Immersion Into the Origin of the Myth

author Jagoda Buić
interviewed by Vera Grimmer

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Interviewed in Dubrovnik on 15 September 2015


The Grande damme of the Croatian and European visual art scene, Jagoda Buić has aspired to conquering new fields since the beginning of her work until present time, in costume design and scenography, as well as primarily, in the art of tapestry. She has freed tapestry from two-dimensional aspect and bestowed it with the meaning of sculpture. Her tapestries, exhibited in significant European and American museums possess primary, archetypal qualities, which is also probably because of their connectedness with the work of traditional weavers from rural areas. She believes that the strongest formative influence was Zagreb’s art scene of the late 1950s and 1960s, a time of unusually vibrant and creative blossoming in different fields, from visual arts to theatre and architecture.


ORIS — I would like to start the interview with an impressive quote by Tonko Maroević: Directors used to come to Jagoda Buić when the epic past, elementary Greek scenes, Celtic or Slavic stories were to be evoked, when the origin of the myth, taken from the source, was to be explored and when the elementary or original was to be presented.


Jagoda Buić — You reminded me of the time when I was very young and lucky to work with the mythical repertoire and, by force of circumstances, classical repertoire of festivals, which was in accord with my inclination towards starting from the source. It actually defines me in every work. In the most basic drawing I like to get to the core, to work as if there were nothing before. When I think of the Greeks, I always think how brilliant they were because there were no Greeks before them. There is a beautiful quote by Jure Kaštelan which was the motto of all my efforts for years. Tonko and Jure were both my close friends, they came from the same land, the same soil and stone. I am very proud that they both saw it in me.


ORIS — This labyrinth, dark form the light, the hand which documents by turning time into a shape. This quote by Jure Kaštelan also illustrates the distinctive features and basic elements of your work.


Jagoda Buić — With this text Kaštelan defined me in advance. I am very proud to have inspired him to write such a line. Gaudi encouraged me with his words: If you want to be original, return to your sources. There is no international artist; every artist comes from his land and has roots in the country that has shaped him. He will, however, place himself in an internationally significant context using some other instruments. I realised early on that French modern tapestry had no modern qualities other than the fact that they copied modern painting. Marie Cuttoli was the first, Jean Lurçat was also important: an entire brilliant team that had great privileges. The French did not want to break with the tradition they had taken over from the Flemish and they invested a lot of money in the studio in Aubusson and Gobelins School in Paris. A means of art cannot be used to present another art form, which means that something that is woven cannot be presented by painting. Fabric has its material subconsciousness and structured consciousness.


ORIS — You have made a breakthrough in the development of tapestry and presented some new views and methods. You have actually freed tapestry of its flatness and transformed it into a three-dimensional structure. Can you maybe draw some parallels from the period when you were creating simultaneously with the Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz, when neither of you knew of each other’s existence? I think that her art expression is completely different from your creative work, though. 


Jagoda Buić — We began together; those were the happy times when innovators used to meet as friends and shared their beliefs over a glass of wine. There was also a group of Czechs and Magdalena Abakanowicz was, naturally, the most distinguished among the Polish. I used to exhibit my work with her – there were those happy beginnings full of enthusiasm, the period called the Slavic wave in the world. Magdalena and I were on top, at the same time we were at the head of the avant-garde, which resulted in a warm friendship. Later on, each of us followed our own path. She is absolutely worthy of the acclaim of the Polish nation. They stood behind her in the full sense of the word, which cannot be said about me. The French did not want to lose their prestige in modern tapestry and, even though they disagreed with me, they gave me the opportunity to have my own studio, school for young students and to hold exhibitions in French museums. This started in the Museum of the City of Paris in 1975, when I exhibited my ambient compositions for the first time. I had long experience of stage design in open spaces so I designed this new spatial concept I had always aspired to create.


ORIS — It can be said that your sculptural tapestry atmospheres, archetypical and solemn, almost remind us of the ancient theatre and, as you have mentioned, it is not accidental that your life in the theatre is connected with antiquity. If I may, I would like to share one of my most powerful theatrical experiences with you – I still remember the play Oedipus the King at the Zagreb Drama Theatre in 1964, and directed by Dino Radojević. Your costumes carried the play and there were these beautiful actors on stage (Tonko Lonza as Oedipus and Vjera Žagar Nardelli as Jocasta). The costumes evoked archaic representations of human figures – the figures would resemble columns and afterwards they would take human forms. Also, the colours defined the destiny of the characters. 


Jagoda Buić — Your words about the Oedipus in the Drama Theatre have moved me because I don’t remember the play anymore and I’m very happy to hear that it has remained etched in your memory. It means that I haven’t been working in vain. When you work in the theatre, you always have the feeling that everything is so ephemeral. When the curtain came down after the premiere, I always approached the empty stage in front of the curtain, look at the empty seats and say: Yet another wave of euphoria has died down. Another cycle has finished. Never more! I have never designed costumes, I have always created characters. I’m interested in the human figure in costume. Sometimes the actor wears the costume and, more often, the costume wears the actor. For example, the costumes for Hamlet, which was performed at Fort Lovrijenac in 1974, can illustrate this well. I have to say that it was really brave of me to ask of the theatre to afford the luxury of hand-woven costumes for the actors. My weavers on the Pešter Plateau, in the Sjenica area, created them. The actors were barefoot on warm stones. They wore almost no make-up so the sun on their faces remained unspoilt. It was an extremely nice experiment that was never carried out again. These costumes are forgotten today; I found them at the bottom of the storehouse of the Dubrovnik Summer Festival. I saved them and now they are exhibited in various museums – in Salzburg, Venice, etc.


ORIS — You have mentioned weavers from the Sandžak region. It was a very specific method of work you decided to employ. Was there any conscious exchange of ideas, regarding the innovations in the weaving technique? 


Jagoda Buić— First, they used to weave like their grandmothers. They began weaving when they were eight. At the time when I was learning how to play the piano, they had already spent their whole youth weaving. When we met, we were a winning combination. I believed them and they believed me. With a lot of love and enthusiasm and under no pressure our cooperation produced exciting results. The Pešter Plateau is situated between Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro; in the middle of nowhere, figuratively speaking. It takes the same amount of time to reach it from Sarajevo, Dubrovnik and Belgrade. I used to travel for nine hours by bus – with baskets and chickens over my head – to reach them and work with them at 20 degrees below zero. I used to draw on ice because it was easier to draw on ice than on snow. We achieved some beautiful results which, unfortunately, disappeared in the horrors of the last war. I still keep in touch with some of the weavers and am very grateful to them. After my adventure with the tapestry and weaving, I found a new medium – paper. Paper is smart and supple, whether it is just a box or the finest Japanese paper.


ORIS — You presented your works in paper at the exhibition titled Carta canta organised at the Glyptotheque of Zagreb in 2008. 


Jagoda Buić — They were first exhibited at the Skenderija Centre in Sarajevo. The rooms in the Glyptotheque that are extremely beautiful gave me the courage and impulse to carry on. It was an experiment for me, but when I engaged in a dialogue with the rooms, it also continued elsewhere. I have just left five huge collages at my studio in Provence, which are related to the topics that affect me. One collage is called Lampedusa, another Migration, then Escape, and finally Dragon which refers to the technique children use when they make dragons. It is not possible to distance yourself from the events around you; they have to affect you. If you have a heart and a soul, you cannot remain unaffected by the scenes of hands reaching out of water that overwhelms them so callously.


ORIS — You went to the Academy of Applied Arts in Vienna. What is your view on the relation between applied and so-called pure art? 


Jagoda Buić — I was a student of the then famous professor Otto Niedermoser at the Department of Interior Design. Back then there was a war between students from Schillerplatz 8 (Academy of Fine Arts) and Stubenring 2 (Academy of Applied Arts). It was a war and discussion. Art is art. There is no applied or non-applied art. Applied art is, of course, in a far more difficult position than this so-called free art because it has to obey the rules of practical application.


ORIS — We have been talking about the process of your education which, in fact, started in Zagreb, but had actually begun much earlier. It began in your parents’ home, where you had the opportunity to come into contact with music and art. Then it continued in Zagreb, at the Academy of Applied Arts. 


Jagoda Buić — The process of my education was, of course, very exciting. I had Austrian and French governesses, took ballet and piano lessons, went to school… I had an idyllic childhood. Back then we lived at the Riva waterfront in the city of Split. A pleasant ambience, which was created by the paintings from the Croatian Modernism that had been given to my father with love, dominated the Katalinić house at the pier of the city of Split. Then, one day, the world shook before our eyes, the bombs fell and when I opened my eyes, there was the Second World War; it began on 6th April 1941. I actually received education during the Second World War – when I was faced with life, death, real problems and indisputable values, which are probably reflected in the mythical that we have already discussed. My education continued in life-threatening circumstances. The play Glembajevi was performed during the curfew. My mother still had her Leopardi on her bedside table and time was set by Dante. The fascist Blackshirts told me to salute romanamente but I did not do it. They told me again to do it, but I never raised my hand. After I had rejected to raise my hand for the third time, they expelled me from all schools. I was not aware of the fact that my father could have been shot – back then my pride was more important to me than imminent danger. Then liberation came and we were all exhilarated. One day the school manager told me: Listen, Buić girl, you are not registered with the Young Socialist League of Yugoslavia. I asked her: Is it voluntary? She replied: Of course! Then I said: I am your only opportunity to prove it then. And I was expelled again from all schools and came to Dubrovnik. I came with a different wind, from a different town and a more open mentality. It was probably evident in my approach and it resulted in my success in school. My incomplete education was always supplemented by something new I would bring to the environment I arrived in. I came to Dubrovnik from Split, to Vienna from Rome, which was the centre of activities in the 1950s.


ORIS — It was a golden age. In 1951 Fellini made I Vitelloni and he made La Strada in 1953. 


Jagoda Buić — That’s right. I have seen Fellini in cafes. Therefore, I brought this new wind to Vienna with me.


ORIS — Was this milieu in Vienna stimulating for you when you were a student? Back then there were basement theatres, so-called Kellertheater, and the Burgtheater was still rather dusty – only in the 1980s, when Claus Peymann arrived, theatre became free and avant-garde and modern. 


Jagoda Buić — Friedrich Gulda, a world-famous pianist, used to play every night in a small club called Strohkoffer.


ORIS — Strohkoffer was the meeting place for the avant-garde. 


Jagoda Buić — Yes, we used to go to Strohkoffer every evening. I also used to visit concerts where Karajan and Furtwängler, in their epic competition, played the same repertoire over the course of fifteen days. All my colleagues came with sheet music, but not me, I behaved in the manner that is typical of those from the city of Split, and arrived without scores. One evening I had only one schilling in my pocket and I had to choose between eating Gulaschsuppe and going to the Brahms-Saal. At that time the bass of the young Čangalović resonated through this venue that has the best acoustics in Vienna. This was the time of real education!


ORIS — Let’s go back to the tapestry. What is your position on the gender definition of tapestry in the sense that it, according to its softness and suppleness, represents a female element? The tradition says that Ariadne’s thread saves Theseus, Penelope weaves and covers her bed, Parcae weaves destiny, etc. Is this woman’s predetermination for the art of tapestry close to you? 


Jagoda Buić — There is no doubt that some professions are associated with females. There are continuations that are linked to women’s destiny and it is no wonder that weaving, which was connected with the fireplace, had its continuation that also belongs to women’s destiny.


ORIS — In the 1950s and 1960s Zagreb had a lively avant-garde scene – in the theatre and other arts. The year of 1960 saw the beginning of a trend towards contemporary adaptations of classical antiquity plays, costumes, stage design and direction. It was the age of great directors, beginning with Gavella and his students: Spaić, Škiljan, Radojević, Violić, Paar, etc. The age of the avant-garde in art and architecture was especially connected with the group Exat 51, which must have caught your attention also with their integrative ideas. 


Jagoda Buić — It did more than just catch my attention; I was a part of those events. I cannot say that I participated in Radić and Richter’s heated discussions with Bernardi, Kristl… on most dangerous and most sublime problems of modern architecture and philosophy. I was involved in those discussions more as a listener and the mascot. I was so lucky to have lived in Zagreb in the late 1950s and 1960s. A cultural environment that was flourishing after the Second World War was represented by the best. Not because it was on the same level as the whole of Europe, but because it was on top – judging by its classical and quality education and extremely smart individuals, such as Richter, Bernardi, Radić and others. This was the same in the theatre – activities of the group of directors you have mentioned. I was thus a product of such Zagreb; of course, I was very fortunate to participate in this life as a student and an associate.


ORIS — And the muse.


Jagoda Buić — Sometimes.


ORIS — A kind of contemporary Cvijeta Zuzorić. 


Jagoda Buić — You are almost right – I used to be called Cvijeta in the Gymnasium of Dubrovnik. At our Academy of Applied Arts, Radovani, Richter, Branka Hegedušić, Tomašević… were our professors. It was a team that would be first-class anywhere in the world. We were great enthusiasts, students that turned the barracks, now the Klovićevi dvori Gallery, into our Academy. It takes immense enthusiasm to throw out military beds with all its tenants, to paint the walls of the barracks and create an exceptional school. I will never understand why it was closed down. We had extraordinary professors and made a great student team as well: Riba Lončarić, Lipovac, Bourek. More or less, all of the students were on the same level. Jakić, Pejaković. After two years, the Academy was closed down. We have never gotten over this fact or understood why it was done. Afterwards, I went to Vienna.


ORIS — Why do you think it was closed down when it had such individuals? Was this decision politically motivated? 


Jagoda Buić — I’d rather say it was because there was no understanding. The other Academy, the Academy of Fine Arts, was managed by privileged state artists and our environment was not cultured enough to understand the purpose of the Academy of Applied Arts. Every town had a vocational school, a school of crafts. From the viewpoint of the industry, therefore, there was no need for us.


ORIS — All these avant-garde movements were actually activities undertaken in spite of something – they existed within a system they were not in accord with. 


Jagoda Buić — People swam against the tide back then because anything else would have seemed like nothing at all. All the ideologies could only have been developed, thoughts could only have been expressed and activities could only have been carried out with resistance because back then the necessary energy was generated to make something intellectual and real, and not to keep it merely pragmatic. Having graduated from the Academy in Vienna, I came back and never thought about taking up a position or a studio. I came to the theatre and found my beautiful world there. Fancy that – it was not real, but a lie.


ORIS — Yes, but a lie more true than the life itself. 


Jagoda Buić — Of course. When Šerbedžija recited Shakespeare’s To be, or not to be this summer, I felt as if the performance had matured and become more true over the course of thirty-six years since the last time he delivered it at Fort Lovrijenac. Shakespeare would have been very satisfied because this brilliantly recited monologue was enriched with thirty-six years of knowledge and experience Šerbedžija so generously gave us.


ORIS — Your affinity and love for the artists of the 1970s and 1980s is well known.


Jagoda Buić — Yes, There were Džamonja, Murtić, Ružić, Gabrijel Stupica, Peđa Milosavljević, Bakić, Bernik, Lubarda. I dare say Ružić had the greatest talent for sculpture – he had such a genuine idea of what sculpture is, why it is made, and what it is made of. I wanted to show to the world what we were in the 1980s. There was only one country that could have competed with us – it was Spain, with Chillida and Tàpies.


ORIS — Your attitude towards contemporary movements in art is not too positive. 


Jagoda Buić — I think that this cosmic energy, this phenomenon of art is constant. This energy, called art, really exists. It finds its way as a subterranean river – it flows and exists somewhere. Naturally, we do not look for it there because it is not on the main road, but we cannot say that there is no art.


ORIS — You did plays in a historical ambience at the Split Summer Festival and Dubrovnik Summer Festival. If I may quote you, you were looking for: the answer to the challenge of the theatre in the open and the endangered existence of the human body in an authentic and monumental architectural space. 


Jagoda Buić — It was necessary to impose your concept upon the open environment or the architecture that has, in most cases, become a stage because it is strong and monumental. Usually it is Roman architecture, sometimes Greek. Sometimes, of course, it is nature as well. All three are very strong and put the human body to a test. The actor needs to be helped. I was very young when I was creating stage design in Peristil Square in Split, then also at the Dubrovnik Summer Festival. Costume design is completely different in the open from the one in closed space. Costume design in closed space is part of the magic, a make-up, so to speak. Costume design in the open requires a clear and pure approach. The costume has to be appropriate and endure the competition from monumental architecture. It has to fit architecture, but also to contrast it. The actor needs help in a way that he makes a sharp contrast with the environment, but then again that he does not blend in with the environment that is too strong. This was a very specific challenge for me and I hope that I succeeded in most cases. You have to forget about details, stick to the line of the costume of the time, but also create the impression that the volume of the body is larger than it really is.


ORIS — Does the costume affect the movement of the actor on stage? Costumes have to be adapted to the principle of directing or even be part of directing. 


Jagoda Buić — I was a good collaborator to directors because I worked in parallel with them. Stage movement is, naturally, conditioned by the costume and vice versa. The cooperation was rarely as good as it could have been, but I was not easily confused because – especially at the time when I worked a lot on the outdoor scenes – I was full of youthful enthusiasm and very stubborn, the qualities I still possess.


ORIS — This stubbornness of yours, as you have mentioned, surely motivates your strong desire to bring things to an end. You started with costume design, then continued with stage design and then later, in Richard III, the play you directed in 1997, you combined the three components. 


Jagoda Buić — Richard III was a dream come true. I did it for a great actor and a friend of mine – Predrag Vušović. I was inspired by my deep desire for total design. I was raised with the idea that total design was the final goal of all of our artistic and applicable aspirations. Everyone was very happy and satisfied except for the government. They said that I used the character of Richard iii to allude to President Tuđman, and the play was closed down after four performances. Richard iii is maybe Shakespeare’s most powerful text. It is set in the 14th century and includes the battles and other attractive scenes. I mostly feel inclined towards the Late Middle Ages, the beginning of the Renaissance. I managed to do my own total design and it was exactly with Richard iii. I made an entrance, and achieved something that satisfied me as well.


ORIS — Is stage design only the background or an actor in a play? 


Jagoda Buić — Definitely an actor. The stage design of the play performed in Split, Antigone, the Queen of Thebes, written by Tonči Petrasov Marović, consisted of five unfruitful elements that had a new layout in each scene. I projected a sky full of variously shaped clouds. Thus the clouds came alive and gave life to this moveable sculpture that created space.


ORIS — What was the connection between the scene in the play Richard III and the costumes? 


Jagoda Buić — You felt as if you had been leaving a medieval miniature, like the ones in incunabula: completely modernised and simplified. I just can’t stand when a text that is written for a certain period is transported into a different period because this has become a trend. If you do not dress Oedipus in jeans, you are not modern. What Oedipus gets with these jeans and what the jeans get with Oedipus – I do not know. Therefore, I think that this forceful insistence on a period that a text does not refer to takes away, from the text, everything that this time, mentality and morality provide as the meaning of the action itself.


ORIS — What was the concept of directing the play Richard III? 


Jagoda Buić — I did not deal with the concept; I was focused on Shakespeare. I felt sorry for every line I had to delete from the texts of the three queens that show the influence of Seneca on Shakespeare. But I followed the principle according to which the audience cannot sit through the play for more than two hours. I also took care of the rhythm of the play. The rhythm expressed the modernity. The intensity of the play was in accord with the specific intensity of living. I often thought that I had been born to be a director. I did not ask for it, of course, and if I had asked, I would not have been given the opportunity. At the time, you had to have glasses and a beard to be taken seriously. I worked with excellent directors: Tanhofer, Gavella, Paro, Spaić, Radojević, Violić… all great directors. I learnt more by being present at their rehearsals than I would have learnt if I had graduated from two academies.


ORIS — What costume designers influenced your work? 


Jagoda Buić — There were two great costume designers back then. One was Inga Kostinčer and the other my friend Boža Košak, who came from Maribor but lived in Rome. She was not a costume designer, but a Picasso of fashion. But she did not want to sign anything because she thought it was inelegant. Her work is thus not known today and I hope I will manage to organise an exhibition of her works in Slovenia, Croatia or in Trieste, where she was born. Immediately after I had received the award for my diploma work in Vienna, Boža and I were presented with the award at the international competition – Fashion in Rome. While other competitors did variations of the Roman costume, Boža’s idea was to print Piranesi’s motifs from the series Vedute di Roma on wide skirts. I made a dress that was called Fontana di Trevi and was made of beads that cascaded down the evening dress. The Colosseum was printed around the whole edge of the wide skirt of the other dress.


ORIS — You also did film costume design, the best of which can be seen in the film The Emperor’s New Clothes directed by Ante Babaja. Medieval miniatures that you have mentioned probably inspired the film. 


Jagoda Buić — The Costume Design Award was founded precisely for the filmThe Emperor’s New Clothes at the Pula Film Festival. I was very enthusiastic and managed to have everything on the white background. The floor was also white so there was no horizon.


ORIS — What is your experience with Peristil Square as a stage? 


Jagoda Buić — I designed the scene and the costumes for the opera Nabucco at the time when we did not have money – I could only have given a seven-branched Jewish menorah to each singer. Since there were two choirs, there were one hundred and twenty candlesticks in Peristil and nothing else. It was the most beautiful stage design– music, Peristil and the fire.


ORIS — Can you tell us something about the difference between the theatre and film costume design?


Jagoda Buić — Theatre and film costume design are as different as film and theatre. Theatre is a smart lie, and film is the fake truth. Therefore, everything that could evoke theatrical stylization should be avoided in the film.