The Quest for Personal Myth (part 1)

                                                             By Petar Meseldzija                                                     

Prince Marko and the Dragon, 90X63cm, Oil on wooden board, 2016.

This painting, titled Prince Marko and the Dragon (Kraljević Marko i zmaj), has been created for a private collector. It is also one of the paintings from my new book project. It shows Prince Marko, a great Serbian epic hero, performing one of his heroic deeds. The character of Prince Marko is based on a 14th century Serbian king of a minor historic importance, whom the people, while under the Turkish occupation that lasted for more than 4 centuries, turned into the greatest epic hero who bravely fought against  the oppressor and the injustice, and kept the people’s spirit alive during that long and complicated period. 

Although based on the real person, the character of Prince Marko is basically constructed from two major elements – an old, forgotten mythic hero, and the character of an existing medieval ruler upon whom the people projected their needs, pains and aspirations. Prince Marko is unbelievably strong - this strength comes from his mythic base - brave and righteous. He’s a true chevalier; the protector of the weak and the oppressed. However, his human side makes his character more balanced and rather easy to identify with.  Like any human being, Prince Marko has a shadow. Next to the noble side of his personality, there is a darker side too - at times, Marko can be very jealous, vain and even cruel. This contradictory element in his character brings him closer to a real person and makes him more accessible. On one side, he is a perfect embodiment of the people’s struggles and needs from a specific time; on the other, he genuinely reflects people’s character with all their good and bad sides, their virtues and their vices, as well as the moral principles people lived by. While still a quintessential epic hero, Prince Marko is also a human being, one of us. This particular trait in his character makes him very intriguing.
I was always impressed by the old epic poetry about Prince Marko. But as I set out on my journey to become an artist, I focused my attention primarily to the foreign art and culture, especially the western culture. Then, in 1993  (I was 28 years old), when I decided to illustrate the most popular Serbian fairytale, Baš Čelik, eventually turning it into The Legend of Steel Bashaw, I was finally back to my national and cultural roots trying to express my relationship to that part of my identity though my art. It took another 22 years to finally turn my attention to the epics, and to create my first Prince Marko painting.

But as soon as I started to work on this project, I faced a problem that presented me with a serious challenge. Although I loved the character of Prince Marko, I was now not very inspired to illustrate the old epic poems, apart from a few that I greatly admired. The old epics are…well, old, and in spite of a number of aspects that are universal in character, most of them deal with the specific problems that reflect the existential struggles of the people from centuries ago. The Ottoman Turks, the oppressor and the archenemy, have long gone and disappeared from the stage. To continue to fight them and the specific problems that went with it, seemed to me nothing but fighting against a spectre, a shadow of the past. It felt so awkward, pointless and irrelevant to me, like a symbol that has lost its meaning and purpose, but kept its empty shell – a dead symbol - that is how mythologies and religions die, and in my opinion the myth of Prince Marko was dying too. So, in spite of my relative lack of competence regarding the study of the old epics, and guided only by my own vision, I finally decided to try to update Prince Marko and his world, and bring them back to life. Now, if you are familiar with the universe of Prince Marko epics, you will understand how tricky and difficult this task is. 

Nevertheless, stubborn and persistent as I am, I set out on this new adventure to change and update Prince Marko’s world, both in outer appearance and in content. The only way for me to do it properly was to write new epic poems about Prince Marko. I began my work by stripping off the epic  world of Prince Marko of all the archaic, irrelevant elements, at the same time emphasizing its mythic foundation. Likewise, I took in consideration the fact that the time spirit has changed, and that people’s view, needs and aspirations have changed too, although the universal values have stayed unaltered. I moved the balance, as it were, from the irrelevance of the archaic to the universality of the mythological, and the relevance of the contemporary. But, I kept the specific form of the old epics, and most importantly I kept their original spirit, so that the new epics would sound as if they were created by the folk bards of long ago.

This is my way to try to reconnect the dying epic past with the living present, and to give my own quest for the personal myth a firm, healthy starting point. 

However, the final encouragement to set out on a journey to discover my own myth by researching the myth I was brought up with came from a dream. In other words, my future doings and the direction that my artistic aspirations were about to take, was announced to me in a dream. It was one of those vivid, striking dreams that one remembers for the rest of his life, a type of dream that announces an important change (change of direction) in one’s life. I wrote down this dream and I named it “The Golden Book”. The biggest problem and challenge with dreams, however, is their interpretation. It is quite complicated to know if the dream has been correctly interpreted until that particular “story” ends. Therefore, and although my gut feeling tells me that I am on the right path, I am not yet completely certain if I interpreted my dream in the right way. Nevertheless, I intend to follow my intuition and will do whatever is required to accomplish this important project. 

To be continued…