About Charles Billich
Known for his avant-garde style, contemporary surrealist Charles Billich is one of Australia’s most prominent living artists. A prolific painter, drawer and sculptor for the past 35 years, Charles Billich works in all media forms and specialises in an impressive breadth of subject matter, including ballet, sport, architecture, portraiture, stage and classism.
Born in Lovran, Croatia, much of Charles Billich’s subject matter has been shaped by his fascinating personal history. Charles’s ballet collections have been inspired by his early life as a student dancer with the Opera de Ballet in Rijeka. Also during this early period, a politically-minded Charles wrote satirical articles for a local magazine, which regrettably lead him to be sentenced to ten years in prison by the Yugoslav state. Charles was granted amnesty two years later and sought political asylum in Austria, where he went on to study art at the Yolkschocheschule, one of Salsberg’s finest art schools.
“It takes a great deal of strength of character to weather the ups and downs of a life in art.”
Migrating to Australia as a 21-year- old in 1956, Charles continued his studies at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and the National Gallery School of Victoria, where he would go on to open the Billich Gallery in 1985 and establish himself as one of Australia’s best-known contemporary surrealist art exports.
Throughout his career, Billich has won many high-profile awards including the Florence Biennale in 2009 and the 77th Honorary Shaolin Monk Award in Henan, China in 2004. He was also awarded the keys to the city of Atlanta during the Centennial Games in 1996.
Loved for his rock star flare and irreverent style, Billich continues to captivate the imagination of collectors across the globe. With unprecedented access to astonishing venues such as the Vatican and the Cote d'Azur in Monaco, Charles Billich has amassed an impressive breadth of work. “Give me something and I am able to work with it,” he says of his ability to adapt.
“With oil, you write a book, with a drawing, maybe a page,
at best a chapter.”
It is this diversity that has seen Billich’s work admired by a broad range of high profile collectors, including political leaders, celebrities and personalities. Charles Billich’s work also hangs in impressive institutions such as the White House, Vatican and United Nations headquarters making him something of an icon within the contemporary surrealist art world.
Charles Billich and his wife Christa are both highly philanthropic, contributing to several important charities in Australia. Charles and Christa Billich are also passionate about fostering and nurturing young talent, which is why, in 2018, Charles will become a professor at the University of Fine Arts in China, teaching local students the art of calligraphy and oil painting.
A CONVERSATION WITH CHARLES BILLICH
We talk to the artist as he works into the night in his studio above the Billich Gallery in Sydney’s Rocks area. Charles Billich talks about some of his most recent work, where he gets his inspiration, and what he says to his critics.
WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR INSPIRATION FROM?
I have a constant stream of ideas; when one is here, another one is forming. Very seldom, I get inspired by other people’s work. Sometimes, it’s the cosmos, the gods, whoever the Big Server is. A lot of people exploit Google but there are plenty of ideas out there if you stay in communication with the Server. You don’t have to agree with me.
YOU ARE CURRENTLY FINISHING A RECREATION OF "ROME - THE ETERNAL CITY' A CITYSCAPE YOU FIRST PAINTED IN 1986 OF MELBOURNE DURING THE MELBOURNE CUP. YOUR CITYSCAPES ARE VERY UNIQUE. WHAT IS YOUR IDEA BEHIND THEM?
I want to give the illusion that this is Melbourne. I don’t look at topography or geography or planning. This is a methodology of my own; to disregard the formation disciplines. You would have to be blind or without imagination to not realise that this is Melbourne even though this building is nowhere near that one.
WHAT IS IMPORTANT TO YOU WHEN CREATING A PAINTING LIKE THIS ONE?
Cities contain people; my cities normally contain people, but this particular painting I swapped the people with horses to represent the Cantartha of Melbourne Cup. Anything living or organic is essential for me in a painting; the human element is most intriguing. In all its forms and all its fashions.
HOW DO YOU CAPTURE THE ESSENCE OF A PERSON WHEN YOU DO A PORTRAIT?
I want to get to the soul of the person. The woman who sat for this sketch "Yesteryear Beauty" is over the moon with her portrait. I invented those things around her. She has a touch of the aristocratic about her so I put her against the castle. It’s a total invention. She was completely humble and told me very little about herself but I saw something in her. I thought she was special. It was sincere flattery. The feet without shoes, detracting from the pompousness of the person. I think they really underlined it.
DO YOU SEE SOMETHING IN PEOPLE THAT THEY DO NOT SEE IN THEMSELVES?
She was full of joy at her beauty and how beautiful she looked and I thought to myself “well you are beautiful”. She needed that reassurance and confirmation. Flattery is very curative and therapeutic at times.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE MEDIUM?
Oil painting because with oil the narrative in the painting is superior. With oil, you write a book, with a drawing, maybe a page, at best a chapter.
HOW LONG WOULD A PAINTING THIS SIZE TAKE YOU?
Maybe a week, if I work full time.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT ALLAN ZAVOD'S PORTRAIT. IT SITS RIGHT IN PLAIN SITE WHERE YOU WORK. IS IT SPECIAL TO YOU?
This is a portrait of a friend of mine, Allan. To my mind, the best composer and musician in Australia. He was a genius piano player both classical and jazz. And all of a sudden he was diagnosed with brain cancer. He thought they would operate and extract it but they never did; it was too far gone. I painted this about halfway between diagnosis and his death. And I came up with the tumour forming into something galactic; a Black hole. Something Hawkien.
I LIKE THAT YOU PUT IT THERE WHERE YOU CAN LOOK AT IT ALWAYS.
Well he went away and I’m stuck with the painting! Which I love. I’m glad that his wife isn't asking me for it. I don't think she likes it, or, at least doesn’t see its beauty or the humour in it.
WHAT DO YOU SAY TO YOUR CRITICS?
I do not like vacuous non statements, I like to make a statement. There must be something that you want to achieve; art is just another form of communication so you need to say something.
YOU ARE ABOUT TO HEAD TO MONACO FOR AN EXHIBITION OF YOUR OWN WORK AND A COLLECTION OF SALVADORE DALI SCULPTURES. THIS DALI COLLECTION WILL BECOME AN EXHIBITION AT THE BILLICH GALLERY AT THE END OF THIS YEAR. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN TO YOU?
Dali’s work always has some kind of dignity and signs of intelligent and education. I don't want to be a clone of Dali but on the other hand, when he died he left a vacuum in the world of Surrealist painting. Now, am I going to fill that vacuum?
WHAT IS YOUR PLAN…?
I cannot paint á la Dali, that is for sure. But I don’t need to. All I can do is push the element and the quality of Surrealism a little bit more. Instead of painting realistically I am going to paint a bit more surrealistically. If anything, I want to enhance the aura of the subject I am painting.
WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER IS YOUR MOST MEMORABLE WORK?
There is a painting "The River of Blood" which we never show and it is about the horrors of communism which I witnessed personally in my own lifetime. I was indoctrinated into Communism when I was young — you think that you have to go along with it; you think that it is inevitable. The horror stories that I could tell you. I do not feel that I have performed very well, in the ideological sense, in exposing [my thoughts on Communism] through my paintings.
YOU HAVE A HUGE FOLLOWING IN NOT ONLY AUSTRALIA BUT ALSO EUROPE, CHINA AND THE US. WHEN PEOPLE HEAR THE NAME CHARLES BILLICH. WHAT DO YOU THINK THEY THINK YOU STAND FOR?
You see, I don’t have a great ego. I simply think to myself, “if I am not big now, will I ever be?” I don't think I have achieved what other people have achieved. It takes a great deal of strength of character to weather the ups and downs of a life in art. I have a niche position and so I guess I am quite happy with myself.
THESE DAYS THE WORLD IS A VERY BIG PLACE SO NICHE CAN BE VERY BIG. NICHE IS GOOD
Then I am happy. Do I look unhappy?!