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THE ARTIST, HIS LAND, PAINTINGS

Every exhibition is actually a little walk (šetnica) by which the artist himself, and after him many others, passes through his life; they stop where they should and where they should not, whenever they sense or recognise something, more often they disappear as though they were never even there. They do not know what they have seen, they do not sense anything, they do not understand anything, they do not notice that the painting is a system of signs, they do not realise that this is the language of art.

Am I, precisely because of them, so scrupulous that I weigh every word so I do not fall into the trap of the destiny of those who pass through Something as though they were passing through Nothing?

I did not write the word “little walk” by chance nor lightly: this terminus technicus of the old Dubrovnik country house (šetnica) serves alongside so many other titles – such as little path, way, or syntagma: a footpath, an access etc for the most precise possible comparison of the artist’s “life’s path” (whether it be the entire path or merely a segment of that path) with a path on which a man walks. Only these ancient words (in Croatian) suit me precisely, only they can express the whole truth of this Way. A little walk is what marks the place of a “channelled” walk, a path under surveillance, a place of selfcontrol, a path that is cultivated and maintained, and at the same time a line of Order in the natural “Superorder” or “Disorder” of its growth and blossoming, with the indisputable task of drawing a line between the cultivated and the natural (however small that kingdom may be, however restricted those worlds may be).

The exhibition hall is indeed that smallest form of “little walk” on the one side the works (the world of culture) and on the other side (symbolically) the world of Nature or Technology, the world of Nonart, which lives with no need for interpretation, reading, illuminating. An old and famous namesake of this artist, Ljubo Ivančić, whilst going round his own retrospective exhibition in the Modern Gallery in Zagreb, in 1979, just before the opening, said resignedly to his friends, “Your whole life, and you can go round it in an hour”. Of course depending on the nature and range of the exhibition there can be endless variations on that theme: You could say for example: five years of work – and you can walk past it all in seven minutes.

The steps we are taking now too, beside the paintings by Hari Ivančić, are a walk that divides like that, beside the works, which – on the other side – break with all those ideas, all those (divided) incidents which the spirits of feeble productivity, but powerful eros of abjuration and suppression of that which is not theirs or different, what has always been and “the old”, on behalf of the undefined, unformed new – these are powerfully opposed. But if we add to that “other side” that we do not degrade wisdom nor (the possible) truth of the works or manifest breaks which in this (Ivančić’s idiom) will oppose with all the strength of their not necessarily unconvincing arguments, about the end of traditional (artistic) language and the need for a new language, syntax, lexicon. Opposite to this, today many – maybe most critical world views – stand as the guardians of the side of reality and the dreams of this side – why not? A young artist, his traditionalism, his mythic, traditional iconosphere (land, Gea..) his persistence in varying his themes, his readiness for serious work, his passion and hope that good cannot be in vain, that positive work cannot be lost in a negative space but it will survive in mockery of these hopes, like a reef on an island of safety. It is not justifiable to describe him as arrogant because of this attitude, since his ambition deserves that epithet far less than the destructive urge of the others. At the same time, we notice that satisfaction is worthwhile when a critic notices that the strongest and most fruitful vein of Croatian modern art – which has almost died out over the past few years – is being renewed in such a magnificent manner: both as a genre and as a specific clear thought with an innumerable inflow of values. There is no doubt it will encourage others too; a young man has once more opened up a wide path, which had become impassable and over grown with weeds. Are we aware of what this could mean? (Even when aware of the momentary limitations and the sincere execution).

Let us see: what was it and what is going on now? The Croatian Modern tradition in painting took the landscape, as its fundamental, existential genre. Alongside several indicative landscapes by Belo Csikos, the first great dramatic, monochrome landscapes in this region were by Vidović. However not even they, despite their untouchable nature, could not bear the title of the genre of landscape. At their deepest level they belong to the confessional works by Croatian artists at the turn of the century: they are more like landscapes of the soul than parts of the world, moreover: they are mystic, symbolic seascapes…the rare landscape works by Bukovac could also not affirm the genus, and Medović and Crnčić were from the beginning seascape artists. Anyone who is bothered that this sets up a dubious (?) hierarchy – by which painting land meant painting a landscape and painting the sea meant painting a seascape – marina should be told that this is only following the logic of the original –Croatian krajolik using the term “kraj” for a painting of land (cf. “hvali more, drž se kraja” – Praise the sea but stick to the land!). It is the same in English (landscape) German (Landschaft), French (paysage), Italian (paesaggio), Spanish (paisaje) where the basic German compound word “land” and the Romance one pays, paes, pais, are again land. Ferdo Kovačević to some extent established the genre of landscape, and if he may be criticised at all then it is by the remark that in terms of style his work takes us back to a more conservative variant of impressionism, and I would rather choose as the beginning of modern landscape painting an expression which, better than Kovačić, communicates with the ideas of the European Modern (in all its specific variations) at the very end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. If we start with this assumption then Ljubo Babić’s work is well and truly anchored at the very peak of Modern Croatian (landscape) art, which embodies several vital ingredients of modernism: the cosmic interest, the cosmic vision, the general world and general human themes (the Bible and others). Of all these, the most important for Babić were the cosmic visions, the high and lofty viewpoint from which the artist, as though from a mountain top, observes deep, lost, cavernous pictures of the earth and the movements of the ant people. Then it was already noticeable that the physical reduction of the human form depersonalises the contents of the picture, and strengthens some of its structural and tectonic characteristics. Babić moreover, as the most important art educationalist of the 20th century in Croatia, succeeded in infecting almost all his talented pupils with his ideas (Šimunović, Mušić, Motika, Gliha, Dulčić, Murtić) or at least leading them to seriously consider landscapes (Steiner, Kopač, Vaništa, Lj. Ivančić, Biffel), even in some other direction. But is it only Babić we have to thank for this? Or was the landscape the common ground of the Croatian eye and the Croatian destiny. I have always tended towards this view and I still do, for some other important Croatian artists (independently of Babić) gave a powerful vision to the landscape (Tartaglia, Šulentić, Šohaj, Job, Kaštelančić), without mentioning those for whom a traditional interpretation of landscapes made up a significant part of their artistic work (Miše, Bulić, Šestić, Postružnik, Veža, Filakovac and others). Taming the land and defending the land were the centuries long obsessions of the Croats, and the bitter battle for survival fought on the line of destruction – on the last defensive bridge – these are famous reliquiale reliquiarum – did its job: a piece of earth was a motif of Croatian secular metaphysics; especially in places where the earth was rocky, where it took up the whole of a man, but also there where it was most resistant. Only in this way were the magnificent visions able to come into being that mark the entire opus of Šimunović and Gliha. This great and powerful original led us through its elaborations (Tartaglia, Šimunović, Gliha, Dulčić, Murtić, Mušič, Motika,Vaništa, Lj. Ivančić…) to the abstraction of nature and the fact that abstract paintings proving their metaphysical nature and their capabilities in modern languages. It may be noted that blood flowed through the abstract works of these masters; that existential energy of existence, and they never fell into formalist molds. When, after his immediate predecessors – to mention only Eugen Kokot – Hari Ivančić turned to the land, its was visible that this was the same syndrome at work: defence of the ground through apotheosis, the reduction of orientational figurative signs, the use of metaphysical diminutives (pars pro foto), the translation of the global Gea into an upright plate (which brings up to date Gliha’s basic thought: that the earth is a huge cosmic book – a register, a charter – in which our destinies are written).

Ivančić’s personal range is that repetitio by which he, with no desire for the figurative, for play, without a desire for exciting changes in rhythm and colour, merely by repeating the horizontal layers (mostly) of the same colour and their dividing lines (also) in the same colours – important: twocoloured pictures grey and black, black and white, red and black, white and red, to remain with the paradigm simplification – present the world as a line of troubles and a line of the unconquerable and so on in series of six to sixteen and more layers. The present horizontal series of lines emphasises tectonic stability, the stability of the order, its immovability, its hierarchical nature (up and down), its permanency. In the general turmoil of all there is, Ivančić seeks to and can establish his lands. If we say too that seen from a linguistic viewpoint, he also offers us most often the white and red lands, I have said that he promises us the bipolarity of the world: the white ether, as the whiteness of the air and the red of blood, like the ruddiness of the secular – a figure of spirit and body, the astral and the material.

Whilst in his older paintings, he would discreetly show, up in one or two of the upper corners, the cube of a house or a cypress tree – as a paradigm of the human world – with “catacombs” with “trenches” in the underground, evoking from far away some ancient landscape code of Biffel – his newer paintings have been turned to different form of expression: he no longer relies on Bachelard symbols of a house or a cypress tree, but sends the message in the rougher materialisation of the soil, with the minimum number of signs. This has begun to set him apart as the legitimate heir of the mighty Frane Šimunović: sparse like Goya, dark like Goya, acerbic like Goya. In a few words: the expression of one who guards the land.

Igor ZIDIĆ, June 2003
Director of the Modern Art Gallery, Zagreb
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