Illustration: Sketch of blogger Jean-François Vernay by
© Charles Billich. Private collection.
Charles Billich: A Biography
Donned in conspicuous outfits, quipping his guests with the most surprising ideas, Charles Billich, whose inquisitive mind keeps him mentally alert, cuts a very colourful figure in the art world. If his action-packed boyhood sounds like a James Bond thriller, his life reads rather like a tale of reversal of fortune, namely a rags-to-riches success story. Born on 6th September 1934 in Lovran (presently Croatia), Charles is the only son of Carlo Billich and Anna Palmich. He was educated at the Classic Lyceum and at the Scientific College of Rijeka. A few years later he completed his formal education at the University of the Philippines Art School in Manila.
As a fifteen-year-old boy, he was admitted to the Rijeka Opera Corps as a ballet dancer from which he developed a high sense of movement (which caused an art critic to dub him ‘the kinetic painter’) and anatomic proportions which would become the hallmark of his opus. At the same time, he engaged in a short-lived career in journalism. His uncensored anti-communist prose was eventually to cause him a lot of trouble when, by a twist of fate, he found himself living in Yugoslavia under a harsh regime. Given away to the authorities by his girlfriend who acted as an undercover agent, he was arrested and thrown into jail as he came of age. Though Charles almost died of exposure, he compensated by catering for his libido sciendi. While literature provided him with food for thought, he was able to quench his thirst for knowledge by learning a few languages from his inmates, and gathering information on stage set designs. Thanks to another twist of fate, Charles was part of the lucky half of the prisoners who were released in 1954 after being granted an unexpected amnesty. His imprisonment as a youth has markedly shaped his thinking. As he says, “My time in prison exposed me to the basic issue of coping with cold and hunger, repression and total lack of freedom. I formed convictions that will stay with me forever”. His democratic ideas were enforced; his humane feelings were enhanced while his rejection of tyrannies and hostilities grew stronger. Drawing a lesson from this traumatic experience, he started thinking in a Heraclites-like way. He thus pointed out, “How can one appreciate freedom without having tasted slavery? I’m grateful to fate”. Beaming with optimism, he learnt to be tolerant and never to complain.
Shortly after his release, he fled to Salzburg (Austria) where he studied art at the Volkshochschule. The call of the unknown and of a land fit for pioneers appealed to his entrepreneurial spirit and led Charles to cruise across the oceans and reach Melbourne in 1956. Despite his mother being hostile to an art career, Billich enrolled at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and eventually at the National Gallery School of Victoria to perfect his techniques. A series of odd jobs (he was in turn a morgue attendant, a cab driver, a waiter, and a sign-writer) allowed him to fund his studies before he could paint his way to fame and become the now worldwide acclaimed artist.
Charles Billich’s sentimental life is as colourful and romantic as some of his paintings. Although he had many flames, no woman ignited passion in him like Christa Brunhilde Ostermann who was introduced to the painter as a distinguished collector and admirer of his art. Charles wanted to treat her to a head-and-shoulders portrait but the alchemy of mutual desire brought in all the ingredients for an erotica session. From then on, Christa – more than any of his former wives – would become his muse and inspire the bulk of his nude paintings.
Charles Billich can be described as a humanist. Drawing upon Greco-Roman motives, he appears as a classicist but his knowledge is quasi encyclopaedic. A citizen of the world, Charles “feels at home wherever [his] canvas is”, though he feels sometimes craves for a change of horizons to explore another civilisation, new mores and lore. He roams across the seven seas in constant search for new themes and concepts to fuel his reservoir of creativity. A remarkable polyglot (he fluently speaks over seven languages, five of which he learnt when he served one fifth of his ten-year-sentence), he masters English with such expressiveness that his florid style always captures a mesmerised audience. As an international artist, he owns studios and galleries in all over the world: in Sydney (Australia), in Lovran (Croatia), and in Beijing (China). The numerous commissions to which he readily complies are no impediment to his boundless creativity as he is often given the freedom to enforce his own ideas. Not only has the master won his spurs thanks to his second-to-none technique – as talent often turns out to be the make-or-break point –, but he has been ground-breaking in many ways.
Now hailed, now disparaged, Charles Billich – who passes far from unnoticed – stirs up a lot of passion in the land of controversy. In 1995 the painter fell a victim to the tall poppy syndrome which, in the words of Carolyn See, is “a national preoccupation [in Australia] with cutting those who would be successful down to size.” (in The New York Times, 14 May 1989, p.1). The “Great Knocker” in this case was the art critic John McDolnald who dismissed Billich’s painting as “a slippery form of graphic design backed with a high-powered marketing strategy” (in Sydney Morning Herald, 7 January 1995, Spectrum p.12A). Later Charles was able to comment unabashed on that gratuitous act of contempt : “If you give the best of your talents, if your ambitions tandem with hard work, if your achievements mirror the geniality of your opus – be prepared to be detested by a large, sick stratum of our confused society”. Saying that Charles Billich lacks academic recognition could be likened to mendacity : he has an entry, as lengthy as Geoffrey De Groen’s for instance, in Alan and Susan McCulloch’s authoritative The Encyclopaedia of Australian Art. Incidentally, a surrealist painting by Charles Billich also features prominently as front cover of distinguished Australian writer Rodney Hall’s anthology of poems Australians Aware. That very painting – “Levitation, Suspension” – was duplicated inside the book as part of a selection of illustrations by illustrious Australian painters such as Brett Whiteley, John Brack, Joy Hester, James Gleeson, John Olsen, Fred Williams, John Passmore, or John Perceval, to name a few.
Mr. McDonald, who mistook freedom of the press for freedom to insult, went on with likening Charles Billich’s art to kitsch, to which the painter mockingly quips : “Better to be the King of Kitsch than the Knight of Mainstream. […] Art critics should look for more derogatory terms; kitsch is not an insult. I mean, if you have an imitation vase from the Ming Dynasty, or the original, the image is still the same. Kitsch is original, it says something new, it’s creative. High kitsch, low kitsch, I cannot spend my life deciding whether something is kitsch. I just go ahead and do things, to hell with adversity.” To some extent, Mr. McDonald’s scathing comments are illustrative of the malaise within the Australian artistic arena where the peintre maudit myth is taken as evidence of artistic skills. In other words, you have to be a penniless and starving painter to be given credit. So multi-millionaire Charles Billich – whose works sell like hot cakes, at somewhat fancy prices – fatally blows the myth. A Japanese art collector walks into the Billich Gallery and buys a $ 50,000 Düsseldorf painting, a German couple purchases a Cologne cityscape for another modest $ 50,000; and a mural of New York worth $ 100,000 now hangs in a Californian private collection next to other great Masters. These stupendous sales climaxed when Japanese property investor Esamu Sano gave away $1,500,000 for a series of eight Australian cityscapes. In Australia, as elsewhere perhaps, critical and commercial success seem to be poles apart.
In fact, that sad tall-poppy-syndrome episode which could have been counter-productive had a welcome reverse effect on the artist as it prompted him to withdraw from the public world of art and indulge in an increasing output. As workaholic Charles Billich puts it : “Painting is the most serene, tranquil and spiritual of callings. Provided you stay away from vernissages, mainstream galleries, art columns, art competitions, art world scandals, fakes, frauds and conspiracies”. Charles Billich, who has now earned a reputation of being anti-Establishment, does not comply to the system. He remains an outsider which, for that matter, has proved to be a benefit for his career: when most artists are persuaded never to sway away from a theme, Charles constantly widens his newly-inspired subject matter. Hence his embracing an impressive range of styles, being a deft hand at portraiture, nudes, cityscapes, figurative art. At times his paintings are surrealistic, impressionistic or photo-realistic. His recent works are so accurate, minute in their compositions, that his poetry of details and the sense of place he captures on his canvases are to some extent reminiscent of the works of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Nowadays, Charles Billich is perceived as a well-rounded successful artist whose works adorn the walls of boardrooms, galleries and revered institutions across five continents. An honoured guest in many countries, recipient of the Order of the Eagle in 2000, Billich was made Doctor honoris causa by the US Sports Academy (Alabama) in 2000. Strikingly enough, despite this worldwide fame which came together with numerous prizes and titles, Charles remains an accessible man whose art can be easily construed. His appointments are too numerous to be listed but suffice to mention his winning on three occasions the prestigious Spoleto Prize in Italy from 1987 to 1989 to realise that art judges are not chary of recognition when it comes to assessing a Billich artwork.
The father of three children (Jonathan, Eliza and Jane), Charles currently shares his life between the welcoming Oriental charms of Beijing and the luxurious teeming suburb of East Sydney where he occupies a large Baroque-style penthouse. His German-born fifth wife Christa coordinates his exhibitions worldwide and manages the Billich Gallery in the Rocks. Charles, who describes himself as “a gentle person and a savage, an idealist and a hedonist”, has built a fortune with his originals and limited editions.
© Article by Jean-François Vernay.