Faces are like books. Life span fills the face, that relentless tide of life, and before the water recedes, I record everything in colour. Eugen Varzić
After a magnificent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art Dubrovnik where Eugen Varzić presented his rich 2016-2021 oeuvre, the exhibition The End brings an intimate selection of works created exclusively during the lockdown. The COVID-19 pandemic has globally changed the dynamics of the entire world, and life as we knew it has literally been put on hold. But despite the many negative consequences, lockdown forced us to stop and smell the flowers. In the pursuit of big goals and desired accomplishments, we often tend to forget the most important thing – how to live. Lockdown really forced us to stop rushing recklessly and doing things by inertia and encouraged us to look at our own lives, family and friends and that everything we have, material and immaterial, we do not take for granted, but appreciate every moment, fully aware of the fact that under the new circumstances actually everything can disappear overnight. In the context of the fruitful and rich work of Eugen Varzić, the pandemic had a negative impact on the artist’s work by postponing a number of planned projects in Croatia and abroad, but at the same time opened the possibility of developing his own painting story. Namely, in the last two years of his life underchanged circumstances, Varzić did not stop his artistic work, but changed his approach and continued to work with dedication. The new circumstances brought by the global pandemic have formed a new vision of the world, new rules and new ways of communication, interaction, socializing and exchange of information, impressions and opinions. Varzić used lockdown time for everyday painting, while the imposed isolation went to the artist’s advantage, because loneliness is necessary for creation, and the creative process itself helped the author to distance himself from the noise of extremely contradictory and negative news and information we were exposed to on a daily basis. While new technologies and social networks enabled maximum virtual connectivity and networking, Varzić continued to create and communicate primarily through his works. While in the early stages of the cycle presented he selected and painted foreigners he would find through social networks, during the pandemic the artist focused on family, friends and acquaintances whom he would invite to his studio and photograph their faces which would then, in further work, became the starting point for the emergence of a new work. The change in the approach and selection of the model was very much felt in the final work. His paintings from the beginning of the cycle represent a note of often unknown individuals, where the author himself weaved meaning and content based on provided visual and physical guidelines, but by selecting family membersclose and familiar people through socializing and interaction in real, not virtual space, he opened a completely new world in which the artist absorbs energy, remembers the expressive facial expressions and captures the desired frame with a camera, and weaves into the work the personality, story and con- tent that was realized during the socializing in the studio.
It is important to point out that the recorded frame, i.e. the selection of photographs, is only the starting point from which Varzić creates his work. Namely, the author chooses people who can tell his story, but avoiding a literal interpretation. Brave individuals thus become the main actors in the experiment where the artist puts the models in different roles, takes photo of them and through communication and gesticulation receives their energy and gets to know their personal story. The visual starting point develops and becomes more complex during the process of making the work by Varzić weaving his own content into the told story, forming a unique context and thought. Ultimately, the author, as he himself points out, paints life.
An old folk proverb says that ‘knowing oneself is the beginning of wisdom’, and knowing oneself and forming a concept about oneself through one’s own thoughts and beliefs requires a direct turn to property in order to explore oneself from the inside out. One of the rare self-portraits in this exhibition, First Days of Madness, testifies the process of selfknowledge. The self-portrait, which multiplies as the main centrally positioned character with a crown on his head follows a series of other, smaller, vanishing and emerging interpretations with a range of different facial expressions, speaks of a range of emotional and mental states an individual is capable of going through and surviving under extraordinary circumstances. These are the most intimate insights we can reach by plunging into the depths of our own thoughts, feelings and actions, and going through this process through communication with ourselves, but also with models and their personal stories, Varzić really paints life in its sincerity and nakedness with the aim of displacing the observer outside his own comfort zone and leading him to a series of questions that the author too asked himself, and he found the answers through the process of creation.
The portraits are mostly frontally positioned with a direct view of the observer. Even when the head is slightly raised or in half profile, eye contact is present, and a wide range of pronounced facial expressions nonverbally communicates with the observer through embodied emotions, states, and thoughts. The author usually selects close-ups, focusing on a key segment of the face, while the rest continues in the observer’s thought process. Portraits range from an extremely calm face and a focused focus (Yohanan Ha’Matbil, Merjema, Last Nights, Crossfade, Sleepless Angel, Star of the Sea, Rock and Roll) to very often maximally emphasized facial expressions and gestures of the model (Davide, Sirens, Coming back to life, Heroin). A wide range of interpretations continues through achromatic and extremely minimalist depictions (Bella Ciao, Christian, Missed) through almost monochromatic solutions with a single accent in a different colour (Last lights, Testa matta, Crossfade, Star of the Sea) all the way to fully coloristic expressions (Merjema, Sirens, Heroin). The richness of colours, shapes and different textures expressed through clothing, make-up and fashion accessories makes a kind of artistic and semantic complement of the embodied character and the interpreted story. Compared to earlier portraits, the richness of over emphasized make-up, jewellery, tattoos and other elements that enrich the story, move away from reality and build their own world of possibilities and experiences by delving into the subconscious and repressed. While ancient official portraits marked the status, reputation and position of power in society, Varzić’s portraits are free, honest, experimental and show the other side of our personality – not only the decent and polished, i.e. a kind of mask we wear and with which we perform in public, but also the weird, relaxed, silly, funny, ironic, disappointed, sad, resigned, angry, melancholic, thoughtful, rebellious, wiggly, cheeky and playful side… i.e. all faces and all layers of personality that make us unique.
On the one hand, the works are a kind of nostalgia for the past that we remember by getting to know each other, socializing and gaining new experiences imbued with a sense of carefreeness and freedom. Most mode- ls carry an aura of getting out of the dark, i.e. getting out of the loud and smoky spaces of clubs that no longer exist in this ‘new’ world. Elements such as make-up, jewellery and clothing are a revolt against a major sociological problem that arose during the pandemic, and which mostly affected young people deprived of the most beautiful times of growing up with music, going out, first crushes and loves. Varzić most often takes his daughter as a symbol for today’s youth who grow up closed and deprived of human touch and social interaction. The rage and anger of young people and the longing for life that is blocked overnight is interpreted through a series of works. And while Last Lights artistically evokes the atmosphere of the last lights before morning reflecting on the face of a person coming out of the night, the monochrome Crossfade goes a step further and represents a psychological moment of transition from pure happiness and pleasure in sorrow, i.e. transformation, which occurs when the youth immersed in the night and its magical charms leaves that intoxicating world in the morning with the arrival of light. Although these works refer to the state of the transformed world, they simultaneously speak of humanity, life, youth, old age, hope, aspirations and possibilities. It is worth mentioning the work Future, which, as the name suggests, interprets the vision of the future as seen by the author. A greenish-bluish coldly lit face emerges from the darkness. Eyes like a mirror of the soul mirror our future. It is bloody, fraught and naked, and as such shatters the illusions that we persistently try to build and encourages us to realistically see what awaits us. In addition to a number of portraits and occasional self-portraits, reference should also be made to the ever present landscapes in Varzić’s oeuvre. The landscape in the author’s work most often represents a kind of pause, i.e. a mental pause in the process of completing one and creating the next cycle of works. The night scene of the landscape lit by car lights along the road, as the name suggests, marks the moment of returning home, while Life through extremely muted, dark black-grey tones with only an occasional influx of reddish colour shows a view from the inside out. Through the half-open window, but also the bars, we see nature. It is so close, and yet so far away. The nature we perceive as a return to ourselves in a global pandemic situation and a constant call to ‘stay home’ acts like an elusive dream.
What is intriguing about The End cycle interpreted through the theme of portrait, apart from the artistic features such as the recognizable handwriting and the reflection of the spirit of the time, is the way the artist perceives himself. ‘I do not belong anywhere. At least that’s how I feel, and the feeling is perfect. There is no drawer in which I will be crammed …‘ are the words with which Varzić defines himself, but also the models he chooses for his paintings. They are atypical, characteristic and completely different from each other, which emphasizes the richness and diver- sity of humanity. Just as self-perceptions like the ‘mental mirror’ reflect how we see ourselves, so Varzić’s portraits are not just a mere set of physical traits. They reflect the emotional states, desires and needs, values and roles we hide within. The individual is often torn between reality, desire and expectations, that is, what he really is, what he would like to be and what others expect him to be. Each individual portrait is one story, one page of the author’s intimate diary, and it largely depends on the internal dynamics of the person portrayed – whether it will be shown in the form in which it acts towards the surrounding world or will allow the observer an insight into its own process of self-evaluation.
Varzić’s works are not calming, but they initiate and emphasize movement, engagement and the exchange of thoughts and impressions. They do not provide the final answer, but the impetus for development, movement and relocation from the safe and the known, and the imprint into the unknown. Because every end is also a new beginning.
The exhibition title The End does not literally mean the end, but a change. Each process, including the cycle of works, has its own development course. The End was created under extraordinary circumstances and brought to life and recorded the uniqueness and specificity of the situation in which we found ourselves as individuals, but also as humanity. It will certainly be interesting to reconsider, soak up and view this cycle as the time goes and when we will be able to remotely absorb its content into which we are currently fully immersed.
Sonja Švec Španjol, mag.hist.art.