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Friday, August 22, 2014

Božidar Jakac

The jigsaw puzzle that was once Yugoslavia (before 1991).
Slovenia is in blue.
As we explored the beautiful Dalmatian coast a couple years ago we made stops in Split and Debrovnik in Croatia, and another in Montenegro a little further south. Sailing from Venice, our itinerary skipped the small nation of Slovenia at the head of the Adriatic next door to Italy between that country and Croatia (in blue on the map above). Thus we skipped any likelihood of seeing work by the Slovene painter, Bozidar Jakac (honest, I don't make up these names, folks). In exploring the work of artists from this area, the former nation of Yugoslavia, its practically necessary to have a map in one hand and a history book in the other. It's likely that few regions of the world have ever had such along, convoluted, not to mention tragic history of cultural and military conflicts. And as I've noted more than once, one can make little sense out of art history without at least some grounding in the larger picture of historic events. In a sense, art doesn't make history, it simply reflects it, and insofar as the Balkans are concerned, it's not a pretty picture (below).

Traces of Fascism, Bozidar Jakac, typical of the artist's woodcuts from the 1920s.
Yesterday, in discussing the work of the Croatian artist, Oton Lvekovic, I questioned whether this area's history was really so bloody, or if that was just the way Lvekovic painted it to be. Since then, in researching the artists of the eastern Adriatic coast, it would appear that Lvekovic could quite easily have used more red in his paintings. The history of the region, as I suggested above, is far to complicated to go into here and now. Suffice to say that during the Medieval period, the Balkans were where the Middle East (the Ottoman Turks) met the West (Austro-Hungarian Empire)--where Christians met Muslims, where the raw edges of two civilizations rubbed together making sparks fly and blood flow. The result was a broad distribution of ethnic groups over a wide area making it nearly impossible to form stable nations based upon cultural similarities. Add to that two world wars in the area, and the forced unification of these ethnic groups into a single nation (Yugoslavia) and you have what has commonly been called the Balkan "powder keg."

Novo Mesto, 1972-73, Bozidar Jakac--his hometown.
Bozidar Jakac Self-portrait
Božidar Jakac was born in Novo Mesto (above) on the southern boarder of Slovenia with Croatia in 1899. The area was then part of Austria-Hungary, which put him all but astride the so-called "powder keg." Though there had been fighting in the area since around 1912, the powder keg exploded in 1914 with the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, setting off a non-nuclear chain reaction of two treaty groups, the Central Powers of the East, and the Allies of the West--England, France, and Russia. Jakac was fortunate, he was still in his teens during this conflict. He began and ended his art education during these turbulent years studying painting and graphic design in Prague, Paris, and Breman (Germany).

Božidac Jakac portrays Peter II
of Yugoslavia, 1934
During the 1920s each of the various Balkan nations had some degree of tenuous independence. Jakac returned to his hometown of Novo Mesto trying to make a living for his wife and family as an artist, but eventually became something of an international vagabond, practicing his skills in Paris, Tunisia, Norway, even the United States for varying lengths of time. About 1928, Jakac returned to Slovenia where he taught art, dabbled in local politics, and published his memoir at the age of thirty-three (must have been a short book). Jakac was primarily a portrait artist, though there are a few rather unimpressive landscapes among his surviving works. By the start of WW II, Jakac was a well-established artist, a little too old to fight on the front (the Balkans had sided with Germany and were later destined to pay dearly for this indiscretion). He was, however not too old to become involved in the peace process after the war when the victors threw a noose around the entire area, bundled it up, called it Yugoslavia, and hung it out to dry. That "noose" was Marshal Josip Broz Tito.

How other artists saw Tito. David Low, August, 1948.
Tito was a Communist, though one of such obstinacy the Russians would very much liked to have scuttled his posterior except for the fact that, though a dictator, he was a very good dictator, not in a moralistic sense necessarily, but he was good at what he did. Moreover, the Russians needed Tito, if for no other reason than to hold together the wildly divergent ethnic elements of the region. At the same time, somewhat to the embarrassment of the Soviet Union, Tito instituted much-needed social and economic policies putting his country in the forefront of all the Russian satellites of Eastern Europe--what we'd call a benevolent dictator. Judging by the number of portraits Bozidar Jakac painted of the man over the years starting in 1943 (I counted five, below), we might consider him Tito's favorite artist. Not quite. Tito seems to have had quite a number of favorites. I've counted more than sixteen portraits by almost that many different artist during his time in power. Sitting for portraits seems to be a favorite pastime for many egomaniacal benevolent dictators.

Watching a dictator grow old.
Then, in 1980, Tito made the mistake of dying, leaving behind a power vacuum. In less than a decade, Jakac's own Slovenia and next-door Croatia voted to become independent nations. From that point on, as they say, all hell broke loose. For the next ten years fighting was widespread in the region as the West tried to dampen the violence with various sanctions and armed interventions, causing widespread death and destruction among the civilian population. Does "ethnic cleansing" ring a bell? Our tour guides were still talking about wartime hardships some ten years later when we were there. We saw numerous burned out and deserted homes in the rural areas with some communities reduced to less than half their size before the conflict.

Landscape View in Slovenia, 1949, Bozidar Jakac
Despite the measured opinion of that great art critic, Marshall Tito, Bozidar Jakac was barely a mediocre painter. He was much more a black and white graphic artist than one of color. After the war, he was also a photographer and pioneer in the Slovene film industry (such as it was). Today, in his old hometown, he even has his own art museum. Despite this, Jakac stands out, mostly because of his nationality (there just weren't that many Slovenian artist). Perhaps more important however, he survived, indeed, thrived, through the horrific events of a century which might have literally been the "death" of lesser men. He challenged the oft-repeated axiom that art and war don't mix. Bozidar Jakac retired in 1961 to manage the many local and international honors bestowed upon him in later life. He died in 1989 at the age of ninety.

Why do honors like this have to wait until the artist dies?


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