PETAR OMČIKUS – A PAINTER OF MOTION
For me Van Gogh is in motion – as if he has a motor in his strokes, in his drawings. The interior of an engine where all pistons are moving. But, what is moving there? In the picture – nothing, but in his vision – everything is in motion. I belong to that genre of painters. There are many of them in history and I am their follower. For example, Tintoretto and El Greco are constantly in motion. One only has to look carefully. Because of that I think I am a painter of motion. 1
When he came to the Academy of Fine Arts (1949) as a nineteen-old Petar Omčikus was the only student in his class from the sunny seashore.2 When he moved with his family to Belgrade in 1937 he brought along an already complete view of the world which will later clearly fashion his own art. The particular internal position from which he approached everything around him was influenced by the scenes from his childhood spent near the sea. When he was much later asked about his first interests in art, he said: “I was born in a place in immediate vicinity of the sea. Our house, from where I began to look upon the world, was at an exceptional location above Rijeka, on a hill above the Gulf of Kvarner, with a beautiful view of northern Adriatic; it was very important for me. I looked at all those ships coming in and going out and felt enormous pleasure in observing the shapes of ships, barges and boats. In brief, the life of forms and the great light around us were so inspiring that I began to draw what I had seen, although not yet thinking about painting as a profession. Perhaps I was privileged, as I’ve said, to be surrounded with all those splendid occurrences. Everything was in motion.”3 It is easy to recognise in this description some of the key features of Omčikus’s future pictures: broad views of events, frequently from high above and distant, then the choice of motifs encompassing everything that fits in a glance – everything, without privileged topics, and finally the powerful feeling for forms and light in those scenes, more than their real and narrative contents. A specific place in the characteristics of Omčikus’s creative work belongs to the feeling of continuous movement – the motion will be present in his gesture, in his work process, in the choice of motif, in the composition and, historically observed, the development of his paintings – briefly, in everything.
The early formative period, marked by his first solo show in 1951, was the time when all those characteristics were seeking their own way to the picture. Omčikus studied in the atmosphere of political repression over art, when the hand of socialist realism pressed hard the shoulders of his professors at the Belgrade Academy, renowned personalities of the former bourgeois milieu. In such an environment artists were constantly endeavouring to preserve their freedom of choice and protect former values which were appraised as undesirable in the new working-class society. It was a particularly difficult situation for the students who were supposed to get acquainted with previous art in the school studios in order to accept it in a natural way and then surpass it with their visual expressions. Omčikus was in the class of Professor Ivan Tabaković “a great artist, erudite and great expert”4 whose pedagogical activity was limited with the poor and uninventive school programme that relied mostly on painting after plaster heads and skeletons, without a regular possibility to learn painting after live models or in plain air. Other professors at the Academy were either propagators of socialist realism or had decided not to oppose it. Large creative opuses and the already proven results of those artists, their acquired reputations and professional careers, even their personal existence – all of that was placed on tilting scale pans held by the state-party system which moved the balance according to the appraised suitability of their artworks. However, such a heavy burden was not imposed on the shoulders of young students who were hurrying to find their own professional paths, so that not even the first negative critical reviews could destabilise them. While he was still a student, Omčikus received a negative review from Oto Bihalji-Merin, one of the most powerful advocates of the official artistic dogma. When he exhibited for the first time his two paintings at the Autumn Exhibition of the Association of Serbian Artists (ULUS) in 1946, Omčkus was together with his class-mate Mića Popović the only student at the show, an equal to respected artists including his professors as well. That was the reason he had to share the burden of criticism directed against the preservation of inter-war bourgeois artistic values. This joint appearance of professors and students initiated the critics to write about improper pedagogical influence on the young – the influence which, it became clear, was looking beyond the patterns of suitability towards free creative thinking: “[...] In art, as in life, there should be a distinction between the essential and unessential. How can a young generation learn that when those who teach the young do not or will not know it. Several teachers from the Art Academy exhibited their works at the Third ULUS exhibition. Those are the works that truly explicate art for art’s sake. One cannot but see in them an almost scornful turning away from our world, our problems and our struggle to rebuild the country.”5 If we remember that after that exhibition students were no longer allowed to display their works publicly, it becomes clear that the young were also objects of repression. Wishing to run away for a short time and change the environment of increasing lack of freedom, Omčikus proposed to three of his class-mates to travel to the seaside, to the place of his birth. During that short journey along the Dalmatian coast, the city of Zadar in ruins, a talisman of the British bombs, made the most profound impression on the young painters. After their return to Belgrade, they spent several months attending classes devoid of creativity and perspective and the only encouragement were the words of professor Tabaković who instructed them, fully aware of the limits of the academic system, to do their own research and continue to paint freely. Young, curious and encouraged by the words of their professor, misled by the idea of free life and creation in the sunny countryside by the sea, Omčikus and a group of his colleagues discontinued regular education in order to spend the spring and summer together in Zadar. For almost a whole term and the summer holidays (until August) they lived as a small community of painters, today the legendary Zadar Group.6 They got engaged in the things they were not allowed at the Academy – with the entire breadth of their talent they conquered the surface of the painting, worked in plain air, handled light, colour and form in the tradition of the best pre-war modernists – their languid professors. Without ideological patterns and academic limitations, Omčikus painted unburdened with potential consequences of his rebellious act against the system. His life with friends added a new dimension to this encounter with the sea – their sojourn in the Governor’s palace, their friendly meetings in the centuries old Mediterranean town and ceaseless painting under the seaside sun; in a synergy with the young and free spirits this experience would inspire not only a courageous and important step forward in our art history but also a step that would bring about lifelong friendly and romantic liaisons in personal histories of each of the participants.7 One of Omčikus’s emblematic paintings was made then – The Ruins of Zadar (1947, cat. no. 1), a most impressive evidence of the young painter’s free spirit. Saturated with the powerful light of the summer sun, the ruins seem to vibrate in the heat of direct light. Their form is more the result of artist’s dynamic gesture than a reminder of war destructions. This and other paintings made in Zadar, both by Omčikus (The Governor’s Palace, Olive Trees) and other painters, indicate clearly that the won freedom meant a renovation of the lessons learned from inter-war Serbian painting – the themes of landscapes and portraits treated in such a way suggested the presence of the artist and his vision, and were contrary to the imposed expressionless realism that should be understood by all the working-class people of a country under reconstruction.
The many months of recluse in Zadar echoed loudly in the society and brought about serious consequences. Understood as a selfish act of a group of young people who did not serve their people and engage their abilities in rebuilding the country but satisfied their own whims and turned to themselves, thereby resurrecting the pre-war, bourgeois spirit in art; the whole affair was understood as a political question and absence of obedience. After their return from Zadar, Tabaković’s students were not allowed to continue studies at the Academy and their professor was transferred to the Academy of Applied Arts. The sneering smile of Đorđe Andrejević Kun and the responding burst of laughter on the face of Sreten Stojanović in Omčikus’s painting Professors (1949) directly relate to the two most influential personalities at the Academy of Fine Arts and the two people most responsible for the destiny of the Zadar communards. Between them two stands Nedeljko Gvozdenović, looking at something beyond and they all are flanked by Marko Čelebonović, with his back turned on everybody, and much younger Ljubica Sokić observing the whole situation from a distance, just as a silhouette. The advocates of the dogma who rejoiced at the fact that their decisions had been put into effect, silent lookers-on and uninterested dreamers – that is how Omčikus saw his professors in the “case” of the Zadar Group, except Tabaković – he had painted him with great respect immediately before they left for Zadar, in the class, among the students, in a lively conversation with Mića Popović (Tabaković with Students, 1946/1947). Perhaps that was a memorial to those unrecorded conversations full of inspiration and support which encouraged them with subtle suggestions and prepared them for the Zadar adventure.
After two terms it was finally decided that the rebels should be allowed to return to the Academy (all of them except Mića Popović) but Omčikus was resolved to leave the studies for good8. Although he had the right to become a member of the Association of Serbian Artists, his application was refused, helped by his reputation of a decadent painter, he was denied the opportunity to work and lost professional privileges. That same year he married Kosa Bokšan who was in a similar situation. Without any prospect for a decent basic existence in Belgrade and Serbia, but thanks to his precious friendships and membership in the Union of Artists, Omčikus went again to the sea coast, to Rijeka, where he and Kosa Bokšan got a new chance to paint freely and exhibit their works. They travelled and worked in the sunny seaside, winning freedom again. After two years Omčikus returned to Belgrade and found a very different atmosphere after Tito’s break with the USSR (1948) – the sharp edge of the socialist realism was visibly getting blunt. Pre-war expressionistic and intimist concepts in art were revived as a legitimate artistic heritage. In the local history of art the year 1951 is marked as a turning point. On the one hand, continuity with pre-war art was finally and officially established, primarily with the exhibition Seventy Paintings and Sculptures from 1920-40 and the well-known exhibition People showing works by Milan Konjović. On the other hand, the famous exhibition of Petar Lubarda opened a new phase in post-war painting, a step closer to high modernism. After the solo show of Mića Popović (1950) the other Zadar communards also presented their works in that year. Omčikus even exhibited on two occasions, first in the early months the exhibition of the group Eleven Artists and then in November when he had his first solo show9. He displayed then his entire production – landscapes from the seaside, urban scenes, still-lifes and numerous portraits, including the already mentioned Professors but also his famous Self-portrait with šajkača (1947). It was a survey of Omčikus’s painterly views and accomplishments in his early formative period, when he relied in motifs and style on older painters, perhaps mostly on pre-war Lubarda and Čelebonović from the 1930s, more than on his Professor Tabaković. However, towards the end of the first creative period, in 1950 and 1951 he painted pictures with subtle manifestations of on-going change. In some of his still-lifes, painted with a view from above and with the compositional arrangement of just a few scattered objects, there is an obvious tendency to make the surface of the painting, looked, flat and more apt for free visual research (Yellow Fish in the Pan, 1950; Baked Pumpkins 1951). A specific choice of motifs will later concur with this view and approach, as in the paintings, The Roofs of Dubrovnik (1950) and Waggons (1951). He multiplied and grouped uniform shapes, waggons or roofs, letting the eyes drift into the whole, research inner relations without stopping at individual characteristics, such as the lines delineated with the movement of forms and surfaces shaped by their colour, the light which invigorates the whole structure and the vibration produced by the whole.
1 Milija Belić, Omcikous, L’Age d’Homme, Laussanne 2004, p.70.
2 Petar was born at Sušak, near Rijeka. The Omčikuses are originally from the village of Radučić in Dalmatian Zagora and Petar’s mother came from an eminent noble family from the island of Korčula.
3 Milija Belić, ibid., p. 15.
4 Although he does not mention what Professor Tabaković talked about during the classes, Omčikus remembers him with great respect. „Tabaković was a personality much different from other professors“, continues the quotation. Milija Belic, Omcikous, L’Age d’Homme, Laussanne 2004, p.16.
5 Ото Бихаљи-Мерин, „III изложба удружења ликовних уметника Србије” (Third exhibition of the Association of Serbian Artists), Борба, 25 November 1946.
6 Since they were not an artistic group in the real sense of the term – with clearly set tasks, policies and joint exhibitions - Lazar Trifunović introduced a much more appropriate determinant calling them the Zadar communards (Lazar Trifunović, „Vreme zadarskih komunara” /The period of the Zadar communards/, Slikarstvo Miće Popovića /The painting of M. P./, exh. cat, Gallery of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Belgrade, 1983, pp. 21-39). The Zadar commune comprised in 1947 the painters, Tabaković’s students - Milorad Bata Mihailović, Petar Omčikus, Miodrag Mića Popović, Ljubinka Jovanović, Kosara Bokšan, Vera Božičković, Mileta Andrejević, Bora Grujić, also a painter, and the poet Borislav Mihajlović-Mihiz.
7 Three marriages, three personal and artistic unions, were made among Tabaković’s students: Petar Omčikus-Kosara Bokšan, Mića Popović-Vera Božičković and Bata Mihailović-Ljubinka Jovanović.
8 Only Vera Božičković, Ljubinka Jovanović and Mileta Andrejević graduated from the Academy.
9 Exhibition of paintings by Petar Omčikus, ULUS Art Gallery, Belgrade, 1-21 November 1951.
(COMPLETE TEXT IN PRINTED EDITION)