Festive dresses with no one to wear them, dance disembodied on a ragged red ground. Colourful feathered creatures twirl in front of a ghostly staircase. An island floats like a stranded bird in a pale blue sea. Human/animal hybrids, covered in scales or feathers, communicate mysterious truths, while the earth hums with unseen energies and bleached horizons drift on the edge of abstraction. In the paintings and works on paper by the Macedonian/Serbian artist Ljiljana Blaževska, atmosphere and imagination are all; hers is an art of evocation.
Born in 1944, at the tail-end of World War II, in Skopje, now North Macedonia, Blaževska lived through a period of great turmoil. Fascist German and Bulgarian forces had occupied her hometown before it became, in the year of her birth, the capital of the Socialist Republic of Macedonia; a year later it became part of communist Yugoslavia. When that regime collapsed in 1991, civil war ravaged the region for a decade. Throughout Blaževska’s life, she had a horror of interviews, preferring the meaning of her work to remain mysterious. That she survived through years of great censoriousness and state violence makes her reticence understandable: her visual language privileges nuance and subjectivity – not traits associated with totalitarian regimes.
As a child, Blaževska lost her grandmother, to whom she was close; being forced to see her in a casket distressed her greatly and marked her for life. Her mother, too, died when the artist was still young. At 12, Blaževska moved with her family to Belgrade; she graduated from the city’s Fine Arts Academy in 1969, where she was influenced by the delicate, tonal compositions of her painting teacher Ljubica Sokić. She married and had three children; she lived frugally and, although she won awards and exhibited her work, she was uninterested in the trappings of success or fame. She was a hoarder and her studio was chaotic; paintings, undated and often untitled, were stacked amidst the detritus. Her son Viktor describes her as immensely kind and ‘beyond modest’, relating how, in her later years, he would buy her good paints and canvas but she preferred to use a children’s paint box and cardboard. He remembers their home filled with music – Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and cheesy Serbian Pop; how she would tell stories and often paint in the garden. How she fed stray cats and dogs.
Although she was part of Belgrade’s rich art scene, Blaževska’s loosely surreal approach to image-making was unique. Throughout her life, her subject matter – a commingling of invented figures, animals, birds and flowers – was consistently enigmatic. In a rare explanation, the artist called her approach ‘poetic infantilism’ but this is misleading: many of her works are complex and sophisticated and she was a brilliant colourist. In Piano Class (1970), a bird-like woman, resplendent in red, sits before a jagged yellow keyboard; she is observed by a raw figure in a crown; a fish glides into corner above her. In Pred stepenistem / Devant d’escalier (c.1973), two large, bird-like figures, their exuberant feathers green, red and purple, dance like lovers in a watery blue expanse populated by a faintly delineated staircase, sparse ruins and small, spikey beings; above them hovers a single blue and pink flower. Two years later, Blaževska painted Zacarani Prostor / Enchanted space (c.1975): a study in faded lilacs and soft blues and pinks of two human-like figures, one in what could be camouflage, the other in a lacey pink-and-red dress. They appear to be contained in a cement-like enclosure without a roof, accompanied by a spread-eagled bird and various blooms: an allusion, perhaps, to the possibility of mental liberation in the midst of physical constraint. In The Secret Laws that Govern Dreams (1983), the artist’s Serbian Orthodox religion is referenced in a large grey cross amid a landscape filled with cryptic symbols. It’s the one shape that seems grounded, solid.
Many of Blaževska’s paintings from the 1980s onwards are untitled but in each picture, her inventiveness leaps off the canvas in the subjects she returned to again and again: barren fields that pulsate with lines and spirits; psychedelic waterfalls; benign animals that occupy the same space as humans; spectral beings, radiating light; still lives untethered by gravity, birds that walk the earth, curious trees. Blaževska worked into the surfaces of her paintings repeatedly; many of them are as worn and as lovely as ancient frescoes. She had a deep connection to water and would swim in Belgrade’s central lake every day from March to November: the predominance of the colour blue in her palette is surely a reference to her aquatic dependency.
Towards the end of Blaževska’s life, when she was very ill – she died in 2020 – the artist still managed to conjure worlds. Her son recalls her telling the story of a great painter dying with a paintbrush in his hand: she approved. Saturated in a mood of reverie and often weary, melancholic beauty, her paintings seem to straddle the border between waking and sleeping, life and death. As her friend and fellow artist, Božidar Babić, declared: Blaževska sought ‘peace in the silent stillness of the dream’.