Towards the Lights of Poetic Realism
He was master of the civic world poetics, perhaps the last important one on the European horizon. The poetics of the world that disappeared in Eastern Europe with the arrival of communism and transition and in the West with postmodern frivolity, equaling high and popular culture, as well as the destruction of the middle class. He passed a refined way from intimism between the two wars to the most refined of all realisms and from dark paintings to whiteness

By: Dejan Đorić
Photo: Željko Sinobad

The art scene in the Serbian capital was enriched by three-part exhibitions of painter and academician Marko Čelebonović (Belgrade, 1902 – Saint Tropez, 1986). Especially remarkable is the retrospective exhibition in the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences Gallery, as well as the appearance of the second voluminous monograph on Čelebonović, published by the ”Rima” Gallery in Kragujevac.
Čelebonović is a classic of Serbian and Yugoslav painting between the two wars. Already during his school days in Antoine Bourdelle’s private Academy, he was friends with Milo Milunović and Sreten Stojanović, as well as famous artists Massimo Campigli and Alberto Giacometti. The biographical moment is important for this author. His brother was Aleksa Čelebonović, one of the most significant Yugoslav art critics and historians, one of the best European experts. Marko Čelebonović was professor at the Belgrade Academy of Fine Arts, which, according to many opinions, used to be the best in Europe twice – from 1947 to 1949 and from 1952 to 1959. Milun Mitrović, his student, remembers him as the only professor who practically taught students how to paint. When he realized they couldn’t handle it at the beginning, he created a painting from beginning to end in front of his entire class. The painter himself speaks about it (referring to the period between 1928 and 1938): ”I most often started from the ear, sometimes from the eye. What was somewhat literary in those scenes wasn’t important for me. Gradually spreading from the detail, I created the entire figure. It is interesting that paintings where I, as I said, started from the separate and then moved to other parts and the surrounding were most resembling the model.” As professor, he had a broad outlook on art; in a dramatic moment for Ljuba Popović, who was expelled from the Academy of Applied Arts, he appeared as a savior. Ljuba was admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts, although his work, in terms of style, was completely different from academic requests and the professor’s perception.


Čelebonović’s beginnings were not so promising either; his first paintings from 1927 were artistically unskillful. As it is often the case with genuine artists, the painter soon began to ”tighten up the system” and tune his artistic instrument, on which he performed some of the anthological paintings of recent Serbian art. He is one of the last great representatives of the Parisian School, a refined form of painting, lasting from Camus Coro to Ljubica Mrkalj. That esthetically means that the painter continued where Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard stopped. He moved towards the intimization of the artistic scene, giving importance to local shade, richly painted surface, domination of coloring over drawing and building a painting based on the real scene. His spirit didn’t hide in details, but in a unique gentleness and pastel shade, without sudden transitions, dramatic shade and coloring contrasts. Besides intimism, typical for the period between the two wars, which could be understood as optimism, belonging to the Belgrade School of Painting, which started with Kosta Miličević and lasted until Dragoslav Živković, Vasilije Vasa Dolovački and Predrag Peđa Todorović, Čelebonović is also a realist painter. He didn’t cherish the hard realism from the period between the two wars, developed on a wide artistic area from the German New Reality (Neue Sachlichkeit) movement, American ”New Gothic”, to the Soviet socialist realism, with a response in the totalitarian art of Germany and Italy. Member and officer of the French Resistance Movement, Čelebonović advocates the most refined form of realistic art – poetic realism. Members of ”Mediala” never cared about such kind of art between the wars, but their leader Leonid Šejka mentions Marko Čelebonović as a role-model painter of still lifes, shelves with objects and globes, which attracted him as well. In that sense, Čelebonović says: ”Reality is always on the outside.”
He is a great, perhaps the last on the European horizon, significant master of the civic world poetics, which disappeared in Eastern Europe with the arrival of communism and transition and in the West with postmodern superficiality, equaling high and popular culture, the American subcultural rubbish and destruction of the middle class. He was a painter capable of mastering a wide thematic specter – from still life, interior, exterior, landscape, marina, to nude, portrait and self-portrait. From paintings with a dark general shade, quiet artistic harmony, figures and objects sunk into silence, he gradually moved to paintings with lavishing colorings, and emphasized white impasto in the last decades. Several Serbian painters introduced white color as dominant at the end of their lives, from Čelebonović, Cvetko Lainović, to white drawings on black background by Dragan Mojović and Šejka’s last paintings of the Warehouse. Perhaps it was an anticipation of the great postmortem light.
Marko Čelebonović is a genuine humanist artist, who are getting scarcer today, thematically dedicated to the human world and feelings, the idea that the place of man is in nature and reality, and not in virtual and robotic dystopia. Such paintings return confidence in what makes life more beautiful and dignified, or as Dragoslav Bokan critically noticed: ”Have you ever seen a library or luxurious lunch in any science fiction movie?”


Marko Čelebonović completed elementary school in his hometown of Belgrade, and middle school in Zurich and Lausanne during World War I. ”He began his university studies in 1919 in Oxford and graduated law in 1922 in Paris. The same year, he came to Antoine Bourdelle’s studio in Paris to learn sculpting, but began painting in 1923. His first exhibition was in the Tillerie Salon in May 1925. He moved to Saint Tropez in June and worked together with Vuillard, Signac and others. Before World War II, he lived in Saint Tropez…” His first solo exhibition in Belgrade was in 1937 and already the following year he exhibited with the ”Twelve” group. He visited Yugoslavia, Belgrade, the Montenegrin Coast and Serbian medieval monasteries. He remained close with our artists who came to France (Sreten Stojanović, Marino Tartalja, Petar Lubarda).
From 1947 to 1959, with pauses, he was professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade. He exhibited in France, Yugoslavia, Switzerland, England, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Brazil…


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