Galerie St. Etienne
From January 17 through March 18, the Galerie St. Etienne will present the American debut of the Serbian self-taught artist Ilija Basicevic-Bosilj. ILIJA: His First American Exhibition also includes a small selection of major paintings by other artists from the former Yugoslavia, such as Ivan Generalic, Josip Pintaric, Ivan Rabuzin, Sava Sekulic and Matija Skurjeni. The Galerie St. Etienne worked directly with Ilija's family to select the artist's most striking and important paintings, the majority of which have never before left Serbia. ILIJA is timed to coincide with the annual Outsider Art Fair, which will take place at New York's Puck Building from January 27 to 29, 2006.
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Ilija is one of the most significant self-taught painters to emerge from the land once known as Yugoslavia. Born Ilija Basicevic in 1895, he received international acclaim in the 1960s and '70s under the pseudonym Ilija Bosilj. With a brilliant palette, Ilija depicted Biblical stories, scenes from the Apocalypse, episodes from Serbian myth and history, animals, birds, winged people and an idyllic invented universe called Ilijada. Often imposing in scale, his work revolves around paradoxes that are at once familiar and otherworldly. Double-headed and two-faced creatures represent confounding dualisms: of good and evil, truth and lies, kindness and aggression, the conscious and the unconscious, the outer and the inner. Ilija painted both simple moments and epic battles in an attempt to reconcile his rural peasant heritage with lifelong experiences of war and oppression.
Ilija's biography is in some sense a microcosm of Yugoslav history. For centuries, Serbia was contested territory: initially between the Catholic West and the Orthodox East, and later between the Austrian Habsburgs and the Ottoman Turks. Ilija, a farmer with an elementary education, was so poor he shared a single pair of formal trousers with his neighbors. Nevertheless, he was among the more prominent peasants in the village of Sid, and when the Croatian secret police, the Ustase, teamed up with the Nazis to subdue Serbia, he became one of their targets. Upon threat of death, Ilija and his sons fled to Vienna in 1942. Their lot did not improve much when they eventually returned to Yugoslavia. Ilija refused to cooperate with the Communists who came to power after World War II and was therefore repeatedly jailed. Deprived of his livelihood by the collectivization of his farm, he began to paint in 1956. Yugoslavia was at the time in the throes of a "naive" art boom, but Ilija, given his conflicted relationship with the Communist regime, was somewhat overshadowed by artists like Generalic, Rabuzin and Skurjeni. Nevertheless., he exhibited extensively, not just in the Yugoslav capitals of Zagreb and Belgrade, but in Western European cities such as Amsterdam, Basel, Bucharest, Dortmund, Dusseldorf, Munich, Paris and Rotterdam. In 1971, the year before Ilija's death, Sid established a museum to honor the work of its native son.
At a time when the Balkan countries are opening up to tourists and popular culture, ILIJA: His First American Exhibition provides meaningful insights into that region's history and traditions. This important debut also raises fundamental questions about the field of so-called outsider art. Because Ilija was a self-taught peasant whose sources were the Bible and Serbian myths, he has traditionally been categorized as a "naive" artist. Yet his work amply evidences the inadequacy of such labels. "Naive" after all, suggests a lack of sophistication, but Ilija was looking to unlock the deepest secrets of life, the mysterious coexistence of good and evil.
ILIJA: His First American Exhibition is documented by a comprehensive checklist, which is available free of charge by mail or can be down-loaded from our website www.gseart.com.