ISSN 1409-6900 | UDK 82+7 Blesok no. 15 | volume III | June-July, 2000
Blesok no. 15,
Biography as a Spiritual Travelogue
In 1962 he finished an oil painting with the unusual name of Umec – Burnt Area. As can be supposed, Umec is a place name. What happens when an artist decides to call his work after a point on the map that is not a well-known city and cannot immediately awake pleasant memories of streets people have walked in themselves, or at least streets that people in a novel have walked through instead of them? It is a risky matter to decide on such a title even though an unknown, exotic phonetic combination is enough to attract attention. It immediately lets the viewer into a secret, invites him to make a mental effort comparable with boyhood enjoyment of an adventure that makes the skin tingle. For the painter Petlevski, Umec was the place name of memory, the evocation of childhood spent in his grandfather's house. It renewed memories of Pelagonia, a large Macedonian plane, and of the rugged mountains above the village in which he sought salvation from his native town in his childhood, sought rest and salvation from illness in his youth. Stories of a dragon that could burn acres of land with a single breath, combined with peasant superstition and a boyhood imagination, excited and frightened the boy who very early felt the attraction of spiritual adventure, but also fear of crossing the line between the world of bare reality and the landscape of the imagination. I always forgot to ask my father what happened when he walked across Umec. I think that he first encountered the concept of a homeland on the other side. Of course, it was an ideal homeland that he wanted to create by himself or to re-create, by selecting from its Classical tradition. But first he had to trick the dragon or
Cerberus, never mind which, a kind of terrible border guard that separated the poverty-stricken scorched area of twentieth-century Macedonia from the spiritual kingdom of the eternal Golden Age. Grandfather and grandmother saved me, for the I don't know which time, from a great physical and mental crisis. Especially at a time when I myself thought that my position was hopeless. It was not until three months later that I felt the need to draw, and in ten days I made dozens of sketches and studies
He believed in the measure of his own talent that was no less nor more than what it was, and that is why he serenely handed his pictures over to the fate of historical justice. But here, in my attempt to chronologically reconstruct my father's life, it is more important to emphasize the other side of the same problem. However strongly he believed in the destiny of art, he just as strongly defended his right to free choice of elements that are otherwise considered firm points, unchangeable and given in human life. He believed that he had the right to choose the history, heritage and tradition he needed to create his homeland as his spiritual environment. If Macedonia was his homeland by Alexander, Croatia was his homeland by Jullje Klovic and Marko Marulic. Mentioning these two European names of Croatian painting and literature in his notebook, Petlevski explained that he had chosen Zagreb as a link to the western
IV. Tossed into the Middle of a Garbage Dump
I could reconstruct from memory the list of eternal themes to which my father often returned in his thoughts. At such times talks with Petlevski would turn into a kind of dictionary of problems that interested him. It included the concepts of destiny and free will, painterly adventures, romantic enthusiasm, solitude in company, history and individual talent, and also relations established between art and civilization, various media, painting and philosophy, art and memories, artistic ethics and the artist's egoism, aesthetics and politics. Describing his generation's submergence in monstrous spiritual and political terror and banishment, Petlevski added: They constrained my generation, but they didn't manage to indoctrinate us. We were not weighed down by the Bolshevik oath, we thought with our own heads and waited for the right moment. However, for the painter Petlevski that right moment came too early considering the conditions that existed in the environment he lived and worked in. My father's
creative rise happened before the iron curtain was raised. His work coincided with the current stream
I will copy out some sparse details here: Petlevski matriculated in 1948 in the Prilep grammar school. The Ministry of Education and Culture sent him to study architecture in Skopje against his wish. It was not until after the second term that he managed, after submitting many applications, to withdraw From the Faculty of Architecture so as to try passing the entrance exam at the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb. His notes in the black note-book, which are otherwise measured and written in a concise style, include a fragment that stands out because of the strong feelings it describes. In the year 1950 my only wish finally came true – after incredible complications I was accepted at the Academy. My dream came true, and so did the dream of my Mother for me to go to a school for a fresco painter. After that everything else in connection with the Academy depended – only and exclusively – on me and my talent. That same 1950 was the year of the sublimation of everything that was bad for Petlevski. This primarily referred to the general atmosphere of fear and political persecution, but also to the unease, even the physical danger of my father's position in the chasm between two cultures, two mentalities and two languages constrained by the force of socialism, that same steely fist under which not only individuals, but entire peoples, died of suffocation. He filled an entire page with a description of his shattered dreams. The most difficult period of my life began. Filled with existential problems, insoluble, almost fatal. When the enraged Macedonian bureaucracy handed him over to the Croatian bureaucracy he lost the right to a scholarship and to live in a student dormitory. In a chain reaction I lost the right to food coupons used to buy bread, without any official documents I became an illegal inhabitant of Zagreb exposed to police maltreatment at a time in which those who had, got even more, and the homeless were punished for not having a home. I was tired, hungry, very ill, disappointed and hopeless. Seeking for Julije Klovic, the painter Petlevski had found the police. But in 1955 he held the diploma from the Zagreb Academy in his hands, and became an associate of the Krsto Hegedushic Masters' Workshop,
My father was a romantic adventurer. In his tender boyhood years he applied in an international competition for the post of national park guard in Tanzania. He could not speak any foreign languages, he was not of age and he hated weapons, but he knew how to tame what was wild and win the respect of farm animals. He supposed that he would not have much chance to talk in any of the world languages in the African wilderness and, what was most important, he was already aware that he could spend long periods of time alone with himself without feeling uncomfortable. Since he did not manage to go to Africa, he became a painter. Two things connect Africa with my father's adventure of painting: love of
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