Painted rural Furniture
Gorenjska is a region along the upper course of the River Sava from the outskirts of Ljubljana to the border between Slovenia, Austria and Italy, bounded in the north by the Julian Alps and the Karavanke Alps. This Alpine landscape is diverse, with access to the neighbouring countries. The roots of the art of painting rural furniture in this area go back to the early 17th century, with the oldest preserved Renaissance chest from Češnjica near Kropa showing the year 1624. Towards
the late 19th century painted furniture fell out of popularity, with the exception of around Kranjska
Gora, where Martin Hrovat kept producing chests for brides in Rateče until 1930. Today, it is mostly chests that have been preserved, whilst other painted furniture is scarce. Gorenjska Museum keeps 120 chests, 40 cradles, 11 various cupboards and wardrobes, 9 bed frames, head boards and foot boards, the housings of clocks, interior doors, etc.; 190 pieces in total, collected by the curator and ethnologist Anka Novak, who also researched this phenomenon. In addition,
she drew up a record of chests in private ownership, which makes it possible to ascertain both the chronological development and numerous local variants, particularly with regard to the first two-thirds of the 19th century, when this type of folk art was at its peak. Chests in Gorenjska have front panels that are divided into fields, bordered by narrow strips of wood or created by the addition of small wooden panels covering the whole front surface. We have found over thirty locally
distinguishable kinds of design; the most common ones are presented in drawings below. Until the
early 18th century, and in Bohinj until the late 18th century, chests had arcade-like decoration and were built in the Renaissance manner with weight-bearing side panels to which the front and back panels and the base were attached. From the second half of the 18th century onwards, the four sides were fitted together at the corners and the chests stand on legs. Lids are attached with hand-forged hinges and the chests are locked with small locks in the shape of a cat’s head.
The painting was done on the front, sometimes also on the sides, but only rarely on the lids.
After 1830, in Kranj and the nearby River Sora Plain, the successors of the Kranj workshop belonging to the late Leopold Layer (1752-1828) created painted chests in a recognisable style, characterised by the division of the front panel into five painted fields. In at least one of the fields, if not in all three central ones, there is a depiction of a saintly figure or scene; in the
side fields, characteristic Baroque bouquets of flowers; below the lid, small drapes with tassels; near the bottom, garlands of flowers; and on the side panels, a symbol of either Jesus or Mary in a white field with a wreath of flowers. The only known name among the creators of these chests is Matevž Stare (1797–1854), from Zalog near Cerklje, who signed the lids of two chests in 1833 and 1836. Because of the large number of one of the variants of the preserved chests made by Layer’s successors from the mid-19th century onwards, we refer to their creator as the painter of
“saints and stencilled bunches of flowers”. The products of at least one other self-taught painter have been identified. The cradles from around Kranj are exactly the same as those from Bohinj. Oral tradition has preserved quite a few names of folk painters around Škofja Loka, who may also have produced cradles decorated with wreaths of flowers and a symbol of Jesus or Mary on the sides. The Bohinj chests are different: box-shaped chests did not become established there
until the 19th century and did not have divided fronts, but were painted with large ornamentation across the whole surface. 48 Of all the chests in Gorenjska, those from around Radovljica
made in the late 18th and in the 19th century most closely resemble the Baroque chests used in
towns. They are painted with flowers or a symbol of Jesus and Mary, but in such different ways that we cannot identify a particular maker. In the mid-19th century, the interiors of houses in the
villages from Jesenice to Rateče contained a great number of painted items. A number of variants of chests, cradles, wardrobes, beds, clock housing and other pieces of furniture were created in the workshop in the Rateče and Kranjska Gora area. Of a number of generations of folk painters we are familiar with the names of Janez Kajžar (1823–1884) and his successors the Hrovats – father Janez (1835–1915) and his son Martin (1865–1944). An older design, with five smaller inlays near the bottom of the chests from these workshops, can be traced between 1696 and 1861. Until the late 18th century, stylised vegetation ornament was drawn on them in black, sometimes in red, without a coloured background. Later, various saints were painted in the middle field and on the side panels rich Baroque bouquets of carnations, roses and other flowers. In the early 19th century, the entire surface of the chests was coloured darker and the interior of the fields lighter; brown chests were decorated with an imitation of annual rings. One chest as well as cradle variant is densely decorated with flowers, lines and wavy lines in a Baroque manner. Cradles are painted with the image of the Virgin Mary of Monte Santo di Lussari at one end and a pentagram on the other, plus floral decorations in the Baroque fields on the sides. From the last third of the 19th century onwards the Hrovats decorated chests, cradles and beds with stencilled paintings
and did not further develop their motifs. In the lower part of the Upper Sava Valley there were
two painters who were probably trained: one with a very individual style, who painted floral bouquets and bird figures, and one with a classicist style. Typical of the latter chest fronts divided into three carved fields of Baroque shapes, delimited by a coloured line, in which there are classicist elements such as cornucopia, meanders and vases next to saintly scenes. He created a marble effect on green and blue chests, and decorated brown chests with various
shades of brown. In some areas of Gorenjska, for example in Bohinj and the Upper Sava Valley, chests continued to be used for storing clothes, footwear, linen, yarn, as well as grain and other foodstuffs until the mid-20th century. Painted chests held a special place in the customs connected with weddings – they were used for transporting the trousseau. Even in the 20th century they were used in weddings organised according to the old customs, such as the Peasant Wedding, an event
which still takes place every summer in Bohinj. This is why painted chests, just like folk songs and tales, music, costumes and customs, are still valued and preserved for emotional and symbolic reasons. In the written sources found in numerous Gorenjska parishes, such as church registers and books of families (Status animarum), there are also records of people’s vocations. In Ljubno and Komenda there were potters; in iron-making towns miners, charcoal makers, blacksmiths and workers in iron foundries. Chest makers were not recorded, probably because this craft was only an additional form of income. But we do learn about their families, for example the numerous children of the cottager Matevž Stare, and we can assume that there was a great mutual respect between Janez Hrovat and Janez Kajžar. Records reveal the stories of some painted trousseau chests and other chests that were probably not used at weddings, even though a year is written on them. It is also possible to find out what mid-19th century thieves may have stolen from the painted chests. The conservation and restoration of painted furniture cannot halt the aging process of these objects, but can slow it down. Over the last two decades we have restored 46 chests, wardrobes, beds and cradles from the ethnological collection at Gorenjska Museum. The procedures used are complex, since we have to deal with different materials – wood, metal and layers of paint. These procedures can pose a threat to the objects if they are not carried out by highly trained experts. The retouching of the paintings on furniture is usually limited to the visually unobtrusive supplementing of colour, which connects the added section to the original,
thus ensuring that the colour appearance of the whole is complete. The appearance of the objects thus reflects the original culture and past times.