Tag Archives: magical realism

Vladimir Varlaj – Red House

10 Oct

Vladimir Varlaj, Red House, 1923

A lonely and mysterious pink house with red windows. Tall crooked trees. A passing train. There is an inexplicable loneliness about this autumnal scene which is very captivating to me. The loneliness is combined with vibrant, almost cheerful colours and this combination gives a sense of strangeness, uneasiness even. The contrast confuses and charms both at once. Strangeness is seeping from all sides of this canvas. Even the viewpoint is strange; we are seeing the scene as if we were standing on the hill, above the railway and the house, hidden behind the trees, or maybe we are one of them. The bare crooked trees come alive in the autumn wind, contorting and stretching their thin branches in all directions, their branches are like long arms trying to grab the stars. The soft gradience of the colours, pink mixing with orange and purple, is flying through the canvas from the unknown misty distances to the foreground, and it looks as if the colour is being carried by the wind. Varlaj transformed what might have otherwise been a drab, depressing scene into an almost magical realism landscape which is more a landscape of the soul than that of nature. The ecstatic pink colour is unsettling, like the laugh of a madman. It has the opposite effect than we might expect from dainty color pink. The red windows on the house are a nice contrast against the pink walls, but the place where the doors ought to be are a hollow space that will suck you in if you come too close, like the mouth opened in a scream in Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream”. And the motif of a train at night passing by without stopping through the strange landscape is perhaps a symbol of the man’s transience, of the passing of life, of the arrival of death.

Vladimir Varlaj (1895-1962) was a Croatian painter and a member of the Group of Four or the Prague Four; the four artists who worked and lived in Prague for a while during and right after the First World War. I have already written about another artist from this group Vilko Gecan here. In 1911 Varlaj started studying in the private school of the Croatian painter and graphic artist Tomislav Krizman, then he studied at the college of Arts and Crafts in Zagreb. In 1915 he was sent to the Russian front and in 1918 he was in Prague. In the 1920s he was back in Croatia, working with passion and eagerness, but sadly, after 1933 he was no longer able to paint because of his illness. The critics and art historians have had a hard time placing Varlaj into a distinct art movement, for his landscapes at times have elements of Expressionism and other times of magical realism. There is an influence of the German New Objectivity painter Alexander Kanoldt whose landscapes had a similar unsetting and strange appeal, but also, without a doubt, Varlaj was painting the state of his soul when he was painting a landscape which is something that the German Romantic Caspar David Friedrich was a big proponent of. Some of Varlaj’s landscapes are more tame, continuing the tradition of Croatian landscapes. But other, such as the “Red House” are more moody and romantic, and filled with visual elements that add to the drama such as the nocturnal setting, lonely house by the railway, a passing train, bare trees; the desolation of late autumn is perfectly encapsulated in this painting, and so is the desolation of the artist’s soul. Varlaj was known for destroying his artworks in moments of depression and disillusionment so we are lucky that this amazing painting survived the painter’s madness.