SILENT KOLO

April, 2022
Shhh...

Designing a typeface is like making a strudel. Especially when it comes to swirls. You have to have the right ingredients. The best swirls are symmetrical. In the middle all the flavors meet. The middle is their vortex. A stillness that is also spinning. Like the center of a kolo.

Kolo is a Slavic dance performed in a circle. It is an egalitarian dance of all genders, equally accessible to the differently abled. It can expand and contract, it can go left and then right, it can change directions and it can speed up to a near frenzy or quiet. Robert St. John, somewhat hysterically, called kolo the “the dance of death.” “The music breathes savage defiance” wrote the then famous author of “The Silent People Speak’’ in his latest book “From The Land of Silent People” in 1947. Advertised as the “exciting and revealing trip through the mysterious Balkans,” it offered a decisively Western perspective of the area in the war years of the 1930s and 40s. Yet the kolo can also be a silent dance.

By the time Robert published his book in the United States, Olga Höcker had already perfected the design of Yugoslav Script. However, it is assumed that Robert was not educated in matters of typographic history. Designing Yugoslav Script was Olga’s greatest achievement to date. It combines characteristics of Glagolitic, Cyrillic and Latin type. All three have been Balkan scripts for centuries. For this work Olga was handed an award at the Exposition internationale des Arts décoratifs et industriels moderns (“International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts”) in Paris in 1925. She showed her designs in an excerpt from Judita at the Leipzig book fair in 1927. Judita (Judith) is one of the most important literary works from this area, an epic poem written by Marko Marulić in 1501. Alongside folk dance, primarily kolo, and folk visual elements, epic poems played an essential role in communication for people from the Balkans. They are long, often book-length, narratives in verse form that retell a heroic journey of an individual or a group.
In his Judita, Marulić retells the Biblical story of Judith slaying Holofernes. This often-depicted theme in art paralleled Marulić’s resistance towards the Ottoman Turks who were ravaging the Balkans in his lifetime. In the poem, Marulić describes Holofernes’ army as a Turkish occupier, writing of their gold decorated horses with stunning beauty. Unfortunately, the text has never been translated to English. Google translate offers little comfort as it not only fails to capture the beauty of Marulić’s poetry but also mistranslates words, for example “horse bits” are translated to “chewing gum.”

It is unknown why Olga chose to use Judita for her Lepzig exhibition. Certainly, it is a historically significant work of literature. The first edition was arranged by Petar Srićić of Split and was printed in Venice by Guglielmo da Fontaneto on August 13, 1521. Judita was published three times during Marulić’s lifetime and has since never been out of print. In addition to this history, Olga must have also been aware of the feminist dimensions of the text. As a college professor of art, she must have studied Artemisia Gentileschi’s famous painting of Judith slaying Holofernes, completed in 1613-14 in Italy. However, we can not be sure of this.

Olga, the first female professor to teach at the Academy of Arts in Zagreb, Croatia, was teaching typography courses when Robert wrote “The Land of Silent People.” I wonder how their conversation would have followed had he met her. I imagine them meeting at a dance. In my mind, Robert would join and not only observe. Perhaps they would be standing in the same circle, each pulling and releasing the grip as the group swirled. I doubt that he would have found her to be silent. He would be lost in translation.

Kokolo, Kokolo, Kokolo, Kokolo moj