Interview With Charles Billich – A Remarkable Life!

Charles Billich on his 85th birthday
Photo: Ina Vukic

 

Interview by Ina Vukic

On a day that approached his 85th birthday I walked into the Billich Gallery at The Rocks in Sydney to conduct an interview with the Croatian born, world acclaimed and awarded Australian surrealist Charles Billich as if it was any other day. I knew from previous experiences I would find Billich in his art studio, working at his next masterpiece (and there have been many), engrossed in his imagination, which when put to canvas takes one’s breath away. “I learned the value of hard work by working hard,” the world’s great anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, and Charles Billich has never been a stranger to hard work, which, together with his exceptionally brilliant talent in transporting imagination to real and tangible images through his paint brushes have earned him the kudos of a 21st century master of surrealism.  One minute he’s painting a portrait of Pope John Paul II, Saint Mary Of the Cross MacKillop or contributing his work to the halls of the White House, the United Nations, the residency of royal families. Next, he’s painting nudes of some of the world’s most desirable women, cityscapes of world’s prominent capitals, racehorses and polo tournaments, or historical figures that shaped the history of his birth country – Croatia. Billich spent his younger years escaping what he describes as “the hell of Yugoslavia” under communist leader, Josip Broz Tito. Before fleeing to Australia in 1950’s, he witnessed the massacre of those close to him in the so-called communist purges, and experienced years in jail for journalistic anti-communist activities. Charles Billich carved his successful career in the very competitive art scene by being himself and working hard, embracing the unusual and the fascinating, perpetually keeping his audience standing on their toes.

Mary MacKillop by Charles Billich
Photo: Billich Gallery

  • At 85 you still radiate with a seemingly insatiable drive to create works of art. What’s your secret?

Simple law of physics. The older you get the more you tend to energise yourself as you have a subconscience which torments you with its poor understanding of eternity. So, I have to keep in reasonable condition to download the bulk of my opus. A lot of people feel that I’ve done enough – damage – but I feel I’m just at the beginning of a meaningful career in the beaux artes. My work is my serendipity despite the usual frustrations. The older I get the more serious I become with my visual jokes.

  • Tell us about your first experience with art, with painting artworks. How did your love for art begin? What has stuck with you all these years from that first experience?

Is it a question of experience or has it to do more with inner drive than experience. A child doesn’t get exposed to too many experiences and yet a child can dream up fantasies and yet some children are driven to record them. I was a compulsive sketcher as a child and perpetually losing my attention span much to the frustration of my teachers. I’ve started as normally artists start as a doodler. As an adolescent I experienced two epiphanies, at the age of 13 ballet discovered me and I was invited to join the Rijeka Opera choir de ballet and evidently my ability caught somebody’s attention. A year later I was invited to illustrate a book by a publishing house, I don’t know how I still managed to study and read at 17, still a student I established my own magazine which became the vehicle for my rantings in writing and wild imagery in drawing and painting.

Charles Billich with one of his Sydney cityscapes
Photo: Billich Gallery

  • Was there a pivotal moment when you decided to follow your path as an artist?

At some point I have decided to become a career artist and my publishing house in Rijeka sent me to study. I was sent to an academy in Zagreb. With customary enthusiasm I lost my way to the academy and deviated to a flight from communism as it was putting a great deal of pressure on my psychological development. My decision to escape from communism proved to be unsuccessful and I was caught escaping from Yugoslavia at the time, which such a crime was no longer punishable by death. I survived jail escaped again successfully landing in Salzburg Austria where I continued my study making a livelihood from painting murals for the local brewery. I picked up many experiences and very rich employment record which inducted me towards a life dedicated to art.

  • If you could give a gift to the next generation of creative thinkers, what would you give them or tell them or show them?

I think it has all been said before, but I will reiterate in these very, very confused times in which we live. The necessity of individuality. I have a feeling that our mindset belongs more and more to collectivity even though I accept that collectivity may be an art of human development we should tandem with individuality at all costs. Conformism and compromise are not conducive to long term success nor a legacy. We must create our own signature no matter what our profession is, but the arts stand out as legacy that has to be marked by huge personalities and impossible egos.

  • What is your greatest indulgence in life?

My work. When I was younger, I was living in a confusion of priorities and I used to adopt enviable weaknesses of my peers and now I have a yacht that I haven’t seen in ten years.

  • Your art is unique, it stirs in one that wonderful feeling of fascination. People have referred to you as a perfectionist or a workaholic. What do you think it means to look for perfection in a painting?

Perfection can be illusionary, an artist at times is a prestidigitator. To me perfection means the ability to convey an image with as few brush strokes as possible. Superficially seen paintings are very detailed in fact because of time pressures my technique is a kind of pictorial shorthand. And every time I obtain an image with one or two brush strokes I celebrate with a drink. The main thing about art to me is the ability to convey a concept, a notion, to create a persona with very few data to construct a whole museum full of paintings, in one layout. I love composition. I had to fight for years within myself, with some false notions of simplicity until I found order, in complexity.

Homage to Dali by Charles Billich
Photo: Billich Gallery

  • Your paintings can be found in the Vatican, in the White House, at the United Nations Headquarters in Geneva, on postage stamps in China, to name just a small number of the world’s hallmarks. Your paintings cover a large plethora of subjects from cityscapes through portraits, sports and religious themes. What is it, do you think, about your body of work that makes it so distinctly powerful worldwide?

I have the freedom to enter into mined territory because I believe in freedom. I take risks, these territories are most of the time unchartered and that’s an obligation if an artist wants to achieve the privilege of his or her signature. Art is about originality and uniqueness and cannot be placed in art bureaucratic structure. Ideological and political constrictions are the archenemy of any an emerging artist. Look around and see how pathetic the levels of collective artistry can be – art cannot be socialistic no matter what the “elites” expect. You can create sociological works, you my at heart barrack for labor, but your art must remain liberal

Charles Billich with Pope Francis in the Vatican 2018
A portrait of Rome to be an another Billich masterpiece
Photo: The American Sport Art Museum and Archives

  • Born in Croatia, imprisoned in former Yugoslavia as political prisoner for voicing your anti-communist stance, immigrated to Australia at a rather young age, spent most of your life living in Australia and assimilating well into the Australian society. How easy or difficult was it for you to blend into the Australian society way back in 1950’s when you arrived here from a relatively backward country at the time, from an entirely different culture, from a totalitarian regime? What was most difficult in your transitioning into a democratic and modern country that was Australia and what was the easiest?

The appeal of Australia was immediate. The level of freedom in a country like Australia was so palpable and almost sensual. Australia is still in charge of its own destiny and my fervent hope is that it doesn’t succumb to dystopias which seem so fashionable these days. I found Australia to be a better place than the one I expected and yes expectations were very high. The total absence of ethnic or xenophobic sentiments was the great fillip for my previous life contusions.

  • Do you think your Croatian cultural heritage has influenced your work and if so, how significant, large or small has that influence been? How would you describe that influence?

I’ve created a few ideas around the theme of Croatian nationhood, it’s a great complex history that I intend to study in depth in the future feeling that the history of Croatia has not reached its pictorial peaks. Even though I’ve spent most of my life away from Croatia I don’t think anybody Croatian is less confused about Croatia than I am. We are together discovering the narrative that goes with the complex. Fraternity of various people and tribes which is Croatia. To find a unique and common language in describing visually our past is well beyond my capacity and this is why I would like to set in motion an initiative that would give momentum to visual patriotism and include all up and coming Croatian  and diaspora Croatian artists. I feel that such an initiative would bring a sense of direction and improve the horizon to the Croatians’ perception of their identity and ethnicity and history.

Croatian Mother by Charles Billich
Photo: Billich Gallery

  • You have painted a few significant Croatian historical figures, what is special to you about that?

I’m fascinated by the possibility of my research and establishment of a meaningful movement towards the solidification of Croatianness.

  • Your painting of the 15th century Croatian Queen of Bosnia, Katarina Kotromanic Kosaca, is particularly fascinating as you present her to us in a modernised portrayal, what is behind your portrayal of her as if she is living now, today?

When I paint a historic painting it doesn’t have to look as if its 500 years old, it can be contemporary painting of the past, I’m not going to camouflage a new painting into an old master so when Leonardo painted the 12 apostles they were wearing 16th century fashion not biblical rags.

Croatian Queen of Bosnia Katarina Kotromanic Kosaca by Charles Billich
Photo: Billich Gallery

 

  • If at this point of your fruitful life I ask you to tell me about two most important influences that have helped you shape your own life what would these influences be?

Two artists. One is Tamara von Lempicka, the queen of Art Deco, and Salvador Dali the king of surreal art

  • Have the sources of inspiration for your work changed over the years? If yes, how?

The lesser you are influenced by characters in the art world the better for you, the more enhanced your freedom of vision and the better the results of your individual efforts to gain freedom. The main issue is this: it’s me and my server up there and sometime feeling like a channel doing the work for an extra-terrestrial force. We are part of a broad universe about which we have very little information, there are powers that we may wish to harness and there are mysteries which would never be revealed. The complexity of a universe is beyond man’s understanding and this is why I have to laugh at the accusations aimed at the humble complexities in my art

  • How would you define beauty?

Beauty is a conclusion of your upbringing, your frustrations your desires, beauty is a utopia of the eye which can never be absolute. It’s amusing that some find beauty in ugliness. I remember doing a painting of the Elephant Man and the beautiful lady who offered herself to him. You still don’t know which one was more beautiful.

Charles Billich
Photo: Billich Gallery

  • Do you plan on retiring from creating new art projects, or is art your life and the very definition of living for you?

I live for my art, I live off my art, my art is my life so my existence would be without art totally meaningless and miserable. I love my family my friends, I love my wife, but I have this condition that I cannot cure, it’s obsessive, it’s demanding it’s commanding it’s full of pitfalls, disappointment, heartbreaks, but how orgasmic.

  • You visit Croatia rather often. What draws you to visiting your country of birth? How would you compare the Croatia you left as a young man and today’s Croatia?

Apart from Sydney I think Croatia is one of the most beautiful places in world. I find Croatian people; I feel every Croatian is a member of my family and like in all families I have huge feuds with them and spectacular friendships. There is a sinister legacy of the old system of communism in Croatia, we have to be proactive in elimination of all the poisons that have been inoculated into the Croatian nation by the experiment with communism. We have won the battle against communism and we have created Croatia, but we haven’t won the war against the bacillus, am looking forward to a renaissance of old Croatian values.

Charles Billich – Master Of Surrealism

 

Christa Billich (L) Charles Billich (R)
November 2018 hosts of
Salvador Dali and Charles Billich exhibition
Sydney, Australia
Photo: Private collection

One of the world’s greatest contemporary surrealist artists, Charles Billich, just happens to live in Sydney, Australia, with Croatian roots that inspire his paintings that, without exception, leave one awestruck and wonderfully delighted. Just ahead of the 30th anniversary of one of the world’s greatest surrealists, Salvador Dali, Charles Billich, unveiling his new surreal-style masterpiece “Hommage to Dali”, stepped on Friday 16 November 2018 at his art gallery (Billich Gallery, The Rocks, Sydney) into the world of hosting one of the largest Salvador Dali artworks assemblages worldwide. The Dali Universe, from Switzerland, owner of the largest collection of Salvador Dali artworks, is at this exhibition, which lasts into January 2019, showing Dali artworks with widely recognised melting clocks (from the Persistence of Memory and Nobility of Time works) along with a collection of graphic works and bronze sculptures, including some huge pieces that are displayed on George Street opposite First Fleet Park in The Rocks as they could not fit into the Billich Gallery.

On display at this exhibition are also paintings by surrealist Charles Billich. One can find his work in the Vatican, the United Nations and the White House, and he has been the official artist of many Olympics and was twice-named US sports academy artist of the year. He was the recipient the Florence Biennale in 2009, one of the world’s most prestigious art awards.

Charles Billich unveils
“Hommage to Dali” painting, November 2018
Photo: Private collection

Charles and Christa Billich were perfect hosts at the opening of the Dali-Billich exhibition, that saw Andy Warhol with a glass of champagne in his hand mingle among Sydney’s glam and glitter. Andy at Billich Gallery was in fact actor Boguslaw Szpilcazak who is currently appearing as the puppet master of Pop Art, Andy Warhol in the play The Trial Of Dali.

Surrealism, the art and literature movement that has its origins in the 20th century, after World War One in particular, celebrates also its hundredth year this year! Surrealism seeks to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind, for example by the irrational juxtaposition of images. It has the disorienting, hallucinatory quality of a dream; unreal; fantastic: surreal complexities of the bureaucracy. It is often said that surrealism is dedicated to expressing the imagination as revealed in dreams, free of the conscious control of reason and convention.

Indeed, Salvador Dali was inspired by Sigmund Freud’s works who championed the psychology of the exploration of the dream and unconsciousness as a valid form of reality. Commenting about his thoughts and feelings about having the works of Salvador Dali alongside his at this art exhibition Charles Billich said:

“…It’s a new chapter in my life, we should go celebrate it, particularly me. I’m living through a dream coming through but also a challenge. I’m going to do it, I’m going to continue on the footsteps of Salvador… I don’t want to be Dali imitator; I want to be a response to the continuance of the movement of surrealism. Every now and then I come out with new images with new ideas with new concepts and I don’t really know where the impulses come from but I’m really happy with what I’m doing and instead of going into decline because of my age I seem to be improving. Miraculous! It’s unbelievable.”

As to the inspiration for his new painting “Hommage to Dali”, revealed to the world at the opening of the exhibition on 16 November 2018, Billich said:

“…well, the inspiration was Dali but the composition is mine and certain modifications of his devices are all mine, and certain inventions are all mine. For instance this is one of my contributions, one of them, a grown man driving a vehicle, holding onto the motor you know with hands and feet and knees, product of my wild imagination that is formed by the advance in technology. I want to introduce science and technology into my paintings just like Dali used to …I am interested in expanding my information, my sources.

When asked what it feels like when people make comparisons between Dali and himself, a man who grew up in Croatia, spent time in prison in Croatia for his anti-communist Yugoslavia journalistic activism before he as a young man fled communist Croatia (Yugoslavia) and came to Australia, Billich said:

I feel pretty good, I am very much in contact with Croatia, a lot of my surreal art in actually influenced by the history of Croatia and by Croatian interests. It’s nourishment and an expansion of my horizons, Croatia and Croatian history and Croatian national is behind some of my best work.”

“Hommage to Dali” by Charles Billich
November 2018
Photo: Billich Gallery, The Rocks, Sydney Australia

To appreciate the enormous importance Charles Billich brings to the 21st Century surrealist art movement, I was proudly kept in awe by the words spoken at the exhibition’s opening by James Sanders, Project Manager at the Dali Universe, who exclaimed with evident utter conviction and pride the following:

Surrealism is alive and well, Charles (Billich) you are a testament to a wonderful movement of the 20th Century – surrealism. Surrealism was born out of the embers of the First World War; actually we are celebrating here in Sydney 100 years of the end of that war. Surrealism is a celebration of life; of escapism and Charles you embody that. So one hundred years ago surrealism was born, it is alive and well, the first generation was through various artists like André Breton, René Magritte and of course Salvador Dali, the next generation of surrealist artists are artists like Charles Billich.

Salvador Dali poster at
Billich Gallery , Sydney Australia
November 2018
Photo: Private collection

In recapitulating the convictions impressed upon me from this Dali-Billich art exhibition, one conviction stands out and that is that the genius that Charles Billich is goes much deeper than the genius of Salvador Dali. Charles Billich is a master visualiser who blends advances in technology, so relevant to the 21st century, in the most of subtle, yet bold ways that turn the surreal into a factual reality. Billich’s works achieve the striving of 20th century surrealism movement, which to me appear as endeavours to make palpable and credibly real that which is imagined by the artist. All this in the framework of contemporary world where advances in sciences and technology coupled with artistic imagination manifest themselves as our reality or our very possible reality. While Salvador Dali surreal images and objects are often easily recognised as seen before in their “original form”, Charles Billich’s objects are often images of something new, unseen before but with interlocking subtleties in them – logical and real. That is what the effect of his juxtaposing or mixing advances in technology and sciences with known objects or experiences have. In essence, Charles Billich’s surrealism becomes something like an experienced reality; it is no longer the sub or unconscientious realism, often foreign to the artwork’s admirer, that the 20th century surrealist movement marked its wonderful existence with. With Charles Billich’s surrealism the unimagined and the seemingly unimaginable touch upon us as “familiar objects” albeit at times intriguingly unusual. Yes, surrealism is alive and well and getting even better under the paintbrush and imagination that Charles Billich presents to us on canvas. Ina Vukic

 

Charles Billich’s Historical Tournament Masterpiece

“Historical Tournament”
Oil on canvas
by Charles Billich

 

On Tuesday, February 6, 2018, at a reception in his Sydney, Australia, art gallery, the world renowned artist of Croatian heritage Charles Billich unveiled his new masterpiece on canvas titled “Historical Tournament”. This oil on canvas brings us a rich line-up of Croatian Greats throughout history. Using the chessboard as metaphor for Croatian history Billich once again proves his superior skill in trasnsporting a rich and turbulent history into a touching sphere of determined human interest. In fact, Billich shows us a pictorial representation of how a metaphor of chess is used to represent Croatian life for freedom throughout history. Every move in life is important, even when it throws you back and every move requires a painstaking process of thinking and decision making.

Billich’s creative process opened our eyes at the Gallery. The marvelous, intriguingly impressive characters of a man and a woman in the centre of the painting draw us closer and closer to the canvas so that in that which at first sight appear as crowns we find masterfully detailed symbols that talk of a long rich history of a proud, strong and indomindable nation – the Croatian nation – whose destiny always depended on the crucial moves in a chess game. What makes this artistic image a masterpiece is that it is not only an extraordinarily beautiful image full of excellent and recognisable details but also a touching document of politics and history of the Croatian people, its inexhaustible pride and struggle for freedom.

Charles Billich unveiling
“Historical Tournament”
in Sydney, Australia

Here is what Charles Billich said on Tuesday about his latest work of art “Historical Tournament”:

“The symbol of Croatia is called in Croatian Šahovnica, a chessboard. I find the chessboard’s numerous metaphorical potentials very inspiring.

My attachment to chess as the supreme game was complete, from the tender age of seven. The education of a child should not be complete without chess competence.

As it tends to dominate one’s life and as it is brutally demanding on one’s time, I had to make a resolution, way back in 1982, that’s 36 years ago, not to go near a chess set again. I won the battle against chessmania.

You may ask questions about my resolution. Why bring chess back into my life through the back door?

First of all this is meant to be one of my painting, that is front door stuff! Chess may be an old pastime, but it has now become an inspiration, a guideline into the confusion of history, a metaphor for intrigue, a platform for human malice, an algorithm for linking the past to the present to the future, a signal for our obsession with historical archiving, a proof of the legitimate presence of the Croatian nation since time immemorial and forever.

Are we going to be here to continue this chess game in the coming century, the next millennium and beyond?

If we want to keep on playing for the Croatian chess team we must make some very creative and smart moves.

As time goes by, I will suggest also a few smart moves to our government in Croatia. There are lot of members of the peon class who have cheated the system and have become chess fingers through crime, misappropriation and brutal commun-tactics.

We must clean the game and possibly change the chessboard. The incompetence of our community leaders, from local mayors to senators is numbing. The ghosts of the partisans are still in control of the bodies of their descendants.

The painting Historical Tournament/Tour is a cryptic cavalcade through time which I have assembled from my time machine, a device that hasn’t yet been perfected properly and is being developed side by side with the Tesla self-driving vehicle.

My time machine stops in the wrong places and skips entire centuries. But that’s the inaccuracy of history I’m afraid. My painting is not an illustrated historical compendium but a few glimpses from the time machine, which mainly travels when it’s dark.

If you find the likes of King Tomislav, Queen Katarina, Ban Jelacic, the Zrinskys, the Uskoki, Our Lady of Sinj, Blessed Alojzije Stepinac and a variety of Croatian historical locations, good luck to your vision’a acuteness.

I hope you don’t miss the branitelje (Homeland war veterans), in the guise of tigers, pumas and hawks.

A confession: I would never have become a champion chess player.

Now I will compete in the game of chess-gene-rated Art for a long time. I’m hooked. I’ve done it before. When I gave up ballet because I couldn’t leap much higher than a meter. But I took my revenge and I started to paint some lofty choreographics and acrobatic dancers and unnaturally contorted ballerinas, performing in impossible stages dotted by stars, meteorites and metaphors.”

Ina Vukic

Nila Oreb, Christa Billich, Ina Vukic, Ana Merhab

 

Ina Vukic (L) Charles Billich (R)

 

Some guests at Billich’s unveiling of “Historical Tournament”
From Left: David Jakic, Nila Oreb, Florence H., Charles Billich,
Ina Vukic, Darko Orec, Zlata Valet Busic, Alenka Bonic, Ana Merhab

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