Enframed: The art of Tomislav Nikolic
Grazia Gunn
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Most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered,and more unsayable than all other things are works of art...

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a young poet [1]

Tomislav Nikolic’s paintings have always presented centralized fields of colour. In this current series of twelve works the centre is built up by several layers of transparent washes of marble dust and pigment that coalesce into a deep yet luminous colour-field. At the edges of these washes, the colours separate into fine lines, dribbles, strokes, and zips of colour that subtly reveal the underside of the surface layers of paint, and create a margin. The centre and margin are in turn enclosed by a painted frame which at once contains, and forms part of, the total picture. This kind of enclosing or enframing is a major feature of Nikolic’s style.

The layered wash and marble dust saturates both frame and canvas. For the works of paper, the wash is applied on both sides, transforming the two-dimensional surface of the paper into a three-dimensional object, a ‘wall sculpture’. Nikolic explains that both sides of the paper become relevant: one side is the front of the work, and the other the back, though it is not visible.

The back is like the subconscious to me, not visible, but it is there and it still has the weightiness and content in it. With this series of works, I use the washes in a process which is ongoing, and I see it going on for a long time. There is so much going on underneath the surface layers of paint that you might see the thinnest edge of that colour exposed under the top: the surface around the edges in the margins. There are other things there, but they are not apparent on the first impression. Most of these works I look at as portraits.[2]

It is intriguing that Nikolic should consider the majority of these enframed and virtually abstract fields of colour to be portraits. He applies the same description to his earlier paintings, pre-2000. These had a heavy surface, built up by a dense impasto of gloss and matt paint, metallic pigments, and gold leaf, quite unlike the transparent colour washes of the current works. Under this crusty surface (a passing reference to the influence of the American artist, Robert Ryman) Nikolic had drawn a tangled maze of geometric motifs. These works, too – for all their stylistic differences from the present series -- Nikolic regards as portraits both of himself and ‘of other people as I saw them – ‘which is not necessarily the way they were. I saw them entirely from my point of view. More recently the portraits have also been of an interaction with something or with somebody.’[3] What does Nikolic mean by describing these works as ‘portraits’ when there is a challenging emptiness at the centre of his canvas, with no clear references?

Yet this emptiness is richer than it may at first seem. Layer upon layer of colour-wash in these works act as metaphors for the successive accumulation of the artist’s feelings, experiences, and emotional states, and for his encounters with other people. Each painting (as Nikolic himself explains) is a reference to his past, but also to the present, to an ongoing experience of life. He has been influenced by the ideas in Nietzsche’s essay, ‘Human, all-Too-Human’, where layers and layers of experience in day-to-day life are seen as formative of character.[4] But Nikolic also sees the apparent emptiness of his works as corresponding to a Buddhist view of the manner of reaching perfection. According to Toshihiko Izutsu, Buddhahood is attained by making oneself empty, thrusting away everything and thereby achieving an infinite space of freedom.[5] For Nikolic the ‘infinite space of freedom’ lies in his colour fields.

It’s like a clean slate or a mirror in a way that a person can project themselves onto, and still underneath and around its edges there is the evidence of what’s come before in the dribbles of colour around the edges forming the margins. Sometimes there might also be something in the weave of the linen that’s built up a texture on the surface, or motifs that are trapped beneath the surface, though the surface is flat. There are things there that speak of the history of the object.[6]

What’s ‘come before’ is ‘the history of the object’ (or painting) – and also of its subject whether that be the artist himself, or the spectator looking at the painting’s centralized emptiness, entering ‘the mirror’. Nikolic’s art is one of illusion and allusion. In the centralised colour-field and margins of his current twelve objects or paintings that Nikolic simply refers to as ‘works’, history and subject are probably easier to read than in the past, as the clues are now more evident. In these new paintings Nikolic alludes to twelve existing works of art held in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV).

I look at a lot of art-works. The ones that are relevant to me are the ones that are using a language that is the same language that I am expressing and I understand it and I can read it and see it, and when I look at a lot of other art-work, I do not see the language there. It is only a visual language. I do not think that referring to a visual language describes it completely, it is emotional as well; it is a language that is read and translated and expressed in the emotion rather than in the mind. It is not intellectual.[7]

In this current series of paintings Nikolic retains the peripheral margins and frame but with an additional dimension. The new paintings are of childhood memories. The works of art held in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria to which the present paintings refer were seen by Nikolic on school-trips to Melbourne organized by his art teacher while he was still a thirteen-year-old boy growing up in the Victorian town of Sale. As an adult he now recalls that first sighting in the Gallery, and the heightened emotional effect these twelve works had on him. Nikolic travels to the past to make the present new. He invokes the original works in the Gallery not through mimicry of their subject matter and composition, but by re-creation of a sensation that persists still in his memory. As products also of his mature artistry, the new works serve also in a complex sense as allegorical autobiographies.

In attempting to unravel the different sources of Nikolic’s art, I am drawn to think of Marcel Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, which served, as his biographer George Painter writes, as ‘the allegory of Proust’s life, a work not of fiction but of imagination’.[8] The inspiration for Proust’s entire oeuvre, from the beginning in Time Lost to the end in Time Regained, came from details that ‘opened the door of memory’; as for example this experience, on 1 January 1909:

Celine urged her master to take a cup of tea, an unfamiliar beverage for this addict of coffee: and when he idly dipped in it a finger of dry toast and raised the sodden mixture to his lips, he was overwhelmed once more by the mysterious joy which marked an onset of unconscious memory. He caught an elusive scent of geraniums and orange blossom, mingled with a sensation of extraordinary light and happiness. The garden of his great-uncle Nathe Weil at Auteuil had returned, miraculously preserved by the savour of the rusk soaked with tea. [9]

Marcel Proust here recalls childhood visits to his old grand-father Weil, who would give him a rusk soaked in tea: a memory which is then transformed into the famous episode in Swann’s Way involving not a rusk but a madeleine, and not a grand-father, but the narrator’s aunt Léonie. The garden of Auteuil had unfolded in a cup of tea, wrote George Painter. The cup of tea opens the door of memory for Proust, but he does not precisely re-enact the past within his narrative; what he characteristically captures instead are the aura and aesthetic of this event.

Through a similar mnemonic process, Tomislav Nikolic recalls the aura and aesthetic of the paintings seen in the Gallery rather than their literally represented form. And through a further act of metonymy, he allows a trace of colour, a tenuous line, or other minimal marks on the canvas to stand as a part of the whole remembered image. This process of recall is at times enigmatic. Take, for example, Nikolic’s work, People tell me I haven’t changed at all, but I don’t feel the same of 2009–2011. At first glance it seems just a slightly scuffed whitish canvas enclosed in a glossy black frame. On closer examination the eye is led from the empty whitish centre to the subtle marks barely visible at the edges. But what do these tenuous marks, the trail of iridescent citrus yellow, the fine purple line, the hint of acerbic lime allude to? Suddenly like Proust’s garden unfolding in a cup of tea, the NGV painting that is alluded in Nikolic’s work unfolds through the tenuous marks at the margin. The whitish centre, the marks, the glossy frame are important references that bring to mind the NGV’s Weeping woman of 1937 by Pablo Picasso. The empty centre refers to the white handkerchief wiping the tears of the disfigured face of the woman portrayed; the acerbic marks on the edge are references to the colours in this work. These small details recall the entire sensation of looking at Picasso’s painting. The title of Nikolic’s work is taken from a 1980s song written by Duran Duran on the subject, appropriately, of change and continuity.

People tell me I haven’t changed at all
But I don’t feel the same
And I bet you’ve had that feeling, too
You just can’t laugh all the time. [10]

What is remarkable about the current series of paintings is that the artist’s mnemonic allusions on the margins activate in the spectator a total recall of the work alluded, yet it is an entirely new work and visual experience presented to us by the artist.

The other NGV paintings of Nikolic’s childhood memory are: Reclining nude of 1919 by Henri Matisse; Claude Monet’s 1879 Vethueuil; Duncan Grant’s The Bathers, c. 1926–1933; Francis Bacon’s Study from the human body,1949; Barbara Hepworth’s Eidos 1947; Nude with Cat of 1949 by Balthus; Spatial Concept 1964–1965 of Lucio Fontana; Paul Serusier’s Boys on a River Bank 1906; Pierre Bonnard’s La Sieste (The Artist’s Studio) 1900; Camille Pissaro’s Boulevard Monmartre, 1897,and Edward Manet’s The House at Rueil, 1882.

For Nikolic the memory of these paintings in the gallery unfolds within his own chosen style and complex abstract rendering. He paints twelve parallel works in celebration of, but also in opposition to, their genre and theories. The remembered works belong to different eras and painting traditions, yet Nikolic goes back to assert a continuity of aesthetic language in a set of new visual values. Duncan Grant, who was influenced by Post-Impressionism, takes the subject for his The Bathers of c. 1926–1933 from a very different painting by Cézanne on the theme of bathing, a subject that had interested Duncan Grant since 1911. The painting in the NGV collection is of a group of young muscular nude bathers seen from many perspectives playfully wrestling, frolicking in the water, walking out of the water, holding a towel, in a canoe, resting on the edge of the pond. The painting is a juxtaposition of form, line and colour, but the entire scene of carefree fun is fantasy, invented in both conception and composition. Nikolic recalls the memory of the painting he saw during his childhood, not as it is, but as a sensation he remembers. He paints his version in opposition to Grant’s pictorial representation of bathers, translating into paint a sensation he vividly remembers. The surface of this work is of an opalescent yellow bleached by light, exuding pleasure within its margins of gold. Nikolic’s abstract version increases the splendour of the fantasy. The title of this work, Follow: ‘The almost imperceptible directions of the heart’, is taken from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, in which the older poet advises the younger man to trust patiently in his own emerging strengths and resources.

Think, dear sir, of the world that you carry inside you, and call this thinking whatever you want to: a remembering of your own childhood or a yearning toward a future of your own – only be attentive to what is arising within you, and place that above everything you perceive around you. [11]

Nikolic sees the title as a doorway into the work, and an opening-up of its intentions. Often the title is not about the literal significance of the words, but about the emotion that these words convey; an emotion in this case similar to the sensation he felt on that first sighting of Grant’s painting.

The one sculpture Nikolic remembers from his childhood visit to the National Gallery of Victoria is Eidos of 1947 by the British artist, Barbara Hepworth. Her sculpture is an exquisitely sensuous curvilinear white sculpture with a yellow centre resting on a plinth that Nikolic translates into a rectangular geometrical object placed on a painted plinth, ambiguously, a monument to Hepworth and an object based entirely on his own experienced sensation. Nikolic’s title is from a song written by Simon Le Bon, ‘Safe not sound who made these rules crowd control for enlightened fools’. The lyrics to this song are again about change:

Strange, how we explain the story
that we’ve lived through
change , my karma train, the person
I can be for you is... [12]

With this recent series of twelve works there were events and incidents that came up while I was making them because they were all works that I associated with my pre-teen and teen-age years in High School back in Sale, which was not a great time for me. It brought up a lot of memories. It was almost cathartic creating the works and thinking about when I first saw them and how I felt about the paintings at the National Gallery of Victoria back then, and the other things that I was going through emotionally as well and where my mind was—the experiences I’ve had and the changes I’ve gone through since then: I almost feel they are all in these works. I was thirteen and fifteen years old. [13]

Nikolic brings back his childhood states of feeling, experiences, and translates them in the plastic values of absolute abstraction, of pure perception, charting in his layers of paint his feelings then and now.

I have always thought that you can stand in front of what I have done and see a field of colour. You might like it for a number of personal reasons, but there is something else there that’s deeper. I think the person viewing it will not be able to escape from getting other things out of it, from the symbology I’ve tried to create. I have always wanted my work to open up worlds beyond those associated with the work. [14]

In a similar way to Walter Benjamin, Nikolic returned to childhood memories to chart maps of his life. Benjamin one afternoon in Paris, while waiting for a friend at the Deux Magots cafe, was struck ‘suddenly and with compelling force’ by the idea of drawing a diagram of his life. He started by interrogating his past life right back to childhood memories.[15] In the introduction to One-Way Street, Susan Sontag wrote that ‘Benjamin could write about himself more directly’ when he wrote ‘about himself as a child’.

At that distance, childhood, he can survey his life as a space that can be mapped. The candour and the surge of painful feelings in Berlin Childhood and Berlin Chronicle become possible precisely because Benjamin has adopted a completely digested, analytical way of relating to the past. It evokes events for the reaction to the events, places for the emotion one has deposited in those places... [16]

Nikolic’s mapping of his life, his feelings and sensations lie in the margins of his enigmatic colour-fields. For the spectator the eloquence in these works shifts from being statements of pure perception to intriguing allusive works that ‘open up worlds beyond those associated with the work.’ Even if the spectator does not recognize the allusions, if these remain mysteries locked under layers of paint, the works still seduce for their inventiveness in drawing out perceptions and sensations in the mind of the spectator.

Nikolic has that special ability to travel from high art and to popular culture. The titles to his works are mostly taken from pop songs. Edouard Manet’s House at Rueil of 1882 is the source of his work titled: Everything is half apart-what can it mean? -- a title quoted from the lyrics for Enemy Gene, written by Kevin Barnes and performed by the band Of Montreal, with Janelle Monae. The song questions ‘how can we ever evolve when our gods are so primitive? They destroy our hope for peace, hope for love.’ The words do not refer directly to the House at Reuil (outside of Paris, where Manet spent the summer of 1882 convalescing) but create an equivalence to the emotional sensation (or what Nikolic calls non-intellectual intelligence) that he felt when first seeing Manet’s painting. Edouard Manet’s painting is of an idyllic summer day and of a house in a luxuriant garden. The elegant painting is a perfect example of the genre ‘La peinture claire’, the loose brushstrokes characteristic of Manet’s style. Nikolic captures the aura of the perfect summer day, with a flat surface of unmodulated colour yet glowing yellow, the sensation to the spectator is of colour alone, framed by the blue of the sky. [17]

Many things separate Nikolic’s art from the twelve NGV paintings that are the source of his recent works, yet he manages to produce aestheticized versions of the originals.

Proust was never afraid of creating a highly aestheticized atmosphere. In fact he intensifies the aestheticism to such a point that it becomes an incontrovertible element of his style. [18]

The same could be said of Nikolic’s current works.
© Grazia Gunn

1: Letter one, Paris February 17, 1903, Trans. Mitchell Stephen, Vintage books, Random House New York, 1986, p.3. One from a series of ten letters written to Franz Kappus, a young student who wrote to Rilke seeking criticism of his poems and for his general advice on personal matters.
2: Tomislav Nikolic, interview G. Gunn 17-02-2011
3: Interview, 17-02-2011
4: Nietzsche, Friedrich, Trans. Helen Zimmern, Human, All-Too-Human, ‘Author’s Preface’, Prometheus Books, 2009, New York.
5: Cited by Helen Tworkov, ‘Spiritual matters, Zen in American Art’ in Negotiating Rupture- the Power of Art to Transform Lives, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Illinois, 1996, p. 96, note 2.
6: Interview, 17-02-2011
7: Interview, 17-02-2011
8: Painter, George, D., Marcel Proust: A Biography, Vol. 1, Random House, New York, 1959, p. xiii. 9 Ibid. Vol.2, p. 129
10: The title of the song is Hold Back the Rain, written by Duran Duran, Tritec Music Ltd. 1982
11: Rilke, Rainer, Maria, Letters to a poet, letter Six, Rome December 23, 1903. 1903, trans. Mitchell Stephen, Vintage books, Random House, New York, 1986, p. 53.
12: The title of the song is Safe (in the Heat of The Moment) by the band Duran Duran, written by Simon Le Bon.
13: Interview 17-02-2011
14: Interview 17-02-2011
15: Benjamin, Walter, ‘A Berlin Chronicle’, One-Way-Street, Verso, London, New York, 1997, p. 318-319
16: Sontag, Susan, ‘Introduction’, Benjamin, Walter, One-Way-Street, Verso, London, New York, 1997, p.12
17: La peinture Claire is also referred to plein air painting.
18: White, Edmund, Proust, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 1999, p. 79