During the freezing winter of 1953, I paid a visit to a garret on Belgrade’s Strahinjić Ban Street where Dado Đurić occupied a room with no glass in the window frames. This member of the lumpenproletariat, this dwarf philosopher and “iron man” invulnerable to the elements is also one of the best painters I know. Even after 20 years, I can still clearly remember the scene in which, without removing my coat or sitting down (there was no chair), I discussed with Dado the meaning at the core of painting and of art. The room in which we spoke that Sunday morning contained the skeleton of a bed (completely bare apart from its wire frame), several paintings in a pile facing the wall and a table from which all the paint had flaked off. On the table there was a bird cage without birds, two small skulls which seemed to be of rodent origin and an antique Austro Hungarian postcard featuring a pinkish hued, bearded Doctor Faustus. This was all there was, and all my subsequent attempts to piece together an image of Dado’s life, to place his circumstances within the context of the ascetic beginnings of a career, failed utterly on account of the fact that these six objects were totally insufficient for even “a single day of living in a practical, realistic or pragmatic way”. As a child of nature, an unbreakable physicality immune to hunger and cold, Dado had ignored the practical aspect of the problem and had most likely concluded that he existed in a “symbolical” and artificial way as he lay curled up on the wire frame of his bed covered by his short coat. In this utterly empty space, Dado must have dreamt of the cluttered, overcrowded world that would soon begin to feature in his works. The image of Doctor Faustus staring out from the old postcard was, in a way, Dado’s identity card, an image prefiguring the philosophical and aesthetic transformations that awaited him. The rodent skulls were not only symbolic of death, which Dado was mocking in the most literal sense, they also represented the central theme of his paintings: the stripping down of his subjects. By then, he had already completed his Blue Cyclist which features a figure stripped down to its basic materials. He had wanted this painting to show how everything, even a cyclist, can be reduced to its constituent parts in a “bloodless” way, like some sort of complex mechanical doll. And then there is the cage, which is another symbolic object not serving its intended purpose; rather it serves as a warning, its very presence protecting the sense of freedom so important to Dado.
This collection of objects, this symbolic critique not so much of art as of the “environment” in which art originates, depicts existence as a “blank slate”. Its everyday routine is not shown, rather its celebratory, absolute form is revealed, not its aspect, but its essence. Despite the chaotic universe that he created, the nightmare civilisation in which the glorious twentieth century collapses in a pestilential heap of its constituent parts, Dado himself lived as if he were “in a painting”, in the nothingness of an empty space. This Faustian affair, this blurring of domains, this inversion of life and art was played out, as I mentioned, before my eyes in the winter of 1953.
Thirteen years later in the autumn of 1966, after Dado had installed himself in his now well known farmhouse at Hérouval, I discovered that the symbolic way of life that he had embarked upon on Strahinjić Ban Street had changed in only minor details of space and quantity. After several years spent in those marshy, forested, pure and terrible surroundings, during which time he spurned the more commonplace trappings of civilisation (there was no electricity, water or telephone) as well as those more worthy of disdain, Dado set about covering every part of his property in paint, artistically organising and aesthetically transforming everything that could be made subject to creation and to creativity in that maze of huge chambers. He also continued to produce canvases for the denizens of his subterranean civilisation – the accounts of an artist who had returned from hell. As I wandered through the labyrinth of rooms, climbed creaky staircases and peeped into the attic, I would constantly uncover new parts of that vast house painting, that crazed palace sculpture assembled out of mud, rubbish, ideograms, symbolic objects, wrecked furniture, fire and the ideas of a genius. Like some sort of gutted warehouse where only traces of the laughter of its former workers remain, Dado’s house in France was full of drawings scrawled on the walls, resculpted sculptures, worn-out and “artistically” altered furniture, paralysed dolls, mirrors from another world, a great quantity of animals, souvenirs from America and a wheelchair, recently bought at auction, “in which Napoleon III had been wheeled around by his secretary during walks in the Jardin de Luxembourg”. Seldom emerging from his studio in an adjacent building, Dado spent the long years of his voluntary exile decorating the walls and window frames with meticulously executed drawings, transforming the stains, cracks and defects in the plaster into elements and components in their own linear game in a manner reminiscent of da Vinci. The interior of an old wall clock was stuffed with thousands of drawings which concealed two terrifying, quasi antique heads and countless dolls the painter’s customary models – which were mostly headless or otherwise mutilated. Dissatisfied with one of his paintings, Dado started to cover the frame with drawings. In doing so, he symbolically showed the expansion of his art beyond the borders, limitations and frames that so frustrated it. Dado hunted various animals in the surrounding swampland, again mainly rodents, which he would then stuff and place in different places throughout the house. He would place them on top of objects out of spite for, and a desire to insult, those objects. Most often they would appear on top of a plaster bust similar to the ones of Njegoš and Karađorđe, which, as I recall, still serve as the main models of those excruciating drawing classes conducted in Montenegrin primary schools. Dado surrounded this thoroughly humiliated and noseless French Njegoš with an assortment of collected rodents, creating a veritable Hérouvalian deity, the debased incarnation of a household god of the dii penates sort; terrible, ridiculous and artificial at the same time. With no desire other than to paint, Dado’s intricate drawing, the simple “painting” that has gradually spread across his entire Gaugan like exile, covering the heavenly stable and the promised palace, has brought him to the verge of creating a complete artistic universe, a life contained within an painting, a Schwittersian “Merz” in a word.
Bora Ćosić Translated from Serbian by Michael Sangster