A portrait of an artist as a young man this would be said by James Joyce. This is such a story about a painter Mića Trnavac. He was born in 1950 in Kragujevac. But painters must not grow old, they always stay young in their art. Trnavac. It is an unusual surname which is remembered. Nomen est nomen. If you meet Trnavac, you will remember him. He owns the gift of being a likeable person. I think that he knows it, but he does not misuse it. It is easy and nice to be his friend. His life story would be a good script for a film about a successful painter, although it would partly seem unconvincing. For, it is known that there is no fantasy which can be compared to life. It is much more difficult to make reality convincing than vice versa.
How did he become a painter?
The story can really start as a film. The first scene: a casino in a luxurious hotel in Šibenik. Mića is twenty. Our citizens are forbidden to enter casinos, but he has got some “connections” in the hotel. The roulette wheel is spinning. The father of Omar Sharif is sitting next to Mića, an elderly gentleman who is playing for a dollar and Mića is playing for five dollars because he has a lot of money of his own as well as some money which is not completely his. He loses everything. Now we should of course relate events leading up to this but subsequent events are much more important. He completed a secondary-level course of electrical engineering and enrolled at the Mining-Geology Faculty. He was at the age when life ahead us puzzles us. He was doing very well but he was not satisfied. He wanted to become a model and then a pilot for which he applied and did well at both a difficult and serious medical test and the general test and was preparing himself for the entry to the military school f or pilots. It was summer time. He met a friend of his by accident. When Mrs. Destiny harnesses her mythical carriages she sends a friend. It is a tiny event, seemingly an insignificant meeting, and that can change our life. The friend suggested “a big business” to him, to sell the paintings of an anonymous seaside painter landscapes, sea motifs, cliffs in the stormy weather and the like. The friend claimed that the earnings were big and safe and the fun was wonderful at the seaside. Mića filled his shaky “Fiat 750” with paintings and set off. He travelled from town to town from hotel to hotel and the paintings sold well.His personal charm also took part in it. He was earning well in the opinion of a student and he was having a good time. Everything was going on as planned. Then came the night in the casino. He was desperate and went back to Belgrade. He grieved over his loss to his mother Andjelka, sister Slavica, best man Miško and his girlfriend Dušica who later became his wife. None of them had so much money to give or lend him so that he could repay the debt to the painter who did not have the slightest idea about what had happened.But, they consoled him, told him that he could make better paintings, go back to the seaside and sell them. They bought him the canvas and paints. That was all the help they could give. In about ten days he produced 55 paintings. “Fiat 750” was again full of paintings and he set off to the seaside again. On the first day he earned the money which he owed to the painter, as a group of tourists who were buying paintings, came by. The remaining paintings were bought by a lady from Holland who was a tourist guide and who intended to sell the paintings to her compatriots.
He returned to Belgrade. He forgot about being a model, a mining engineer or a pilot and continued painting. He made the first exhibition of his paintings in the gallery of the Photo association, a very popular place at that time situated in Bulevar revolucije street. Vanja Bulić, a famous journalist of the day, wrote a nice article about the exhibition and announced Mića Trnavac as a future great painter.Next summer he went again to the seaside to paint. He was now painting portraits. He met a fellow painter who was a professor at the Teachers College in Nikšić, Nikola Gvozdenović who suggested that he enroll there. He did and after finishing the first year he returned to Belgrade and continued his education at the Art Academy in the class of professor Mladen Sibinović. Something unusual now happened. When he was a third year student, at the professor’ s suggestion, he was transferred to the fifth year of this excellent and famous art school which had produced many great painters and he graduated from there in “a reduced period”. He already knew that painting was what he wanted and liked, what lasts and has no limits. When produces a painting and when he looks at it the next day he realizes that he should work more, that it is not finished. He has been painting since then up to the present day and he paints every day. He could not live without it.
After graduating from the Art Academy he made an exhibition of his paintings in the Gallery of Kolarac University. He gave a lot of thought to this exhibition. It was usual that painting exhibitions were largely unnoticed unless “state” painters were exhibiting. For other painters, a small number of visitors would be at the opening night, relatives, friends, colleagues and if a journalist stopped by it would be a great event! He invented something new and for the first time in Belgrade, for the first time in our homeland at that time, big posters were located throughout the city before the opening. The posters were made out of cloth, with the inscription “The exhibition of Mića Trnavac”. At that time only concerts of the most famous folk singers were advertised. On the day of the opening there was an unbelievably crowd which was inconceivable for an art exhibitions. Many people rushed to see what was happening there. Today, Trnavac jokingly says that many people must surely have thought that somebody would sing something there. It aroused the interest not only of art critics and audiences but also of the public in general. Appraisals were made in the press as to whether it was good or not, painters and ideologists of socialist art were polled. The former were delighted, the latter bitter. It was inevitable that he became a regular guest on popular night radio shows where along with a little bit of nice music people talked a lot. Trnavac, of course, praised his action. It should be mentioned that all the paintings from the exhibition were sold, even though the prices were high. In his youthful selfconfidence he put high prices on his paintings which was common only for the paintings of his professors. After the exhibition Mića Trnavac also became a journalist. He was invited to appear on the most popular television show, produced by Bane Vukašinović, to talk about his exhibition, of course. It was planned that the interview should last three minutes and it was lengthened to nine minutes during the show. It transpired that he was interesting as a TV hero and as a collocutor and the television company suggested that he make a short series of programmes about painters. First, a documentary was presented and then Mića talked to the artist in his studio. The initial suggestion was to make three shows. He made 26 and they won 21 prizes: for direction, for the script, for the camera, etc. A nice success. In 1976 he became an associate of a very prestigious newspaper “Duga” where the experienced journalist and editor Dragoljub Golubović Pižon suggested he write column about fine arts. They went a step further. There were many artists and a few galleries where only “politically suitable” persons exhibited. “Duga” started writing, persistently and with arrogance, about it being the right time for the opening of private galleries. The idea was accepted by TV Studio B. It was neither easy nor fast. Various “forums” agreed or did not. Nevertheless, thanks to this action Belgrade got its first private gallery.
Everything was good, it could not be better. Mića was in such a state when we say that we do not have room enough in ourselves, that we would like something more. And that happened. At the Biennial of Yugoslav art in 1980 in the Lincoln Centre in New York, Trnavac won the second prize. The prize meant that he could make a one-man exhibition in New York. Firstly, he went as a tourist but on the next visit was understood much more seriously. He sold everything he had, collected twelve thousand dollars and sewed them to his pocket on the advice of “good connoisseurs of the American situation”. The sewed up dollars were a real nightmare. It was difficult to take them out stealthily when he wanted to buy food or anything else he needed. He was alone in a big city, without friends, with only limited knowledge of the English language. Once he wanted to buy cigarettes and the salesman was a Chinese whose English was equally limited. Mića pointed with his finger using pantomime, they looked at each other like enemies and finally the Chinese understood that the “mute” customer wanted “Marlboro”. If we want to continue with this story, we should go a few months back, when Pompeo Posar was staying in Belgrade. He was a famous photographer who was working for “Playboy”. He photographed Dali and many world known painters. He also wanted to photograph Mića in Belgrade, his studio and his paintings. Of course, Mića accepted with delight. Posar made a photo, but it was not sure when or whether it would be published. He said it could appear in May, and it was April at that time. The latest issue of “Playboy” appeared at the newstand of the Chinese man. Mića wanted to take it, the Chinese said it cost five dollars, he paid, opened it and, like in nice stories, he found the page with the article about his Belgrade studio. He was extremely happy and wanted to tell the Chinese man that the text was about him. The Chinese nodded and said: “Yes, it is you as much as I am Jesus Christ”. He did not believe him, but who cared. With the paper under his arm he was walking along New York streets which seemed familiar to him, as if he knew them well. It was a real sense of “deja vu” He was looking at the houses, streets, and parks and he told himself “This is my city!” It really happened like that.
After that, the film about a successful painter runs fast. There was a significant acquaintanceship and a friendship with Nikola Rebrača and his wonderful wife Patricia. He was a famous Serbian hockey player and now he was a well-known restaurateur in New York. They helped him to rent a flat and a studio oposite their restaurant. At that time many young actors lived on West Side and they became the current American acting elite. They all came to the Central Cafe, where those connected by the brotherhood of thought and personality gathered. Our people settled in New York also came there. Robert Duvall was making a film about Serbian Gypsies and all Serbs from that circle helped him with all their hearts and souls.
New York! New York! Not everything was easy as it is easy to talk now. We here were born in one culture which was inherited. We were broght up in another a communist and imposed one. One should accept the third one in New York. But, nothing happens by chance; there are only the inevitabilities and their logical consequences. In the galleries in Soho, Mića met many interesting and important people, among which were a journalist Patricia Harper and her colleague Steve Bosh, who were the winners of the prize “Emi” for TV jourrialism.
Milton W. Malden, alias Mladja Mladenović was writing about them in “Duga”. He was the owner of a large publishing company “Records Company” and he bought 29 of Mića` s paintings. He also met Andy Warhol who was the most famous citizen of New York at that time and he suggested that Mića should go to his studio and buy any painting he wanted for five thousand dollars. Mića answered that it could be the other way round. It is a pity they have never bought each other` s paintings.
It was a time of nice friendships and also the time of Mića` s first exhibitions there and the first important reviews and articles about him. It is necessary to adopt new attitudes when leaving for the New World. European and especially Serbian fine art had and they still have talented and good or very prolific painters who do not leave an artistic trail behind themselves, but they are very up-to-date while their proliferation lasts. Rarely do talent and proliferation meet. Mića learned there that they can and have to be gathered. The review on four pages was published in “Art Magazine” with six reproductions of his paintings. It is a very prestigious magazine and it is first sent to the museums and collectors and consequently, all six paintings were sold before the magazine appeared on the newstands.
Slowly but surely, the painter Trnavac gained a reputation and along with it a good financial status. He already had a nice studio in New York. He also bought a house with a big studio overlooking the ocean. He painted every day and for a long time, and when he did not paint he watched ships or fished with the passion of Hemmingway. His daughter Milica attended a private school in New York. Managers and art dealers dealt with the sale of his paintings and they were sold all around the world. He exhibited in Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Canada, Poland, Russia, Belorussia, Macedonia and Yugoslavia. He was famous, not too rich, but he was not troubled about his existence. He could paint calmly. Customers from all over America came to him. They got used and suggested the others to go first to his studio and have breakfast with the painter, talk to him, buy a painting and then continue going around New York.
Among his first gallery collectors was the Dean family who introduced him to Melcom Forbes, the owner of a famous “Forbes Magazine” and one of the most significant world collectors. He bought one of Mića` s paintings and talked a lot about Mića` s art in an interview in the “Washington Post”. There were also small, pleasant surprises. Mića saw a book called “Soho” in a bookshop. It caught his attention, he turned the pages and found a reproduction of one of his paintings on the centre page. He had not had the slightest idea about it. He began to find articles about himself in many magazines which were about other than fine arts. All this was important, all this was a step further. In the meantime, he became a joint owner of a selling gallery in Soho. Jan Keown and Mrs. Meredith Kazlo Blaskow, famous collectors, decided in 1991 to found the gallery “New Renaissance” in Soho on West Broadway and suggested that Trnavac should be the first painter to exhibit there. He did so and later he became the manager of the gallery and the third joint owner. He saw and learned much. It was a precious experience learning about selling paintings from the other side, which other painters were not so familiar with. He also made acquaintances amongst important journalists, critics and people working in the madia.
And his homeland fell apart. Awful news arrived. The Serbs in New York were desperate and thought it was much more difficult for them, than to us here. He made a brief visit in 1997 to see his family. His daughter received a diploma in film production in New York, returned to Belgrade, got a job on television and got married. His wife Dušica, a wonderful person, whom he had luckily met and married (luck often follows him in his life) , also came back to Belgrade to be near her mother. He wanted to stay for three weeks and it lasted four years. He experienced war, bombing and revolution here. Some things happened which kept him here because he wanted it like that. First, there was a contract with our television about the shooting a documentary in the museums of Central America. Later he was approached to paint the walls of a church in Macedonia. He had never done anything like that before. The challenge was too big, but he did not even try to resist it, he accepted. For seven months, with a group of assistants, he painted on the walls of the church in the style of new renaissance. There were over four hundred square metres of walls, he worked very hard, like Michelangelo. He did something else which is very important. About fifteen years ago he was offered a dilapidated building in need of renovation as a studio in Valjevo where he had been brought up. He did something different. It is now an art gallery bearing his name, where since it was made eminent artists from all over the world have exhibited and they were mostly Mića`s friends. This work is moving smoothly and Trnavac finally prepares himself to go back to his studio on the coast, near the ocean in New York. The results of his previous work are huge: 32 one-man exhibitions and over five hundred participations in group exhibitions. His paintings are present in permanent exhibitions in the museums of modern art and in the most famous private collections all over our planet, from America to Japan and vice versa.
“A child of luck?” Yes, to some extent. But, our world is what we choose, what we make by ourselves. The world of Mića Trnavac is the world of big works and hard work. He loves it and it is his fortune. It is the fortune of all great artists and of all those who are “high class” in their occupation. Trnavac paints for ten hours every day in his peace, order and work. Then he lives in that subtle life fabric, the fabric of imaginationl and daydreams, far away from everyday life. And, when he gets back to everyday life he is doing very well, like a dolphin in the sea.
This isjust one half of the story about the painter R. M. Trnavac. Painters are llonglasting. The things which will be the most important will come later.“To be continued in the next issue”, as my colleagues journalists would say. This is what I also say, write and sign.