There have never been so many art paths, so original, often bordering on gratuity, if not foolishness, as nowadays. Among that surprising diversity, which seems to have exhausted all the possibilities of expression and which, with frustration, creates the feeling that all has already been said and seen, Slavko Kopac’s work manages to appear unexpected and captivating. How can we explain such a privilege?

Slavko Kopac, Mother - 1949
Mother – 1949

It was born out of a convergence of causes, out of which the most apparent are the most compelling because, when working, an artist is always more sensitive to mysterious virtualities that inhabit him than to occurrences which cross his existence.

To say that Kopac was born in Croatia, that he left his country, Yugoslavia (occupied by Germans), where he was an art teacher in 1943, for political reasons, that he stayed in Florence for five years and that he then came to Paris in 1948, where he got married and where he still lives, is to briefly summarise some forty years of his life, and not to find the key to his art; but, on the contrary, to move away from it in many respects.

It is actually odd that Kopac, under the influences combined between his profession and his stay in the country of the Renaissance, did not become a passionate admirer and a staid follower of classical techniques. Is it out of revolt? Out of anxiety? Or rather because he has the intuition that they cannot express modern sensitivity? Is it yet because he decidedly denies them, or even that they do not concern him at all and that, in his work, drawings and oil paintings, these two bastions of what we will call the “fine art spirit”, are trampled upon or forgotten?

Because the strange aspect of Kopac’s productions first of all emanates from the fact that they are not used – or from an exceptional and particular manner – the traditional means of the artistic expression: oil, and that drawing, in their representation of a human, animal or vegetal world, is often deliberately clumsy and, in the stroke, never seeks the grace and harmony we can still find in artists with a reputation of a revolutionary, such as Picasso. For these reasons, Kopac, who became Dubuffet’s friend in Paris, a friend of this great destructor of established forms, this inventor of an “other art”, positions himself clearly on the margin of avant-garde movements and shows more freedom, because they have never, at least not until recently – and Kopac has been using different materials for ten years now – contested the primacy of oil, which remains with the most inventive and most absolute abstract painters, the ultimate noble material. For Kopac, on the contrary, there is no hierarchy in the art materials. They are considered as “worthy” or “unworthy”, depending on what is possible to draw from them and not as a canonical rule.
This is how Kopac alternately uses – often combined – plastic paste, cement, wood – preferably used, aged – broken, fragmented glass – lava, slate, stone, brick, paper, rug, earth – we want to say ceramic, to create his universe.

But these materials have thickness. This is why Kopac introduces the third dimension not only in his sculptures (sculpture is one of his favourite activities), but also in his paintings. Why call it “painting” if not for tradition and ease of language, his work rugged, elaborate, where often different remnants are encased? It is already better than reliefs, sculptures… while sculptures, illustrated, coloured, criss-crossed, furrowed, present as rich surfaces as paintings. In brief, with Kopac, the painter (who does not paint or paints a little, if we use this verb as traditionally accepted) and the sculptor (who sculpts in a very particular way, sometimes just by assembly) are so well linked that, in the same work, both techniques may simultaneously be used. And this is where one of the sources of our pleasure lies when we find ourselves in the world of Kopac, and also of our disorientation.

But it is not by means of an intellectual operation that Kopac happened to use the materials we are talking about – their number can still be enriched – but by his own choice, a true love. We should have seen Kopac searching for, finding, looking at, weighing, feeling, caressing the materials which chance and relentless search – when it comes to this topic, he is permanently on alert– bring him, in order to understand this impetuous taste. We readily say – it is even professors’ truism – that creators who regenerate art and engage it in the new directions are those who return to nature in the times when painting and sculpture weaken in their intellectuality (abstract art dies of intellectuality); here is a good example to support this affirmation, because to love materials, nowadays, it is the only way to find the real and life.

Slavko Kopac1963, 73 x 54 cm; mixed media on canvas
Ashen face, 1963

But this material, for Kopac is not enough to discover it and to admire it. To work it, that is to say, to scrape it, stick it, to fuse it, to beat it, to cook it, to use it, to drill it, to assemble, to colour it; in effect to make good use of its countless resources, to bring to it what it is lacking despite its natural beauty, accentuate, correct, enrich or impoverish its uniqueness, choose between a hundred ways it proposes, the best one, such is its delight. This pleasure – but also this labour – maybe requires some taste and, sometimes also, whatever one may think about this, some refinement, but, certainly even more so, a kind of divination of the destiny of the material, stains, embellishments, which time will add to it by combined actions of physical and chemical forces which transform the world.

In this concept, the artist is evidently not in keeping with the idea of what has been made of him only very recently. He is no longer an arabesque plotter, a handler of paintbrushes and colours, an embellisher, in a tragic or nice style, of our life images, or even of phantasmagorias of our imagination, or even – if we think of abstract art, because this latter is intellectual – of speculations of our intelligence, but rather the demiurge which recovers, remakes, completes the actions of spiritual or material power – we do not want to decide – which created the Universe and which continues to lead it to its destiny. Our time, admittedly ambitious, dreams of an art which would be fully and consciously metaphysical. With Kopac, this attempt, within the limits of possibilities of expressions opened to humans, is pushed very far. Do not materials in his hand become as rich in meaning as in the thinking of men of science and philosophers?

Slavko Kopac, 1962, 100 x 81 cm; mixed media (tire, oil painting, impasto) on panel
Turtle, 1962

At another level, which can appear, if examined absent-mindedly, very distant from the one of materials, but which is not – we will see it – Kopac strives for an experience of the same trend. Anyway, true creators do not have the habit of dispersing their efforts in their work and what is striking in that work, however diverse may it be, is always the continuity of inspiration.
If Kopac has the cult of the material, it is because in his spirit, and most certainly in his heart, it is, even if we think it inert and dead, life. Consequently, Kopac endeavours, in a series of his work, to surprise and capture, just in an instant, the life of a material. To do so, he tries to let it develop in complete freedom (though yet, in the crucible furnaces, the earth for sculptures behaves according to the laws which are appropriate for it), only intervening to provide gentle flicking, which sets in motion what some will be happy to call a chance, what others will identify with mysterious laws or adventures which contribute to the transformation of the universe. Kopac, therefore, using gouache, water colours, throws masses of colour, folds leaves and, by many light strokes of his hand, of which he knows the secret, makes emerge strange countries, inhabited by weird beings and animals.
Let us not mistake here the use of gouache and water colours; they, too, are considered to be materials and favourite only for their fluidity, rapidity of their movements and of their transformations, in short, for what we call their “sensitivity to the occasion”. All in all – we allow ourselves to insist on this difference – they are not at all instruments of rational will, nor an artist’s dream, but agents, even more simply revealers of some fantastic genesis. Let us not get lost either with the role of the game master; if it is of capital importance at the beginning – because to strike lucky is not at all easily done; it should be learned, one needs a talent for invention and, before success, trials, failures are numerous – it is later erased to give primacy to the work of materials, even if it means, to conclude, underlining this latter by light interventions of a nib or paintbrush.
But how, we would wonder, to in turn incorporate a drawing in such a system of creation, a system which Kopac built much more relying on his instinct than on a plan? Is an artist unfaithful to his search when he dedicates himself to the black on white or when he adds a few graphic marks to the images obtained by the metamorphoses of materials? It does not seem so if we try to penetrate the spirit of the methods Kopac uses in these instances.

They, too, aim at a certain liberation in this domain; the one of a hand. It is a question of delivering it, not only from the traditional “learned”, that is to say, from the ability to express the beauty and the harmony in the way we conceive them and like them after centuries of Greek and Renaissance art, but further cut it out of our habits to think and feel, out of everything that two millennia of rational and Christian civilisation could contribute with to our age, and that, to unite it, across the reason and the will, even across the sensitivity, to dark and primitive forces which inhabit us and which are, we can imagine, in communion with the materials of which once we were created. Kopac’s extreme demeanour consists of drawing with his left hand, this one having not had any instructions as for being able to better than the right one capture the movements of our nature. The means is far from intention, insufficient in comparison to the ambition of which it is a pretext, we would say. However, do not we have here a process which is analogue to the one of “automatic writing”? And this process, does it not take us to a discovery of ourselves, which poets, and others too, for art is a common good, will be able to understand and interpret ? Kopac, among other things, opens the door to a dream.
Let us try to answer this invitation, although avoidance by means of language never has the suggestive power of the one coming from plastic means, for words always remain below the images and, going from one to another, loss of energy is inevitable. But, beforehand and only to dream better, let us have a look at more.

Slavko Kopac, 1967, 116 x 89 cm; mixed media on canvas
A nest on a tree I., 1967

Loyalty to the human world – and in this world we will bring animals and plants – this is what, in the first place, characterizes the work of Kopac, despite the boldness and originality of his techniques. Yes, the first glance often does not see sculptures, only some blocks, hardly shaped, bore into rough reliefs, sometimes spiked by nails, feathers, obscene masses resembling appendices; for paintings of often gloomy surfaces, revealing the thickness of their material – this one as though frozen in the middle of its creation – or even struggles, surrendered by superficial coatings: varnishes, colours of different origins, but soon, when we look at it more attentively, there appear (sometimes slowly, the way a photograph emerges from the developer) men, women, insects, trees, herbs, birds, a boat, a canoe, the sun, and who knows what else. However, our look is not short of surprises; if it is patient, it discovers many realistic details, humans, for example, decorated with hats, headdresses, hair, necklaces, stretched arms or birds’ beaks, snouts, stomachs (one of them ends with enormous genitals), heaving breasts, as well as abdomens, so that he has the impression of being immersed in a polymorph world, where rules, physiological attributes and objects of civilization are oddly mixed, as though wanting to stress the mutual dependence between the man and the material. And the surprise grows when the eye (or a hand, because some sculptures are mobile and paintings invite you to touch them) realises that this head has two faces: can turn, that a woman extends her arms: these are wings – is she a bat? – that this tree is covered in a network of capillaries: is it human? – that this Breton woman and her headdress remind you of a standing stone, that these birds are men acrobats, that… but, Kopac’s characters are numerous (we are repeating; the artist has been creating over ten years now, his production is already abundant), at best, we could choose only some of their strange features.

Let us have a look, we said, at Kopac’s work, before we abandon ourselves to the musings of what they can inspire. But, in fact, to look at them, it was already – a slope which we have followed which taught us – to dream. This is what Kopac’s art describes or incarnates with an unbelievable precision – the dream is happily exact – the beings and landscapes which inhabit the artist’s imagination and create a special world. This world, which one is it?
To call it the world from our childhood, as some of Kopac’s illustrations could prompt us to believe, would be to diminish it. Its meaning and its importance are not reduced to illustration of the nostalgia of the young age which dwells in the heart of the adults. Each one goes somewhere else and certainly further. And would there have been the need to entertain such a simple topic which makes Kopac, with his methods of creation, more distant from, let us say Picasso, as the latter is from Vinci?

Is human spirit so sick when it can only understand by means of approximations and comparisons? Let us put, side by side, and one day, as luck would have it, we will be able to do so, two statuettes: one Kopac’s “the Breton woman” and the other of a black person, a tall ritual staff featuring a woman. With surprise, we will see that the one that looks the most barbaric and the most primitive is “the Breton woman”. By contrast, the black work, which contains elegance, is harmonious in the sense that we had previously assigned to this word. This experience, which would be possible to repeat with other work, reveals, in our opinion, the main character of Kopac’s art; it is, in the most significant accomplishments and, if we consider it within its main strength, more barbaric than the barbaric arts, more primitive than primitive arts, as if the artist was, by a tremendous recoil of several millennia, returning to the sources of humanity. But what desire, perhaps obscure, can drive Kopac to spend the resources of his intelligence and talents of his imagination to the production of the work in which the creation and the man – this latter albeit decorated with jewellery, loaded with the objects of culture – hardly seem to be free of the clay of the legend? It is, first of all, the one to sample the charm – in the etymological sense of the term – who is born out of this rudimentary work, but also the one to give a plastic equivalence to contemporary concern. In fact, despite our pride and our domination of the physical universe, we are less than ever certain (less certain than the man of the Renaissance, than a Bantou or a Dogon) of our final ends and we no longer dismiss the fact that we are prisoners of materials.

“A technique is metaphysics” said one contemporary philosopher. By his use of materials, Kopac shows human condition as it appears to a 20th century man.