Landscapes darkened by shadows of the past

Zoran Music | The Estorick Collection, London
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The Independent Online

Literary and musical memorialists of the terrible brutalities of the Nazi death camps - from Primo Levi's This is a Man to Olivier Messaien's Quatour pour La Fin du Monde - are known throughout the world. But what of the artists? Where were they? Zoran Music, a Slovenian painter who was born in Gorizia, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1909, is one of the few surviving artist/witnesses to the horrors of those times, and a remarkable retrospective of his work - the first ever in this country - has just opened at the Estorick Collection in north London. Now 91 years of age, and almost blind, Music lives with his Venetian-born wife, the painter Ida Barbarigo, in Paris.

Literary and musical memorialists of the terrible brutalities of the Nazi death camps - from Primo Levi's This is a Man to Olivier Messaien's Quatour pour La Fin du Monde - are known throughout the world. But what of the artists? Where were they? Zoran Music, a Slovenian painter who was born in Gorizia, then a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1909, is one of the few surviving artist/witnesses to the horrors of those times, and a remarkable retrospective of his work - the first ever in this country - has just opened at the Estorick Collection in north London. Now 91 years of age, and almost blind, Music lives with his Venetian-born wife, the painter Ida Barbarigo, in Paris.

Music was interned by the Gestapo towards the end of the war. He was living in Venice, and the occupying authorities thought he was showing a suspicious degree of sympathy for the Italian Resistance. It was true. He was arrested and sent to Dachau. Secretly he made images with whatever materials he could scavenge.

The whole enterprise was fraught with danger - and immense guilt. The guilt arose from the fact that he often found the sight of the dead and dying, the way they were piled in heaps, or lay alone in corners, almost beautiful in their haphazard arrangement of limbs. Sometimes he would hear noises from a heap of corpses - the crack of a limb being flexed. When he saw that same heap of bodies the following morning, it would be covered over with the lightest possible film of snow, and it would now be utterly silent. All the stuff of nightmare.

Though Music, drawing and sketched secretly, was ever fearful of exposure, he survived, and after the war he continued to practise his vocation. (He had trained at the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb in the early 1930s). But for many years his subject matter, unsurprisingly perhaps, provided no evidence that he had undergone such experiences. He continued to take up the themes which had haunted him before the war: the mountains of Dalmatia, scenes of Venice, the hills outside Siena. But in the early 1970s, two factors helped to bring about a sudden change of direction. One was those Sienese hills. There was something about the shapes, the appearance, and the general atmosphere of those gaunt, dun hillsides, and the way in which they had been scored by runnels, which helped to lead him back to those repressed memories of 30 years before. The second factor was a profound sense of frustration that his own work, which had always been predominantly figurative and representational, seemed out of key with those predominantly abstract times. Where next then? Back to the camps ...

The series of paintings, etchings and lithographs which he made from the middle 1970s onwards were given the collective title of "We are not the last", and a range of them is on display at the Estorick. Music uses a minimum of means to achieve his ends. The largest canvas in the group shows a mound of bodies, a massive tangle of heads and limbs. And yet there is no sense of weight or mass. The limbs are represented in rapid outline only. The paint is thinly applied, almost ethereal in its lightness of application, and the tones are muted. What defines each human being most poignantly is the way in which the eye has been painted - piercing, helpless, hopelessly, impotently accusatory. As with so many of Music's canvases, it seems to be the ghosts of human beings who are present here.

A little later, Music set to work on a series of portraits of himself and his wife. These portraits (the most recent of them, "Luminous Figure on Dark Ground", was painted just last year, when he had begun to lose his sight) are his most humanly searching works. What is so remarkable about them is a certain quality of indefinition. The images usually emerge, spectrally, from very dark backgrounds. There is something about the ghostly way in which they inhabit the picture space, as if intruding upon it, that is reminiscent of Giacometti's portraits. It is not so much the evocation of the reality of a human presence that they are evoking as its spirit. Music seems haunted by the vision of himself.

In his earlier years, before the memories of Dachau had repossessed him, Music's painting was often quite different in tone and atmosphere. There are one or two paintings here of small troupes of horses in the Dalmatian hills, which are positively exuberant, even recklessly so from time to time. If you leave the exhibition and go upstairs to Room Four of the permanent collection, for example, you will find a delightful painting called "Horse and Landscape" (1951). These horses, proud rumps painted in gloriously ridiculous colours, are almost outrageously playful.

Then the shadow of the enormity of the past fell. And it never went away.

To 17 Sept, Wed-Sat 11-6, Sun 12-5, at the Estorick Collection, 39a Canonbury Square, London N1

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