THE STORY WITH (HOPEFULLY) A HAPPY ENDING
Written by Kornel FOLDVARI / Slovakia
Slovak cartoon has not been born under a lucky star – if in that unfunny time Slovakia even some lucky star had. At the cradle of it indeed didn’t stand such aces of fine art as Peter Michal Bohun or Jozef Bozetech Klemens (who instead managed to plow a furrow in the history of photography) but the editor and publisher of the satirical magazine “Cernoknaznik” (The sorcerer) Viliam Pauliny-Toth (1826-1877). Even with his ambitions he was only a smaller writer and essentially an occasional cartoonist from the emergency. (Naive Janko Alexy in the apotheosis of the “Fates of Slovak fine artists” unwillingly convicts him: “His figures … don’t lose life due to their fitting texts …”)
In terms of the defense of national interests against a rolling flooding this activity was undoubtedly praiseworthy. (The magazine “Cernoknaznik” appeared in the period 1861-1864). However, if we measure the aesthetics, led to an impasse from which art and humor for many decades could not extricate. The more that in the same direction went also other difficultly enforcing satirical periodicals, such as “Rarasek”, “Rarach”, “Jezibaba” (The witch), “Vesele noviny” (Funny newspaper). And in them in principle another amateur artists, such as a poet Peter Bella-Horal, Blazej Bulla or Jan Burjan – apart from a few Czech routinist and their “brigade” bailout. Therefore, the proficient professional cartoons, more or less measurable by objective criteria, had to create for us only Czech artist Mikolas Ales in the renewed “Cernoknaznik”. (Years later published it Juraj Cajda)
As can be seen, and this is true even today, the way to hell pave the best intentions. I realize the hard reality which the Slovak cartooning had to face and don’t want to be brutally maximalistic therefore I will prudishly say nothing about Goya or Daumier. But in that time was already starting, so to say, German thorough humor of the cartoon series of Wilhelm Busch. A long time there already served Grandville, whose allegorical drawings of humanized animals in addition to the compulsory dose of didactics bring a flight of imagination and sense of comic context. The fact that there also acted the specific historical problems – and certainly more successfully than superficial, on the full mouth expressed controversies – then noticed not one righteous in our country.
Perhaps it was also the reason that our cartoons were growing up (no need to repeat that no through their own fault) from perhaps the most discredited offshoots of the genre – from the political cartoons. Thus from something that is rather utilitarian journalism than full-blooded arts, primary is there a political novelty to which is subordinated the creative imagination and means of expression. It is usually requested that the controversial “joke” would be expressed pretty simply, resonantly and even offensively. Only a few of authors are aware that the original trap in the second plan, intelligent mockery, coinciding with absurdity, is generally much more efficient than direct swipe with a cane. Repeating themes in the political cartoons become a sign that regardless of the author freely pass from drawing to drawing. In the best case the artist will create it by his distinctive handwriting, but will add nothing from his own imagination or philosophy. If the free cartoon is like elegant swordplay, there rather by the tedious hammer blows of ideology were disintegrated tailings.
I am afraid that even also between the two wars, when on the sky of cartooning in Bohemia were shining stars like Hoffmeister or Bidlo our humorous magazines did not stop spin in this vicious circle. Starting with embracing “Kocur” (The tomcat) (1919 – 1945), which from familial joking and essentially conservative “patriotism” made an arc to the infamous pro-regime adulation and antisemitic attacs to all those short of breath magazines such as “Jez” (The hedgehog), “Koza” (The goat), “Deres”, “Osa” (The wasp) and “Kosa” (The scythe).
Besides all politicizing and harsh polemics should not go there always about a noble ideas (which can not be denied to the defending Pauliny-Toth and his colleagues in an increasingly hostile Hungary) shows classic textbook example of inter-war cartoons by Andrej Kovacik (1889 – 1953). Whether it was his mother ship “Kocur”, or agrar “Jez”, populistic “Koza”, “Deres” or “Osa”, as well as independent anti-Hlinka “Kosa”, even Hungarian magazines “I-A”, “Moricka”, “Vizeslepedo” … Not that he would at regular intervals miraculously changed beliefs and certainly not from the recession than once Jaroslav Hasek, who passionately polemicized against himself in two opposing newspapers. Opportunity to publish there simply won over any ideology. The case absolutely not only historic, you just need to look around.
It seemed that for the Slovak cartoon (and even humor) begins to dawn after the war in 1945. It was indeed rather only glimpses of democracy, a timid promise, but after a period of terror and censorship nevertheless brought significant relief and hope. If it until that time staggered between naive political propaganda and on the other side “funny” erotica or eternal jokes about mothers-in-law, marital infidelity and alcohol in various shady pseudo humorous press and even in humorous corners of newspapers and magazines, now opened up to the authors new creative possibilities. Finally they could speak mainly for themselves, present their own ideas and artistic visions.
While still ruled the hard political struggle thanks to which arose several humorous periodicals of several parties and groupings (“Sibenicky” (The gallows), “Sidlo” (The bradawl), “Slimak” (The snail) and direct descendant of Kocur “Srsen” (The hornet)). Neither in them ceased not to play a major role disgusting attacks and polemics often at not very artistic or literary quality level, but to the creators weary of war tensions, incessant spying and contact with death, provided the possibility to laugh finally and just let them make jokes of themselves, of life, of hope and perspectives.
Creative atmosphere in magazines generated mostly by the young people became a school of talents. Just then the academic painter Lubomir Kellenberger (1921 – 1971) in the magazine “Sidlo” emerged in himself a significant talent for the caricature portraits (say an elderly scattered Zdenek Nejedly or frighteningly comical Klement Gottwald). But above all, here presented themselves two excellent cartoonists: senior Viliam Weisskopf (1906 – 1964), a graduate of the Leipzig Academy and inimitable perfectionist and playful Jozef Babusek (1921) who with obvious taste fiddled with the forms of his figures while just by the way laid the basics of Slovak comics. His escaping prisoner and a policeman in “Sidlo” became for the young people a cult section.
But February 1948 eclipsed that idyll, as when in the Walt Disney’s film appears on clearings a bad giant. Magazines were no longer issued, some editors were jailed and uncomfortable co-workers dispersed into all possible corners. Jozef Babusek for many years brutally silenced, until they allowed him – as to an old but unbowed man – to return under the name Jozef Schek.
Viliam Weisskopf fared much worse – almost tragically. Probably as if they forced Rodin to carve everyday into marble ingenious statements of Comrade Stalin; even he week after week, in the spirit of official ideology drew foreign policy cartoons. They had only external characteristics of artistic satire without wit and charm even without the necessary internal requirements. Let’s say that without the wrathful satirical passion and sincere inner indignation. Inevitably they sounded false and it must have been impossible that the creator of Weisskopf’s intelligence couldn’t realize it.
But already in the meantime dominated on the field completely new magazine – “Rohac” (The stag beetle). The only and therefore even the best monopoly and where possible also omnipotent. At least over the fates of authors. It was deciding on who can enter into the thirteenth chamber, before the eyes and into consciousness of readers and who cannot. Despite a few decent and talented people in the newsroom the strings were towed somewhere else. It is no coincidence that flippant folk pranksters renamed “Rohac” along with the Prague “Dikobraz” (The porcupine) to “the smiles of party and the government”.
The magazine did not have a partner – it was alone for everything. Into it had to be crammed uncompromising satire against domestic class enemies against foreign imperialists and sometimes truly campaign like the anti-modern art, and municipal satire or addressable criticism of specific evils but also optimistic humor of our joyful tomorrows. And modestly somewhere in the corner uncommitted (officially “without the ideology” or “purposeless”) and playful humor graphic and verbal – all under the careful supervision of party ideologists and censorship. To a man, this mixed bag inadvertently reminds the old tramp joke: “Throw the plum dumplings into cauldron carefully because down I am cooking a chicken”.
Luckily against the cramped monopolistic conditions worked there more and more unstoppable pressure of the creators of cartoons. Finally there was a population boom and Slovakia began to move by cartoonists: numerous – and sometimes even truly good. Even though “Rohac” would manage to fill already a part of them, they had to fit into it all. Of course in a drastic selection that had not always guaranteed that on its pages would appear the best authors; non-conformist and conflicting ones had often bad luck.
At least slight competition would certainly solve the cramped spatial situation and would contribute to the sorting of talents. There would not be the only one broad, occasionally slightly muddy stream here, but could be crystallized there the contradictory aesthetic and thought groupings. In spite of these bad but in reason that we wouldn’t be ungrateful let us say rather Spartan conditions in “Rohac” there hosted or grown directly in it, or at least on its pages flickered several generations of cartoonists. In addition to domestic Viktor Kubal and Milan Vavro, let’s say reborn Jozef Schek, Marian Vanek, Stano Kochan, Ivan Popovic, Koloman Lesso, Mito Breza, Dana Zacharova, or Fedor Vico. From the younger ones – Bobo Pernecky, Dusan Polakovic, Fero Jablonovsky – a list would fill a half of this text.
I cannot, however, fail to mention at least one name – the older predecessor of today’s sixty years old authors – Igor Kostka (1930 – 2004) who to “Rohac” and “Kulturny Zivot” crossed path beetween years 1958 – 1961 and then due to his turbulent nature completely disappeared from the horizon. However, when those involved manage to find in an old magazine one of his artworks they are taken by surprise: in Slovak cartooning he did not have predecessors or successors (unless in the Czech cartooning – Franta Bidlo).
If we confine ourselves only to the positive (or relatively positive) effect of no longer existing weekly (about dead only positively?), inevitably inside us arises the question: did for the Slovak cartoon a lot or at least as much as the circumstances and his party publisher allowed to it? This is a question for individual authors and for the history. We don’t have for the writing of this chapter sufficient historical distance. It is too much superimposed to us – on the one hand, by harsh condemnation (for political action of the magazine entirely justified) and on the other hand by sentimental memories of those in that time young and aspiring cartoonists.
The situation with only one hatchery and also the brake would be still a little different if the creators had a broader hinterland. But the tragedy of Slovak cartooning since time immemorial has been that it has never been accepted by contemporary art which didn’t provide to it the space on its territory. No matter how modest conditions there ruled, yet would only reduce the pressure of daily hard work in ephemeral commercial manufactories and would cause the beginning of evolvation, as it was necessary. Inventively, with the exemption of fantasy that in its tops heads closer to the poetic vision of contexts, but also to the finding of formal conquests and experimenting with them.
Artistic or wider oriented culture magazines however showed in the best case their interest in portrait caricature only. Free artistic humor was considered as the desecration of “high” objectives. If already between the two wars to the field of cartoons strayed celebrities of fine art life (let us mention: Fulla, Galanda, Majerník, Sokol and others) they found here only a weapon of political fights, never liberating valve of inspiration, enabling them to the lightweight discovering of shapes and poetic game with the form and meaning of things. Maybe it is just subconscious heritage of once by Vajansky proclaimed “seriousness”, but humor in Slovakia have since time immemorial been underestimated as something “below” and less valuable.
Slovak cartoon because of its vitality finally overcome barriers of convention and in spite of unfortunate start in last decades from being despised and left behind Cinderella nevertheless overhaul if not directly alongside the prince, then at least from the rule of stepmother. It may owe for that to the offensive of talents, in which already can be seen the continuity of generations from nestors – the legend Jozef Babusek and Viktor Kubal, to a strong group of “gentlemen in their best age” (Vanek, Kochan, Popovic, Junek, Vico, Lesso, Svrcek, Kanala, Pernecky, Polakovic, Jablonovsky – slowly there will be included also Danglar) and “youngsters” Shooty, Ihring or Homola to promising adolescents, as was two years ago, the holder of one of the main prizes in Banska Stiavnica, fresh maturant Peter Skala.
Thanks to systematic activity of the Slovak Union of Cartoonists and its agile President Kazo Kanala, reputation of our artists started to penetrate even into the world. At various international events are scoring not only individuals, but from Ankara to Osaka already representational collective exposures. (From all the awards let us recall at least important “Porcelain pencil” from the festival in Saint Just le Martel in France). Bratislava has also reciprocally became the capital of cartoons with a number of significant (symptomatically unappreciated at home) international salons, where the list of participating countries far exceeded Europe. Even though nobody is a prophet at home, thanks to regular exhibitions in Bratislava and other towns the quality of Slovak cartoons penetrates also into the public consciousness.
However, the fame or international contacts, unfortunately, can not ensure to our visual humor seeming commonplace: the regular publishing opportunities. It caries this misery in its daypack from the ancient beginnings. Our newspapers and magazines never established traditional cooperation with cartoonists (with the exception of the above-mentioned political commentators and portraitists). They are not willing to sacrifice at least here and there a piece of their precious space for funny drawing. Not as eye-catching decorative element (although this moment is also not negligible), but in the function of an equivalent contribution, which could speak to the reader by its silent message without words. From this, often almost “telepathic” perspective is the effect of cartoons irreplaceable. Equally in the development of independent thinking of readers by the ability to decipher the silent language of lines and concealed meanings.
When cartoons, let us say, after a long struggle and persuasion besides the preferred (and discredited) political caricature, at the beginning of 60’s finally appeared on the pages of the respected “Kulturny život” (Cultural life), they initially allocated it as to a poor relative, the space along which even postage stamp looked like a poster. It did not carry the official message, ostensibly did not fight for any idea. But the stinging and below the humorous surface explosive and nonsensely playful drawing in the coming years, when it won the more dignified handling, quietly and unobtrusively, but in a significant extent shaped the warlike (and certainly not just visual) face of magazine, it was sort of supporting partisan penetration into the consciousness of readers and opened their perceptions of major serious articles. But there is almost virginal silence about it in the research of this bright chapter of Slovak journalism.
For all that we already mentioned, for the ability to leave trough its figurative speech a long-term track in human consciousness, to react to his desires and negations, to express his ideas, the cartoon is and remains perhaps episodic, but very strong co-creator of modern civilization. However, there must be provided to it a space for dialogue. Just as prehistoric man firstly admired cartoons on the walls of caves of Altamira, acquiring from them emotions and informations, the cartoons should be today an obvious component of our contemporary world.
from the book “Twentyfive – the book about Slovak cartoon” issued in 2005
(author of the text is a significant Slovak theorist of humor and writer)
Back cover of the book “Twentyfive – the book about Slovak cartoon” by Kornel Foldvari