Excursions of Mr. Slavko Kopac


Visionary Shepherd following his mysterious star, Slavko Kopac, the friend of things and humble men, looks for the unspeakable. The hell of the first one hasn’t got its place in the heaven of the second.

So, why this attempt at reconciliation? Essentially, to get Kopac out of the two great encounters of his life, Dubuffet and l’Art Brut, which dazzle him, without intimidating him in the least.

Certainly, Slavko Kopac and Jean Dubuffet had warm affection for each other until their deaths. Appointed a curator of the l’Art Brut collections by Dubuffet at the beginning of their acquaintance.

 In the course of 27 years, from 1948 to 1975, Kopac administered, organized and embellished an astonishing series of unpublished work, snatched from insanity, death and nothingness. Which Kopac summed up by his modest words: “He was God and I was Saint Peter”.

Holiness, we know, hardly supports extraversion. Kopac was gentle and discreet. But, in his friend’s creations, Dubuffet had recognized a talent, comparable to his. One thing, however, is sure: a refugee in Tuscany after the war, alone, isolated, cut off from the world, Kopac, with his small gouaches and watercolors, reinvented painting. In touch even with the greatest masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance, a little Croatian, with all the innocence of his youth, fiercely turns his back on them, to penetrate virgin and unexplored territories. This revelation didn’t come to him right away from outcasts and outsiders, nor did it come from Aloïse, or from Wôlfli, as could have been expected, but from children.

Slavko Kopac, Green pastures, 1946/47
Green pastures, 1946/47

“I started my career as a drawing teacher for children, he liked to say. But, within a year and a half I was fired, because I couldn’t get on with my colleague. If you are a real teacher, she shouted at me, how can you allow children to draw two feet at a table and a body without arms? But I, what I exactly liked in their drawings, was everything they didn’t do like we would. I was like a man who had to talk to God and who didn’t believe in him: a real teacher, it was them and the pupil was me”. So it was in a school for the youngest that Kopac became great. This initial infantile freedom can be found in the extraordinary Indian summer of the end of his life. As though, suddenly, Kopac let himself flourish entirely. Daring everything: big formats, these series of totemic nudes supporting the framework of the sky, where the most unrestrained colors, emerging from the earthy gangue of the years of lead. Refusing nothing: the collage itself, on the image of the latest Matisse, without any help from the paintbrush, with the subtleties of tones and depths which leave us speechless. It would, however, be unfair to limit a life to its final point. Kopac does not change the style, as is sometimes falsely alleged; he changes format. If it were actually possible to deduct his small world from his first Italian works, all attempts to encircle basically immaterial and fluid work are doomed to failure. For Kopac’s universe can be very capricious, infantile and dazzling, just like an uninterrupted dream.

Men in his work are wise and bearded, women lavish and well-rounded, Fellinian. August Bergers (shepherds) and Vénus Paysannes (peasants) anyhow meet rarely in his painting. If not sometimes with a fixed gaze, like in earthenware dogs, spiked hair, intrigued, blowing in each other’s face their mutual bewilderment, at only a few centimeters from each other. But, most of the time, Kopac doesn’t depict either men or women, rather cherubs with curly hair and greedy lips. In the image of, without doubt, all those Baroque angels, springing like handsome devils on the altars of the churches of Croatia, in the 17th and 18th centuries — and which surprised so much the Japanese photographer Keiichi Tahara when he discovered them, at the beginning of the war, at the Church of St. Mary of the Snow in Belec, at the Franciscan convent in Varazdin, or in the Pauline Church of St. Jerome in Strigova… They aren’t those aristocratic, polite and well-mannered angels as we imagine them at the court of Vienna or in the private chapels of Venice. No, these are rustic angels, with big devouring eyes not wanting to miss anything, and with red cheeks and well-rounded, due to the cold. Angels bursting with health, which suppress a really good desire to laugh.

Slavko Kopac, Harpist, 1945/46
Harpist, 1945/46

It is in this elegant and popular rusticity where we should look for the roots of Kopac’s art, as Croatian as maybe Brancusi’s could be Romanian. And without doubt also, in this taste for incantations performed on the flute, a different instrument of lightness, of which he was so much fond that he piously kept several varieties made of wood in his studio, all of them beautifully decorated with Croatian rural motives. Flutist Homer with a green beard, Kopac is a kind of reincarnation of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, able to bring into his dream everything that walks and breaths. With his white goatee, always impeccably trimmed, and his smiling eyes, he had everything of an elegant goblin, of a great man for small things.

His manner of a sorcerer and a dowser reveals more magic than alchemy. With him, all that doesn’t shine is gold. Kopac’s art scours through city trash. I give it the second chance, he used to say. Bringing from his Hamelinian explorations rubber flowers, paper trees or even this cheese tray with a good smell of brie, which ends with a kiss of passionate lovers. And we should clearly quote all these werewolves and other turtles made of torn tires, this incredible menagerie of asphalt and tar, generated at the beginning of the 60’s, which makes terribly empty and anemic every contemporary research into lyrical abstraction…

But, this demiurge recycler by no means resists this use of the material in a new discourse on method. He doesn’t let any counter-cultural activism or any mockery of the beauty be admitted in this prejudice of things. Kopac doesn’t impose, he disposes. Beauty is to take hold of, not to be tampered with. This only concerns poetic cravings. Besides, the artist was often the first to be surprised and moved with his discoveries. His art neither looks to destroy, nor to seduce, but to please. Even if it turns out borrowed from slow gravity, from fragile nobility, from lost looks and from ephemeral happiness… When he gave you to read a poem whose author he pretended not to know, bubbly Slavko waited for your reaction with a greedy look. And, if it was positive, he would hurl out a cry “it’s mine!” delighted, a little like Prévert who would, after having read out aloud the replies to his dialogues, would yell out: “famous, huh!”. Slavko Kopac had kept an ability to amaze, which held as much crazy love as the love of a madman. His art was inspiration, arousement, metamorphosis. Which was equally familiar with poetry the form of a ditty, spiced with surrealism, as it was with sculptures made with the lightness of the papier mâché or the splendor of the raw concrete. With this tireless Baroque storyteller, the sun never set, he used to claim, in the country of elephants. It is high time it rose on ours.

Slavko Kopac, Butterfly hunting, 1973
Butterfly hunting, 1973

“We failed if we diverted. We can die if we only loved” insisted Pessoa. Kopac, evidently, didn’t fail.

Kopac, Association for the Promotion of the Arts at the Paris City Hall, April 18 – July 12, 1996