Biography as a Spiritual Travelogue

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Biography as a Spiritual Travelogue

II. Toward Zero Degree Motion

#8 The determined and irrational firmness with which he rejected flattering invitations by gallery owners from the New Continent was more than a personal fear of America. For Petlevski crossing the great sea would have meant leaving the spiritual space of Europe to whose tradition he had linked his shift from the traditional to the abstract. Petlevski was a real European modern artist because his attitude to the painterly heritage was one of affirmation out of negation, like proving the importance of God through various expressions of doubt. What is more, the destruction of tissue and form, which is directly visible on the levels of style and subject matter, and the poetic and philosophical individualism of organic Art Informel that Ordan Petlevski elevated above a style, was founded on a blend of the denial and confirmation of tradition. In that year, when he was born to the public, Petlevski also took the moral decision to compensate for quick success by slow self-affirmation, by putting an end to any ambition that might distress the soul. He obviously did not want to drown his deeply felt Europeanism (underpinned by painterly procedure and a corresponding art philosophy) in the superficial assimilation plan that lurked behind a seemingly attractive offer to become first tenor of the Paris school of painting, as French papers were already calling him. Zagreb was the only place in the world in which my father could approach the desired ideal of a zero degree of motion. This was the point into which he could dig his Jacob’s ladder, a vertical line that led the adventure of the spirit upward, and the disease of the body downward. Almost everyone who respected my father asked him, at some point, to explain his behaviour. Such an extreme case of rejection of money and fame suggested saintly ethics but my father, although of an exemplary and sometimes touching level of morality, was no saint, believe me. He was simply unswervingly faithful to the principles of an aesthetic system he had chosen himself, a system which linked the artistic and the aesthetic on the basis of their practical uselessness, which means that Petlevski believed that an aesthetic stand is similar to a moral stand in the sense that it manages to overcome the egoism of expecting some practical purpose to be fulfilled. On the other hand, Petlevski’s painting is a rare concrete example of fine art of the kind that could probably have saved even Kant himself, let alone any ordinary skeptical intellectual of our time, from the well-known fear of numbing the soul with an excess of pleasant feelings that come from the experience of too much beauty. Abstract art is a Kantian ideal of free beauty divested of any recognizable form, and therefore of any practical purpose that the picture of an object might awake in the viewer. I think that organic abstraction was the only way in which my father could bring attraction, as a source of pleasant feelings caused by beauty, into the cold, inhuman, rational world of aesthetic freedom. He did this by stealth, in the same way that nature does. But Kant was only one of the books on his shelf. He preferred Aristotle. I suppose that it was here, on this moment of simultaneous veneration and cancellation of mimesis, which my father could only view as finishing what nature had started, that a completely modern, unusual idea about the picture was born. #9For an artist like Petlevski the picture does not imitate, it does not exemplify nature, it is nature as such, captured in a particular artefact that objectivizes the aesthetic judgement of its creator. You may think that this is a case of the subject judging natural beauty as if it was an object, but what he is really judging is himself. As he painted, my father always approached his work from the aspect of personal morality based on humanity.

Today, as I read my father’s notes, one of his characteristics that I also noticed earlier comes clearly to the fore: the strong need of an artist with a propensity for self analysis to find, in the story of his own life, signs of general conditions, signals of the time, marks of the broader civilization in which he was immersed. The culture from which my father originated had forgotten entire pages of its own history but defended itself from complete amnesia by an oral tradition that might be better described by Zumthor’s term vocalitи. Identity, which could not be found in the continuity of the written word, had to be sought elsewhere, for example in some parole fondatrice de Dieux, the creative power of God’s word. The price of oral defense was high and was expressed in the loss of connection with the Hellenistic heritage. My father renewed his memories of the three key people in his young life with gentle nostalgia. Later these people became symbols for him: his grandfather as bagpipes, his grandmother as a living calendar, and his mother as an icon. Among these symbols he wove a network of nostalgia and melancholy for a culture that had to agree to an oral identity transfer. He was always questioning history, and the wish to find a meaning in historic turbulence was the Leitmotif of many conversations he as a painter had with intellectuals who belonged to other professions, for example, a whole generation of Croatian writers. Remembenng the liberal sprit in his grandfather’s house encouraged my father in his constant search for a higher synthesis of events that might indicate the existence of some transhistoric justice, distant, fragile and hardly discernable. He wrote the following: The family was big, patriarchal to a degree, but much more liberal, especially in the ethnic and religious sense. My father Petlevski had problems in his life because he was different from the majority of people, because he so completely inverted the relationship between two basic concepts of human existence, free will as choice and destiny as something that is given. Because of this some people respected him as an ascetic and loved him as a guru, while others waved their hand, shrugged their shoulders and ran as far away from him as they could so as not to be infected by idealism. When he said: Art is not choice, art is destiny, Petlevski meant that from his viewpoint ambition in art is the practice of futility.

AuthorSibila Petlevski
2018-08-21T17:23:53+00:00 June 1st, 2000|Categories: Reviews, Gallery, Blesok no. 15|0 Comments