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Century-old Olympic Dream Comes True - on Canvas

By Les Charlton

Few if any art critics believed that famed painter Charles Billich could ever surpass his enormously successful Beijing Millennium Cityscape, a wall-size montage that brilliantly encapsulates the Chinese capital's ancient and modern architecture and which, in less dramatic style, is peopled by Olympian athletes doing their thing.

The work, presented to Beijing municipal government in 2001, was commissioned by Australia's Canberra City Council as a kind of "good luck" to Beijing in its bid to host the 2008 Olympics.

Goodbye doubters. Far from the first time in a distinguished career born of astonishing versatility and a seemingly savage delight in virtually tearing up the artistic rule book, Croatian-born Australian Billich has gone more than one better with his latest major creation, Jubilation China: 100-Year Olympic Dream Realized. Designed to symbolize Beijing's success in being invited to stage the 2008 Games, it is the first painting in Chinese history to depict aspects of all the country's 34 provinces. 

Art enthusiasts agree that, as self-imposed tall orders go, this is a bit like squeezing the musical intricacies of a symphony onto the back of a postage stamp. Billich, at the China World Hotel where he recently unveiled the painting to a horde of photographers, critics, the media and public, explained:

"This picture may be the most complex I have ever painted. It certainly is the busiest. Even so, I have tried to introduce order into it, so there are schemes and formulas at play. It was even more complicated before I eliminated many components, looking to streamline as much as possible."

Billich said the work -- in effect a painting within a painting where he "played with dimensions" in order to render his concept more graphically -- could be seen as a blueprint for a whole cycle of works in which he would venture deeper into all corners of China to produce some kind of index. "Such a task would be superhuman, so I would like to see some Chinese artists gathering around me in the worthwhile pictorial presentation of China for the pre-2008 world and after that.

"This could blur the distinction between western and Chinese art, and start a new movement in painting. It would also rectify the imbalance existing here today. I feel that too many Chinese artists want to become 'western' artists. They don't realize the pitfalls."

Billich, who now has a studio in Beijing as well as in Croatia, Australia and America, has long been a committed Sinophile. "I spend more and more of my time in Beijing and the provinces, and now know that no words can express the full meaning of the 2008 Olympiad to the country and its people. Nothing more symbolizes the New China than the Olympic ideal. China seems the right place for it, and 2008 the right time."

Despite his versatility in many genres of art, Billich is best known internationally as a sports artist who has won more awards and other honours than he can count.