By Peter Frank

Although it is easiest to consider it as such, the history of art is not a list of choice names and a book full of footnotes. It is the dynamic relationship between ideas and practices, and the names attached to those ideas and practices serve as the dynamic’s cast of characters. There are bit players, to be sure, and there are leads. But the heavy lifting is done by the supporting cast, the artists recognized in their own time but less since. Some of these serve to amplify the innovations of the “stars”, but more serve to innovate in their own ways, or at least limn certain practices with a distinctiveness that not only puts a personal stamp on those practices but shows others how broadly those practices can be applied and interpreted.

Borislav Bogdanovich was one such figure in modern art history – a painter of distinction enough to have garnered acclaim during his lifetime, and of substance enough to warrant reconsideration now, almost four decades since his passing. Bogdanovich practiced a kind of post-impressionist style that even in its day could have been considered outmoded. But he was able to command critical and curatorial attention even then because how he did what he did breathed new life into an old fashion. More importantly, it breathed life into painting itself, and this remains evident to our eyes.

Baila Romm, Anna Bogdanovich and Peter Frank Impressions Exhibit Opening night

Baila Romm, Anna Bogdanovich and Peter Frank
Impressions Exhibit Opening night

For the most part, Bogdanovich painted relatively conventional subjects – portraits, interiors, still lifes, landscapes – and was able to transcend the generic by painting not just from life, but from his life. Although certain of his figures are obviously posed, they are just as obviously endowed with personality – no surprise, as Bogdanovich’s family members were his usual models. Similarly, his treatment of still life arrangements is sufficiently fresh and open to convey a sense of discovery, that is, the sense that the artist did not paint from a studio set-up but came upon the bowl of fruit or the vase and figurine when he walked into the dining room one morning.

If Bogdanovich interested himself in the freshness of domestic life and the vividness of the happenstance in his pictures, he was able to capture that freshness and vividness through a rich, colorful, even opulent technique. His brushwork is vigorous but exacting, serving as much to model his subjects as to render them; their contours are crisp, to be sure, but they feel fully embodied as well. They credibly occupy space. And the space itself is credible, whether deep or shallow, just atmospheric enough to infer volume – no mean feat, given the fact that Bogdanovich’s roots were in an approach that, if anything, valued drawing, design, and superficial coloration rather than veristic rendition. Clearly, however much he may have owed to van Gogh, Gauguin, and/or Matisse, Bogdanovich always heeded Cézanne’s lessons no less.

What most struck contemporary observers of Bogdanovich’s painting was not his ability to satisfy academic pictorial demands, but his ability to do so while employing the lush, high-keyed palette of post-impressionism – and to do so in a way that bridged the gap between the purely inductive color schemes of Fauvism and expressionism and the far more nuanced relationships proposed by Cézanne, for example, or late impressionists such as Bonnard. In any number of canvases Bogdanovich is able to place variants of the same color next to or even on one another and still maintain the clarity of the composition and even the relative volume of the subjects. Bogdanovich clearly prided himself on this particular, unusual skill – or, perhaps more accurately, he clearly took a particular interest in this kind of problem to begin with. Indeed, to judge by his color relationships in general, and even the overall chroma of his palette – bright, acid, natural but not naturalistic – Bogdanovich was preoccupied with near-dissonance and with unanticipated means to resolution. There are almost always coloristic surprises in his painting – and, while all of them are masterful, not all of them are kind to the eye.

We might attribute this interest in tonal relationships to the fact that Bogdanovich was no less gifted as a musician than he was as a painter. By time he emigrated to New York, he had given himself over entirely to visual art, but his initial training had been as a pianist. Born in 1899 in Ruma, a landed estate in the Serbian province of Vojvodina, Bogdanovich was first exposed to both piano-playing and drawing during his secondary schooling in nearby Zemun. He continued his musical education in Zagreb, then, after the end of World War I, went on to Prague, where he was able to study both music and art. Having to return to Ruma for the remainder of the 1920s, Bogdanovich found his musical career stanched but his artistic career beginning to flourish. He returned to Zagreb a well-established painter.

Bogdanovich’s early visual style remains manifest in drawings that remain from his years in Zagreb, Prague, and Ruma. Compared to his later paintings, with their sunny colors and realistic subjects, the early drawings are startlingly mordant. Indeed, skulls and skeletons abound, personifying death and transfiguration. The influence of Symbolism – which had taken Prague by storm around the turn of the century – is obvious, right down to the voluptuous lines and tumultuous arrangements of half-described figures that comprise so many of these works. But, just as his personal life provides the material of his later painting, the passion driving these sketches doubtless comes from Bogdanovich’s life circumstances; not only was he working in the wake of a vast and destructive war, but over the course of several years he had lost his father and several siblings, and his family was close to penury. His years back in Ruma were gloomy ones.

The style with which Bogdanovich established himself in Zagreb, however, was the vigorous post-impressionism he ultimately brought with him across the ocean.  By 1937 he was regarded as one of Yugoslavia’s leading painters. He married a woman two decades his junior (who had been his piano student) and began a family. More world events and family tragedy, however, moved him to Belgrade, and ultimately to New York. (He recognized early on that his wife and her family, who were Jewish, had to get as far as possible from Hitler’s expansionist designs.) His work quickly found favor with several galleries established by northern European émigrés, and exhibitions there helped establish Bogdanovich as a significant member of the new European art-community-in-exile. Unlike so many of his fellow émigrés, however, Bogdanovich settled into New York life comfortably and never returned to his homeland. He exhibited regularly into the 1960s and enjoyed a steady stream of commissions, even after moving to Arizona in 1966. He was working on a mural when he fell off a scaffold and died in 1970.

While the drawings in this exhibit date back to Bogdanovich’s Symbolist salad days, the paintings by and large were produced during his three decades in America. For all their evident roots in European sources, they evince a pleasure in the quotidian – and a pleasure in painting for its own sake – that was a hallmark of (non-abstract) painting in New York in the postwar years. Bogdanovich had some contact with the mainstream of the New York art scene – one of his closest friends was the well regarded figure painter Robert Gwathmey – and the positive critical response to his exhibitions indicates that he was well regarded by his American peers. Still, Bogdanovich was more in the New York scene than of it, and was more prone to be seen at the premiere of an opera or a movie than at a gallery reception; what he accomplished as an artist in America he accomplished as a Euro-American artist – proudly, a Yugo-American artist – whose purview spanned an ocean. This displacement doesn’t fully explain why Borislav Bogdanovich is only now coming out of the footnotes, but it does help explain why he should be: a product of one culture working in another, and a practitioner of a style whose topicality was in question even in his heyday, he was doing the wrong thing in the wrong place, but in such a right way that he made a name for himself then and can sustain that name as it recrudesces today. 

Los Angeles
September 2008


Peter Frank is an American art critic, curator, and poet who lives and works in Los Angeles. He was the Senior Curator at the Riverside Art Museum and an art critic for Angeleno Magazine. He is a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post. (Wikipedia)