Blesok no. 28, September-October, 2002
The Layers of the Macedonian Soil in the Paintings of Gligor Chemerski
But in the centre of this branching artistic universe stands this painter’s independent and ever recognisable personal sensibility, like a pillar that brings all those quests into unison. Wherever he finds his stimuli, whatever tradition he relates to, painting pagan satyrs or Christian angels, Macedonian dance reels or the night chimera of distant mythologies, Čemerski unites them with his strong and manifest individual style, impressing the unique seal of his exceptional personality upon them. With a culture that reaches far beyond the boundaries of the fine arts Gligor Čemerski is, above all, a representative creative figure in the contemporary Macedonian spiritual climate. Yet, his significance certainly surpasses national frontiers – he is an artist with a distinguished place in the European constellation and whose reputation in the world constantly rises.
A permanent duality abides in Čemerski’s painting, ceaselessly putting in opposition its own principles, without allowing one to prevail over the other. Namely, this painter never gives up not only figurativeness but also that which we might call “a story” – in his paintings we always recognise elements of action, but we also recognise his striving for that which we might call “pure painting art” that, giving up the intention to remain faithful to the description of what is unfolding on the thematic plane of the painting, succumbs to the dictate of the gesture, follows the freedom of the hand and sets the expressiveness of the brisk instinct-driven movement as the high principle of artistic creation.
As a result of this play of opposite elements, in these paintings we sense and perceive the drive that comes from reality; yet it never appears as consistently mimetic or clearly descriptive but transformed into an associative arabesque, into an inextricable weaving of recognisable natural details and their abstract doubles. In order to penetrate the real content of Čemerski’s paintings one needs to invest visual and intellectual effort, and, despite all the difficulties along that journey of discovery and perception, the reward to all who do so are realisations and experiences that enrich the eye and the spirit.
A dynamic relationship between equally powerful and equally essential forces is what lies at the core of this art. There, the longing for completeness and fulness intertwines with the abiding drive to break all steadiness – just like the earthly and the heavenly, the dark and the light, the Dionysian and the Apollonian, cruelty and beauty stem from each other and complement each other in his work (like yin and yang in the Chinese symbol tai-chi).
On these canvases an extraordinary painter tries to solve perpetual and fatal dilemmas – and the more aware he is how insoluble they are, the more fervidness and passion he introduces in his essay and, by means of a highly creative sublimation, he manages to transform that fervidness and passion into a gesture, a stroke, into a powerful and inspired visual handwriting that excites and carries away.
In one of Gligor Čemerski’s early paintings from the mid sixties, the late-Hellenistic bronze satyr of Stobi, as if alive, arises in his ecstatic dance in the midst of a summer landscape. The painting is entitled “The Shepherd of Stobi” – a choice of title that transports this image from the realm of mythology (Civilisation) into the realm of everyday rural life (Nature). With his own interpretation of this mythical character, Čemerski introduced a metamorphosis that has remained fundamental to the poetics and philosophy of his painting until this very day: he brings Civilisation closer to Nature, he illustrates the manner in which they delve into and complement each other, which is so peculiar to Macedonia. Here Civilisation springs from Nature, only to return as its own mark.
Thus, it can be said that Macedonia’s layers of earth and civilisation mingle in Čemerski’s vision; the spontaneous embroidery of natural features, and both the traces and marks of artistic activity that has endured in this environment for millennia, approach each other to the level of mutual interchangeability. In Čemerski’s work, in his views of Macedonia, Nature and Civilisation are reconciled; there, that which has been created by the interaction of the elements – by the age-long influence of heat and frost, of wind and water – and the accumulated yield of human endeavour driven by the need to materialise the human idea of beauty, happily blend into one.
In his early years, Čemerski set off in search of the clues that the ancient spirit has left upon our earth: there are the Greek satyrs, the goat that nursed Zeus, the goat-legged Pan, Orpheus whose tune once woke the rocks, and Icarus in his ecstatic and tragic flight. Čemerski’s paintings from those years unfold events and sights from a particular mythology that, in this painter’s meditation, insists on the link between untamed nature and the mysteries that, made manifest by this nature, reveal the presence of divine forces. With these paintings, in an utterly palpable and unambiguous form, Čemerski introduces the Mediterranean spirit into modern Macedonian painting. From this ensues the distinctive symbiosis of the fervour of celebration and the tragic foreboding of the bloody outcome of sacrifice, enchantment by the sun and the apprehension of the nearness of the nether forces, Eros and Thanatos, inseparably bound together in his art.
This affinity to the ancient heritage on our soil somehow naturally turns into a desire to come closer to the Byzantine heritage; in Čemerski’s paintings the memory of the ancient pagan cults and the memory of the ascetic spirituality of Byzantium come together without sharp transition. In fact, they are reconciled in his art and they find their points of contact in that they belong to the same soil and by being along the same line of spiritual continuity where Dionysus, the god of vines and wine, and St. Trifun at Nerezi, the protector of the vineyards, meet secretly. Čemerski’s serene and merry Icarus and the versions of the angels of St. Sophia, that this painter has revisited so many times, fly towards the light with the self-same exaltation.
Infusing new energy and vitality into the great Byzantine themes, Čemerski’s paintings reinvigorate them with extraordinary force.
Inspired by his experience of Western European painting in his earliest days, and that too by the work of those masters in whose paintings one can see matter being torn by inner dynamics in which spirituality over and again expresses its striving to soar towards ecstasy and exaltation (El Greco, Tintoretto, Delacroix, Van Gogh, Picasso…), Čemerski steps into Byzantium – in fact, rather into to the Macedonian variant of Byzantine painting – bent on introducing new commotion and a new élan vital
into its stiff painting dogmas. Interpreting the thematic unity of the frescoes of St. Sophia in Ohrid, Kurbinovo and Nerezi, according to his own understanding and with his own handwriting, he lends them his bolting gesture, his feverish restlessness and his inclination towards a beauty that does not fear fervidness. In his painting we witness the use of a distinctive inter-textuality, an intercultural and inter-temporal exchange of sensibilities, wherein this painter, in a fascinating way, manages to bring into relation seemingly distant worlds and reconcile opposites. Yet, we do not speak only of themes that the virtuoso art of Čemerski’s brush interprets anew, but of an extremely bold essay to delve into the true nature of our land’s mediaeval frescos: we speak about burrowing into the core of the painting process and its highest creative moments, of an essay to rejuvenate and relate it to the current language of painting. In fact, it is obvious that Čemerski is a painter with great ambition whose work shows that it does not lack a contemplative basis and that the painter does not lack ability to realise it, to incorporate the Byzantine painting sensibility in the palette of traditions from which modern art movements of the world draw their driving potential. To the method of the mediaeval fresco painters, most of whom are anonymous, Čemerski adds the spontaneous gesture, the free movement of the line, the dynamics of renewed expressionism, showing that already in the work of those great old masters it did exist in a hushed and silent form, like a seed waiting for its time to shoot. Čemerski’s most recent phases represent a modernised Byzantium, seen through the eyes of a contemporary of ours. His liberal returns to the “Lamentation” at Nerezi or the numerous – glorious! – variants of St. George’s fight with the dragon, are works that the inspired artists of the past would have painted in the self-same way had they lived in our time.
Certainly our Mediaeval frescoes are not the sole stimuli that intersect in this painting. There we oftentimes feel echoes of works created in other parts and other times: images from Coptic tapestries, from pre-Columbian America, of the calligraphy of the Far East – all of them can be discerned, at times, as a stimulus that has steered Čemerski’s imagination and hand into an adventure, the goal of which is to bridge the seemingly insurmountable chasms of divided space and time, which – as the work of this painter demonstrates – are not insurmountable to the spirit.