Of Popes And Playboy Bunnies: Australia's Charles Billich's Non-Conformist Art Career
Pictured: Charles Billich. (Photo by Patrick Riviere/Getty Images)
On the 30th anniversary of exhibiting his work at his Sydney studio, I find the award-winning Australian surrealist Charles Billich teaching an aspirant how to stretch a canvas.
“I don’t usually do this but my guy is away and art doesn’t stop for holidays,” he says.
This comes as no surprise. Billich is renowned for carving a career in the competitive art sphere by embracing the unusual, the shocking, and the left-of-centre.
“Conformity is a curse,” he says. “It allows weeds to grow on your soul.”
Due to this stance, his contribution to the art world has kept his audience perpetually on their toes.
One minute he’s painting a portrait of Pope John Paul II, 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, including Crystal Hefner (wife to Hugh) and his eternal muse, fifth wife Christa Billich.
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“When I paint a woman, I tend to engage in a conversation with them first,” he says. “I like to see what’s underneath the exterior…it doesn’t add to her overall beauty but it adds to the experience of painting her in a genuine light.”
Then there’s Beijing Cityscape, which became the official image used by the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee to successfully secure the 2008 Olympic games. This work, among others, cemented Billich’s title as one of the world’s greatest sports artists.
Billich in front of one of his renowned cityscapes. (Image supplied by Christa Billich).
“I find the beauty of movement intriguing,” he says. “Beauty to me is aspirational. Whether its the control a ballerina administers over her body to create breathtaking shapes, or the gallop of a horse, it’s in the movement that beauty shows its true form.”
However, to the not so art-savvy, his most infamous contributions to the art world take place away from the canvas. His list of celebratory escapades includes the hosting of a dog and cat wedding, a live nude painting session to celebrate his studio’s anniversary, walking The Real Housewives Of Melbourne star Gamble Breaux down the isle during her televized wedding ceremony earlier this year…
And his efforts to rally against conformity have paid off.
Billich has amassed a personal wealth that soars in the millions. His paintings can fetch price tags that range in the tens of thousands and his reputation, as a living artist, is louder than the multicolored jackets he favors.
However, earning wealth from controversy wasn’t always the case for this artist.
Charles Billich painting a live nude at his art gallery in Sydney. (Photo by Patrick Riviere/Getty Images)
“I didn’t start out creating art for the sake of non-conformity,” he says. “It is something I evolved into.”
Billich spent his younger years escaping what he describes as “the hell of Yugoslavia” under communist leader, Josip Broz Tito. Before fleeing to Australia, he witnessed the massacre of those close to him, and experienced a stint in jail.
“I’m a lover of peace and I use my work to propagate this message often,” he says. “There’s no point in doing work without meaning, without pushing your ideas onto an audience.”
To this day, Tito portrayed in a demonic light remains one of his constant subjects.
Tito remains a constant subject of Billich’s work to this day (Image supplied by Charles Billich).
“If an artist feels that ‘painting safe’ is what fuels their soul, then they should continue to draw rose buds in vases that will be hung in hotel lobbies,” he says.
Once hitting the shores of sunny Australia, Billich put his art education to use, albeit in a more “conformist” sense, by working as a commercial artist before carving out a career in fine art.
“Art can and should be commercial, what’s wrong with that?” he says. “What should be considered wrong is the disregard for art in societies.”
“Long has art been considered a luxury. Why do we not consider the work of an artist as something that captures a moment in time, or history, or speaks against the tragedies of the world, makes an individual feel or see something in a new light?”
Billich presents designers Milich & Morton one of his art works at the Milich & Morton collection presentation during Mercedes Australian Fashion Week in 2005. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
Nonetheless, Billich claims he didn’t embark on portraying controversy for the sake of obtaining wealth. Some of his more controversial pieces, those depicting victims of the communist regime in former Yugoslavia, don’t fetch top dollar at auction houses.
Controversy will, however, remain a driving force for Billich who will continue to create pieces that capture what is topical in our time.
“I have only scratched the surface of the boundaries I can push,” he says. “Wherever you look, there is something to say about it. The current state of humanity is an endless source of controversy. One I hope to capture as truthfully as I can.”