Smrekar was a true master of signatures and this is another element of his unique power. If his artistic change did not change much, this certainly does not apply to his signatures. They are always incorporated harmoniously into the composition – in the corners, in the margins, in the centre. They are often accompanied by an image and sometimes also serve as a comment on the content or an additional element. He always signed his name on the front of the image, while on the back he would sometimes write the title of the work or literary source that inspired it, and often his own address: “Alešovčeva 38, Ljubljana.” He lived at this address from 1927 until his death, building himself the studio-cum-house that he called Vila Kurnik (“Henhouse Villa”), so the inclusion of this address can help with the dating of works. Alongside the address he would also sign his name, usually as “Hinko Smrekar, artisanal painter” (as opposed to “academy-trained painter”), or even as “wanderer and artisanal painter”. This was because he never actually enrolled at the Academy, and thus never embarked on a systematic course of study, something that weighed on him all his life according to some accounts. Smrekar was entirely self-taught.

His early works, and also his signatures, are characterised by youthful mischievousness and enthusiasm. Full of idealism, he and his fellow artists – all of them then living in Vienna – decided that they would serve the nation and create genuinely national art. They used to send illustrated postcards to each other, the texts of which were written in slang and are frequently incomprehensible. Presumably they never imagined that these would be read by a wide audience and analysed by art historians.

Fig. 1
Hinko Naparossa, illustrated postal card for Anton Mrak, 1902, detail, National Gallery of Slovenia
Fig. 2
Enrico v. Naparossa, from illustrated postal card for Anton Mrak, (1902), National Gallery of Slovenia
Fig. 3
Hinko Žouna, from illustrated postal card for Pavla Potočnik, 1903, private collection
Fig. 5
Svinko Sifla, from Pilherrimus Slut, (1903), private collection

Several of Smrekar’s earliest signatures appear on these postcards, for example Hinko Naparossa, Enrico v. Naparossa, Hajnrich Žouna (a reference to the Slovene expression pije kot žolna, meaning “drinks like a woodpecker), Žane, Don Kihot, Gorgonzola. Many of these were presumably in-jokes, while the signature Michelet may relate to the figure of “Der deutsche Michel”, a naive and gullible individual standing as an allegory of the German nation. The oldest signatures also include Svinko Sifla, an allusion to syphilis and Smrekar’s life in Vienna, H. Van Smeryg(g)er, Tone Poper and, a more descriptive signature in the style favoured by the medieval masters, Hudobni Mihec or “Wicked Mike” (Smrekar was only eight years old at the time). (Figs 1–5)

In 1905 and 1906 Smrekar and his colleagues Maksim Gaspari, Gvidon Birolla and Fran Tratnik collaborated with the satirical newspaper Osa (The Wasp). Smrekar had the idea that instead of signing himself with his name he could use a self-portrait – in profile, with or without a cigarette, or even with a woman’s breasts and the enigmatic inscription Π. Δ. Σ. (pi ‒ delta ‒ epsilon), the precise meaning of which remains unknown. One of the plates for Osa in the National Gallery collection has a secondary inscription explaining that the letters stand for Pante Dreke Estin, which could be translated as “Everything is Shit”. This explanation may not be so very far-fetched, given that Smrekar was fond of drawing excrement alongside his signatures. On one occasion he even drew it on his head. Pleased with the success of his first solo exhibition in Ljubljana, he added it to his public expression of thanks. It is also hidden in the wealth of details on the poster advertising another solo exhibition a year later. (Figs 6–11)

Fig. 6
St Nicholas to Slovenians, (1905), detail, private collection
Fig. 7
Voting Reform or the Radical Operations by Doctor Gautsch, (1906), detail, private collection
Fig. 8
A Platonic Party, (1906), detail, private collection
Fig. 9
Sebastian on a Pilgrimage, 1906, detail, location unknown
Fig. 10
Blind Man's Buff, 1906, detail, private collection
Fig. 11
Public Acknowledgment, 1940, detail, National and University Library, Pictorial Collection, Ljubljana

A signature with the same three Greek letters in the Latin translation P. D. E. can also be seen in his self-portrait as Buddha from 1908. The original title of this self-caricature was apparently The Wretchedness of Unrequited Love. Smrekar depicted himself in a Buddha pose with a saint’s halo. He wears an inverted funnel on his head and has a cigarette in his mouth. A mandrake root – popularly believed to have healing properties and an unusual and mysterious power – is placed in his buttonhole, in this case as a symbol of unrequited love. (Fig. 12)

Smrekar used the same signature on the cover of Ivan Cankar’s Tales from St Florian Valley, a work that turns a critical eye on society’s morals and was published the same year. Cankar wished Smrekar to contribute several illustrations for this book, but Schwentner only requested a cover. Smrekar responded to this parsimoniousness by limiting himself to a drawing of two large bats, with several smaller ones in the background rising up above the broken crosses of a graveyard. This signature was clearly also evidence of some anxiety or negative emotions, and Smrekar apparently later admitted that these letters were a sign of his extreme nihilism at the time – and that their meaning remained obscure even to Cankar until the book was published. Smrekar later told the author that with these letters he had wanted to “give vent to the fear that he was drowning in excrement and that it would soon cover him.” (Fig. 13)

Fig. 12
Self-Portrait as Buddha, (1908), detail, Museum and Galleries of Ljubljana
Fig. 13
Draft of front cover page for the book Tales from St Florian Valley, (1908), detail, National Gallery of Slovenia

For the 1913 social satire Bazaar for the Benefit of Actors Abandoned by the Province of Carniola he took advantage of the similarity of his surname to the word smreka, meaning spruce, and instead of a signature placed a little drawing of a spruce tree in the bottom left-hand corner, adding the letter R to give “Smrekar”. This work was a comment on the combination of circumstances that had led to the closure of Ljubljana’s Provincial Theatre as a result of a lack of support from the Carniolan Provincial Council.  The drawing depicts the translator and art critic Fran Kobal, who in 1912 was a member of the theatre management, as a vendor/publicist under a large market umbrella. Hanging from the umbrella like lottery prizes are Smrekar (far right), Gaspari as a pedlar with the bag containing the numbers (centre) and Ante Gaber (left). The sculptor Lojze Dolinar hangs from the stall itself. The scene alludes to the charity lottery organised by the General Women’s Society for the benefit of needy artists, at which the prizes consisted of works by Slovene painters and sculptors. The same signature was used by Smrekar’s fellow artist Elo Justin a month after Smrekar’s death in 1942. Justin published a veiled obituary in Jutro in the form of a rebus showing a felled spruce tree (smreka) lying under a coffin, with the words “The End” and the letter “R” next to it. (Fig. 14)

Fig. 14
Bazaar for the Benefit of Slovenian Actors Abandoned by the Province of Carniola, 1913, detail, National Gallery of Slovenia

Between 1918 and 1927 Smrekar liked to append the abbreviations V. R. M. P. or V. U. M. P. to his signature (perhaps standing for something vulgar along the lines of “up yours”) and signed himself with famous names from the history of art, such as P. P. RUBENS, or with the surname BRUEGHEL alongside the first name HENDRIK, or with one-off names such as AREH SMREKAR, ENRICO SMRECARETTI, GIOVANNI SENZAPARA, ENRÍCO PIZZICAGNOLA, ŽANE BRUNDA, JAKA KRULC, Aleš Sirota or RAMON DE SÍSCARA. After 1927 he mainly signed himself with the initials HS or, with his full surname, as HSmrekar. (Figs 15‒20)

Fig. 15
Miss Fini Poderžaj in Her Wartime Family, (1919), detail, National Gallery of Slovenia
Fig. 16
Wartime Wooers of 1918, 1918, detail, National Gallery of Slovenia
Fig. 17
Nikola & Stipica or an Old Fox in Trouble, 1926, detail, National and University Library, Manuscript Collection, Ljubljana
Fig. 18
Yugoslavia and Guest, (1926), detail, private collection
Fig. 19
Mussolini, 1926,detail, location unknown
Fig. 20
Albanian Broth, 1927, detail, location unknown

Author: dr. Alenka Simončič, 2022