Monday, 4 November 2013

Milena Pavlović Barili; the 31 Women number twenty-two - her Birthday is 5 November

Yugoslavian painter, poet, graphic artist, theatre designer, born in Pozarevac,05/11/1909 - died in New York, 03/06/1945.

Milena in Spanish costume
Milena Pavlović Barili was one of the European artists who moved to the USA during the Second World War. She was talented, imaginative and committed to her painting, sometimes to the point of obsession. Despite constant travelling, she produced 400 known works in a career of only eighteen years, while also working as a designer for Vogue, Harpers and other up market magazines. Although her exhibited work was often well received, she never became popular in her lifetime and her associations within the art community are not well documented.  However she can’t be accurately described as a forgotten artist; she is remembered and well loved in her home country, Serbia, where a museum is dedicated to her art.

Milena was an only child born in Pozarevac, Yugoslavia. She was an aristocrat of sorts, a distant cousin of King Peter II of Yugoslavia though her parents were not hugely wealthy. She actually spent part of her childhood in the royal palace in Belgrade, where her mother Danica worked.  Danica was a pianist and music teacher, her Italian husband, Milena's father was composer Bruno Barili, from Parma in Italy. Milena's parents seldom lived together. Bruno was an influential businessman and intellectual, a music critic, poet and founder of the literary journal, La Ronda. Music played a major part in Milena’s life, her friends were musicians and Milena herself received some training as a singer, though she never sang professionally.

Her closest friend was Italian composer Giancarlo Menotti, she worked as a designer on his Ballet Sebastien and he kept one of Milena's self-portraits, with stigmata, on the wall in his studio for many years after her premature death at only 36. Her painting provided inspiration for Menotti's Pulizer Prize-winning opera "The Saint of Bleeker Street."
Milena's early schooling was in Italy. She attended the Belgrade Academy of the Arts for five years from 1922, being something of a child prodigy. As well as art and music she spoke five languages and wanted to become a schoolteacher, but was turned down because men were preferred in Yugoslav schools. In 1927 she began the lonely, peripatetic lifestyle which would continue until her death; she trained at the Munich Art Academy, then travelled to Paris, Spain and London in 1930. She stayed for a year, them was off again; her favourite stopping places were Paris and Rome.

During the 1930's Milena began to look at surrealism. She was never a modernist and the mystery and metaphysical leanings of surrealism appealed to her dreamy imagination, she had little interest in abstraction. The work of Giorgio de Chirico had a profound affect on her, his influence can be seen in her painting from the early 1930's. She counted de Chirico as a good friend, other significant friendships included Andre Breton and Jean Cocteau. She does not seem to have met the other women surrealists.
Most of her known work was painted after she left Belgrade and her short career was nonetheless divided by historian Miodrag B. Protic into four periods: 1) The Munich period 1928-32, immediately followed her art school training, when she was influenced by the exoticism and linear styles of Beardsley and Klimt. 2) The antique period 1932-36 is so called because of her interest in classical subjects, with some emphasis on ruins and architectural fragments. 3) The renaissance period, from 1937, coincides with her becoming more closely associated with surrealism, as well as an interest in the early Italian Renaissance, making her surrealism less extreme than her surrealist associates. 4) The New York period from 1940 includes much of her portraiture and commercial work.  
Portraiture forms a huge part of her oeuvre, she was good at capturing individual faces and her portraits contributed to her income. Her technique varied during the 1930’s, around 1938 the linear style fades out, except in her design work, largely replaced by a more traditional, academic approach. She used an expressionist touch for some portraits, notably of her father and mother and a more concise style for others, including her husband and her many self-portraits. Her own face also appears in her dreamlike, surrealist scenes.

Milena’s first known solo exhibition was in Belgrade in 1928. She participated in many group shows, exhibiting with artists including Giorgio De Chirico and his brother Alberto Savinio, André Lhote and sculptor Zadkine and in galleries in all over Europe. Sadly at the time her work was not popular in her home country, one reviewer dismissed her as a ‘good decorative painter’, an attitude also often directed at talented women artists elsewhere. By contrast, her exhibitions in London, Rome and New York received favourable reviews; her meticulous technique and unusual interpretation of classical themes was admired.

In August 1939 she sailed to New York, after selling a painting to fund her crossing.  She was never able to return to Europe. In the U.S. her exhibiting intensified with four successful solo exhibitions in the years 1940-43 and also the Exhibition of 31 Women, one of several group shows. Here, she exhibited under her first name only, this was a habit amongst surrealists, many of whom only used one name as exhibitors.

In 1943 Milena Barili married Robert Astor Gosselin, but any happiness this marriage gave her was short lived. Milena suffered from depression, hinted at with comments that she was sensitive, delicate and melancholic, which may have played a part in her death. She died in 1945 in mysterious circumstances, possibly following a fall from a horse. Gosselin remarried and had a daughter, who he named Milena.

Milena Barili’s paintings have appeared on Yugoslav and Serbian postage stamps and she may be the only one of the 31 Women to have had a street named after her, in Belgrade. She remains popular in Serbia, a nation keenly rediscovering its cultural identity after the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Much of the available information about her comes from sources in Serbia, where they celebrate her as their own surrealist daughter. In 1962 the house in Pozarevac where Milena was born was turned into a museum in her honour.

Milena Pavlović Barili's work was celebrated in a major centennial exhibition by the Serbian Academy of Art in 2009. Sadly she remains forgotten outside her own country. There are examples of her work in important international collections but it is seldom exhibited. Perhaps Milena is now regarded as too tame for today’s surrealist exhibitions, which seem to prefer the most weird and macabre aspects of the genre, but even if this is so, Milena’s portraits are just too good to be justifiably ignored.
Comments, corrections and further information about Milena Pavlović Barili and her artworks are very welcome.
You can read about each of the 31 women as their birthdays arrive, earlier ones will remain on this blog.


Sources include:-

Mirodrag B Protic Visionaries – from Serbia National Review  2009

Milojković,  Jelica 2009 On the Starry Vestige, Milena Pavlović Barilli, a Hundred Years  from her Birth



  1. Dear Sue,
    I enjoyed reading your piece on Milena very much. It's rather rare that someone outside her native country should take this much interest in her, which is a great shame, as she deserves better.
    Do you happen to know the title of the work she displayed at the exhibition of 31 women?

  2. Hi Ivan,
    Thanks for your interest and kind words! As you said, Milena deserves more recognition, she's an interesting artist.
    The painting was called 'Insomnia' painted in 1942, according to the checklist for the exhibition. There was no catalogue. I haven't found any reference to a painting with this title anywhere else, have you?
    Sue G

  3. Dear Sue,
    Thank you for your quick reply.
    No, I haven't found anything about this painting anywhere, but there may be a photo of it in her museum in her hometown, because she was in the habit of photographing her works and sending the photos to her mother at home. The year that she produced the painting was one of those years when there was absolutely no contact possible between her and her parents, so she couldn't send any photos either. But I believe that after the war these "wartime" photos may have been sent to her mother. I'm planning to visit her museum and will enquire after this and other photos from the period.
    I can't recollect it now how exactly I stumbled upon this exhibition of 31 women. Actually, I remember now that I was looking up New York galleries of the 1940s and spotted P. Guggenheim's. And then I also found your blog.
    It's a totally new fact in her biography, as no one in Serbia knows about it, or at least not about the fact that Milena took part in it.

  4. Dear Ivan,

    I'm delighted that you found my blog! It's great when people respond to my writing and we get to talk about the artists. I learn so much.

    I'm very keen to know if there is a record of the Insomnia painting in Milena's museum. I did write to them several years ago, or it may have been email I don't remember, asking about this painting but heard nothing. I guess my enquiry didn't reach anybody who read English, my language skills are poor; I can't read or write - or indeed speak - any Serbian.

    It's great that Milena sent photos of her paintings to her mother, what a lovely way to keep in touch as well as helping to preserve a record of her work. I think she sold or gifted a good deal of it, she was a very talented portrait painter and graphic designer as well as her imaginative work. I wonder how much of her design work reached her mother.

    It's great that Milena was able to take part in the Exhibition by 31 Women, it's coming to be recognised as an important international show; the first dedicated to the 20th century women artists of the avant-garde. I'm a bit surprised that her Serbian fans don't know about it. Maybe because of the language barrier and also her very sad and untimely death before she could return home after the war.

    Please do let me know if you find anything about the Insomnia painting, also if there's anybody in the museum I could speak/write to about Milena - in English.

    Many thanks,

    Sue G

  5. Dear Sue,

    Could we, please, switch to email communication, as having to do it through a Google account every time is really frustrating. Here's mine: so you can just send me an empty email. Thanks a million.