Zoran Music

Painter who commemorated Dachau
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Zoran Anton Music, artist: born Gorizia, Austro-Hungarian Empire 12 February 1909; married 1949 Ida Barbarigo; died Venice 25 May 2005.

Zoran Music has been called "one of the great undisclosed secrets of 20th-century art". His series of paintings, drawings and etchings We Are Not the Last, recalling his year-long incarceration in Dachau, includes some of the most unforgettable images of death ever created.

Born in 1909 in Gorizia on the Slovenian-Italian border, a child of Mitteleuropa but a person, as he later called himself, "senza fissa dimora", of no fixed abode, he studied in Zagreb and Vienna before moving to Spain, where he copied Goya and El Greco in the Prado and fell in love with the sepulchral cathedrals in Toledo. Driven out by civil war he returned to Dalmatia, whose mountainous coastline, peasant women and horses became the subject of his earliest and perhaps most popular paintings.

Music had always dreamed of Venice, where he moved in 1943 to a pensione run by German nuns, exhibited his work for the first time, met his future wife, and was arrested for suspected "anti-German activities", tortured for 26 days by the Gestapo, then sent to Dachau concentration camp. There, surrounded by mounds of corpses and the dying, under daily threat of death, he drew in secret on any scrap of paper. "If you live through that experience," he said later, "it becomes part of your life. And you remain forever with the corpses you left behind."

By chance and good fortune, helped perhaps by a strong constitution - he was immensely tall and powerfully built - he somehow survived, returning to Venice where, amazed to be able to work freely "without having to cut up my drawings and hide them under my shirt", he began again to paint. But it was only many years later, having totally lost his sense of being himself after a failed attempt to paint abstract landscapes, that he began directly to paint scenes from Dachau:

It was out of this confusion and frustration that the corpses emerged. Without Dachau I would have been a merely illustrative painter. After Dachau I had to go to the heart of things.

Music had always liked paintings done with an absolute minimum of means. Influenced by the mosaics in Dalmatian monasteries, his painting had remained flat, without volume or perspective. As Michael Glover wrote in The Independent when the Dachau paintings were exhibited in London in 2000,

The largest canvas . . . shows a mounds of bodies, a massive tangle of 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.

He would continue to paint the bare mountains near Siena, the interiors of cathedrals, the Venetian lagoon, portraits of himself and his wife, but however delicate and beautifully observed these paintings could hardly match the raw power of those images of gaping mouths and tortured limbs. And then, in his eighties and nineties, his eyesight and recent memory failing, he began a series for which, as the critic Michael Peppiatt said,

Nothing in his early work prepares us . . . the terribilità of his latest self-portraits. The figure, shorn of everything . . . like an apparition: a few wisps of vapour merging into the outline of an aged man . . . None of the honours of his subsequent life - friendship with President Mitterrand, a retrospective at the Grand Palais, accolades and decorations - has diverted him from the most troubling questions. Why did I survive? How does one live after Dachau?

These last works are paintings of an astonishing beauty and power and mystery, the last notations of a man consciously withdrawing from life.

Though an artist of international stature, Music has rarely been shown in Britain. In 2000, a retrospective of his work was held at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich and at the Estorick Collection in London. (My parents, Eric and Salome Estorick, were close friends of Music from 1948 and among the earliest commercial dealers to show his work.) There in London one evening, in a spare white gallery, surrounded by Music's terrifying Dachau paintings, a handful of people participated in a discussion of war with, among others, the artists Leonard Rosoman and Linda Kitson. It was a remarkable occasion - unattended by a single apparatchik of the art establishment, whose neglect and ignorance of Music's work is nothing short of a national disgrace.

Music, who from 1952 lived between Venice and Paris, was married to the beautiful and vivacious painter Ida Barbarigo, daughter of the Venetian artist Guido Cadorin. They had no children.

Michael Estorick