OK, Mr Murtić - Pierre Restany


I came into contact with the work of Edo Murtić just when we were approaching the year 2000, at a time of global culture that was for us inevitably similar to a race against the clock. The historian-sociologist like me is bound to note that Yves Klein's immaterial cosmic energy harbingered the planetary telematic influx, and that the animted imprints of his brushe were par excellence the models of all future humanist vectors of communication. In these days of computer painting, we are a long way from the issues sparked off by the abstract and figurative art of the 1950s, which now seem to us so unimportant. What matters today is our approach to time in the face of our surrounding sameness; and how to arrange our indispensable operational (poetic) time in such a way as to give our existence the specific value necessary to project into the global flood of information. In the visual domain, when the degree of saturation has been reached and everything has been seen, we will indeed need an artist or a poet of genius to show us, through new eyes, some fragment or other of systemic banality. That is when the Internet will play its role as universal memory. It is not this style or that portrait that we will be looking for in it, but the trace, the eternal presence of a cosmic energy from which the work springs, the gestural expression of its profound vitalism. All the sensorial energy that we will have used to homologize the commonplace will thus be released in expectation of referential impulses.

The televised image and the numeric structure of digital photography, where the negative has been abolished, have lost the materiality of a support that had rooted their iconography in reality. The only referential specificity that can in the near or later future guide researchers in their investigations will be the presence, within the image, of a sign or system of signs that are the direct emanation of gestural vitalism, on the computer screen.

It is the innate power of gesture that struck me at once when I first approached the work of Edo Murtić; and in the light of my earlier considerations my initial reaction acquires a still more exact sense as I write these lines, a year later, in the artist's residence at Vrsar, in Istria. A lot of things have happened in that year, in which Edo gave proof of his habitual drive. He has had several exhibitions at museums in Croatia and in Trieste, has published some fine catalogues, and done a two-sided mural in enamelled polychrome ceramic in Rovinj, measuring 2.4 x 10 metres. He has even found time to illustrate a "Viva la muerte" plaque in homage to Miroslav Krleža. I myself have been buried ever deeper in the issues of relational aesthetics and global culture, whose tangible effects I have been able to see at the Venice and Ljubljana Biennales which had their 49th and 24th editions, respectively, in June 2001.

And after these two events, where the electronic image reigns supreme, here I am at Vrsar in a dream house on a hillside with terraced gardens perched above the sea. I remember Edo's recent paintings and informal gouaches, but also hundreds and hundreds of drawings of Istrian landscapes which I had a chance to look through in Zagreb last year. It was then that I also found out about Edo's engagement in the Resistance and war, his visions and forecasts of horror, the 1990s after the '40s, the emergence of the apocalyptic theme as one of the structural motivations of his oeuvre. A vision of horror linked to the ideology of a humanist and libertarian left. Before illustrating in 1944 the great epic partisan poem by Goran, "The Pit", he had transferred into images the book by his great frined Jure Kaštelan, "The Red Horse". That was in 1940, when they were both 20. In their consciences had been inscribed forever the indelible trace of man's evil. That initial immersion in the drama of history was to mark the artist and poet with a seal of hypersensitivity to the dangers of history and to the constant virtuality of its threats.

In 1981 Edo Murtić undertook a new illustration of Goran's epic poem and gave free rein to his expressionist vein of horror. The mouths or beaks of fantastic animals seen in a lightning sketch bear all the intensity of eyes of fear. That re-reading sparked a whole cycle of paintings titled "The Eyes of Fear" which culminated in 1984 with a new collaboration between Murtić and Kaštelan, "A Pledge for Epletion": a journey deep into the darkness of despair, with, beyond, the promise of renewed hope. A moving presentiment of what was to come, some eight years later in the Serbo-Croatian war. And there again, in an exhibition at the Sagittaria gallery in Pordenone, Edo attained a paroxysm of atrocity in the face of horror. The expression in the eyes of birds of ill omen returns, with its message of desolation: Guerra perché?

In this little paradise at Vrsar, where mushrooms taste of woodland honey and the sea in the bays below is a kind mirror of light, with in front of me an Edo whose extraordinary élan dissolves into the warmth and peaceful conviviality of good wine and sunshine, I feel it is almost a sacrilege to cultivate thoughts of war, in a spot where everything exudes only peace... And yet... in the brightness of a smile Edo reminds me that we are on the other side of the apocalypse: after the beast, celestial Jerusalem; and that the role of the artist is also to enable us to live there on earth. Besides, didn't Jure Kaštelan describe our world as the fateful place where the first letter of the same words writes both the word condemnation to death and harmony of the universe?

The horrors of war, the delights of the eastern Adriatic, Goya and Matisse combined in the conceptual universe of a Picasso: this is a pleasant thought at the tropical hour of the apéritif (Edo mixes a splendid "Caïpirinas"), but which for me assumes the revealing quality of Newton's apple.

The horrors of war and the harmony of nature: such was the simultaneous spectacle presented by the world to the young Croat when at the age of 20 he enrolled at the Academy. Those deeply contrasting sensations aroused in him an instinctive need to put the subjective interpretation of reality above all other considerations, and to push the colour register to its utmost free power.

That predestination to free gestures was to shape the whole development of Edo Murtić's work. Its effects can be felt in the landscapes of the Adriatic cycle dating from the late 1940s, and it was to mark his American experiences too (1951-52). But it was a predestination that immediately projected him much farther: into the midst of the prospective debate on postwar painting between Europe and the USA. The emergence of free gestural painting after the Second World War marked the 20th century's return to modernity.

Edo certainly did not miss that return to modernity. His stay in the USA in 1951 brought him into contact with De Kooning and Pollock. His numerous trips to Paris familiarised him with the evolution of the painters in the French tradition towards Apstract Cubism (Jean Bazaine, Alfred Manessier, Gustave Singier or Roger Bissière). The play of fragmented forms and recomposed spatial volumes, allied with an unrestrained treatment of colour, attracted him between 1953 and 1956, a period in which Edo felt close to the dominant movement of the École de Paris, as witnessed by his large mural compositions for various public establishments in Zagreb. But from 1956, the fragmented forms melted into their surroundings and the inner animation of material drew him closer to Tachisme and Informel.

The artist happily applied that tense, astute and wild graphism combined with a spontaneous "form non-form", not only in his painting but in numerous mosaics, tapestries and enamels (a technique in which he is a past master).

But his instinct took him beyond the play of Tachisme and Action Painting, inducing him wholeheartedly to espouse the great challenge of modernity posed by the major international events of the time: Venice, the Carnegie Prize in Pittsburgh, Documenta at Kassel. In 1958 he was present at all three. And he identified that breadth of horizons with the blossoming of free movement which, to take up the terms of Vladimir Maleković, is at once the calligraphy of movement and a saraband of colour.

After 1970 Edo Murtić achieved an absolute command of his style and has continued freely to deploy it at his ease ever since. He has established himself as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, colourists of lyrical abstraction. His boundless energy has made him a director of luminous calligraphy. Colour governs the movement of light and his pictorial material texture, while dramatising it. Such is Murtić's secret: if free action is the bearer of vital energy, colour is the barometer of sensitivity. His vitalist gestural language hit me fully in 2001 in all its global, expressive virtuality. And that is why I believe it will be useful to scrupulous researchers in the future to re-root the iconography of sentiment in the reality of emotion, beyond the anachronistic support of canvas, in the immaterial space of an electronic screen. Vitalist gestural language will play the role of a universal affective code, bearing the reality of our emotions, much as in the early '80s "The Eyes of Fear" bore the transmitting code of existential anguish which they incarnated.

Edo Murtić's vitalist gestural language is that of global communication, engaging the being in its entirety. The artist is universal both to the general and to the particular.

In the park at Vrsar, a giant almond tree towers over the vegetation, the network of its thick black branches fitting with incisive force into the dome of silvery-green foliage. I think of the structuring gesturality of Edo's big dark signs,and remember that in the exhibition at the Association of Croatian Artists in Zagreb in 2000 many of the large, free calligraphic compositions had titles like "One Tree", "White Forest", and, most of all, Branches: "One Branch", "Broken Branch", "Happy Branch", "Fruitful Branch", "Branch on Brown".

The reference to the tree and to branches speaks for itself. The globalizing vitalism of Murtić the painter's action embodies all the motivations of Murtić the being and of his existential experience, starting from the nature of the eastern Adriatic coast, the length and breadth of which he has explored by boat, sailing from Pula to Dubrovnik, and which he has observed, drawn and painted all his life, from the sea looking towards the land and vice versa. While the morphology of trees provides an infinite variety of graphic impulses (think only of Mondrian), the sea and sky and their changing colours serve as a spatial frame in a state of constant osmosis. But the tree is a living being that transmits life and bears fruit. The metaphor of the "Fruitful Branch" perfectly matches Murtić's graphic idiom; in numerous canvases, the black bearing frame lets a shower of trembling, gleaming touches escape and thus multiply their central gestural effect in a highly spectacular way, in the manner in which the tree presents its ripe fruit.

It doesn't take much alteration in the system of signs and colour used by Murtić to switch from the harmony of nature to the violence of war. Rocks become ruins, trees skeletons, and the fruits fascist medals which look as if they had once been pinned to the chests of Baj's generals.

One cannot but note, or rather admire, the immense freedom of the artist's visual progress which associates and effortlessly allies the universal with the particular, in the globalizing vitalism of his language.

All critics, and me to start with, have felt obliged to stress that Murtić's total commitment to free gesturality has never severed him from his roots in Croatian soil, nor from the troubled history of that land. As if there could ever have been any doubt! As if faithfulness to his roots in an existential experience were incompatible with the practice, at any given point in time, of the universal language of modernity!

Murtić's lyrical abstraction assumes, in the total freedom of instinct, that semantic and affective alternation between the general and the particular statement. This is the secret of his remarkable vitality, for he has succeeded, conceptually and affectively, in eliminating the last barriers on his expressive motivations.

My stay here at Vrsar will remain forever engraved in my mind, enabling me to have lived for a few days in the global time of Edo Murtić, that of an everlasting faithfulness to the memory of an artist whose life is totally immersed in the modernity of his time. The calligraphy of movement can become the branch of a tree, a flash of violence or the quiver of a storm. And in their vitalist readiness these signs are the brand of Edo Murtić's time, of a humanism without frontiers; a time today lived to the full. Tomorrow it will be rediscovered by the computers of relational aesthetics, which will need to regain the fundamental energy of the concept of landscape as nourishment for the inconsistent image of a homogenized and devitalised banality: a landscape that contemplates us before being contemplated. All the works of Edo Murtić are landscapes awaiting that interactive appreciation.

When might this phenomenon of global communication occur? The exact answer matters little. And in any case Edo is in no hurry. He lives in his art, which is his own peculiar time, the complete liberty of his gestural ethic. And that for him is enough. He is absolutely conscious of having done everything in his power to enable his oeuvre to face the course of history. As for the forthcoming change of civilisation gathering under the globalizing effect of telematic information, that belongs to the hazards of an accepted destiny.

And by way of evidence, I am thinking of a premonitory work of his done in 1978, whose extraordinary power would send shock-waves across television screens worldwide. It inscribes on the canvas, in the irresistible élan of a blazing calligraphy, the definitive letters "OK". OK, Mr Murtić!


Pierre Restany, Vrsar 14-17 June 2001