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Charles Billich is an enigma, cloaked by genius. But the story of one of our most successful artists is less familiar. Until now.
Charles Billich is an Australian gem. A man of genius, eccentricities, and controversy, he has acquired a legendary, almost mythic, status. Yet in a nation that does not prize artists, many are not acquainted with one of our most colourful characters.
So, who is Charles Billich?
And, more importantly, where did he begin?
Let us paint you a portrait.
In The Rocks, it is the night of the 30th Anniversary of the Billich Gallery. The stars are winking over the Sydney skyline, a blonde with a smoky voice is singing Dance Me To The End Of Love, and the flamboyant and eccentric crowd of his friends and admirers are cloistered on the marble floors below the stretching floors of his life’s work.
Billich is wearing a suit of saffron and floral silk that he designed himself. The sapience and salience of his eighty-one years play beneath his smirk. He leans over to me:
“I have a story to tell you,” he says.
It’s difficult to choose where to start unthreading the rich life of Charles Billich. He is an artist – his work adorns The Vatican, The White House, The United Nations Headquarters, and the bedroom of Hugh Hefner in the Playboy Mansion. He is a fixture on the social scene – with his flamboyant outfits and debonair air the flash of the camera snaps shots of him endlessly. He speaks Italian, Croatian, German and English. He’s had five wives, the fifth of which is the smart and glamorous Christa – a muse for his nude portraits with sharp business acuity that is largely responsible for his ongoing success.
Billich himself describes the legendary figure as “a gentle person and a savage, an idealist and a hedonist.”
But how did he get here?
Perhaps we should begin with his life as a political prisoner.
It was 1952, Slovenia, and the oppressive communist regime has caught wind of a series of biting satirical pieces published in a local Italian-language magazine. The author is an eighteen-year-old named Charles Billich. The woman who gave him away is his girlfriend who, behind her mask, was really an undercover government agent. And he is sentenced to ten years in jail for his writing.
Maribor Jail was grimy and cold, marred by a culture of further brutality and starvation. But it is also a bizarre haven – where artists, poets, satirists, and intellectuals locked away by the government come to form the type of community many others hunger for. It contains its own theatre, and young Billich learns about set design, and soon becomes the lead set designer.
Two years later he was surprisingly let free. “My time in prison exposed me to the basic issue of coping with cold and hunger, repression and total lack of freedom,” he says. “I formed convictions that will stay with me forever.”
He immediately sought political asylum in Austria, where he studied fine art in Salzburg. In 1956 he boarded a ship, The Toscana, one of the few Italian ships to survive World War II, on what would be its last ever voyage. Billich was bound for Australia, the country he would not only come to call his home, but also come to help put on the world stage.
Billich’s brilliant command of the English language leads two Australians on the ship to employ him to teach English to the other immigrants on board. Upon embarkation in Victoria he begins working for Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training Centre, a camp set up to receive and train those who arrived during the post World War II immigration boom – people such as much loved science personality Dr Karl Kruzelniki, politician and activist (and TBS writer) Franca Arena, and sports journalist Les Murray.
Billich was consumed by a dream to become a serious artist. But whilst the world waited, our Billich survived as a taxi driver, a morgue attendant, a waiter, a sign writer, a graphic designer and an advertising art director. He refused to seek out grants, believing that it would tarnish his artistic integrity. In his spare moments, he snatched every opportunity to work toward his dream, studying hard at the Royal Institute of Technology Melbourne and The National Gallery School of Victoria.
Billich began painting dancers. The years he spent as a ballet dancer in his youth had given him a fervent obsession with movement, form, and anatomical verisimilitude, leading to one critic calling him “the kinetic painter”. He painted bizarre, dreamlike, Surrealist scenes with photographic precision and florid colouring. Slowly his repertoire curled out and enlarged – provocative nudes painted with soft strokes of oil paint, fast Futurist automobiles with grained blurs of charcoal, celebrities and world leaders and historic events. He defied boxes and kept colouring outside the lines – persisting, reinventing, provoking.
But it took eighty-one years to become Charles Billich. And it was as the graceful child ballerina, and the imprisoned satirist, and the savvy and ambitious immigrant where our legendary Australian artist began.
But with a true jewel like Billich, it’s a never-ending story.