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Conversation with Milena Marković

First encounter with artists

My first encounter with artists happened in the late 1980s, when I went to the Students Cultural Centre to buy the record Raw Power by The Stooges and met Uroš Đurić there. He introduced me to the world of painters and painting. I remember when he first brought me, a kid from New Belgrade housing blocks then, to Proleterskih brigada Street where we’re sitting now, a wide, white, beautiful street. From there we went to Mutapova Street, where Uroš was living in a house filled with art objects, where I met Steva Markuš and that entire artist crowd. I was deeply fascinated by them and they accepted me, on the other side, like a rude little pet. It was then when Uroš painted for me this painting I brought from home to show you. Back then I had written two poems: Dog Who Et the sun and Black Man. Uroš’s painting Dog Who Et the sun is on the cover of my eponymous first book of poetry. What is it I’m fascinated with in this painting, what do I see in it? We see bestiality and a regenerating joy of life. On ash, in shit and blood, a regenerating human dance is danced, both dreadful and powerful, but essentially anticipating a hope. I see the same duality, the ambivalence, in our folk tradition that gave foundations to our culture. Two figures personify that. On one side there is the magnificent, abyssal, profound, comprehensive Njegoš, while on the other stands Marko Kraljiević, a jovial, popular, carnival persona. So there is a reach for eternity on one side, and the ridicule of death and finity on the other, a grinning figure who can tear down the sun from the sky, swallow it and eat it. Like in Uroš’s painting.

Literature and painting

My relationship with painting resembles Tolstoy’s relationship with music that he described in The Kreutzer Sonata. Tolstoy sees music as something that defeats and excites him, something he finds dangerous to all of his senses. My position on music is not like that, I surrender to it without any restrain, it has served me and my conditions, while the painting has always excited me. Painting to me has always been like something that is there, but I can’t really reach it or explain it. What has excited me? Well, it is an immediate emotion emanating from a work of art, a feeling I can’t fully articulate, as I’m a layman for painting and I don’t have adequate references. I stand in front of a painting as a newborn, excited and enchanted by paintings.

On the other hand, all prose stylists are remarkably pictorial. We see that, for example, in Flober’s several pages long description of Madame Bovary’s cap, in such a poor condition it clearly anticipates her fate. A writer captures a detail and dissects it so it tells something else, something behind which the dark waters dwell. My visual style, for instance, was changing, but it is intentionally simple.

Among contemporary writers, Karl Ove Knausgård, for example, follows the great stylists. In his books we also see his relationship with painting and what he had seen at museums by the age of 15. Although we more or less belong to the same generation, that was a part of similar social systems then, here in Serbia we were deprived of that museum experience as we were not able to travel. So I envied Knausgård, while reading, for having been able to see great paintings and painters in time, in his formative years. I haven’t and it remained my unsatiated desire. On the other hand, it might have contributed to the intensity of my experience of painting. For even when I could have traveled I still had a problem as I could only look at two or three works at a museum at most. I get so excited in front of a painting that I can’t bear to look at it longer, I have to sit down, the experience is too intense. I remember having a crying attack in front of Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene in Florence, I couldn’t stop.

Yes, I adored Donatello. Religious subjects excite me, not on a kitsch or pop culture level. I see myself in them, I feel every arrow, every dagger, dismembered limbs. For that is religion to know the living active God, in suffering and in love. I saw something similar in El Greco and in Caravaggio, in Bosch and Bruegel. There is no person who saw them in person and was not left dazzled. The reason for that dazzle might be in the fact that if you look at a painting long enough, the painting of that intensity, you start looking at it as you look at a mirror.

From the notebook

To remember experiences of art works I encountered, I would write down my impressions in organizers. I’ve just skimmed through them, for this conversation. This is what I was writing down.
When I saw Van Gogh I just wrote “Sorrow”. Yes, Van Gogh for me is a bare wound I can’t look at for more than five minutes.
On Henri Rousseau: “Lovely bestiality”. That’s how I perceived his paintings once, I’m not sure it would be the same nowadays.
On Holbein: “Exaltation, excitement, disgust. Pleasantness and mystery.”
Bacon it is only flesh, universe in physiology…
Chagall, then…I’ve always loved that line of mad Russian writers that includes, for instance, both Isaac Babel and Mikhail Bulgakov. They have nothing in common, of course, but they both have a power to make everything they touch live. That same unbelievable vitality and strength I found in Chagall.
Then, I love the paintings touching on kitsch that can tickle me, like Rossetti and Pre-Raphaelites, or John Everett Millais’ Floating Ophelia is one of my favourite motifs.
But if I had to decide now which painting to put on the cover of my next book, that would be one by Alfred Kubin. He is the Kafka of painting.

Milena Marković (1974), poetess, playwrite, scriptwriter, Professor at Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade