Childhood and adolescence
Ivan Grohar was born as a lodger’s son in an old parish in Spodnja Sorica, a village in the Gorenjska region above the Selška valley. In this idyllic high mountain village, his birth house has been preserved and today is a museum. By the roadside, a bronze monument in his image greets us. Grohar is presented gazing into the distance of his home landscape. A few years after his son’s birth, Ivan’s father Andrej built his own shack in Zgornja Sorica, an hour’s walk away, and the family moved to Hejblarje/Heblarje, as the hamlet is known locally. (Due to the old settlers from Tyrol some German names also remained. Heibe = hay, Hejblarji = hayfields). Ivan was a peasant child. As a 10-year-old boy, he would herd the domestic cow and have plenty of time to observe the meadows, forests, and everything that happens in nature. He would often pass the time on the grazing land by carving figures out of lime wood. He was very skilful and he could make the wood look like various animals, and the most interesting for him was the rabbit in the jump. His carefree childhood years as a shepherd are deeply etched in his memory. One of his last – unfinished – paintings is also connected to this idyllic primordial world. Her name is Črednik (Herdsman). Ivan loved hearing stories from a young age about the adult painters and statue makers who knew how to create statues and paint altarpieces and murals for churches. He often went to the neighbouring church to look at the altarpieces. Even though he had to walk for an hour to get to school, he loved going to school because he believed that all knowledge could be gained from books. The school law was more flexible for villages, which have been far away more than one hour of walking, and children did not have to go to school in the heavy snow, rain, and cold. Several times (from November to March) it happened that a teacher wrote in the school chronicle: big snow, all messed up, no pupils and no lessons. Several times Ivan was the only child in the school. He would come even in the worst snow. He enjoyed going to school in the spring. A significant part of the route was through a spruce forest. Ivan was the best at drawing at school, and the village teacher provided him with a German book on drawing, a real drawing tutorial, which Ivan leafed through several hundred times. Various assignments were collected in it and students were supposed to learn to draw just like reading. It was all full of drawing suggestions. He went to school until the age of 14 when he was mature enough to be a servant and his teacher wrote in the official school records that he was very talented at drawing. After completing his compulsory education, he worked as a farmer and forester. Young Ivan’s vivid memories of experiences related to farm chores later found their way onto his canvases. He depicted, among other things, spring sowing, summer mowing, harvesting and threshing, fall harvesting, and a midday rest in the field … He depicted vividly described everyday peasant life – the motif of such paintings is classified in the peasant genre.
His desire to paint was also noticed by the Sorice parish priest Anton Jamnik, who in 1888 recommended him to the Count Karl pl. Strahl, so that he could see his art collection in Stara Loka, and then allowed him to spend the summer as an apprentice painter with the church painter Matija Bradasek in Kranj. Until he was drafted into the army, he also studied at the painting studio of Spiridion Milanesi in Zagreb. After an unfortunate period in the army, Ivan Grohar continued his education as a painter. First at the State Drawing School in Graz (1892-1895), in 1894 he took the entrance exam at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna but was not accepted due to his inadequate education. He also went to Műnchen to study: from 1895 to 1896 he copied works by older masters in the Old Pinakothek and visited modern exhibitions. In the summer of 1896 he settled in Škofja Loka and set up a studio. The following year he met Rihard Jakopič, who in 1899 brought him to the painting school of his Slovenian cousin Anton Ažbet in Munich. Young painters from all over the world came to his school. Grohar met painters Matija Jama and Matej Sternen at the Ažbet’s school. Ažbe taught his students to paint mainly portraits and nudes. From Ažbet, Grohar learned, among other things, to always apply only pure, unmixed colours on the canvas, one next to the other, so that the colours come out more strongly. In November 1899, Grohar returned to Ljubljana due to the death of his mother, and from the beginning of 1900 until April of the same year he again lived in Munich. He then lived in Ljubljana, later in Škofja Loka and Sorica until April 1902, when he went to Devin to paint. By the end of the century, Grohar had become known mainly as a church painter – he painted mostly religious paintings. He received prestigious commissions for the pilgrimage church at Brezje – about which the writer and one of the first art critics Vatroslav Holz lectured at the beginning of 1900 – for the parish church in Ribnica and for the frescoes in the Trnovo church in Ljubljana. Here he is supposed to draw the motifs from the legend of St. Janezu Krstnik. His sketches had already been approved by the Committee of the Society for Christian Art, but his work was withdrawn due to behind-the-scenes criticism, and the painting he had already begun was whitewashed. The affair hurt him, but despite this Grohar persisted.
When, at the very beginning of the 20th century, art exhibitions began to be organised in Ljubljana, Grohar immediately became actively involved not only as an exhibitor but also as an organiser or designer. This applies both to the 1st Slovenian Art Exhibition (held in 1900 at the City Hall) and to the 2nd Slovenian Art Exhibition in 1902, organised by the Slovenian Art Society, of which he was a committee member and secretary. Since the 2nd exhibition was misunderstood and rudely rejected by critics and the public, Grohar was deeply hurt. Grohar lived in extreme poverty throughout his life, borrowing small sums from the Society’s coffers in the good faith that he would soon be able to repay the money he had borrowed by selling his paintings. It happened, however, that members of the society condemned him for embezzlement due to various political intrigues. Grohar was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment on 15 November 1902. Only Rihard Jakopič stood by his side. After serving his sentence, he found refuge at the estate of notary Janek Rahnet in Brdo pri Lukovici, where he began painting again. In 1903 he rented a studio in Vienna and began preparations for an exhibition at the Miethke Gallery. In 1904, Grohar, together with Rihard Jakopič, Ferd Vesel, Matej Sternen, Matija Jama and Franc Berneker, exhibited in Vienna. The artists presented themselves as independent Slovenian artists united in the Sava Club. The exhibition achieved great success, but the most attention was drawn to Grohar’s painting Pomlad (Spring), which was exhibited by him under the title Iz moje domovine (From My Homeland). In the spring of 1904, Grohar moved to Sorica, then to Škofja Loka, where he painted together in 1904 and in 1906-1907 with Jakopič and Sternen and stayed with short interruptions until his death. In 1911, the Regional Committee granted him and Rihard Jakopič a grant of 2000 krona for an artistic trip to Italy. However, Grohar was so weakened by the disease he was hiding that he was taken to the Regional Hospital where he died of tuberculosis on 19 April 1911.
Ivan Grohar was aware of the importance of exhibitions. He often exhibited his works, and he was also passionately involved in the preparation and organisation of Slovene art exhibitions; he put a lot of effort into the organisation of the most important exhibition, which was held in Vienna in 1904 at the gallery of Miethke. He emphasised that it is essential to exhibit Slovenian art outside Ljubljana in order to improve its visibility. In 1905 he exhibited solo in Berlin, and as a group at the Yugoslav exhibitions in Belgrade in 1904, Sofia in 1906, Zagreb in 1908, at the Imperial Exhibition in London in 1906, in Trieste in 1907, and in Cracow and Warsaw in 1908. He exhibited in the Jakopič Pavilion in 1909 and in 1910 at the jubilee exhibition of 80 Years of Fine Arts in Slovenia. After his death in 1911, the Sixth Slovenian Art Exhibition in the Jakopič Pavilion was dedicated to his memory. The following year, Jakopič presented 3 of his paintings in Vienna. The National Gallery organised a memorial exhibition for him in 1926, and there was also a major exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1958. An exhibition of Grohar’s works was held at the National Gallery and the City Museum in 1997. Many of Grohar’s works were last seen in the National Gallery in 2008-2009 at the exhibition Slovenski impresionisti in njihov čas (Slovenian Impressionists and Their Time). 1890–1920. Until 6 November this year, Grohar’s portraits were on display at the Power of Views (Moč pogledov) exhibition at the Loška Gallery in Škofja Loka. Grohar’s works: Ivan Grohar painted around 260 images, which are quite different in quality. Grohar’s painting is usually divided into two artistic – developmental periods. An early period that lasted from the first beginnings (his first work was recorded in 1886) to the end of his schooling (around 1900, when he had already experience of the Ažbet School of Painting). However, the decade after 1900 represents Grohar’s modernist phase, when he matured creatively and painted some of the key works of Slovenian modernism. The last ten years are further subdivided by the experts into: the Segantinian period of 1902-1904, followed by a markedly impressionist experience in the next two years. In 1907, symbolistically thought-provoking momentary impressions prevail, and then we speak about the monumental phase of the late figurative works. Until the end of the 19th century, Grohar painted mainly religious images, portraits, and genre paintings. He thus came out of the local tradition of church painting, and he did his best to secure the financial resources he needed for his education by commissioning portraits. When he painted religious and portrait paintings, he was inspired by older models: in his church works, by Baroque saintly compositions; in his portraits, he followed realistic impulses; and in his genre paintings, he was influenced by Munich painting. The genre painting Maske na svatbi (Masks at a Wedding) or Brna (1899) draws materially from his native environment, and he also included folkloric details in the composition of the monumental religious painting Srce Jezusovo (The Heart of Jesus) (1900), commissioned by the Bishop of Ljubljana, Anton Bonaventura Jeglič (a female figure in the foreground, dressed in gorenjska folk costume). Ethnic recognition was one of the key tasks for painters around 1900. After meeting Rihard Jakopič and getting to know the works of the Swiss-Italian painter Giovanni Segantini, his creativity as a painter was completely reborn. Among Grohar’s genre paintings with a domestic touch, which at the same time already indicate a more modern way of painting, is the painting Grabljice (1902). However, the genre moments began to slowly recede, he got more and more interested in the landscape. The first more ambitious conception of a panoramic landscape, in which Grohar still placed a genre scene in the foreground, is the painting Pod Koprivnikom (Under Koprivnik – 1902). In the painting texture (the way of painting), Grohar’s attempts to adapt Segantini’s line technique are already noticeable, which evokes a poetic experience of the domestic landscape. After the terrible personal experience, Grohar painted his breakthrough work Pomlad (Spring) at Brdo pri Lukovici in 1903, which he exhibited the following year for the first time at Miethke. The writer Ivan Cankar reported enthusiastically from Vienna about this painting by Grohar. It reminded him nostalgically of the typical Slovenian landscape, and he poetically described the mood or atmosphere that Grohar expressed with the chosen colours (e.g. with shades of violet, and he added a lot of white to the pigments, which gave the impression of fogginess) and painting technique. Connoisseurs describe the painting as a key work of Slovenian impressionism or modernism. The painter expressed hope for the rebirth of life in it. He combined his intimate experience with a lyrical vision of the Slovenian landscape, so that the image is multifaceted in meaning: with personal and national content. More importantly, Grohar combined or even expressed the symbolic dimension of the painting with the way it was executed. The method of painting he used was not school-taught but personally derived from (neo)impressionism or divisionism. Divisionism is the painting process of Post-Impressionism, which treats colours from a scientific point of view, breaking them down into so-called pure colours and then applying them to the canvas in tiny particles/patterns. Grohar did not master divisionism systematically but imitated the technique to create a trembling atmospheric impression. He used a system of strokes to differentiate shapes and textures, and sequences of different painting methods to create spatial effects. He applied the colours on the canvas in thick layers – pasty coats. 19 said that his paintings were walled, plastered. Sometimes he would draw long curving strokes, later they would become shorter lines or even lumps of sometimes chipped colour, and sometimes he would leave certain areas of the canvas unpainted. He used a paint spatula to paint. In August 1904, he painted Macesen at his father’s homestead in Heblarji. He exhibited the original painting entitled Iz gorenjske krajine (From the Gorenjska region) in 1904 in Belgrade. Grohar initially designed the painting in a similar format as Pomlad (Spring), perhaps it was even the second painting in a series of seasons. Before the exhibition in Sofia in 1906, Grohar changed the title and format of the painting as we know it today. The painting has a very modern character, due to the choice of an almost square format, the boldly cropped central motif, the evocative way in which the colours are laid on the canvas and Grohar’s signature meaningfully sculpted into the canvas. We rank it among Grohar’s most successful works. In a symbolist sense, the artist identified himself with a lonely, hardy storm tree, so it is a kind of painter’s self-portrait. He certainly upgraded the personal confessional content with the national one. In addition, the painter has created the atmosphere of a trembling, summer-hot, high-mountain world with his thoughtful choice of colours (the use of purple is typical) and his dynamic painterly gesture. In the years 1904–1906, Grohar painted a lot together with Jakopič and Sternen in the vicinity of Škofja Loka. This period of joint painting collaborations among Jakopič, Sternen, Grohar and photographer August Berthold is also known as the Škofjeloški Barbizon. They were looking for suitable motives, often intimate corners in nature, that encouraged empathy and multi-sensory reliving. Although they have worked on the same motifs, their performances are varied. Each of them was looking for his own way of painting, how he would paint the impression that the landscape left on him. Grohar’s paintings at that time therefore again show more pure impressionist accents. We feel the melancholic atmosphere especially in winter scenes: Vrbe ob potoku (Willows by the stream), Kamnitnik, Zimsko jutro (Winter morning). In the painting Snežni metež (Snowstorm) in Škofja Loka (Škofja Loka v snegu – Škofja Loka in the snow) from 1905, he created a unique mood of a snowy afternoon, when voices and solid outlines disappear. With densely piled paint (and sometimes also unpainted canvas surfaces), he materialised a real natural phenomenon. The culmination of this impressionist phase is the painting Štemarski vrt (Štemarski garden – 1907), where Grohar painted a moment just after the storm. The garden was widely known as a favourite motif of French impressionist painters. However, Grohar’s Štemarski vrt is empty, so the central content of the painting is represented by light and color effects. In the last period (1907–1910), Grohar painted more monumental, symbolist scenes of peasant work. Grohar thus returned to the problem of painting a figure. The most famous and recognised as the most popular Slovenian painting from the very beginning is Sejalec (The Sower – 1907). It was first exhibited at the Narodni dom in Trieste in 1907. Sejalec is not so much a concrete figure as a type of farmer marching in the Sun, sowing the hope and life of the future. The symbolic meaning of the figure placed in the centre of the painting is strengthened in the background by the typical folk architecture of the trestle, which often appears in Grohar’s landscapes, as well as in those of other impressionists. Grohar saw the farmer at work in the fields of Loka and that image made a strong impression on him. However, the picture was not created suddenly. Grohar thought over the picture carefully, setting Kamnitnik as the background. He even painted two paintings with the same motif. He was also assisted in creating the painting by photographer August Berthold, who photographed the farmer’s posture. In the last genre figural paintings, realistic stories are elevated to allegories of work, heroic effort (Sheaves, Potatoes, Man with a cart, Hill) or extreme loneliness, melancholy, and hope (Črednik). Grohar’s paintings are on display in the permanent collections of the National and Modern Galleries in Ljubljana and are also kept in the City Museum in Ljubljana and the Loka Museum in Škofja Loka.
Ivan Grohar, together with Rihard Jakopič, Matija Jama and Matej Sternen, made an important contribution to the establishment of modern painterly expression at the very beginning of the 20th century. Initially, Grohar established himself as a church painter, he would also paint portraits and genre paintings. He experienced an important artistic turning point when he met Rihard Jakopič. After 1900, a generation of young painters was eagerly searching for the most appropriate subject matter and manner of painting that would reveal the Slovenian character of art. They focused on landscape and impressionism. They painted outside, in nature, and observed all its atmospheric changes, especially the changing light. The year 1903, in which Grohar painted Pomlad (Spring), was a turning point for the development of Slovene modern painting. The painters got acquainted with the fundamental principles of Monet’s Impressionism and were intensively engaged in painterly research until 1906-1907. However, Slovenian Impressionism is significantly different from French Impressionism. Grohar’s works, in particular, are not just momentary external impressions, but time is somehow extended; the painter gives us a mood, a meditation, or, as Ivan Cankar wrote, an atmosphere. Thus, Grohar’s works are embedded in many symbolist contents, characterised by an extremely sophisticated sense of colour and a personally derived spatula painting technique. Grohar’s life was fatally affected by poverty, but he believed until the end that things will change for the better. His life optimism is reflected in his symbolist paintings, which have been promoted as national icons: Pomlad (Spring), Macesen (Larch), Sejalec (Sower), Črednik (Herdsman).
Author: Kristina Preininger,
National Gallery Ljubljana