Summoning – B.Lupis
Summoning – B.Lupis

Summoning – B.Lupis

Painter Eugen Varzić is a special characteristic of the Croatian art scene because he has directed his artistic development, or exploratory path, in a different direction. It involves building the artistry of a contemporary Croatian painter on the heritage of current trends in American 20th-century painting. American painting was shaped based on a heterogeneous artistic heritage born from waves of immigration. Contemporary American painting has always been oriented towards naturalism and realism in artistic representation. The tendency to create in the spirit of trompe-l’oeil, drawing on the American philosophical current of pragmatism, has been a constant throughout the 20th century in American art. This is not about illusion – a magical need for reproducing reality, but about giving new meanings to people and objects that surround us in our everyday lives.

Similarly, Varzić follows contemporary artistic considerations of figurative painting, as showcased in the major exhibition “Encounters New Art From Old” held in 2000 at The National Gallery in London. His oeuvre is primarily a dialogue between contemporary painting and a reverence for the tradition of great masters. Varzić is well aware that the myth of modern art being completely detached from tradition, and that artistic heritage does not reflect in contemporaneity, is far from the truth. After all, did not Rubens copy Leonardo’s “The Battle of Anghiari” and Caravaggio’s “Deposition” or early Manet emulate Titian, Tintoretto, Velázquez, and Delacroix? He does not resort to classical models like Malcolm Morley, Alfred Leslie, Lucian Freud, Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, or Paula Rego. His empathy for old masters is different – they are not a medium for creating a contemporary version of an old composition; instead, he sees them as great role models, possessing elevated spirituality. He is not merely encountering them; he is a follower of the spiritual essence of artistic endeavor, openly emphasizing the need for artistic development based on the tradition of great masters and elevating artistic technique to enable greater artistic freedom. Artistic freedom exists only when the artist confidently masters their artistry in the thought process of artistic creation.

In this uncertain everyday life, awaiting new times, the disappearance of all scruples makes us wonder if there are people capable of change. With a cynical smile, we mention the word “conversion.” Perhaps there was only one “conversion” in human history that produced a profound change in spiritual values and wrote new pages of history. The artistic “conversion” is something entirely different, a conversion of material nature. But through the development of spirituality, the artist truly experiences his “conversion,” and the new artistic cycle becomes his confession.

Painter Varzić, driven by a strong respect for matter and painterly tradition, as well as the search for new paths, truly follows the teachings of St. John of Damascus (676 – 749): “I do not honor matter, but the Creator of matter, who became matter for my sake and deigned to dwell in matter and accomplish my salvation through matter. Therefore, I will not stop honoring matter by which my salvation has come. But I will in no way honor it as God! (…) Do not insult, therefore, matter; it does not deserve contempt, for nothing that God has made is contemptible.” Tin Ujević wrote in one of his essays on art: “Art is, after all, the opposition of order without a soul, and opposition without order (…)”

By respecting order and matter, like few Croatian artists have, Varzić achieved a distinguished sacred cycle, but he is also a great critic of contemporary social movements, and his art serves as a critique of the society he lives in. His art is not merely a reason unto itself, but a visual resistance of society in crisis. Unlike the earlier mentioned Alfred Leslie, who depicted the American “democratic” experience through his Caravaggesque realism of monumental genre painting, Varzić’s work is closer to the art of Chuck Close and dramatized oversized portraits.

Certainly, Varzić’s artistic journey involved various accumulations of artistic education, aspirations, and searches, and broadly, the American-oriented current of figurative painting led him to his latest artistic cycle initiated in 2016. It all began with the portrait of “None” (Sunday), which appeared in an earlier artistic cycle called Noir. However, the figure of “None” – a person with whom the artist had a special emotional bond – opened entirely new worlds and led him on new artistic paths, guiding him, like the archangel Raphael guiding young Tobias, towards the freedom of creation.

The future will show that Varzić’s “None” (Sunday) became an artwork that introduced Croatian contemporary painting into a new endeavor of artistic exploration on the horizon of the European art scene. The wisdom of a woman who survived all the changes in Istria during the 20th century, from fascism that suffocated the Croatian spirit of the Istrian land, to communism entering Istria through the Croatian liberation struggle for freedom, and suppressing the universal Catholic humanism through the murder of Blessed Bulešić. Departures without return, arrivals of new people, “None” – the personification of Croatian Istria observed, leaning on a washing machine with an ordinary kitchen towel on it. That towel covers the past; deposits of monstrous inscriptions, the Divorce of Istria, plagues, wars, exodus – they are the codes of the memories of the “Holy Wisdom.” None is the Holy Wisdom – the Holy Sophia of Istria. Like Grant Wood with his painting “American Gothic,” Varzić has created a cult image of the state of Croatian identity in Istria and the historical burden of the 20th century – through the eyes of a woman, a guardian of the hearth and tradition. This is not the tired Europe from the previous cycle; it is a cult figure of a woman interpreted through a contemporary visual language, where the banality of the scene is elevated to the throne of timeless spirituality.

This painting is the key to understanding the new artistic cycle, which emerged as the result of artistic growth through Eloy Morales’ art workshop in Spain and constant independent development of artistic abilities, as well as contemplation of the moment in which one lives and creates. Figurative painting is considered by many as a certain form of elitism, sometimes avant-garde, but also as isolation from the main currents in contemporary art. For too long, the Croatian contemporary art scene has been isolated from numerous artistic circles within the Western European art ecumenism, despite boasting about its openness to artistic currents in the former system during the second half of the 20th century. Varzić’s artistic path is a definite testimony of seeking renewed connections with contemporary European artistic avant-garde, particularly within the circles of the highest-quality visual artists.

First and foremost, Varzić’s two landscapes: “Departure of the City” and “Ordinary Day” were done in the manner of American precisionists, leaning towards Cubist realism. This American artistic direction deals with urban themes, reducing and analyzing the form of monumentalized ordinary visual subjects. Some of the members of this artistic movement are: Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth, Morton Schamberg, Preston Dickinson, and Rolston Crawford. Like pop art artists, the precisionists of the 1920s and 1930s painted modest objects, streets, as metaphors of moral integrity. The line of real modesty, humility, and artistic honesty is a constant element of Varzić’s painting. Through visual themes from everyday life, we can discern self-discovery along the lines of American painter Andrew Wyeth, who masterfully depicted the world around him in solitude and isolation, creating a unique poetics of solitude. Varzić’s painterly themes from everyday life echo the tranquility found in the works of numerous American artistic schools, like the peaceful landscapes of Keith Jacobshagen. The tranquil silence, without echoes, leads us into a different world without confusing sensations and colors. The art of Andrew Wyeth could most closely be associated with earlier artistic cycles in Varzić’s painting, with its muted gamut and stylized landscapes.

Eugen Varzić draws inspiration from the tradition of American painting, and through the American artistic dynasty of the Wyeths, we can find the guiding thought through which Varzić develops his own artistry. In particular, Andrew’s son, James Wyeth (1946), who began his career as a visual artist with a posthumous portrait of John F. Kennedy (1967), created through a thorough study of J.F.K.

It is worth mentioning again that Eugen Varzić belongs to a group of painters who transcend national borders and are closest to the phenomenon of new realism and new portraiture in American art after World War II, as we previously highlighted, with Jamie Wyeth as their most significant representative. Both of them also have experience in war – one in the Vietnam War and the other in the Croatian War of Independence. The similarity in character and artistic spirit is more than evident. Varzić is an artist who listens to the world around him and seeks to capture the things that interest him, as painting is a way of recording the world for him – it is his world. Painting is his personal diary. Painter Jamie Wyeth stated in one of his interviews that painting is his way of thinking, just as playing the piano is for a pianist. According to him, an artist should practice every day, struggle with the emptiness of the canvas. Similarly, we can say that Varzić is a painter of truth, just like the thesis put forth by Romain Rolland in his novel about Michelangelo: “The science of truth and the art of truth have always existed and will always exist.”

Similarly, Eugen Varzić, like Jamie Wyeth, is constantly seeking new artistic techniques and is oriented towards experimentation. Eugen’s self-portrait 45 belongs to the pinnacle of this genre in contemporary Croatian visual arts. Just like Jamie Wyeth, who placed American painting in a prominent position of portraiture as a painterly response to social issues in his portraits of Andy Warhol in 1976 and John F. Kennedy in 1967, Varzić, through exceptional artistic technique in his portrait, conveys concern for the future. His gaze suggests to the observer that many things are still unresolved, and many processes of national catharsis remain unfinished. Self-portraits in painting, from the Renaissance and Baroque periods to the present day, are the most intriguing because the artist critically observes himself in the reflection of reality.

The artist’s wife, Romana, along with their children and acquaintances, are constant models and are transformed into new imaginary worlds. Certainly, the two portraits of Romana as Romana orans (Invocation) and Romana femme fatale (Winter) form an interesting diptych in his new cycle. Romana, with her eyes fixed on the sky, hands clasped in the manner of the contemporary Armenian-American painter Tigran Tsitoghdzyan, highlights the reality of a mother and wife in a harsh reality, much like his grandmother, reflecting the Istrian Croat – the guardian of the hearth. This pop-artistic imposition is an upgrade of contemporary sacredness, inheriting from the great masters of the early periods who created new iconography. In contrast, fatal Romana becomes an observer of the world she faces every day, from a corrupt state apparatus to family struggles, and in the illusion of glamour, she becomes the queen of her own world. With his masterful artistic technique, which many envy, painter Varzić has set new canons of postmodern iconography through his total portraits.

The series of portraits (Joel, Summer, Fire, Twins, Lisbon) of his family and acquaintances suggest a lasting interest in the process of questioning intimacy, as the artist, in conversation with the model, can achieve a creative rapport. Similarly, American painter Jamie Wyeth underwent the same process in the 1960s while painting his father, Andrew. For Varzić, painting is his diary, a constant struggle with the blank canvas and a search for new challenges that have opened a new chapter in Croatian contemporary painting. His completely separate course led him into American artistic streams through independent development that he carried within himself, surrounded by friends and absorbing the best European experiences, achieving a painting technique worthy of the old masters.

The artistic act is always an act of generosity, and Varzić’s world is a hortus conclusus of sincere understanding of art as a place to preserve artistic values in a contemporary way, in the spirit of contemporary lyrical figurative realism. Someday in the future, it would be interesting to see a joint exhibition of portraits by Tigran Tsitoghdzyan, Eloy Morales, and Eugen Varzić. This question for the future is also the framework in which the painter Eugen Varzić creates, a platform for exploring the poetics of the human figure as an eternal enigma, a lasting challenge that he records on the faces of family members, acquaintances, and his heroes – “Heroes of Our Time,” as the Russian writer M. J. Lermontov would say.

Vinicije B. Lupis

[1] Jules David Prown, American Painting From Its Beginnings to the the Armory Show, Skira/Rizzoli, Geneva, 1987, 7 – 9.

[2] Barbara Rose, American Painting The Twentieth Century, Skira/Rizzoli, Geneva, 1986., 7.

[3] Richard Morphet, Katalog izložbe: Encounters New Art From Old, London, 2000., 1 – 336.

[4] Contra imaginum calumniatores, I, 16, izd. Kotter, str. 89-90

[5] Barbara Rose, o.c., 136 – 138.

[6] Briony Fer, David Batchelor, Paul Wood, Realism, Rationalism, Surrealism, Yale University Press, New Haven&London,  1993, 1.

[7] Barbara Rose, o.c., 34.

[8] Barbara Rose, o.c., 48 – 49.

[9] E.P. Richardson, Painting in America From 1502 to the present, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York, 1965, 420.

[10] Skupina autora (Jules David Prown, Nancy K. Anderson, William Cronon, Brian W. Dippie, Martha A. Sandweiss, Susan Prendergast Schoelwe, Howard R. Lamar), Discovered Lands Invented Pasts, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1992, 190 – 192.

[11] Joan Carpenter Troccoli, Painters and the American West, Yale University Press, Singaopre, 2003.187 – 188.

[12][12] Betsy James Wyeth, Wyeth at Kuerners,  Press of A. Colish, Inc., Mt. Vernon, New York, 1976, 1- 324.

[13]J.  Duff,  An American Vision: Three Generations of Wyeth Art. Boston, 1987, : Little Brown & Company,  57.

[14] Romain Rolland, Michelangelo, Zagreb, 1940., 17.