Tag Archives: Croatian painter

Miroslav Kraljević – Olympia (Homage to Manet)

15 Sep

A few months ago I wrote a post about the Croatian painter Miroslav Kraljević’s Parisian phase (1911-12) and today let us take a look at one particular painting from that phase called “Olympia” (1912). It is a direct homage to Edouard Manet’s controversial female nude “Olympia” (1863). Decades later, a painter from a provincial Austro-Hungary (now modern Croatia) had been so inspired by Manet’s painting that he had to paint his rendition of it. This just goes to show the immense influence of Manet on modern art.

Miroslav Kraljević, (Great Female Nude) Olympia, 1912

In 1911, after having spent awhile studying abroad in Munich where he had encountered the newest trends in art, the Croatian painter Miroslav Kraljević was back home in a town called Požega. In the peaceful and idylic small-town environment, Kraljević painted many self-portraits and landscapes, but still he was restless, perhaps slightly claustrophobic as well, and there was something his heart desired, a shiny red apple of sin he wanted to grab from the branch and sink his teeth into; Paris, with its vivacity, art, and the bright lights. He turned his fantasies into a reality in September 1911 when he travelled to Paris; the it place for an artist. He had been looking forward to seeing the works of the finest French painters, especially those of Edouard Manet. Apart from museums and galleries, Kraljević visited parks, cafes, bistroes and infamous places such as Moulin Rouge. As appropriate for the city he found himself in, his favourite motif in his Parisian phase was – the woman, more often than not nude or wearing very little clothes. And of course, as a hommage to his idol, Kraljević painted his own “Olympia” in 1912.

Female nude has been a popular motif in art for a long time, but when Edouard Manet painted his nude Olympia, it was seen as brash and shocking to the audience and critics. Why? Well, firstly because Manet didn’t bother to dress his painting up in mythology and allegory, and secondly because of the manner in which he painted her; realistic rather than idealised and highly eroticised. Inspired by Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” (1532-34), Manet’s Olympia is visibly less sensuous and inviting. She looks like a dull, flat, paper doll. In fact, she looks uninterested, as if she’s saying “oh, it’s you again, ah well…” Olympia isn’t a Roman goddess that every man would desire, she is a realistic looking courtesan that was well-known to Parisian men of the upper classes. Manet stirred the waters of Parisian society by directly pointing out the hypocrisy and serving some hot realism on a platter.

Kraljević’s Olympia is equally pale and uninterested, looking directly in the viewer, without a trace of shame or shyness. She doesn’t have a waterfall of long, golden hair to sensually cover her nudity like a Baroque martyr would. Nope, she is flaunting her body, but, just like Manet’s Olympia, she is wearing dainty slippers; God forbid some madman with a foot fetish gets a thrill from looking at her feet, oh no. Kraljević painted her pale flesh in the same way he had approached his earlier portraits, with more visible brushstrokes and a sense of volume than Manet had done it. Around her are a few vibrant coloured cushions and we can see a bouquet of purple flowers on the right, echoing the flowers that the servant is presenting to Olympia, most likely a gift from a client. Colours in Kraljević’s painting are more warm and muted, which makes it seem more like a budoir scene whereas Manet’s painting shows Olympia as a doll in the shop-window. I wonder what Manet would have thought of this homage?…

Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863

Vilko Gecan – The Cynic

12 Sep

“Inside every cynical person is a disappointed idealist.”

(George Carlin)

Vilko Gecan, The Cynic (Cinik), 1921

Painting “The Cynic” is a self-portrait with an interesting and thought-provoking title. Gecan was twenty-seven years old when he painted it and yet the title doesn’t match the ardour of youth, the optimism and a sense of endless possibilities that we might usually tie with that phase of life. The man in the painting looks tired, old and worn-out. His hair, little of what is left, is combed in a strange way, adding to his dishelved appearance. The look on his face is close to a grimace; we can read the turmoil on his face. His lips are sealed tight; he is not the type who would spill his heart out to a stranger in a bar, he is closed-off from the space around him and yet, despite the wall of silence and moodiness he had built, we can sense that this man with an elegant bow-tie is a fragile, sickly and deeply lonely individual. His twisted fingers bring to mind the way Viennese Expressionists such as Egon Schiele and Richard Gerstl would paint the hand. The pose in which he is sitting at the table is contorted and strange as well, certainly looks uncomfortable and agitated. Carefully crafted sense of depth in the painting is reminiscent of many Expressionist paintings and films. You can see from the sketch bellow how Gecan built the sense of depth. The figure of the Cynic takes up most of the canvas and the space around him feels crammed and too small. A feeling of uncertainty and dread hang in the air.

The heavy and muted earthy tones are pulling us down into the abyss along with the Cynic who is cynically reading his newspapers and sitting in his armchair. The manner in which the space around him is painted certainly speaks of Gecan’s knowledge of Cezanne’s art and Cubism, but the overall mood and energy speaks of other, more disturbing currents in art at the time; expressionism, which sought to portray the inner world of the sitter. Gecan’s self-portrait and the space in which he is seated speak volumes about the state of his mind. Furthermore, the newspapers he is reading are called “Der Sturm” and were known for promoting Expressionist art. “The Cynic” is Gecan’s best work and one of the best examples of the Expressionism in Croatian art.

Gecan was, unfortunately, drafted in the First World War, captured in July 1915 and spent the rest of the war in captivity in Sicily. After the war, in 1919, he moved to Prague with his fellow-artist and life-long friend Milivoj Uzelac. Two other artists had been living and working there since the war had started; Vladimir Varlaj and Marijan Trepša. The four artists; Gecan, Uzelac, Varlaj and Trepša make the “Group of Four”; a group of artists who worked in Prague at the same time and returned to Croatia soon after the war. Each artist soaked in the artistic influences in his own way and upon returning home they were a wind of change for the Croatian art scene. In 1921 Gecan held his first solo art exhibition in Zagreb, and in 1922 he already, restless and eager for experiences, found himself in Berlin.

Gecan was described by people who knew him as a gentle, slightly aloof, tidy and elegant man so his perception and portrayal of himself as a cynic may imply less a personality trait and more an acquired realisation of the way the world and society is. This was the man who had experienced the horrors of war and the following disillusionment with everything he believed in, it brings to mind the well-known saying of George Carlin: “Inside every cynical person is a disappointed idealist.” And it also makes me think of Georg Grosz’s portrayal of the world and that of other Neue Sachlichkeit painters. Gecan’s slightly deformed figure and face are perhaps a mirror to the degeneracy of the society around him. Nothing is the same for him. Having once tastes the bitter taste of disappointment on his tongue he cannot go back to painting idyllic landscapes and classical beauty.

Vilko Gecan, The Cynic, sketch from the Zenit magazine

A sketch for this painting appeared in the avant-garde Dadaist magazine called “Zenit” which was published in Zagreb (1921-1924) and then in Belgrade (1924-1926). The magazine promoted the newest and most rebellious art from all over Europe as well as a concept of the Balkan’s barbaric-genius painter. They emphasised the power of dreams, spontaneity, and subconciousness, in contrast to the cold and rational academic art.

Miroslav Kraljević – Paris Years (1911-1912)

16 May

Miroslav Kraljević, Rest, 1912

In September 1911 a young Croatian painter Miroslav Kraljević arrived in Paris; the city which lured artists from all over Europe and gave them all a welcoming embrace. He settled in a little studio in Montparnasse; the same place where painters such as Modigliani, Foujita, Chaim Soutine and Marc Chagall lived and worked. In his vibrant and poetic autobiography Chagall describes artists of many different nationalities and  speaking all different languages painted in studios just nearby his. Miroslav Kraljević was just another stranger in the city of art. Although his stay in Paris was very brief; he had returned to his dear homeland in November 1912, the year and two months that he spent there marked the most exciting and daring phase in his career, and also the final one. He died in April 1913 from an illness; he was only twenty-seven years old.

The paintings, watercolours and sketches he created in Paris were an explosion of his creativity and even though some of his friends in Paris, fellow Croatians, had doubts about his work being well-received in artistically conservative Croatia (still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time), the critics in Croatia praised his work for being a true testimony to the spirit of modernism in Croatia. In his short life and short career, Kraljević had gone through many art transformation and his work exhibits many different influences; from that of Edouard Manet and old Spanish painters, to that of Cezanne’s paintings made in Provence, drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, Henri Valloton, paintings of Henri Forain and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Kraljević’s pastel titled “Rest” from 1912 beautifully shows how the painter was inspired by the art of Toulouse-Lautrec. A woman is seen resting, lying on the bed with her legs in over-the-knee black stockings dangling over the bed. Her beautifully shaped body dressed in a grey dress seems almost lifeless, and her eyes, looking in a distant spot on the ceiling, add to the eeriness. Her pose and her garments are something that Toulouse-Lautrec would have certainly approved of. I love how the grey colour of her dress almost transcends into soft lavender shades. There is also an exciting contrast between the sketchy part of the drawing and the beautifully painted arms and torso where Kraljević achieved the illusion of volume.

Miroslav Kraljević, Apres, 1912

Another pastel, “Apres”, shows a very similar theme; the woman lying on the sofa, again wearing black stockings, but this time nude, is seen covering her face and perhaps her blushing cheeks. Maybe she is hiding from the painter’s gaze. Again, I love the contrast between sketchy and finished. A very different work from Paris is the watercolour “In the Cafe” which shows a man and a woman, both elegantly dressed, sitting in the Parisian cafe. The contrast of he woman’s very pale face and her dark blue coat is very striking.

Even though Kraljević’s paintings such as these were almost scandalously modern and free-spirited for the art circles of the provincial Croatia, his style was actually lagging behind the art trends. In spirit, Kraljević was a man of the fin de siecle; he loved women, female beauty and perfume, eroticism; he was moody, nervous and had frail nerves, he was an aesthete, a follower of the cult of Beauty to the very end. Even on his deathbed he asked for champagne and a comb so he could, quoting him, “die beautifully and – die beautiful”. The soft curves of the female body were dearer to him than rectangles of Cubism, the golden glow of streetlamps and carriages more appealing to him than the speed and ugliness of modern life.

His love of the very recent past (at the time) was equaled with his faithful love for his homeland, it was almost a romantic and sentimental attachment to the meadows and hillsides of his country, even the streets of Zagreb were dearer to him that those of Paris. He was a man who had narrowly missed out on the age which suited his spirit more and, disappointed like a person who’s train had just left the station without him, Kraljević worked with an almost frantic determination and neuroticism, desperately trying to make up for lost times. His fire developed quickly and was extinguished equally so. In some symbolic way, his death in 1913 is very fitting because it is the year just before the First World War had started, it marked the end of an era.

Miroslav Kraljević, In the Cafe, 1912

Josip Račić – Watercolours: Paris Through the Eyes of a Stranger

3 May

We begin a new month – the pink, flowery and sweet May – with a new artist; Croatian painter Josip Račić (1885-1908) and the watercolours he painted during his brief stay in Paris in 1908.

Josip Račić, Park Luxembourg, 1907

On 10th February 1908, young Croatian artist Josip Račić arrived in Paris. Five months later he was found death in his room. A suicide. A mystery which gave birth to the romanticised myth of this tortured genius’s life. In his short yet turbulent artistic career, from humble beginnings to education in Munich and lastly, his short Parisian period, Račić, having died at the age of twenty-three, managed to create enough works to become a crucial figure for the development of Croatian Modern art and to pave way for the artists who followed.

Račić was born in a village near Zagreb in 1885 and attended grammar school for a short period after deciding to fully delve into lithography. In 1904 he was already studying in Munich with a well known professor Anton Ažbe, an eccentric yet generous man fighting his own demons whilst always willing to help a student in need; both financially and in motivation. While there, he became a part of the “Croatian School” formed by three fellow art students from Croatia who would later become renewed artists in the early twentieth century. Račić’s family, especially his father, never supported his artistic ambitions so we can guess that his time in Munich was a time of freedom.

There was always an air of mystery around his persona; moody and sensitive, brutally honest with himself and others, he found it hard to develop deep and sincere friendships. He undoubtedly felt misunderstood, and many have for sure mistaken his honesty with arrogance. It wasn’t long that he started being bored with Munich and longed to get acquainted with the art of Paris, to broaden his views, to learn and to create. Determined that his art will thrive if brought in contact with the new currents, in autumn of 1907 Račić decided to go to Paris.

Josip Račić, Café on the boulevard, 1908

In February 1908 he was in Paris and the world of art was opening before his eyes. A boy from the provinces lost in the light and shine of the big city; wandering the wide boulevards, observing people, instantly finding inspiration for his paintings. It’s interesting that he chose the medium of watercolours to portray this fascinating new world that was opening before his eyes, because the paintings he made in Munich and Zagreb were mostly oil on canvas works. Perhaps it’s only the watercolour that can truly capture the light of the street lamps as it spills on the dark dirty pavements, the gloominess of parks and mask-like faces of strangers. Indeed, something that connects all of Račić’s works from his Parisian phase are the shadowy figures of passers-by, often in dark colours with faces that show no individualistic characteristics, but this isn’t Kirchner’s frenzy and anticipation of catastrophe, there is more subtlety and lyrical beauty about these street scenes. There is often a voyeuristic touch to his watercolours; people chatting in parks and being watched by a pair of artistic eyes.

Josip Račić, In the Park, 1908

“In the Park” is a bit merrier than the other watercolours, in terms of colour palette. In a vertical composition, a few closely-cropped female figures are shown in middle of a conversation in the park. The perspective almost looks like photography. Underneath shades of red, light green and yellow, which are refreshingly vivid for a change, we can see Račić’s pencil sketch. How exciting! Račić often seems to ignore all the dreamy and lyrical abilities of watercolour as a medium and still retains his figures painted with stability and volume, he is still hesitant to free with brushstrokes even more. Paris is inviting him to surrender, in colour and in form, and this gives birth to a certain agitation, hopelessness, anxiety….

Josip Račić, On the Boulevard, 1908

Josip Račić, On the Boulevard, 1908

Both watercolours “One the Boulevard” are interesting street-scenes with people sitting on benches and chatting. Figures in both paintings are painted in simplified forms, dark and shadowy, and compositions are horizontal with diagonal lines on the left that divide the areas of light and shadow. People are sitting in the shadow, and just a step away from their gloomy little worlds there are vivid lights of street lamps.

Josip Račić, On the Seine, 1908

Painting “On the Seine” is such a lyrical little masterpiece; a large portion of the painting is devoted to the bridge which is painted in murky shades of blue, green and brown, and then underneath the bridge we see two human figures by the shore, painted like blots, and behind them the Seine stretches on and on, sorrowful and tired. Račić’s watercolours all have melancholy woven through them, in colours and in compositions. Scenes of isolation where people are presented but are distant, unapproachable, strangers because he was a stranger; distant because he felt distant from everyone. No place was a home and Paris didn’t offer the magic potion of happiness and artistic inspiration that he sought. These street scenes and landscapes with lonely human figures are paintings which show the interior of his soul; this was his vision of Paris because he felt that way. No trace of Fauvism or Cubism; art movements that were all the rage in Paris at the time. Just coldness, loneliness, sorrow.

Josip Račić, Pont des Arts, 1908

A curiosity amongst these delightful and sombre watercolours is this oil on canvas work “Pont des Arts” which has a mood of sadness and fatigue; a tired river that flows slowly, a bridge that leads nowhere, a shadowy figure by the shore, empty sky… Then, out of nowhere, the end of this little watercolour-Parisian Renaissance; Račić is found dead in his room in Rue abbé Gregoire number 48. That day, 20th July 1908, Račić was suppose to meet his two Croatian friends, painter Paola Broch and her friend Mrs Schmidt, for dinner. A revolver which he used was a gift from his friend in Munich and it was brand new. Ruby red roses were found still sitting languorously on the fireplace, spreading a dazzling perfume around the room, wrapping the dead body in a veil of dreams.

The reasons for this remain unclear, for at the time of his suicide his career was going well; he had just been given a scholarship, had sold a few paintings and was just about to go to a painting-trip to Brittany. However, there are many suggestions from his painter colleagues and writers of the time. The most notable suggestion being that he was in a artistic-spiritual crisis when he realised how belated his art was and how he was to old to change the course of his art, a feeling of arriving to late to Paris. Some suggested it was connected with his love life, or that he had syphilis. I certainly don’t know, but the first suggestion seems the most obvious to me; a moment of despair taken too far. He was just twenty-three and everything was in front of him.