Blesok no. 71-73, March-August, 2010
Growing of the Light
The "White Phase" of Petar Mazev: From Experiment to Paradigm
In Skopje, despite the often questionable, yet loudly announced and uncritically presented foreign art collections and artworks of dubious quality by renown artists, we forget our authentic treasures. One of them is the painting of the “white phase” of Petar Mazev. I am sure that the works from this period can be proudly and doubtlessly successfully exhibited in the most developed countries of the world, under the assumption that the colonially inclined professionals would push their discriminatory consciousness to the margins in order to make room for other authentic values. The latter have been unknown to them so far due to the lack of curiosity for those who were a priory underestimated or at the very beginning evaluated with a negative axiological mark.
As time goes by, some artists, artworks or phases either fall into oblivion or their significance grows in an axiological sense. The paintings of the “white phase”, which is the title of part of the creative opus of the artist Petar Mazev (the artworks made from 1960 to 1966), belong to the latter, the ones whose value constantly grows.
On the 21st of October 1968 the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Skopje opened the exhibition of the “white paintings” by Mazev. This date marked the recapitulation, the synthesization and the closure of his engagement in the field of the Informal Art, with this final event – a brilliant crowning of this discourse which will only later, following the opening of the new facilities of the MCA with the display of the Faculty of Fine Arts with Mazev as a professor and dean, emerge as the charisma, the magic and the influence of maestro Mazev on the young generations. Some of them are today one of the best Macedonian artists: Jovan Šumkovski, Blagoja Manevski, Slavčo Sokolovski…  In the years when the Informal Art was sprouting (the last years of the 1950s), the fundamental context which gave rise to the world Informal Art was, however, absent form Macedonia – hopelessness, despair, alienation, disappointment, the pains of the French existentialists (supported by the post-Second World War ambiance) incited by George Bataille and his stain of dirt spread over the floor, as a metaphor of the humiliated lowest class. Despite the controversial situations, the fear and the discomfort, it was the time of continuous advancement of the living standard and the joy with the population of former Yugoslavia, a time of welfare which kept improving as a continuous tide. Regardless of the mentioned speech of the Marshal and the party agreements and suggestions, practically everything that was hard started softening and melting. The directives and the decisions of the party leaders had no considerable repercussions on peoples' destinies. The 1960s, when most of the Informal Art works were made, was a decade of preparation for the liberalism.
Maybe some smarter heads in the party committees realized that the Informal Art in this country, especially in Macedonia, is mostly of formal nature, a trend replacing a protest or dissatisfaction with the revolutionary background and just another experiment, another diving into a space that offered new challenges, innovative, researching adventures with the color, non-color or other non-painterly materials. In Macedonia it often had no political or ideological connotations (with very few exemptions) and it can even be interpreted as a kind of an “art for art's sake” movement, very formalistic; yet although a formless idiom, the artists and the interpreters wanted to relate it to the tradition, the environment, nature, history (to explain all this only through the decorative aspects of the color and the other non-painterly materials which were in use).
In the years when the Informal Art was sprouting (the last years of the 1950s), the fundamental context which gave rise to the world Informal Art was, however, absent form Macedonia – hopelessness, despair, alienation, disappointment, the pains of the French existentialists (supported by the post-Second World War ambiance) incited by George Bataille and his stain of dirt spread over the floor, as a metaphor of the humiliated lowest class. Despite the controversial situations, the fear and the discomfort, it was the time of continuous advancement of the living standard and the joy with the population of former Yugoslavia, a time of welfare which kept improving as a continuous tide. Regardless of the mentioned speech of the Marshal and the party agreements and suggestions, practically everything that was hard started softening and melting. The directives and the decisions of the party leaders had no considerable repercussions on peoples' destinies. The 1960s, when most of the Informal Art works were made, was a decade of preparation for the liberalism.
In his “white phase” Mazev is preoccupied with the tranquil scenery of the monasteries, the surrounding landscapes, the walls, the gates, the dormitories, the mornings, the festivals and the memories. In these spaces, where the time seems to have stopped, he begins the act of dissecting and analyzing. Thus he reveals the soul of these historically and artistically hued regions, he paints their portraits: how far has the power of corrosion gone, the devastating influence of the wormholes, the impact of the dampness upon the wall, the mould and the lichen upon the stone, the effect of the flame upon the colors, the wood and the varnish on the icons or frescoes. The artist seems to believe in a certain power which might stop the ravages of time and natural phenomena. On his canvass discretely sprout red, orange, yellow or violet stains and the fields are turning yellow, while the wheat is ripening. The associations take us further towards certain bird's-eye perspectives of organized natural entities, intermediated by human hand, a processed geography which acquires a Monrdian-ish iconicity.
The Informal paste in Mazev's paintings is part of the world artistic brotherhood. It is organized in a way which also includes the notion of abstract landscape, of the kind applied by painters like Ubac, Prassinos, Mušić, Tàpies, Bourrit… Mazev makes applications, collages or assemblages of paint, singed or natural wood, cracked boards, sand, pearls, etc. He implements the trivial into the sublime. The rough structure (relief, granulations, uneven areas) requires a rigorous composition of the canvas, organized according to a wider or shifted (fine disregard) or, as already mentioned, Mondrian-ish concept. The impression of reservation, strictness, pregnancy, asceticism is achieved by a minimalistic use of paint. Vlada Urošević was among the first to refer to this phase as white because of the domination of white, because the other colors were mainly used as accents of a secondary significance. The meditative, contemplative spirit “releases the painting of the verbal correlative”. It is necessary to constantly research the reason for the birth of these artworks: is it the psychic tranquility of the artist in the ascetic regions of Macedonia, the wish to join the spirit of time inclined to non-referential views or the inability of the artist to retain a unique style horizontal and his aptness to experiment. A constant research is required in order to get as true as possible answer to the original ontological status of the best Informal Art paintings (with matter) in our art history and also in Mazev's painting opus. In these works, Mazev creates a union of fragments of gates, walls, ceilings, frescoes and icons – he edits them into a certain scheme or organization. When Julija Kristeva uses the notion of inter-textuality, she thinks that “each text is conceived as a mosaic of quotations, each text is an absorption and a transformation of another text.” If we apply this to the case of Mazev, we might say that his “white phase”, as no other phase before and after, is a mosaic of quotations from the childhood, of sacred ambiances and objects, of absorption of the monastery interior / exterior structures of an emphasized past time and their transformation into modern projects via the Mondrian system.
It is a fact that the artworks of Mazev's white phase are very complex constructs which also include the tradition, but they also include the power of vivisection of the actual feeling of time and matter: to say something else without talking solely about the tradition. The Informal Art of Mazev is at the same time a high point of achieved artistic freedom, related to the esthetics of both the beautiful and the ugly. The artist does not paint in the time when he can drastically, radically stay apart from the phenomena of the national and the beautiful, and wants to meet the universe of the ugly, the rough, the rustical, with a protest against the established codes. Therefore, the most correct critical axiology in this case would be the state of ambiguity. Almost all of the critics where partially right with their conclusions, same as Mazev was right to plunge into the adventure of research and set seams between the unavoidable past and the challenging future. I think that with this act he made a kind of a cult, a paradigm of this exhibition by leaving traces in the artworks of the other artists and thus setting a kind of a continuity in the Macedonian contemporary fine art. It is only the artistic formula, form, behavior which has elements of the known and yet, still promoted as novelty, that can leave traces and influences. This was the case with Mazev. It should be noted that it was the time when it was not very popular to discuss religions, churches and any religious objects which were inappropriate to the communism as a system. So, this artist was caught in the middle. The circumstances were such, especially the suggestions of the Marshal: have in mind the actual time. In that sense, he said: “I want to bring the new painting closer to the icon, to the wall, to the door. I want to capture the patina of time which had left its mark on the walls and doors, which is obvious in the objects which have not been renovated, the old churches and monasteries, with wormholes and dirt. My white is not utterly white, as you can see. It is stained, same as those objects.” It is a fact that his white is stained and it could possibly refer to Bataille's statement that the Informal Art is a horizontal noting. With this statement he confirms the credo of the Informal artists. The writer Paskal Gilevski euphemistically commented the dirt from this Mazev's confession as “monastery negligence”.
Mazev perceives both men and the world dialectically, in cyclical exchange, in their entirety as a montage of oppositions: the discontinuity, the cracks, the lines, the diaspora, the borders on the one hand, and the happy unions and seams on the other hand… Maybe in the background of this lies the intention to release a life on a higher level from the necessary evil, the emptiness and the darkness. In the ripe breath of the Overripe Wheat the matter becomes the alpha and omega, a superstructure and a reason for the endurance of the Informal treatment. This attitude questions the existence of the artworks as “appropriateness without a purpose” (Immanuel Kant), on “loving the music for its own sake”, for its fantasy, on the mystical asceticism of the art, without a topic, text or meaning, or the free artistic being in itself as not representing anything. Mazev's paintings, considering the very fact of adopting of the representational and the abstract idiom, are not and could not be black consciousness, “appropriateness without a purpose”, nor can they be representatively or mimetically connoted. The origin of his Informal idiom is not in the “negation of the conditions of non-freedom and alienation”, it is not in the European philosophy of the crisis or the existentialistic ideas; it is not in the “desperate revolt of the artists and the intellectuals against the system that dismisses the artists and the intellectuals who don't agree to 'join' and serve the purposes of the authorities of the advanced capitalism.” This is why his Informal idiom is not purely abstract: because it is “understood as pure existence”, it is not “non-geometrical” (unlike the world one) because it still has ideas; it is not “non-objective” because he does not consider the artwork as a “bare moment of existence”; and finally, this Informal idiom of his “is a language” because it sets a communication and because it is not “pure being”. There is no doubt that this painting with matter (same as its phenomenological evolution into a certain kind of associative figuration) “does not assume a certain renewed trust in the values of the meaning of the form”. But in this sense, on such an Informal Art background, he “still treats the human figure as a mater.”
The white phase of Mazev is an anti-thesis of the banal and the degrading-the degraded. Unlike Bataille's horizontal positioning, his Informal Art paintings are vertical, they posses sense and meaning related to spirituality, sanctity, sublimeness, not in a religious but in a metaphysical sense. Mazev's tendency for the esthetical, for the beauty of the painting, can be supported by the opinion of Umberto Eco: “It seems that in the Informal Art paintings (…) one can see the presence of a certain rule, of a system of references, although different from the ones we are used to (…). This code is chosen as a model for structuring the physical, technical and semantic layers and not in a way that the artwork would suggest pictures, that is, meanings, but it would create forms (even formless) which could be recognized.”
The opinion of the artist himself on this phase is indicative. Basically, he sincerely approached this topic, but he didn't want to point that out. Basically, he didn't want to deny the image, he did not react revolted towards the painting, but he researched the possibilities of the materials: the new ones, the old ones, their synthesis (oil on canvas, sand, wood, paper, boards, pearls), in search for the primal matter or the super matter. “The white has kept me captured for four years. What brought me to the white? I liked the white color and I made a lot of paintings in white. White has always been part of my painting. even as a stain. I have a painting Miners. Here I came to cleaning the colors to the simplicity of the relation Earth-Sky. Here I acquired the white color. I mean, it's very simple… Thinking about it I realized that my white phase had something rational. It was not my temperament, it was too calm in relation to me.” Later on, he seemed to show regret for painting in that way (abstract artworks) and, as if apologizing, he turned his focus on the American field, an ambiance that was unknown to our people. Whether it was his inner forces or the ideological-political pressures, yet in the same interview he continued as follows: “It is really cheap, but the question is how much can it 'hold'. I mean, this treatment of the art is a vulgarization of peoples' feelings. And it is now presented at the biennials, triennials of international and Yugoslavian character.” When I talked to him in 1990, on the occasion of his retrospective exhibition, Mazev said: “You know, my painting route has been constantly changing… I fell under the influence of the Informal Art which was new at the time, it had just occurred here. Since it denied the form, my 'tool' was the color, the white one. The white phase, that 'Informal Art', taught me how to feel the matter of the painting, and this attitude has still endured with me.” “When I look at these paintings (of the white phase) today, I remember all the details related to each of them. I remember my feelings while I was painting them. I remember each brush stroke, as if they have just come out of me. The whiteness of these paintings remind me of my childhood, of my Kavadarci, all painted white for Easter. Later in life I found that whiteness of my childhood in the monasteries, so some of the paintings of the white phase include a black or a brown part of a monastery gate. This was the phase I used to like the least. I though of myself as not that tender and sensitive as I showed in my paintings. That's why I stopped painting white. I know that I asked myself then: doesn't painting mean color? And I abandoned the white, I searched for the intensity of the color, the strongest hues of every color… I went from one extreme to another. Then, at least I thought that I made a difference. But today, when I compare the white phase to the other phases of intense colors that followed, I see that I still possess the same sensibility, only tuned into a higher sound. I was tender in my white paintings, but that tenderness collided with the rough pieces of wood I painted on those paintings. This comprehensive exhibition will help the viewer to see that my changes actually represent me.” In another interview he revealed the following: “In my white phase I made a mistake because I followed the actual movement of the Informal Art in the world, but it was of great use to me because it helped me enter the matter in the sense of breathing, feeding the canvas. These works are considered, felt, they posses light, refinement, soundness of the accents. As a replacement for the abandoned form, I researched the matter. It was a pure painting experience, games that explored the possibilities of the matter: neither form, nor color, nor content. There was a French painter who saw one of my white paintings at the exhibition in the Assembly of SRM and said that Mazev is a painter who has excellent knowledge of the matter… In the white phase, as a sound, as a contrast, as a conflict, I included a more rational element (a piece of wood, for example)… With my white phase I closed myself and started anew with more intense colors. If one speaks with the language of his own time, he manages to find his proper place. When I paint, I don't think of the audience, I don't even think of myself… I get lost, I become the painting. If I'm a real painter, the audience will find me, I don't need to look for it.”
The constant hesitation, both artistic and painterly, both in his teaching and in his idiom (verbal and in the published interviews) is a result of his character and temperament, actually of his attitude towards the modern esthetic movements: the inconsistency as a precondition to be always new. It was his continuity and his devotion to an idea, and not a mere horizontal, chronological following of the same artistic movement.
“The patriarchal nature of the modern society is responsible for the disturbance of the balance, especially in the ritual living. This is why it seems that the artist is the last recognized member of the society who persistently improvises the examples which are essential for the stabilization of the rite. The things we enjoy in art are not the colors or the form, it is rather an introduction to a magnificently performed ritual. This gives rise to the 'humanism' we so stubbornly hold onto.” It is in this sense that we should understand Mazev's tendency to return the ritual meaning to the art in this time of loss of ideals, faith, religion. For him, the artistic act, doubtlessly, means a religion of life, incarnation of the transcendental sublimations of the endurance.
In 1968 Petar Mazev made a painting which was at the beginning titled Saint and later Macedonian Woman. It was a clearly Informal painting which only later, a posteriori, acquired some human traits. It was the key painting – it marks the end of the abstraction and the beginning of the figuration, said with the terminological entries used at that time. “It was really a transitional painting. It is in a way sterilized, both in regards of the Informal Art and the figurative art. I've had enough of the abstraction. Some inner urge forced me to return to the figuration… In that period an ambition was born in me. I painted the canvas black and from that blackness, the whiteness, the light, started emerging. Upon it the colors of the face and the hands was layered. I wanted to prove that I can make a study and in a different way. The white color helped me create the light and apply a completely different treatment from the classical one.”
Translated from the Macedonian by Maja Ivanova
1. The exhibition includes works with a different geometric order which announce the Informal phase (Landscape, 1959, from NGM, Composition, 1960, owned by Živko Icev) when the division of the canvas into two zones occurs, with a clearly distinguished dark and light parts (for Mazev this is the line of the horizon that divides the earth/sea from the sky), which anticipate the white phase. This contrast, further on, gave rise to the non-figurative works with a different attitude towards the light and the dark. The paintings taken into consideration were mainly made in the first half of the 1960s with a dominant white color. The presentation is concluded / ended with a few artworks whose seemingly non-referential structure includes fragments of figures, but what remains unchanged is the attitude towards the structure / facture of the matter (rough / rustically treated) and the affinity for the white: Old Man, 1967. Macedonian Woman, 1968, Bride. 1971.
2. The exhibition was held in the Salon on 34 Gjuro Salaj street. The entire street was blocked. “For the first time in Skopje it was not only that the large exhibiting room was packed, but people were waiting in lines to see the exhibits…” A. P. in: Waiting lines for the attendance of an art exhibition, Večer, Skopje, 28.10.1966. Since then, there has never been enough room for all the interested, wherever his exhibition was opened. The retrospective exhibition in 1990 filled all of the exhibiting rooms in the Museum of Contemporary Art.
3. My colleague Liljana Nedelkovska in her text on the Informal Art in Macedonia points two artworks by the most influential Macedonian painter Mazev, made in that period: Landscape from 1962 and Burned Landscape from 1963. Nedelkovska, Liljana, in: Informal Art: 1959-1966 A short history of the Informal Art in Macedonia, Museum of Contemporary Art, Skopje, 10.04.2009.
4. The start of the group Mugri (Dawn), solo and group exhibitions in Skopje, Belgrade, Zagreb, Rome, Torino, Berlin…
5. Some artists, like Rodoljub Anastasov, felt this on their own skin, spending their best years on Goli Otok.
6. The animosity between the figurative (realistic) and the non-figurative (abstract) art was actual almost 80 years in the 20th century, changing the preferences from the one or the other. But in Macedonia that rivalry has been constantly alive up to the present, as an unsolved situation among the artists themselves, as well as among the theoreticians and the critics, which had an impact on the entire artistic education, on all of the educational levels.
7. “… In the colorist expression of the profusely differentiated white gradations in his, so called, white phase one could see an artistic poetics as a result of an organized action, obvious at some points of the paintings which even point to a certain, more or less emphasized geometric order. It seems that in this painting imagination there was a balance set between the organic which was provocative for him in the pretexts of nature and the action of the organizational geometric spirit. The order of these white poeticized conditions, included into a clear composition, was concise and simply perceptible.” Perčinkov, Dušan, in: Revisiting the moments of mutual collaboration, Memories of Petar Mazev, Council of the municipality of Kavadarci, prepared by Kiril Temkov, PhD, Kavadarci 2005, p. 106; “The two ranges are an utterly visual touch of solid-soft, structural-harder and softer matter (structurally harder and softer emotion). In this merciless cleansing of the anecdotic aspect, I see a basically Mondrian-ish tendency, raising to a pure plasticism, with Mazev taken as an emotional product. While with Mondrian it is a result of an intellectual asceticism and tends to be impersonal, with Mazev it is extremely personal and emotionally defined, related to a distant associative source, juice, mood, character of an authentic landscape…” Čemerski, Gligor, in: Raising to the painting, Razgledi, Skopje, 1960, p. 226.
8. “Petar Mazev tends to show a picture of Macedonia, rather subjective, yet delicate and refined in confronting the discrete, almost Informal areas.” Vasić, Pavle, in: The time of young artists, Politika, Belgrade, 1.03.1969, 19901, p. 11; On the occasion of the exhibition of young artists in Rome, Dario Micacchi says: “Petar Mazev in his mysterious naturalism and with the blinding whiteness of the monastery walls distinguishes from the other participants.” Micacchi, Dario, in Illustratori socialisti e informali macedoni, L'Unita, Roma, 15.12.1965, p. 8; On the occasion of the exhibition in Nürnberg of six young Macedonian artists, the author with the initials F. G. says: “The meditations of a monk, this is what the two-dimensional abstraction of Mazev are. They associate of light, white as lime, and the meekness of the monastery cell where the mortar has fallen of, with charred and worm-eaten wood of the icon lurking from it, same as with Bourrit. It is like a game with the transitoriness of all of the earthly things, as if he is aware of the opposition of the material in the matter and the spiritual in the color.” In: F. G. Malerei und Plastik aus Mazedonien, Nürnberger Nachrichten, Nürnberg, 9-11.04.1966, 82, p. 17; “The white color has always been his obsession. It helped our entire generation of the 1960s to reveal the tradition. We traveled through Macedonia, we saw the monasteries and the painting in them. He used to paint in their dormitories as early as then. He helped us discover the frescoes as no historian before that, in his own way, through friendly conversations. Later we revealed this space by ourselves. It was only later that I understood his white paintings: they were the monastery walls. He was among the first in the 1960s to point the most tragically white paintings in our country.” Temkova, Ana, in: Clips of a friendship, Revisiting the moments of mutual collaboration, Memories of Petar Mazev, Council of the municipality of Kavadarci, prepared by Kiril Temkov, PhD, Kavadarci, 2005, p. 89.
9. J. Kristeva is under the influence of the literary theory of Mikhail Bahtin and his dialogical principle.
10. Sp(irkoska) Olga: Petar Mazev: I'm preoccupied with the white color, in: Nova Makedonija, Skopje, 30.07.1965, 6748, p. 4.
11. Stravinsky, Igor, in: My understanding of music, Zodijak, Belgrade, 1966, p. 10.
12. Carlo, Giulio Argan, in: Texts on the modern art, Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade, 1983, p. 21.
13. Ibid, p. 33.
14. Eco, Umberto, in: Culture, information, communication, Nolit, Belgrade, 1973, p. 174 – 178.
15. Nedelkovska, Liljana, in: Bibliographical review of part of Petar Mazev's opus, Bibliography, MCA, Skopje, 2005, p. 26-27.
16. Spirkoska, O(lga), in: Mazev: The art is created without sketches, Nova Makedonija, Skopje, 20.07.1970.
18. Abadžieva Dimitrova, Sonja, in: Petar Mazev, Skopje, Museum of Contemporary Art, 1990 (cat. exh.).
19. Gjurovska, Sofija, in: Obsessed with love, Interview on an occasion: Petar Mazev, Nova Makedonija, Skopje, 26.05.1990.
20. Abadžieva, Sonja, in: unpublished interview with Mazev on 23.06.1976.
21. Burnham, Jack, in: Art and technical advancement, in: Plastic Sign, Izdavački centar, Rijeka, 1982, p. 222.
22. op. cit. Abadžieva Dimitrova, Sonja, p. 43-44.