Hinko Smrekar’s illustrations and caricatures are some of the most scathing, critical portrayals of life and politics in 20th-century Eastern Europe. His bitingly grotesque images show leaders like Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin as bloated, insatiable monsters who prey mercilessly on emaciated, powerless commoners. The artist’s outspoken attacks on politicians, the clergy, foreign interests, and business leaders appeared across the newspapers, magazines, and books of his day, and his rebellious, unfiltered artwork repeatedly landed him in court, jail, and even an internment camp.
Though little-known outside of his native Slovenia, Smrekar left a strong imprint on his nation’s art world and political thought. With an exhibition over at the National Gallery of Slovenia featuring over 300 of his artworks, I took the opportunity to reach out to the curator Alenka Simončič, who assembled Smrekar’s first retrospective in 70 years.
“His scenes feel familiar to us because the themes are universal,” Simončič said. “Pride, ignorance, misery, greed, hypocrisy, corruption … Smrekar knew that human nature never changes.”
The artist was born in Ljubljana in 1883. Though his family was poor, Smrekar’s colorful, scrappy youth was a lasting inspiration. “He soaked up impressions like a sponge, and the characters he observed as a child found their way into his later art,” Simončič told Hyperallergic. The young artist grew up in the city center and was taken frequently to local taverns by his fun-loving father, where he met drunks, madams, itinerant actors, beggars, and other types. In school, Smrekar’s humorous sketches of his teachers won him friends, but also threats of expulsion. At university, he left his law degree to become an artist.
Smrekar’s commercial and caricature work took a more serious political turn after he met the Slovenian writer and poet Ivan Cankar, who became a creative collaborator and helped instill a strong sense of social justice. “Under Cankar’s outlook,” Simončič explained, “Smrekar began to develop a sharply critical tone which he then translated into caricature … Both were very productive and keen on art that would exist without lies, flattering words, and hypocrisy, and that would have a clear stance on human values.” However, as seen in his 1941 drawing “Boxing” and other pieces, Smrekar’s work does display the racist, sexist tropes of his day.
As Smrekar’s work gained popularity, his daring defiance also got him into trouble. In 1914, he was put on trial for insulting the Austrian Kaiser Franz Joseph I, and the following year he was arrested and imprisoned for insulting German troops in his work. Besides being the target of various other lawsuits, Smrekar was confined to an internment camp between 1915 and 1916, where he suffered the Spanish Flu and a mental breakdown. The artist was plagued with mental and physical health issues for the rest of his life, but worked prodigiously when he could, and often drew for more than 10 hours per day. In total, Smrekar produced some 2,000 highly detailed, imaginative works, and was able to make a living from his art. But in 1942, charged with possessing a resistance pamphlet, the artist was arrested and assassinated by Italian occupying forces.
Though he was clearly a pioneer of caricature and comic art, Smrekar’s legacy is hard to pin down. He called out atrocities wherever he saw them, but he also promoted Slovenian folklore, and his work wove itself into the fabric of his nation’s culture. “Smrekar remains in Slovenians’ consciousness, whether they know it or not,” Simončič said by email. “Generations grew up with his works — he was in our homes with illustrated books for both children and grown-ups, postcards or calendars.” At a time when authoritarian rulers and nationalistic tendencies are once again on the rise across the globe, it feels timely to look at how one artist took a stand.