What is it that your visual space does? What is it? What is the space that you had to conquer and from which everything sprang? How does it reference your childhood and your life?
I'll try to illustrate. Marina, I would start a cycle and work on it. A cycle had its beginning and its end, and I could define precisely, like a scalpel, when it ends. If Picasso and Braque were our symbols, I would be marked as Braque, the one who always needs an incitement from outside, be it nature or city. When I was in a crisis, I would get into my car, rush around Zagorje and make sketches. That was how I filled my empty batteries. In order to power myself, I had to have a connection with nature. I do not have the imagination such as, for example, Šutej had. He had no pauses. His imagination was untouched, I had to renew mine.
Yes, but you are also a builder.
Yes, I am. Saša Srnec told me many times, 'What are you doing in that Forum group?' And I was untouchable in the Forum. They couldn't mess with what I was doing, because it was alien to them. Thus I had absolute freedom and I could do a lot of things. They merely defined that I was a talented young man. Srnec, Richter, the whole of that exato-constructivist circle, felt me as a spiritual member, but I ran away from their righteousness, from belonging to a sect. I wanted to be alone.
I had very good times with Srnec, and I even cooperated with Richter at one moment. They were very close to me in every way; even spiritually if you want, but I couldn't accept those postulates because they were strict, they were almost a kind of religion. I found op-art interesting; I found geometrical abstraction very interesting. It was my area, but I liked to take it as merely one way in which I could intervene in reverse as well. That's my freedom.
What does it mean, to intervene in reverse?
It means that there is a formula, and I like to disturb the formula a little. I lost a lot because of that, even in the sense of affirmation. I was not leaning towards the dogmatic, so I wasn't always recognisable. I liked talking to people who are completely different; I could find a connection at least as far as talking about art was concerned. I liked someone like Stupica very much. I had no direct use from that, but it opened to me an additional register, which I could interpret without feeling that I was taking something from someone. My world allows me to enter different fields.
And how did you manage to protect it so completely, like you managed to protect your language from dirt, to keep it outside of social context in which it was created, even in relation to Exat?
If you work in this field, you will discover a basic axis holding the skeleton of the idea, but you will also find that it has some unexpected elements built in. Those additional elements can be links to a whole series of sideways which indicate completely random references, which my sensibility adopted as a part of peripheral discovery.
I try to mention some of those things because they meant a whole lot to me. Childhood and all that is connected with it could, in fact, make up the essence of my work. I did not build anything professionally, I didn't imagine or suppose anything as the profession from which I'll make a living; I simply had the need to express my little drawings, my childhood, through doodles on paper. There, that's what I've been doing. And that's why it's no wonder that, while I was still in Podravina, they said about me that 'little Tonček is not bad, he'll work all right, but he'll do nothing by read, write and draw.' Read, write and draw, that refrain that followed me, had a negative connotation in their eyes. And I was just expressing myself in that manner.
I grew up in a home. Living the life of a pack and being a loner is neither easy nor simple. The law of power, like in a jungle, included the teachers and the director, and all the grownups who had the roles of guardians. They used drastic measures of punishment. The law of silence was the absolute rule there; whoever broke it got it double: both from the teachers and from the pack. That was the situation in which I grew up, and which remained in me as knowledge and as a protective cocoon which defends me when I find myself in a foreign environment. Podravians always said to me, 'how come, Tonček, that you never learned our Podravian language?'
When did you live in Podravina?
From 1946 to 1949. Ministry decision in forty-six transferred all small children from homes to villages, and bigger ones in military schools. If they had no mother or father, other relatives weren't even asked. At the time, I had a friend who was the devil incarnate, unlike me, who was docile, patient, 'silent'. He talked me into going to Đurđevac, to Podravina. He told me, 'Ante, we'll escape in Đurđevac with the kids from the train'. The peasants chose from us children, taking a boy or a girl, bigger or smaller, and they got state support for that. Thus I remained in that unlucky Podravina. There I got trachoma, stage three, before blindness. At the time, my mother had one child in Osijek, one in Klinča Selo, a daughter in Opatička Street and me in Podravina, with the youngest by her side. She used every opportunity to visit one or the other and thus preserve the feeling of family and motherhood as much as possible. I was the oldest, so I helped her in that, and I even took up the place of our dead father to a certain extent. That was the honeycomb, this utterly naked and utterly limited structure in which I lived, where the goal was to survive, in every respect. After several months of going around the Ministry, she managed to talk one of the officials into going to see what are the conditions in which I lived in Podravina. I slept in the stable; that's how I got the trachoma.
They transferred me to Zagreb, to the home in Vlaška Street, and immediately to Vinogradska hospital, where I remained for three months for treatment. There was no penicillin or antibiotics then, and trachoma was treated by scraping the white and the lids. The good outcome of such treatment was, of course, never quite certain. Those are the circumstances that form a man; those circumstances define the space in which one must live. But that is, most importantly, the moment at which we have the right to create for ourselves a corner of illusion, where a boy's dream can come true. My dream was paper.
For me, your appearance and your story are hard to put together today. You leave the impression of a man who grew up in a completely protected, highly civilised urban environment, someone who decided to work in art from the cultural heritage of such an environment, from the finesse and the leisure.
Marina, I spent both my school and student life in a home. Until I created my own family, that was my life. At the home, in that elementary struggle for survival, vocabulary was reduced to a third of what is usual in other social communities; everything else were swearwords, rudeness, curses and verbs. I never learned to curse, and I lived in a pack where there was no other language.
How did you manage that? You must comment on that, you must have an explanation.
I was simply not open to rudeness. Probably exactly because, with my abilities, I could isolate myself. It is interesting that I never got into a fight, although fistfights were the basic modus of dealing with any misunderstanding. Although I was among the older ones, I was always frail, so they gave me the ironic nickname of Tarzan. I got the nickname playing football, because that was the only sport where I was equal to them. To make the paradox even bigger, I played as a quarterback, and since I was not afraid of bumping into those strong guys charging the goal, I got the position of equal. All that roughness, fighting, tricks, all that somehow passed me by, and I always found the moment and the corner to be alone with my reading and drawing. Even the teacher used to say, 'Ante, I would so much like to hit you, but I can't".
Although I read a lot of fiction – I read the entire Karl May, whom I found at a peasant cooperative at the time when it was banned – my vocabulary was still extremely poor. And the environment in which I found myself then, in 1956, at the School of Applied Arts, it was new to me, completely alien. There were gals and guys from well-to-do Zagreb families, there were some who were older and had fallen behind in their schooling because of the war, and I was full of complexes as, because of the trachoma, my eyes were gummy all the time. My vocabulary was extremely poor despite intense reading, and I also remember coming to school in ski pants in June. Again, drawing was my alibi, and the possibility of equality. It was an environment that was so far removed from my life, children from normal families, girls I couldn't even look in the eyes. Once, I asked my Mom if she had a penny, and she told me she didn't even have enough for herself, let alone for me. She was a textile worker.
And where did your Mom live?
She lived in Kožarska Street, in a little room two by two meters, with only one iron bed. At one moment, all five of us lived there.
And in that situation, how did it occur to you to dedicate yourself to drawing, to choose the profession of artist?
This is how it started. In 1943, we were escaping from Dalmatia; my father was a self-taught mason who became skilful in construction of churches. So we travelled with him and moved around. At one point, we found ourselves in Zemun, where there was a large colony of Dalmatians from the Dubrovnik area, but also our own, from Zagora.
When the war started, we escaped from Vrlika before the Chetniks, and found refuge in a village near Bjelovar. When my father was killed in 1944, my mother decided that in times of war, alone with the children, she should not stay in an unknown environment. It wasn't Dalmatia, or Vrlika, or anything close to her. It was not a place where she could create any kind of contacts with people, let alone protective. She was a widow with four children, the youngest of which the father never even saw. So we moved to Zagreb, because she believed it would be easier to survive with the children in a big city.
But we were talking about how you started drawing?
When I came to the School of Applied Arts, it was the time of Exat and polemics about Murtić's frescoes in the Ritz Bar. As students of the School, we followed it very closely. The Exats pushed themselves so much as something new that they even taught at the school. Radić, who was also member of Exat, became the head of school then. That nakedness of poverty on one side, and spiritual curiosity on the other, made way so that at least the intellectual needs could be met. After World War II, poverty was a general condition which was, of course, more strongly felt in these parts, but, at the same time, it was a time that passed in searching, in curiosity. There weren't many books, there were no magazines, reproductions were black and white… And in this situation, Radić appeared; he used so many foreign words in his classes, unknown to me, so that I often couldn't understand what he was really talking about.
Throughout the story through which you're guiding me, there is the motif of struggle, to learn or to retain language, from Podravian, home, to this language of profession.
Yes, yes. And to make the paradox even bigger, maybe exactly because I felt threatened, not being able to follow his lectures, I understood the bases of his visual assignments very well. That was abstract expression, that was composition, rhythm, drama that will later become the alphabet of my visual expression. And I tried to fulfil the assignments as best I could. Many years later, when I was a young docent at the Academy, he told me he still had my school drawings, and used them in his new classes for students! But to go back where it all began. My father was killed and Bjelovar was bombed; I remember that we watched Bjelovar from the village, from a slight hill. It was a dramatic event for me. Mom was in town, and I was very scared waiting for her return. She came back, and I kept on looking at the scene in complete fascination.
Later, when the situation calmed down, everybody was on the street, and a boy came along. I did not know him. He was a little older than me. He showed me the first watercolour I saw in my life. I had no idea what it was. He explained to me. I was stunned, because everything I did until then, and that held that visual supposition was playing with mud. He painted the bombing with ultramarine blue sky and green airplanes! I experienced the opening of a new cosmos. I knew I wanted paper, and (I wanted) to doodle on it.