Zoran Mušič (1909–2005), one of the most prominent 20th-century
European painters, produced his works of art, whether on canvas or paper, with
incredible perseverance all until his old age. He perfectly mastered all
painting and drawing techniques alongside a wide range of graphic techniques.
A spur to analysing the painting technology of works by Mušič was provided
by the staging of a permanent exhibition, Art
Collection of Ljuban, Milada and Vanda Mušič, which is on display in the
National Gallery of Slovenia. The overview exhibition of the painter’s works was
rendered possible through the donation by the family of Mušič’s brother; it
features works of small and medium formats dating from between 1935 and 1999. Even
though we speak about matter, physical material, which in principle is more
tangible in final judgement than the content of a motif, Mušič’s paintings
evade clear definitions and one-sided explanations.
Mušič received his first art training from painter Anton Gvajc who
taught drawing from life and watercolour painting at the teacher training
school for boys in Maribor. He acquired the skill of easel painting technology
at the art academy in Zagreb which drew on the Central European painting technology.
The classical, or traditional, stratigraphy of an easel painting consists of a
wooden stretcher (the frame upon which the canvas is stretched), canvas
(support), isolation coat of size, glue-and-chalk primer or gesso (usually
white surface on which paint is applied), oil paint layer, and finish with varnish.
Mušič graduated in 1934 with Professor Ljubo Babić and set out on a
painting career of his own. As author Gojko Zupan says, Mušič was known in
Maribor as a painter of oils and gouaches. Also later, while on his study
journey to Spain and subsequently during his stay in Ljubljana, he worked in
parallel at both techniques, and in terms of technical aspect he kept close to
his academic experience. But he translated the gouache methodology into oil
painting. Also in his later creative periods it is possible to observe
methodological shifts from painting and drawing techniques to oil painting. In
his mature and old-age periods he turned to them also in terms of material not
After the traumatic Dachau experience (1944–45), which marked him for
life, the first major departure from the “school” technology and painting
occurred with his moving to Venice. Varnish as the finish of a painting never
appears on his canvases again. Dry, washed-out, or velvet surface with minimal
lustre becomes the essential feature of his painting throughout the rest of his
career. He also worked in watercolours in his Venetian period and produced his
first graphic prints.
Paris, where he moved in 1952 with his wife, Ida Cadorin, represented
for him a source of creativity and energy. He puts it like this: “Nowhere else
in the world one can find light like this.” Paris became the place where the
painter lived and worked for the next five decades, with interim returns to
Venice, the Kras, Dalmatia, the Dolomites …
The painter was forced into the next technological change because of his
allergy to turpentine. For almost two decades he had to give up oil painting,
which had been the breath of life to him. His first painting executed in the
acrylic technique, which was a technical innovation at that time and the only
alternative to oil medium (Dalmatian Hill,
1966), is exhibited in the National Gallery’s collection.
It is typical of Mušič’s Parisian life period that he was becoming ever
more interested in the canvas–primer–paint relationship and ever more playful
in its handling. The white primer that had formerly had its thickness and
character was steadily becoming thinner and thinner already during his time in Venice.
The structure of the canvas was becoming ever more clearly visible. The most
radical changes, in terms of both material and motif, can be observed in the
first of his two series We Are Not the
Last (1974). He completely excluded the primer for some time, and applied acrylic
paint to a naked, raw canvas, which neither a non-professional eye can overlook.
Naked canvas – its woven structure and tint – becomes an active visual element,
a visible co-creator of the motif.
In the next decade (1980–1990) he reintroduced the primer and oil medium
to his easel painting. This period was very rich and varied in his painting
technology. It was mainly dedicated to the study of the primer’s function and
its changing. He concurrently returned to oil medium; drawing techniques ever more
frequently crossed over to canvas. The
more he approached old age, the less physical material can be found on the
support, the greater is the power and expression of his motifs. He says: “In my
pictures, I want to make everything from nothing. Perhaps I ask for too much.”
Mušič’s oeuvre shows that painting technology never limited or determined
his expression. He fully mastered each of the techniques he employed; he
completely subordinated them to his creative will and used traditional skills
in a way that had never been seen before. Throughout he observed the basic laws
and followed the tradition of painting technology, but with regard to the needs
of each individual motif he, in an innovative way, altered the features of
individual elements and particularly their function.