a Painter who Never Succumbed to Ideology
Serbian painter Slobodan Sotirov has just stepped into the ninth decade of his life. His style was influenced by abstractionism and expressionism, although his style is firmly representational. There have been all too many artists in the last two hundred years who want to teach us and convince us of something. They keep bombarding us with meanings, messages, revealed rationales and world views, while Slobodan, simply takes his brush and quietly paints.
“What can be given as a present to someone who has everything?” Wasn’t that the question that has for centuries intrigued and tortured the courtiers before every royal wedding? Wouldn't an earthly thing just turn out to be a pale copy of the original already in the royal treasury? Objects used by the patrician personally – jewels and trophies that differentiate him or her from other mortals – are most certainly in his possessions already. On the other hand, articles unworthy of his everyday touch would end up in his servants' hands and thus should not be considered a gift to the king.
Translated into today’s terms – portrait painting in East Europe is still in fashion – for those at the very top at least. For the wedding of Russian businessman Andrei Malnichenko and Serbian fashion model Aleksandra Nikolic, last September, the bride's family prepared a present worthy of a royal wedding: the portraits of bride and groom painted by Slobodan Sotirov.
More than 2,000 portraits that he has painted so far are scattered from Belgrade to London, from Toronto to Tokyo. The small Swiss town of Fluhli has recently published a book of portraits which Sotirov has painted there over the past twenty years. Inhabitants of the nearby town that only Moscow can match in the number of millionaires-per capita are pleased to invite Sotirov to be their guest for some time. The following is an interview I held with Slobodan in January 2006.
What is the difference between a photographic portrait and a painted picture? Why do we need painters if nothing can represent an image on a flat surface more realistically than a photographic mirror?
Painting and artists have the strength to colour and infuse the object or, in case of portraiture, a person, with their empathy with the model. So, that is always, as it is said in philosophy, a subjective reflection of reality. Photography cannot change anything, whereas an artist can paint a person in dozens of variations with completely different content. I had a chance to paint about fifty portraits of Tito from photographs as ordered by different committees. Having lined them up and watching them, I saw that they were all very different from one another. A good painter pleases his model above all by photographic similarity, so that the model can recognize himself or herself in the painting. However, a lot more can be expressed, than just similarity by other painting elements of expression such as colour, light or composition. A real portraitist never forgets that a model is not still life on which one can experiment without consequences, with a new painting approach, lines, paintbrush movements, or texture. A portrait should be treated as a human being, as these are real human beings behind each of them! Many painters treat portraits as they treat still life, landscape, or abstraction. That is, they hoist upon us a portrait which is directed by the artist’s will, however all portrait painters have respected a rule that the portrait is a portrait of a person that should be recognized, empathized with and understood.
How do you paint portraits? Do you have to know the person you are going to portray? How many times and for how long must the person sit in front of you?
Long ago I established an approach to the model and canvas when I do a portrait. A model portrayed for the first time is nervous. I use a little trick to calm the sitter’s nerves – by producing in the first ten minutes a drawing that greatly resembles the model. Then I show the sketch to the model who at that point “opens up” and becomes trusting. Of course, the model will not see the initial drawing being almost completely erased. I erase the sketch as I do not really need it anymore; with an “unwrapped” model I can now go on my way, on to underpainting the surface by appropriate skin colour, and start composing the portrait. I fit one big stain onto the body where the head should be to achieve movement impression, and set different colour plans that will dominate in the painting. I tell the models beforehand that they would not be able to interfere in what they see during portraying, and that only at the end they will be able to say whether they like it or not. Very often, when painting hair I give it a red coat of under-paint to achieve the impression of warmth, and suit a blue one to suggest coldness. The beauty of a portrait is more in the artistic treatment than in the similarity to the model.
Sotirov and family
Some painters say they need to study their model hard while producing a portrait and therefore the entire process may take months and years. I have painted portraits all my life and I know very well that this is more of a myth or a bad joke. One cannot work on a portrait for too long and the reason is a rather prosaic one: painting technology. The dye would block the canvas and there would be nothing of a portrait. For a good portrait the model should pose for an hour three to five times within 10 days. Throughout history painters needed to guarantee their income over prolonged time periods and painting portraits for courts and aristocracies.
In your opinion, who are the best portrait masters of the 20th century and today, and who were the ones before?
I find that there are very few good portraitists in the world nowadays. Simply, no one writes about them; they cannot be found among people from show business. Personally, I have learnt the most from Frans Hals and Dutch masters.
Your artistic path is unique in recent Serbian and Yugoslav art. You successfully resisted social realism, but refused to unreservedly join all other established formal schools and submit to prevailing art trends?
There have always been different tendencies in art. Many attempts have been successful in joining classical art to innovations, but many times they have not been accepted. Throughout history, everything that is new and enriches art expression, sooner or later becomes accepted and included in art. Nowadays, various art pieces that are equal to exhibitionism are mercilessly promoted and forced into art. These samples of exhibitionism will never be accepted in art, because aesthetic criterion is fundamental to fine arts. There is a simple but important rule – painting is consumed by looking at it! If something that is called art requires a lot of explanation and interpretation, that kind of art can be anything, but not painting.
I studied in Sofia. The Academy I attended was a classical one. Portraits and nude paintings made by professors and senior lecturers, who taught before or at the time, were hung along its corridors. In order to become a lecturer they had to be able to paint well. I started my studies in these conditions. Fortunately, when I returned to Belgrade having completed my studies, the situation was that Western culture and Western conceptions of art, the Paris school in particular, freely stood against social realism that was predominant at the time. Thanks to modern tendencies in the world and the influence of modernism on Belgrade’s fine arts, I modernized my classical understanding of portrait painting that I had studied in Sofia. However, the basis has always been classical portrait painting. At that time, I was known in Belgrade as an abstract, modern artists and a classical portraitist at the same time. That combination makes my paintings recognizable.
What about abstract art?
I could have never accepted bare formalism. My experiments with abstract art have always carried an associative feature. Therefore, when my watercolours were classified as lyrical abstractions that was absolutely true. In the sixties and seventies, I painted associative abstract art pieces and was well known for it. At that time, I tried to get a portrait included into a big exhibition of Yugoslav artists, which was a shock for my friends who said that it was not good and that it was not me. However, I think that it was definitely me, as it is obvious now that my portraits are not any worse than my abstracts, and it through them that I have ennobled portraits.
Why do you think people like your paintings? Why do they call them simple and beautiful in its most ordinary everyday sense?
My painting is above all and in its essence decent, humane, and as a matter of fact – usual. What does this mean? Very often I paint just an onion that is extraordinarily beautiful, pleasant to look at, like beautiful music, using the means of fine arts expression: colour, composition, etc. In my paintings, people find what is inside of them, what they have, what they carry with them, and the paintings help that it is felt more strongly. I find that the beauty is not in the objects that I paint, but in the emotions my art transfers into these objects. I think that my art is very close to music in the sense of fine arts. It cannot be expressed by words; one has to feel it.