Zoran Music

25 January - 20 March 2018

Music: Landscapes of Self


Kosme de Barañano



Zoran Music was born in Gorizia in 1909 and died in Venice in 2005. Slovenian by birth, he grew up in the cultural melting pot of a land inhabited by Italians, Germans, Croatians, Serbians and others, but his painting has particularly strong ties to Byzantine-style frontal views of Venice and the Venice of colour, of the power of the brush on rough canvas, of Tintoretto and Veronese. He belonged to a generation of painters – such as Balthus from France, Conrad Marca-Relli from the US, Esteban Vicente from Spain and Maria Lassing from Austria – who testified to the alternations of styles, fashions and wars during their long careers.

Music – one of the few to survive the concentration camp of Dachau – also experienced Nazi brutality first-hand: the drawings he produced in secret during his imprisonment and now conserved at the Kunstmuseum in Basel bear witness to his terrible experience. Although it cannot be ascribed to avant-garde trends, his work features in museums such as the MoMA in New York, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Kunstmuseum in Basel, the Reina Sofía in Madrid, the IVAM in Valencia and national galleries in Rome, Venice and Vancouver.

Poets and writers including René de Solier, Sylvio Acatos Erich Steingräber, Jean Grenier and Paolo Levi developed an interest in his work. In 1992 the latter published the interesting and poetic volume entitled Zoran Mušič. Dialogo con l’autoritratto (Electa, Milan). Major artist historians such as André Chastel, Jean Cassou, Gérard Xuriguera and Dora Vallier have also studied Music. In April 1995, Gérard Regnier, director of the Musée Picasso in Paris, presented a major Zoran Music retrospective at the Grand Palais featuring more than 240 works, from his drawings produced in Dachau to pieces from 1994. To mark the occasion, the French president at the time, François Mitterrand, wrote one of the most beautiful pieces ever dedicated to the Slovenian artist for Museart magazine (no. 49, April 1995).

In 1971, Music began work on We Are Not the Last, a cycle of large oil paintings on almost unprimed supports, which depict groups of corpses. These are canvases in which the pictorial writing aims to uncover personal identity: the self becomes the subject of the work, transformed into a theme that dominates the artistic narrative. They are the painted equivalent of what the English call “literature of self.” The artist explicitly explores his experience in order to discover the extent to which it is linked to those of others, particularly those looking at his works. Since then, his art has never been separated from that vision of the Holocaust and from openly existentialist thinking.

Music paints degraded, deported, uprooted humanity; the kind of thing we see on television every day. He packs the precarious nature of the moment into his images, meditating on the solitude of human existence when deprived of one’s native land. The subjects most frequently used by the painter sometimes also include tree roots, almost deserted landscapes – in Dalmatia or Castile – or the Venetian canals travelled by anonymous barges. As demonstrated by Venetian Canal dated 1980 – another canvas that is practically unprimed – Music was interested in the fragility of humankind sunk in silence and darkness.

Music’s figuration does not seek the image of the human being, but the faint shadow of their existence. He does not focus on appearance, as in a portrait by Velázquez, but the anguish of being converted into an icon. It is the result of negation, like Goya’s splashes. His style is based on telegraphic, concise and austere phrasing: a few lines on the rough canvas, like grooves traced by a hand in an endless sandy desert. Music’s painting is both tragic and tender at the same time, influenced by Byzantine art and with the energy of works by Tintoretto and Goya, which the Slovenian painter was able to see at the Prado between 1935 and 1936.

The series of works dedicated to the horses and draft animals of the merchants who travelled between Venice, Trieste and the mountains of Dalmatia (Colts and Dalmatian Motifs) date to the period between 1947 and 1953, although the author would return to some of these themes in the 1960s. This led to analogous cycles in terms of rendering the landscape, such as those devoted to the Paysannes des îles of 1953–1955 and to the Sienese Hills.  The Colts appear immediately after the Vedute of Belgrade and Venice painted in the late 1940s, after the artist was freed from the concentration camp, returning to Venice and his life as a painter.

In the handling of colour and themes, focused on solitude and erosion, in a certain sense these paintings anticipate the works from the We Are Not the Last cycle started in 1971.Before this series – to which Music owes his artistic “canonization” – the artist dabbled with abstraction in Autumn in Istria (1958) and with the various paintings entitled Landscape in the Void (1959–1961). These abstract panoramas are the direct precursors to We Are Not the Last, representing isolated places, chromatic explosions that swallow up the humans who have fallen into the obscurity of death, cosmic landscapes, black holes in a universe torn apart by a blast.

From his Colts of 1948 to his Dalmatian Market of 1953, encompassing the Sienese Hills of 1952–1953, his people and animals appear as rigid as the solemn images in Byzantine icons. In these works, the painter captures a frozen moment from the journey of groups of beings who seem to advance in slow motion. He does not linger on the postures of the animals or the synchrony of their movements, but reproduces the slow geological sedimentation of an overall movement. The backs and hindquarters of the horses stand out like rocks against a horizon blockaded by the mountains.

Music depicts the landscape from a frontal angle, in the Byzantine style. The pictorial space refers to the Italian tradition, to frescoes in which the pigment is absorbed by the moisture of the support. Music does not project the perspective onto the surface, but into the air. The Karst of the Colts and Dalmatian Motifs is neither a topographical (geometric) space nor scenery. Not even the Sienese Hills are geographical representations, but simply a memory of existence like erosion, both from a stylistic point of view and in the artist’s own experience.

Music’s work is a succession of individual paintings that form a gallery of marginalization, that of people deprived of their identity, and a sequence of images illustrating a land consumed by the wind or by the mere passage of time. The artist does not focus on physiognomic precision, nor on psychological rendering, but instead concentrates on the effort demanded by standing, by inscribing oneself on the folds of time; just as his horses inscribe themselves on the eroded Dalmatian landscape. Like a notary, he records that which is sculpted by time day after day.

Conventional narrative and figurative painting traditionally tend to conceal the epistemological difficulty inherent in the act of depiction with excessive lightness. The representation is a dialogue based on fiction: the claim of figurative realism to restore “real time.” The concealment of detail in order to seek out the essence is what consoles us when looking at particularly difficult works, such as those by Alberto Giacometti or Francis Bacon. From a formal standpoint, Music’s work is a visual reflection on the disfigured figure, not only converted into an expressive shadow – draped in mourning like obituaries or posed on a pedestal – but primarily eroded, fleeing from itself.

It is as if the painter had used his brush to transcribe the existentialist rather than platonic words written by the solitary Swiss poet Robert Walser on human existence: “Those with a shadow also have a body” (“Wer einen Schatten hat, besitz auch einen Körper”). Music, on the other hand, discovers himself in what he has before him, watching the disintegration of the landscape as if it were his own life.

Just like the Swiss writer’s Mikrogramme, Music’s paintings – from his Donkeys of 1948 to his Canals of 1980 – constitute a landscape of self, which is lacking in shadows and seen from the front: a silent mirror that reflects the solitude of his existence.