FROM BEEHIVE TO COMICS PANELS
by the Ethnologic section of Stripburger
The story behind painted beehive panels
Painted beehive panels are a speciality of Slovene folklore. Even though the oldest panel is dated 1758, most of them were created between 1820's and 1880's, and tradition was practised till the beginning of WW II. They can be found on the so-called "lying beehives" which were then stacked one onto another and roofed to form a bee-house. For us, the removable boards in the front are of crucial importance. An average board of this kind was 20 to 30 cm wide and 10 to 20 cm high. The lower side had a narrow rectangular opening often referred to as "the gullet", through which bees entered the hive. (Our booklets' dimensions are faithful to the original format.) Beehive panels were painted, so the bees could recognise their hive. Farmers soon grew tired of monotonously coloured panels and decided to decorate their apiaries with various images. Reasons for the start of this tradition are similar to those for painting the furniture and buildings, other practical reasons, superstition and piety expressed by some of the motifs.
Our subject are these painted front boards that make the apiary, known today as the painted beehive panels.
Beehive panels and their time
Much like today, people then lived in a restless world. Napoleon's conquering had brought them the novelties of the French Revolution that were abandoned immediately after, until the world-changing revolutions erupted across Europe in the middle of that restless century and changed the face of the continent forever. In a time span, just a little longer than life-expectancy of that time, people lived to see the transition from feudalism to early forms of capitalism. For the first time they saw steam engines, locomotives, they had experienced revolutions and they slowly started to develop their national awareness, to use a modern term. Their contemporaries were Karl Marx, Charles Darwin and France Prešeren, the greatest Slovene poet.
In Slovenia, apiculture blossomed at the time of agrarian reforms that brought – beside new industry branches and new forms of culture – slow disintegration of large feudal propriety. The redistribution of land enabled some farmers to get rich, while some others went bankrupt, andwere forced to settle in towns where first factories were being built. Apiculture was good business and thus an indicator of wealth, and brightly painted beehive panels were a proud display of this.
Some hundreds of preserved panels, most of them kept by the Slovene Ethnographic Museum in Ljubljana and Apicultural Museum in Radovljica, do not reveal the exact number of panels, but it can be presumed that the phenomenon was quite wide-spread and today only an approximation of their former number can be guessed.
The motifs of the beehive panels
The most interesting part of this artistic phenomenon is the content. A vast majority of the content is of religious nature. Scenes from the Old and New Testament are predominant. Their most distinctive feature may perhaps be the pleasant naïvety of these images - God, for example, is drawn as a bald, weak old man with long beard and a triangle above his head; scenes from the Paradise, where exotic animals are depicted as variations of animals known to the painters - elephants drawn as giant mice, lions drawn as dogs with beards, etc. Some of the Biblical parables were explained in a string of sequential pictures that could today be classified as comics. The contents of these "beehive panel-comics" were the Stations of the Cross, The Parable of the Prodigal Son, The Seven Sacraments, but also tales of a farmer tricking the devil. Other quite frequent images are those of the Catholic Saints, who were considered some kind of intercessors between people and God, to whom people could pray to and beg for his kindness at different occasions. Of the authors participating in the Honey Talks project, Danijel Žeželj and Marcel Ruijters used Biblical motifs. Žeželj took Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and placed them in a lyrical, urban context, whereas Ruijters transferred the motif of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden into the world of medieval mysticism.
The panels carrying secular motifs are even more interesting than the ones with religious scenes. If the former were copied mostly from other art branches, this can not be said for the latter. With secular motifs, painted beehive panels took a step away from patterns, taken from different classical arts and religious motifs, and became an original artwork, in which folk artists could express their troubles and sorrows, and other things that either made them laugh or cry - the same ideas that numerous comic artists of today love so much.
Some panels bear scenes of historical events, like the fights of Austrians against the Turks and the Italians, the arrival and the departure of Napoleon's army, but also images of Albanians and Arabs that used to fill newspapers. Some of these panels are documentary and illustrate battles that were fought in these lands, but also battles that took place far away. Some of the panels could even be characterised as a critique of society, criticising high war taxes and conscription, imposed by all the authorities that had come and gone in this territory. One of the scenes includes a Slovene farmer rocking a Frenchman in a cradle; another scene depicts an office, in which a stylishly dressed gentleman is filling his pockets with money. Perhaps the greatest worth of this phenomenon as national heritage is the fact that it had spontaneously expressed opinions that have been documented in great cultural monuments in other nations. Lacking other sources, the painted beehive panels are an important document of feelings and ideas of a tiny nation just being born. In contrast to the so-called high culture, that was just coming to life in the 19th century Slovenia and preferred European art currents to domestic peculiarities, painted beehive panels that were often too coarse for a refined taste of the bourgeoisie, offer a more accurate insight into their time.
The most amazing features of some of the motifs are directness and unconcealed sarcasm, especially in the scenes with women as main characters. One of the most distinctive illustrations is the one of women being milled, in which women are being transformed from old women to young, beautiful brides by passing through a mill, which itself went through a transformation: in time, wooden mills were replaced by steam engines. Other similar motifs include devil sharpening a woman's tongue, motif of a farmer who harnessed a woman - instead of an animal - to a carriage, a motif of a young lad fishing for young girls using his trousers as a bait, and women's fights on cockerels that provided an inspiration to Serbian comic artist and cartoonist Vladan Nikolic. It is not unusual that German artist Anke Feuchtenberger chose a motif from this group: a woman stealing a beehive from her husband. The artist has been dealing with this subject in the past. <> Besides exposing the supposed "women's weaknesses", painted beehive panels show no mercy towards gamblers, fornicators, clumsy people and slackers. They present a certain moralist tone. Some of them even present the despised professions in a bad light. Subjects of ridicule were mostly tailors, whose work was considered feminine and inferior. The farmers would surely consider drawing comics a profession, unworthy of a man as well. These professions were often depicted next to goats, which emphasised their uselessness and unworthiness (the motif was picked up by Slovenian comic artist Koco), or snails, to emphasise their slowness. Another frequently appearing profession was a hunter. Hunters appear in motifs depicting brave hunters hunting game, but also hunters being humiliated by the animals and hunters being chased out of the woods. This motif was used by Israeli artist Rutu Modan.
Of the mythical heroes, the most frequently used characters are Pegam and Lambergar. The story with historical background tells us of Czech warrior Pegam, who challenges local knights to a duel. In one of the duels he is defeated by a Carniolan knight Lambergar. Milorad Krstic took the story and paraphrased it in cinematic manner. <> Depictions of everyday farm work, farmer's life, traditions, rituals like weddings, feasts, farming and other, mostly men's jobs, can be qualified among more daily/descriptive motifs. There are many panels that depict wealthy bee-keeping families, happily set around their pride and joy - their apiary.
In those fast changing times, a lot of people were surprised by new inventions like steam engines and locomotives that invaded their worlds (the first locomotive arrived to Ljubljana in 1849). Locomotive, a technical marvel that amazed farmers, was an object of amazement to Jakob Klemencic as well.
Yet there are paintings that provoke nothing but astonishment: a hunter being shaved by rabbits, hens transporting a bear, animals carrying a hunter to his funeral, rabbit in the role of a guest at the bakers, dancing animals and rabbits playing in the snow. The motif of two hens dragging a cart with a bear in it suited Matthias Lehmann well. Using it, he created a semi-autobiographic story.
In late 19th century, more realistic scenes occur. The time coincides with the beginning of realism in Slovene literature. This indicates the decline of the tradition of painting beehive panels and their specific artistic image.
Every classification of the contents is practically impossible because of the variety of the motifs. It can be said that the authors were very different themselves. Occasionally the panels were painted by skilled painters, who had to seek new clients in times of material need and lack of orders from bourgeoisie and the Church. It is most likely that they turned from former clients only very reluctantly. Many of them were schooled in late Baroque style that was at that time still predominant among Slovene painters. Motifs painted by less skilled artists are much more numerous. Less skilled artists were village craftsmen, self-taught painters or farmers themselves. Some of them used to paint freehandly, but a lot of them used stencils. Beehive panels vary in style, from total artlessness to almost realistically painted scenes; the former are of course rare. As a rule, the painting style is very simple. It has both a decorative and a strong narrative function. Movement is very limited; the images are almost numb, although most of them tell a story or at least try to communicate a message or a gesture. There is no perspective - space is indicated by overlapping and deformation of form. The colours are flat and shading is more of an exception to the rule. The proportions are often wrong, many of the panels feature crudely painted faces with unclear expressions, like a wrinkled forehead and a smiling mouth. Naïvety and the simplicity of illustrations make for the most attractive attributes of the painted panels.
The return of the painted beehive panels
Today beehive panels are one of rare unique touristy peculiarities of Slovenia. Hand-made replicas of beehive panels can be bought for a few euros in Ljubljana's marketplace - the place where Pakito Bolino bought them. He was the first to have an idea for a comic adaptation of this artistic branch. Apparently, it took a look from an external observer to notice our own folk peculiarity. In painted beehive panels, Bolino discovered a suitable material for its transformation into a newer medium. Pakito himself is a collector of cultural curiosities (among other things he published a collection of hand painted African movie posters). But he is well aware that comics often sought inspiration in older graphical traditions. The variety of painted beehive panels has spurred us to carry out Pakito's idea.
The motifs of beehive panels with their caricaturing, waggishness, inclination to irony and distorting of the normal world are by all means very close to the motifs of comics. Even though the panels are a product of some other time and place in which comics were just being born, and even though they come from a rural milieu that's seemingly quite different from the urbanity of comics, they still have a lot in common. They both have a capability to tell a story with very limited means. Perhaps this curious combination of two completely different things shows that this world is not as unique as we would like to think.
The Apicultural Museum in Radovljica and Slovene Ethnographic Museum in Ljubljana have devoted time and energy to set up an archive of this heritage. But our project aims at the exact opposite: to dig this heritage out of the archives and use it in the present, with modern means. We would like to thank both museums for their generous help with realization of the project. Special thanks goes to Bojana Rogelj Škafar, the director of Slovene Ethnographic Museum who supported this project, participated in its conception and opened the consecrated museum space to comics. Last but not least, she contributed an introduction that illuminates beehive panels through the words of an expert. Italian comic association Viva Comix from Udine participated in the project realization from the very beginning, as well as comic library Serieteket from Kulturhuset, the Stockholm house of culture. Both our partners will host the Honey Talks exhibition this year.
No key was used when selecting the authors, perhaps only the fact that they all crossed paths with Stripburger at some time in the past. Even the most cursory readers will recognise that our choice was a mishmash. More than that, it is a global mishmash. Most authors have no ties with Slovenia (there are two Slovene artists; others come from different parts of Europe and have experienced Slovenia only in a few brief visits. Exceptions are Marcel Ruijters, who is enraptured with Slovenia and uses the proteus in several his comics, and Milorad Krstic, who was born in Slovenia). But in fact, anything else would be wrong, because beehive panels itself are a mixture of styles and motifs, inspired by current events and Biblical stories. They depict different experiences and are painted in different styles.
The choice of motifs was also left to the authors. Every representativeness would fail in the face of the variousness of the material. Many of them are true surprises, either because the artists managed to capture the spirit of the original beehive panels, or because they, quite contrary, managed to skillfully interweave their personal interests and artistic visions with the offered paintings.
Beehive panels are returning after more than a hundred years of rest: more sparkling, more striking and even wilder than ever before. They may not be used to decorate apiaries anymore, and there is almost no chance they will ever decorate them again. But perhaps our collection will add another dimension to their life that is now limited to souvenir stalls and museums' glass cases. At the same time it gave us a nice alibi to get comics into the hallowed Museum Space through the back door.
Unusual, sometimes incomprehensible, but always wonderfully bizarre motifs of beehive panels found a new life in the form of comics. A life, inspired by the participating artists, found its way to the readers at home and abroad. And, who knows, perhaps in two hundred years people will wonder, who were those people who used to draw little squared drawings and put them into series.