Ilija Vitolić

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Ilija Vitolić
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Born(1930-08-04)August 4, 1930
Belgrade, Kingdom of Yugoslavi
DiedJanuary 28, 1996(1996-01-28) (aged 65)
Zurich, Switzerland
  • Sculptor
  • Painter
  • Artist

Ilija Vitolić (4 August 1930 – 28 January 1996) was a Serbian artist, painter, and sculptor.


Ilija Vitolić was born in Belgrade, Kingdom of Yugoslavia, (modern-day Serbia) on August 4, 1930. He was the second son of Djordje Vitolić (born Djordje Vit),[1] Bank Director, and Milica Nemanjić (a descendant of Karađorđe, the legendary Serbian leader and freedom fighter). His love of fine arts and theatre developed early under the influence of his mother and his older brother Dragoslav, an actor and playwright who tragically perished in the aftermath of World War II. The theatre remained an integral part of his whole life, but painting and sculpting soon became Ilija's primary artistic outlet.

After the war, Ilija had to find work to support his family financially. Since he was unable to attend art school, he developed his talent and learned to express his artistic vision all on his own. However, without an academic diploma, the experts of the time gave him little consideration, and the professional recognition he sought with his first and only exhibition in Belgrade on November 24, 1961 never materialized. Disappointed, he left his home country and in 1966 moved to Germany to work as a painter and sculptor in the Theater Dortmund.[2] There, he also ventured into scenography, while continuing to create his own pieces in his free time. His reputation grew and in 1974, he received an offer from Zurich Opera House, where he remained working as the Head of the sculpting department until his retirement in 1993.[3]

Ilija Vitolić Exhibition Announcement - Serbian newspaper "Politika" November 24, 1961 Ilija married four times and had five children, two of whom he tragically outlived. Ilija hoped that retirement would provide ample time to devote himself to creating his own art. However, he was diagnosed with leukemia shortly afterwards and passed away in Zurich hospital on January 28, 1996.

Artistic Style and Work

Left to his own devices and in possession of boundless curiosity about creating art, Ilija did not limit himself in any way, shape or form. Painting was his entrance into the world of art and remained his most prolific art form. However, he developed an enduring love for sculpting, and regarded himself as a sculptor first, and a painter second.

In his work, Ilija experimented with many different kinds of painting materials, such as oil, acrylic, gouache, watercolors, wax chalk, and ink. He painted on wood panel, plywood, canvas, cardboard, and paper. He carved all kinds of wood and used iron, brass, and copper for his metal sculptures. In later years, he used frigoform to produce exquisite reliefs which he would then paint to create unique art pieces.

In the beginning of his career, he painted landscapes, portraits, and still nature. However, in time a theme emerged. His later art reflected a man torn between life and death, might and disintegration, violence and suffering, body and soul. With a few exceptions, his figure is extended, striving to the heights; his neck is long and slender, his hands animated. That expressive abstraction gives his work a distinctive character. Throughout time, a particular face crystallized, shown from the front and in profile at the same time. He believed that the ability to see and understand manifests itself in the reduction of and concentration on one single eye. In his artwork, fish stands as a substitute for man, an ancient symbol of fertility, life and impermanence, divine and demonic, a sign for Christ. Candlesticks also captured his imagination, and an important position was held by the cross, always present on a human body and often depicted or suggested in his work.

Thematically, these works mainly attest to his deep entrenchment in the history and faith of Serbian people. The search for clarity, for truth, for the spiritual, invulnerable in man, marked Ilija Vitolić’s whole artistic opus.

Toward the end of his life, after a visit to the famed Serbian monastery Hilandar[4] on Mount Athos in Greece, Ilija was inspired to create his own 'prayer house' in the backyard of the house in Zurich, which he shared with his last wife Christine. He planned to cover all the walls with his own unique frescos inspired by Biblical events. He finished three ceiling panels - Transfiguration, Resurrection, and Ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ, but he died before applying finishing touches on the fourth panel, Descent of the Holy Spirit Upon the Apostles.

Ilija's work went on to inspire other artists, including Milan Jojkic, who used the detail of Ilija's painting Ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ to create his own stained glass art.[5]

Posthumously, his work was meticulously tracked by his widow Mrs. Christine Vitolić-Waltisbühl, photographed, and published in a monograph about his life and work[6], for which the respected Serbian art critic, Mr. Nikola Kusovac[7], wrote an impressive critical analysis:

"One thing is definite, if Ilija Vitolić, as an artist, left behind nothing but the four depictions of the great holy days that he painted to decorate his chapel, sanctified by his own dedicated creative work and with his own heartfelt prayers, it would be more than enough to conclude that he had succeeded, that he had truly left behind an indelible sign of his earthly existence. The fact that he had attained such skill near the end of his life, after decades of relentless efforts as a sculptor and a painter and after he had reached that point that Evdokimov describes: ”… that we are in the presence of Beauty, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to subtract”, is just one more reason for us to truly and deeply regret the fact that we are discovering his work with a delay of many decades, with the small comfort that it is better late than never."[8]

Mr. Kusovac spoke at a promotional event in Belgrade held at the Center for Study in Cultural Development for the publishing of the monograph in October 2012, an event celebrating the breadth and depth of the late artist's work.[9][10]


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