The “White Phase” of Petar Mazev: From Experiment to Paradigm
#1 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.
#2 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”1F, 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.
#3 On the 21st of October 1968 the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA)2F 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… 3F
In order to understand this phase we need a retrograde insight into the 1960s. Painters / sculptors of different generations show their interest and research in the domains of the Informal Art (Petar Hadži Boškov, Risto Lozanoski, Cane Jankuloski, Rodoljub Anastasov, Aleksandar Risteski, Stefan Manevski, Ivan Velkov, Petar Mazev, Dragutin Avramovski Gute, Risto Kalčevski, and others).4F The artistic scene of Skopje is under the sign of their commitment. In this period, despite the cult year of 1951 when Petar Lubarda exhibited his abstract paintings in Belgrade, the Informal Art is the talk of the day and is very popular in Yugoslavia, against or despite the speech of the president Tito in 1963 where he reproaches the tendencies of the abstract art and its preference within the artistic circles (including purchases, awards, specialization trips for the participants). Despite the party suggestions, debates, round tables or conferences in regards of the president’s speech, this was a sign of loosening of the ideological-political tensions: the artists from all of the republics were almost endemically infected with the Informal Art. On one occasion Mazev seems to react to the speech of the first partisan, partially agreeing with him on the notion that it is not only one painting movement that is to be favored and that the non-figural painting is a fine place for the camouflage of the non-authentic artists, but also that the artists should not be so sharply differentiated and limited. Thus he wished to establish a balance between the still considerable governmental threat against the freedom of creation and the artists who dared paint despite the notions and the bans. From present perspective this situation seems easy to formulate, but at that time opposing the party opinion was still an act of bravery.5F But regardless of his speeches at the party debates, in practice Mazev completely disobeyed the opinions of the highest authorities and continued until 1966/67 to cultivate his white garden. In order to capture the ambiance of the 1960s in our surrounding, we must point out that in 1961 (16-12.10.1961) one of the most impressive and most significant foreign exhibition in the modern artistic history of Macedonia was opened in the Art Pavilion – the exhibition American Contemporary Art.
#4 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).6F
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.