Like many Sydney locals, there are must-see places in the city that I wouldn’t have known about had I not stumbled upon them by accident. The Billich Gallery, a three-level art gallery at The Rocks (100 George Street) is one of those venues.
Mary McKillop by Charles Billich
I discovered it on my way back as I was doing my morning jog from Redfern to Circular Quay. At the corner of my eye I thought I saw black-and-white sketches of Pope John Paul and St. Mary McKillop.
That broke my pace for a millisecond and piqued my curiousity: it’s Good Friday and I was in a religious frame of mind.
Wearing a gray hoodie and black running shorts, I didn’t think it right to go into the gallery but figured I should at least check it out, even for a brief moment. Several tentative steps later I was welcomed by more artwork with a religious theme.
There was even a small room that had a version of ‘The Last Supper’ that I really liked.
If you’re a Filipino, you’d know that many Filipino household dining room has a picture of ‘The Last Supper’ in some form or another.
That would have been enough accidental-art-browsing for me for the day except I decided to cross the entrance hallway to check what else is in store. That’s when I found out more work, this time from the world of dance. Oil paintings showed ballet dancers in different stages of movement, inspired by the Bolshoi Ballet. From that second on, I was hooked.
“I have been a ballet dancer. Life dictated my early retirement from ballet, which left me heartbroken. But I have compensated my frustrations by painting on the subject of ballet fantasies and in so doing, dealing gravity a blow.”
- Charles Billich
Many of Billich’s paintings and prints came with short letters and explanations of what inspires him. It was only when I read the gallery brochure that I discovered he was a student dancer with the opera corp de ballet in Rijeka, Croatia. At the time, he wrote satirical articles for a local magazine and was sentenced by the Communist regime to 10-years jail for doing so. He was released after two years because the prisons were overflowing and, in 1956, migrated to Australia.
Billich’s social conscience lives through his art. On the second level of the gallery, sticking out amid images of ballet dancers and sportsmen was a portrait of Josip Brozovich ‘Tito’ (a former president of Yugoslavia) with devil horns. I don’t know anything about Tito and, at the very least, Billich opened my eyes to another world I never knew about.
I’ve had to google Tito and am not sure if I’m reading the truth or revisionist history. Either way, among many things, it was his regime that was responsible for putting the young Billich into prison. The fictional letter accompanying the painting gave me a glimpse of Billich’s sense of humour (a letter addressed to him and written by Tito himself from the bowels of hell, with acknowledgements from Lucifer – genius!).
There’s plenty to see and enjoy in the gallery, but what I loved most were the oil paintings of nude women on the third floor. There were three, in particular, that I’d love to own one day if I ever become a billionaire (hah!). For now, I get sweet pleasure knowing that these paintings exist and I can come see them anytime.
Post-script: As I was leaving the gallery, who walks in the door but the man himself, carrying with him his latest work. He was gracious enough to pose for a photo and I couldn’t help but mention to him another artist that I greatly admire, Edd Aragon.
Edd just came back from his ‘Under A Different Light’ exhibition at the Yuchengco Museum in Manila. Billich said he would love to meet Edd (I mentioned Edd’s Ultra-Violet paintings). Knowing Edd’s views about the Marcos regime and his love for music, I’m sure they’ll have a lot to talk about.
“There are many things you can do with a woman. You can love her, explore her, exploit her, serve her, unnerve her, elate her, depilate her, thrill her, possess her, amuse her, bemuse her, doubt her or TURN HER INTO A PAINTING!” - Charles Billich