Monday, 5 December 2011

Lipica & August Černigoj

Černigoj at the beginning of his "jeans" phase in Trieste (Trst), c. 1927
 On Friday I headed for Lipica, a tiny hamlet right on the Italian border. I hadn't quite grasped before setting out how close to the border it was, but a ten minute walk due west from the main stable block, and you're in Italy.

I say Lipica is a "hamlet" but it isn't really even that: it's a glorified large farm which steadily expanded, as a home to one of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy's studs, for 350 years, before the Yugoslav period. Since Slovenian independence, the place has been built up as a tourist destination, with a new hotel, restaurants and a casino, in addition to the attraction of the beautiful white horses. However, very few people actually live there; most commute the few kilometres from nearby Sežana. Sadly, when I went on Friday, Lipica was cloaked in a thick mist. Although there was a strong tang of horse, and the occasional neigh from the void, none of the beasts were actually visible.  Fog is a perfect camoflague for a horse that colour. I couldn't even see the brown and black Lippizaner foals, and I was told quite a few were in the fields with their mothers; the horses gradually turn white as they mature. Oh well. My guide told me that the place becomes very busy with tourists in the summer, and with locals on pleasant weekends; it being a dank December Friday, I was the only visitor there.

A Lippizaner and foal. Er, when they are not hidden in thick fog.
 In any case, I was there to have a good look at the work of sometime Constructivist, lithographer and woodcutter August Černigoj.  In his long life, this artist, born in Austro-Hungarian Trieste, lived variously in Italy, Germany and Ljubljana. He had a lifelong fondness for this part of Slovenia, and died in 1985 in Sežana. His death in the nearby town accounts for the bulk of his life's work having ended up here.  Out of tourist season, appointments are necessary, and the gallery is only staffed- by a student volunteer- in the summer months. This is understandable, as in this location, the art gallery is almost an unexpected bonus; an extra attraction to the main equine draw. However, it is also rather a pity, as Černigoj is one of the most significant artists from this part of the world, certainly in terms of inter-war modernism, and perhaps deserves a more extensive treatment than he has received until now.

The museum, a big irregular space with different levels, is absolutely stuffed with everything that Černigoj left to them. This is maybe a mistake, as the focus really should be on the years of the 1920s and 1930s, and the late drawings, woodcuts and lithographs. Some of the paintings from the 50s and 60s really shouldn't take up the space that they do.

Some of the 50s paintings. Hm.
 Černigoj, having grown up in Austria-Hungary and served briefly in the Habsburg army towards the end of the Great War, found himself something of a nomad in the six or seven years after the end of the conflict; soon leaving behind his newly Italian home city for short and rather unsatisfactory spells in Ljubljana and Munich. The major departure in his work came after a year's studying under Laszlo Moholy-Nagy at the Weimar Bauhaus, in 1924. The abstract vision and Utopian desire to shape a fundamentally new art and, with it, a new way of life, was to consume Černigoj for the following fifteen years. Returning to Ljubljana for 1924-25, he taught at a local art school for a semester, and helped oversee the first exhibition of Constructivist art in the city. Reactions to the show were somewhat varied; the re-installation of this Constructivist show in the Moderna Galerija includes a wonderful anecdote regarding the consternation and dismay that accompanied the appearance of the first pair of jeans in Yugoslavia (see below).

"The birth of jeans in Yugoslavia"- Ljubljana, 1924. Moderna Galerija, Ljubljana
The exhibition established Ljubljana as a destination for contemporary art, but this reputation was to be briefly held. Unfortunately, just a term into his new job, the paranoid and censorious Royalist secret police discovered Communist literature in the artist's personal mail. The Communist Party was officially banned in Royalist times (many of the leadership were exiled in Vienna, where they spent their time discussing theory) and even possessing literature could lead to imprisonment- at the very least, a fine and a good beating. So, Černigoj was obliged to slip across the border to Trieste before the heavy knock at the door. Just think about that for a minute. An artist voluntarily flees into exile in Mussolini's Italy for fear of persecution at home- that gives you something of an idea of the intrusiveness of the Royal authorities.

Portrait of Srečko Kosovel, 1926
 For all these personal difficulties, the years from 1924 to the middle 1930s were exceptionally productive for Černigoj. In Trieste, he quickly established a private school for contemporary art, and earned a living through working for advertisers, architects, interior designers, and by illustrating books. Further Constuctivist exhibitions were mounted in Trieste, as well as closely participating in the avant-garde journal Tank, edited by Ferdi Delak- appearing in two brief editions in 1927. This was a baffling mixture of Utopian statement, taut linear drawings of architectural and design projects that never made it into three dimensions, and theatre reviews. The magazine, perhaps looking towards Ljubomir Mičić's Zenitist publications, exhibited a strong leftist sympathy which was never likely to make for a long print run in those times.

Amongst the friends that Černigoj made in this period was Srečko Kosovel, one of the most noted Slovene poets of the last century. Černigoj picked out his friend's round glasses and high forehead as the distinguishing points in a taut, dense network of carved lines in this lithograph, one of a series of similar lithographic portraits and studies made in the first eighteen months of exile. The two men had wanted to establish a journal called The Constructor, but this later became Tank after the poet's tragic death from meningitis, in 1926.

Tank poster feat. Ferdi Delak, 1927

In many ways, Černigoj was a victim of rather unfortunate circumstance. The second war saw him retreat further into private life, drawing from the human figure and occasionally emerging to decorate the interior of a church; in post-war Yugoslavia, he suffered the fate of many 1920s radicals across Europe, by being half forgotten and a radical from a time officially castigated by the prevailing ideology. Černigoj's suffering was recognised; he had some teaching jobs and exhibited extensively in Yugoslavia and Italy in the 1960s and early 1970s. However, by that time, younger artists with a more contemporary focus commanded attention, and Černigoj's later exhibitions aroused little interest or enthusiasm. He moved into retirement in the Karst in the late 70s, where students of the time remember him as a kindly and encouraging figure, and was forgotten after his posthumous retrospective in Slovenia, in 1985.

The gallery in Lipica is able to give a very comprehensive overview of the varied and tortuous path of Černigoj's career. Perhaps there is a little too much focus on the less successful aspects of his career, but there is rich and interesting material here to show that this is an artist who very much deserves a fresh look, in a European context. Černigoj has featured in recent exhibitions of Constructivist art in the US and Central Europe, and his theoretical statements in Tank have re-appeared in readers of the period. Even in death, however, circumstance conspires against him; his gallery is a puzzling presence here in Lipica, where it is unlikely to receive the wider audience that it deserves. However, hopefully the re-construction of his 1920s work at the Moderna Galerija, will encourage more visitors to come and look at this very interesting small museum more closely.

1 comment:

  1. Love that portrait of Srečko Kosovel. Reminds me of the vorticism movement that had gone on in the UK a decade or so earlier - and that of course was an offshoot of the Futurism that had stemmed just over the border in Italy.