‘Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art.’ – Leonardo Da Vinci
Within the minimalist décor of Mimi Jaksic-Berger’s home, an abundant array of gilt Eastern Orthodox icons bears mute testimony to the religious fervour fundamental to her life and art.
In fact, the spiritual impulse underpinning Jaksic-Berger’s painting is tantamount to an article of faith that is as defining in its orthodoxy for her art practice as the Nicene Creed is for Christianity. It is a Providential hand that moves Jaksic-Berger, she believes, in her implacable passion to paint, lyrical abstraction being its divine expression.
‘Abstraction is the purest and most truthful art, a direct gift from God,’ Jaksic-Berger asserts with all the solemnity of liturgical doctrine. ‘Through abstract painting, you discover a beauty to which you give life. God created the world, and artists create paintings that can change how we see the world.’
It was this resolute religious faith that sustained her when 63 years ago, as a 22-year old art teacher, Jaksic-Berger embarked on a perilous escape on foot from war-torn Europe that took her across the Balkan Peninsula to Italy, France and, ultimately, Australia. During her sojourn in Paris, Jaksic-Berger’s direct experience of the abstract works of the tachistes had a strong resonance for her, proving pivotal in her development of this style of expression of which she would become a major exponent in Australia for more than half a century. Tachisme (derived from the French tache, meaning stain), akin to American Action Painting, characterised by emotive brushwork and splashes of pigment, was a post-war intuitive genre of abstraction derived from surrealist automatism while also applying Wassily Kandinsky’s principles of spirituality and inner necessity as the primal, most authentic motivating forces of artistic creativity.
In her exploration of the metaphysical and poetic properties of paint, process is integral to Jaksic-Berger’s idiosyncratic, fluid style of lyrical abstraction, its associated spontaneity in composition and mark-making being limited only by the laws of gravity with respect to the liquidity and viscosity of the pigments. Each painting begins in the same way, with no preconception of the completed image, giving free expression to the forces of her unconscious, unfettered from rational thought. Working on the floor with large brushes in a kind of choreography, she applies pure colours with wet edges to the canvas and then spontaneously creates a composition from the forms that begin to emerge, allowing her unconscious to play an active part in the production of the image in much the same way as Leonardo da Vinci studied stains on walls or forms in fire as a stimulus to his creative imagination. ‘By looking attentively at old and smeared walls, or stones and veined marble of various colours,’ da Vinci wrote in ‘A Treatise on Painting’ (1632), ‘you may fancy that you see in them several compositions, landscapes, battles, figures in quick motion, strange countenances, and dresses, with an infinity of other objects. By these confused lines the inventive genius is excited to new exertions.’
This concept had a profound influence on British watercolourist Alexander Cozens, who taught students in the 1750s, his manner of creating landscapes from random blots, a compositional approach that was formalised in Cozens’ 1785 tract, A New Method of Assisting the Invention in Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape.
The suggestive and abstract qualities of the blot or stain are a stimulus not only to the imagination of the artist but equally to that of the viewer. In the manner of Rorschach inkblots, Jaksic-Berger’s projective images and their implicit narratives are subject to multiple layers of interpretation. Forms can be most expressive when least pictorially precise. With Nature as a major source of inspiration – in which she always sees abstracts, biomorphic forms abound in Jaksic-Berger’s imagery, her carefully cultivated garden being one of her preferred places to paint. As for Kandinsky, the musicality of colour, or chromatics of music, with their cadences, crescendos and counterpoints, is key to the harmonious composition of her paintings.
‘I always start a painting with yellow because it has such life in it,’ she says, ‘and then red, followed by other colours. Through colour, it’s life that I want to see in all of my paintings.’
With their spirited compositional rhythms and emotive colour, her paintings are indeed an affirmation of life. For almost six decades, at the age of 85, Jaksic-Berger has remained faithful to her profound belief in the transformative power of art to alter our perceptions of the world and her credence that the act of artistic creation is a transcendent experience in which we all can share.
Linda van Nunen is a former art critic for ‘The Australian’ newspaper and ‘Time Magazine’. Since 1981, her profiles and feature articles have appeared in numerous newspapers, magazines and art journals in Australia and abroad.
Flinders Street Gallery
7 to 28 August 2021*
*Postponed due to COVID-19 lockdown. New dates TBC