Petar Meseldžija “The Legend of Steel Bashaw” Interview

This interview with Petar Meseldžija was original posted on the Flesk website on April 7, 2010. I am migrating all of the interviews off of our old site to my blog as I am preparing to launch our new Flesk website. Enjoy again!

Introduction by John Fleskes.

Welcome to a special in-depth interview focusing on Petar Meseldžija.

I first became aware of Petar Meseldžija in November 2009 when I received a copy of Spectrum 16. Petar was awarded a Gold award in the Book category for one of his paintings from The Legend of Steel Bashaw, published as Baš Čelik by the Serbian publisher Zmaj.

A visit to Petar’s website educated me on the fact that he lived in the Netherlands. With my planned trip to the Stripbeurs comic show in Breda, Netherlands coming up in early March 2010, I wrote an email to Mark Thelosen, my contact and host for our upcoming adventure, if he was aware of Petar. With Mark’s help, Petar and I were communicating through email two days later. Within a few weeks of my first noticing Petar’s work, I developed a relationship with him, received a copy of the Serbian edition of The Legend of Steel Bashaw, and we came to an agreement for my publishing his book in the U.S. (Please visit the book details on our website here.) Furthermore, it was a pleasure to meet Petar and his wife, Anita, and have the opportunity to visit their home and see his original paintings a few days after the Stripbeurs Breda show.

Petar’s work is a successful blend of fine art and illustration. I was in awe at how impressionistic his paintings were up close. At a short distance away and in reproduction the pieces appear tight, but then walk up for a detailed viewing and they again become abstract with thick paint raised from the surface, with deliberate powerful strokes. It also turns out that Petar is a wonderful, kind person, who can be witty and humorous, as well as deep and compelling. One thing is for certain; we are all the better for his desire to paint, in that we have more beauty in the world.

I asked Petar if he was willing to write a little about himself, his painting technique and about The Legend of Steel Bashaw. He came back with the following intriguing and sophisticated responses to each question, proving behind his funny exterior and joy for life, the inner artist is contemplative and tireless in his efforts to improve his work and in producing the stories he wants to share. I have included pictures throughout from my enjoyable visit to his home and our time spent together in Breda.

Without further ado, I would like to introduce Mr. Petar Meseldžija. The following text is written in his own hand.

How and why The Legend of Steel Bashaw is conceived, and a little bit about my beginnings in the Netherlands:

In 1991 the civil war broke out in former Yugoslavia. Because I did not want to take part in that terrible carnage between the brotherly nations, I decided to leave the country. Blown by the winds of destiny I sailed off towards the Netherlands.

I left my homeland only with a bag and a few original paintings, leaving 26 years of my life forever behind. The change was so sudden that, years later while thinking about that, it felt as if one life abruptly ended that day and the new one started. I came out of the train at the Amsterdam Central Station as a baby comes out of the mother’s womb. Only, in my case there was nobody to welcome me to this new life… This sounds a little bit sentimental and even pathetic, but that is exactly how it felt.

For the next few years I fought a battle of survival only with my talent, artistic skills (which were still developing) and eagerness to stay in life and make something of it, as my only weapons. I have to admit that I take pride in the fact that, from the very beginning, I was able to earn my living only through use of brushes and pencils. Of course, I must not forget the importance of the concept of ‘luck’ and the assistance, which came from some good Dutch people. However, the assignments I did in those days were the commercial ones, quite different from things I would normally do. But they provided me with the means for making the living, though very meagre, and gave me the opportunity to practice, learn and to further develop my abilities, which was great.

After two years of this kind of work I started to feel urge to do something just for myself. I was, also, terribly homesick. Eventually, the solution presented itself in the form of an idea of illustrating a well-known Serbian folk tale Baš Čelik. By the way, in 1916 the legendary French/English illustrator Edmund Dulac illustrated the same tale within the book Edmund Dulac’s Fairy BookFairy Tales of the Allied Nations. Within a few exciting weeks I did the painting which satisfied not only my need for doing something different and new, but also filled the hole within me which came into being after I left my homeland and therefore broke the ties with my people, culture and my past in general. Simultaneously I started to rewrite the original tale trying to make it more contemporary, at the same time preserving the mythological truth and the ancient wisdom, which was embedded in it. A few months later I did the second painting and then, because of the certain reasons, I stopped. I seriously came back to this project seven years later, working steadily on it in my spare time, and finally finishing the book in August 2008.

The Legend of Steel Bashaw, what is it about?

The Legend of Steel Bashaw is a tale about the wonders of life, the joys and pains of living; it’s about love, responsibility, dedication and compassion. It is a story which does not promote the sharp division line between good and bad, but rather sees these opposites as the indissoluble parts of the whole.

Unlike the original folk tale, where the line between black and white is clear, a notion which was aligned with the ways and thoughts of old times, this retold version reflects more contemporary, democratic, so to say, approach to these topics, which relativize the problem by giving the concept of “grey area” the right to exists. This basic message is thoroughly buried under the layer of archetypal symbols (and the interaction between them) like; brave and compassionate hero, beautiful and clever princess, mighty dragons, ruthless beasts, wise old men and women, animals with mysterious powers, majestic nature and the strange places. However, the backbone of the story is a journey, for as we all know, there is no good story without an epic journey, probably because it is reminiscent of the greatest journey of all, the Life itself.

When I started to write the story I did not have any particular idea about how I should do it. I just followed my instincts trying to change the parts from the original tale, which were too violent, or not any more ‘up to date’ belonging to the mind frame of the past times. I tried, more intuitively then rationally, to make the story more appealing to the contemporary reader and by doing so to give him the chance to identify with the characters and situations.

Fortunately, I did not rewrite the tale immediately. The story grew slowly as I was developing my artistic abilities and gaining life experience. The process of writing took years and went simultaneously with the creation of the paintings. All the time there was a kind of dialog, an interaction between them. The story triggered the creation of the pictures; while the pictures caused the story to take unexpected turns and twists. There are several examples when a composition pushed itself through and won the place in the book, forcing me to write an addition to already finished story.

For instance, being a great fan of South Limburg (Zuid Limburg), an enchantingly beautiful southern province of the Netherlands, my wife and I often went there to hike over the rolling countryside. Once we came across a beautiful, old, very small, traditional South Limburg house with a majestic chestnuts tree just in front of the entrance. It was a pleasant autumn day and the warm golden light was hitting the treetop casting shadows onto the house walls. It looked like a scene from Brothers Grimm fairytale. I was so struck by the charming beauty of the scene that I had to stop and make a great number of photos, until the battery of my camera was completely empty. The next day I came back and made some more photos. I was so inspired by the energy of the place that I wanted to absorb as much as possible of the atmosphere and carry it home, with me, in order to make it into a painting. Back home, I immediately started to make the preparations for painting. The only thing I was certain about was that I must paint that small house and the big tree, but apart from that I did not have any idea about the context. I considered a couple of ideas but none of them turned to make any sense. After many weeks of despair, one morning I went to my studio, took the enlarged photo of the little house with the tree and looked at it for a while, as I often did. Suddenly I realized that it has to be a painting from The Legend of Steel Bashaw. I envisioned the scene and the story, which would go with it, fell into place. When it was finished it became one of my favourite paintings from the book. The text lines, which went with it, became an important element in adding a certain realistic quality to the character of the monstrous dragon, Steel Bashaw.

About Baš Čelik as starting point of The Legend of Steel Bashaw. This is actually the lead-in text for “The Making Of…” section for the upcoming book. 

The story of The Legend of Steel Bashaw is based on a well known Serbian folk tale Baš Čelik.

This ancient fairytale can also be found in the Russian folklore under the name of Marja Morevna, though in slightly different form, due to the historical and cultural differences between these two nations. This fascinating similarity, and the fact that I did not come across a tale of the same kind within the literal heritage of other European nations, led me to the conclusion that this tale might be a distant echo or remnant of an ancient Slavic myth.

However, while preparing myself to embark on the adventure of recreating the fairytale, which will eventually become a long-term project and a wondrous voyage into the dominion of mythological and archetypal, I intuitively reached towards the sources of inspiration from the culture and art of East and South-East Europe.

The initial inspiration for envisioning the world within which my story was about to take place, came from two great Russian artists, Victor Vasnetsov (1848 – 1926) and Ivan Bilibin (1876 – 1942). As my path led me deeper into the details, especially in connection with the main characters, I found myself being drawn to the paintings of Paja Jovanović (1859 – 1957) and Uroš Predić (1857 – 1953), two great Serbian masters.

In order to add a certain archaic quality to it I started to dig into the medieval past of the ancient city of Novgorod. The beauty of the medieval Serbian monastic architecture and its frescos helped me infuse the book with the spiritual symbolism and harmony.

Being a great fan of Western art, I found the additional inspiration and support in the works of art from such masters as Rembrandt, Gerard Terborch, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, William Waterhouse, John Singer Sargent, Joachim Sorolla, Norman Rockwell, Arthur Rackham, Frank Frazetta, Alan Lee, among others.

Apart from the visual arts and architecture a significant inspiration boost came from the wonderfully picturesque music of Alexander Borodin, Nikolaj Rimski-Korsakov, Edvard Grieg and alike. Their music helped me remain in contact with the mythological past.

At last, but not least, a permanent flow of inspiration, sometimes subtle and sometimes euphoric, came from Mother Nature. Being, in fact, a grand stage on which the epic drama of The Legend of Steel Bashaw is unfolding, nature and her various forms, especially the trees, provided me with infinite stimulus, joy and elation, inevitable ingredients of the process of creation of this book. It was of no importance whether it were the impenetrable Balkan woods, the graceful hills of Dutch South Limburg, majestic fells and lakes of England’s Lake District, or elegant birch forests of North America, as long as it was the nature from the northern hemisphere. And as long as that nature helped me transport my mind to the archetypal level of humane existence, where all human beings, no matter what gender, race or culture, come together and sit around the ancient fire of their common, divine origin.

About my painting technique:

In order to properly describe my approach to illustration and painting I have to place it within the right context. When compared to free art forms, let’s take fine art painting as an example, the illustration as an art form is quite limited and even in some ways “handicapped”. The reason for that is the very nature of it. The main purpose of the illustration is to illustrate the text lines, with other words it is meant to describe things by creating the pictorial forms. While the main aim of the fine art painting, especially the good one, is to be suggestive and to imply the underlining content rather than describing what is on the surface. One might ask; why do I think that the suggestiveness is more valuable then the description? The answer, perhaps, could be found in the following comparison; imagine a good journalist who writes the newspaper articles on one side, and a good poet on the other. The main purpose of the journalist is to inform (describe to) the public, as accurate and objective as possible, a particular event or a situation. As for the purpose of that, if we put the unavoidable aspect of sensationalism on the side for a moment, the next is to gain a certain knowledge and, if necessary, to prevent an unpleasant event from repeating itself. On the other side we have a poet who approaches the same subject from a different angle. He is trying to discover the essence of the problem, at the same time searching for the underlying aspects that connect all the past, present and future situations of the same kind. He tries to gain the understanding of the basic dynamics, which cause these things to happen. And, as we all know, before we are able to completely solve a certain problem we must first have fundamental understanding of it. Instead of a conclusion here is a question; why the people remember great poets and their writings long after they have perished together with the concerns of their times, while the great journalists and their articles are seldom remembered?

Great art is able to withstand the judgment of time. It has a certain universal quality, which connects people and societies from different times and places.

This is perhaps a bit too philosophical introduction to the description of my technique, but I hope that it places it within the necessary context. First of all, let me be clear about one thing. I am not trying to minimize the purpose and the importance of illustration as the art form. Although I spent years producing fine art paintings, the illustration is still my favourite form of artistic expression. I am just trying to be objective, as far as I am able to, and to reveal certain problems, which are quite often popping up on the surface of the medium of illustration, in order to explain how I try to deal with the same problem in my own illustrations.

So, the thing I do is to try to combine fine art and illustration. This is of course nothing new. The most illustrators from the first few decades of the 20th century were doing that. Some of the contemporary illustrators are, more or less, trying to do the same. Generally speaking, during the second part of the 20th century illustration lost the connection with fine art and became quite a unique and independent art form. Slowly but surely, the superficiality crept in as a consequence of the changes in the modern society, which developed itself towards the aims of consumption, speed (of any kind) and therefore shallowness. The surface was becoming more important then the content, money more desirable than the knowledge and inner peace. The current computer technology revolution speeded up the process even more, bringing the problem on the completely new level. After the euphoric use of digital technology in creating the art of illustration, especially for the last 10-15 years, there is now a rising need of going back to basics. Many young artists, who were educated in digital image making, are showing interest in classic techniques like oils. Apparently, they felt that the digital technology, although in many ways superb, wonderfully refreshing and new, was lacking something like three-dimensional, primal, human quality.

However, back to my technique; so I combine fine art and illustration, first of all by trying to be suggestive rather then descriptive. This process of suggestiveness penetrates all levels of my work, starting from the choice not to illustrate exactly the text lines but rather that what is between them, through use of the secondary compositional forms to emphasize the primary aspect of the composition, to use of alla-prima, expressive brush work technique in order to imply a sense of dynamic movement and the vitality of life to my paintings.

An example of using the secondary in order to emphasize the primary in The Legend of Steel Bashaw are the trees. From 16 paintings 12 of them contain a tree (or trees) as a prominent compositional element. I love trees and use them whenever the composition permits it. The grandiosity of a tree, the biggest life form on Earth, enables me to strengthen the composition and make it more interesting, and it helps me to emphasize the overwhelming grandeur of the nature. Further, the use of trees helps me emphasize the movement and the drama within the painting and it helps me define the personal qualities of the main characters and the events. But above all, I just love to paint them and to have them around. One could say that the trees are the main silent characters of the pictorial side of The Legend of Steel Bashaw.

The manner I work with, and my painting technique, are very much based on the principles I have mentioned above. Usually, I start with making the rough sketches trying to find the best visual expression of an idea or a feeling I want to capture. Narrowing the choices I am gradually working towards a relatively detailed drawing, which I later use to find the right models, costumes and props.

After that, I do the photo session. With the help of the initial drawing(s), the photo references, and if necessary some props, I start making the final drawing, which is sometimes more and sometimes less detailed. When all the elements of the composition are on the right place and to my satisfaction, and because the drawing is often smaller than the future painting, I enlarge the drawing by photocopy. Then, I copy the drawing onto the wooden panel or canvas, which I have already treated with three layers of Gesso. After that, the real work starts with making a monochrome underpainting, for which I mostly use a kind of red ochre. I noticed that my underpainting has become quite detailed in the recent years. The reason is that my use of the alla-prima technique has grown through the years. Therefore I find it necessary to solve the main problems first, which means that all shapes are defined and that the tonal values and the balance between the light and the dark are satisfactory. This enables me to immediately start painting in the colour and finish the part of the painting I am working on, in one layer. In the other words, I work wet-on-wet. I enjoy the challenge of the wet paint, its fluidity and disobedience. Through the years, I developed a kind of disliking to the second layer of the paint, because I was being more and more attached to the spontaneity and freshness of the first layer.

Theoretically, my aim in painting is quite basic and simple, but extremely hard to achieve in practice. I simply try to put the right colour, on the right place and in the right manner. To apply this technique and achieve desired results one has to work very hard, to practice, learn and to develop the perseverance in order to reach a certain level of understanding of the technique, or a kind of enlightenment in using the colour. I don’t want to sound mystifying about this, but the fact is that after the years of practicing and trying to comprehend the nature of the oil colour and its’ behaviour in the certain situations, one just starts doing it correctly. Your mind and your hand are working together, and know what to do. Suddenly You get the feeling that, as soon as You press the brush, with paint on it, to the painting‘s surface, the ‘magic’ starts happening. It is a wonderful feeling, I have to admit, but the road to it is backbreaking; it was in my case, anyway. Since, nobody in the academy helped me learn these skills, I had to gain it on my own by learning from the great masters of alla-prima technique, like Sargent, Sorolla, Repin, among others. Without their “support,” I think I would never reach my goals as an alla-prima painter.

There is another detail within my technique, which I try to apply in my work. I try to construct the realistic forms from the brush strokes of different kinds in combination with more or less thick paint, so called impasto. If done properly, this gives the painting surface a quality of cultivated roughness, which invites the light to play on it, enhancing the ‘magic’. When seen from a closer distance the painting looks quite abstract. But when a viewer looks at it from a certain distance, all the strokes fall in place and the realistic forms appear. This principle is partly based on the experiments of the impressionists, especially the pointillists, who where not exactly concerned about finding the right colour on their pallet before applying it onto the canvas, but rather applying different colours one next to the other, while the actual mixing happened in the eye, or the brain, more precisely, of the viewer. This method appears to be highly effective in convincing the viewer that what he is viewing is almost as real and as vibrant as the reality itself.

About me:

I was born in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia (Serbia) in 1965.

When I was a little child I was often ill. While my friends played outside I was forced to stay indoors and spent my time drawing. In those days my favourites were Walt Disney characters as well as the characters from comics, Lucky Luke and Asterix. After some practicing, I was able to draw them by heart, to my satisfaction. As most of the boys, I, also, enjoyed drawing cowboys and Indians and the various kinds of warriors and heroes. I presume that if I was a bit healthier, in those days, I would not, perhaps, learn to draw. But, one never knows.

Anyway, I published my first comic strip named Krampi, in 1981, in Stripoteka, the best-known comic magazine in the country. During the next 10 years, I produced about 300 comic pages, including a series of the short comics, four episodes of Tarzan and my first and, at the same time, the last comic book, Kanoo, for which the synopsis was written by Sergio Aragones.

In the mid eighties, I went to study painting at the art academy. During the studies, I continued to do the comics, but I also, started to feel the attraction towards the illustration, which resulted in the publishing of my first illustrated book Peter Enkorak, in 1991, written by Terry Jones.

Since the Former Yugoslavia was very much west orientated country, and quite open, unlike the most of the other East European countries, we were able to get in contact with the western art and popular culture. In 1981, a Yugoslav publisher published the legendary book Fairies by Alan Lee and Brian Froud. This was one of the most important books I have seen in my life. It helped me define my artistic goals; it inspired me and gave me a tremendous joy. The next book, which was extremely important for my development as an illustrator, was The Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta, published by Pan Books. It was a revelation and such an inspirational boost that, from that moment on, I became a life long fan of Frazetta’s work. The third book which helped me shape my artistic profile was Norman Rockwell – My Adventures as an Illustrator. A beautiful book I accidentally came upon in the American Bookstore in Belgrade, and bought it. At that time, I was already studying painting at the art academy. The analyses of the paintings of Norman Rockwell helped me develop my painting abilities. I am immensely grateful to these geniuses of the contemporary illustration art. My life was changed and thoroughly enriched by their majestic art. I will never be able to express my gratitude just for the existence of their art and the impact it had on me.

At the end of 1991 I moved to the Netherlands. Soon after, I stopped working on the comics and dedicated myself to illustration and painting.

During the 1990s I painted about 120 posters and greeting cards, mostly for Verkerke Reproduktie from Holland. For Grimm Press, a publisher from Taiwan, I illustrated the book, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. My first one-man exhibition of illustrations and paintings was held in 1998 in the Tjalf Sparnaay Gallery in Amsterdam.

From the beginning of 2000 I have dedicated the most of my time to the gallery art. In addition to painting, I continued to do illustrations. Since a few years ago, I spend my time painting illustrations, and I enjoy it immensely.

To learn more about Petar Meseldžija, visit his website by clicking here.

 Artwork copyright © 2010 by Petar Meseldžija. Used with Permission.
Petar Meseldžija Interview © 2010 Petar Meseldžija and John Fleskes. All rights reserved.