The Španzel Family

June 2012

A narrow and tall building dating to 1530, with gold curtains and a particular scent, houses various types of art. The old centre of Ljubljana is the home of three people who live among paintings and unfinished canvases. The paved streets with rich historical memories echo with the name of the Španzel family. The surname symbolises aesthetics, warmth of love, paintbrushes and sun-coloured hair. Biljana is relaxed, full of optimism and light; Rudolf is strong, precise and thoughtful; and Dorian is theirs and an all-round creative type.

Creative totality and exceptional individuals

Rudolf Španzel. Photo: Dorian Španzel

Rudolf Španzel is one of the most interesting modern Slovenian painters, and one of the most sought-after portrait painters. His oil paintings are almost better known in foreign galleries than at home, and his paintings have been sold all around the world. He has had over forty exhibitions in Europe and elsewhere. His work is mentioned in various weighty anthologies, which already makes him one of the classic artists of the 20th century. He received the Prešeren Fund Award for artistic achievements in figurative art in 1985. In recent years, he has distinguished himself by portraying the Counts of Celje  on the basis of anatomical studies of their skulls, portraying Cardinal Franc Rode - the painting hangs in the Cardinal’s premises in the Vatican - and by Vojna, Evropa in Slovenija (War, Europe and Slovenia), a triptych dedicated to the Slovenian presidency of the European Union which decorates the protocol residence at Brdo pri Kranju . He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ljubljana, where he also completed two specialisations.

Biljana Unkovska. Photo: Dorian Španzel

Biljana Unkovska, a Macedonian-born artist, has been living and creating in Ljubljana for forty years. Most people know her as an excellent graphic artist. Experts say that she has accomplished almost everything that can be achieved in this medium. Her paintings mainly depict women and animals. She is also involved in design. She designs sets and costumes for theatre and opera. Her work has been exhibited in London, Boston, Laguna Beach, New York, and Garden Grove in California. She personifies all that we recognise as the other aspect of reality - by returning to nature, travelling to fantasy places and rediscovering ancient myths. Her studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ljubljana proved a turning point for Biljana. In those years, she acquired valuable knowledge from the teachers, and met an artist who later became her lifelong companion.

Their story

At the beginning of the 1970s, Biljana left her home town of Skopje and came to Ljubljana to study. (Her brother is also a prominent artist - the director Slobodan Unkovski). The father was a representative of the Yugoslav Chamber of Commerce in Istanbul for eight years. For many years, she went on holiday and became acquainted with the colourful images of the world from The Thousand and One Nights – she was so taken by them that they have become permanently interwoven in her rich, meaningful and multi-layered art. There was no art school in Skopje, she explains. At that time, she could have chosen Belgrade, Zagreb, Sarajevo or Ljubljana. But Ljubljana was a complete enigma, and it represented a new challenge.

Rudolf comes from the mining village of Zabukovica near Žalec; his parents anticipated a different profession for him than he chose for himself. His mother wanted her son to work on the railways and his father wanted him to become a dentist. They were both talented at art, Rudolf  tells, and stresses that parents always want what is best for their children, but that children still have to follow their own paths in life.

As a first-year student, Biljana enchanted Rudolf: 'When I noticed her, she immediately reminded me of the Byzantine icon of the Virgin Mary.' They met at the Academy library, and soon after the first meeting, their life together began.

As painters and graphic artists, Biljana and Rudolf could not be more different from each other, and yet, they influence one another creatively. 'I have to admit that some of my painting were the creations of her thoughts, and to be fair, I should have signed her name on the painting as well.'

Dorian Španzel - destined to become an artist already in the cradle

Dorian Španzel. Photo: Dorian Španzel

He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts of Venice; he is finishing his master’s degree at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design, and he is this year’s recipient of the Student Prešeren Award - this is Dorian Španzel. Already at first sight, he is a combination of both seriousness and impetuous ease, with immense vivacity. He is a chip off the old block.

'As a child and teenager, I had many ideas about what I wanted to become, but when it is time to decide, things become clear very quickly. When I enrolled in the Secondary School for Design and Photography, I realised what I wanted to become. That is - a creative person.'

Dorian lived in Venice. 'It is full of splendour, history, art, romance, but when the sun sets and the tourists leave, there are only tired caterers, sleepless students, and an odd policeman left on the streets. I do not regret spending almost five years of my life there. I became a better person than I would have done had I stayed in Ljubljana.'

Indispensable residents of a picturesque part of town

The end of 2011 was happy for Biljana. After ten years, she finally managed to organise a charity exhibition. The visitors participated at an auction of her works for the benefit of Obalno društvo proti mučenju živali (The Coastal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals).

Rudolf has been opening painting schools. He is introducing the basics of drawing, human anatomy, linocut, woodcut and etching techniques. The opening of the Chiaroscuro international school in Žalec was followed by the opening of a school in Slovenska Bistrica. The artist says that the response has been incredible. 'They asked me whether I could teach every weekend. Dorian is a great help to me, and I have also asked Biljana to cooperate.'

It seems that Dorian is always running against the clock. A new test has been set for him - teaching at the Secondary School for Design and Photography. Dorian cannot be defined: 'My work is mainly based on graphic design, but there are also modern art, multimedia and photography.' For about six months, he was a designer for Gorenje , a leading Slovenian company, and he has been managing advertising for the Slovenian National Theatre Opera and Ballet Ljubljana : 'I do not want to limit myself to only one thing; I crave various media of expression.' According to him, a person is challenged throughout their life, and he is on his way to becoming 'uomo universale' (a universal man).

Text by Hana Souček Morača, Sinfo, May 2012 
Photo: Dorian Španzel