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17 Dec 13

Omcikus: Paint, Brush and Some Food

In an interview for BIRN, the celebrated painter regrets the modern distortion of the art world, and urges young artists to return to traditional painting and lost human values.

Nemanja Cabric
BIRN Belgrade
Petar Omcikus | Photo by Nemanja Cabric

Petar Omcikus, the famous Yugoslav painter, has turned 87. This autumn, he opened a small gallery at Mihizova Street in Belgrade where he stores his paintings and those of his late wife, Kosara Boksan, as well as exhibits by the younger generation of painters.

By chance, the street on which his small gallery opened bears the name of Borislav Mihajlovic Mihiz, the critic and writer who belonged to the first artistic collective of postwar communist Yugoslavia, the Zadar Group.

Omcikus and his wife were also members, along with famous painters Mica Popovic, Vera Bozickovic, Bata Mihajlovic and Ljubinka Jovanovic.

These freethinking artists left the clutches of the regime in 1947 to work more freely by the sea in Zadar, Croatia, under the influence of nature. The rest belongs to art history.

Omcikus sits in the kitchen of his modest apartment in Zemun where he spends the late summer days after months in Vela Luka on the Croatian coast. He is traveling on to Paris, where he spends most of the year working in his atelier.

The Belgrade apartment consists of a kitchen and bedroom serving as temporary atelier decorated by large unfinished paintings. Each is inspired by concrete objects: houses, places and views. But the perspective is personal and emotional. Every painting is a reinvention of art through Omcikus’s own prism. He never makes ordered series of paintings, never thinks of sales, and creates wildly and without control, wherever he is.

Sipping wine, he talks about the glorious generation of Yugoslav painters, which gained significant attention in international art circles, and wonders whether the new generation will have a similar chance to prove itself.

War made us strong:

It is a painful topic for Omcikus – that the old generation of painters that worked with traditional materials is being forgotten and replaced by a new generation of computer artists and performers.

“Today’s art world is full of quasi-genres that have nothing to do with the craft I was perfecting during my life,” he says.


Omcikus was born in 1926 in Susak, near Rijeka, Croatia. His family moved to Belgrade in 1937, when he was 11. A love of painting, paint and brushes developed early on in childhood, and he feels his artistic life was predestined.

An older brother used to take him as a boy to see the great exhibitions of the pre-war Belgrade art scene. With wonder he remembers the “Italian portraits through the centuries” show at Prince Paul’s gallery, which later become National Museum – and has now been closed to visitors for more than a decade. There, the young Omcikus picked up some of the ideas that would turn him into one of the best Yugoslav portrait painters, producing such masterpieces as his paintings of the great writers Ivo Andric and Milos Crnjanski.

“That was school for me. Later on, I also remember an exhibition of 19th century French artists that amazed me,” he says.

“We were stubborn and direct. Some felt comfortable under the protection of the regime, which in turn made demands of them. We weren’t conditioned in this way.” (On the Zadar Group)

Omcikus says that the war made his generation tough and strong. During World War II he attended an Academy of Applied Arts, where he studied frescoes, mosaics and stained glass, meeting his first role model, the painter Ivan Tabakovic. At the same time, he whitewashed Belgrade apartments with his school friends and professors.

“We were no elite. We were raw,” he recalls. “The scene later developed, offering much better relations between artists, galleries, audience... Critics started wearing neckties. Artists from that period were more representative. We, on the other hand, had emerged from a wild situation a bit wild ourselves. Tougher. Stronger.”

After the war, Omcikus enrolled at the Academy of Arts in the class of such masters as Petar Lubarda, Nedeljko Gvozdenovic and Milo Milunovic. However, he did not complete his studies, as he and his colleagues did not wish to take anyone’s orders, so they formed the Zadar Group.

“We turned into some kind of revolutionaries. But this revolution was least visible in painting,” he explains. “We were revolutionaries in the existential sense. We were very good, consistent painters, like others, just slightly more talented.“
After a time spent in the Zadar Group, Omcikus returned to Belgrade to join the so-called Group 11, which also supported him in his individualistic quest, deprived of genre.

Shortly after, in 1951, he had his first exhibition at the gallery of the Association of the Visual Artists, ULUS, in Belgrade. That year, he and his wife left for Paris, the biggest art centre in the world, only occasionally returning to Yugoslavia to organize artist gatherings at their summer home in Vela Luka.

In Paris, Omcikus continued painting and whitewashing apartments - until his works became listed in a contemporary history of abstract art. By then, he had staged many exhibitions in France and Yugoslavia.

“I was just pleased to be mentioned,” he says of his rise to fame. “Maybe someone would have made a big deal out of it, but not me – I admit I am incapable of any kind of marketing.”

It is exactly the rejection of marketing that characterizes Omcikus, and which marks him out from today’s commercial world.

World turned upside down:

Portrait of Serbian Writer Milos Crnjanski by Petar Omcikus (1987)| Photo by Goldfinger/Wikimedia Commons

“I will tell you an anecdote,” he says. “In an atelier next to mine in Paris is a colleague painter. He teaches drawing. Some 12 or 13 years ago he got into a conflict with his director and his colleagues. He was fired. He started a court process against his employer and won. They had to employ him again, so eight years later he returns among his colleagues. And what does he see? He sees some easels and models resting in the corner, while students all work – on computers!”

Omcikus believes that the rejection of the paintbrush by artists symbolizes a form of dehumanization of art, and of the world.

“The new inventors act as if they never had a need to draw anything, a box, an apple, an ant, or the moonlight - a cloud... But they are the ones with the power in this moment, and it will be hard to succeed to find a way out.”

“The relationships between the model and reality, humans - everything is completely lost. It is a completely different world. The people rising out of this – I have no reason to envy them.“

He believes the new approach came from across the Atlantic Ocean, from America, leaving the “old continents wiggling (between new and old), because they have the bigger tradition.

“There is a chance to oppose the new trend, but, looking at artists abroad, it seems to me that they have largely accepted the new ways. No tradition, nothing,” he says.

For Omcikus, human nature has similar qualities to it all the time, a permanence of a tradition that, now, however, “some wish to revolutionize and remove, inventing new processes without the slightest idea of what humans are”.

For him, the art scene that he loved is slowly becoming “the shallow waters of commercialism”, creating a golden era for “critics, theorists and parasites that want to profit from the craft”.

Holding onto the brush:

Omcikus is no lover of modern performances, or of commercial painters who do series of paintings to fit the needs of the galleries.

“The biggest lack is not the lack of skill,” he says. “It is here, in the head – the great ambition to be different, to make a success. She knows how to do it, Marina (Abramovic).

“And then, the money, the idiots, the whole way their society is structured, it’s a social issue,” he adds. “It’s not just Marina. She is just a successful executor of this.”

Back in his time, he continues, people were obedient, but he and his colleagues were not. “Today, people are very obedient, and have the impression that they are not obedient,” he maintains.

“They are simply rejecting my brush. They think it is nothing. And they - just blab around. They just talk and talk, and most often it is pure rubbish. Is it a message, a need? I saw one of those performers in the newspapers, lying down naked with a dead fish over him. I mean, please?! Poor fish!”

Omcikus says that, back in his time, people were also simpler, and relied less on theories. They imagined painters just as the Renaissance era had conceived them.

Omcikus says that painting and art of performance are fighting for supremacy in the area of visual.

“I don’t accept this concept. Why don’t they call it differently? Let them develop their concept, but they should stop presenting themselves as visual artists.”

To hell with galleries:

With his new gallery, Omcikus invests his hopes in a new generation of talented painters standing up and saving the craft.

Asked what he would advise them, he talks about avoiding marketing and returning to traditional materials. For artists in the region that could mean reestablishing a connection with the rich but underexplored heritage of the Balkans.

“Monasteries are miraculous. And we are connected to a great civilization of Greece,” he says. “We are all Greeks, so to say. And we have this Slavic soul... we have plenty of everything. We have great values that we should use. It is right in front of us.”

But Omcikus says today’s young artists look like a mass of individuals all creating by themselves without feeling any need for a joint reaction to circumstances.

“We are talented, healthy people. We just need companionship,” he says. “People need to depend on each other, especially when they are young.”

Omcikus strongly believes in artistic groups, acting together, as opposed to individuals working in isolation.

“Young people say they have no chance of success. There is always a chance – work, exhibit, even on the street. To hell with galleries! We don't need them. It is enough to find any kind of a space, restore confidence in these things and socialize much more!”

“The individual is attacked today in a much more refined way,” he says. “Theoreticians, critics and ideologists that make new situations of ‘wonderful freedom’ are much more dangerous than the old direct controls exercised by politicians in the communist era.

“But, what freedom? Where are the materials?” he asks. “What substance are these young people made of? Can they find courage to oppose the critics and send them to hell, asking: Why do you fill our heads with this stuff?”

As for now, even in old age, he works on, constantly, and creates, spreading around him a vital artistic energy.

“I don't need anything much. Something to eat, some paint. I am not a picky man and that is luck. I like to paint and that is it.”

Uroš Blagojević, a visual artist, contributed to this article.

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