Still Life with a Letter, 1954
oil on canvas
I searched for the right to mistakes, to contradictions, to metamorphosis – wrote Josip Vaništa (1924 – 2018), a universal artistic figure and paradigm of Croatian culture (according to Igor Zidić), in his Book of Entries (2001). In terms of the poetics of the absurd, his drawings are also non-drawings of sorts, his paintings non-paintings, and his activity in the Gorgona group a non-activity. As a founding member of the Gorgona art group (1959 – 1966), which brought together artists who shared a spiritual kinship within mental isolation, he advocated for the Neo-Avant-Garde spirit, freedom of art and mind, which anticipated subsequent contents of the New Art Practice. He graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb in 1950 (M. Tartaglia), and from 1951 to 1994 he was a professor at the Faculty of Architecture. What mattered to him in his drawings was not only the outline of his figures, but also the whiteness from which the motif was derived. Continuing in the tradition of modern art (J. Račić, M. Steiner), he created single-motif meditative paintings wherein whiteness is a metaphor for coloured light. Still Life with a Letter (1954) belongs to such a reduced, and yet coloured and formally evocative minimalism, with a couple of objects and the motif of a window, like an image within an image – an inventory of intimate reality. It is an image of silence, contemplation and the secret life of things in the course of being and eventual disappearance. In 1961, he started reducing his painterly content with a series of monochrome paintings. With a minimalist method, he then anticipates future tendencies, and with his awareness of the conceptuality of painting, Vaništa replaces factuality with verbality, ultimately replacing the process of painting with a precise description of the artistic process. After the 1970s, he again returned to the poetics of realism with his watercolours, which are his most important works from this period. He also worked as an illustrator, book designer and set designer, and he wrote several books. He became of full member of the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts in 1994, and was the recipient of the “Vladimir Nazor” Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.
Text: Željko Marciuš, museum consultant of National Museum of Modern Art © National Museum of Modern Art, Zagreb, 2023
Translated by: Robertina Tomić
Photo: from the National Museum of Modern Art's archives © National Museum of Modern Art, Zagreb, 2023