Milan Klemenčič was born in Solkan (Slovenia) in 1875 and became familiar with puppets at an early stage. The town of Gorica annually hosted the theatre of the famous Italian puppeteer Antonio Reccardini (1804–1876). To be able to see the performances for free, he helped backstage changing costumes for the marionettes.
Milan Klemenčič, Detail of the painting "A view of the Vipava valley," oil on canvas, c. 1905. Regional museum Goriški muzej Archive
Klemenčič studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice (1891), the Milan-based Brera Academy of Fine Arts (1892). A year later he enrolled in the Royal Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, where he also took a parallel theatre course. During his studies, he often visited puppet theatres. He was fascinated with the performances of the Munich Marionette Theatre founded by Josef Leonhard Schmid and the Munich Artists' Marionette Theatre led by Paul Brann.
The curtain from the Miniature Puppet Theatre, 1935. Ljubljana Puppet Theatre archive
The first Slovenian puppet show “Dead Man in a Red Coat” took place on the 22nd of December 1910 in the Small Marionette Theatre which was set up by the painter Milan Klemenčič in his own living room in Šturje at Ajdovščina. The scenery, puppets and the stage were created by him, while his wife Pepca, who was initially his only fellow performer, took it upon herself to sew the outfits for the puppets.
Reconstruction of the scene from the “Dead man in a Red Coat” (1910). Photo by: Žiga Koritnik. Ljubljana Puppet Theatre archive
World War I put an end to the creative drive behind the new theatre, as Klemenčič was among the first to be called up. While stationed in Graz, he sent for his stage and puppets, putting on, in German for the first time, two plays for the families of his fellow soldiers: “The Mysterious Mirror” (1917) by Josef Schmid and “The Magic Violin” (1917) by Franz Pocci.
Scenery from the puppet performance “The Magic Violin”, 1917. Ljubljana Puppet Theatre archive
Following the war, Klemenčič relocated to Ljubljana with his family, where he was appointed by the Slovenian theatre consortium to act as the head of the Slovenian Marionette Theatre – the first professional puppet theatre in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. It was difficult to find a suitable venue for the theatre in Ljubljana, prompting Klemenčič to design a plan for it himself. It was supposed to be located in Tivoli next to the gymnasium of the Sokol movement. But the costs of a new venue were too high, and he was offered the Šentjakob stage in the Civic hall. This is where the Ljubljana puppet theatre remains to this day.
Krekov Square and the Civic Hall. Ljubljana historical archives
“The theatre which opened recently in the civic hall is supposedly the first of its kind in Yugoslavia, but considering its level of artistry, it is certainly on a par with those of Germany and other countries.” — Karel Dobida, 1920.
The door of the first professional puppet theatre opened with the performance of “The Magic Violin”. The hall was sold out, the audience was thrilled and critics' reviews were ranging from high praise to critical reservations. The successful opening garnered him the support of various leading figures and other celebrities.
A detail of the poster announcing the opening of the Slovenian Marionette Theatre in 1920. Photo by: Žiga Koritnik. Ljubljana Puppet Theatre archive
The Slovenian marionette theatre closed its door on its fourth anniversary, after 16 premieres and 105 performances. Due to financial difficulties, the stage, puppets and the set were acquired by The Atena Women's Physical Culture Society. Along with the puppets, Klemenčič's team was relocated as well. They resumed their activities under the name The Atena Marionette Theatre, later changing it to the Slovenian Marionette Theatre ATENA, and relocating to the National Hall’s small hall. They staged old performances from the repertoire put together by Klemenčič, as well as some new ones.
A detail of the playbill for the puppet show from the Slovenian Marionette Theatre ATENA, 1926. Slovenian theatrical institute’s archive
After a long break, Klemenčič returned to his puppets in 1935. His family and friends helped him out. The silk curtain was lifted on 26th of April 1936 for Pocci's “The Castle of Owls” and the Klemenčičs’ living room was once again transformed into a theatre. The stage was scarcely bigger than the one in Šturje, but it was more sophisticated, the puppets and set design were more intricate and the stage setting more elaborate. The “Castle of Owls” was intended for a small audience of no more than 30 guests at a time, mostly from the Ljubljana theatre, literary and other cultural circles, for which the shows of this tiny theatre – with puppets only 10 to 12 cm tall – were a real cultural treat.
Scene from the Prologue before the puppet performance “The Castles of Owls” (1936). Photo by: Žiga Koritnik. Ljubljana Puppet Theatre archive
“The heavy door in the laboratory of Faustus’s laboratory suddenly glowed red and the shadowy silhouette of Mephistopheles was outlined against its backdrop. The very next moment he emerged from the floor right before the astounded scholar and viewer...”. The tale of a scholar who sold his soul to the devil has been inspiring European art for centuries. Milan Klemenčič adapted the Leipzig version of the story. First performed in 1938, it marks the pinnacle of Klemenčič’s artistic success.
Scene from the puppet performance “Doctor Faustus” (1938). Photo by: Rudolf del Cott, 1940. Slovenian theatre institute's archive. The Doctor Faustus performance has been entirely preserved. In 2005/06 it was restaged by Jelena Sitar and Igor Cvetko. It is still being performed at the Ljubljana Puppet Theatre.
In 1948, the City puppet theatre was established in Ljubljana. Klemenčič endorsed the new theatre and was involved in its formation. He designed plans for a new marionette stage and took over the visual design of Pocci's “The Magic Violin”, however, he left the stage realization to the new generation of puppeteers.