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Veno Pilon

The painter, graphic artist and photographer

"Records reveal I was born in Ajdovščina, in Haidenschaft, in Aidussina, that place resting on the foundations of the ancient Roman Castra Mutatio. A place where, as stories have it, the strong Burja wind swept aside the Roman spears, and with them, the tide of the battle. Born on the border between East and West, the boundary between the province of Primorska and the duchy of Carniola, at a break between centuries when the human mind first began devising gigantic machinery. Those learned in astrology tell me the night I arrived, 22 September, was in the sign of Venus – Virgo, fading before the coming of Libra. And so, in an age when the two-headed eagle still soared over the Nanos Plateau, my young life was unravelling under Mount Čaven. My father and mother could still barely understand one another then, seeing as Menigo arrived from Friuli while Urška was a native of the Vipava Valley, each speaking their own tongue, one Friulian, the other Slovene..."

With these words, Veno Pilon prefaces the picturesque recount of his early years in his autobiography Na robu (At the Margins). Born in 1896, his first creative pinnacle was achieved in Ajdovščina, in the yellow family house on Prešernova Street (former Imperial Street) with an adjoined bakery ran by his father, Friuli native and master baker Menigo (Domenica from Mossa), and Urška Trošt from Podraga near Vipava. Veno grew up alongside brother Jožef and sisters Marija (married Marc), Alojzija (Bras), Milka (Lenščak) and Justa (Ravbar). His precise birthplace was elsewhere, "in an alley under a vaulted gate" as he puts it, in the house of wine merchant Bolaffio at the end of a shadowed street, under a fig tree perhaps, where he first saw daylight during summer's passage into autumn.

Veno Pilon was one of Slovenia's most important expressionist painters, as well as an outstanding photographer, graphic and drawing artist whose distinguished creative opus spans an impressive six decades.

 

Finishing his secondary education in Gorica in 1915, Veno was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army. In Galicia (now Ukraine) he was captured and taken to Russia where he lived through the October Revolution, creating in captivity his remarkable opus of gentle expressive watercolours.

After 1918 he returned to his homeland, beginning studies at the Prague Academy of Fine Arts, which he continued in Florence and Vienna. 1921 saw him back in Ajdovščina due to his father's frail health, taking over management of the family bakery and setting up an atelier in the house. Works he created in this period are considered the apex of his painting, placing him among the best-known authors of the style not only in Slovenia but across Europe. He painted mostly in oil, fashioning in the process the same motifs also in graphics or drawing. His most famous and prized works emerged then: Moj oče / My Father, Kruh (1922) / Bread, Furlanska delavka (1923) / The Friulian Worker, Varja (Rusinja) / Varja (Russian Woman), 1925, and also Ajdovščina (1925), and Stara elektrarna na Hublju (1923) / Old Power Station on the River Hubelj. He painted the landscape of the Upper Vipava Valley, its now sadly disintegrating early-industrial technological heritage (hydroelectric power station, sawmill, spinnery, mill) and its people in coarse and clear direct strokes, portraying motifs and persons he knew well or held dear: the riverbed of the River Hubelj, the ridges of the Gora Plateau, the town of Ajdovščina and its colourful surroundings with the rocky "acropolis" Škol and the enchanting medieval town Vipavski Križ; finding inspiration also in the famous amphitheatre of River Vipava's many springs in the village Vipava... His portraits feature prominent personalities of the local bourgeois and middle classes and simple countryside folks alike. Veno was a close companion of doctor and writer Danilo Lokar, whilst his teenage friendship and mutual admiration with painter, photographer and eventual father of Slovenia's puppet theatre Milan Klemenčič left a profound mark on his creative life.

In time he participated in a number of group exhibitions and appeared with his graphics, as the first-ever Slovene, at the Venice Biennale in 1924. He juxtaposed the audience with a mirror reflecting back their own inner world through a prism of his own, a recurring theme of his expression to which he stayed true after moving to Paris in 1928, too. There, in what he perceived as the global capital of the arts, a city he aspired to visit since childhood, he stayed for the next forty years. He explored new media, focusing on photography, and it was in Paris that his best photographs were taken, some in the thirties of the 20th century. Marrying the Frenchwoman Anne-Marie Guichard, the couple welcomed a son, Dominique, who later played a key role in the establishment of today's Pilon Gallery in Ajdovščina.

Veno Pilon's mature years were spent as a Parisian dealing extensively with the translation of Slovene literature into French. He mastered many languages, a trait revealing his cosmopolitan spirit nurtured during student travels all over Europe. After the war, Pilon would frequently receive visiting Slovenian kinsmen, intellectuals and artists at his Montparnasse home, acting as an unofficial cultural attaché. On occasion he worked as an exhibition organizer, editor and illustrator, while contributing significantly to the creation of Slovenia's first feature-length film Na svoji zemlji / On Our Own Land as an actor and set designer. He also wrote poetry (Orakelj slikarjev / Oracle of Painters, 1968). In the wake of his wife's passing, he in 1968 returned to Ajdovščina where he died one day after his 74th birthday, on 23 September 1970.

Half a year later, on 9 April 1971, his son Dominique addressed a letter to the Municipality of Ajdovščina, setting in motion the establishment of his permanent collection, later the Pilon Gallery, which now keeps the greatest number of Veno Pilon's works of art.

Author: Tina Ponebšek, director of the Pilon Gallery

www.venopilon.com