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Interview with Slavica Batos about the retrospective exhibition “Ljuba”, Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts gallery

SLAVICA BATOS – HOW TO IMAGE (Part One)

Editorial 15/11/2019 Interview, NUMBER 594 Leave a Comment

Interviewed by Biljana Jotic

The recently completed retrospective exhibition of the work of Ljubo Popovic, an exhibition that was staged with great success (September 4 to October 20) at the SANU Gallery, was discussed by Biljana Jotic, an art historian, with the author of the exhibition, artist’s life companion Slavica Batos. The Stamp publishes this interesting consideration, especially testimonials about the creative poetics and the painter’s understanding of the meaning and experiences of creativity, as well as his relationship with the audience and criticism.

Blue mask and its visitors, 2009-2010, oil on canvas, 130 x 162 cm, Zvonko Biro collection, Zemun, photo by V. Popovic

A retrospective of Ljubo Popovic who you are, with the careful attention of art historians and who designed by Nikola Kusovac, designed at the Gallery of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, has been an unprecedented success: it has attracted over 57,000 visitors in 42 days. Also notable among the visitors were the French, who, they say, came to Belgrade especially for the exhibition!
 Considering that, apart from the media coverage of the exhibition opening, there was no marketing campaign – I want to say that not a single penny was spent on advertising and publicity of the exhibition – the success cannot be explained by the genuine interest of the audience and, of course, by the reputation of an institution that accepted Ljuba’s work in her own right. As well as the quality of the setting. I dare say that this exhibition is one of the most significant in Ljuba’s entire career precisely if one takes as a criterion the reputation of the institution, the quality of the setting and the number of visitors.
 During the expert guides through the exhibition, for which I had the pleasure to be engaged besides you and Nikola Kusovac, there were comments that the setting is excellent, clear, provides a systematic insight into the development of Ljuba’s image, that one has the impression that he is “drawn into that wonderful world “, that” energy and vibrations are felt as if Ljuba is alone here “…

foto: A.-M. Chavanon

Veliki je rad uložen u pripremanje izložbe i kataloga – negde oko godinu dana ili čak više ako se u pripreme uračuna rad na dokumentaciji koji sam obavila živeći uz Ljubu trideset godina i, posebno intenzivno, nakon njegove smrti. Tu bi najznačajniji bio rad na tzv. catalogue raisonné (kompletan popis dela, dopunjen fotografijama i iscrpnim podacima, u koje su uključena i imena vlasnika ukoliko su poznata). Prvi korak u pripremanju izložbe bio je da se, na osnovu tog popisa, ustanovi koliko se slika nalazi na području Srbije jer, kao što se može pretpostaviti, prevoz slika iz stranih zemalja vrlo je skup i komplikovan. Tu posebno mislim na cene osiguranja i na pregovore s kolekcionarima. Pomenuću samo, kao anegdotu, da mi je jedan od najpoznatijih pariskih galerista predložio da ustupi za izložbu dve stare Ljubine slike iz svoje kolekcije a da sam to ljubazno odbila, znajući da on podrazumeva da će za te dve slike dobiti iste garancije (sigurnost transporta i adekvatno osiguranje) kakve dobija kad svoje Gogene ili Dalije šalje na svetske izložbe. Rekla sam mu da u Srbiji ima dovoljno slika, što jeste bilo tačno. Na mom spisku već se nalazilo oko 150 slika koje bi mogle doći u obzir za izložbu. Preostalo je samo da se među njima napravi izbor u skladu s raspoloživim prostorom i da se osmisli fizionomija postavke. Prvi idejni plan, kao i njegova trodimenzionalna digitalna simulacija (oko koje se potrudio Ljubin i moj sin) bili su gotovi već u februaru 2019. i poslati na uvid odgovornima iz galerije.

Saber or homage to Mrs. Roben, 1972, oil on canvas, 195 x 130cm, collection by Zvonko Biro, Zemun, photo by V. Popovic

Although it is common for retrospectives to follow a chronology, this setting, for practical reasons, opens with works from the 1970s, which proved to be ideally sound. In most cases, people know Ljuba’s painting precisely from those typical 70’s, and then gain insight into where it all starts and what are the ways of forming a unique Ljuba’s iconography. All periods of Ljubin’s creative work are covered, from the works created during his studies at the Applied and Fine Arts Academy in Belgrade, through the paintings which he gained a reputation in the Paris and international art scene, until his last works. What did you do when planning your setup?
It was actually the easiest part of the job because I was guided by Luba’s exhibiting principles. After so many years of living together and after many jointly watched and commented exhibitions, they were perfectly familiar to me: retrospectives should give insight into all stages of a creative evolution, selected works must best reflect the artist’s poetry and reach (in Luba’s case these are large formats) and must be set up so that each work can be contemplated separately and long enough. This last principle absolutely precludes the accumulation of images, ie. requires at least as much whiteness as the total area of ​​the image. As for the unusual order in the picture setting, he was simply conditioned by a technical circumstance that only the wall in the first part of the gallery space could receive the most important painting in the exhibition, a triptych In honor of James George Fraser from 1976-78, eight meters long . Likewise, the large hall at the bottom of the showroom was the most appropriate to accommodate paintings from the Belgrade period. So we got a very interesting, double stream of sightseeing of the exhibition: from the key creative period, it switched immediately to the most recent paintings, gradually went to the oldest and then the same path once again, but in the opposite direction.

The Mouth of Hell, 2011, oil on canvas, 137 x 97 cm, Zvonko Biro Collection, Zemun, photo by V. Popović

When I was exploring Luba’s work and thinking about pictures, the concept of synthesis is constantly drawn. Art theorists and critics have classified it in numerous artistic poetics or directions, ranging from surrealism and fiction, through neo-humanism and symbolism, to new figuration and neo-expressionism, but it is clear that it belonged to none. His picture is a synthesis. It seems that he could not content himself with the framework of a single direction, but synthesized tradition and modernity, matter and spirit, science and mysticism, reality and mystery.

Ljuba’s painting is so lavish and complex that one can always find elements that fit someone into the system. He was listed, for example, in the Medial because he appreciated Sheikh’s thought and because the Sheikh, seeing his student work, told him “you are ours”. But if you look closely at the images that have been exhibited under Mediale since then, it can be easily concluded that Ljuba has not much in common with all of this. The same thing happened when he arrived in Paris in 1963. Two years earlier, art theorist and critic Rene de Solia had published a book called Fantastic Art, a kind of lexicon of concepts (beings, phenomena, objects, places…) that could be described as fantastic. When he became acquainted with Luba’s work, he found everything that interested him: imaginary spaces, cities neither in heaven nor on earth, multiplied perspectives, angels and demons, strange plants and beasts, hybrid beings, pervading the living and the inanimate, the exuberance and swirling … He has done a lot for Ljuba. He published the first monograph on his painting and, before that, recommended it to one good gallerist. Thus, Ljubina’s Paris career began relatively quickly. But if we look at the names of these first Paris exhibitions, we will notice that they first classify it in fiction and imagination, then in new figuration and then, increasingly, in surrealism. Ljuba looked at it all from quite a distance. The most important thing for him was that his paintings are exposed and what is written about them. He would get sick, though, every time he, under the banner of an “ism”, found himself surrounded by banality and kitsch.
He said on one occasion that “the problem is not whether the subject matter is surreal or fantastic but whether there is a painting”. He had a similar attitude when included in books on erotic painting, when in his paintings they found symbols of Freemasonry, Occultism or Christianity, when they found similarities to some big names … Sorts, comparisons, epithets and the like meant nothing to him. All he was interested in was answering the question of whether this painting was in the foreground or something else. People today are less and less able to recognize authentic painting values.

foto: Bogoljub Arsenijević Maki (family archive)

Ljuba developed a specific iconography within his composition. Each of their elements could be thought and written separately if approached from the research side. The characteristic diffused perspective, the various light effects by which it enters the very core of color – which in turn seduces the bite – then the appearance of stains, crystals and, above all, the human figures through which everything flows, testify to the secret of life. There is so much struggle and restlessness in the details, and when the picture is taken as a whole, it is harmonious, balanced, built. The concept of “integral image”, which has always been Ljubin’s ideal, the line that leads to the goal, may need to be further explained here.

Pearl, 1974-1974,oil on canvas, 100 x 81 cm, privae colection, foto V. Popović

Yes, we have come to the most important aspect of Ljuba’s painting, which he has repeatedly stated. In an interview with Allen Vieu, printed in the exhibition catalog, he stated literally: “Integral painting could not be called something that is usually a pleasure to the eye. It should cover the question of being in all its depth and complexity. To question the position of man in the world and his tragic destiny, the mysteries that eroticism and the fear of death confront us. ”On another occasion, he talked about how important contact is with the deep layers of one’s psyche, a contact made in a state of total receptivity. both for what is happening in the depths of one’s own being and for what is happening in the image. In these privileged states, the hand with the brush turns into a kind of medium through which two hitherto separated worlds communicate. In order for this communication, or the knowledge to come to it, to be realized, excellent mastery of the craft is necessary. Ljuba always insisted. You can’t play music on the piano, he said, if you didn’t go through some training, you couldn’t create anything valid in terms of chromatic or figurative compositions if you didn’t master the basic premise of painting skills. Only then can you expect the picture to sound like a symphony, in which the meaning of each tone or chord is defined through relationships with other tones and chords and simultaneously with the whole.
  And as far as the idea of synthesis is concerned, it also leads me to think of dichotomies, of opposites that are so beautifully aligned in Ljuba’s paintings. They are intertwined classic and modern, real and imaginary, solid and amorphous, mineral and organic, cold and warm, dark and light, demonic and angelic … all of which together breathes and pulses like some kind of marvelous, alien organism. Yes, Ljuba used to make comparisons with living organisms: everything works synchronously or death occurs. There are pictures that are dead. Stillborn or killed during labor.

Raspadanje u vremenu, 1986, 162 x 130 cm, privatna kolekcija, foto V. Popović

Did Ljuba often talk about his painting, what painting meant to him, how painting actually came about?
Ljuba talked about everything more than painting: politics, movies, comics, football, his childhood… What was going on between him and the painting was hard to put into words. It was too intimate, too precious, too subtle – words were often powerless here. It was as if someone had stopped to tell the music. After all, he used to say “painting is music for the eyes.” And the music is not narrated. She listens. It is absorbed by the ears. The same with painting. It is being watched. Ljuba, to the aforementioned, told Allen Vijou that the famous psychoanalyst Lakan came to his studio once. “He kept asking some questions, almost never noticing the pictures. And all the answers were on them – for whoever can look. “
 It was also clear to the careful observer that painting for Ljuba was an urgent need. He never said, but for example, I was under the impression that only the paintings had true communication, that the only painting gave some deeper meaning to his existence. He said in an interview that he seemed to be “floating” in everyday life, not to participate fully.
 Through painting, he also resolved his fear of death, of decay, of definitive disappearance… Something fateful was going on between him and the painting.

Death of sun, 1993-1994, oil on canvas 230 x 200 cm, vl. Oil Industry of Serbia a.d, Novi Sad, photo V. Popovic

It is difficult to define feelings. Painting was a necessity for Ljuba, and was he happy while he was painting or when he would finish the painting?
One cannot speak of happiness, not even of pleasure. It was more like fulfilling a mission, a search mission, without a clear outcome. As soon as he finished a painting, he would see that as soon as he was away – although in the course of his work he seemed to be the most important, he summed up the essence of what he was supposed to express. He didn’t keep any of the pictures for himself. The act of painting was more important to him than the finished product.
  In front of his old paintings, he always had the strange feeling of “being done by someone else”. How to explain it. The special condition he was in while creating? Or its own evolution? In any case, he was only interested in the paintings he is currently working on.
It’s amazing the communication that Ljuba had with the canvas … Did he ever explain what a “special condition” he was in while working? Painters like to say that they feel like a medium, a mediator through which it expresses itself, exerted by some higher power.
I mentioned something in that sense a while ago, but Ljuba never said that. Most often he spoke of “the amount of energy”. That necessary energy was not the same as when he needed to start working on a new image and when he was refining or correcting the image. The willingness to start a new painting felt like an accumulation of energy, a positive tension, a desire to take brushes, to summon something to the canvas, to establish a dialogue between, he said, “his insides” and what was beginning to emerge on the canvas. It should be said that Ljuba worked every day, without exception, for at least two to three hours. When he wasn’t ready for the radical moves in the picture, he devoted himself to detail. Worked on the microstructure of the image. If the painting, for example, in the process of color matching, required that something red be set in one part of it, it would often be a formless red stain at first, which it would only subsequently transform into the head of a demon, into a female genitalia, into an orchid. , in a fruit tree… or in something abstract, made up of those swirling and short brush strokes (which no one will ever be able to imitate)… He jokingly called it “snapping”. So when he did not have enough energy to engage in major artistic interventions, he engaged in “kicking”.

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