‘Home is where my art is’

Surrealist artist Charles Billich, 73, is known for his sweeping cityscapes, portraits and sports pieces. His work hangs in collections that include those in the Vatican, the United Nations Great Hall in Geneva and the Hall of Congress in Washington, DC, as well as private collections worldwide. He divides his time between Sydney, Lovran in Croatia and Beijing, where he was the official artist for China’s bid to host the Olympic Games.

Where are you from?

It’s a long story. I came to Australia in 1956 as a political refugee. When I was 11, Italy lost the second world war and my town, Lovran, became part of Yugoslavia and then Croatia. I tried to escape Yugoslavia when I was 18 but I was caught and given 10 years in jail. As the prisons were overflowing, I was released two years later and escaped to Austria before making my way to Australia. I disembarked in Melbourne and eventually moved to Sydney.

Apart from your Sydney home, you have a yacht and two other residences around the world. How did that come about?

Forty years ago I developed a spine problem. My doctor recommended that, along with losing weight and taking up exercise, I needed to live in a warm climate. One of the options was to go north in the winter. But I preferred to go to the warmth of the northern hemisphere where I was born. I bought a castle in Croatia, which is 200 metres from where I grew up. As a child I had often admired this 12th- century fortress and thought it a pity that such a beautiful structure lay in ruins. In 1992 the authorities gave me a 100-year lease on the property on the condition that I do it up.

And your house in China?

My duplex in Beijing came about after the Chinese Artists Association invited me to visit China. From that visit I very quickly adopted an interest in this amazing country, both culturally and professionally, and figured that, given Europe and China are in the same hemisphere, I could spend some of my time there.

Tell me about your boat.

I have a 51ft yacht that I berth in Croatia – the last and most paradisiacal playground left in Europe. A yacht is like a fitting shell for this mollusc. Of all the homes, it gives me a sense of privacy and adventure.

Is it tiring to move from one place to another?

The restlessness in me tolerates a maximum two months in any given location. On average I virtually circumnavigate the globe some three times a year. But these days I mostly go to China because of my extensive briefs related to the Olympics. What I do get annoyed with is the flight, the queuing, filling in forms, having to show passports ... Why we even need passports I don’t know. The whole passport thing is all very painful, barbaric and primitive. Mind you, once I’ve gotten to my destination I also forget the discomfort very quickly.

Out of the three houses you own, where do you feel most at home?

For someone like me “home” is always a challenge. I suppose once a fugitive always a fugitive. But although I’m always eager to move on and get a fix of new experiences, new thrills, deep down I think that I also have a desire to find “home”. But I can do so anywhere – whether it’s in London, in the US, in Sydney.

Where do you see yourself settling in your old age?

I’ve been through old age and I’ve put it behind me. Who knows what I’ll do in the future. I might not choose to stay in any of the places I’ve been going to and try somewhere totally different. But I have to say that Sydney is definitely my primary residence. I feel very attached to Australia: when I arrived as a refugee it gave me a warm reception and treated me with extreme generosity and sympathy.

So Sydney is your favourite place?

As a painter, Sydney has lots of inspiration for me. It’s a world city; it’s exciting; it’s in-your-face; it encapsulates the best of modern civilisation and culture; and has much natural beauty. But my apartment is not home. It’s a dormitory, a place where my wife, Christa, and I flake out at the end of the day. I spend most of my time in our gallery in the Rocks (in the historic part of the city) and the studio, which is also located there, and don’t knock off until 8pm. Afterwards my wife and I often go to a party or a restaurant. Really, home is where my art is. If it wasn’t for my wife, I’d prefer to incorporate my art studio into my Sydney home as I do with the other places I own. I like my studio to be accessible so I can use it whenever the inspiration gets me. Sometimes, I like to get up in the middle of the night and work.

You don’t have strong homing instincts, what about national bonds?

Even though I hold Croatian and Australian passports, merely for reasons of mobility, I don’t feel Italian or Croatian or Australian any more fervently than Tongan or Tibetan. I have freed myself of the suspect burden of patriotism, which to me is merely a form of discrimination, chauvinism, control and indoctrination. I’m a citizen of the world.

Does your art define your home style?

I call my art “impressivism” as it is mainly about celebrating cities and sports, especially Olympic events, and its main purpose is to create lasting impressions and emotions. My houses are different from my art. They’re modern, very simple and definitely not at all ostentatious. I don’t believe in excessive decoration or ornamentation. My castle, for instance, is four levels of open, breezy spaces. Saying that, I do like to break minimalism with a little bit of ethnic drama. The entrance and bedroom doors of my Sydney home are intricately carved and gilded Balinese doors. My Chinese duplex has a mix of Taiwanese, Chinese and western influences.

Do you have a favourite feature or room?

The castle is a beautiful property. The walls are two metres thick and when you look out of the windows it’s like looking through a tunnel to the outside world. I’m also very contented in my Chinese home. I love the walls: they’re made from quartz stone and are as white as snow. In Sydney we live in a 500 sq metre penthouse in inner city King’s Cross that has wonderful 360° views of the city and a huge balcony where I have daily visits from 10 lorikeets and 20 sulphur-crested cockatoos. The yacht and the salon with its enormous dining table can be the centre of the universe. It’s from here that we decide which island we’re going to dine at or which is the nearest bar.

Do you feature your art works in your homes?

Does an actor go home to play Hamlet? Having said that, I’ve been to the homes of artists who only display their own. How tacky and self-centred. I’m not particularly precious about my art. Why, only recently I painted a fresco on a wall of my Sydney home, only to come back from overseas a few weeks later and find that Christa had painted it out. But there are always some of my pieces floating around the place. These days I work mainly for commission so I store my art at home until the pieces are transferred to somewhere in the world.

You’ve been married five times – how much influence have your different wives had on your interior style?

It’s me who mainly generates the ideas. I like to buy bits and pieces- some on impulse. I have long ago stopped speculating what “good taste” is all about.

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