Painter’s remedy for inner wounds

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“After Auschwitz it is barbaric to write poetry,” wrote the German thinker Theodor Adorno. If he had cast doubts on the future of figurative painting after the Holocaust he would have been more accurate. In the aftermath of the second world war, artists grasped abstraction with the urgency of those whose former tools were useless in a landscape where, to quote Yeats, “All changed. Changed utterly.”

A handful of the old guard – Matisse, Picasso, Chagall – clung to a faith in realism but few would deny that their glory days were over. Beyond Bacon, Freud and Balthus, few of the new generation found a figurative vocabulary that was convincing. One who did was the Slovenian painter Zoran Music. The fact that he was also a survivor of Dachau – and painted what he saw there with chilling, visceral power – makes his fidelity to representation all the more compelling.

The first major exhibition since his death in 2005 at the age of 96, this show concentrates on the last 30 years of his life, with just a small gallery devoted to earlier work. The lack of breadth is a shame because although Music’s later paintings are undoubtedly his masterpieces, their significance is only fully comprehended when seen in the context of his entire oeuvre.

After decades of landscapes, and an unhappy flirtation with abstraction in the 1960s, the 1970s saw Music confront his experience in the camp. The ensuing cycle, “We Are Not the Last”, proved a catalyst for his later studies of the human figure. These brave, poetic, existential explorations mark him out as a great artist. Yet, save for an expressionist tremor in his emotive lines, they adhere to no particular movement.

The originality of Music’s vision has echoes in his mongrel roots. Born in Gorizia in 1909, when the town – which borders Italy and Slovenia – was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he grew up in a culture as Mitteleuropean as it was Mediterranean. A spell in Vienna after the first world war introduced him to the work of Klimt, Schiele and Kafka. After studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb, he spent a year in Spain where he passed days in the Prado copying Goya and El Greco.

Returning home before the civil war, he went to Dalmatia, where he fell under the spell of the Carso, the stony landscape with “tiny oases of red earth like a vineyard, or a bush of violet lavender”.

In 1944, while Music was in Venice visiting his fiancée Ida Barbarigo – herself a noted painter – he was arrested by the Gestapo on suspicion of anti-Nazi activity. Imprisonment in Dachau followed. When he returned, sick and traumatised, he married Ida and moved to Venice. For the next 20 years, Music painted the outer landscapes – Venice, the Carso – that were perhaps the best remedy for his inner wounds.

As seen in “Dalmatian Motif” (1948) and “Horses Passing” (1948), one of his recurrent images is that of horses drifting across the Carso. The gaucheness – stick-legged equines, humpy hills, depthless horizons – and the blend of warm ochres and cold violet-blues give these paintings the air of sublime dreamscapes. But this whimsical vision existed in tension with a darker sensibility. It’s a pity there are no Sienese landscapes from the same period on show. Bleaker and more muted than their Dalmatian counterparts, they are important precursors of the stripped-down later works.

In 1952, Music moved to Paris and found himself surrounded by the potent abstraction of painters such as Hartung, Wols and Fautrier. For a while he seemed to lose his way, blurring his landscapes into abstractions of hazy, floating shapes that lacked either vigour or poetry. Then, in 1970, impelled by a realisation that the genocide “we thought could never happen again, was happening again”, he painted the cycle “We Are Not the Last”, based on his experience in Dachau.

Essentially, what Music portrays are skeletal bodies, sometimes entire, sometimes limbs and skulls, sometimes alone, sometimes in terrible, inhuman piles. He frames these desperate figures against untreated canvases stained with black and white oil. Occasionally, a faint, sinister blush of red or purple disturbs the desert of neutral tones. The frail line owes something to Schiele but the hollow eyes and toothless, gaping mouths hark back to Goya’s Black Paintings.

The completion of “We Are Not the Last” freed Music to confront the human figure, a subject he had rarely touched before. From then on, he devoted himself to studies of his wife Ida, self-portraits and anonymous male figures whom he acknowledged as reflections of himself. “I don’t paint others because I don’t know them,” he said. With her narrow Byzantine face, Ida has a hieratic dignity. Yet the froth of auburn hair – and in one instance a glorious, fathomless teal swathe of dress – anchor her in the quotidian.

Unlike Freud, Bacon and Balthus, Music showed little interest in the flesh itself. In “We Are Not the Last”, emaciated limbs bear witness to starvation. Afterwards, his portraits resolve into luminous faces and hands while the bodies dissolve into shadowy, amorphous auras.

Although Adorno later retracted his condemnation of poetry he went on to express a profound lack of faith in philosophy. The only hope for critical reason, he opined, was for it to be tempered by humility. “If thought is not measured by the extremity that eludes the concept, it is from the outset in the nature of the musical accompaniment with which the SS liked to drown out the screams of its victims.”

With its oscillating, unfinished line and parched, tenuous spaces, the art of Music acknowledges this elusive extremity, and so casts new light on the last century.

Until March 7, www.zoranmusic.it

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