Visual Longings For Deeper Truths
© Marko Tokić: Marko in the gallery Modro, Zagreb
"Abstract is not a style. I simply want to make a surface work. This is just a use of space and form: it's an ambivalence of forms and space."
- Joan Mitchell
In this February issue, I am enthusiastic to present the contemporary art of Marko Tokić, a Croatian painter, psychotherapist, and associate professor at the Department of Philosophy at the Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb. With several scientific and professional works so far, his research is centered on the history of philosophy (mainly ancient and modern philosophy), art theory, and the relationship between philosophy and psychotherapy.
In this text, we will be concerned about Marko's artistic expression, in connection with his radical views of conceiving freedom, certain philosophical approaches, and his instinctive, childlike freedom in painting. As a seeker for deeper meanings and a true intellectual, Marko creates paintings that speak from the silence. It is as if his anarchist belief in the freedom of self, resulting in empty, clean canvases, creates a specific silence from which the meaning is born. Essentially drawn to the seeming emptiness of his paintings, we can almost immediately sense the complexity of subliminal visual voices, pointing out the intellectual dimension of Marko's work. Up to this point Marko has had several group and solo exhibitions, with the latest one called Revelation (transl. from Croatian "Otkrivanje") in 2023, held in the gallery Modro in Zagreb.
© Marko Tokić: A Night and Half a Day (transl. from Croatian: Noć i pola dana)
So far, Marko, you are one of the most atypical artists that I have presented: you research philosophical texts, you engage in psychotherapy work and, as I read, you have been painting since the earliest days. If you can remember, what were your first motives, what were the feelings behind those first works, and in short, what was the impetus?
My journey into the world of art began already in kindergarten, when, surprisingly, I discovered a strong emotional connection with art. It was through a simple drawing that brought tears to my eyes, even though I couldn't figure out why. That moment, though confusing, was an early indication of a deep emotional connection I felt towards art. Now I understand that it was precisely that strong emotional force, which was inexplicably close to me in childhood, and at the same time enveloped in a sense of awe, that became the fundamental element of my artistic expression.
I remember how visiting my grandfather and grandmother in the countryside, I was fascinated by the watercolors in my grandfather's study room. The subject of the painting was not so important as the way it was expressed. For months, I was trying to replicate that watercolor, enchanted by the fluidity of the brush and the way the color and blanks on paper communicated. That fascination with the whiteness that is created with the right brush strokes, reflected my early-developed love for art.
Although I technically successfully copied the watercolor, I always felt that something was missing. Now I realize that it was a lack of existential experience, which I simply could not have at such an early age. But that feeling, that longing for something deeper, was the driving force behind my continuous research and development as an artist. Art has become a tool for my exploration of that elusive depth, a way to express and explore the complexity of human experience.
Your works are a reflection of a Dada style. To what extent are you a dissident/anarchist, and how do you view society?
In my youth, I was part of the Zagreb anarchist movement, where, through writing a fanzine, organizing performances, and street actions, I actively advocated for anarcho-primitivism. That period of my life marked my view of the world, and elements of that ideology are still present in my life, although over time I developed a more complex view of society. Criticism of modern society has always been my personal topic. The unconventional way of thinking, which I advocated from the early days, extended to existentialist themes, especially to the existential need for authenticity. It reflects my feelings and perspectives.
Today, when I connect my anarchist beliefs from my youth with the phenomenological and existentialist worldview to which I now adhere, I understand that my preference for personal freedom remains unchanged. This freedom comes from the rejection of external authorities, opposing hetero-patriarchal norms, rejecting false moralism and alienating discourses, including limiting scientific perspectives, and avoiding all forms of modern idolatry of any kind. In all this, my artistic expression remains a reflection of the search for authenticity, freedom of expression, and a deeper, truer experience of the world.
© Marko Tokić: The King (Kralj), 2024
Where do you see the link between your painting and philosophy, especially when it comes to the unconventional expression of freedom of thought?
My artistic path and philosophical interests are closely intertwined. During my philosophy studies, I started writing the book Walking Barefoot, which expressed the ideas of anarcho-primitivism and advocated the return to the culture of Paleolithic man. Although later I became critical of that book, it led me to Professor Jadranka Damjanov, perhaps our greatest art historian. Her course Paleolithic and Modern Art, and her workshop The Art of Adventure, which she held at the Open University, had a profound effect on my artistic development.
During the collaboration with Professor Damjanov, I began a thorough re-examination of my artistic attitudes. Her workshops encouraged me to fall in love with Romanesque art, and through this, I became acquainted with the work of Pseudo-Dionysus the Areopagite. His work, imbued in Neoplatonism, had a significant influence on the aesthetics of Romanesque bestiaries, which additionally fueled my already strong interest in Platonism. In researching the Pythagorean idea of cosmic harmony and the Platonic understanding of the duality between unity and multitude, heaven and earth, night and day, I discovered something that resonated with my childhood experience of pure whiteness on paper, which was brought to life with real strokes of a watercolor brush in my grandfather's study.
These cosmological principles, woven into Platonic and Pythagorean thought, surprisingly merge with my earliest impressions of beauty, my criticism of contemporary society, and existentialist thoughts. Although I'm still struggling to find the perfect words that would accurately express this complex connection, my inner being intuitively feels the synthesis between these seemingly unrelated elements - the worlds of ancient philosophy, anarcho- existentialist concept of freedom, and the spontaneity of children's artistic expression.
© Marko Tokić: Revelation on the top (Otkrivanje na vrhu), 2023
I remember once reading a quote by Tristan Tzara in which he says that art is a private, individual thing, artists create for themselves, and in that sense the role of the observer is irrelevant. When it comes to your painting, to what extent is the public's feedback important to you?
To be honest, I am not indifferent to the public's reactions to my work. However, my interest does not focus on the reactions of people who are not artistically educated. I know many intellectuals, including some colleagues who lecture on art at the college, who may know the historical and theoretical aspects of art but don't feel its essence. I believe that everyone can feel art, but not everyone develops this ability adequately. When I spent time in the studio with Roberta Vilić, our painter with an impressive portfolio of about thirty exhibitions, and a dear friend whose painting I deeply appreciate, we often venture into conversations about the subtleties of our images. Sometimes, while we observe together the details like tiny spots of color on the edge of the canvas, which seem structurally essential, but at the same time somehow mismatched, it happens that we both simultaneously feel and recognize that same elusive feeling that tells us that something is wrong with that stain. In those moments, I realize that art is not only in the obvious but also in the invisible coincidences that make up the essence of images.
The essence of art does not lie in the academic interpretations of great art historians, who are studied as a mere phenomenon, nor in the opinions of philosophers like Hegel or Heidegger, who believe that the true understanding of art results exclusively from intellectual analysis of its essence while ignoring the immediate experience of life that carries the work of art.
I believe that the essence of art, on the contrary, manifests itself in love, and love for the sincere brush strokes, strong or gentle scratching of the surface, reckless colors, fascinating overlapping surfaces, and non-symmetrical shapes that complement the symmetry of the image. For me, true art is in those small, mostly unpredictable moments of the life of a painting, which goes beyond the mere search for motifs, style, or other elements that experts tend to emphasize. Painting for me is not a choice between creating for myself or others. It's like asking if you're alive for yourself or someone else.
My painting stems from a deep inner need, similar to the basic instinct for life. I paint from the same kind of love with which a person loves life - unconditional and instinctive. It is love for the truth of life and for the beauty that I see around me and that I want to express through my artwork. My work is a reflection of that unstoppable need to express and share the instinct of life, not an attempt to please myself or others. It is an expression of my being, something that is more than me, driven by something that is deeply rooted in my love for the whiteness of paper or canvas, and everything it brings.
© Marko Tokić: Cor Meum Tumultuatur, 2024
Could you describe your way of visual expression as creation through the intellect?
Of course, my expression can be described as creation through the intellect. I don't agree with the theories that strictly separate emotional from intellectual, affective from cognitive. I think that such superficial divisions create stereotypical opinions, like those in Chagall's fairy tales they classify landscapes exclusively as lyrical emotional expression, as opposed to Mondrian's painting which is often mistaken for ascetically intellectual. In my opinion, Chagall is not any less intellectual than Mondrian, just as Mondrian is no less emotional than Chagall.
Intellect does not mean only rational judgment that relies on physically measurable properties or mathematical concepts. Intellect also implies intuitive knowledge that directly captures the essence of a phenomenon, enabling us to understand what something means in its most basic form of existence. With this kind of intuitive insight comes a sense of fulfillment, a sublime emotion that is the result of a deep and authentic understanding of reality. In my artistic work, intellectual painting implies emotional development and vice versa. I believe that intellect and emotional experience are deeply connected, enabling true and complete experience and the creation of a work of art.
Can we say that there is a part of the manifestation of children's regression in your work? To what extent did painting play a therapeutic role in your case?
That is a big and important question for me! In one of his famous statements, Picasso said that it took him six years to learn to paint as an academic artist, but a lifetime to learn to paint like a child. However, my approach to painting is not directed towards a child's way of painting. Instead, I aspire to bring to life my first expressions and experiences through my lines and painting interventions. When I paint, I search for those original feelings of the world - the first exaltation, joy, fear, and sadness - because I believe that through them my art gets its most authentic form.
When I move away from the little Marko inside me, my paintings lose that vitality and strength; they become lifeless. In psychotherapy, regression to earlier emotional stages can help in understanding unresolved emotional issues. But in painting, that type of regression serves a different purpose. It is not a tool for introspection or therapy, but a path towards the authentic expression and restoration of the life of art, aimed at renewing and conveying those first, uncorrupted impressions of the world that shaped my artistic expression.
© Marko Tokić: Untitled, 2021
Regarding the technique itself, what materials do you use, and to what extent is the material itself (canvas or paper) chosen to depict a certain state of consciousness?
For me, the material I use in my artistic work is extremely important. Oftentimes, I feel a strong need for artistic expression amid my everyday activities, such as talking with friends, reading books, or going for a walk in the city. In those moments, I usually don't feel the need to go to the studio where I paint on large canvases, I am more attracted to painting in the intimacy of my home, with the use of various papers and "quick" techniques.
I am particularly fond of collage. The process of draping, cutting, and gluing different types of paper, and newspaper clippings, and then intervening with ink has a special appeal to me. Black ink on white paper allows me to convey my artistic vision most directly. There is also dry pastel on paper, that I often use. These techniques serve me in establishing a direct relationship with the world, reflecting a consciousness that is not reflective.
On the other hand, working in the studio on large canvases is a more demanding process for my reflective consciousness. In this case, my artistic expression develops through deeper reflection and structured ideas, often involving more complex and time-consuming techniques. So, the choice of material and technique largely depends on the state of consciousness I am in and what I want to express in my artwork.
Due to the expressed minimalism of your work, I would like us to take a look back at Eastern philosophy. I don't know if you are familiar with the Japanese concept of "ma", which calls for silence, letting go, an emptiness in which symbolic meaning arises. Are there any philosophers of that direction who have influenced you, and do you study Eastern philosophy?
Yes, Eastern wisdom has a significant influence on my artwork, especially in the context of minimalism. The term "ma" is something I am familiar with and deeply appreciate. My long-standing practice of Buddhism allowed me to explore and experience these values firsthand.
My early fascination with the work of artists like Antoni Tapies and Cy Twombly motivated me to visit Bhutan and meet some of the great Buddhist teachers. The Japanese aesthetics of Zen, which I consider an unattainable ideal, has a special place in my heart. I am fascinated by the way Zen influenced Tapies' creation, and the connections that were made between Buddhism and Western painting after World War II, especially in the area of abstract art.
This Eastern perspective allows me to explore ideas of emptiness in my works, silence, and minimalism, providing a deeper insight into the symbolic meaning hidden behind each stroke and every gap on the paper or canvas. It's not just a technique; it's a way of life!
© Marko Tokić: Winter Solstice, 2023
To what extent do you think that we can heal ourselves with creative work?
Although I am aware of the value of art therapy and other forms of connecting art with psychotherapy, I am personally not inclined to those approaches. I admit that such methods are not harmful and may have therapeutic value for some individuals. For example, if an individual is faced with anxiety or depression and turns to painting or other forms of artistic expression, that can serve as useful occupational therapy. Such activities can stimulate the development of imagination, provide a means of researching new forms of communication, and help in processing and expressing emotions.
However, I think there is a clear difference between using art as a therapeutic tool and creating art as an end in itself. An artist does not create primarily with the intention of treatment of his soul or as a response to inner psychological needs. Art, in its own and purest form, is not a means to some other goal, but an end in itself. Therefore, while I acknowledge the usefulness of art therapy in certain contexts, I believe that yes art should remain autonomous and unhindered by assumptions about its therapeutic role.
© Marko Tokić: Melody Lingers On Into The Silence, 2024
As a completely unconventional painter, how hard is it to find a support system in Zagreb? In terms of collaborations? Spaces to hold exhibitions and such?
Despite the challenges, I have managed to find some support in Zagreb. I work in the studio with Robert Vilić, who is a close friend of mine, and I am connected to the art circle around the gallery Modro, run by the academic painter Irena Jurković. But I have to admit that I never found myself completely in the atmosphere of Zagreb. When I travel outside the city, I feel relief and freedom, while I often associate returning to Zagreb with a feeling of anxiety. I feel the city as boring and predictable, calm, with a lack of liveliness and inspiration.
Zagreb's art scene, although small, struggles with internal conflicts and is often under the influence of individuals who promote their own interests. This results in predictability and a lack of constructive artistic actions. I also notice that some young artists prefer following trends rather than devoting themselves to deep reflection on art. It seems to me that whatever movement that strives for a deeper exploration of the meaning of life, like Dadaism, would be stifled in such a conformist atmosphere.
There are galleries in Zagreb where I would like to exhibit, but every exhibition requires a lot of effort and personal presentation. This convinces me even more of the need to awaken Zagreb's artistic scene scenes from the slumber of conformity. Too often, art is reduced to superficial copying of trends, like hyperrealism in photocopying, pandering to provincial taste, admiration of empty skills, meaningless figuration, or kitsch abstraction. Art should be a space for brave exploration of the truth, a place where established norms are challenged, not just reflected in superficial trends.
More about the artist:
Wonderful works ! A night and half a day is my favourite one.
An interview with the Croatian painter Marko Tokić is a skilfully guided entry into the interior of a gifted and very interesting contemporary artist. In a wide range of his interests, Tokić eloquently interweaves his reflections on life, psychotherapy and philosophy, showing how all these sources help in building the autonomous world that he depicts in his artworks.