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Maksim Gaspari
by Marjan Marinsek

Maksim Gaspari (1883 -1980) is a unique phenomenon in Slovenian art. In his artistic creations, he has preserved the rural culture of past times. During his long life, he remained faithful to his principle of "From Nation to Nation", which he already established while studying at the Academy in Vienna at the beginning of the twentieth century. In his immense opus of paintings, postcards and literary illustrations, he developed his own style and established his favourite motifs.

Countless are the numbers of his paintings in mixed techniques, oil and watercolour, in which he captured the idealised rural world, which was even then disappearing in front of his very eyes: the world of the cheerful Slovenian man from winter to spring and from morning till night. It is these motifs that he came back to again and again during his long life.

His paintings were purchased mainly by intellectuals: doctors, dentists and veterinarians, who were aware of the value of Gaspari's folklore motifs. Farmers were not buyers. What would they do with a painting, depicting a farmer, ploughing his field, or a painting of the Tenth Brother or some other poor soul? But why do we say then that Gaspari became one with the Slovenian people? It is in most part due to the literary illustrations and postcards, which reached out to all people.

The number of illustrations that Maksim Gaspari produced could be made possible only by a man of extraodinary imagination and exceptional drawing talents, a man with a special gift of God, with a lot of will and hard-working discipline. Gaspari illustrated at least 57 books, especially children's books, created 33 cover pages for books and magazines, published his work in at least 41 newspapers and magazines, produced numerous advertising posters, caricatures, honorary documents and diplomas, signets, pamphlets and the like. Whoever is not familiar with his primary school textbooks, which were published from 1912 until the Second World War, Kette's poetry, Milicinski's Fairy Tales, The Tenth Brother, Slovenian National Fairy Tales, Slovenian ballads and romances, gentle, melancholy, rural illustrated headings, song-books and almanacs? Whole generations, who would copy Gaspari's illustrations and were enthralled by his motifs, were brought up with his illustrations in Zvonsek, Vrtec, Naš rod, Ciciban and other prints. Some copy his pictures to this day!

His postcards or greeting cards represent a special chapter in his work, as they reached every Slovenian household like tiny artistic swallows, while contributing to the artistic transformation of people in the countryside and in the city. And it is in this that we find the grandeur of Gaspari's mission; everyone could afford a postcard for a small price - this small work of art, which praised our home, depicted rural chores, national costumes and national songs, day in, day out, wished merry Christmas and Easter holidays and spoke a comprehensive language to all.

He created postcards throughout his life, from the first one in 1902, to the ones he single-handedly produced in his old age and sent to his friends and colleagues during his brief vacations in Kranjska Gora. We have a collection of 392 original prints. Even while studying in Vienna, he would send home hand-made postcards, then came postcards, produced during the First World War and the time of the Carinthian plebiscite. In the newly-formed SHS state (the kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians, i.e., the pre-WWII Yugoslavia), which was formed in 1918, he embarked on his productive publishing period, publishing various nationalawakening, social, Sokol and Orli movements and Cyril- Methodius themed postcards, especially ones with national motifs, which were accompanied by verses from national songs.

In this period he also produced the greatest number of Christmas and Easter greeting cards, although he had been making them since the First World War. They became very popular everywhere, especially by our fellow countrymen around the world. He managed to preserve these ancient holidays in an antique spirit and represent them in their folkloric uniqueness, with all the customs that the Slovenian people established over the centuries: homesteads in the snow, robust young men with dormouse skin hats in their hands and Virginia cigars in their mouths, going to Midnight Mass, mothers with children, scenes of birth, the Slovenian Madonna, Gammer Winter, poor men and beggars, cribs in God's corner, cradling the Child, families at Christmas tables, the ritual of smoking, fiddlers and Koledniks, angels from the sky, scuffling, New Year's Eve, the Three Kings, snowballing and sledging… And to this day, just as swallows herald the spring, these greeting cards herald the coming holidays, as they pour into our homes in great numbers all around the world.

Gaspari, who wasn't aware of how many postcards he had painted himself, was very happy when I began collecting them. Unfortunetly, he did not get to see his first independent exhibition, which took place in 1986 in Velenje, and never found out the actual total number of the postcards he made. The postcards travelled all around the world, wherever Slovenians lived: Austria, Germany, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, the USA, (four times from Cleveland to San Francisco), Brasil, Argentina, Uruguay, Australia (Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Bright).

Currently, there is a major exhibition of Gaspari's paintings, postcards, illustrations, prints and Gaspari's crib in the Festival Hall in Bled, prepared by David Rjazancev from Bled and myself as the author. The exhibition will be open from 10 January 2005, every day from 10.00 to 19.00. This is the first time that such a diverse opus by Gaspari will be on display. All admirers of Gaspari's work hope that we will live to see the establishment of a gallery devoted to Gaspari, where the entire collection of this national treasure would be on permanent display.

Something particularly impressive is the Gaspari Crib, which I only managed to obtain in the last few years. Gaspari painted it on to sheets of paper soon after the formation of the new SHS, and therein expressed all the enthusiasm for this new State at the time. The crib has many features of Slovenian nationality: Joseph and Mary are Slovenian peasants, dressed in traditional Gorenjska costume; the shepherds are our old men in sheepskin coats with tulips on their backs, while the shepherd girls are graceful country girls, holding carnations and home-made doughnuts on plates. The Three Kings, approaching the manger, are a Serb, a Croat and a Slovenian, while behind them is a standard-bearer, holding an SHS flag. Betlehem in the backgorund is reminiscent of a mixed panorama of Kranj and Klagenfurt. The crib was not well received in those days, supposedly lacking Betlehem spirit, while today it is a testament to their era and is a great rarity.

Article abstracted from Sinfo.