From here I can travel and see the world. I feel that as a painter I’m sort of starting out again. The studio is what is most important for an artist. I haven’t had one for a couple of months now. I lost mine in a legal battle. I used to have a lovely, spacious one in the Port of Belgrade, but at the moment all my paintings are stored in a depot near Pančevo.
War and freedom
All the catalogues say that Miloš Šobajić was born in Belgrade, but that is not true. I made my first cry in a forest on Mount Papuk in Slavonia, in a winter towards the end of the Second World War. I was wrapped in sheets as my mother carried me through the snow across Hungary all the way to Serbia. She registered my birth in Belgrade, so the documents state that I was born on 23 December 1944 in Belgrade’s Stari Grad municipality, and not on a mountain top in Hungary.
My father Vojo was a military attaché and my first memories are of Paris. We used to have a house near Parc Monceau, which is where I took my first steps. I remember a huge asphalt surface, but when I pass through there now, it’s just an ordinary, three-meter wide sidewalk. Back then, it looked like an ocean to me.
Moving to Turkey
After Paris, my dad made his way to Istanbul. I started elementary school in Turkey too. It was a Catholic school, and I tried really hard to convince my whole class as well as the teachers that there is no God. They had to suffer my presence for three years, and then they expelled me.
I was about seven when I first fell for a woman. It was Ava Gardner. For me Istanbul is an indelible memory as a miracle of luxury and poverty, all at once. I already saw beautiful women then and had my own norms and standards of beauty and ugliness.
The only time that I met Josip Broz Tito was in Turkey. My memory of him is from that photograph. He acted like a pharaoh. Everyone’s waxing nostalgic over that Yugoslavia, but I don’t in the slightest. The SFRY was an artificial creation, abolishing the Serbian state.
I also had a trauma in my childhood. I found it hard to deal with my parents fighting. I saw that as a nuclear war of sorts. When I was 20, I realized that was the sexual tension between them that I had misinterpreted. Children like to live in peace.
Returning to my home country
My parents weren’t strict. My mother Mira is still alive. She is 100 years old, and still in good shape. They used to take me with them all around the world, and left me behind at one point. They dumped me at my Grandma’s in Nikšić. Actually, I’m from Nikšić. I spent my early childhood in Montenegro. That was the best time of my life. I’m happy that I didn’t accompany them to Bucharest and then to Afghanistan.
Nothing tops living in the provinces. I’m still in touch with the friends that I made in the 1950s. Some support Milo, others are against him, but we still like each other. Montenegro’s name in English connotes its way of life now, but that is an entirely different story.
Our roots are in the village of Šobajići, located near the Ostrog Monastery. My ancestors made a fortune for themselves there back in the 19th century. I come from a prominent Serbian family in Montenegro, which brought the first reference library, theatre, orchestra, newspapers, and magazines, as well as the first folk ensemble and apartment store. My ancestors were writers, poets, graphic designers, diplomats, medical doctors, etc.
One of my ancestors was Saint Stanko. The Turks cut off both of his hands. Our last name used to be Kadović, but we took the name of Šobajić because of the village. My folks ran to Serbia because of the famine, and they changed their last name in Valjevo. Today I also have relatives with the last name Kadović. All that’s left of the house in Šobajići is the house lot, no bigger than a room. You can see the sea from that house of ours, and some say you can also see Italy, but that’s taking it too far.
When he saw me painting at about the age of five, my father said I was going to be a painter. I remember that he collected all these early works of mine. He was pushing me into art.
Later on, my mother also wanted to explain to me how to live my life and what I needed to paint. I love her to bits, but I didn’t allow her to tell me what I needed to do in life or how to live it.
The first thing I drew was a portrait of my mother and father. I also painted my friends. I drew quickly, which is how it’s been all my life. I graduated from the Belgrade Faculty of Fine Arts in 1970, and then escaped to Paris.
I developed my own style only after eight or nine years living in France. It was in the 1980s that I found this central idea of mine and became the man who fights to overcome all obstacles. He keeps developing, so each time I think I’m at square one. It’s only now that I paint what I should, and I have worked for over half a century.
Painters dream of making millions, and such people go down the fastest. An artist’s road to glory starts off in poverty. I had 70 bucks to my name and enough dough to rent a room for a month in Paris. It was dangerous, but Lady Luck smiled on me. I soon managed to sign my first contract with a US-French gallery. I had my first solo art exhibition after just three months living in France thanks to the critic Patrick Walberg. I thought I had done it all, but that was just the beginning.
Patrick was a big gun there, and he taught me a lesson in our first encounter: ‘Do you know that my buddy Max Ernst only had his first exhibition in Paris at 55 years of age?’ We had beer then, so my career started in the tavern. The next day I already had my first job.
I went to Paris to show what I could do, but also to learn what I couldn’t. It pulls you in. Many crash and burn like van Gogh or Modigliani. I had a neighbour who hanged himself in a studio next to mine. They’re all disappointed people, because Paris didn’t welcome them as they had expected. Paris is a dangerous place. It’s wonderful, but lives are lost there.
A friend of mine, Zoran Jovanović, arrived in Paris a few years after me. I remember that he got 70,000 euros in today’s money for his works. He couldn’t afford a clean pair of underwear, but he spent all of the money on a new car.
When you start making money, you can never make millions in order to stop. I could never afford a yacht or a Rolls-Royce. I liked meeting new people and making contacts. That was my only expenditure.
A modest collection
My gallerist taught me to rent everything. In Paris, I was lucky the City gifted me with a studio where Picasso used to work. I had a wonderful house, and I wasn’t even considering spending money on travel. I was searching for my style for a long time, and it is a way of thinking more than anything else. I wanted everyone to be able to say, ’It’s a Šobajić.’
Privately, I’m not a collector, and I don’t have an awful lot of paintings. I have swapped some of my works with my colleagues, but my favourite is Ljubinka Jovanović, wife of Bata Mihailović. She used to make Byzantine paintings. I like Tàpies and Bacon, as well as Spanish and German painters. Dado Đurić is dearest to me. For me, he is the best painter in the world.
An invitation from Belgrade
Now I think that I made it because Walberg took pity on me. Paris is no longer what it used to be, and I’m sorry for that. When I first went and stayed there, in 1972, it was a veritable City of Lights. Everyone was flocking there. That has long since gone. The great Western Europe offered its inhabitants a certain comfort but, unfortunately, the very same mujahideen who were beheading Serbs in the 1990s now plant bombs in France, Belgium, and elsewhere. They left our parts for the Atlantic, to embark on a killing spree.
I survived in Paris for 40 years. I started to get fatigued and could hardly wait for the invitation to return to Belgrade and start the Faculty of Arts and Design. I think I’ve created the best faculty in the Balkans. It lasted for 15 years, but nothing can last a lifetime.
Friendship with Handke
I often say in jest that Peter Handke was awarded the Nobel Prize because he had written a book on me. He authored one of many monographs dedicated to my work. Here, have a look at what he wrote about me: ‘Miloš creates the kind of painting in which all of his ancestor’s cramped space explodes and changes direction towards an unprecedented freedom, at times almost aggressively: at any rate, each painting, each sculpture is liberating. Because of his ancestor? Because of history? Thanks to it? Against it? You be the judge. No, do not judge – let yourself be transfixed by those monumental paintings at the far end of an avenue, deeply and unfathomably black…’
As a boy, I was in love with a girl by the name of Ruth, but my first love happened in the grammar school. I fell in love with my Lotka, who I met at the First Belgrade Gymnasium. I married her and spent 40 years of my life with her. She died about 10 years ago.
My second marriage was the everyday grind. It was my biggest mistake. I won’t even mention her name. Sometimes people run for the light, except that it was not a light, but a darkness. I fell into a darkness from which I emerged as a new man. Now I’m living my seventh life, with my wife Maya, an Amazonian from the Asháninka tribe in Peru. We’ve been married for four years, and I feel like a different person. I get the feeling that my life had only just started.
Maya is an architect and a great advocate for the native Indians‘ rights. I love her very much. I got a daughter and a wife at the same time, plus we have a dog, Panta. I feel like I’m 17. My Maya asks me every morning, ’How old are you?’, and I say I’m 23 only when I’m in a bad mood.
From being fired to being in love
I let Maya go from the Faculty, and it was only then that our love started. I had been declaring my love for her for years, but it happened suddenly. We have been inseparable from 16 July 2016. I like to live a married life and get married immediately. I will marry Maya ten more times. Now we’re waiting for our wedding in Kosovo. Maya offered that we get married in the Amazon, with the natives there, but I’m still having second thoughts. I would like to spend some 40 more years with Maya. When I’m 120, she will be 90. I wish I’m still able to work then, and that she can hold my hand rather than push my wheelchair.
From an atheist to a believer
That’s the case with many people in these parts. My family was very attached to religion. I was a painter in Paris and it never occurred to me to consider it until the war in the former Yugoslavia started. I was slowly becoming aware of what had been happening to our people. I can’t say that I’m regular at church every Sunday, but I do believe in one God; however, not the one from the Old Testament. I am deeply committed to the Orthodox faith. It has kept us, so that we are still around today. I’m not dogmatic.
On plans and death
I need to make a film and put on a play. As I’m growing older, new vistas open up before me more and more. I’m sorry that I can’t sing, because I like it a lot. My nephew, a piano teacher, told me, ‘You sing like a rotten bullfrog.’
We all live around the day we draw our last breath. I was more obsessed with death before. I am now free of that, and life is much more beautiful when one doesn’t think about it. Living with Maya has made me think that I too am a young man. I know I will live to be 120 years old.
The new generations are made of poor stuff. We were made from steel and concrete. The young people today are always missing something. I don’t miss anything, and it is a positive spirit that has kept me going.
Everything is destroyed
CORONA AND WAR
Corona is like World War 3. No tanks or planes, but it hits hard. Entire industries have been obliterated, manufacturers big and small, craftsmen, people who lived off daily wages and royalties. Tens of millions of people are left jobless, while artists are among those who are prohibited from working and existing. As far as I’m concerned, the big retrospective exhibition at Belgrade City Museum, which was planned for May, has been postponed indefinitely.
This won’t last forever. I know that we will eventually emerge victorious. But what does that mean? The Serbian nation will be in a single state, and we will have peace and prosperity. Unfortunately, this prosperity will be very brief.
Kurir.rs/ Ljubomir Radanov/ Photo: Damir Dervišagić