Texts and illustrations by Slavko Kopac, lithograph print, one hundred and fifty pieces, numbered and signed,
Edition Pierre Chave, Vence 1972.
Pierre Joinul: Mon prof de Maths sent le tabac, ah
Envelope and drawings by Slavko kopac,
Edition P. J. Oswald, Paris 1967
Texts and illustrations by Slavko Kopac
Edition Pierre Chave. Vence 1994
Encounters and acquaintances – Slavko Kopač
Radio Interview, Croatian National Radio, 08.08.1984
You started studying at the Academy of Fine Arts just before World War 1, in professor Becić’s class?
First of all, I think that it was a splendid team of students, the situation and the whole Academy, especially Becić’s space; it was about friendship, about common goals. We had a beautiful life, Becić was a perfect professor whom I liked a lot and he liked me, too. They used to call me little Becić because of my beard; I resemble him also with my nose. He would pop into the class like the wind, once a week, perhaps stay for 5 minutes to check on things and 10 to talk to us and to ask us what was missing, what we needed, if we had paints and he would go to fetch the materials we didn’t have and bring them to us. And his entire job consisted of standing in front of the painting you were working on at that time and to tell you, he finds 10 cm², perhaps more or less, and tells you – I would like you to finish everything just like this. I tell you, that was a beautiful school and, today, I’m still thinking and envying those friends of mine who were that lucky, because, in other schools, the treatment was completely different. There, the professor would be one who would teach you how to hold your paintbrush, would teach you how to look at things and would endeavour to be a teacher. And I think that there is no place for such tutorship in art. I think that a man, finally that is the whole Art Brut theory – the less he knows and the less he’s skilled, the more sincere and fairer and to be himself he would be. One can learn anything. The school, as any school, trains you to a certain point to be a good technician, to learn how you should work, how you should mix, how to spread colour and all that, but it isn’t enough. I even think that it is bad. I’ve left the oil paint for years now because it bothers me to wait for all that to dry to be able to continue. For me, an experience is a short moment. When I say short, it can be an afternoon, two hours or half an hour. And if, within that time, I don’t do what I wanted or what I want, I leave it, I abandon it. For me, it is a game before everything else. I don’t think of the eyes of whoever will, one day, look at it. This is my personal problem, it’s my story, it’s my way to live and to build my own life, to find the sense of it and to give it meaning. And then later, exhibitions and all, that came in my older age more than before, because I think that I came in the spirit of liberation.
After that you became a French Government scholar, didn’t you?
After Italy, yes. I was in Italy between 1943 and 1948, and when there was a possibility of my obtaining the lascio passare (a pass) for Italy, as, before then, I couldn’t get any document, I lived with Italian ID which I was given and I could never understand why I was entitled to special treatment, because, in those days, the first elections were held in Italy and it was weird. After the liberation and after the fall of that entire Italian construction before the war, there were elections, compulsory voting. One day, I was called up to vote in those elections, I go to the consulate and say, for God’s sake people, I’m a foreigner, I’m not an Italian, I can’t vote. As it was compulsory, I thought that they would accept it, but no, at the moment when you were called up to vote, you have to vote, I’m just saying to what extent all of that was so weird. I was trying to go to France from there. I was lucky then, some Polish painter who lived in Rome founded an international art club for artists, especially for painters and I met him in Rome, and he decided to come to Florence to found a branch there. And he came indeed, we founded that art club. The vice president of the art club, whose member I was, was the French consul. I moaned to him, telling him that I would love to go to France, but that I had no possibilities for that. Well, why don’t you tell me, said he. And then he made a lascio passare (a pass) for me for one month and said: and when you reach Paris, you will settle there so that you won’t need to come back and it was exactly how in fact it happened. I had a brother who lived there since 1925 so, for me, that was the only way from Italy to Paris. I wanted that return, for me that return was very vivid and powerful, just as later was the return to Yugoslavia.
And how did you live in Paris then, you lived in Paris, didn’t you?
I lived in Paris. I arrived in France I think on 8th August 1948 and four days after that I met Jean Dubuffet. It was a great encounter, because of what I showed to him, what he showed to me, what we could say to one another, as I was still mixing French and Italian, all of that made us conclude that, although distanced one from another, we walk the same paths, that’s to say, we’re looking for the same paths. And then he engaged me. In those days, the idea of establishment of Art Brut started and I was hired to be responsible for that. This resulted in my being the curator of that gallery for 35 years, of that collection and in my passing through all the phases of its organisation which has now ended up in Switzerland. Dubuffet and I remained in that administrative committee. We annually attend general meetings. He no longer goes there now, it’s too strenuous for him. That was a great encounter. One found all that he maybe secretly admitted to himself. This purification of mine, if we can call it that, started in Italy. I was there during the war, there was a group of people, artists, painters, smart people, who studied big and high sciences and that was a core of those grand, grand reflections and debates. Every day, we would meet in the shadow of that Batister in front of the cathedral, spending hours and hours talking. It started over there; I went through my second liberation there. The first one happened when I arrived in Paris with the French Government grant and when I found Paris in darkness, all the museums closed and all that I had left were walks, looking at those Paris chimneys and that Paris blue sky, which was still so beautiful. And then, it was there that I started liberating myself for the first time; when I came there, I forgot and tried to see the world with different eyes and in a different light than we in Paris used to look at it. And when I came to Paris for the first time, it was in 1939 and my only wish was to see the world in a different way than people in Paris see it. For all of us, Paris was the place where one just had to go. Living without Paris, not knowing Paris, that was a sign that you will never succeed in life or that you would succeed but I don’t know at what price and with what energy. And there is where it all started. I went for walks, galleries were rare, all the museums closed. I met Junek. It was also a great thing in my life because, in a way, Junek was a predecessor, a ram or a standard-bearer. We all got an idea about today’s Paris according to Junek. What the French were never, unfortunately, able to have as Junek was, exhibited more here that over there. Every time, and I had known Junek for years, he was saying that he was preparing an exhibition. And he was indeed preparing it, he made his first exhibition very late. He’s still living today, but he hasn’t been lucky in actualising himself. All that he was working on passed and Junek was left aside. And then we took walks and he would show me around; he was very keen on surrealism and showed me chimneys, we looked at posters, peeled off façades. Those were beautiful days. I call it liberation. It started in France in 1939, continued in Italy in 1943 and since then to date, I believe that it is on side tracks and astray.
And this is when your acquaintance with Dubuffet was crucial?
Yes, because he was a man who, at that time, was the head of the revolution, he was the one who started applying all those ideas, all those anti-academic ideas, that painting doesn’t have to be engaged and that it doesn’t have to be a result of some heavy knowledge and reflections. Thanks to our first quest for the truth, the Art Brut collection was born; you know what Art Brut is, although you call it ugly art, raw art. It is an attempt to find things which people, who are far from every cultural centre, who don’t know what a museum is, who don’t know what art is, who don’t know what an exhibition is, do and who do it always out of their personal drive and needs. Sometimes, it happens that it lasts an entire life, on occasions it lasts 6 months, but those are always so fresh, so deep and so visually perfect things that one has to admit and say that one can be free only in this way, unattached and distanced from all that this civilisation of ours offers us, with all its possibilities, where every day they programme and condition us with how to spend the day. It is the only healthy and the only important and, I believe, the only one which is entitled to be called art. For all those others, I wouldn’t use that name. I never, or seldom say, that I’m a painter, because I think that it means nothing. And when I say it, I say that I sometimes paint, but that in itself, it is completely wrongly set. Because, a painter is a person who completed the art academy, left with a diploma; it is a person who was set, to whom they started building a small halo around his head and he has that same halo in the street, he carries it at home and everywhere he goes. This halo is already present and the whole life revolves around making it shine as strongly as possible, being richer and dazzling others.
You are actually talking about social success, but a painter does not have to have social success.
That’s what I was saying to you earlier, what does social success mean?
This halo, that means…
At the same time, it means a guaranteed income. This is exactly what bothers me, that to paint, you have to have and make a circle of people around you who will do it and who will, eventually, succeed in making your life easier, allow you to find a beefsteak more easily, pay more easily for it and to bring it home. And this is why I believe that, in that sense, an artist is mistaken, that’s to say, he isn’t mistaken, but puts himself into the position of being subjugated. He has to find that circle of people, must captivate those people with what he creates or let those people captivate him by their wishes, and then he becomes an instrument, he does what a person before him wants of him. So, I think that, in that sense, an artist loses the first trace of freedom and then that halo and that chase for that halo, it is what lies in human nature and, finally, it is not that only bread and wine or bread and milk are important; what is also important is a large apartment, wallpaper is important, northern light is important. So those wishes and those compromises increase from day to day and, in the end, one loses himself and becomes less his own. One would say, becomes, if he is at all lucky and smart, what before was a painter, that’s to say, he’s the document of his time, he has is nothing else to say, he only copies what he sees and serves it to us.
Well, I would not fully agree with you.
I would tell you that there are lot of exceptions and frequently, but the basis lies in it. I also think that, in academies, breadwinners are thus created.
I wanted to say something else, that art, actually, has always been a provider of someone’s wishes and that, in this way, the greatest arts have been created, as, for example, Egypt.
Fine, but there it wasn’t the art of someone’s wishes, it was the art of an entire breathing.
A whole look at the World.
That’s right, equally so in the Middle Ages, it was painted for the glory of God, anyway, it was serving something.
Let us say, for the sake of an idea, in the old Egypt and in the Middle Ages, art was at the service of ideas. In the course of the Renaissance period, it becomes an art, that is to say, serves men.
No doubt about it, but…
And our time is characteristic exactly of the fact that an artist wants to liberate himself from everything.
He would want to want it much more than he’s doing. Certain painters in the Middle Ages and Renaissance had their painters who finished the work for them and who, according to their model, repaired paintings. These are those technicians and they were, most probably, much more talented painters than us who come from the academy today. Today’s Kodak is the one which will picture our reality, record it, for what’s to come. Today, everything is written down, recorded, that moment has no longer any sense. A painter today doesn’t have to and mustn’t be any longer the painter of that reality. Let him turn around, let him become something else, let him sing, go mad, let it be the echo of his being.
I wanted to say that this need for liberation, for a total individuality of a person, is the characteristic of our time, our century.
That’s right, Picasso was the first to say: “Open the windows!”. I’m adding that it is not enough. Open your windows and doors and not only open but smash the glass, as windows and doors can be closed, that’s why they need to be smashed.
You obviously belong to a revolutionary generation. I think that the later one is far less revolutionary.
Maybe they came to this stadium which preceded and that is “one has to live”. I believe that the most important thing is to turn to your own inside, create and find that cocoon, that hole, and live with a little light which your little light bulb can provide. I told you once, I’m feeling as a great sinner, because, when you’re listening to me, you can say, and say the same thing to myself, how’s this man talking against this professional art, how dare he and how can he accept to exhibit. Because this is in contradiction. I rarely exhibited when I was in Art Brut exactly because I believed that I had to live in line with what I was defending. I was against museums, against galleries, against all that was related to that business. But, in the past, from time to time, I came out in time to make the assessment where I was. And, usually, that was a moment which I consider as necessary and which, even today, seems to me as necessary, but which made me return to my hole as soon and as quickly as possible. And today, I believe that I have reached those years when I have no desires or needs in the sense of luxury, expensive appliances and similar. I can no longer fall into the trap that anyone can deceive me.
So, you are feeling liberated now?
I feel not only liberated, but also free. I told you once that freedom is always very expensive. And I’m telling you now that I had paid a lot for it and that I’m very pleased and that I don’t need anything.
When I started, we had approximately 200 or 300 documents and, after 35 years, we had around 5 thousand in a large collection and equally so in the collection which houses those (….) of Art Brut since its existence, since there were exhibitions, since it was written about and since we published our periodicals, which now continue to be issued in Switzerland. The world started acquainting with it, the world started being interested in it and everything today that is a little bit outside of some norms, all that smells a little bit of something that is revolutionary, obtains this label Art Brut. So that, actually, there is, thanks to the critics and people who write, a danger of the Art Brut school being created, because, it was concluded, I believe that it’s a way to find solutions for this unfortunate moment, when we no longer know where we’re going, when we are, headless and madly, looking for new paths. It was equally weird as that occasion of meeting Dubuffet. 8 days following my arrival, I entered Art Brut and started there managing that, at that time, small collection, I started that job. Dubuffet then went to El Golea, to paint and look at that Arab world. During that period, Breton, who was in the first Art Brut committee, board, who collaborated with Paulhan and others, replaced Dubuffet and came every day in the afternoon to those premises and so we together looked at what needed to be done, what we needed to reply to and, within about one month, it all started. Breton didn’t know me then at all, to what extent I was a painter, I don’t know, I was always saved again in life by maybe so-called charm; everybody always said it and maybe my whole behaviour, because I’m a man without, they would say in Vinkovci, fussiness, which means direct, so it somehow started and I had my first exhibition in 1949 and that was a big event. I then made with Breton that plaque which was one of his most favourite among all the others ever published. And he wrote there, I made a of sketch how he should organise it and we made it together and together signed it and, for me, it is a bright spot. I’m talking about a man who was exceptionally dear to me, one of the rare gentlemen I’ve ever met in my life. Then, around him, there were Jean Paulhan and Benjamin Péret, who wrote the foreword for my first exhibition. I met Michaux every week at least once in the evening and with Dubuffet. I entered that world which was really closed to everyone. How come? I always say how that small boy from the Vinkovci dust could just happen in Paris and enter what was closed to all. At Breton’s door, there was a paper, no journalists, no reporters, nobody could ring the bell because he had banned it. I socialised with him and what’s nice is that they never intended or wanted to find in me a surrealist painter; they accepted what I brought. I experienced great luck and happiness when our Depolo wrote in a small article about that exhibition of mine at the Modern Gallery, with others, saying: “Kopac is one of our rare painters who went to Paris to take something there and not to take anything from Paris and bring it here”. This seems to me such a big deal that I think that it is possibly the most beautiful thing one could say about me because it actually is one big truth.
It is a very big compliment.
Maybe it sounds immodest that I’m mentioning this to you, but, on the other hand, he wrote that and he will perhaps still also sign it if necessary.