It is certainly necessary to pay due respect to the aim and efforts of art historian Ivana Bašićević, who brought out her grandfather Ilija Bosilj’s less known drawing opus and his other works on paper, such as gouaches and watercolors, in order to put us one more time in dialogue with these exciting pieces. Besides paintings, her recently published monograph THE WORLD ACCORDING TO ILIJA includes some of his drawings presented in this exhibition as well as the texts of several established authors, thanks to which it offers a brand new insight in strong, independent spirit of this, to us still impalpable author. Although her wish was entirely logical and legitimate, I think it was also perfectly consistent with the Bašićević family’s main characteristics: persistency, patience and consistency, almost a kind of covenant. This new perception of Bosilj’s artistic opus is necessary in order to emphasize his specificity and originality one more time.
There was a lot of writing and talking about this self-taught farmer from Šid, and in quite different occasions. Since that occurrence was not correspondent with accustomed and conventional patterns but in spite of that rose above standards and created genuinely contemporary and modern art, that occurrence – Ilija Bosilj – became an unusual case in our contemporary art. With no predecessors and no followers, he confirmed the thesis that art is a matter of instinct, not school; a product of suppressed impulses and unrequited and various emotions, matter of current inspiration and situation; something that depends on power of imagination and individual feeling in translating spiritual contents into artistic expression, as well as on gift of moving everyday, customary perception to something higher. How did it actually happen?
Nowadays, when there is so much talking about the context in which the art is being created or connected with the circumstances, some critics of Ilija Bosilj state that the context is not crucial, although, in my opinion, that level must not be ignored. If we recall Ilija’s contempt towards artists at the time when he was engaged in hard farming labour, we would hardly figure out what did actually set him off to draw and paint a totally different world, what did forced him to become an artist and unique, inimitable ‘symbol-maker’. Maybe that new practice was his way to overcome the injustice, to surmount the destiny, to overpower the world. Maybe it was defiance or comfort, or maybe slow-forming decision which in one moment turned into an obsession, an existential need, a new religion. Some believe it was a possible rivalry with his son, through whom he got in touch with layers of folklore heritage and with numerous artists from actual art scene. One way or another, there is no similar example as Ilija’s. Repressive act of the State this artist was living in – government seizure of land – suddenly and unexpectedly introduces a totally exquisite new author, as Ilija Bašićević was, into art world, and that was not the end of misunderstandings. What a luck for the art! What a coincidence! But no, it was not coincidence. That occurrence is known as sui generis.
Since his first drawings, gouaches, oils on the whole variety of materials, such as paper, cardboard, wood, furniture, burlap, walls, hardboard, cork, notebooks and book covers, the new job became passion, obsession, religious ecstasy, merging. Although already middle-aged, Ilija was creating his own world, his Iliad, his planet, his Universe relentlessly and vigorously. Even when his son Dimitrije Bašićević Mangelos – art historian and theoretician, and artist himself – had destroyed his first works as unsatisfying and ugly, Ilija stubbornly continued to work in his own style and to create a new reality. Although refusing beginner’s hesitation and aware of own individuality, he was also well aware of limited earthly existence. Therefore, he coped with his inner conditions and visions, his views of genesis, suffering, life, existential quintessence, local environment, mythology, Bible and historical characters, shapes as his own ciphered symbols, infantile shapes and heraldic symbols, unrecognisable scenes from out of this world, archetypal concepts, inapprehensible secrets of imagined and fictitious world – the world according to Ilija.
Although he had never had official support as many other trendy naïve artists of that time, the works of this former farmer got tremendous response from the very beginning and thanks to some lucky circumstances Ilija Bašićević Bosilj achieved international reputation quite early. He was more appreciated abroad than in his motherland, but that is almost the rule for those with strong individuality, those who step forward and out of mediocrity, those who openly show contempt towards dominion.
His artistic opus includes scenes from history, mythology, folklore and Bible, as well as the modern ones, made within several cycles, not pathetic at all, but full of joy, playfulness and deep meanings.
It is all the same with his works on paper, graphite and ballpoint pencil drawings, gouaches and aquarelles, which often were the first ideas, visual examples for the future paintings, but also the individual pieces. Bosilj’s line is childishly precise and wavy, sometimes slow and unskilled and sometimes impulsive, rough and swift, often reduced to simplified, infantile shape or heraldic symbol. Human and animal shapes are two-dimensional, static, with no spatial illusionism, floating without contact, almost inevitably dichotomous, with two faces or two heads, just as a man is in his essence and ambivalence. Metaphor of eternal fight between good and evil and duality in every being, no matter if it is human or even animal, found its sanctuary in an autodidact artistic method. And colours on paintings and aquarelles, although randomly chosen, show dynamic and a very special feeling, such as the one that Fauvists or ‘primitives’ had, and establish interesting, reverberant pictorial harmonies.
So what exactly is the source or basis of Bosilj’s contemporaneousness, so different from naïve concept of so many other similar artists? Symbolism and morphology of Ilija’s works enabled us to read and experience them as an expression of contemporaneousness. Treatment of space, two-dimensionality of shapes, colours’ reverberation, shapes reduced to the level of symbol – all of these enabled his art to find its own special ways, so nowadays his works are in the numerous collections all around the world.
If we try to reach for meaning of symbols in his art, we will see extremely reduced and purified symbolism, yet very complex in some works. Ilija created his own Never-never Land in which shapes with allegoric functions exist as universal, ciphered symbols. He made pictograms from which it is impossible to unlock the deepest hidden secrets. Perhaps we can understand why did he paint or draw keys or birds, for example. Birds are surely challenging because of their various shapes, but they also personify freedom of motion. They can fly, flutter away, announce, bring the news or hover, but they are always free. Keys are devices for opening, flowers and ornaments. They keep the secrets and everything that Ilija did not want to reveal and that still intrigues us in his works. While drawing his birds, angels, apparitions and strange human and animal shapes through which he expressed his conscience, thoughts, intentions, emotions, irony and humour, Ilija used to use different kinds of symbols. Sometimes even the names of his works reveal his hidden thoughts. And sometimes Ilija’s visual hieroglyphs sublime the very ideas by transforming material into spiritual, and mental meditations into exquisite piece of art, an unique artistic experience.
If we agree with the opinion that Ilija Bosilj is ‘fundamental anomaly of the contemporary art’, which is quite easy to prove, than we also should emphasize how special he is, how unique his naïve expressionism is, why he belongs with artistic visionaries of the highest order, why he is not ‘naïve’ but contemporary artist and how much his works contributed to the quest for the very essence of the art.
Ilija Bosilj’s works on paper exhibited in the HAOS Gallery are just one more proof of this ex-farmer’s singularity as well as the true value of his artistic expression.
Beograd, December 2009.