In 1993, when Dusan Petricic came to Toronto from Belgrade in what is now always called "the former Yugoslavia," he was generally seen as its leading political cartoonist.
That is a charged and prestigious category in Europe, particularly eastern Europe, where political discussions during most of the 20th century were coded rather than straightforward. This was especially true during the Soviet era when cartoonists, like playwrights, were significant figures; they had a limited licence to express dangerous thoughts. They were expected to both represent and defuse political passions.
Dusan was viewed there as an artist, not a "mere" cartoonist, which is also part of the European tradition. One thinks immediately of Daumier, who painted, sculpted and made prints, alongside his indelible cartoons and caricatures. Dusan specialized, and still does, in exquisite illustrations of children's books. The time when he chose to move his work and his family to Canada coincided with the beginning of an ominous, and in many ways odious, decade in the Balkans.
He brought to Toronto with him another European tendency as well, which you could call the intellectual style in drawing. In modern Europe, debates over ideas were often at the heart of political clashes, and editorial cartoonists never shied away from attempts to find pictorial equivalents for those complex ideas. They didn't simply focus on leaders and events ...
But for him now Toronto is clearly home, and he feels at home here, which is what you feel looking through this collection. He has an attachment to the place that many accomplished, cultivated, worldly immigrants also display. I confess I find a certain mystery in this widespread sense of connection. It sometimes amounts to an almost fervid protectiveness toward the city.
It isn't based on what typical homegrown boosters of the city, like the chamber of commerce, tourism bureau, local politicians or culture vultures often boast of. Certainly not on any of the "world class" features of Toronto -- an embarrassing term betraying deep fears of inadequacy. Nor any of its highly touted restaurants (though some of the family-run ethnic eateries may be part of the appeal). Nor its extremely commercialized and otherwise undistinguished international film festival.
... It seems to me what moves people like Dusan about Toronto is its high level of tolerance and acceptance for people from foreign backgrounds, and for the attitudes and other baggage that they bring with them. This usually falls under the heading of multiculturalism but if so, I think we are a special case of the genre ...
Dusan doesn't feel any need to pick from the official elements of Canadian identity as generations of immigrants to the U.S. tended to do. Think of the way, for instance, immigrant Jews to the U.S. went to Hollywood and carefully remade the official mythologies they found already existing: the western, the small town etc. There aren't any official elements here, or at least they're few -- hockey, Tim Horton's -- and what there is, is neither intimidating nor daunting.
What's striking in Dusan's Toronto is the modesty of the themes and images that attract him: the Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books at the Lillian H. Smith library branch or the fire halls on College Street and in the Beach. The old towers versus the new ones. The distances from one modest landmark to another ...
Reprinted from the introduction to Dusan Petricic's My Toronto, published by McArthur & Co. This article was first published in the Toronto Star.
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