Gulliver’s Travels: Visiting ILIJA BOSILJ BAŠIČEVIČ, among others

"Welcoming the Two-headed Stranger" Cavin Morris (February 15 - March 17, 2018)



The Fairies’ Circus (1962), Gouache on paper, 29 1/8 × 42 1/8 in.


Being of “an active and restless nature,” I undertook a voyage to Brobdingnag– aka Chelsea. The natives appeared to be more or less human-sized and to find me unremarkable (or perhaps did not even notice my presence—I couldn’t tell.)

Peter Plagens “An Ear for Everyday Speech”, 2017, mixed media on canvas, 84 x 78 inches

The interior spaces were cavernous and the paintings tried but couldn’t quite fill them. I puzzled myself as to whether they had any other purpose. Peter Plagens’ work is intriguing when viewed on the small screen as a series of investigations into color and dimension but much less so at seven by six and a half feet. I imagined a corporate lobby for their future home. Judith Bernstein’s posters against Trump—well, I share the sentiment and admire their boisterousness and  could imagine them on an exterior wall in natural light to give the people hope but their size and the requirement that they be shown in black light, definitely a museum—and then—a museum basement.




Tom Wesselmann “Still Life #61”, 1976, oil on shaped canvas, in 4 parts, overall: 104 ½ × 391 × 79 inches


Tom Wesselmann’s one joke stand-up that droned on and on at Gagosian. Somewhere a new wing will have to be built and climate controlled to house them. Or maybe already has been, they looked brand new. Amazing draftsman, though. The drawings and maquettes, which propose scaling up ordinary objects for the use of giants, are witty and beautiful; once they are built, they disappoint and leave nothing for the imagination to do.



Drifting, dispirited, I washed up on a beach–uh, bench at Cavin Morris. Looking about me I wondered if the paintings weren’t terribly puny. (A similar thing happened to Gulliver when he returned home.)
Then I wondered if they were folk or outsider art.

(Folk art encompasses art produced from an indigenous culture or by peasants or other laboring tradespeople. In contrast to fine art, folk art is primarily utilitarian and decorative rather than purely aesthetic.Outsider art is art by self-taught or naïve art makers. Typically, those labeled as outsider artists have little or no contact with the mainstream art world.)
Thanks, Wikipedia!


“The Dzigura Takes Wing”, 1963, gouache on paper, 19 3/4 × 29 1/4 in

I got interested when I noticed that these figures create the ground they walk on simply by the placement of their feet. There are few other clues. They create the space they exist in and their relationship to each other intuitively. I don’t know a better way to say it. This way of constructing space reminds me of some children’s drawings and cave paintings; it’s a gift rarely seen in modern adults.
I disagree with a description in Wikipedia — he did not create a “flat two-dimensional world”.

Bosilj was a peasant. He was born in Sid, Austria-Hungary, 1895 and died in Sid, Yugoslavia, 1972. In other words, it was the same town.  He had almost no formal education, he avoided two world wars and resisted collective farming. He was jailed for his resistance a few times and yet he was a prosperous farmer who sent his children on to higher education. Inspired by his son’s interest in art, he became a painter in 1957—at age 62. He showed his work regularly in Europe and is considered the greatest Serbian example of art brut.
That bio raises more questions than it answers.

The son, Dimitrije Bašičević, disapproved of his father’s work at first because it was not as refined as the Hlebene School, a group of state-sponsored naïve painters that he preferred. Here is a picture from one of the leaders of that group, Josip Generalic:

“Wood Collectors”, Josip Generalic


The Hlebene group, from what I have seen, is characterized by static figures in a detailed environment. The village life that is depicted is intact and isolated.
Bosilj’s work is nothing like it and he does not seem the type to join a school or conform in any way—especially to any state-supported entity. His painting style is not refined, it is true, but it is meticulous, the kind of meticulousness created by total concentration while using a hand more used to the plow. Please do take a look at his hand in the link to his biography below.



“Apocalyptic Riders”, oil on canvas, 39 × 27 in

His work isn’t realistic in any conventional sense either, but is uncanny in terms of capturing space and movement. For example, these horses and laborers. Well, at least one of them is working with a scythe. There is no detail in the field at all and yet it is a beautiful meadow. The horses are not anatomically correct and yet they gallop and leap and are together in the field. (Yes, I do see that they are maybe meant to be The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.)
The central figure is two-faced. Many of his people and animals are. This motif does not seem to have only one meaning. In some paintings, the two-faced one is a godlike figure, an extraterrestrial and so perhaps complicated. In others it is a duplicitous stranger. Some of the villagers themselves have two faces. I get the feeling he knew each and every one of them personally.



“Interplanetary Travelers”, 1962, gouache on paper, 42 1/8 × 59 1/8 in


Bosilj used myths and religious stories, including some he invented himself, but his main interest seems to be in the spectators. That reminds me of what Romare Bearden said about his own copies of religious art— that he was more interested in the actions and emotions of the crowd than in the central figures.
Note the spectators: some are awed, some are angry, one turns away.



“Interplanetary Travelers”(detail)


“Interplanetary Travelers” (detail)

I’m not so sure Bosilj is painting a fantasy world as it has been described, the Hlebene school definitely was. His small town was not isolated, two world wars and Soviet domination!— it was constantly visited by strangers. The title of this series of paintings, “Welcoming the Two-Faced Stranger”— strikes me as a bit of black humor.
Another thought about those spaceships is that the year that Bosilj began to paint, 1957, was the year that Sputnik launched.

Oh I forgot to mention:  the circus! (see above)

A last word from Swift:

I hope the gentle reader will excuse me for dwelling on these and the like particulars, which, however insignificant they may appear to groveling vulgar minds, yet will certainly help a philosopher to enlarge his thoughts and imagination, and apply them to the benefit of public as well as private life, which was my sole design in presenting this and other accounts of my travels to the world; wherein I have been chiefly studious of truth, without affecting any ornaments of learning or of style.