All that life's sower sows and death's scythe takes.”

Ivan Goran Kovačić, The Pit (translation Alec Brown)

The exhibition War is a formal continuation of the magnificent success achieved by the 2008 presentation of Murtić's oeuvre at the Sarajevo City Hall. It faces the ambitious task of matching and surpassing the criteria and proportions established by a social event par excellence, in Sarajevo announced to the public as a self-imposed operative level of the emerging Murtić Foundation.

While the Sarajevo exhibition also included a selection of iconic oils on canvas in large dimensions, the display in Zagreb’s Art Pavilion encompasses only Murtić’s drawings. For the first time at a single venue, and in some segments for the first time at all, given the opportunity to view Murtić’s cycles inspired by wartime destruction during the second half of the last century, which Murtić created at an increasing pace after 1984, although they have not received enough attention so far. At the very beginning of the Foundation’s activities, it became evident that only an in-depth study of his legacy under its supervision will completely round up the profile of not only one of the most important domestic representatives of modernism, but also of one of the most influential twentieth-century personalities on the domestic cultural scene. In accordance with the general inclination towards the one-dimensional judgment of an artist’s contribution, at the level of collective memory Murtić is summarily remembered as a pronounced colourist of Mediterranean provenance and colour palette, of vehement energy and the ability to equally intensely execute compositions ranging from small to titanic in their proportions, which have additionally, apart from the painting medium, been successfully applied to a broad scope of art, reaching from decorative objects to monumental decorative mosaics, intended for corporative interiors and memorial monument exteriors. While the phenomenon of his artistic and market success both in the socialist and transition environment is a topic for some future interdisciplinary study, the exhibition at the Art Pavilion certainly provides insight into his graphic mastery that surpasses the widespread, relatively recent divisions in abstract and figurative art. It is obvious here that the figure has turned into a sign, while this sign is equally a carrier of narration conveying the uncompromising authorial approach to the viewer. However, before we turn our attention to the actual display, let us say only that, even in this discipline, Murtić’s self-assured gesture encounters no formal obstacle, including size and format. The energy of his stroke and the precision of his vision easily fill the selected format of the painting ground, solving the expressiveness of the composition by a traditionally reduced register of the drawing craft, which is evaluated by the unyielding trajectory of the line on the paper surface. In concordance with the topic, the nonchromatic drawing basis is in relevant places discreetly enhanced in its spectre by shades of blood red and only rarely, for the sake of narrative clarity, by minimal accents of elementary colours. In the shaping of the dramatic relationship between full and empty, which determines the composition, expressiveness is entirely reduced to the disposition of the gesture. The elementariness of expression, in spite of the fact that Murtić mostly used large formats like B1 for his drawings, imbues them with an impression of immediacy, according to which we experience a drawing sui generis as an optimal measure of the author’s initial intention and its realization. Therefore, the drawings speak of their author more directly than complex artistic procedures necessary for successful painting compositions, because they are all based on complex calculations of the effects of stroke, colour, and form in inexhaustible combinations of their interrelations.

The always questionable interpretation of a work’s meaning is in the case of Murtić’s evident obsession with the topic of destruction and war not based only on convincing expression, but also on secret production of motifs that he (if we do not take into consideration his first portfolio devoted to Ivan Goran Kovačić’s The Pit from 1944) continuously developed, in cycles, from 1984 until the end of his life. Many interpreters, including me in my text about the Sarajevo exhibition, have spontaneously understood the manifold variations of a skeleton-brought-to-life motif as a contemporary echo of the death dance theme that has been haunting the Christian spiritual universe for centuries. On the other hand, the dynamism of more complex compositions also points to the influence of the montage used by Picasso in his execution of Guernica (1937), which enabled him the realization of a generally recognized icon that symbolized the uprising of a modernist aesthetic interwoven with leftist humanism against the spreading ideological, religious, political, racial, and economic violence, whose global nature and its omnipresence in the media will inspire many to call our epoch a century of war.

In Murtić’s array of images of destruction, because of their steady focus on the skeleton motif, the Cadaver cycles (1995 – 2000) assume a special position. The participants of the eerie procession piling up in the drawers of Murtić’s cupboard are not of equal value in their superior, all-equalizing deathly nature as the skeletons that over the last two decades we have got used to seeing pop out of the earth on television broadcasts about excavations, no matter which war bore them and which ideology sealed their destiny. Among the depictions of anonymous corpses, devoid of any kind of identifying or ideological symbols, as spokesmen of death dominate those whose skeletons are extended by generals’ service caps and national decorations, although, objectively speaking, in real life many of them seem to still belong to the kingdom of the living.

It is not accidental that macabrist poetics increasingly marked Murtić’s work after 1980. The world whose emergence in blood he had witnessed in his youth unstoppably approached its no less bloody end through increasingly observable ethnic tensions in socialist Yugoslavia, the collapse of the entire socialist block, and the global rise of neo-liberal economy, which heralded the increasingly dramatic rift between the rich and the poor, the developed and the underdeveloped, the powerful and the oppressed. In spiritual respect, the world opening before his eyes clearly negated the enlightened idea of the progress of human community towards a society of humanist values. What’s more, in a reality obviously increasingly more open towards the abyss of destruction and killing, the visions of the eighties soon tuned into the reality of the nineties. The intellectuals of Murtić’s kind could only retreat into the privacy of their studios or expose themselves to the public sphere dominated by the uproar of newly attained media freedoms, whose noise made the sound of reason hardy discernible. At the same time, in the immediate vicinity, the movement of skeletons in their shallow graves made room for new victims of the reshuffling of the geopolitical map of the world. Twenty-five years after the re-staging of The Pit (sic!) and Eyes of Fear – although this seems like yesterday – Murtić, with his drawings of the contemporary dance of death and with a new feeling for existential anxiety, truly conveys the message that the struggle is never over.

In the meantime, art has also changed entirely. The pure aesthetics of the modernist mainstream was replaced by the absolute openness of institutions, of the public and professionals towards different variations of formerly radical creative procedures by which the area of artistic activity on the vertical axis developed to the point of full equalization of art and life, while on the horizontal it turned into manipulation, spectacle, and market economy. The organizers of the exhibition have therefore, facing the task of positioning Murtić’s work within the new spiritual environment, favoured the dark segment of his opus that reflects his unexpectedly painful sensitivity to reality and his resolute attitude towards the changes that could be sensed in its restructuring. The International Sarajevo Film Festival, as a framework, and the City Hall, as a stage, were a splendid context for the premiere of this dramatic opus. The well-conceived improvisation of the display, in the aesthetic proportion of linking the formal simplicity of the opus and the location, enabled the resonance of their intertwined meanings at the deepest levels of humanistic collectiveness of the entire region. In Sarajevo the drawings were set up in parallel with monumental canvases bearing a motif of the cross. Their complementariness in the evocation of the intensity of destructive energy that had inflicted another lasting scar upon local history was most impressively shown in the monumental entrance hall space, which, in contemporary manner and with modern presentation technology, was illuminated by Cadaver figures, selected according to their iconic power, enlarged, illuminated from behind, and placed in the walled-in City Hall doors.

In the concept of the Zagreb presentation the most difficult task was determining how to attain and, if possible, surpass the expressivity of the Sarajevo display, because fortunately in the vicinity there is no outstanding architectural memento of destruction comparable to the Sarajevo City Hall. In the selection of the venue it was taken into account that, several times during his career, Murtić had exhibited his works in the Art Pavilion and that he also had professional connections with this institution in whose immediate neighbourhood his atelier was located as well. However, an exhibition display has never before been burdened with similar expectations. There are, however, certain links between the pavilion and the City Hall. Both structures are a product of the enlightenment role of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy based on the idea of progress through the promotion of art and the culture of dialogue, which marked the positive aspects of this rule. Both projects are based on the aesthetic of historicism and its inclination towards splendour and magnificence of both interiors and exteriors. The Art Pavilion in Zagreb was built as an exhibition venue with basically unified disposition, with only symbolical indications of inner spatial division into an octagonal central part, two lateral wings, and a front exhibition area. In a full century of its function as an exhibition venue, the pavilion architecture has proved able to support all varieties of presenting art, although we could say that its interior, saturated with decorations, which in the times of the dominant modernist need for pure white space imposed itself as unnecessary surplus, only with the contemporary need for theatrical displays reaches its full affirmation in the decision of its management to open it to creative work devoted to ambience installations. In this context, for Murtić’s death procession the Pavilion was turned into a giant, black crypt, enhanced by the existing decadent decorations of ancones, wreaths, pilasters, garlands, and niches with black marble bases. Five compositions of drawings are displayed in the lateral wings, and each represents a certain cycle. The drawings are displayed in groups, and each is separated on its own black ground, detached from the black pavilion wall. The front wing is reserved for three large Collages for Oświęcim (2002), devoted to the holocaust theme. The dimensions of the pavilion enable monumental compositions, so that by displaying particular cycles in groups encompassing up to several dozens of drawings not ordered chronologically, a cumulative effect is achieved; it additionally arises from the possibility of visually linking all groups in a unified circular viewing. The solution for the octagon in the centre of the pavilion is inspired by and is a variation of the light-box of the Sarajevo set-up to its logical conclusion. Eight standard street detached light-boxes are set in a circle, so that they, like light monoliths, show enlarged Cadavers on both sides. This ring of cold light in a small pass-through circle varies the theme of the entire exhibition on the inevitability of violence, which in an unforeseeable and random way closes the eternal circle of evil, without a true beginning or end. The symbolic level of the exhibition is clearest in this segment, which also represents the deepest intervention into authorial work. The selected motifs are detached from their origin and manipulated by the technology of modern visual communications in order that their expression is enhanced, i.e. that they are transferred into a medium showing more saturated and intense effect. This transfer will also enable the dissemination of the exhibition’s visual identity by its marketing in the streets of Zagreb, functioning as its extended body, visible to random passers-by. On the phenomenological level, such treatment of art heritage, whichpurists will undoubtedly place on the other side of the acceptable, shows the way in which an astonishing quantity of forgotten assets, remaining in the closets of the greats, can and should be activated and also adjusted in the attempt to convey its important, and, judging by reactions, obviously relevant message.

The pessimistic subtext of the exhibition seemingly contradicts the vitalism and energetic colour range of the previously known and exposed part of Murtić’s work, actually pointing to his deeply personal dualism of understanding reality. It is visible from the simultaneity of his developing obsessive thematization of death and creation of painting compositions so well known and lively vibrant in our memory that displaying them at the exhibition, unlike in the Sarajevo set-up, is not really necessary. The lines of force of creation are in continuous competition with the force lines of destruction, creating thus a daily struggle that the contemporary understanding of reality places exclusively in the domain of human activity and responsibility. Therefore, the contemporary interpretation of the dance of death does not express anxiety caused by incomprehensible, unforeseeable, and untouchable trajectories of a higher force, but, on the contrary, one that comes from entirely understandable, foreseeable, and well-known mechanisms imposed on us by lower levels of uncivilized human nature. Because of that, the struggle never ceases.

Branko Franceschi