by Roderick Conway Morris

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Collection of the artist
Venetian Façade by Safet Zec, 2010

A Bosnian Painter's Windows on War and Life

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 10 September 1999


'The house where I grew up in Sarajevo was opposite a big house with a large facade and many windows. I've been fascinated by them ever since. Painting windows is like painting a portrait for me. They are like people, they change their aspect as the day and night passes. They're ever present in our lives.'

Safet Zec was speaking in his newfound oasis of calm - a studio on a quiet canal a few minutes from the hubbub of Piazza San Marco. It was the eve of his first show in the city, called 'Le Finestre' (Windows), at the Galleria del Leone on the island of Giudecca until Sept. 25.

Around him were scores of canvases, paintings on board, watercolors, drawings in pen and ink and etchings of windows seen from within and without, gardens, trees, landscapes, still lifes, portraits, studies of hands, arms, human figures.

Before the disintegration of Yugoslavia, Zec was a well-known painter at home, his fame steadily spreading abroad and his work being shown in galleries all over Europe, in North and South America and Japan. In 1992, unable to continue to paint and support his wife and young children as the bombardment of Sarajevo intensified, he left the city, and, after traveling through Austria and Slovenia, at last found studio space in the town of Udine to the northeast of Venice.

'I managed to start working again straightaway,' he said. 'Now, I don't know how I did it, but I just worked and worked. It was a kind of refuge, like a drug for me.'

This extended period of reluctant exile in provincial obscurity produced an extraordinarily rich body of work, which Zec has continued to add to with undiminished energy since he found a place to live and paint in Venice a little more than a year ago. And plans are now afoot for a large-scale retrospective exhibition of pictures from before, during and after the war, to be held next year in Sarajevo and then to tour several cities in France, starting in Lille.

Zec was born in 1943, the last of eight children of a poor Muslim cobbler. Displaced by the war that was then ravaging the region of Gorazde and Rogatica, where the family lived, they ended up in Sarajevo.

'From very early childhood I aspired to be a great painter,' Zec said. 'And I worked and practiced constantly to master all the skills I knew I would need to become one.'

By the time he made it to the Belgrade Academy of Fine Arts he was clearly something of a prodigy. 'I could do a portrait in half an hour, an hour, which was taking the other students three or four days.' One of Zec's teachers, wondering what was left to teach him, jokingly suggested that he start again from scratch, this time using his left hand.

Yet when Zec was in Belgrade, post-modernism was well on the way to becoming the ruling orthodoxy. 'There was a period when I became very depressed,' he said. 'When I saw who was winning prizes, who were being declared great artists, when I thought of all the years of labor I had put in to become a good artist, only to find myself redundant, my skills no longer required, it was as though everything I had done up to then was for nothing. I even destroyed most of my earlier work. I thought of giving up altogether and becoming a musician. But in the end I knew I had to go on painting. That was my fate. And I decided, if I'm never going to be in fashion - so be it.'

Ironically, although Zec's work was running counter to prevailing trends, the public and even some of his professors were evidently struck by it. 'When I graduated, one of my teachers said he wanted to buy one of my pictures - which was virtually unheard of,' he said.

For some years the artist continued to live in Belgrade, during which time he and his wife, Ivana (also a painter), bought and restored an old house in the historic Ottoman town of Pocitelj, near Mostar, which was becoming a kind of artists' colony. He established a workshop there to print engravings in 1983. Four years later, he moved back to Sarajevo, where he began renovating old spaces to create a house and studio (while still shuttling back and forth to Pocitelj).

In 1991, Zec's dream of a tranquil life devoted to artistic endeavor began to evaporate. The war arrived first in Pocitelj. The ancient mosque there was destroyed, Zec's printworks and studio was burned out, and his engraved plates, representing years of work, disappeared. The town, Zec said, is now abandoned, the window frames and floors of the remaining houses having been used for firewood. The siege of Sarajevo followed, the deaths of friends and colleagues, the decision to seek refuge elsewhere.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023