Whoever is trolling the streets of Sombor, will someday inevitably come upon his name: Milan Konjović. Among the artists, he is the greatest son of the city. Today, the crown jewels of the city are the painter’s artistic legacy. A treasure that could come to even greater international fame, if it wasn’t located faraway in placid Sombor.
Today I’m on my way to learn more about one of the greatest Serbian painters. The best place therefor is the gallery Milan Konjović at the Holy Trinity Square in the city centre.
The house in biedermeier style had once been a pharmacy, later on his atelier and gallery. Today it is a museum, housing most of the over 500 works that he left behind to his hometown.
I am about to meet Peter Mraković who is director of the museum. While having a cup of coffee, I kindly ask him to tell me something about Milan Konjović, but also about himself and his relationship to Konjović.
Mraković himself is a fine artist and had perhaps first been inspired artistically by Konjović in his childhood.
„Yes, my parents told me that we had been at the gallery once. There, Konjović organised painting courses for children from early on. Apparently, he said that what I was painting is quite good”, Mraković tells us and laughs. „Perhaps that was an initial spark to me. I can’t quite remember it anymore.”, he says. Later the contact broke up. Mraković finished school in Split, studied in Sarajevo and Novi Sad and then worked at an elementary school.
Konjović died in 1993 at the age of 95 and Mraković became director of the museum not until 2009. Nevertheless, there are a few parallels between the artist and the director. Both of them were born in Sombor and both of them love art and their hometown.
„Milan Konjović came into the world in 1898 in Sombor and was the first one in his family not to earn money with law or politics. He had taken an artistic course from early on. He went to high school in Sombor and had his first exhibition in 1914 at the age of 15“, says director Mraković.
I want him to tell me what impresses him the most about the artist Konjović: „The work of Milan Konjović is divided into six great periods, which is a lot for the life of one artist. As an artist, it is fascinating to see how hard he had worked on himself in the different phases, but also how he had wrestled with himself. In times of personal problems or crucial events, artists are sometimes the most powerful and most emotional. You can see that very clearly in Konjović’s works.”
For his audience, however, the crucial times are those when he returned to Sombor after his different visits abroad, and painted classics like „Zrelo žito”, which is translated “Ripe Wheat”, in oil. At this time, he caught the colours, landscapes, people and background of Vojvodina and created an artistic monument of them.
Those are also the works that people in Sombor link to the name Konjović, explains director Mraković.
„While looking at these paintings, I can see that he was very happy while he was living and painting in Sombor”, he adds. In total contrast is the „Grey Phase” after WWII – Konjović had been a prisoner in war in Osnabruck – where colour had almost completely disappeared from his paintings. It was not until the beginning of the 50s that he became more colourful again.
Konjović wasn’t a vain artist in Sombor. Nevertheless, he was a man whose stature was indeed striking, but he was also part of the normal cityscape. Black and white photos in Peter Mraković’s office show him running errands in the city by bike or publicly painting.
Altogether, Milan Konjović created about 6000 works in his life of an artist. He painted and drew in oil, with pastels, water colours and pencil, created mosaics and graphics. He has already left 500 works to the city of Sombor in 1966 and has ensured that his gallery becomes a municipal museum with a smart contract.
After our cup of coffee, Peter Mraković also shows me the gallery. Beside the paintings, the rooms on the first floor, which are coloured in vivid red, are impressive, too. One could think that all those colourful paintings would only show off on a white background. The opposite is true. I have rarely seen an exhibition where artworks and their environment are in such a harmony like in this case with the bright red walls and the warm wood floor. Even the heating pipes somehow match.
I ask Peter Mraković which are his favourite paintings. He shows me the painting I have already mentioned, „Zrelo žito”, with a typical Vojvodina landscape and a self-portrait of a laughing Konjović from 1947. Both of them painted with thick brushes in oil. Mraković stands right beside Konjović’s head and laughs, too. I take a photo and another of those little parallels between the artist and the director is recorded.
Beside graphics and drawings, you can also see painting tools and some documents from the long life of Milan Konjović on the ground floor.
Director Mraković reports that there are about 10.000 visitors per year. Of course, among them are a lot of classes and students, but also foreign visitors find their way to Sombor.
I am sure that the gallery would be a hotspot for the international art scene, if it wasn’t located in placid Sombor, far away from big centres and tourism flows, but in Berlin, Vienna or Paris.
At the moment, the financial means are only enough to organise one exhibition abroad per year. The works have already been exhibited in Paris, Brussels, Prague or Vienna. Mraković would also like to exhibit Konjović in Germany, but currently there are neither contacts nor sponsors. Perhaps this article will help a little.
However, there is one advantage of the slightly secluded location in Sombor: the admission of about 80 cents converted cannot be beaten, given the quality of the offered art. The admission to the outdoor swimming pool at the Bačka Canal in Sombor is the same.
When I asked Peter Mraković about his personal wish for the future at the end of my visit to the gallery, he has thought about it for quite some time, but wouldn’t commit to anything material or conceptual. Instead he answered rather philosophically: „I would like the people out there on the streets to smile more again. The economic and social situation in the country is not good. Recently, the salaries of civil servants were cut for ten per cent. We do not know if it will be better some day. People hardly make plans for the future. Thus it is hard to keep smiling. I wish this would change again.“
Inevitably, I have to think about the situation before, when the self-portrait of a laughing Milan Konjović made Peter Mraković smile. If art is able to do that, 80 cents for admission are a good investment.
Milan Konjović died after a fulfilled life on 20 October 1993 in Sombor. He is buried on the great orthodox cemetery in Sombor. If you want to look for his grave, you are best served by asking the cemetery workers. There are no direct descendants today. His daughter has no children. However, on the family’s estate in Sombor, his brother’s descendants do live.
After having returned from my visit to the gallery to the house of my parents-in-law, and having reported my experiences, my wife’s grandmother immediately has something to say. Konjović had once also painted some of our relatives, Baba reports. An aunt and an uncle. Those were a chubby woman and a lean man. Both of them are long-gone. But she can’t remember when this had happened anymore.
After we have been looking for 1,5 hours in the thick catalogues of Milan Konjović’s works, we found both of them: painting No 2699 titled „Muholovka i Vince“, painted in 1973 in Sombor, oil on canvas, 85 x 115 cm, in the property of the city of Sombor.
Lo and behold, the kinship sat for Konjović. The painting is from the artist’s associative phase. It is not recorded, if the two thought the painting is a good likeness of them.
You can find more information on the website of the gallery Milan Konjović. In the video below, you can watch and listen to director Peter Mraković – he would be happy about your visit. You can find the location of the gallery Milan Konjović in Sombor on Google map at the bottom. I was allowed to publish the black and white photographs by kind permission of the gallery Milan Konjović.
More english reports on Sombor Blog You will find here.
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Translation: Aleksandra Davidović, Belgrade