November 16, 2018

The Dichotomy and Merger of the Traditional and Modern: Eugeniusz Zak

It is rather difficult to imagine the crossroads which art takes at times through its progress, yet it is even more so to understand it as a fluid and often complex road towards dichotomies and mergers of styles, forms, and periods. If there is one artist that helps us understand art as something that is affected by past and current generations it is Eugeniusz Zak whose canvasses present dazzling unifications of the ‘traditional’ and the ‘modern.’ Between the ‘old’ and the ‘new.’ It is wholly the concept of inspiration that Eugene mostly struggled with. His utter love for the traditional styles, with the obvious fact that he could not escape his contemporary influences is fully visible in the pulchritude of his work.

It is not just about cubic forms, or satisfied lines that make up the purified aesthetics of his work it is also rather the colours that fill each and one of his canvasses fully with the ideals of the Renaissance, along with those of the early 20th century. It is, as I said, a merger of aesthetic qualities, but also concepts of solidified dichotomies. Between the Baroque ideals, and the Picassoesque forms, between religious affinities, and 20th century modern realities. The specificity of portraits, along with the derisions of pre-First World War facial expressions. This in fact is one of the reasons why Eugene’s work presents such an ideal of merger, which throws it in a vacuum that lacks categorization. Impressionism with Pre-Raphaelite tendencies perhaps?

A perfect example is his “A traveller in a landscape near bridge,” where a man can be seen in full traditional Europeanized dress, still ephemeral however, amid a surreal landscape that combines both natural formations and urban ones. In the background large orange structures that almost resemble skyscrapers but also old Reformation styled buildings in Cubic form can be seen, while the traveller just crossed a fairy-story bridge into a dark mountainous landscape. When the viewer stares into this painting he/she is immediately dazzled by the lack of congruence in historical interpretation, but understands the immediate human variables that Zak is trying to convey.

Born in what today is Belarus-the Minsk Governorate- in 1884 to a Jewish family, he moved to Warsaw Poland where a bustling Jewish community was already present as is well known. However, Warsaw did not offer the proper setting for an upcoming young artist, which is why in 1902 Eugene moved to the place where all artists did if they wished to become “artists:” namely Paris. There he studied at the Ecoles-des-Beaux-Artes for a year from where he moved to Italy to continue his education for a year, from where he returned to Paris. It sounds that Eugene was well on his way to become an artist: at least he travelled like one.

Fame caught up with him as people realized the true extent of his talent, as even the French government purchased his works to be displayed in various galleries. He put on numerous exhibits during the pre-First World War period that led many to be fascinated by his own take on modernism, but still loyalty to certain traditional forms. His uniqueness in that sense is one of the reasons why he gained so much popularity-something that later led him to be given a teaching position at the Academie de Pallette. After growing tired of teaching art to students, which is of course rather common amid ‘the greats,’ he moved to Poland for a brief period, only again to return to his old love, undoubtedly, Paris. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that he also lived in Venice, and good-old Nice for a brief period of time. Talk about living the ‘artiste’ life.

Eugene had placed a great deal of importance on his truism to the old forms, making his hatred of new modernist approaches, despite the ones he used, a public reality. It is obvious still in his work that if he could have without being fully rejected, he would have gone to the old basics of pure traditional Renaissance, Baroque and, even the 19th century revivalist Pre-Raphaelite ideals. Yet, I dare say, the times that he was a part of slightly forced him to stick to some modern techniques. Still, this might be pure speculation on my part. The extent of his pieces however tend to exhibit Vermeer-like-tendencies.

There is one difference that is most noteworthy. The people in Zak’s landscapes- not his portraits- were very similar to dehumanized mannequins, all with disjointed parts. The lack of fluidity that he presented in his human forms is without a doubt a step away from the traditional styles which mostly concentrated on capturing the exactness of the human body in the most specific manner possible. For Zak the human body was a terse object amid a sea of inexplicable landscapes. Details were not the epicentre of what he believed in.

During his last days in Paris he worked close with the famous Jewish artist- Marc Chagall- whose surreal tendencies far surpassed those of Zak. Yet their partnership was cut short when Zak died of a sudden heart attack in 1926. His legacy of course although not praised nearly enough does play an essential role to the way we understand the merger, yet still dichotomy, of art.