As we read Kosovel’s accounts, letters, journals and critical writings,1F we quickly realise that he regarded the fantastic as a significant and high-profile aspect of art:
“In the chaos of more clear and less clear views on art – that is attitudes defined in the past, which are instinctively uncertain, yet reach into the future – one can discern three bases on which contemporary art is developing: the impressionist base, the expressionist base and the fantastic base.”
Kosovel wrote this observation on 23 January 1926 in his review of Gruden’s poetry. The text may have remained in handwritten form, but since it was penned only four months before the poet’s death, it can be considered a mature and cogent statement. Nevertheless, the statement is surprising particularly considering the function that our poet accords to the fantastic. In Kosovel’s view, echoing the theory of Roger Caillois, the fantastic was supposed to provide a significant and unavoidable basis on which develops good-quality and significant contemporary art. He mentions it right after impressionism and expressionism, that is, after the stylistic and conceptual tenets, which literary historians, together with constructivism, consider as the main labels defining Kosovel’s literary production. The fantastic thus occurs here rather like a “substitute” for the expected constructivism, as a third “basis” from which develops the entire contemporary and not only the poet’s personal art.
If Kosovel understood the fantastic as a basis for contemporary art, what exactly did he designate by this term? Did he still have in mid the dreams, the delirious states, the magical and mythical situations? Did he have in mind extraordinary situations and heroes at odds with the ordinary image of reality? Is perhaps Kosovel’s concept of the fantastic by chance and in theory completely unfounded? Are there any traces in the poetry itself: how far does the fantastic of Kosovel reach?
Let us first quote Kosovel’s writings on Gruden in their entirety, namely those passages in which he speaks of the essence of contemporary art and the function of the fantastic in it:
“The impressionist basis of art springs from the spirituality of human beings who observe life in an impressionistic way, that is: they view life in the light of their sensuality. For an impressionist an object is worth only as much as it can influence him. He does not distinguish between these influences and does not seek their similarities or differences, but rather, he sinks into the object, dissolves it with his senses and in this way shapes it. Characteristic of impressionists is their sensual attitude to nature and their attitude to people is similar: In sensual stupor they seek, love and elevate the human being. For an impressionist life is a force on which he sensually depends. For an impressionist instinct is a handier tool than his intellect; he is one with nature. He is usually contemplative and passive, viewing life such as it is and not racking his brains about the meaning of life. He is only concerned with his sensual intoxications, which are a riddle to him. The impressionist adores and admires the object such as it is, such as he sees and feels it.”
An impressionistic, sensual attitude to nature, to human beings and to the universe is obviously very close to Kosovel, as he refers to it in a most emotional, warm and affirmative way. While he defines expressionism only in negative terms:
“If we compare an impressionist to a person who is the mirror of life, then an expressionist is blind to the majesty of the world, only looking at the value of the object, not in the object itself but in its purpose. An impressionist may be interested in a tree, in the sun or the afterglow of a sunset; he may be overjoyed by a sunny day, but the expressionist is only interested in one question: what is the meaning of life, development, revolution; he is concerned with religious issues, in short questions about the fundamental, ultimate and most profound questions about beauty, goodness, truth and the meaning of life. The expressionist is shackled by the influence of external natural phenomena. He only sees the logical progression of life, and from there springs the question: what is life; what is the meaning of life? Thus the expressionist does not draw, does not observe phenomena realistically, such as they are, but prefers exaggeration. He does not care about the form; he prefers the content of phenomena. While the impressionist conveys to us the sensual analyses of his experience, the expressionist gives us the mental syntheses of his cognition.”
If we read Kosovel’s account between the lines, we realize that expressionism is only possible after impressionism: The artist must first see, experience and sensually comprehend the world, and only then ask questions about the world and its essence.
“And the third basis of the contemporary artistic production is the fantastic – continues Kosovel. – It is not an independent basis of life, but rather, a basis combining many different images of life, cognitions and sensitivities. The fantastic is merely a basis, which does not heed the logical order of things. It wants to be somehow surreal.”
As he seeks to propose the third artistic basis of contemporary art, namely the fantastic, Kosovel is less profuse, but very clear: The fantastic is that manner of expression which does not acknowledge the logical order of things, but rather, freely combines and intertwines “all possible images of life, cognitions and sensitivities.” And adds at the end: “On the basis of impressionism the following were born with fantastic orderliness: cubism, futurism, Dadaism and constructivism. On the basis of expressionism: religious mysticism.”2F
What is surprising in Kosovel’s understanding of avant-garde trends is the fact that he associates cubism, futurism, Dadaism and constructivism only with impressionism and not at all with expressionism. He in fact reduces expressionism to a philosophical issue about the essence of the world and marginalizes it. Since it does not interbreed with the fertility of the fantastic, expressionism cannot serve as a basis for modern artistic trends and is limited only to “religious mysticism.”
1. All quotations from Kosovel’s notes, letters and reviews, quoted in this paper are from the Third book (first volume) of the Collected works of Srečko Kosovel, Ljubljana 1977.
2. The fact that Kosovel does not even mention the contemporary movement of surrealism is worth mentioning, even though Breton’s surrealist manifesto was published in 1924. Anton Debeljak wrote about surrealism in the April issue of Ljubljanski zvon in 1925. Nevertheless literary history, since Ocvirk, looked for traces of surrealism in Kosovel’s works, while completely neglecting his vociferous and unambiguous commitment to the fantastic.