Ješa Denegri


Herman Gvardjančič first entered the Slovene and the then Yugoslav art scene by taking part in the 1968 exhibition curated by the art critic Aleksander Bassin, called Expressive Figurative Work by Young Ljubljana Artists, at the Cultural Centre Gallery in Belgrade. This was followed by the 1969 show at the Maribor Salon Rotovž. His greatest success in old Yugoslavia came when he represented its artists at the Venice Biennale in 1976 (along with Julije Knifer, Ivan Kožarić, Radomir Damjanović Damjan, Braco Dimitrijević and Boris Jesih, selection by Radoslav Putar in collaboration with A. B. and J. D.). This was closely followed by his participation in the Belgrade 77 exhibition, at their Contemporary Art Museum (with his Green Horizon painting, shown alongside Vladimir Veličković, Dragan Majović and Miroslav Šutej, selection by Miodrag B. Protić). He equally took part in the Tendenzen in der jugoslawischen Kunst von heute, put on by the Belgrade Contemporary Art Museum in several European countries (Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy) between 1978-79. The 1970s saw several independent and group exhibitions of works by Gvardjančič that attracted prizes across the whole of the Yugoslav artistic spectrum.

His artistic expression changed in the early 80s, in response to the development of Post-Modernism. In this, he pursued his own developmental trajectory, without joining in with the early manifestations of the then young generation, which dominated the 1982 Images – Immagini and the 1985 Pittura fresca exhibitions, both mounted by the Coastal Galleries. He is however to be found among the exhibitors at the Painting is a Ruin in the Process of Building, at the Ljubljana gallery Equrna in 1985. He really came into his own on the Slovene art scene with his one-man shows at Equrna in 1985, at the Piran – Koper Coastal Galleries in 1986 and the Museum of Modern Art, Ljubljana, in 1988. His historical importance was confirmed by his taking part at the 2003 exhibition To the Edge and Beyond- Slovene Art 1975 – 85, mounted by the Museum of Modern Art in Ljubljana. Gvardjančič has therefore proved himself to be an important contributor to art in all its manifestations. He helps us decipher problematic, multi-layered painting as it evolved during his creative life. Landscape was all the while his main preoccupation. He was primarily interested in painting views which he then interpreted through varied artistic vocabulary and style. In the 70s when, here and abroad, photo and hyper-realism were kings, his vision of nature was also mediated through photography. Nature is no longer observed with the ‘naked eye’, sur le motif; rather, the camera lens is taken to be the most accessible technical aid to perceiving reality. The resulting painting is however not filled with naturalistic detail that the camera tends to record. On the contrary: as the medium of painting allows for selection and reduction of data about objects, Gvardjančič removes everything he considers over descriptive, placing on his painting the monochrome restriction of black, dark grey or dark green, teetering on the very brink of abstraction. Landscape is thus represented at a remove, on vast, smooth surfaces, without a trace of facture, without a suggestion of the third dimension. The space is flat, two-dimensional; this reinforces the impression of the artifice of the picture coming into being as a result of a mental, rather than a perceptual, way creating. Landscape representation is therefore a matter of concept. This is quite understandable, given the way Gvardjančič perceived the abstracted genre of landscape which- excepting in terms of photo-realism- is being created at a time of minimalism, conceptualism and fundamentalism in painting.

In spite of the accolades that such approach to painting gained him at home and abroad, Gvardjančič entered a new period at the beginning of the 80s. This meant substantial changes in the character of his pictorial language and the process of painting itself. These were obviously brought about by the changing spiritual and cultural climate, which manifested itself most obviously in the Italian Trans-avantgarde and the German New Expressionism. In Slovenia, this took the shape of the so-called ‘New Image’. Internationally, the change was perhaps most manifest at the Aperto 80 exhibition at the 1980 Venice Biennale, the 1981 A New Spirit in Painting in London, the 1982 Zeitgeist in Berlin and, closer to the Slovene borders, the 1981 Italian Trans-Avantgarde in Zagreb. At home, there was an intense climate of creativity and exhibitions, supported by several generations. The Slovene critics were divided in their assessment of the artistic developments in the early 80s. Andrej Medved sees the eighties as a “stylistic reaction to the seventies”, while Tomaž Brejc understands them as a gradual transition “from modernism into postmodernism”. The latter finds proof of his reading in the fact that the representatives of the “New Painting” of the 70s were in fact the very same as those producing the “New Image” of the 80s; both included the names of Tugo Šušnik and Andraž Šalamun. Regardless of this critical discrepancy, it must be said that the first half of the 80s saw a disturbing set of circumstances develop, mirrored in numerous works, not least those produced by Gvardjančič.

The change in pictorial language of the early 80s is evident in his pen-on-paper small to medium drawings, produced between 1980 and 1982. The very titles are indicative of extreme subjectivity: Depression, In memoriam, Reminiscence, Intimacy. These are introverted notations of the artist’s spiritual and psychological states of being, similar to pages from a personal diary not intended for public curiosity. This is followed by a transition to large paintings in acrylics, inevitably dealing with a freely-treated landscape subject matter, summarising, generalising and non-descriptive. The application of paint is swift, momentary, almost automatic, with broad brushstrokes that only hint at the subject- silhouettes of hills on a distant horizon, contours of roofs and walls of some isolated building, the verticals of tall, erect tree tops, diagonals of sunrays fighting their way through clouds or showers of torrential rain. These are indeed images of nature, but not the real and visible nature, but of Nature as a symbolic projection. They are therefore the artist’s subjective visions, his own understanding of the genre of landscape as one of the great iconographic themes in the long history of art past and present.

In an attempt to pin down the characteristics of the Gvardjančič art, Lilijana Stepančič wrote about “landscape as a psychogram of the artist’s spiritual being”. Andrej Medved talked about “landscape as a psychological vision”, and Jure Mikuž about painting as “ecstatic psychological states of being”. The way Gvardjančič understands a painting goes back to the Romantic and Expressionist tradition, while his chronologically closer relatives of the 80s can be found among the circle of the German “New-and-Wilds”.

Gvardjančič cannot however be characterised by immediate external models and influences; his deepest cultural base lies in the genius loci, in the heritage of the Slovene landscape painting tradition of early Modernism, starting with the precursors of home-grown Impressionism and colouristic Expressionism.

After the 1990s and 2000, Gvardjančič paints and draws essentially in line with his previous trajectory. He continues to be immediate and forcible, with at times hardly controlled gestural painting, in dark colour schemes with an abundance of black marks and surfaces. All this makes for an expressiveness both plangent and suffering, brought about by the ever increasing pessimism and subjectivity of the artist. This is the spirit that pervades whole series of paintings with titles such as Songs for Nico, Twilight Falls or quite simply Landscape; the pictorial language here indicates that, while the links with landscape have not been severed, the Gvardjančič idiom has become essentially meditative, reflexive, symbolic. Emotion, immediacy, spontaneity, subjectivity and originality continue to be the hallmarks of his more recent painting. They are therefore the more alien to the typically post modern “New Image” of the early 80s. He is a painter brought up on highly developed modernist culture that he cannot abandon, in spite of the change evident in his artistic approach. One possible way of defining the character of his painting within the modernist context is offered by Tomaž Brejc, and justifiably so: he places him firmly within ‘dark modernism’ that, according to him, marks Slovene modernism of the 20th century, spiritually rather than aesthetically. This comprises generations as far apart as Petkovšek, Jakopič, Sternen, Jakac, the Kralj brothers, Pilon, then from Stupica to Pregelj, Mušič, Šuštaršič, Bernik and Tisnikar, all the way to Gvardjančič, as well as Kirbiš and Huzjan.

The artist continues to aspire to hand-made, unique “rich painting”, full of psychological tension, complex meaning, existentialist messages- a painting therefore that invites the viewer to engage with the senses and the intellect. This ideal remains fixed in the mind of the artist who refuses to accept the “death” of painting, at the time of an ever increasing dissemination of new art and creative practices, through technological reproduction media. Gvardjančič, past and present, whose renewal is rooted in lovingly tended foundations and permanent, solidly interiorised experiences, insists on putting his firm artistic faith in the power of painting as a lasting, historical artistic discipline. This is accompanied with a faith in his own painting, recognisable within the confused world of contemporary art of the end of the 20th and the beginning of this century.