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Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Charles Billich

Salon de Fashionista, 2014, Charles Billich
If the goal of all (or most) artists is to become rich and famous, their names a household word, at least in the art world, then we must be especially appreciative of those coming from humble, beginnings in small, remote countries who, somehow, managed to make their way to the top of the art world based upon their talent, certainly, but also persistence and hard work. One such artist, whose work I find especially attractive, is the Croatian-born Australian painter, Charles Billich.

Citizen of the world.
Charles Billich's story is long, difficult, and strange. Born in Italy/Yugoslavia/Croatia, educated in Austria, working worldwide from China, the United States, and France, while keeping a main residence in Australia, Charles Billich is a world citizen, not to mention a prolific artist. Each chapter in Billich’s life seems to be a saga of personal paradises lost and found. Billich was born in 1934. His birthplace, was a small town called Lovran in an area of Italy at the time called Istria. Typically cosmopolitan, the boy’s family members conversed easily in Italian, Venetian, Croatian, and German. He was about ten years old when Italy lost the war. The young boy’s rich world was splintered by, as Billich puts it, “...a plot between Roosevelt and Stalin." A 1945 U.S.-Russian treaty erased Istria and annexed, it along with neighboring territories, into the newly formed Yugoslavia. Under the dictatorial leadership of Josip Tito, Billich's s new homeland quickly fell behind the Communist Iron Curtain. Billich’s world became highly restricted and policed, yet he continued to pursue his youthful artistic interests. He studied humanities and drawing at the Classical Lyceum, while writing articles for local magazines in his free time. He was accepted by the Rijeka Opera Corp of Ballet, which proved to be an exhilarating experience that even today occupies a central place in his artistic inspiration (below).

Joyful, 2015, Charles Billich
About 1952 some of Billich's anti-Communist writings came to the attention of local authorities. Billich attempted to flee to Italy. However, his girlfriend turned out to be an informant for the state security service. He was arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison. Ironically, this difficult period provided him a valuable mentorship with many great intellectuals of the day who were also political prisoners. From this exalted prison company, Billich learned several new languages, art history, the contemplation of spiritual questions, and practical life skills. Billich was recruited to construct scenes for the inmates’ theater, stimulating a passionate involvement with the fantasy art of set design. Then, suddenly after surviving two years of hunger, cold, and sadism, came unmitigated joy--the abrupt, totally unexpected, gift of outright amnesty engineered by the Red Cross. Billich was freed from prison.

The S.S. Toscana on her final voyage.
Billich decided to devote himself to painting and start a new life on the world stage based on the inspiration gained from his introspective prison years. He fled to Salzburg, Austria. However, long winters and Austrian provincialism eventually eroded Billich’s preference for Salzburg. He boarded a ship bound for Australia hoping a fresh atmosphere would inspire him. Billich emigrated to Australia on the Italian ship, S.S. Toscana (above), on her final voyage before being scrapped. He was asked by two Australians teaching English on board to join them--his first Australian job. Upon disembarkation, Billich worked for the Employment Service at Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training Centre, assigning immigrants and political refugees from all over Eastern Europe to work on the Australian continent. During the same time, Billich went to Melbourne to study art at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and the National Gallery Art School. All this while also working at various times as a taxi driver, a sign painter, graphic designer, and advertising art director before beginning his career in fine art.

In his melding together sports and art, Charles Billich might
be considered an Australian LeRoy Neiman.
Billich's first big opportunity arose when he was asked to provide paintings for French film director, Roger Vadim's use in his film, Night Games. Filming took place in Manila, where Billich became absorbed into a new and exotic society of artists and patrons. His paintings attracted international attention, which brought him an invitation to exhibit at the 1983 International Festival of Two Worlds held in Spoleto, Italy. Four years later, in 1987, Billich's work received the distinguished Spoleto prize. That, in turn, led to Billich being chosen as an official painter of the Bicentennial Commemoration of the establishment of the Australian colony. For research, Billich sailed along the route of the original ships sent from England to found Australia. He learn to climb the masts of sailing ships while carrying bundles of painting equipment in order to paint nautical scenes under rocking ocean conditions.

The Last Supper, Charles Billich
In 1990, Billich’s path circled back to Post-Communist Croatia as a guest artist. For his skilled celebration of the interrelation of art and athletics, he was selected as the 2000 Sport Artist of the Year by the United States Sports Academy in Alabama. In 2004, Billich’s paintings went on display at the United Nations, New York. His art works are held in some of the most prestigious collections and museums around the world, including the Australian Embassy, Japan, and The Royal Collection of Thailand, and the Vatican. Billich’s early experience of the tragedy of losing basic freedoms has inspired him to live a rich life to the fullest. He describes himself as, “an itinerant artist,” and sometimes a troubadour of contemporary art.

Humanity United, 2002-05, Charles Billich
Humanity United (above) was created from a brief extended to him by the Australian Red Cross to commemorate the 2001 Centenary of the Nobel Prize for Peace. In June 2004, hosted by the UN Friendship Club, Billich exhibited at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. He was invited back with his Humanity United collection in September of 2005. In 2004 Billich completed Jubilation China's 100 Year Olympic Dream Realized (below, left), a work depicting the celebration that followed the announcement of China's to be the 2008 Olympic host nation. Billich also created cityscape paintings of Beijing for the 2008 Olympics as well as for Melbourne, Australia's 1996 games (bottom).

Figures from the Beijing Olympic, 2008, Charles Billich.
Olympic cities, Melbourne, and Beijing.


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