Dušan Petričić:

A Strong Government Can Discount Its Critics

I have long thought that caricaturists during the centuries fought for the position of some kind of court jester who serves to entertain the king, his close associates, and then also the national mass. And they rarely had a problem because of that. However, the situation in the world is visibly changing for the worse year after year. The killing of the caricaturist in Paris, for example, or the beating of a caricaturist in Syria.

The Petričićs moved between the two world wars from Lika to Slavonia, and father Dušan’s family moved from there to Zemun. There are also Petričićs on the Adriatic islands, and they include both Orthodox followers and Catholics. It was only when his father, an officer and pilot, retired that they received a comfortable apartment for the first time. Prior to that, from the age of six to fourteen, he lived in Zemun, in Cara Dušana Street, in the narrowing below the cemetery and Gardoš, on one side, and below the hill on which he played, on the other side. In the building, which was divided into four residential units, they had an apartment with two rooms and a kitchen, while the entire building shared a single toilet. After they moved, he never again set foot in the house where he lived with his brother and parents. But recently, while filming a show for the children’s programme of RTS, he visited the house of his childhood with a team of journalists and saw the apartment in which he had lived:

“The two windows in the room where my older brother and I were housed overlook the street. One was a tectonic cubby window where I drew and from where I watched the world. The man who now lives there expanded to the attic, and the room with the cubby tectonic window has been rented out to someone who has made a salon for dogs there! I went into that hairdressers for puppies and looked at the room where my brother and I slept, where I started growing up, drawing, painting…We were in that apartment for my tenth birthday when my brother, who is ten years older than me, gave me my first oil paint set and brush.”

At the corner of Bežanijska and Ugrinovačka streets in Zemun, that place which was then called the swine market, is located the now dilapidated two-storey house where he lived with his parents from his birth to the age of six. That was an unpleasant one bedroom apartment for the four of them. Both the first and second appartments were in houses located close to the Zemun hills. There are a total of three hills, and everything that happened in his childhood was bordered by those three hills, of which Gardoš is the best known of the Zemun heights. During his later life he realised that he had had a good childhood, among other things because he had those three hills that had a graveyard, a tower, the White Bear slope and the White Rabbit drop, which he would descend on a sledge during the winter, which has the great Danube at the bottom…Everything unfolded in that atmosphere, including his childish falling in love.

His first love belonged to some girl called Brankica, from the fifth primary school, who lived opposite the cemetery. In first grade he went to the Svetozar Miletić School, which was founded in 1728 as a German school, because the teaching was carried out exclusively in the German language. Thanks to interesting circumstances and the goodness of the school’s current director, one room of the school building today houses the Museum of Caricatures. (Zemun has produced six or seven caricaturists). He remembers his first teacher, Toma Dragojlović, a wonderful older man who was the embodiment of what he remembers as a teacher – kindness, gentleness and generosity. He has a best friend, Zlatko, with whom he hung out ever before primary school, and then they were together in the first and second grades:

“When I today consider that he and I have known each other and hung out for 65 years, it seems scary to me. That is more frightening to me than the fact that I am 70. We spent our childhood and youth together. He is a biologist and I am what I am, but we remain in contact to this day.”

We could draw everything we wanted, with only a single, clear prohibition – you cannot make fun of Tito. Everything else was possible. Corax, Ranko and I slowly, step by step, pushed backed those boundaries and conquered new freedoms

As a kid, Dušan chased after a ball like most of his friends, but drawing and writing were his first, continuous and constant loves:

“In my high school days I managed to formulate that strong need of mine to write, draw and paint. That was my attempt to escape from the ordinariness of everyday life. And that everyday life and the environment in which I lived was always a little depressing. Although my father was a pilot who retired early, we lived very modestly in that petty-bourgeois environment. Of course, I didn’t label it as such back then, but I experienced it as something I wanted to escape from, to rise up, to be in some finer world. Not richer, because I never measured value through wealth, I was never impressed by trucks, aeroplanes, villas and swimming pools. I was interested in art. Through poetry, through writing, through painting, an image of a different world was created in me, I had a growing need to create that different world for myself.”

He was fortunate that in the third grade of the First Zemun Gymnasium High School he met famous music professor Mile Sajić, an erudite high-moraled man who spent two years imprisoned on Goli Otok, a pedagogue who was adored by generations of students and who legends are still weaved about to this day:

“That was an extraordinary professor of music. He was so devoted to his work and worked with the children with so much love that he directed and helped all students who showed an affinity for any kind of art. He took us to concerts in Belgrade, to theatre performances, exhibitions… Thus it was with him in the third gymnasium that I started discovering Belgrade’s theatres. From then I would forever remember Hamlet played by Branko Pleša, then I childishly fell in love with actress Rada Đuričin, who knew Mile Sajić and who sometimes led us home after the performances. I must have been very ridiculous. And then I practically, along with those works of mine that I was very keen on, determined my journey and my future.”

Dušan’s older brother completed architecture studies and that was considered a decent and serious profession at that time. His parents expected the younger son to choose something equally as wise and practical, but he enrolled at the Academy of Applied Arts. The first two years covered studies in the general direction, and after that he had to decide. He passed the entrance exam for interior architecture, but after two or three months he realised that this was not his choice, but rather that he’d thought that this would perhaps meet his parents’ expectations. He transferred to the Fine Art Department, where he also passed the entrance exam, and completed the third year of studies. Once again he realised that this did not suit him, and by then he was already working as a designer and technical editor at the then prestigious magazine Vidici:

“All exalted, full of ideas, I worked on that newspaper extremely creatively and it was seen somewhere by Professor Bogdan Kršić. He heard that I was a student at the Academy and asked me if I would transfer to his department. And so I finally finished in the graphical department, which had been my secret wish from the beginning, but I did not dare to apply for fear that I would not pass. I thought that was unattainable for me, but it turned out to be so random and so easy. Of course, Bogdan Kršić was the head of the department.”

Petričić would later go on to be a lecturer in the same department, but before that he would find employment at daily Večernje Novosti, a newspaper that then had a huge circulation and a reputation as a progressive newspaper that was founded by famous journalist and translator Slobodan Glumac. When Novosti announced a competition for a caricaturist, Petričić was called by Predrag Koraksić to apply; he was accepted and thus got his first job. He already had the 1968 Pjer Award for the best caricature, which was a great recommendation for him. For Novosti he drew caricatures and illustrations for the Kekec newspaper, which was published by the Borba house. Novosti could be proud of its then team of caricaturists: Ranko Guzina, who recently passed away, Predrag Koraksić ‘Corax’ and Dušan Petričić! Recalling this time, in the late sixties and seventies, to the end of the life of lifelong Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito, it is also interesting to talk about what then represented a political caricature:

“We could draw everything we wanted, with only a single, clear prohibition – you cannot make fun of Tito. Everything else was possible. Corax, Ranko and I slowly, step by step, pushed backed those boundaries and conquered new freedoms. Admittedly, that was a time when that communist, socialist regime had already begun to show signs of relaxing. We worked on the wave of these first noticeable tolerances as was done at that time throughout Eastern Europe, only that in our country that was incomparably freer. Czechoslovakia, and Poland in particular, had very strong caricaturists. That was then called political caricature, but in fact was a kind of general, universal caricature that only applied to certain situations and certain characters in the society in which we lived. Everyone in the country knew exactly who and what we were drawing and there was no dilemma. We just didn’t draw the character of the person we were talking about.”

DUŠAN with mother and father
DUŠAN with mother and father

We now live with completely distorted criteria and our children grow up in a society that does not give them a chance to recognise the difference between the beautiful and the ugly, between tasteful and tasteless, between good and evil

For Dušan Petričić those were years with a solid understanding of morality and the system of values, and he explains that today:

“Some say that I am conservative and outdated in my views, but I grew up in a system of values where it was known what appropriate human morality is. When you look at what is done today, what kind of behaviour there is in public life, what is unearthed to people across all media, I absolutely advocate for the state having some control in deciding what people should be offered as entertainment. In our country it has become an all-powerful buzzword that this is loved by the masses. In that name the nation is unscrupulously offered the kind of entertainment that undermines human dignity. We now live with completely distorted criteria and our children grow up in a society that does not give them a chance to recognise the difference between the beautiful and the ugly, between tasteful and tasteless, between good and evil. In the years when I grew up, the state worried about that, perhaps not always completely correctly and in the right way, but caring about young people was a major obligation of the state and society. You had a large number of pioneer and youth organisations of various profiles that worried about their upbringing and development. Today the state only knows how to send those young people to stadiums where they scream, go crazy and beat each other up, and you have consequences that we can all see. You have fans that the state uses like an army in crises and dramatic moments.

DUŠKO RADOVIĆ, famous Serbian writer, poet, journalist… and DUŠAN PETRIČIĆ
DUŠKO RADOVIĆ, famous Serbian writer, poet, journalist… and DUŠAN PETRIČIĆ

When I went to Canada I knew that I was not going because of love, but rather because I had to. I can today say that Canada is an exceptional country, an ordered, cultivated, cultural environment

He had already received the October Award of Belgrade, the Golden Pen award and first prize at two Belgrade Book Fairs, as well as many other awards, when in 1985 he recorded huge international success as the winner of the Grand Prix in Tokyo for caricatures, at the most prestigious competition of the Japanese publication Yomiuri Shimbun. This award opened up room for him, but also helped him to realise that the world is uncharted territory that should be conquered. He slowly began sending his caricatures to Europe and America:

“I was in the United States and Canada before that, in 1976, Novosti paid my travel expenses, and I came back to Yugoslavia after five weeks convinced that I would never be able to go and live in that world. I didn’t like anything. It was too hard and sharp for me; I took away the impression of a completely different and schizophrenic America. And today I still think that in some segments it is a really schizophrenic and crazy country.”

However, in 1993 Petričić went to Canada and lived there for the next 20 years. Today he is back here. He has four children and six grandkids. His eldest son completed studies in film and television direction, the second is a graphic designer engaged in computer design. He spent ten years with the family in Canada, but then returned to Belgrade. One daughter completed television and film editing, while his youngest daughter, who grew up in Canada, has a Ph.D. in English and Italian language and literature. For now, she is the only one who sees her future in that country:

“I then left with the idea of securing a place for the children, for it to be easier for them if they decided to go out into the world. And then when I went to Canada I knew that I was not going because of love, but rather because I had to. I can today say that Canada is an exceptional country, an ordered, cultivated, cultural environment. I cannot complain even when it comes to my professional success in the U.S. and Canada, but after twenty years of experience and life in that part of the world I still maintain that it is not for me, that that is not an environment in which I would like to live. Perhaps because I left late; I was 47 years old.

For Petričić, the greatest success – as he has also discussed with foreign media – is creation in and of itself. That moment when you feel that you have come up with something extraordinary, special or exceptional. Whether that is about a caricature, a children’s book, a poster… For him that is the height of feelings of personal satisfaction, that creative process with a result that he was able to offer to the audience.

For the last twenty years he has worked on political caricatures for the Toronto Star, aware that his bloodstream did not possess the kind of cells that would enabled him to feel natural in a new environment, to feel at home and to understand the social, historical and political circumstances to the extent necessary to create great political caricatures. Despite the high professional standards that he has overcome, it is impossible to conquer some subtleties in the mentality of other nations like that can be done in one’s own environment:

“Caricature is a specific type of humour. Spoken humour, verbal wit, is one thing, while caricature is another. It implies stylisation, conveying a certain meaning from one medium to another, but also reading between the lines. That’s what Eastern European caricatures were based on. It is also similar in journalism.

In the field of children’s books it was a lot easier for me. I found my way perfectly. I think that children are the same all over the world until, say, the age of ten.”

Writers have throughout history been banned and sometimes locked up because of their writings and because of their satirical works. Unfortunately, when it comes to the fate of the artist, nothing has been forever consigned to history and the past to the extent to which it would not be able to return today, just in a somewhat changed form. What is the fate of the caricaturist like?

“I have long thought that caricaturists during the centuries fought for the position of some kind of court jester who serves to entertain the king, his close associates, and then also the national mass. And they rarely had a problem because of that. However, the situation in the world is visibly changing for the worse year after year. The killing of the caricaturist in Paris, for example, or the beating of a caricaturist in Syria.

“Control of the media, it seems to me, has never been as strong in Serbia as it is today. I consider the fact that my cooperation with Politika was cancelled as a gesture of open pressure on caricaturists and clear evidence of unprecedented pressure exerted by the authorities. It is completely irrelevant whether that’s called censorship or self-censorship. Actually, it is even worse if it is self-censorship, because that is the result of fear that the authorities openly provoke in people. And a frightened nation, you would admit, is a worse option than censorship.

A strong government has historically been prepared to disregard its critics, while a weak government has, with great pretensions, sought to fill in each hole from which could emerge any sign of criticism or resistence. That’s also how it is with people

“A strong government has historically been prepared to disregard its critics, while a weak government has, with great pretensions, sought to fill in each hole from which could emerge any sign of criticism or resistence. That’s also how it is with people. Those who are sure of themselves and their position have no need to insult their opponents. An irresponsible, weak and mafia state engages in confrontation with everyone. It has an unscrupulous need to place everything under control, from the media to factories, because with that they need to make it clear to the public that the onloy things that are successfully are that which they currently control, and that everything that is good is as a result of them. That merely testifies the extent to which such a state is not a serious state. Serious states have better things to do.”

Petričić recently became the permanent caricaturist of weekly NIN, while he is an associate of a magazine in the United States and an illustrator of picture books and children’s books in Canada. He regrets that in our country high quality and inspired picture books for children, the kind we used to be proud of, have almost disappeared from the scene. Publishers simply do not have the account to print that kind of book. They are too expensive for the public. “I cannot help but admire the tradition that is nurtured in this respect in Canada. It seems to me that there is currently no country in the world that concerns itself so much with young readers. With awareness, of course, that they will turn into tomorrows adults and conscientious citizens, who will know how to take care of their country and the social values that they have achieved. And with that regret I will conclude:

“When you allow the education system to drop and when the entire education system is reduced to bad schooling and purchased diplomas, when you completely ignore culture, when health and social care are so unimportant to you, you cannot expect such a state to recover quickly. It is easier and faster for an economically underprivileged Serbia to recover to an extent, rather than to re-establish a value system that was irreversibly destroyed and to restore culture to the significant and enviable reputation it had until two or three decades ago.”