Omer Kaleshi – fruit and erotica

The master

It is a heavy old wooden easel bought by Omer over half a century ago, on which he rests the white canvas and where his palette, a place where he mixes the paint, will simply serve as the canvas for his future creation. This is where, with his spatula, through red, black, green, ocher, he begins to shape the contours of the next painting, slowly, without a hurry, just like his life’s rhythm, where stroke after stroke, an image starts taking shape. Now there is an apple on canvas, a little earlier there was a shepherd or a dervish, a girl or the portrait of a child. And so, slowly, the apple begins to “ripe” on the painter’s white canvas. His hand turns into mother nature’s hand to give it the right colour, draw the right lines and turn it, fruitfully, onto work of art.

Omer Kaleshi is not only the painter of  “Balkan’s drama”, or the painter renowned for painting “heads” as he calls them or the painter of Balkan’s dervishes or shepherds, but he is also the master of still life, the theme he prefers to take on at quite times, as a resting exercise as if he is trying to catch his breath after tense, tedious and even troubled moments he has experienced while working on other paintings. When one thinks about his cyclical painting and realizes that he changes his theme so often, almost seasonally, all while maintaining his style and spiritual vibe, his return to still life becomes exciting, setting him apart and establishing his work of 50 years as a pictorial novelty. Although inanimate, these still life drawings of apples, pears, quinces, are very much fruit with a pulse. One day, while talking to him about this type of painting Omer said: – “I remember when I was little, when together with other village children, I would run to the train station carrying fruit baskets and to sell them to the passengers whom stopped for a few minutes. Children carrying baskets filled with ripe, juicy pears, apples, berries … The train would arrive whistling and blowing steam on its way to Serbica, to bring the daily mail and to refill with water. “The mail has arrived!” – we would shout, when we saw the black locomotion with the four or five black wagons from afar.

Still life is one of the oldest painting genres, with origins in the Middle Ages and Ancient Greco-Roman art, first found on the walls of rocky caves in antiquity. Recent discoveries in the ruins of ancient Pompeii once covered in lava and volcanic ash, bring back wonderful images of ancient fruit, apples, pears, grapes, chillies, in baskets and on tables, baskets of figs painted with extraordinary mastery, with a poetic realism that is difficult to achieve today. They appear as frescoes in Roman villas, on large aristocratic rooms and governors’ salons, painted by anonymous authors whose names have long been forgotten. During the early Middle Ages, the Church prevented artists to practice such genre by pushing the artists to devote themselves to biblical themes. But on the 16th century, when Vasari, a painter and art historian used the term “cose naturali” (for “still life”), while referring to Giovanni da Udine’s works, the genre gained popularity and became part of the curriculum in art shcools. Still life was taught in painting schools in Northern Europe and especially in the Flemish and Dutch painting schools and was used by well-known artists such as Sniyders, Jean De Heem, Der Meer, and also by Italian and Spanish painters. In 1650, the Flemish adopted the term “stilleven”, meaning “some fruit, fish, flowers, etc.”, while the Germans named it “stilleben”, unlike the English whom refer to the works as “still-life”, meaning a motionless life. Writing about the 17th Century Painting Salon, Diderot used the words “natures innanimés” to describe these paintings and the term “nature morte” became widely used by the French and then by the rest of the world. But were these paintings “motionless”, “inanimées” as such?

Let’s return to Omer’s still life oil painting to find the answer, to this traditional and modern master, whose works position him as Balkanian and European and as a universal artist. Let’s look at what does this type of painting represent to him, what kind of place does it occupy in his creativity, what is the reason for this occasional engagement and how did this pictorial adventure begin.

Still life is without a doubt the dominating genre and theme of Omer’s beginnings as a painter, while conducting his studies at the Academy of Arts in Istanbul (is Albanian family had migrated to Turkey some years ago). In a large exhibition in Istanbul, Kaleshi-student presented his painting “Slaughtered Sheep”. I was curious to see a photograph of this early painting but sadly, Omer had kept only a black and white photo of it as the original had since been sold to the Museum of Painting and Sculpture of Istanbul. As soon as I laid eyes on this old photo, I immediately thought of the “Slaughtered Cow” by the famous English painter Francis Becon, an image that resembles also to a similar image by Sutine, Modigliani’s friend in Paris. Omer also told me about a picture of Goya on a piece of meat, as we see in a butcher’s window. I have also personally been always impressed by another painting of Goya depicting three pieces of salmon, which, using his original red, the great Goya has turned it into a masterpiece. Some of the greatest masters in the history of painting, though dedicated to historical figures and royal courtiers, war and other events, always turned to still life paintings or “inannimées” as Diderot might call them.

Along with Rembrandt, Omer likes especially Caravaggio, whose art Omer’s art resembles, and we often find ourselves discussing Caravaggio’s still life paintings, his “fruit baskets”: fruit on the table or along with his magnificent portraits or his “boys” surrounded by fruit. In fact, almost every painter has his favourite fruit: Francisco Zurbaran preferred chillies and lemons, the yellow of which contrasted beautifully with the black background; Cezanne liked his gorgeous apples placed on tables and sparkling napkins; Manet also preferred apples and pears. Also, Renoir has left us magnificent fruit paintings: apples on a plate, an apple and a pear, a portrait somewhere among the apples…or more modern paintings of pomegranate and plum. A closer look at Omer’s body of work in this field reveals that his paintings can be grouped into “lonely fruit”, “fruit and eroticism”, “fruit and heads” as well as “baskets of fruit”.

Lonely fruit

Like the “heads” (portraits) of Omer, which stand alone, detached from the body, in the air, on canvas, in the kingdom of red, black or white, so does the fruit he has painted since the ’70s-’80s, in uniform backgrounds, unlike those of masters of the Flemish school, whose fruit are always accompanied (i.e. placed on a table where sometimes there is a basket, sometimes there is water, another kitchen object , etc). These elements are missing in Omer’s paintings, as well as the environmental background, except for the basket in some cases, which is one of Omer’s intimate personal objects that has accompanied him throughout his life, since his childhood in Serbica.  Often, even his “heads” are sitting in baskets, just like his fruit, driven perhaps by a desire to present a natural and beautiful symbiosis, head and fruit in baskets. By carefully choosing and placing them in baskets it seems the master wants to draw attention only to that single object: an apple, a pear, a quince. The variety of fruit he paints is small and always the same: he does not paint grapes, fig, pomegranates, watermelons or melons, nor does he paint vases with flowers like Cezanne, Van Gogh (Sunflowers), or much earlier than them, Pieter Brueghel (the Old). His taste is much more similar to that of Edouard Manet, the author of the famous “Lunch on the grass”, work which has left a longing impression in Omer’s visual memory. Of special interest are the fruit series he painted in the mid-1980s, starting with Fruit I. In Fruit XI, painted in 1985, in large format (92x 73cm), the dominant colour is green divided by the black and white background as a support below the main object. The apple is placed exactly in this division where a white line outlines to the side corner of the picture. There are two other apples visible in the painting: one somewhat visible, again, in green tones, and the other sketched as a silhouette. Fruit VIII, painted in 1987, is presented in smaller format (27x19cm). Like other painters, at times Omer uses rustic objects as decoration, often seen in paintings of Flemish masters, generally wooden utensils carved by Albanian villagers. Such is a 2004 painting titled “Three apples” (33x41cm). One of the most striking works is the 1987 “A ripe apple”, brough in a 33x21cm format, painted on black background and red base. Similarly, just as beautiful, are an apple (24x16cm) and two pears, dating 1991 and 1993 respectively, this time placed on open trays.

I look at the painting of a pear in its own, produced in 1987 and the first thought is why does the pear occupy almost the entire canvas and I quickly realise that Omer’s intention is to present such a simple fruit in a cinematic “detailed plan”, Eisenstein style almost, to make it real to the eye, touchable, to make us feel how the brush has gone over and over the canvas to recreate the pear. There is also another painting on which the pear is presented in such a close and large plan, placed on black and red background; its size dominates the painting while the red and black are not separated by a straight line (a feature of a few of  Omer’s works), but by a broken line formed by the shadow created by the light source coming from the right.

Fruit and eroticism

While looking at his works, I was surprised at the thought of a lonely pear on canvas as an erotic pear. It was unavoidable. The extraordinary finesse with which he had used the prevailing light green and yellow tones demanded it. My imagination instantly gave me the pear-shaped female body, the erotic buttocks of a body that stood still, a nude model whom I was looking at from behind, just like the nudes of Henri Ingres in “Turkish bath”. From that moment on I realized that his painted fruit was never meant to be showing the simple fruit. Just like the pear, there was an erotic apple and so on. Excited by this novelty, one day, I went to visit him at his atelier, and I brought an unusual pear to him, a “female body” where nature presented an association with the female sex. It was meant to be funny. Omer looked at it, laughed and set it aside. I then understood that all that he painted was the mere fruit of his imagination; never has a model, fruit or human, entered his atelier. His imagination gives him the freedom to escape from reality, to transform it, to give it the form he wants, dictated by his the conscious and subconscious. Days passed and two weeks later he invited me to  his studio and gave me back “the pear”, painted as the female version of it seen from behind, with her voluptuous figure, sitting on a wooden can, a rustic object, all on a bright red background. It made me so happy.

I must mention here that Omer’s depiction of fruit as an erotic object is not intentional; he does not himself set the task of making the painting of his fruit as erotic art. They reappear as such suddenly, not by his order but in a mystical, enigmatic spirit to which the artist seems to submit to. This happens with many of his creations, especially apples and pears, an eroticism gifted by nature and recreated by the master. It is reminiscent of the erotic symbolism seen in Gustave Courbet’s works, the author of “World Origin” as art critics have called it, where dark caves with flowing streams are thought to represent the female sex. It is exactly what Omer likes, a somewhat hidden, unapparent eroticism. “Many years ago,” Omer once told me, “I painted a lot of fish and fruit, among which pears and apples, all reminders of the human body. It is strange though, something that I cannot explain happens to me sometimes: when I want to paint a portrait and I am not convinced that it is good enough, I turn it into fruit … ”And so, Omer continues to paint apples that resemble feminine buttocks full of grace. Thus, the fruit turns into a symbol getting closer to life form, the everyday, the tangible, the thrilling.

Do fruit have soul? When of tree branches, in their natural state, they are merely the fruit from which we sense the aroma released by the life that lives within them. But when the artist moves the fruit from nature to easel, recreates them on canvas to give them another life, he also gives them soul. Omer does just that: he dips his brush into his own soul and paints his fruit, giving it colour and shape. We have seen this happening with other painters. I remembered as I was writing these lines that when the great collector of the early twentieth century Leo Stein left Paris for America and took with him Cezanne’s painting “Five Apples”, his sister, Gertrude Stein, said that the salon of her Parisian apartment was missing its soul. A few days later Picasso brought her an “apple”. He had painted it for her. It was the apple that “lived” for decades in that peaceful art salon.

Fruit and head

Not infrequently Omer has joined heads with fruit, people and fruit, perhaps as an instant need. It seems to be reminiscent of images of his adolescence: shepherds, young sheep handlers, young girls approaching the age of love, all with fruit around their heads. Many of these works have been on public display during the Parisian exhibitions of the painter. These are paintings that do not fall into the still life category, which Omar began to create in the ’70s-’80s. These are images of children selling fruit in markets and rural settings: shepherds holding fruit baskets, teenage girls with fruit-packed faces, women carrying apples and pears on their shoulders or on their chests, dervishes and fruit, heads surrounded by fruits that sometimes appear on dark background. Omer brings them to us in an up close and personal way to evoke the idea that fruit are also characters, they are “portraits” in their own right. This creates a kind of symbiosis of head and fruit, where in a conventional way, ultimately conveying incredible aesthetic and exhilarating images. Portraits depicting heads seem all happy, just like fruit exudes happiness through vibrant colours and distinguished shapes. It all makes for a harmonious connection between his portraits and fruit paintings, a report found in some of Paul Gaugin’s paintings in Tahiti. Omer paints a dervish, a shepherd, a peasant and next to them he places his fruit, offered so kindly and with so much soul and finesse.

Referring to these paintings, French author Gil Juouanard writes: “They are ‘silent natures’ as the Japanese call them, they fall asleep and fall into silent dreams. But their silence is not that of graves, nor that of ‘mutism’, or laziness.  It’s the space that scared Pascal about the enigma she represented. It is that of an internal dialogue, of a duplicate monologue if we can say so the soul (or being if you will) does with itself. The silence of meditation. The silence of the most inherent presence; that of the stars and the clouds. “

Omer will not leave these trunks “dead”, lifeless, breathless. He will give them a second life, penetrate their depths, descend into the abysses of darkness where life has ceased and then reappear, this time with human silhouettes and fruit. It is the “Omerian” rite, the rite of renewal. Often from heads that stand alone there are shoots that stretch out in search of light. Omer has made this lesson of nature his own, transforming it to faces that appear to greet life, today.

Fruit and baskets

From time to time Omar places the fruit into baskets, as he has done before in a complete series of head potraits. Just like Charles Dufresne, famous for his fruit paintings did, Jean-Simon Chardin, one of the most famous French authors of still life, whose works Omer is especially fond of, or Zurbaran of the seventeenth century. Paul Cezanne did the same in the early twentieth century with his wonderful apples and fruit. The basket as a detail or supporting object is one of the frequent elements in Omer’s painting. To him it represents something autochthonous, deeply personal, the family he grew up with.  Even today, in his studio, on a chimney he built himself, there are two baskets, one in each corner.  This element is present in the year 2000 series “The Basket and the Head”, which were also exhibited at Place d’Italie, in the City Hall of Paris XIII salons. This series was born after Omar had finished the fruit basket painting series. Yet these still life offerings are very much alive and represent human joy with colours and lines that transcend the boundaries of realistic images of fruticulture and contribute true values to art today, remaining incredibly original and brought to us by a great multitude of world painters, passionate about such a theme. Suffices to mention here once again fruit baskets painted by Van Gogh or Gustave Courbet offering symbolism through still life works where an apple is not just a piece of fruit…a beautiful curvaceous woman stand in front of you, looking at you from afar…

More than half a century has passed since he painted its first fruit.  Omer Kaleshi continues to surprise with his palette. It is astonishing how with his brush he moves from dramatic and shocking to erotica, always using the fruit as the object of his choice, how his strokes bring us strong and dark colours as in the “pituras nera” of Goya, to then produce cheerful Cezanne or Manet tones, with noticeable excitement. More than a hundred paintings of this theme, generally of small and medium formats, create a beautiful, incredibly original universe, a spring break in the hills of the world of painting or a fruit galaxy scattered in museums, galleries, private collections and among friends. You experience the desire to stand in front of them for hours, experiencing where the sublime of art and nature intersect.

Traduction : Miranda Shehu Xhilaga