Spacal, Štanjel, & Facing Me


It all started on the day I walked into Galerija Hest, in Ljubljana, came face to face with it, and stopped dead in my tracks. My eyes beheld it and my heart knew it. The layers I’d been peeling away little by little during my existential crisis were staring back at me. My eyes travelled down, down, down, layer by textured layer. You have been progressing, they proposed. Yes, I agreed, these recent days had been something of an epiphany. At that moment I knew the Lojze Spacal print transfixing me was going to be making a long journey back to Australia. That was in 2012. And I carried it all the way.

Five years later, the Spacal print still lives with me on a daily basis and I am on another journey. A pilgrimage if you like, to the village of Štanjel in Slovenia where a large collection of Spacal’s work is on permanent display at Štanjel  Castle. It’s a journey I feel compelled to take. There’s not exactly a direct route from Ljubljana, it involves one train change and a wait there and back, but it’s do-able in a day. With planning.

Once out of the Štanjel  train station area, I figured I had to head in the general direction of the castle on the hill, clearly visible. So that involved a climb. And I couldn’t help thinking how everything new and unknown that we tackle involves a climb of some sort, whether it be through hoops, up rock faces, or out of the depths of darkness. The climb was a good opportunity to notice everything around me. I stopped to admire the view more: the funny molded concrete picket fences broken here and there (were they remnants of the days of Communism, I wondered), the lush green summer field grasses and smiling flowers, the wood-stick low fences, stacks of timber ready for winter fires, and pomegranates, walnuts, figs, apples, vegetable plots. It was lovely and the climb subsequently diminished in enormity.

As I sat under the large beech tree and some neighbouring pines in the castle courtyard, preparing to encounter the Spacal collection, the church bell of St Daniel chimed 12 midday. The ‘angelus’ call, how timely!

The stairs were wooden and they creaked, so I couldn’t really sneak up on him! Neither could I approach my encounter in silence. I can’t tell you what it was like, to be surrounded by so many of his works arranged in order from his earliest to his latest. When I gazed at them it was like being inside his head. I so get his thinking. I so see how he sees, because that’s how I view and experience the world around me. I always look at shape and line first, and a feeling always surfaces. I can easily reduce a complex scene to its basic forms. And I did delight in his offerings, to see his world, his landscapes, as he expressed them: scenes from his home life, the Karst, and the coast, and especially the salt pans which must have held an added attraction for him. I found it so affirming to be time-warped amongst them and I had an impulsive urge to learn about woodcuts, for they express his style so admirably. His early works are stylised and simple two dimensional forms, with more colour on the whole. Then he moved into a period where he added much more detail, even though he kept to line and shape. Less colour there. Those are very complex. And then later he moved back to simpler forms beautifully arranged, with maybe just one or two strong colours. They are his crowning glory.

And so if we can reduce what we see around us to its most elementary form in art, isn’t there a lesson here? Why do we hold and carry so much clutter in our heads, our lives?  Why do we feel the need to do this? What can we reduce to simplify our lives, to really notice what’s around us, and in us? To acknowledge it, and own it? As I enter a phase of my life where it feels important to be stripping away non-essentials I receive and hold Spacal’s offerings even more.

I mused on those things as I walked the Fabiani path around the Štanjel fortifications, sallied in the Ferrari Gardens, and entered a more wooded, enveloping laneway past a paddock full of donkeys to the village of Dolnji Kobdilj, typical of Karst villages. I had to smile. The donkeys weren’t a bit interested in me. They had it all worked out. They were perfectly content just being donkeys, and doing what donkeys do. Couldn’t be simpler!

Some notes on Štanjel itself :

Stanjel, especially the castle area, is one of those intriguing places that appears to be suspended in time. While the castle hill has been settled since prehistoric times, the main part of what can be seen today started out as a fortress to protect the locals from potential Ottoman attack in the 15th Century. As with all places of strategic importance, it underwent various changes over time! And it’s these changes, the hidden and surprising delights, that make the experience such an enjoyable one.

Between the two World Wars a resident architect, Max Fabiani, who also happened to be the Mayor, was instrumental in the legacy of Karst influences that remain and are evident throughout the buildings in the town. Unfortunately, towards the end of WWII, fire destroyed part of it and much damage occurred. Today there are still workmen busily restoring this beautiful piece of the past. I was intrigued with the stone gutters suspended along the edges of slate roofing, and the large fountains into which the water drained.

The Ferrari Gardens were designed by Fabiani to complement the villa of one Dr Ferrari from Trieste who planned it as a sanatorium for people suffering with lung diseases. And in and around the main square, the village of Kobdilj boasts three “spahnjenca”, typical of the Karst region. They are kitchens, separated from their main buildings, with distinctive tall chimneys. Apparently quite rare. The Fabiani Path, which I walked, links all of these places.