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The Man Who Painted Beijing

Drawing together the multifarious threads of artist Charles Billich's agonizing, hilarious, exultant, despairing, workaholic, fantastically successful life (pick your own adjectives: they probably all apply) to form a coherent, neatly classifiable individual is an exercise in futility. But then, rugged individualists who happen also to be multi-talented always were difficult to categorize, even if - like 66-year-old Billich - they exhibit all the affability and other qualities of the archetypal good bloke. Not to mention an outstanding talent for sports-activity pictures, other works of more conventional nature - including the erotic - and cityscapes that have won him world acclaim.

He is a comfortably rumpled, welcoming man, "cuddly" in women's eyes, relaxingly matey and envied in men's. He is also a workaholic who can, at times, behave like a bear with a sore head because, as he says, some days he hurts.

Croatian-born Australian Billich, flaming red blazer and Chinese-knot neckwear mesmerizing passers-by wherever he goes, has been in Beijing to both paint for, and present to, Beijing's 2008 Olympics bid committee, BOBICO, a huge cityscape montage of the capital. Titled Beijing Millennium Cityscape, the work was undertaken at the invitation of Australia's Canberra City government to express its support for Beijing's bid.

Billich's stunning oil on canvas encapsulates famous ancient buildings as well as modern high-rises, portraying Beijing as a symbol of international cooperation and goodwill. Designated as "Olympic Painter" by no less than 28 countries, he has produced major, rapturously received cityscapes for the likes of Atlanta, Sydney, Salt Lake City and Paris. Works he created in Switzerland are equally treasured at the International Olympic Committee's Lausanne headquarters.

Among all the other attributes that make up the Billich personality is that of philosopher, and no mean one at that. Intimates in fact, out of respect as well as a leg-pull, call him Confucius Charles. At which point it is worth delving into what he calls his Billich Almanac - which he claims sells more copies than the Bible - a superbly produced loose-leaf collection of his pictures, each accompanied by his hand-written thoughts, few if any of which relate to the pictures themselves.

He has no difficulty producing one such piece of wisdom each day for what in effect is a glossy scrapbook, gems like: "Amazing how easily smokers turn an exception ("my Grandpa was a three-pack-a-day man and lived to 97" ) into a rule of probability- ; and "Art has never been as plain, insane, inane and asinine as today.- What he pens captures the mood of his thoughts at any moment, often while he is actually painting. They are a mixture of the profound, cynical, contemplative, highly observant, acerbic, bloody-minded, self-mocking, trite, funny and, at times, somehow sad. His need for daily exercise is a constant theme. Here, it seems, is a man who feels he must declaim via the pen as well as brush, if not yell his thoughts from the rooftops.

Much has been written about Billich, and many attempts made to put him into a genre that fits neatly into what one art critic termed the "boringly acceptable- . Billich might be impressed by this observation, even if he has likened art critics to cockroaches.

Trying to put definitive shape to his huge body of work, however, is ... well, frustrating. So what is he? One authority describes his art as "in collusion neither with tradition, as seen from the European point of view, nor the international avant-garde" . While he projects the image of a lone wolf out of step with pretty well all conventions (even a layman can see this in his paintings) one cannot help wonder. He comes across as a one-off, true, but there are odd hints of others- influence in some of his works. Not least that of his mother, who inspired in him the ability to draw hands. "She knew little about art,- he recalls, "but used to say you can tell the men from the boys by the mastery of drawing or painting hands. So I spent a lot of time doing that. - A few of his jottings may substantiate what the foregoing authority said: "Painting is my only self-defense against ordinary life- ; "Art is about surprise rather than shock- ; "Many looked at me and my work as aberrant when I became international. They positively loathe me since I'sve become multinational- ; "What awful lives some artists must have ... pretending to love all that crap.

- Possibly most revealing of all are: "I would like to attract other artists away from disfunctional art themes and towards sports arenas full of focal treasures, visual opportunities, chances to enrich the content of art with messages and even instant professional ground-gaining- ; "Erotic art is alive and well, the great survivor. In fact it symbolizes continuity and fertility in art, and thus it's the constant that keeps it going- ; and "No matter how hard-core I try to turn out my erotica, I always end up with the romantic.- There may be a bit of a guilt complex too about his considerable wealth: "They say artists thrive on poverty, so I try to convince myself that I am flat broke. It's hard when you go to your garret in a chauffeur-driven Bentley.

There is more to Billich. Our frustration for now is that he has not the time for a long-term contact with Chinese artists, whom he largely admires, and to whom he could teach so much. One of his notes says: "China has a colossal inventory of artistic inventiveness. Art will be vindicated and reborn in China, and in about fifty years Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong will be what Paris, London and New York were in their ascendancy.

We like Billich, warts and all. Pleased, too, that he was chosen to produce the Beijing Millennium Cityscape, and heartened by his confession that he happily charges extra for depicting the warts and other physical nasties of clients when painting their portraits because such blemishes are hard to produce.

And we particularly like this astute observation: "People in the media often envy their quarries and frequently become them. For example, they become politicians, having concluded that in politics there's more power than in the Fourth Estate. The real heroes remain journalists to the end ..."

Mucho gratis, squire: music to the ears of this 67-year-old hack for one.

(21dnn 05/22/2001)

Renowned Aussie Artist Backs Beijing Bid by Donating Painting
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