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Alems, Tobacco Leaves and Puppets: Zdenka Golob's Printmaking Journey

By Breda Skrjanec | From the Islamic alems of the Herzegovinian landscape to human-like puppets enveloped in spatial silence, motifs stand at the core of Zdenka Golob’s oeuvre. This Slovenian artist’s intaglio prints, which often resemble the modernist works of the Ljubljana School of Graphic Art, exemplify a lifelong journey that entailed searching for just the right form—not too diverse, not too attractive, but evolved as a response to the problems of space and time.

Zdenka Golob, Blue Shadows (from the Herzegovina cycle), 1971, etching, 19 3/8 x 24 7/8 inches image size (49 x 63 cm), 22 x 29 1/2 inches paper size (56 x 76 cm), only as A.P. in edition of 10, printed by the artist, photograph by Jaka Babnik, collection of International Centre of Graphic Arts, Ljubljana.

Zdenka Golob was born in 1928 in Sveta Trojica, a settlement in a rural, wine-growing region of northeastern Slovenia. Due to her family’s financial hardship, she was sent to live with her aunt in Austria as a child for four years. Her path to academic art education was anything but ordinary and straightforward. She attended a vocational school in Lenart and later enrolled in a trade school in Ptuj. World War II then interrupted her schooling. After the war, she worked as a manual laborer in the Maribor Textile Factory. She began attending painting courses hosted by various local artists, which prompted her to enroll at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ljubljana. The Maribor artists, who recognized her talent, pleaded with Golob’s bosses to give her a day off work so she could travel to the capital to take the entrance exam at the Academy. Golob not only passed the test, but also received a scholarship to study painting. She raised a family during her studies. After graduating in 1954, her family moved to Novo Mesto, in southeastern Slovenia, where she taught for two years before relocating to Ljubljana. Holding various occasional jobs throughout the years, Golob immersed herself in illustration whenever time allowed. In 1968, she received the special status of a freelance artist from the government of the former socialist Yugoslavia. The state provided her a small living allowance with social and health benefits along with the opportunity to continue her artistic journey. Consequently, in 1979 she was presented with the Preseren Fund Award(2) for her 1978 exhibition at the Labyrinth Gallery in Ljubljana.

The work she produced up until the late 1960s was largely limited to illustration. She was one of the first Slovenian artists to explore this medium in combination with collage and various recycled materials. She informed me that she mostly pursued illustration because of her social position at the time—primarily that of a wife and a mother, supplementing the family income by working as a teacher. Nevertheless, she did show some of her illustrations and paintings in galleries during this period. In a review of the 1966 exhibition Borcic, Golob, Jarm, Lenassi, Urbancic at the City Art Gallery in Ljubljana,(3) art critic Marijan Trsar wrote, “Structure has now become one of [Golob’s] main aims and has at the same time also helped her. These light canvases have an effect on the viewer primarily with their vast backgrounds and nuanced flat areas. The artist has integrated a sort of rebus of tiny figures into them, sometimes even the recognizable relatives of actual objects (for example, a bouquet [or] a tree), at other times a game of semi-geometric forms that enliven the trembling basic surface.” Trsar praised her work while at the same time concluding that, “her present playfulness and grasping for her own unique world will certainly have to ascend towards a better defined, more solidly built artistic expression.” This first more cogent assessment of Golob’s art highlighted the features that have accompanied her practice from the onset: a dual formalism of abstract and representational forms and an exploration of color. The juxtaposition of abstract visual elements and simplified representational forms is typical for Golob’s style. She often experimented with an extensive array of carefully selected colors. Golob added color not only out of a love for its aesthetic value, but also as tool to attribute associative narrative effects to her images, particularly when the subject matter was not sufficiently clear.

Printmaking entered Golob’s artistic practice much later. She hardly made any prints until the end of the 1960s. The prints she created at the Academy were more of an exercise in printmaking techniques and increasing engagement with the construction of the pictorial space than any artwork of real quality. As she was most successful in etching and aquatint as an art student, we can see that she developed an early preference for intaglio. This technique dominated her artistic practice after 1969, when she was able to fully commit herself to printmaking.

It is printmaking that provided Golob with space and opportunities for her natural tendency to experiment with color and revisit works in progress. The artist’s intaglio prints also evidence her persistent interest in motifs. Golob was hardly ever satisfied with a single version of a motif, and upon introducing one into her visual narratives, she would continue to exploit and explore it in countless ways. She worked with the same matrix for so long as to ensure that she could get everything out of it that it had to offer.

Golob produced prints between stages, and employed color to render a variety of different atmospheric effects when she recycled the same symbol. Perhaps Golob was constantly searching for the motif’s form, and was fascinated by the surprises that each test entailed.

Zdenka Golob’s set of motifs is not particularly extensive, yet each and every one of them is pushed to the end of its interpretative possibility. This could be the reason why her prints are mostly produced in series. It seems that the first prints from the late 1960s related to her paintings of this period—though at the same time the prints already predicted, perhaps on a subconscious level, the development of the symbol, the alem, that occupied her printmaking practice at the beginning of the 1970s. The prints’ backgrounds are constituted by flat color surfaces with a predominant geometric form—or several composed forms—softened by hatched structures. The structuring of the pictorial plane is based on the repetition of the one and the same shape. Although the titles of these rather colorful prints—Separation (1970), Blue Shadows (1971) and Small Golden Alem (1971)—shed light on their meanings, viewers are more likely to pick up on the visual details. These prints feature iconography reminiscent of Islamic architecture and connected to the ethnography of a certain region, most likely that of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Golob participated in art colonies.

In one of our recent conversations, Golob told me that she felt most liberated in the art colonies(4) that she attended regularly between 1969 and 1985. She explained that her spirit completely relaxed in the different settings and opened up to the influences of the environments. She gathered new subject matters and inspirational energies for her creative work at home. In 1969, she first attended the art colony in Pocitelj, a fortified town in Bosnia and Herzegovina historically tied to the Ottoman Empire. The residency marked the beginning of her discovery of Herzegovina, which inspired the first series of prints that occupied her for two years. The alem came to be the prominent form in this series. Charged with symbolic meaning, the selected archetype took over her visual language and separated her personal oeuvre from those of her contemporaries.

When Golob initially started printing with the alem, she rendered seemingly abstract images. The artist then developed different variations of the motif, which was no longer depicted in its original context, but transformed into a completely independent symbol. The prints from the early 1970s still resembled those from the end of the 1960s, with some created from the same (but adapted) matrix. The alem sometimes appears on the flat color surface, then again in an indicated space, or occupies the entire pictorial plane. When there are several alems together, they are reminiscent of a human figure, while one on its own often functions as a phallic symbol, or seems like a ritualistic tool if supplemented with color or golden geometric accents. Undisputedly, the artist was constantly adapting her matrices, changing them, adding drawings, etching them again or printing with a different color. In short, she processed matrices up to the point that she could no longer squeeze anything new out of them. Even when this happened, she still persevered with the motif, but became interested in a new concept—she began to create space.

etching by Zdenka Golob in Celebrating Print Magazine

Image: Zdenka Golob, Small Golden Alem (from the Herzegovina cycle), 1971, etching, 19 3/8 x 23 1/4 inches image size (49 x 59 cm), 20 1/2 x 30 inches paper size (52 x 76 cm), only as A.P. in edition of 3, printed by the artist, photograph by Jaka Babnik, collection of International Centre of Graphic Arts, Ljubljana.

As such, Golob positioned the alem under the arcades alone or in company. The motif was becoming increasingly liberated of semiotics and instead personified. The artist admitted in an interview(5) that the alem always symbolically represented the human figure to her. A notable thematic transition occurred in 1971, when the human figure, not a representation, entered Golob’s pictures. The artist started to incorporate different elements into her otherwise meager and strict visual world. She developed her compositions in a modernist manner, in harmony between masterfully treated graphic surfaces and dominant forms, later enriched with minuscule accents, such as the moon, the golden circle or the golden square.

A year later, a new motif emerged in Golob’s work. A garland of tobacco leaves drying in the sun dominated a whole new series, inspired by the rather archaic atmosphere of a Macedonian village. The form and the color are both rather pronounced in these prints. The garlands of tobacco leaves completely saturate the pictorial surface, and are sometimes supplemented by moderately stylized figurative elements. The warm tones the artist selected to depict the tobacco plants and the sun are reminiscent of the Macedonian landscape. The prints give an air of balance. Golob highlighted the values of the plane, and created refined structures complemented with marks typically used as undertones in traditional etching.

By 1973, Golob’s forms began to change again: space became more realistic while drawing replaced the construction of flat areas. Color faded, and the figure got a gender; narrative had entered the scene. In 1974, the artist created a series of prints in which she introduced the archetype of Eve as a small nude figure (Eve Riding a Donkey, Eve without Adam, Eve and Adam). The subject matter approached the issues of intimate human relationships—a theme that dominated Golob’s prints at the end of 1970s. The Macedonian landscape began to transform into better-defined spaces, filled with representational elements such as stairs, while the garlands of tobacco were supplemented or totally replaced by drying laundry. In the first etchings from her Industrial Area series (1974), we witness the dialogue between geometric visual elements and an abstract color mass. Through the segmentation of the pictorial plane, the artist defined its material and concealed dimensions. The emergence of the stylized, lying figure that appeared from the abstract toned mass did not only predict a new motif, but also a new symbolic and philosophical concern that engaged Golob intensively until the end of the decade....

[This article appears in full in the print and digital edition of CELEBRATING PRINT, Volume 2, Number 1.]


2. The Preseren Fund Award is a prestigious national award in Slovenia for achievements in culture.

3. Marijan Trsar, “Borcic, Golob, Jarm, Lenassi, Urbancic v ljubljanski Mestni galeriji” [Borcic, Golob, Jarm, Lenassi, Urbancic at the Ljubljana City Art Gallery], Nasi razgledi, no. 10 (1966): 9.

4. Creative and social gatherings of artists were popular and widespread in the former Yugoslavia.

5. Lobnik-Zorko, “Njene lutke ne odbijajo vec, Zdenka golob v kranjski galeriji” [Her puppets no longer repulse. Zdenka Golob at the Kranj Gallery], 22–23.

A full version of this article Alems, Tobacco Leaves and Puppets: Zdenka Golob's Printmaking Journey by Breda Skrjanec appears in the print edition of Celebrating Print, Vol.2 No.1, published in April 2016.

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BREDA SKRJANEC is an art historian, curator and lecturer. She received her Master’s Degree in art history and sociology from the Faculty of Arts and Science, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. She is a museum advisor at the International Centre of Graphic Arts (MGLC) in Ljubljana. Skrjanec was the first appointed curator for International Biennial of Graphic Arts, Ljubljana (2001). She has curated numerous exhibitions, including MGLC Collection – New Acquisitions, Ljubljana (2016), Janez Knez, Prints, Ljubljana (2015), 7th International Print Triennial, Sofia (2014), Impressions +386, Madrid (2013), Art as Drug, Beijing (2011), The Big Ones! Works from the Collection of MGLC, Ljubljana (2010), and others. Skrjanec writes articles for Likovne besede and Argo magazines. Breda Skrjanec is an Advisory Board member of Celebrating Print.


>> Breda Skrjanec also wrote:

Slovenian Printmaking: A Journey Through Six Decades, available in the print edition only (Vol.1, No. 1, published October 2015)

Learn more about:

....matrix: Exploring the Physical State of the Matrix, by Lenka Vilhelmova (Vol.1, No.1, published October 2015)

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