| A year or two before his death the painter who loved Der Zeuberberg and Dr Faustus, and who was much closer to Andre Malraux’s Antimemoirs than to the chronological contemplation of Thomas Mann, just as he liked the Artist in Hunger more than Kafka’s diaries, refreshed his memories. Because he had to. I knew that he was not writing a diary because he abhorred dates. Probably persuaded by the determination of some honest man with warm eyes who would not renounce the idea of publishing his talks with Petlevski, my father bent over his small notebook. From political and ideological persecution to the destruction of everything that was wise and noble – it was a time of wickedness, hypocrisy, the denial of all values in life and art. One must realize that it was a lime of artistic isolation. (We knew nothing about what and how people painted in Europe.) Ljubljana was the furthest I had ever traveled. My contraction into my own essence was extremely radical on one hand, on the other (as the French critics emphasized) my paintings carried important features of the western painting tradition. Something fell into place between what I was painting, what was global and what was yet to come.
I. Life For People
#7 It was the year 1959. It was one of the years when the painter Ordan Petlevski was born. The year when he was born for people. I mean for the people who like winners, and those are always in the majority. Nothing seemed to be the same after he had won first prize for painting at the first Biennial of Young Artists in Paris. Only four years earlier he had graduated from the Academy in Zagreb, a Croatian city in a country that was then called Yugoslavia. According to the journalists of Life magazine, it was a country that was very far away, behind the iron curtain of socialism. Everything really had changed, so I will have to justify why I used that cautious construction seemed to be. But first I must explain what this first prize meant, shed some light on the early sixties. It was a time of the last flash of confidence in the New before the Postmodernist shrugging of the shoulders, the last time when miracles could be imagined and when people could see with their own eyes the burning prophets of Modern Art walking on Earth, or at least on some street in Paris. A time when Malraux could still be minister of culture and together with Cocteau cheer ideas of a kind that could only have been born in the head of a man who did not believe in the boundaries of the period. A man who could place the entire history of art, all the pluralism and all the stylistic heterodoxy of the new age, under the roof of the same imaginary museum. Did not this scheme of things blend perfectly with the intention of exhibiting the youthful canvases of the old masters of Modern Art together with the paintings of the young artists like Hundertwasser, Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Downing, Peter Bruning, Werner Schreib, John Koening, Luis Felto, Manabu Mabe, Jane Lebenstein, Helen Frankenthaler, Bernard Buffet and Ordan Petlevski? The idea of an imaginary museum was the only place that could show Simples inscriptions, abstract simple notations by a twenty-nine year old unknown foreigner, on the same wall as the representational allegoric èvocation by Pablo Picasso. Art historians chose Petlevski, and so did Rufino Tamayo, Henry Moore and Ossip Zadkine. Two years later, Michel Ragon singled out three exhibitions among all that had been held in Paris: he linked the display of the already legendary (and too early dead) Wols and Corneille from the Cobra Group, Millares’s exhibition, and Petlevski’s one-man exhibition in the Galerie Lacloche on the Place Vandôme.
#3Petlevski was born in Prilep, a town in Macedonia, exactly at noon, as the first and only surviving child of a mother whose six children had died at birth or in the cradle, on 24 August (a date reminiscent of the Massacre of St Bartholomew), but in 1930. I was born at a bad time, a time of poverty, misery and death – a time of the greatest recession and world depression, he wrote, just before describing the atmosphere in which he had grown up as one of matchless love. Tobacco dust – a source of money and hope in a better life, but also the cause of a terrible cough, the slow disintegration of the lungs of the people who dried and shredded this most profitable industrial plant of that region enveloped the town of Prilep. The village was a healthier place. Perhaps his mother Ljubica’s seventh child would also have died if it had not been for the mountain air above the village of Malo Mramorani and certainly the warmth showered on him by his grand father and grandmother. Their tenderness for their grandson was similar to parental love for a youngest son but gentler, devoid of expectations and almost completely free of the tension associated with child rearing in a way that is only possible with people who have already raised their own children. #6My grand father was the best bagpipe player. Grandmother, although illiterate, had such a good memory that she was a living calendar. When mother discovered my love for drawing although her behaviour was otherwise restrained, she could not hide her pride. Not only did she give me support, she began to enhance my natural affinity, patiently and confidently preparing me for the life of a painter. Her greatest obsession was for me to become a fresco painter. This obsession did not leave my mother until the end (a death that to my great sorrow came very quickly). For the time and the community she lived in this was certainly the wish of a non-typical Mother. Ordan Petlevski’s childhood, gloomy in the town where he lived as the son of a poor carpenter, and serene in the village where he could drown in the confusion of a numerous but affluent family, was essentially marked by three people – his mother, grandmother and grand father.
Biography as a Spiritual Travelogue