I am looking at an extraordinarily intense picture painted in oils on a small piece of cardboard. With great painterly skill, it depicts – very vividly and directly, with shocking expressiveness – the face of a man who, with his brown eyes wide open and furrowed forehead, makes a wild grimace: his mouth is stretched in laughter, and his eyes, slightly askew, are staring out of the picture with a challenging, provoking, mocking look, as if he is testing something – as if he is testing even the person who looks at this picture.
If we knew nothing about its context, it would be difficult to put a date on this painting; we might think, for example, that it was made in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, since it is so skilfully painted in the realist tradition, with the characteristic browns that were popular, for instance, among the Munich School painters. The laughing face is anything but light-hearted; we sense extreme psychological tension, which does not amuse us but rather makes us feel uncomfortable, as if we are standing too close to a person whose behaviour we cannot explain.
This feeling only becomes stronger when we learn that this is a self-portrait which the artist made in prison.
It was painted in 1952 or 1953 by Čoro Škodlar (2 November 1902–19 May 1996; he was born Franc Skodlar but had his name legally changed). In this tiny picture, painted in the most difficult period of his life, he makes fun of himself with his typical gallows humour – and so maintains superiority over the situation. Or perhaps, in this state of extreme inner tension, he is swallowing his tears.
This is just one of Škodlar’s many self-portraits – and it’s not the only one with a mocking grimace. In somewhat less drastic form, we find this mocking face even in the earliest of his surviving self-portraits, a work from the 1920s; here it is reinforced by the expressive gesture of his hand reaching across the face – which allows this self-portrait to evoke a distant reminiscence of Schiele. We sense a wild energy in the contorted face. This is not a spontaneous grimace – even as he makes the face, the painter is examining it closely, with all the precision of a man who his studying himself.
So who is this unusual person whose very essence seems to be defiance?
In a sense, the fate of the artist who thus portrayed himself seems like something out of a novel. In his day, Čoro Škodlar placed himself at the heart of historic events, yet at the same time he kept such a low profile that history has barely recorded his presence.
Still, he turns up in the memoirs of the Partisan general Lado Ambrožič (known by his nom de guerre, “Novljan”) as “an agile man, somewhat small in stature, curious, perceptive, educated, and extremely resourceful”. He found himself actively involved at the boiling point of the revolution that completely transformed Slovenia during the Second World War: he had been inspired by revolutionary ideas in his youth and was connected to some of the revolution’s key figures. Even before the war, the future Marshal Tito, then an underground agitator, slept in the artist’s studio on Miklošič Street in Ljubljana; Škodlar smuggled him to Austria on a motorcycle. (There is a photograph taken after the end of the war, where we find the artist in Tito’s company.) Later, however, once the revolution was victorious, things got to the point where Edvard Kardelj could, rather cynically, tell Škodlar’s son, Črt: “The revolution devours its children, and it devoured your father, too” (to which Črt replied: “So why didn’t it devour you?”).
As a painter, Čoro Škodlar developed an extraordinary subtlety in discerning a kind of timeless beauty that art history had no idea what to do with. If, however, his films had been preserved, Škodlar would undoubtedly be known today as one of the key figures of Slovenian documentary cinematography. Not only did he assume the leadership (on 25 January 1945, just months before the end of the war) of the newly established Division of Cinematography in the Education Section under the Presidency of the Slovenian People’s Liberation Council, but he also made films himself, and did so with incredible courage. During the raid on the Slovenian Home Guard post on Črni Vrh, he literally attacked with his camera. He also filmed a report on the Partisan Ninth Corps, including scenes from the Franja Hospital, which, according to Ambrožič, he filmed “from top to bottom”. Ambrožič notes: “An enormous treasure thus found its way into the war reporter’s satchel, and a remarkable documentary was promised to the world.” After the war, however, this treasure disappeared in the Soviet Union: the Slovenian high command handed Škodlar’s film stock over to the Soviet military mission to be developed in Soviet studios, and there all trace of it was lost. From time to time someone remembers this material and makes plans to find it, so perhaps one day it will turn up and surprise us.
It is somewhat paradoxical that of Škodlar’s entire body of work it is his photographs that are best known, although he never considered photography an art and even wrote quite critically about its use in painting. Nevertheless, he worked intensively in this medium – in the 1920s he and Ferdo Vesel photographed the Dolenjska region, and later Škodlar published news photos as a reporter for the newspaper Jutro. But only his Partisan photographs have attracted any real attention. They occupy a special place in surveys of Slovenian Partisan photography, for nearly all the colour photographs we have from the Partisans were taken by him. Also, during the war, the American magazine Life published a series of his black-and-white photos as a photographic report – although of course without mentioning his name. In his trial after the war, the fact that he had given this documentary material to the Americans was cited as one of the reasons for accusing him of being a Western spy, a charge that could easily have earned him the death penalty if he had not successfully refuted it.
Most of his papers are also lost. Škodlar’s personal archive from before the Second World War was destroyed, and only a few documents from that period have survived, such as an interesting letter from his friend, the artist Hinko Smrekar, who once depicted Škodlar in a witty caricature and who shared his gallows lust for mockery. Most of what we know about Škodlar’s life comes from what people have said about him – and here, of course, the boundary between the provable and the unprovable is blurred: facts can inadvertently be changed, distortions arise, etc. And many of the documents that do exist have not been fully studied. In addition, according to his daughter, Živa Škodlar Vujić, her father never talked very much about himself.
When his daughter tells me about him, she describes a man who, though filled with defiance and humour, was extraordinarily gentle, kind, and respectful in his personal relations; at the same time, he was a man who abhorred violence and was obsessed with justice. An unpredictable combination. His highest principle was: do not lie. His mother, who was Jewish, used to tell him: “Lying is the worst thing a person can do.” “But,” his daughter adds, “she didn’t teach him that sometimes it’s best to keep quiet.”
When we attempt to write about Čoro Škodlar, we are faced with everything that has been lost. Still, it would be possible to collect a great deal more material about this remarkable man, which would help us better understand his life and work. Thus it would be worthwhile to some day examine systematically his extensive journalistic writing for Jutro and evaluate it objectively, without being put off by his tendentious style or intransigent opposition to modernism, which, especially with regard to his attack on the sculpture of Franc Kralj, has reminded some of the German campaign against “degenerate art” (entartete Kunst). At the same time, however, we should remember that in 1936, when Škodlar was an accredited correspondent for Jutro at the Berlin Olympics, he is said to have been the only reporter to have turned down the invitation to a reception by Goebbels.
But what tells us the most about him are his paintings. Although they seem so distant from the turbulence of his life, they contain that which was most alive in his life.
“In every artist there exist two natures – the one we know from his external appearance and the other, which comes alive and finds strength only in the act of artistic creation and is entirely different from the first one and, in all respects, independent of it.” Čoro Škodlar wrote these words in his book The Delusion of the Century (Zabloda stoletja), published in 1984, in which he managed one last time to create a kind of public scandal: he quite ruthlessly questioned the mythic status of the painter Jožef Petkovšek in Slovenian art history even as he convincingly pointed out a number of problems, particularly with regard to certain untenable attributions – yet he made no attempt to hide his own distaste for Petkovšek. But because parts of the book are written in a brutally tendentious, ringing tone, art historians had an easy excuse to ignore it.
Still, despite his warning that the artistic nature is independent of external appearances, if we wish to write about Škodlar the artist, we cannot ignore his biography, which, even with all the difficulties he experienced, I see as a kind of artwork in itself: in the way he found himself at the centre of events during some of the most dramatic moments in twentieth-century Slovenian history yet was able to extract himself from history, in the way he was active in history without history ever truly recording his presence, and in the way all of his public activity only made him a more solitary figure.
He was born on one of the most mysterious days of the year: the second of November – All Souls’ Day – when passages are open between the living and the dead. In Mexico, this is a joyful holiday that connects death and merriment, death and mockery. We do not know the hour he was born, so we cannot determine his astrological details, but he personified to the extreme the main features of his sign, Scorpio. As astrology tells us, Scorpios are passionate people, somewhat dark, pensive, and very emotional; they enjoy dealing with mystical, liminal matters and are persistent in whatever they pursue and whatever interests them; they have a strong erotic charge; they like to roam through Hades but almost always emerge from it thanks to their strong will; they enjoy intensity in every area of life; and so on.
Škodlar’s tendency to challenge and provoke reached its extreme very early in his life, when he directly challenged death. At the age of sixteen, as a student at the Realka (the polytechnic secondary school) in Ljubljana, he shot himself in the classroom as a protest against the religion teacher, who had been treating him badly – probably bullying him in part because of the boy’s Jewish background. Škodlar’s action caused problems, not for the teacher, but for himself: he was expelled from the school and forbidden to enrol in secondary school anywhere in the country. After the First World War, in the early 1920s, Škodlar went to Vienna, where he trained in various studios. During this period, he also spent a few months in Munich and most likely visited Prague, too. But even before going to Vienna, he had studied fresco painting with Simon Ogrin. When he returned home, however, he painted with Ferdo Vesel in a kind of master class that developed into a personal friendship. Škodlar later included many experiences from this relationship in an appendix to The Delusion of the Century, where he writes a genuine encomium to Vesel, which also gives us insight into his own artistic credo.
From this artistic credo we can infer that his attitude towards life was filled with deferential wonder and was, in a very deep sense, religious. His true religion, however, was art, and here he disliked any compromise with other religions. When he married his wife, Nina, theirs was the first exclusively civil marriage in Ljubljana.
In his youth, he was almost certainly acquainted with the ancient practice of mithridatism – the deliberate self-administering of poison in small doses in order to develop immunity to the poison. At the same time, this was probably also a conscious means of testing the effectiveness of a substance. (He was clearly interested in the effects of physical stimuli on the psyche – in The Delusion of the Century he extensively cites Rodin on the influence of food and drink on specific thoughts and moods.) Such practices can be very dangerous, but Škodlar possessed enormous willpower, which he also used to help his good friend, the playwright Slavko Grum, overcome his morphine addiction. As we can deduce from his writing about art, in both life and art Škodlar valued above all strength of character and will.
May we, then, understand the way he played with revolution in the light of the way he tested poisons and, at the same, tested his own character and will? Škodlar first came into contact with the communist movement as early as 1918, when he was sixteen years old – even before the founding of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia. Although he disseminated communist literature, he never wanted to become a member of the party and always insisted that he was a free spirit and not bound to any dogma. In The Delusion of the Century, he wrote that ideologies were of almost no importance for the spiritual life. Nevertheless, he had close ties to active members of the Communist Party. In 1939, even before the Second World War reached Slovenia, these ties became so dangerous that he had to go underground. Škodlar’s daughter assumes that he must have had contacts with foreign intelligence agencies, since, at the start of the war in 1939, he arranged the printing of forged passports in the Jutro print shop for airmen from Czechoslovakia so they could get to Great Britain. Among other things, as an activist in Ljubljana for the Liberation Front resistance movement, he persuaded and prepared (at the orders of the LF leadership) the artist Božidar Jakac to leave the city and join the Partisan fighters.
When he himself joined the Partisans, in 1943 – accompanied by several other cultural figures, including the painter France Mihelič – he would walk around in a white coat and refused to carry a weapon or wear the so-called Tito army cap (titovka). Because of his lack of discipline, as well as accusations that he was an Anglo-American agent, the LF’s Security-Intelligence Service soon drew up a death sentence against him; his life was saved, however, by the literary critic Josip Vidmar, a founding member of the Liberation Front who at the time was the chairman of its executive committee.
Even in the most difficult situations, his penchant for mockery did not abandon him. At one point he was captured by the Italians and sent to an internment camp, where he won the trust of the Italian officers by painting the portraits of Mussolini and Hitler. He eventually escaped, but not without first adding devil horns and protruding tongues to the two portraits.
He joined the Ninth Corps of the Slovenian Partisan army and became their war photographer. Škodlar’s work during this period is the subject of an entire chapter in the book Novljan’s Century (Novljanov stoletje), written by the Partisan general’s son, Lado Ambrožič Jr, and based on his father’s account.
Škodlar’s leadership of Partisan cinematography at the Slovenian People’s Liberation Council never went beyond the planning stage, and after the war he had no chance to continue this work.
He became the director of the federal collection centre for “the property of the people” – artworks and antiques confiscated during the war. He himself may well have been appalled by the barbarism that was taking place – at times it seemed as though the new government, in its revolutionary zeal, was trying to destroy the traditions of civilization. Škodlar did succeed, however, in preventing the burning of the library at Smlednik Castle and also evaluated and rescued many valuable paintings and pieces of furniture.
He was awarded a medal for bravery but refused to accept it; medals, he said, are for prize bulls. He also turned down privileges at UNRRA stores (part of the United Nations’ war relief programme), saying he didn’t want to steal chocolate from children. Such attitudes only contributed to the authorities’ decision to view Čoro and Nina Škodlar as suitable defendants for a show trial held in 1951, largely because of the couple’s efforts to uncover the person who betrayed the entire Ljubljana underground network to the Gestapo in January 1945, a question that has not been fully researched and remains unanswered even today. The Škodlars were, in fact, defendants in two trials: the first was dismissed, but after the second one, they were both sent to prison, with Čoro spending more than a year in solitary confinement. When it was time for him to leave prison, he refused because he did not recognize the court’s verdict in the first place. According to his daughter, Mitja Ribičič himself – a former chief prosecutor and one of the key figures behind such political show trials – visited Škodlar in prison and promised that he would be rehabilitated. The promise, of course, was not kept, but an order was issued that all property confiscated from the Škodlars be returned to them. It was not until the 1980s that the verdict against the couple was overturned.
After the war, Škodlar withdrew from public life and made his living primarily as an art restorer. Among other things, he restored the famous fifteenth-century frescos in the church in Hrastovlje. He also wrote a manual on art restoration, but it was turned down by the publisher to whom he presented it. The only thing he published in the field of conservation was a curious polemic in a little book, where he objected to the fact that, during the restoration of the church in the Pleterje Charterhouse, the stone architectural elements had been painted. But it was painting he truly lived for: his daughter remembers him painting nearly every day, after which he would write until three in the morning. Škodlar’s appearance in his later years is preserved on film in a documentary by Žare Lužnik about the Kolizej building in Ljubljana, where the artist lived.
For Škodlar, art was something divine. His ideal was ars perennis – eternal art. He was convinced that in its greatest purity, when it was not subject to historical or ideological circumstances, art was a liberating force for humanity. He presented his thoughts on the topic most concisely in his discussion of the painting of his friend and role model, Ferdo Vesel. These thoughts, without question, may be understood as also pertaining to his own artistic aspiration:
There is, of course, no need for the artist to invent anything; the vast world is entirely within him, always in crystal-clear forms, more perfect than those to which, through means that are, relatively, extremely modest, he manages to give visible form. This visible form ennobles us, makes us happy, and reinforces our noblest feelings. So let us stand in front of the artwork, not with reverential awe, but only with a devout expectation of receiving gratifying inspiration as we gaze into the beauty and goodness with which the artist himself approaches us in the righteousness of his divinity – not the kind of divinity that rewards and punishes, but the kind that offers itself fully from its cornucopia of beauty. Our presence before the artwork demands that we be free of any pent-up tension, of any doubt in our own ability to grasp the emotional pain of the artist’s expressiveness, which, after all, is not and cannot be anything other than the artist’s sacrificial offering, his exalted song to the beauty of our existence, selflessly intended for the happiness of each of us. This is the mission of true, divine art, which does not divide humanity into religions or races – or into ideologies, which are of almost no importance for our spiritual life. Art is, therefore, a true and powerful force which, without violence or vengeance, separates good humanity from the bad, corrupted part of humanity. By no means is it merely some blithe assertion or inappropriate fantasy, even in the sense of becoming aware of the universal meaning of art, as with vivid persuasiveness it points us towards our ultimate, albeit unattainable, goal, whether we call this heaven or the great, redeeming happiness of humankind. Trusting in the power of beauty, we may surrender to it and accept it as the most purifying religion, whose power resides in pure art. May this be for us the most perfect of all religions, for it is the only language understandable to all humankind. It unites all that is most moral, most ethical, in the world’s religions with the greatest yearning for beauty, love, human brotherhood, and freedom.
If Škodlar’s external, public life appears to have been governed by the feverish desire to insert himself into history, akin to the desire to provoke and challenge – which, among other things, resulted in the artist’s greatest possible isolation – then his paintings seem far removed from this desire. Neither provocative nor vehement, they are, instead, focused, alert, and full of amazement and admiration for everything they depict. “Astonishment, admiration, is the artist’s divine inspiration,” he wrote.
His paintings are governed by a striving for peaceful timelessness – in the conviction that, in all that he sees in the world, the artist discovers something that is already eternally within him.
And if, among his paintings, we find a fair number of still lifes – a genre the French call nature morte – they are painted in the conviction that, for the artist, “there is no dead nature: every thing has its own character, its inner essence, its spirit, its sense and meaning of existence”. Most of Škodlar’s works, however, are landscapes and portraits (with wonderful portraits of Nina, who was known for her remarkable beauty), including self-portraits – extremely intimate and meditative colour studies, which are also psychological studies reminiscent of Rembrandt. In his landscapes, the striving for timelessness is realized in such a way that the painter must have captured the exact moment when this timelessness revealed itself, which required his utmost attention to subtle changes in the mood of the light, his concentration and stillness – essentially, his vigilance. He must have waited a long time, in focused stillness, to catch the subtlest alterations in the light – barely perceptible tremors, which are so instantaneous as to seem beyond the transience of time.
In contrast to the artist’s usual restlessness, his paintings are expressly contemplative and reclusive, removed from the storms of history and focused on an investigation of light and, indeed, of the medium itself.
And this investigation makes no attempt to be modern. Škodlar did not care about trends; he was friends with Ferdo Vesel – from whom, especially, he learned a great deal – and with Ivan Vavpotič, to whom he paid homage in two still lifes that incorporated Vavpotič’s death mask. Nevertheless, particularly among his earliest works, we find paintings that reflect the spirit of the age – the colour realism of the 1930s. Occasionally, in the composition and palette of such works, there are even echoes of Art Nouveau. But after his return from prison (and the greater part of his oeuvre was created in the 1960s and 1970s), his painting had no connection with the current trends in art – a very deliberate, proud decision taken by the painter himself, as if he wished to belong, not just to another period, but to a different temporality altogether, a different understanding of time.
In addition to being a painter, Škodlar was also a skilled woodcarver and made wonderful frames for his pictures. This painstaking work he had learned in the solitude of prison.
Škodlar painted what he genuinely loved, fully surrendering himself to contemplation. But withdrawal from contemporary art trends did not, for him, mean retreat into some private world; rather, he appears to have understood painting as a lonely calling that was consciously opposed to the flow of time.
In these paintings we can also detect the artist’s study of art history, but his work will not speak to us if our primary interest is how to situate it within this history. These paintings require of us a personal encounter, sensitivity, and an attentive gaze.
It would be ideal, in a way, if the viewer could stand before Škodlar’s paintings with a state of mind that corresponded to that of the painter himself when he stood before what he was painting.
Škodlar presupposed an ideal of seeing that was itself creativity. As he wrote in The Delusion of the Century: “The essential mark of the artistic gaze is immediate and direct productiveness. The moment the artist sees, he simultaneously has a vision of the created realization.”
I imagine Škodlar the painter as someone who waits a long time for special flashes of light to come shining through the shifts of time into timelessness. I imagine him as someone who gets up before morning, or stays awake until morning, to watch as the light rises behind the rooftops, as the last lamp on the terrace meets the first intimation of the new day.
Most of his paintings convey a sense of calm, even though the painting surface itself is composed of tiny, quivering brushstrokes. Here we see, particularly in certain portraits, the clear influence of Vesel’s painting method, which in its circular organization of the brushstrokes provided a unique method for spatially defining materiality.
But this definition of materiality is only part of the deeper process of dematerializing the painting material itself, which Škodlar understood as the essence of painting: “In the genuine work of art, objective reality must be desubstantialized vis-à-vis the paint to the point where the paint’s individual impression in the work cannot obtain independent value.” And in another place he writes: “What painters have been striving for since art first appeared in the world is the dematerialization of paint, its non-material lightness.”
This is what makes Škodlar’s extraordinarily colouristic paintings fundamentally realistic, even if there is nothing of the everyday about them, since everything that is depicted appears in a state that transcends the everyday – as in a flash of light in which a special light is captured that is in itself luminescence. Often these are special flashes of light that reach into the material world as something that spiritualizes it. In a still life painted in Iran in 1969, for example, all that is needed for this to happen is the glint of the gilt edges on a book. The same tiny miracle happens in other paintings, too: sunlight shining through the spruces in a forest, the light that washes over a house by the sea, the light in which blades of grass glisten like lonely creatures beside a set of mysterious steps. In almost every painting an event is captured that reveals something about the painted scene such that the scene from “this world” is portrayed in some “otherworldly” space. But it all happens very gently and inconspicuously. For the most part, the painter operates not with contrasts but with very subtle transitions, which often create violet and pinkish tones. But certain paintings are also studies of very intense, dazzling light.
Beneath the quivering of the surface, however, there lies a firm, hidden geometry, which the painter designs very deliberately. So, for example, a subtly painted nude from the 1930s is titled Swastika (Svastika) because the positioning of the body allows us to recognize this symbol in it. Given that this is a painting from the 1930s, it is wonderful to see how the artist was acting deliberately in a thoroughly unconventional way: the Nazis’ abuse of the ancient, exalted symbol did not lead him, as a committed anti-Fascist, to renounce it, but rather he placed the swastika in an unexpected context, as something alive, thus extricating it from any ideological appropriation.
Chinese Still Life (Kitajsko tihožitje), from 1958, is one of Škodlar’s most visually accomplished works. The refined colour gradation eternalizes the silent life of the Chinese objects, which are carefully arranged in a bourgeois ambience. Such a painting might easily have been made even fifty years earlier and, indeed, the painter’s intention seems to be to retreat as much as possible from his own time and place into a vision of pure order, in which all things, in their very remoteness, are alive and engaged in a quiet conversation among themselves.
Also particularly expressive is a painting of a yellow rose in a vase. At first glance this appears to be an ordinary bourgeois still life, but the longer we look at it, the rose seems to challenge the law of gravity.
Drawings, too, are a very important part of his body of work, with his drawings from prison in particular occupying a unique place. These drawings are records from a brutal period and as such have documentary value; they consist of still lifes, window views, self-portraits, and portraits of others, including four that depict the writer Radivoj Rehar.
But far more important than their documentary value is the way Škodlar, through subtle techniques, so dematerializes the atmosphere that he allows the objects, which are placed around the prison cell in a diffuse light, to hover outside the world. In this most closed of spaces, a space deliberately constructed as a site of captivity, Škodlar has placed these things in a state of unreachability.
The painting problem which Škodlar focused on especially was how to approximate black: how dark could he make a surface yet still make the darkness work as light?
In the painting tradition, he was inspired here particularly by Manet, and he studied his use of black. Similarly important for him was his study of Rembrandt’s use of chiaroscuro.
Škodlar was especially interested in transitions between light and darkness – some of his finest works are studies of morning and evening.
One of his most magical paintings, from the 1930s, depicts the city of Split at night. In this work, the last still-burning electric lamp on a terrace encounters the first hint of the sky growing lighter before dawn – there is still no visible light and the sky is still dark, but we feel the moment of transition, when darkness is just beginning to turn into light.
I see this work as emblematic of Škodlar’s most essential effort as a painter – as if in his search for subtle transitions he sought to transcend the opposition between light and darkness.
And yet, in all its contemplative concentration, this effort is connected to the wildest and most subversive aspect of his character.
With this in mind, we can again ask ourselves that fundamental question: how should we today view a body of work such as Škodlar’s? In a recent interview, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek raised an interesting topic: today, all those models of subversion that, in referencing the avant-garde, became established through the intentional rejection of beauty and harmony and the production of shock effects have now been entirely appropriated by the systems of art and society, so today what would be truly subversive is the well-made work and good craftsmanship; indeed, the most subversive thing might be when someone is truly disciplined, works diligently, etc. But here, of course, we are not just dealing with questions of work and discipline, but something more. Škodlar, who liked to stress that “there is no art without the meaning that exists in its spiritual aspect”, would understand it in this way: “The artist remains a fanatic servant of his religion; he must profess it even when it is opposed to convention and official legality.” In this sense, we might today understand Škodlar’s lonely dedication to the creation of ineffable beauty and his refusal to adapt to the currents of the age as his subversion at its most extreme.
Text written by Miklavž Komelj and published in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Čoro Škodlar “Forms of Light”