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Rapotec, Stanislaus Ivan (Rappy) (1911–1997)

by Eileen Chanin

This article was published online in 2022

Stanislaus Ivan Rapotec (1911–1997), artist, was born Stanislav Janez on 4 October 1911 at Kozina, a Slovenian enclave near Trieste, Austro-Hungarian Empire, eldest of three children of Slovenian parents Janez (Ivan) Rapotec, railway worker, and his wife Marija, née Ivančič. In 1918 the family relocated to Škofja Loka, near Ljubljana, in the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Impressions that Stanislaus gained from his childhood—including from the ceremonies in Ljubljana’s baroque churches and a teacher’s renditions of Greek mythology—would underpin the themes of ritual, myth, and architecture that would grip him for most of his life. Following his secondary education, he attended military school at Sarajevo for a year before studying economics at the University of Zagreb from 1933 to 1938. He served as secretary-general of the inter-university student union, and travelled widely in Europe, stimulating an interest in Byzantine masters and architecture that led to his adding art history to his studies. In his leisure time, he painted and sketched. After leaving university, he moved to Split, where he worked as a bank clerk.

Mobilised in the Royal Yugoslav Army in World War II, Rapotec took part in the brief and futile defence of the kingdom after the Axis powers invaded in April 1941. He was taken prisoner, but escaped and returned to Split, where he joined the resistance. Tasked with liaising with the royalist government in exile and other Allied powers, he travelled the dangerous route to Cairo, and met the British Special Operations Executive. He was sent back to occupied Yugoslavia by submarine to work with the underground as the British liaison to General Dragoljub ‘Draža’ Mihailović. There he is credited with relaying important military information in his reports. In the midst of a complex political situation, he attempted to reassure British commanders of Mihailović’s trustworthiness and to report on the deteriorating human rights situation, although it seems many of the latter reports were disregarded. Returning to the Middle East, from mid-1942 he served under British command. A firm anti-communist, at the end of the war he was unable to return home. Between 1945 and 1948 he served in the Sinai Peninsula with the British Army. He was demobilised as a captain and granted assisted migration to Australia. Arriving in Melbourne in 1948, he spent a short period at Bonegilla migrant reception centre before being sent to Adelaide. He worked in a timber yard at Port Adelaide with other former royalist Yugoslav servicemen, and studied economics at the University of Adelaide in the evenings, although he did not complete a degree.

Although not formally trained, Rapotec determined to become an artist. The arid areas of South Australia evoked for him the landscape of the Middle East, which he had sketched during the war. He first showed his art in an exhibition of work by migrants at Adelaide Town Hall in 1949. The following year he held his first solo show at the John Martin’s Gallery. At this stage he was attached to landscape forms and figure painting, and worked mostly in pastels. In 1951 his work was shown in the Dunlop art prize competition exhibition, and the next year with the Adelaide group. That July he was naturalised. The Adelaide group exhibited in Melbourne in 1954, and the same year the Contemporary Art Society of South Australia sent to England a representative show of work by local artists, including Rapotec. His painting entitled Outback was singled out by the London Times, which described him as the sole artist to produce a piece of Australian vision.

‘In order to create you must have had experience,’ Rapotec later said: ‘when you have balanced on the razor’s edge between life and death, only then are you capable of true creation’ (Fairbairn 1983, 35). Aiming to project a personal response to the world around him, he shifted his focus from realistic depictions of a landscape to instead paint his response to its mood and atmosphere. Considering that ‘the sub-conscious’ contained ‘the key to an artist’s self,’ he thought ‘the untrammelled expression of it’ could ‘be stifled by hard, conscious thinking or by too much reliance on training or the influence of others’ (Thomas 1967, 7). He painted semi-abstract landscapes infused with a rhythmic emotional expressionism, before coming under the influence of abstract expressionism.

Moving to Sydney in 1955, Rapotec flourished as an artist. By this time he used the Latinised form for his forename (Stanislaus or Stan), while to those close to him he was ‘Rappy.’ Adopting acrylic paint, he applied it ‘wet-on–wet,’ working quickly on large boards laid horizontally and prepared with gesso. He trusted his subconsciousness ‘to develop his bold, large, abstract expressions of myths, rituals and architectural forms’ (Pavlowitch 1997, 18). Strong dramatic forms with bold strokes became his signature. From 1950 to 1960 he exhibited regularly with the New South Wales branch of the Contemporary Art Society, and served on its committee from 1955 to 1966. At a time when artists were searching for unfettered and spontaneous modes of expression, he helped shape abstract expressionism.

Rapotec became known as one of the Kings Cross-based Victoria Street group, who shared an enthusiasm for linear abstraction and the use of gesture and automatism to express unconscious and subjective experience. They later formed the Sydney Nine group as a riposte to Melbourne’s figurative realist Antipodeans, exhibiting at the David Jones Art Gallery and at Melbourne’s Gallery A in 1961. That year he won the Blake prize for religious art with his large, passionate, and violent painting Meditating on Good Friday. A watershed that provoked debate on whether abstract painting could convey the complexity of meaning and sensation expected from a religious image, his controversial win shifted the future emphasis of the prize. Further awards included the grand prize in Sydney’s Waratah Festival art competition in 1961 and the Woolworths Ltd art prize at the Royal Easter Show in 1963. His work was selected in the Australian Painting: Colonial, Impressionist, Contemporary exhibition at the Tate Gallery, London, in 1963, and in the Australian Painting Today exhibition sent to Europe by the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board in 1964.

On 5 October 1961 at the Registrar General’s Office, Sydney, Rapotec had married Andree Diane Kelly, née Du Boise. The couple set up home in Double Bay. He taught painting privately and travelled in the outback, producing a series of pictures from his experiences. From 1964 he spent about a year in Britain and Europe with his wife. Impressions and reactions to encounters in Europe became the staple of his painting, including series based on European cathedrals and on Greek mythology. The first of these, exhibited in Sydney in 1966, was the work of ‘a “mellowing, maturing and tamed man”’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1966, 6), as he described himself.

During the early 1970s, with changing directions in art, Rapotec was the sole successful survivor of the action that had dominated the Sydney art world the decade before. He again exhibited in London, in Australian Paintings and Tapestries of the Past Twenty Years (1972), and his painting Corpus Christi in Seville was added to the Vatican Museum’s collection of modern religious art. His wife’s death in 1976 shook him. He travelled and painted increasingly in Europe, maintaining a studio in the Yugoslav enclave at Carinthia, Austria, and later spending six months of the year in Klagenfurt, not far from the Slovenian border with Austria. In 1984 he took up the Australia Council’s visual arts board’s residency at the Greene Street Studio, New York. He was appointed AM in 1989.

Burly and ‘barrel-chested’ with a ‘booming voice’ and ‘tufty beard’ (Jones 1971, 23), Rapotec was an imposing figure. He moved lithely, his twinkling eyes set in a broad face, and was an ebullient personality and a stimulating conversationalist. From the late 1980s his work was shown in Slovenia. Having revisited his homeland—by then independent from Yugoslavia—in 1991, he judged that ‘the best years of my life were here in Australia’ (Loxley 1993, 524). In 1995 he had a stroke, the effects of which never left him. Retrospective exhibitions of his work were staged at Ljubljana and Sydney in 1997. He died on 18 November 1997 at Vaucluse, survived by his stepdaughter and stepson, and was cremated. A portrait of him by his fellow-émigré, the Hungarian-born Judy Cassab, won the Archibald prize in 1960.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Art Gallery of New South Wales. Rapotec solo artist file and curatorial file
  • Bojić, Zoja. Stanislav Rapotec, a Barbarogenius in Australian Art. Belgrade: Andrejević Endowment, 2007
  • Fairbairn, Anne. ‘Rapotec at Seventy.’ Quadrant, November 1983, 31–36
  • Jones, Margaret. ‘Pictures from Olympus.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 3 April 1971, 23
  • Kelly, Alexandra. Interview by the author, 17 September 2020
  • Klepac, Lou. ‘Artist with a Vast Impact.’ Australian, 21 November 1997, 16
  • Loxley, Anne. ‘Impressions of a New Land: Judy Cassab and Stanislaus Rapotec Interviewed.’ Art and Australia 30, no. 4 (Winter 1993): 521–24
  • National Archives of Australia. A443, 1951/15/3807
  • National Archives of Australia. A11907, S332
  • National Archives of Australia. D4878, RAPOTEC S
  • Olsen, John. ‘Artist Who Painted with Thunder.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 21 November 1997, 18
  • Pavlowitch, Stevan. ‘Stanislaus Rapotec.’ Independent, 9 December 1997, 18
  • Rapotec, Stanislaus. Interview by James Gleeson, 22 October 1979. Transcript. James Gleeson oral history collection. National Gallery of Australia
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘I’m Tamed, Says Mr Rapotec.’ 31 March 1966, 6
  • Thomas, Laurie. ‘Rapotec … Talks to Laurie Thomas.’ Australian, 13 May 1967, 7
  • Thomas, Laurie. ‘Stanislaus Rapotec.’ Art and Australia 8, no. 2 (September 1970): 126–35

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Eileen Chanin, 'Rapotec, Stanislaus Ivan (Rappy) (1911–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rapotec-stanislaus-ivan-rappy-31404/text38856, published online 2022, accessed online 6 December 2022.

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