The artist, Milos Manojlovic, born 1956 in Titel, Serbia. Graduated in Economics and Fine arts in 1980. Left Serbia in 1989 for Australia.
Lives, works, writes poems and paints (in oil and acrylics) in Melbourne, Australia.
His poetry was published in serbia and Australia. He had a short story published as a result of a writing competition at the Melbourne Fringe Festival.
He has exhibited his paintings at varying occasions:
  • ABC Art Gallery (2001 – 2004) – Solo and group exhibitions
  • Paddington Sydney (2006) – solo exhibition
  • Yarraville Gallery – solo exhibition
  • Customs Wharf Gallery, Williamstown – solo exhibition “Omni”
  • Margaret Coaxal Gallery, Williamstown- solo exhibition
  • Roar Gallery, Melbourne – group exhibition “Oil on the Road”
  • National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne- group exhibition “HYDRA – Artists from Four Continents”
  • Gabrielle Gallery, Footscray – solo exhibition “Human Silence”
  • National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (1991) – group exhibition
  • Eclectic Easel Gallery, Melbourne – group exhibition

The Mark of Absence: Expression in the Paintings of Milos Manojlovic

Introduction

“In science as in art,” the Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo once claimed, “there is only one approach: dominating reality, owning her but not submitting to her, comprehending her but not obeying her.” The Serbian born Australian poet and painter, Milos Manojlovic (1956- ), has, for the last two decades, remade and recreated “reality” across a now substantial oeuvre. He has delighted and haunted a select audience with his visual evocations of the transience of joy and the persistence of melancholy in a strong and coherent sequence of paintings brimming with the poetry of human existence. Although it is in some sense difficult to share a rare and singular treasure, the time has come for his work to cast a wider sphere of influence and reach a greater audience, to enter what Andre Malraux, in The Voices of Silence, famously termed “The Museum without Walls.” It is customary in an introduction to a monograph to intertwine anecdotes or aspects of the artist’s life with a descriptive account of the work. For reasons that will become apparent, such a temptation will be resisted or at least kept to a minimum. It is often said of Manojlovic’s work that it is in the Expressionist vein so that the first piece of business is to probe this assertion in terms of the set of its assumptions. This will not necessarily lead to rebuttal as much as a reconfigured sense of the Expressionist moniker and its possible role in addressing the site of Manojlovic’s Painting.
The Context of Expressionism
Painterly Expressionism as an art historical designator refers to the anti-naturalistic art practice of Germany and Austria from the turn of the twentieth century to the early nineteen twenties. The artists of this period, however, rarely used the term to identify themselves and their work as part of a movement in the manner of, for instance, the Surrealists or Futurists. Indeed, Expressionist art, though no doubt a tendency in European painting that can be situated within the context of the innovations of the prior generation of Post-Impressionist painters such as Van Gogh, Gauguin and Munch, involved an extremely diverse range of stylistic and other criteria from the lyrical or spiritual abstractions of Kandinsky to the energized sordidness of Berlin street life in Kirchner. Art historical accounts of the period often emphasise a set of concerns that is said to encapsulate Expressionist art, the most prominent of which are the following half dozen: (1) a focus on the individual agency of the artist (2) the artwork is seen as independent from nature or the assumptions regarding reality (3) the fragmentation of form and the corresponding emphasis on process (4) a more or less programmatic stress upon what is regarded as the foundational vitality of life and its imprint in the thick painterly strokes upon the canvas (5) a belief in art as the precursor of a harmonious post-capitalist society and (6) the perceived kinship between Expressionist art and the art of pre-Renaissance Europe, folk art, the art of children and the arts of the indigenous peoples of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. Some combination of these elements is then read into a variety of paintings that rely on free brushwork and/or a heavily textured surface, somewhat disingenuously dubbed post or Neo-Expressionist, but occasionally given synonymous designations such as Art Informel. Everything from the work of Jean Dubuffet and Jean Fautrier in France to the Northern European Cobra group, from the market savvy informality of Philip Guston and Julian Schnabel in the United States to the nonconformist Anatoly Zverev whose work in the former Soviet Union was only exhibited in small, often clandestine, underground galleries. There is an Australian Expressionism, exemplified by Albert Tucker, the British and Irish Expressionism of Frank Auerbach and Jack B. Yeats and, of course, the German Neo-Expressionism of George Baselitz. The persistence of a more or less expressionist painterly style in the work of such central figures of painting on the international stage can therefore hardly be accounted for as a provincial, nostalgic rerun of German Expressionist models. Moreover, the diversity of approaches in terms of style and content of the above mentioned artists is testament to the fact that art historical criticism, in focussing on styles, periods and schools of painting, often avoids direct engagement with the singularity of artworks themselves. Context may be important in the evaluation of art, but a distinction must be drawn between explanation and something like explaining away. The danger in contextual analysis is that the very elements that make a work of art stand out, as it were, are the same elements that can, if one is not careful, dissolve into their background.
We are left with one of two options: either to decide that Expressionism, outside of its role as an albeit vexed art historical marker, is too nebulous a term to have any explanatory import whatsoever, or to hazard the assumption that something crucial is being named by the term and to highlight what that might be. We follow the second line. Rather than employing the term Expressionism to account for an historical segment in the development of painting, we can instead re-articulate emphasised expressivity in order to arrive at a better understanding of all that it might imply. The task is to pose the question of expression as such in terms not of its existence but in terms of its being and of its potentialities. In doing so we can better appreciate the ways in which so many artists loosely categorized as Expressionist from the heyday of modernism to now have sought to practice an art congruent with the phenomenological insight that what is understood as reality is always already constructed from a position and not in the final analysis approachable from either an external objective point of reference or the crutch of an assumed substantiality of the referential object itself. Such an objective carries with it, as will be demonstrated, implications quite contrary to those employed by art historians and critics to account for the supposed obsolescence of painterly expression. Chief among the implications is that the implied position or subjective commitment to whatever is presented on a canvas in the expressive mode is indicative of the strongest severance between such a presentation and any preconceived agency on the part of the artist that produced it. A theory and practice of expression, far from affirming a centred subject, can be the immanent starting point of its undoing. To foreground expression is to foreground the force that underpins the appearance of appearance, the necessary inscription of what is as what seems to be. In Description Without Place, Wallace Stevens announces “The sun is an example. What it seems/It is and in such seeming all things are.” We can think of the force of appearance as the impact of a surprise. What is of the essence is not that something is in the first instance externalised but that an arrival from the outside is registered through the emphasis of its advent, the advent of being as appearance in art. For Stevens the poet, much like the painterly expressionist, is not simply the metaphorical conveyor of philosophical insight, but the guardian of the phenomenal world in its sheer being-there. Recall the richness of sensual life in his elegy for Santayana, To an Old Philosopher in Rome:
The sounds drift in. The buildings are/remembered./The life of the city never lets go….
The Site of Expression
It is a common view of twentieth century art that Expressionism relied on an explicit assumption of agency and that this was challenged mid-century in Conceptual, Pop and Minimalist art. To evoke expression in the wake of these tendencies and in the face of a postmodernist shift to the decentred subject is therefore tantamount to regression. However, such a view operates against the background of a certain understanding of expression. Expression is seen to depend on the intention to express a meaning; it is equated with a meaning that pre-exists or at least precedes in a more or lessal determinate form its verbal or visual articulation. In short, it hinges on a private self in full possession of knowledge of itself that it seeks to convey, by means of expression, to others. Expressionism, in other words, is seen to embody the expression theory of art in which the artist’s task involves the transmission of an already experienced or cognised private state of affairs. Tolstoy’s definition is canonical:
Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them
Tolstoy’s expressive theory, however, encounters so many difficulties that it is a problem in the guise of a solution. Does an artist need to have experienced an emotion to convey a sense of such an emotion? Can such a relay occur if one takes into account the myriad socio-cultural factors that inform the reception of a work of art? Can we always or indeed ever assume that expressive appearances have corresponding mental states as their causes? If it is accepted that, for instance, a sonnet about love expresses something of the pang and longing of love, what would it mean for a more complex work to express a given emotion, what, in other words, would be the precise emotional expressive import of a multi-stranded work like Tolstoy’s own War and Peace? Finally, it is quite possible to experience a work of art with a definite thematically emotional centre without in the least becoming infected by such an emotion; one attends a performance of Othello without the personal feeling of jealousy. A possible way forward for the partisans of the expressive theory of art is to draw a distinction between art as an expression of a particular mood or emotional state of the artist, and art as expressive of, let us say, sadness. The agency of the artist is suspended by playing the secondary definition of the term against the primary. Despite not being without its own problems, such a move can work if augmented by a transcendental turn in which the artwork is simply the expression of expressivity; it expresses the conditions of its own existence. The artwork is an expression of the coming into appearance, the highlighted instant of the appearance of appearance. The gestural force and materiality of process and paint in the expressionist painting, understood in this way, points to the way in which art is always the way it is about something over its actual aboutness. There is a strong kinship to Martin Heidegger’s assertion of the function of power over skill in the work of art:
The work of art is a work not primarily because it is wrought or made, but because it brings about the phenomenon in which the emerging power comes to shine. It is through the work of art as an essent of being that everything else that appears and is to be found is first confirmed and made accessible, explicable, and understandable as being or not being
In similar fashion to Heidegger, R.G. Collingwood, in his critically neglected magnum opus, The Principles of Art (1938), states that “Expression is an activity of which there can be no technique.” Collingwood begins with a critique of what he describes as “the technical theory of art.” The technical bias is to assume that a work of art is a means to a particular end, for instance, relaying certain experiences or providing entertainment. This has the effect of subsuming art under what, for Collingwood, is the very different realm of craft. The distinction between the two is not assumed to hold in contemporary aesthetics, but let us go further in explaining just what Collingwood meant by distinguishing them. The crucial difference rests on the relationship of art on one hand and craft on the other to the double movement of planning and execution. In art there is an unbridgeable gap between planning and execution. It is of course by no means always the case that art never involves planning, but even when it does so the plan yields to the demands of the execution. The elaboration of form determines the movement and logic of the form itself. Conversely, craft necessitates a much closer correspondence between plan and execution. The carpenter devises a plan for a table and follows the details of the plan to arrive at the finished table. “Suppose,” states Collingwood,
that a sculptor were simply playing around with clay, and found the clay under his fingers turning into a little dancing man: this may result in a work of art, despite the fact that it was done without advance planning.
As far as technique is about realising preconceived aims, it cannot account for art. Collingwood’s expressive theory is opened precisely in this gap between the plan and the execution in art because “Expression is an activity of which there can be no technique.” An artist may be conscious of an excitement or perturbation prior to execution, but the specific mood is unclear. He does not know what he feels when he expresses himself, the expression is itself the clarification of the feeling. The artist in effect extricates himself from himself in the act of expression. Collingwood explains:
Until a man has expressed his emotion, he does not yet know what emotion it is. The expression of emotion is not something made to fit an already existing emotion but is an activity without which the experience of that emotion cannot exist.
The claim is twofold: firstly, the expression does not express an already existing emotion because it is not a technique that reveals anything prior to its appearance, and, secondly, any emotion whatsoever can only be transformed in its very expression. Expression does not convey or reveal emotion; emotion comes to be what it is in its expression. This coming to be, because it is not specified or conceived in advance, is a process that involves surprise for if the artist is startled by what eventuates it is both because he finds what demanded expressing and, in expressing it, discovers something of the expressive potentials of the medium to which he was hitherto unaware. It is of course true that an artist may and often does have some intimation of what he wishes to express. One may, for instance, be in a certain emotive key, as it were, and the choice of particular colours or topics to convey such states may already be decided upon. However, this will not at all determine what will, once it is expressed, be expressed. Collingwood insists on this point:
Some have thought that a poet who wishes to express a great variety of subtly differentiated emotions might be hampered by a vocabulary rich in words referring to the distinctions between them. The poet needs no such words at all. To describe a thing is to call it a thing of such and such a kind: to bring it under a conception, to classify it. Expression, on the contrary, individualizes.
The pursuit of individualization is the task of the artist. Such a conception of the artist entails, for Collingwood, “a person who, grappling with the problem of expressing a certain emotion, says, ‘I want to get this clear.’ He does not want a thing of a certain kind, he wants a certain thing.” The artist does not want a classification of feeling, he wants an individualized clarification of it, which is to say that he wants it under the full subjectivized impact of its manifestation. In other words, the coming into being of the work points to the transformative possibilities of perception as such, both of the world and the self. What comes into existence is, in the work of Manojlovic, always marked by such an arrival and the wonder of its appearance. This is in no sense a mystical determination; rather, it indicates that what is of the essence is that the relation of the created work to the conscious act is not entirely one of effect to cause. That which is ceded is precisely that for which expressionist painting has been criticized: an integrated self displaying its inner substance. In its place is an oscillation in the void in which the inside and outside of the subject are interchangeable and mutually determining. The self is itself altered to some degree in the expression. The encounter with the surprise of where the expressive process has led remoulds the self that brings it forth. Such a breakthrough is by no means limited to certain kinds of painting and poetry; it can, for instance, take place in philosophy. Here is Derrida explaining the phenomenon:
I am hovering around a hypothesis, a logic, an analysis, and suddenly a word appears as the right one to exploit, thanks to its formalizing economy […] The feeling I have is not of having invented or having been the active author of this thing, but of receiving it as a stroke of luck.
The Other Scene
Manojlovic, like many of his Expressionist predecessors, paints in a self-cancelling representational mode. A figure, often at least potentially human, is given or presented and in this very gesture is put under question through the inscription of exaggerated painterly procedures or the counter-painterly techniques of the gestural smear or scratch. In Manojlovic’s work, this is further heightened by the way in which these proto-figures are situated against a flattened background often consisting of one or two colours and sometimes incorporating de-realized objects or occasionally fossil-like biomorphic elements. What there is of the figure exists in a locus, clearly delineated from any notion of everyday reality as well as any mimetically oriented convention that might accompany such an impression. In Manojlovic’s paintings we are very much in the place of no place that Freud evoked when he sought to configure the atemporal, spatially plastic and never adequately representable dimension of the unconscious as ein anderer Schauplatz, the other Scene. This of course is a common enough analogy for painting and art that emphasises non-representational qualities and in doing so provides critical reflection on the process of representation; Magritte, for instance, comes readily to mind. What is interesting in Manojlovic is the way in which this theatricalised metaphysical space is not only marked by the movement between figurative form and formlessness but the way in which this very boundary is inhabited not so much with a decidedly human figure, distorted or otherwise, but with the inanimate at the point in which it tips into the animate. The figures are under erasure but they are also, as it were, puppets or marionettes in a delineated space in which the main event is the melancomic moment in which they provisionally tip into the human. This moment of transition, captured in so many of Manojlovic’s best paintings, is in fact more in the order of a sway: does the doll mock the human with a retrospective sense of the unattainable paradise of its inanimate existence, or does the static existence of the doll demand something beyond itself from which point it might contemplate itself in its own overcoming; does it quest for something over mere existence? Either end, however, is shadowed by the death of what was, but it is the doll’s advantage that the shadow is, in the final analysis, proper to its domain. Here we encounter expression, not as the tightly wound message that requires unpacking, but the expression of the conditions of expression, impersonal and unconscious. Freud’s contemporary, Maurice Maeterlinck, playwright and theatrical theorist, wrote of such a space and its deathly doll-like denizens, apropos of theatre, that it cannot be opened but that we can listen to the knocking behind the door. We can transpose the dramatic poem, formerly dedicated to an “arrangement of actions,” into the language of these blows, the speech of the invisible crowd that haunts our thoughts. What the stage needs is for this speech to be incarnated in a new body: no longer the human body of the actor/character but that of a being “who would appear to live without being alive,” a body of shadow or wax granted this anonymous void. From this Maeterlinck draws the idea of a marionette theatre that looks forward not only to the theatre of Gordon Craig and Tadeuzsz Kantor but also the mannequin and mannequin-like figures in de Chirico, Balthus and Manojlovic. If there is death here it is not the death of a static presence but rather the death that is part of any process, the death of what was in what is and the death of what is in what it will become. The lived body in Manojlovic’s paintings is deathly not because it is rendered static in external observation; it is deathly because it is traversed by temporality. As Merleau-Ponty pointed out when he sided with Rodin for the value of painting over photography, “the lived perspective, that which we actually perceive, is not geometric or photographic […]It is the artist who is truthful, while the photograph is mendacious; for in reality time never stops.”
To invent is etymologically to come across: in-venire. To construct a scene is always bound up with finding it. The discovery of everyday life in Manojlovic takes place in the non-place of its transmutation through memory and desire. Whether in the depiction of street scenes from a country as distant to reality as it is to memory, the portrait of a figure from the past that seems as much a portent of someone we might encounter, a still life uneasy with its own static conventions, or an animal that seems tortured by its inability to transcend itself, the paintings of Manojlovic, although possibly at first glance dealing with isolation, are part of an artistic quest for what Merlau-Ponty, in The Visible and the Invisible, called “tele-vision.” Tele-vision is the transcendence of the isolated subject and the entry into the subjectivity of others in which the inter-subjective basis of one’s own subjectivity is brought to light. The artist conjures those moments, glances and objects that together make a life. The connecting thread that binds them into a larger picture of the joys and travails of being is supplied by those that experience the works, and, to once more evoke the French background of an English word, experience and experiment belong to the same process. This is why what is termed expression but what could just as well be called creation is, both for the artist and the viewer, as much a matter of alertness to hints of as yet unexplored possibilities as it is of skilful handling of known materials. Creative expression such as we find in the painting of Manojlovic is, by contrast with production, the acceptance and arrival of whatever challenges the conformities of habit and predetermination. Wols, the informel fellow traveller of Dubufett and Fautrier, once offered the following fragment:
A priori, if a man/is really interested in himself/he must formulate his answer to the question/ am I a vessel/a funnel/ a fountain or nothing?
Both vessel and funnel are defined by their negativity, and a fountain empties itself of itself in order to continue the process of emptying itself. One must choose, that is to say, between modes of nothing. It is when nothing articulates itself as nothing that there is a first something. If the figures in a Manojlovic painting withdraw from us it is not because communication is denied, for the refusal to communicate is still a form of communication, perhaps even a privileged form as far as it preserves the widest connotative constellation and therefore the widest possible freedom for the viewer. A freedom necessarily marked with the productive anxiety of absence.