Not quite an introduction
We seem to know everything about the art of Herman Gvardjančič: that he managed to convey everything about himself and his relationship to the world in the most immediate of all possible ways – through his painting in oil, acrylic, watercolour, and above all, through his drawings. This was complemented by his articulately precise verbal expression (interview published in the Journal ‘2000’, no. 192 – 194, 2007, p.p. 159 – 167 – poet Marko Elsner Grošelj: Passion and the Beauty of Painting/ A Conversation with the Painter Herman Gvardjančič). The painter however always sounds off with some kind of rhetorical question: how far did I really get, what has remained unsaid…
His work was closely followed by numerous writers from the old Yugoslavia (particularly those from Belgrade and Zagreb); in Slovenia, they could almost be put in a kind of generational pecking order. Much less was said about him abroad, which is a kind of paradox, but is also understandable. Herman Gvardjančič was ubiquitous in all home-grown (in the wider, Yugoslav sense) exhibitions of contemporary Slovene (Yugoslav) art abroad; he was however very rarely noted by foreign critics 1 (I can still remember their names: Denis Bowen, Kenneth Couts Smith, Richard Demarco in the ‘70s, followed in the ‘80s and the ‘90s by Achile Bonito Oliva, Lorand Heguy). What they picked up was the locus of his art, in the very heart of the traditional meeting place of Slovene landscapists (ever since Impressionism), that is to say, the Slovene Barbizon- the surroundings of Škofja Loka. The said locus had recently undergone a spring clean, a kind of through draft, particularly as far the painter’s artistic contemporaries were concerned, those who were growing up towards the end of the ‘60s. They knew how to open themselves up to the influences, to take on and adopt Modernism. Equally, they reacted to the post-modern ‘attack’ that followed in the ‘90s with their own, authentic self-expression. Herman Gvardjančič did so most consistently; his expressiveness was ever more profound, while also being innovative. The closing years of the last century saw him take up a positively historic place in contemporary Slovene art.
The fact is that he never sought to be adopted by a gallery owner abroad, as if that did not represent any particular challenge. The reason for this could perhaps be found in his rather reserved character. Full of inner turmoil, he nevertheless always seems to have found a safety valve in his artistic expression that was particularly intimate in nature. As artist, he was bound to his authenticity; being shown abroad as part of a group was of secondary importance to him. He was however always most careful not to enclose himself in an ivory tower of aloofness and incomprehensibility. Herman Gvardjančič thus stayed true to his nature all through his artistic development. It is therefore interesting to note that those early years saw him take every opportunity to visit as many possible places abroad that he thought could offer him some new, hitherto unknown piece of information. 2
There is something else worthy of mention, something that influenced him in his home environment and found its way into his character. Herman was born after his father’s death into a working class family; his father, an engine driver, had been killed by a mine placed on the tracks during the war. His pregnant mother had to find a new home with her sister, Herman’s auntie. Herman was born and grew up in a new, rather basic, timber-built home that he cherished until it crumbled; even then, he managed to salvage the stone portal and make it part of his new house. Was it not precisely that house that etched itself on his memory? Traumatic and beloved, the only refuge of his young years, it started to appear, so much later, in his ‘70s drawings. It is enmeshed in trees, branches, part of his precise but also minimalist mark-making. The topos of those sketches evolved by degrees- from an excited, personal-nostalgic immobility, through highly-strung nervousness, to bizarre expressiveness. His intimate experience is transposed, in sophisticated handwriting, from himself onto another level, that of a life challenge that he does not wish to avoid, indeed cannot avoid, will not avoid till the end… That could be seen as yet another, extremely significant spiritual dimension of the artist’s sensibility and understanding. It, of course, goes hand in hand with his masterly transposition of those into a contemporary visual language which never loses its power of expression. This cannot be bettered by any degree of abstraction; abstraction that Gvardjančič flirted with in his mimetically non-mimetic artistic expression.
The chronology of the Gvardjančič initial appearance on the art stage is clearly marked in history: 1968 is an extremely important year in the turbulent times of this young generation of artists. That is true both for the first home appearance of the conceptual art group OHO, as well as for the nine Young Expressive Figurative Ljubljana Artists (Metka Kraševec, Zmago Jeraj, Lojze Logar, Boris Jesih, Srečo Dragan, Lado Pengov, Bogoslav Kalaš, Kostja Gatnik, Herman Gvardjančič), who first made their mark at an important Belgrade gallery. The ‘70s were equally crucial, as the time when Gvardjančič started to make his name within the Slovene, but above all, within the wider Yugoslav artistic sphere, with successful exhibitions at the Rijeka Youth Biennale (receiving a prize) and at the Zagreb Gallery of Contemporary Art (as one of the Slovene representatives, selected by A.B.). He was also present at smaller, but important artistic centres such as Zrenjanin, Sombor, Čačak, Novi Sad, and, of course, Sarajevo. The same goes for his contribution to the renowned international exhibition Belgrade 77 at the Museum of Modern Art. That is where his work was seen by many critics from abroad, guests of that illustrious institution. Among them were quite a few who had seen Gvardjančič four years previously, as part of the group exhibition at the Škofja Loka Museum, called Landscape as Thematic Preoccupation among Young Slovene Artists (idea by A.B.). This was to accompany the 1973 International Congress of Art Critics (AICA), hosted by Ljubljana, among other places in Yugoslavia. There were international shows at Graz (The International Painting Week), at museums in Edinburgh, Belfast, Dublin, Glasgow (organised by the above mentioned Richard Demarc), in the group comprising Gabrijel Stupica, Zmago Jeraj, Lojze Logar, Herman Gvardjančič, Boris Jesih, Nuša and Sreča Dragan and Marko Pogačnik (selected by A.B.). There were also Brussels, Luxembourg, Rome, Dortmund and Nuremberg, where Gvardjančič was one of the artists representing Yugoslavia. This culminated in his taking part in the Yugoslav pavilion at the 1976 Venice International Biennale, followed by the Mediterranean Biennale in Alexandria in 1978. There was also, of course, the first Gvardjančič watercolour show at the important International Drawings Exhibition at Rijeka in 1978 and his first appearance as watercolourist at the Yugoslav Water-
colour Biennale in Karlovec in 1979, where he was awarded 1st prize. The same year, he was also selected for the international exhibition of drawing at Lisbon. There were one-man exhibitions in Belgrade (1974), Maribor, Koper, Kranj, Celje and finally in Ljubljana alongside Jesih, and then at the Modern Gallery, under the auspices of Atelje 70. That same institution, when mounting the great Slovene Art Exhibition (1945-1978) 3 chose to show only a single work by him, of distinctly academic nature, which must have been a great disappointment to him; they seem not to have taken on board his presence both at the wider Yugoslav shows, as well as the more selected ones bound for exhibitions abroad, particularly at the Venice and the Alexandria Biennali. What can we say? Nemo propheta in patria, or was it the case of myopia on the part of the organisers of this first, specially selected survey of Slovene art, as staged by the most illustrious of the Slovene art institutions? 4
“He is completely devoted to Nature; this is crucial to his mentality and thus, Gvardjančič remains a Romantic. Nevertheless, he is an artist who cannot conceal that he is working in a period that views nature itself from a distance and through an artistic lens. At the time, hyper-realism and photo-realism happened to hold sway. Gvardjančič has no doubts about the label attached to him. He does wonder however what kind of a landscape artist he can be at the time of ubiquitous structuralism and analytical thought, although he most likely never really engaged with studying the theoretical texts concerning those. The fact that not even Gvardjančič ever succumbed to the dominant ‘spirit of the times’ is borne out by his paintings from the early and mid ‘70s.” (Ješa Denegri, catalogue accompanying the survey exhibition 1981-88, p.p. 6-8, Gallery of Modern Art, Ljubljana).
“The pictures are of the elements of air, earth and water. The artist delights to go back to the first chaos of the world, or to that state of things when the waters were separated from the dry land, and light from darkness, but as yet no living thing nor fruit bearing tree was seen upon the face of the earth. All is without form and void. Someone said of his landscapes that they were pictures of nothing and very like” (William Hazlitt about the paintings by J.M.W. Turner)
In his book, Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition; Friedrich to Rothko, the highly respected art historian Robert Rosenblum argues that the above might be applied to the abstract visions of Jackson Pollock, Barnet Newman and Marc Rothko; by analogy, it would also fit the relatively young (although by then 10-years practiced) painting of Herman Gvardjančič. This is and will remain the basic experience of landscape painting, without forever staying bogged down in the basics like colour, pictorial space, format, gesture, analysis of the support, etc. These have been the recent gallery criteria in evaluating the belonging or otherwise of Slovene artists to the school of so-called contemporary painting.
The art of Gvardjančič is in this period characterised mainly by a harmonious artistic reductiveness and neutrality of content that can also be found in “the flat surface covered in paint”. Here, we come face to face with the artist’s individuality, with an active artistic situation, where large square and rectangular formats in dark (black, black-grey) horizontal bands fuse one into the other, to the very last, defined as it is with an edge that appears to be the artist’s concluding gesture. The latter can only find its continuation in giving way to the purest of artistic sensibilities, as it attempts to master the surface of such vast proportions. The colour scheme, only superficially neutral, supports the artist’s superbly tuned feeling for the whole that is the balance between format and colour, seeking compositional harmony.
These considerations lead us to add that it is just such minute, apparently insignificant, even over-stylised analysis of the above mentioned pictorial ordering, that in retrospect imports into his painting a hint of ‘realism’. Gvardjančič tends to resist geometry, while acknowledging a certain atavistic order in nature, a metaphorical reading of the original division of earth or water from heaven, a romantic mentality, born in the midst of the Barbizon that is Škofja Loka. He then contextualises this with new-age ideas such as inertness, loneliness, fictitiousness, in contemporary space and time. This he does with the help of drawing: drawing as a basic sketch, or else as a series of composite drawings on a diagrammatically conceived canvas. His drawing recognises the basic factors: heavy masses in the lower part, with white, pure space above. The square (therefore the ideally perfect) expression of all that, in the midst of an expanse of pure, neutral flat surface, appears as a result of a passing visual stimulus. This leaves us with certain, often repeated, and yet individually perceived and understood situation. That is the reason why we ascribe a cosmological character to the painting by Herman Gvardjančič. (A.B., 1979)
THE EIGHTIES- A NARRATIVE ABOUT MAN
Watercolour and drawing 5 (even the new paintings are essentially just enlarged drawings, but in acrylic on canvas) took Gvardjančič into a new era: “How to continue painting, on the threshold of Post-Modernism, based on my own foundations, but in changed times, both in terms of spirituality and psychological circumstances.”(Ješa Denegri, ibid., p.10).
And so it was that in the eighties, Gvardjančič started to “respond to those tendencies of contemporary art that rejected the norms of Modernism and looked for inspiration in the recent artistic heritage. Therefore, his landscapes are still completely within the Post-Modern idiom, but are also enhanced through the new image of Neo-Expressionism; they are above all pictures that refuse the aesthetics of good taste and rationality, filling the gaps with in-aesthetic expressiveness and irrationality.” (Lilijana Stepančič, ibid., p.24).
The extremely sophisticated, tonal greys of the late ‘70s, associative though they are with organic natural contours, seem to be conjured up on the brink of abstraction. And so, Gvardjančič took this relatively traditionally understood medium of watercolour, saying and expressing everything expected of a watercolour- airiness, vastness, the momentary and passing nature of things, freshness; all this, however, is accompanied with a feeling of drowning, decay, loneliness, hopelessness. He called these works Attempts at Total Watercolour and they seem to demonstrate a strong painterly instinct which supersedes the everyday, obligatory visual stimulus; what appears in front of the viewer is a new iconography, carrier of a deeper idea and content.
The painter still stands in front of nature, yet he is no longer inside it. He starts off from an association with a certain motif which then gets integrated into the expressive grey, atonal expanses, interrupted with white, underlined in black; they seem to be scattering in space. The painter is no longer capable of finding peace; once sated with the brief, sharp and acid phrases, he goes in for large format which instantly gets covered in anthracite black, playfully and skilfully modelled. He starts with two, three diagonal strokes of the brush, with a veritable ‘storm’ of heavy, dark masses. The dark paint does not lose itself in sparkling whites; rather, it speaks of its own saturation.
This period is characterised by the painter’s declaration (Interview, ibid., p.p.164-168) that what really interested him in the ‘80s was, above all, Northern art (that is not American, nor Italian Trans-Avantgardist, A.B.). He mentions the Germans such as Anselm Kiefer, Walter Dahn, Georg Baselitz; in their works, he noticed the alternative something he himself was seeking. “That something was the narrative. The narrative about man.”
And without a doubt, that narrative begins in his drawings. In his drawings, with his pencil which he loves above all other media, the drawing is multilayered and can be any of the following: “…a mere record of a piece of information, then it can be a sketch, or just a hand exercise. What I like best is a finished drawing, a complete work.” (Herman Gvardjančič, ibid., p.165).
The topos of a Gvardjančič drawing is analysed in the Sergej Kapus 1998 retrospective “Slipping Topos” catalogue of the drawings of 1980-1997, (MGLC, Galerija Tivoli): “He encounters the various levels of existence, where he asserts himself with image and where drawings describe his existential experience; the topos is both that of dislocation and withdrawal.” For, “when (H.G.) reduced the rules of clarity and order, he pointed out a delicate problem, which is how to define a motif, how to determine… and reach a sense of orientation in space… doubt is thus central to his drawings. He but signals his landscapes, thus positing his landscape segments into a wider context, into a larger associational cluster and wider register of memory. This is where they pass beyond the level of controlled gaze which could define elements loud and clearly…
“The Gvardjančič understanding of drawing is existentialist. He is most crucially fascinated with optical textures inside the continuum of the picture plane; he confronts a place that is not and cannot be a mere record of fragments and does not waste its energies on how to structure a reflection. And that is the very home of doubt, as his fascination fastens onto what is slipping, fleeing.” 6
In the light or rather the breadth of such a definition, the Gvardjančič drawing emerges as, “a reserved, small plane, yet packed with an interior, dark expressiveness, which then gains a new dimension when transferred onto large canvas; it chimes to our expressed, open emotion. It is immediate, daring and intolerant of any correction of the simple, at times childlike naivety of the work, as it amasses in the paintings, awaiting the next eruption. Highly professional, always meticulously ethical as regards his attitude to unmediated nature, it represents for him a constant offer of possible artistic development, based on something solid, something that is alien to any rationalistic putting on of airs and graces.” (A.B., Naši razgledi, 4th Nov. 1988)
All these more or less theoretical realisations and remarks leave one wanting to shed some light on the contents, or rather, the Gvardjančič “narrative about man”. Can one glimpse it, looking at the endless motifs of Grasses, Landscapes, at the subtitles such as Depressions, Intimacy, Reminiscences, and then also at the motif of the House, and the more specific titles such as The Probable Site of Suicide, The House of Silva the Suicide? Or is perhaps the artist’s own rhetorical question significant (Interview, ibid. p.166): “Why translate all this pain into painting? All that at the time of such superficiality in painting. Somehow bright. Unproblematic. Am I only a recorder of human drama? What kind of problems do I think I am solving at all? Perhaps none. But that is how I am and how I will remain.”
What we are therefore faced with are the “psychograms of the emotional states of the artist; they are spaces where the untamed instincts of man are at large… What Gvardjančič sees in his paintings are the souls of objects, with a life of their own, containing the memory of an event. The constructional silhouettes of houses glow, as if they were sources of energy accumulated God knows how long before.” (Lilijana Stepančič, ibid., p.32). “Gvardjančič has a vision of a landscape as a space incapable of ridding itself of psychic traumas and brings it without mediation onto the physical space of the canvas. The latter then becomes a terrifying screen of gigantic proportions, spreading and opening in all directions like a bottomless, ravenous mouth of Moloch.” (Jure Mikuž, Zbornik Equrne, April 1985).
The concluding thought is therefore completely justified: that the Gvardjančič “psychological membranes” which “have at their disposal a kind of implied elegance and potential nobility” belong to the dark modernism; we are able to “read into them the most tremulous personal experience or traumatic experience, the apparition of a spirit at the edge of a village, as if the landscape itself were stirred and then interiorised by the artist” (Tomaž Brejc, The Dark Modernism, Ljubljana, Cankarjeva založba, 1991)
/This and the numerous glowing artistic reviews led to Gvardjančič being awarded the highest artistic accolade in 1990- the Jakopič Award, which put him among the 23 most eminent artists, from Marij Pregelj and Gabrijel Stupica onwards./
BEING A PAINTER IS A WAY OF LIFE
The transition into the ‘90s and beyond the year 2000 was seamless; formally to start with- gestural expressiveness in painting, which shuns mimetic recognition, all the while his drawing ceaselessly following the impulses of chance reminiscences and visual experiences. The same goes for the contents: on the one hand, there are paintings which “unveil a steady confrontation of unease as a measure of universal unrest”, (Miran Zinaić, Dnevnik, Ljubljana, 22nd Sept. 1994). On the other hand, they are of “paradise lost and found which is the leading light in the painter’s oeuvre. The artist’s wish does not quite lead him to make those the real subject of his work- joy, lust, pleasure, gratification- in his painting of the emotional and the sensual, one could almost say the ‘animal soul’“ (Andrej Medved, Delo, Ljubljana, 29th Sept. 1994). AND the content of the drawing: what one sees are the tiny, croquis-type of sketches, taken as details from the real world, and then again details of serendipitous flights of fancy, minimalised to a (pre)fix or a blurred symbol, like a passing thought from a diary, a diary which takes note of the artist’s resistance to ecological and societal catastrophes. The series of paintings and drawings called Darkness Falls, with their dark-yellow blackness, stand out from the otherwise cheerful purple-blues and warm browns. Cheerful and in a certain way different, marked by a daring, nervous, even shamelessly sensuous pictorial gesture as drawing that knows how to dominate the livid, colour-saturated mass.
“Being a painter is a way of life” (Herman Gvardjančič in Interview, ibid., p.167); a real artist, having reached his maturity, does not attempt to change that.
1 Herman Gvardjančič never had an independent exhibition, in spite of participating in numerous group shows; the exception was in the neighbouring Villach, in the then Yugoslav Centre of Culture and Information in Paris. Also in Paris, he exhibited at the now defunct private gallery ART KO.
2 I recall our travelling together (with Franc Novinc) across West Germany (Cologne, Nuremberg, Munich), where we came across the first FLUXUS, admired the performance by Tadeusz Kantor and harkened to the words of Joseph Beuys, somewhere on the edge of a Cologne pavement.
3 The same fate was suffered by Jesih and Jeraj, while apart from Metka Kraševec and Kostja Gatnik, the other members of the ‘Young Expressive Figurative Ljubljana Artists’ were entirely left out.
4 Gvardjančič later reflected on the decision in a very even way (in 2007, in the above mentioned interview for the Journal ‘2000’): “At the Gallery of Modern Art, abstraction ruled in the main. Abstraction is a very important chapter in painting, and yet I have never ever painted even a single abstract painting. I always stayed within the limits of figurative representation”.
5 The prizes for watercolours and drawings were coming thick and fast: twice at the Yugoslav drawing exhibition in Belgrade, then again the drawing award at Karlovac. and Sombor, and the Gorenjska Prešeren Award and the National Prešeren Fund Award.
These were also times marked by Gvardjančič participating in specialised exhibitions at home and abroad, such as the ‘Triennale of Contemporary Yugoslav Drawing’ at Sombor, the ‘New Image of Drawing’ at Pančevo, the ‘Exhibition of Contemporary Yugoslav Drawing’ in Portugal, in Kairo, at Tampere in Finland, at Rijeka’s ‘International Drawing Exhibition’ and in Paris, at the ‘1st International Festival of Contemporary Drawing’.
6 It is interesting to note that Sergej Kapus initiated the exhibition, mounted in 1991 at the Gallery of Modern Art in Ljubljana, called Image and Matter; among 18 artists, he also included the work by Herman Gvardjančič, in spite what Igor Zabel wrote in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, From the Edge and Beyond/ Slovene Art 1975-1985, p.17): “This abstraction [was really] only a passing version, a time to cleanse and renew the practice of picture making, a version that later led elsewhere (as was the case for example with Gvardjančič, Logar and others)…”