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Exhibitions and Projects
2 February – 1 March 2017

Revelations, February 2017

Zoran Mušič: transformations in painting technology

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 only methodology.

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.

Simona Škorja
2 February – 1 March 2017
National Gallery of Slovenia
Prešernova 24
1000 Ljubljana