Have you ever heard of Mate Lasić – the Dalmatian Rembrandt?
For me, this is one of my most special friends, so it’s difficult to write about him subjectively, but now it’s finally time to seriously take the pen and write a few words about him. The occasion is his first upcoming exhibition on May 27, 2023, where this genius painter will officially present himself to the public for the first time after 10 years of work.
I am proud that it was I who managed to persuade him to organize a public exhibition of his paintings for the first time, in his modest house in the middle of the small village of Konjsko in Dalmatian Zagora. Admiring his oil paintings under candlelight in a house converted into a 19th-century studio, is a unique experience that should not remain the privilege of a select few but a wider audience as well.
Why is the story of this humble painter so interesting, and who is Mate Lasić? How did he actually start painting, and why does everyone call him Rembrandt?
Mate, who had never picked up a paintbrush in his life, got the urge to start painting on an ordinary autumn evening in 2013 while watching a documentary about Rembrandt’s Night Watch with his family. He was so intrigued by Rembrandt’s life path that he soon acquired all possible literature about him, and after a while he also acquired canvases and brushes and started painting, trying to imitate the style of this great artist. Nothing strange, everyone who knew Mate at the time would say.
A special, bohemian lifestyle, a man who left school because he couldn’t learn anything he didn’t already know, as if he was destined for great things.
A man who had never painted before in his life nor ever dreamed of becoming a painter now started making drawings and oil on canvas paintings. Of course, nothing was the way he wanted it in the beginning. He would tear the paintings apart and throw them away if they weren’t just the way he wanted them. He would stand up and stumble, but he was more and more satisfied with his progress. The colors were mixed, the paintings were painted, and the atelier was filling up with his works, more vivid and ever more picturesque.
At one point, Mate realized that he had finally found the meaning of his life and that he would only paint.
The only question that arose was how the pictures would be found by those for whom they were created, and then dear God himself decided to intertwine his fingers in the life story of this bohemian. A theft happened in the village one morning, and during the police investigation, out of all the possible inspectors, the one with the most instant sense of art appeared in the village. Someone with an interest in football or someone with an interest in eco-production could have come instead, but the Almighty had other plans that morning and sent exactly the one who can recognize art. Coincidence or not? It depends on whether you believe in coincidence and fate.
During the tour of the village and his investigation, the inspector led the way to Mate’s house. And the artist, hungover and sleepless, opened the door of his modest home, still not understanding what the policeman was actually doing at his door, and invited him to his modest quarters for a glass of brandy. When the man crossed the doorstep, he had something to see. Instead of the typical interior of a modest house, he saw walls covered with dozens of drawings and oil paintings. The man ran out of breath!
Not even in his wildest dreams could he have imagined that such a studio with such works would be hidden in the middle of a small village. The inspector decided to convince Mate to invite a local television journalist to record his paintings, and this opened Pandora’s box.
In just several days after the story on Mate had been released, the small village of Konjsko was occupied by hordes of journalists—more people than anybody dared even dream of. Slobodna Dalmacija, RTL, NOVA, HRT—everybody wanted to do a story on this man.
Thanks to his paintings and his peculiar style, a man who had been totally anonymous a couple of days earlier became a star everybody wanted to write about overnight. The covers were screaming “REMBRANDT DISCOVERED IN THE MIDST OF DALMATIAN ZAGORA”. Everybody knew that in a small place called Konjsko, there had been an undiscovered painter, a genius.
Is there anyone who would not be interested in the story of a man who, without an academic education, lives in some dilapidated house under candlelight, is self-taught, and lives like it is the 19th century? Without a telephone, electricity, and all other wonders of modern life, he defies everyone and has only one goal. Draw his perfect picture.
Mate’s story attracted an entire crowd of the most diverse characters to Mate’s place. There were inveterate art lovers, collector souls, tycoons, celebrities, priests, criminals, other painters, and representatives of academic circles, as well as simple peasants who wanted to own his works, but also numerous caregivers who wanted to become his friends, agents, managers… One more person who appeared was little old me, and when two souls meet, interconnected through love for vine, cigars, chess, art, and non-material things, what else could happen but a true friendship? Mate liked my story on Forgotten Dalmatia just like I liked his story in which he, like Don Quixote, rushes alone against all, not giving up on his bohemian way of life.
Today, for me, there is no greater pleasure than escaping from the city to this painter’s temple; meditating there with a view of all those paintings under the candlelight is an indescribable experience.
And the painter—how do I describe that man to all of you? He is happy to quote poetry and loves to read Russian and French literature, including Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, and our own Tin Ujević. He loves to paint biblical motifs and portraits, and he especially likes to paint his self-portraits. He even created several landscapes in his wanderings with a brush and says that they were probably the first and last in his life. He hates ordering paintings. He likes red wine and beautiful women the most. A real bohemian, not really crazy? Who doesn’t like that?
In the moments of his wanderings, he wrote a collection of poetry, but in the end, he burned it. He says, I was not satisfied with what was written. My favorite is when he paints, with due respect to all written verses. Mate has been working on his latest opus of about 30 paintings for almost four years now. During that period, he didn’t paint at all for almost two years, because he didn’t feel like it. I can’t wait for the completion of all the paintings and for the two that I reserved a long time ago to be moved to my residence.
The bloody Jesus and the scene of his flagellation will join the other oils that adorn my walls. Certainly, my favorite picture of Mate is the portrait of his grandfather, who fell asleep in his armchair after lunch, tired from working in the field. Whoever saw this old man recognized his own grandfather in him, and is there really a greater compliment to an artist? To make a picture in which everyone in Dalmatia recognizes their own grandfather. This work is timeless and especially dear to me because it was never meant to be sold, and yet the artist left it to me in the end.
Recently, Mate started making his own canvases and painting colors himself; he wants every painting to be “signed” from the beginning to the end with his signature.
“You know, Igor, I just got some lead and mercury paints, and I should be careful while painting with them, but I won’t!” Because it is exactly that thought that gives me adrenaline. Imagine only if they found me dead over a work of art that would be worthy of standing next to Rembrandt’s! What a crazy story that would be, both tragic and sweet memento mortale, to die over one’s work, even if unfinished.”
His lack of materialism fascinates me the most. He would prefer never to part with his paintings, money means nothing to him, but he is aware that he has to sell them in order to live and finance the production of all the materials necessary for painting. Although some of his works have already traveled from the heart of Zagora to the Netherlands and France, as well as Switzerland and America, he still remains true to himself.
You could visit him carrying all the money in the world, but if at that moment he feels you are not the right person to own one of his works, you will not have it, regardless of how much you want to pay for it. Money is not important to him, and he lives by that rule. He is satisfied with a glass of wine and tobacco, but before all, with paint and canvases, so that he can paint, paint, and paint.
It is just unbelievable that artists like him still exist today and that they are so dedicated to their creations, totally indifferent to the outside world and its influences, so individual and humble, immune to every influence of modern society. While everybody else doesn’t have time for experiments, flying on the wings of profit and commercialization, Mate stops the time and slows it down. And he’s doing a great job.
I am happy that I can write something about him and bring him a little closer to people. He and his works I am happy that I can personally promote him in this way, but also that we finally have his exhibition under candles. I am happy for the people who will come that Saturday to see the most special Croatian painting studio, to meet the most intangible man who walks this planet of ours, and also to look at the incredible paintings in front of them.
I wish him many more beautiful works, many inspirations, and that he remains himself. Oh yes, I also want the Candlelight Exhibition to grow into a tradition where art lovers will make a pilgrimage to the small village of Konjsko at least once a year to enjoy the works of the Dalmatian reincarnation of the great Rembrandt.