Vladimir Veličković has long been recognised, loved and respected as one of Europe’s greatest painters. He has a global reputation as a visual artist, with his exhibitions having marked a number of galleries around the world. He is part of both the French and Serbian artistic elite.
Everything in his career began in 1965, when the then French Culture Minister, Andre Malraux, opened the Paris Biennale and carefully examined the works of the representatives of the then Yugoslavia – Vladimir Veličković, Žika Turinski and Janez Boljka. Representing the former Yugoslavia, Belgrade architect Veličković won first prize at the Paris Biennale. Following such recognition, everything started to unfold as anyone would wish: “Maybe some magical force intervened there and spared me from possible scratches”.
To this day, that recognition has remained the most precious award that Veličković (81) received in France, but he is also particularly proud of being decorated with the French Legion of Honour. After a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (Bobur then still didn’t exist), it was finally clear to his father, Dušan, that he has the son who is an architect with a degree, but that painting is Vlada’s real choice. The smile on his father’s face suggested that he was satisfied that his doubt had dissipated.
It should be noted that his mother, Lenka, a Belgrader whose company many have vied for, supported unconditionally from the outset (as opposed to his sceptical father) Vlada’s interest and desire that he finally achieved – to be a painter. Upon her retirement, she devoted herself to arranging her son’s biographical and bibliographical material, cataloguing and archiving everything he had done, so he today has a professionally compiled archive. “She did that passionately, lovingly, day and night, with unbelievable energy. And I thank her for that. I inherited my working habits from her, which my father was also embellished with, and I have kept those working habits to this day, along with respect for specific ethical and moral behaviour”.
We should not forget that Veličković has shared his life for more than five decades with his wife Maristella, a translator and highly educated woman with whom he has two sons, Vuk and Marko. The two of them have their own artistic careers and both are successful.
A Serbian and French academic, formerly a respected professor of the most prestigious academy of fine arts at France’s Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts in Paris, he is the founder of the Vladimir Veličković Foundation, which has for seven years granted an annual award for the best sketch of an artist aged under 40 (with money coming from Veličković’s national pension), of which he says:
“I have huge and unexpected satisfaction due to this award, considering that each year there are between 100-140 candidates, which is a fantastic statistic for such a relatively small environment. Drawing is at least guaranteed a future here, and when we know that sketching is the foundations of all areas of fine art, even those abstract, conceptual and minimalist kinds. And I know that for these children, in the absence of any market, especially one orientated towards young people, that money means something and that they use it wisely. Without cooperation with the Haos Gallery, the functioning of this foundation of mine would be much more difficult, if not impossible”.
This artist works ceaselessly and is constantly taking on new challenges and new exhibitions. Do you ever look back at what has passed and, in your head, just for yourself, summarise your career?
I feel sick after every sold painting, and that’s not an empty phrase, but rather it always seem to me that I won’t be able to do the next one as well as the one I’ve sold. But in time everything comes into place
“Of course, for as long as I can and while I can still use this little head and while I’m on my feet, it will be like that and no other way. What has been is the base of what is now and what will be tomorrow. It is important to have an overview of what you’ve done – not a complete one, because that’s impossible, but those important, crucial moments need to be present in your mind as a kind of reinforcement for building that which I’m doing now, and preparing reinforcement for the future.”
Veličković has achieved that which he most wanted: to paint and be a painter, only that. Everything else that it might have been possible for him to achieve is not worth mentioning. It would be to the detriment of the time needed for painting, and there was never enough of that – time always eluded him. How would he define his success in France today – through the number of sold paintings, the number of places and museums containing his paintings, good reviews or the financial status afforded him by selling his paintings?
“First, what is success? There is no concept more relative than success. What kind of definition might serve for us to explain it? Many parameters are necessary in order to build some kind of platform that would receive all those pebbles that fit into the mosaic of your work. Exhibitions and museums, sold paintings and monographs, it is all necessary, even essential, in order to create a summary that would allow you to draw a line and determine what has been achieved. Work and commitment to work are certainly very important, but consistency is also important; to be uncompromising, stubborn, not to withdraw and not to take into account so-called trends (if you are in any of the trends, even better) or the taste of the audience. It is important to pay attention to that which is written and said about your work, but that should all be strained through a very fine sieve, because it’s not all just for systematic rejection. You must defend your stance, what is today called your project, your script. Your script is very important and must be recognisable at first glance, but it is necessary to develop and enrich it if possible.
“And sold paintings? That is a necessary evil, but if it was not for those sold paintings everything would be more complicated. I get I feel sick after every sold painting, and that’s not an empty phrase, but rather it always seem to me that I won’t be able to do the next one as well as the one I’ve sold. But in time everything comes into place. There also remains the fact that I have never been confronted with the problem of having to do some other support job on the side. And while you’re asking what success is, I would say that success is undoubtedly doing a job that no one needs but me and a very small number of people, while for me that represents my entire life.”
When Veličković arrived in Paris, France’s then culture minister was the famous André Malraux, who CorD’s interlocutor describes as being “a boulder of a man and an authority, an excellent writer, the author of the Imaginary Museum, a fighter in the Spanish civil war… Everyone else, except Jack Lang, did not hold a candle to him”. He doesn’t know current Culture Minister Audry Azoulay personally, but from a distance he considers her charming and beautiful, though it seems to him that lately ministers have only held that position briefly, which could reflect their inability to perform the job. Through his life and work in France, Velickovic illustrates for us how significant it is who the culture minister is in that country, and also explains what good and bad culture ministers do in any country:
“Much of what is happening in culture depends on the engagement and ambition of a minister; to maximally activate all disciplines, and there are a lot – publishing, music, theatre, film, visual arts etc.; for there not to be only exhibitions, but also to build new institutions of culture, whilst not forgetting to reconstruct existing museums.
The problem today is not so much in money. The problem is in initiative and the desire to do something in that field. And until this problem is approached ambitiously and constructively, our art will be doomed to remain behind the curve. And – in terms of its quality and creativity – it doesn’t deserve that
“The focus of a minister of culture, in France and in Serbia, should be directed towards increasing the budget for culture; for the always insufficient percentage to rise at least one per cent – and in our country it’s currently less than one per cent; to engage all the forces that will promote French culture beyond France. I say this primarily due to the fact that French cultural policy is more ready to receive – which makes the French cultural scene, especially the Parisian one, so rich and attractive – than to export their culture and art. I am also thinking of the presence on the world stage of French artists and those who live and work in France, like I do. My presence on the world stage is the result of personal initiatives, which fortunately exist. I found it a lot easier and more effective to head out into the world from France than would have been the case from here, from Serbia.
“We have many young talented artists, but how can they be provided with the possibility of exporting themselves? The state, the Ministry of Culture and the Minister himself, should be engaged in this effort, for that to be a priority for them. Once upon a time, and this is something I constantly repeat, during the time of such a stupid and unjustifiably critical Titoist regime, there was a Commission for International Cultural Relations, which really worked a lot on the promotion of our culture and art. Just to mention the numerous exhibitions that toured the whole world, we were present on all continents. The problem today is not so much in money. The problem is in initiative and the desire to do something in that field. And until this problem is approached ambitiously and constructively, our art will be doomed to remain behind the curve. And – in terms of its quality and creativity – it doesn’t deserve that. We were handicapped, and we still are, with closed museums, but I hope their opening as soon as possible will see the relaunch from a standstill of new, much needed and much desired activity in the field of art exchange. That’s because we have a lot to show and to be shown. Generations have been sacrificed. Now we must try to save what can be saved before it’s too late.
“And the minister of culture is the key to the problem. He is responsible, with his attitude and his authority, to ensure that culture is appreciated and has its priority status restored, which is still not the case today.”
Vladimir spent his childhood and adolescence in Belgrade, where he had a wide circle of friends. He played football with a rag-ball, ran the 100-metre sprint for Red Star, walked on the concourse… A gramophone was a rarity, radio slightly less. They went to Kolarac – the Belgrade Philharmonic, Žika Zdravković, Oskar Danon, Zdenko Marasović, jazz, Vojkan Simić, Mladen Guteša, Mile Pavlović – Slina and Duško Gojković; Nada Knežević was like Ella Fitzgerald, while Jimmy Stanić was almost better than Sinatra and Dean Martin. Oscar Peterson, Louis Armstrong, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and many more … they all came to Belgrade, as did Yves Montand and Gérard Philipe in Sid with the French comedy, Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. The list is long, the memories are clear, and there was plenty to remember. They read, went down to the River Sava, to the Cinematheque, Eisenstein… and Waterfront Balls. Belgrade theatre, opera, ballet – all were fantastic at the time.
I am neither capable of being a Frenchman nor would I want to be one. I am deeply rooted as a Yugoslav and I will remain that way until the end of my life. I also have deep roots as a Belgrader, which implies that I am also a Serb
Exhibitions also started: the unforgettable sculptures and drawings of Henry Moore in Cvijeta Zuzorić, Delacroix (who Vladimir doesn’t particularly like) at the Ethnographic Museum, and frequent visits to the widow of Petar Dobrović, who extracted him from the blocks of Petar’s ‘sketches and encouraged him in his early drawing and painting.
Veličković has long since been resident in France for more years than he ever lived in his native Belgrade. But what makes him a Frenchman and what has remained of his characteristics as a Belgrader?
“Oh God! Well, I am neither capable of being a Frenchman nor would I want to be one. I am deeply rooted as a Yugoslav and I will remain that way until the end of my life. I also have deep roots as a Belgrader, which implies that I am also a Serb. When someone asks me how I feel in terms of whom I belong to, I always give the same answer: I’m a Yugoslav painter who lives and works in France, whether someone likes that or not!
Vladimir is among those painters with a lively interested in everything happening around them in the field of fine arts, like a good connoisseur of art history. It is enough to know naturally, though he is rarely asked if there is a painting he has seen somewhere that he wanted and couldn’t afford.
“There was so much desired. I’m afraid of being boring in that choice. However, if I need to answer this question, incomplete nonetheless, I’ll say: just a small piece of Grünewald’s Crucifixion detail from the Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, France, followed by the Pietà of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon and, from the Louvre, Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ (Brera). It would be a very long list, but let’s stop at these.”
Asked about the power of the painting market, the extent to which the market determines the price of the painter and, in short, the state of the painted art markets in France and Europe today, CorD’s interviewee responds:
“The market is a very important factor, in my opinion too important. It has transferred to itself the role of undisputed arbiter and what is happening today in this area is a disastrous distorted picture of that which has true value and that which has absolutely no value. With various promotional operations, or marketing, certain authors are succeeding, sometimes deservedly, in becoming prelisted in the sense of market value, with which some speculate and manipulate. That is for those artists themselves, because it implies surplus production and, of course, falling quality. All this is happening within a circle of a certain number of rich people, assisted by advisors, and via institutions that carry their name – François Pinault and Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana in Venice; Bernard Arnault and Vuitton Foundation in Paris; as well as a certain number of powerful galleries led by Larry Gagosian, with an entire network of galleries spread around the world. Here we also shouldn’t overlook auction houses that have their own systems for cutting and raising prices. The aforementioned Pinault also owns Christie’s auction house.
“It is in their hands and they determine what and who is important in this very colourful world of creation. We are witnessing a situation in which price is a measure of quality, which, however, is very often not the case.
“For example, if François Pinault visits your studio and buys one or more of your paintings, your status changes instantly. The value of what you are doing increases fivefold, if not tenfold. I will neither praise nor condemn such a system. It has been operating like that for a long time. That’s the way it is and no other way. I wouldn’t like to predict how long it will last, though I fear it could be a long time.”
“The market is a very important factor, in my opinion too important. It has transferred to itself the role of undisputed arbiter and what is happening today in this area is a disastrous distorted picture of that which has true value and that which has absolutely no value
Having had exhibitions around the world on all continents, Veličković explains how the painted art markets function in China, America and Japan:
“In China there are large scale promotions of Chinese artists and that is a novelty initiated via the auction houses (Shanghai, Hong Kong), which fiercely, and in my opinion undeservedly, raise their prices. America jealously protects its artists with incredibly high prices – a Warhol silkscreen can reach a price of a whopping 108 million dollars! That’s more expensive than a Rembrandt! The same goes for Jean-Michel Basquiat. It’s all a kind of competition, I presume among collectors, according to the system, ‘if you have one, I want one too’. Japan also has its stars. I will mention Takashi Murakami and his studio factory, with more than 100 people realising his creations. That’s real manufacturing!”
When it comes to politics, this painter has always shown an equal interest in what is happening in France and in Serbia. Today he says that he follows everything that happens, but nothing more than that:
“Although certain phenomena that belong to the yellow press can interest you because they are not worthy of normal political activity, and if politics and politicians were miraculously replaced by an efficient administration, and an even more efficient economy, where would the end be for us? As things are now, we will continue to allow these politics and politicians to poison our lives, without any kind of chance of freeing us of our problems, wars, hunger, idleness (all in the name of democracy!). The more time passes, the less optimistic I am, and I’m angry at myself because of that… and powerless.
In his studio, in a street named after Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in a former factory block in Paris, Vladimir works every day, all day. And it is there that he is at his happiest. He doesn’t have a pen or a brush in his hand every day, and doesn’t stick to Leonardo’s No day without a line, but it’s important for him to be in his studio. With nobody to do accompanying technical jobs for him, he does everything himself “while I last and while I’m working, there are no breaks”.