But Smrekar has developed his own personal style in pen drawings and is the only serious Slovenian caricaturist of higher quality. The 'World’s Reflection' series or at least some of the main drawings should become part of public collections.” (-i /probably Josip Regali; ed./, “Hinko Smrekar’s 'The World’s Reflection'”, Slovenija, 1933, no. 40a)
The art critic and lawyer Karel Dobida (1896–1964) was of a similar opinion: “As a result of being overfilled with motifs and displaying a coarseness – at times even banality – that is both aesthetically unfounded and unnecessary in the motifs, it verges on not being art at all. But the work deserves to come into public ownership, if not for its artistic significance, at least as a unique document of a period in history” (K. Dobida, “The autumn art exhibition”, Ljubljanski zvon, 1933, pg. 764).
The artist’s apocalyptic artistic visions were often strange and incomprehensible even for Smrekar’s contemporaries. That is why Smrekar “tried to make it easier for the critics by writing about his own works”. Art historian France Mesesnel was nevertheless of the opinion that the concept of most of his drawings is “uniquely complicated and difficult to digest, just as the concept of the depicted 'world' is one-sided if you do not delve into the inner mechanism of things and events, and therefore rarely humorous” (F. Mesesnel, “The exhibition in the Jakopich Pavilion”, Sodobnost, I, 1933, pg. 518). The first critics brought attention to the grotesqueness in certain drawings, the complicatedness and over-saturation with various allusions and unusual thought connections, “Although all the drawings are bitterly pertinent to the day and age, the whole nevertheless gives the impression of a distant metaphor that is difficult to understand” (Karel Dobida, “The autumn art exhibition”, Ljubljanski zvon, 1933, pg. 764).
However, the Babylonian confusion of World’s Reflection only reflected the way Smrekar saw the decadent, bizarre and anarchic civilisation, which stepped from the bloody First World War into an economic crisis, which engulfed Yugoslavia in 1931 and reached its global climax two years later – the year Smrekar’s drawings were created.
“This satire did not arise just out of our Slovenian drawing but from the general, somehow international atmosphere” (-i /probably J. Regali/, “Hinko Smrekar’s 'World’s Reflection'”, Slovenija, 1933, no. 40a). The image of the world, which was reflected in 1933 by Smrekar’s drawings, was terrible and pessimistic, and that is why each one of Smrekar’s motifs “changes from funny to grotesque and from grotesque to tragic” (Bozhidar Borko, “Honoré Daumier and Hinko Smrekar”, Slovenski porochevalec, 1951, no. 88). However, the sinister scenes could not directly be applied to the Slovenian and Yugoslav social reality of the 1930s. In 1933, there was not a single critic who wrote that some of the drawings were visionary, but this became a compulsory label of all post-war commentaries.
In a number of ways the World’s Reflection series resembles Goya’s Los caprichos series (1796 - 1798). Smrekar perhaps looked also to the allegorical works of his contemporary, the Czech caricaturist Emil Holárek (1867–1919), e.g. his antimilitaristic series of drawings “Válka” or the anticlerical illustrations for the book Thoughts on the Catechism, and the works of Alfred Kubin and others. Branko Rudolf said the Austrian painter and printmaker Karl Friedrich Bell (1877–1958) and his series “Heiland und Welt” from around 1917 was a concrete role model for Smrekar (from: B. Rudolf, “Notes on the style of Hinko Smrekar and 'Vesna'”, Nasha sodobnost, 1959, pg. 191).
Translated from Slovenian by Marko Petrovich