IV. Tossed into the Middle of a Garbage Dump
#13 I could reconstruct from memory the list of eternal themes to which my father often returned in his thoughts. At such times talks with Petlevski would turn into a kind of dictionary of problems that interested him. It included the concepts of destiny and free will, painterly adventures, romantic enthusiasm, solitude in company, history and individual talent, and also relations established between art and civilization, various media, painting and philosophy, art and memories, artistic ethics and the artist’s egoism, aesthetics and politics. Describing his generation’s submergence in monstrous spiritual and political terror and banishment, Petlevski added: They constrained my generation, but they didn’t manage to indoctrinate us. We were not weighed down by the Bolshevik oath, we thought with our own heads and waited for the right moment. However, for the painter Petlevski that right moment came too early considering the conditions that existed in the environment he lived and worked in. My father’s #7creative rise happened before the iron curtain was raised. His work coincided with the current stream in Modern Art without any outside influence, more or less spontaneously, and the recognition from the other side of the political curtain confirmed that the direction the young painter had chosen was right. He could not be moved in his pure and noble intention. Witnessing the French-Algerian disorders on the streets of Paris, for a short period Petlevski managed to feel the pulse of European changes. This gave him a premonition of the force with which the coming student demonstrations would erupt, reflecting the dissatisfaction of a different generation of young people who loudly defied police cordons. In the gulf between this European experience on one hand, and the experience of his generation that was forced to evolve quiet systems of defense from manipulation, Petlevski developed a thought about existence as a state of being tossed in the middle of a garbage dump. Al though this stand was founded on his gloomy estimate ot his own personal and his generation’s position in space and time, the metaphor of being tossed on a garbage dump in fact referred more to ideas, and less to people. What is used up always ends up on the garbage dump, he wrote, and in the following sentences expressed his fear of spiritual utilitarianism. He meant that ideas that are turned into messages, given a reason, that target a certain time or situation, that only address the man of the moment and not mankind as a whole, get used up. #12He differentiated between ideology and the free world of ideas that resist abuse and whose inter-relations create beauty through many useless combinations, just like art. This kind of thinking necessarily affected the level of Petlevski’s poetry of painting. He was not satisfied with the modernist imperative where the New was created by consuming the old artistic heritage, which was unconditionally and definitively rejected and tossed on the garbage dump of history. On the other hand, he did not trust the recycling of ideas in the way that was later proclaimed by the Postmodernists, either. He aspired to a picture that would incorporate the entire history of art as a genetic code, but also be realized as a new and surprising form, an individual modern artifact. The following words are symptomatic: It is not influence, it is the normal continuity of European painting starting from Classical times, continuing through the Renaissance to the present. It is thus not surprising that an unprofessional observer called the last oil painting by my father – Combustion – a Rembrandt-type abstraction. It seems that he recognized in it the genetic code of the European painting tradition. In any case, how else to explain the mystery of the strong effect Petlevski’s abstract paintins have on uneducated viewers who, when they stand before his work, never feel the need to voice that well-known sentence that ordinary people always say when they encounter modern art: I could do that, too!
V. Adventurism and Romantic Enthusiasm
#6 For my father, writing autobiographical notes was a chance for retrospection, but also a chance to revalue past actions and choices made long ago from the position of the person who knows what happened afterwards. I was young. I believed, I hoped, that no politics or demoniac force could Frustrate what God had given me. That romantic enthusiasm of mine raised me above reality and freed me from any kind of coercion outside art. Art was my salvation, defense and guarantee for everything that was to happen (what I carried in me, desired and dreamt about). This makes me think of something that my father used to say to me whenever I felt discouraged. Talent is not a coin that can fall out of your pocket. For him, sinking into the painting was a way of finding salvation from everyday coercion and the ideological pressure of the environment he lived in. My father was an intellectual who liked to think about literature and music. He was a man who did not only keep philosophy books on his bookshelf, but read them. All the same, while he was painting he surrendered to the instinct of creativity, he felt the imperative to work without a direct cause. He called this imperative his destiny in art since, you will agree, talent is not democratically distributed among people. He approached his own gift as God-given, an immanent mysterious development of a higher order than could be justified by any pedagogical optimism or the endless human confidence in progress as the result of study. The progress of talent, manifested through alternating feelings of bliss and damnation, Petlevski called romantic enthusiasm, the inverted commas resulting from the perspective of a man who experienced illness as the closeness of death. Although he viewed the extent of his talent as predestined, he experienced the act of painting itself as an adventure. I see every new canvas as a new challenge, uncertainty, pure adventure. 1 do not know how the painting will end. When I paint I do not know what I will paint. I usually begin to work on several canvases at the same time and may finish only one, or none. Certainty is not commendable in art. Petlevski was primarily interested in the visual as an adventure in colour or line and he stressed that the artist needs as much intensity of inspiration and as much energy to cover a canvas or paper, because in the beginning both are just whiteness. He did not consider it essential to analyze his psychological state, instead he allowed the imperative of the visual medium to lead him through an unknown landscape. He explored that landscape with interest, moving like a pilgrim towards a destination point that the power of art had removed from the chronological axis of change into eternity. My father worked as if he had all the time in the world before him. He believed that playing with those useless things that make art beautiful can never end. In every picture he allowed visuality to be the impulse that naturally led him through stations similar to those on a pilgrimage. If he encountered the company of artists of the past in those imaginary cities he transversed during painting – he would start to play a game with them, which did not recognize the boundaries of centuries in the quest for trans-historical modernity. The following statement should be interpreted in this context: / am not interested in the state of being, I am interested in eternity. Not in what belongs to the soul but in what belongs to art. #10My father often said that a person can choose, if nothing else, his company. When he was young he was sure that the eternally young company of old masters would not desert him even in those days and years when, disappointed in people, he withdrew into himself. From the perspective of the end of his life my father also accentuated the other side of this choice, the heavy fate of being alone. The fact that he used to be friendly with Max Ernst in Paris in the sixties only illustrated a time that could never return – the sacred moment of European modern artists who were seizing the last chance to talk in a café. Because they suspected that soon nothing would be as it used to.
I will copy out some sparse details here: Petlevski matriculated in 1948 in the Prilep grammar school. The Ministry of Education and Culture sent him to study architecture in Skopje against his wish. It was not until after the second term that he managed, after submitting many applications, to withdraw From the Faculty of Architecture so as to try passing the entrance exam at the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb. His notes in the black note-book, which are otherwise measured and written in a concise style, include a fragment that stands out because of the strong feelings it describes. In the year 1950 my only wish finally came true – after incredible complications I was accepted at the Academy. My dream came true, and so did the dream of my Mother for me to go to a school for a fresco painter. After that everything else in connection with the Academy depended – only and exclusively – on me and my talent. That same 1950 was the year of the sublimation of everything that was bad for Petlevski. This primarily referred to the general atmosphere of fear and political persecution, but also to the unease, even the physical danger of my father’s position in the chasm between two cultures, two mentalities and two languages constrained by the force of socialism, that same steely fist under which not only individuals, but entire peoples, died of suffocation. He filled an entire page with a description of his shattered dreams. The most difficult period of my life began. Filled with existential problems, insoluble, almost fatal. When the enraged Macedonian bureaucracy handed him over to the Croatian bureaucracy he lost the right to a scholarship and to live in a student dormitory. In a chain reaction I lost the right to food coupons used to buy bread, without any official documents I became an illegal inhabitant of Zagreb exposed to police maltreatment at a time in which those who had, got even more, and the homeless were punished for not having a home. I was tired, hungry, very ill, disappointed and hopeless. Seeking for Julije Klovic, the painter Petlevski had found the police. But in 1955 he held the diploma from the Zagreb Academy in his hands, and became an associate of the Krsto Hegedushic Masters’ Workshop, which finally provided him with good conditions for painting: light, space, material. This was a place for painting and discussions among painters, a place of elite companionship which my father usually avoided. For him the workshop was a place to work on himself for five years, a chance for artistic introspection which, paradoxically, brought him closer to the company of world painters when in 1959 he won a prize at the First Biennial of Young Artists in Paris. He then visited Paris for the first time, invited by the organizers. In the masters’ workshop Petlevski met the artist Biserka Baretic. This meeting with my mother lasted until the fulfillment of the promise, Until death do us part. In 1960-1961 he went to Paris for the second time, a visit made possible for him by the biennial prize, which put him in touch with the very peak European art circles. His father died. His first one-man show in the Gallene Ladoche in 1961 was made up of works made in his Paris room. In 1963 he had a second one-man exhibition in Paris, refused many offers of gallery owners and returned for ever to Croatia. Zagreb became the place of his voluntary isolation. He left the travelling over to his paintings. His works brought him awards, circulated in world exhibitions, returned to Paris several times, traveled to the international biennials in Sao Paolo, Venice and Tokyo, were shown at the first triennial in New Delhi, brought him the Swiss award for abstract painting from Lausanne. They travelled to New York, Mexico City, Cape Town, Rio de Janeiro, Stockholm, Oslo, Helsinki, Amsterdam, Athens, London, Vienna, Barcelona and so on. One of his paintings, exhibited in a selection of twenty works by important twentieth century artists at an auction for orphans in the Galeries Beaux-Arts, fetched a vertiginous price in dollars, as can be seen from some yellowed papers expressing gratitude. Petlevski is represented in the National Museum of Modern Art in Paris and the Museums of Modern Art in New York, Johannesburg and Caracas, in the National Gallery in Prague, the Museum of Art and History in Geneva, in many museums and galleries in Zagreb, Skopje, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Ljubljana, and in several major private art collections worldwide.
Biography as a Spiritual Travelogue