Curators: Leila Mehulić, Lucija Vuković and Helena Puhara
Text written by: Leila Mehulić
Bukovac House, 8 October 2018 – 16 October 2018
The exhibition has been conceived as the product of the one-week residential programme British Artists at the Bukovac House in Cavtat, Croatia. This creative exchange between the Bukovac House and the British photographer Chiara Mac Call was inspired by the specific connection between Vlaho Bukovac (Cavtat, Croatia, 1855 – Prague, Czech Republic, 1922) and Great Britain. Bukovac, a Cavtat native, left a mark in the English region of Yorkshire by portraying members of high society.
Leila Mehulić invited Mac Call to establish a dialogue with Bukovac’s life, oeuvre, and especially with his childhood home in Cavtat, which was reconverted into a museum in 1976. Upon returning to his homeland, the seventeen-year-old Bukovac – already burdened by his overseas experiences – offered his ‘ćaća’ (father) to limn the interior of their family home. Amid his work, word spread throughout Cavtat that he was a painter. The fantastic frescoes transformed not only the simple two-storey stone house, but also Bukovac’s identity. Even though he would continue his naval service, the house itself had given him the first confirmation that he was indeed an artist.
The title of the exhibition, Traces, evokes associations to the relevant project of Lady Jadranka Beresford-Peirse, Searching for Blaise. Specifically, Blaise was one of the pseudonyms used by the artist during his early periods of creativity in France and England. This valuable, virtually detective-like endeavour of this patron and guardian of Croatian heritage enriched Bukovac’s legacy with new knowledge on the lost paintings, unveiled to the audience of Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery the exceptional artistic oeuvre, and brought to Cavtat the donation by Zorica Glen, stepdaughter of Bukovac’s son Ago. Eight years ago, art historians Lucija Vuković, Helena Puhara, and Rachel Rossner curated the exhibition of ten donated paintings at the Bukovac House.
On the other hand, Chiara Mac Call concentrated on the doubt regarding the trace left by somebody who passes through a memorial collection or a cultural monument. Thereby she not only considered her own intimate position, but also the much wider postcolonial discourse.
Coincidentally, Mac Call is the granddaughter of Anna Maria Palombino, née Lambrazi, who enrolled in painting studies in Florence in the very period in which Bukovac’s daughters were trying their hand at painting, and of an Irish intellectual and friend of George Bernard Shaw, the most renowned aficionado of Dubrovnik and its surroundings. She spent the first years of her life in Mozambique, and her early youth in Rome. At seventeen, she began studying psychology at the University of Canterbury, and proceeded to obtain an MA in Criminalistics at Cambridge. After being engaged in civil law and working with underage offenders for a number of years, she decided to dedicate herself professionally to her early obsession – photography. However, with each new implemented project, Mac Call remained bound to the problems of vulnerable social groups, be it victims of gender-based violence or legal guardians of patients suffering from dementia.
The Cavtat cycle Traces is her first work that deals with formal questions of fine arts, but which simultaneously also refers to the permanently topical political subject of restitution of artwork appropriated from the Mediterranean area. Her statement: “You came to the house that contains all those traces of Vlaho Bukovac, but what will you leave behind? It is good to be humble and listen to its echo. The walls speak.”, addressed to the arrogance of the former colonial power and the superficiality of mass tourism, presupposes own principle of respect and empathy.
In the formal sense, Mac Call was mostly engaged in the interpretations of different aspects of Bukovac’s oeuvre, which she discovered in various, occasionally secluded spaces of the house. She was especially preoccupied with examining the painter’s characteristic plein air lighting and studying the poses of Bukovac’s models, which she perpetually simulated in front of the ocular. All of the above is comprised in the self-portrait in a light blue Victorian dress. This study of light and the human body in the interior is the key motif of the exhibition; it is placed on the piano in the room by the entrance, and serves as an introduction into a kind of performative method through which we are guided by the artist. Mac Call also responded with a series of other actions to the specific task of the artist-in-residence programme – i.e., the making of a site-specific work that holds associations and reflections of a specific place, the Bukovac House.
In that sense, her cycle is the successor of a series of refined exhibitions with which Lucija Vuković and Helena Puhara, curators of the Bukovac House, presented similar interactions, from 2004 to 2015. Artists such as Vlado Martek, Boris Cvjetanović, Božidar Jurjević, Raphael Mognetti, Barak Reiser, Amel Ibrahimović, Ivana Pegan Baće, Hrvoje Mitrov, Tomislav Pavelić, etc., also entered into dialogues with the Bukovac House, or or the region.
Chiara Mac Call virtually enters the pores and the viscera of the House. With the work Listening, Whispering, Becoming, she blends with the colour of the wall, with this superficial layer of the edifice’s “skin,” peeks from behind the wall niches in a humorous surrealist manner… In the work that is reminiscent of Francesca Woodman and her dialogue with the Roman houses in which she stayed, Mac Call uses the method of long exposure so as to finally turn into a ghostly figure resembling the delusions in English Gothic novels.
The room in which Bukovac’s granddaughter Jelica Radosavljević – a painter who had tragically died young in that very same Cavtat – left her trace was especially important to Mac Call. Shortly before coming to Cavtat, she received the news that her own friend had committed suicide. Upon hearing of a similar fate, she decided to dedicate the room to the deceased young women by introducing two small installations.
Alongside the window with a view of palm trees and the blue lagoon, she laid a self-portrait that embodied the illusion of the cheerful innocence of youth. She accompanied it with a counterpoint – her own effigy transformed into a sinister object. It peeks behind the slightly open door of an old closet – the sphere of the unconscious, the suppressed, and the concealed. Mac Call used the easel of Bukovac’s atelier to exhibit several studies of light, homages to Bukovac’s plein air paintings. They had been chosen from a group of several thousand photographs, with which the artist analysed Bukovac’s creative methods.
There should be noted not only the exceptionally short duration of the residency, but also that the resident artist only had a couple of days to prepare due to unforeseen circumstances. Prompted and guided by visual artist Petra Kralj Fox, Museum Educator at the Bukovac House, Chiara Mac Call also managed to carry out a workshop at which the youngest residents of Konavle mastered a series of photographic methods, which she herself used when making the exhibition.
Finally, she decided to leave another trace of her presence. On the table at which Vlaho Bukovac used to sit, she laid a series of postcards with scenes of her own impressions – for those who are yet to pass through this House/Museum.