Saša Montiljo’s Forest Spirits

“Thousands of spirits in sunburnt grass, an ominous swing in a dancing tree, a lone wolf, black owls and the ghostly motions of age-old…

“Thousands of spirits in sunburnt grass, an ominous swing in a dancing tree, a lone wolf, black owls and the ghostly motions of age-old trees among the new leaves’ green. An original blend of the fantastic and the real, a magic atmosphere, a characteristic process of constructing the image, and a distinctive palette. Montiljo is capable of imbuing the viewer with beauty and fear, curiosity and chill, toying masterfully with our imagination as well as our perception. … For he is the quiet, smiling observer of the world of mirages.”

(Tamara Ognjenović, author and art historian)

Kultur!Kokoška: Looking back at your career, it is obvious you have been interested in art since an early age, and making it into a profession seems a rather easy choice. Have you ever doubted your decision to study and pursue a career in the arts? 

Saša Montiljo: I have felt the need to express myself visually since very early childhood; I don’t remember myself without that need. I think I even remember one of my first drawings, and it is as if I am re-doing and perfecting it to this very day. Whenever I’m working on the execution of a painting, the same feeling arises: a simultaneous mix of child-like joy because of the outcome, and, on the other hand – the questioning, the self-critical aspect that doesn’t let me lose myself completely in this game.

Spider's Bridge, oil on canvas, 2010

Spider’s Bridge, oil on canvas, 2010

I have never doubted my love for this calling, and I have accepted a very modest lifestyle for the aforementioned feeling of child-like joy while I create Something out of Nothing. As Krleža put it: “From mud and from fog, from ignorance and from mire, another poem made a star-like fall.”

K!K: How important do you think a formal, academic artistic education is in achieving a certain standard of work and crossing into a career as a professional artist? 

Saša: We are all individuals, and different rules apply to each of us. In my case, formal education proved to be of no great importance, but as the proverb has it: “Do not try this at home”.

The Wind, oil on canvas, 2009

The Wind, oil on canvas, 2009

K!K: If you weren’t doing what you are doing now, what do you think would be your other, alternative career path? 

Saša: I can hardly imagine myself outside of art. It would have been an impoverished life in which I wouldn’t have been aware of what I’d missed…

K!K: Your paintings often feature imagery from Slavic mythology, and have a distinct atmosphere which establishes a connection to nature. In which way can art contribute to a further raising of ecological awareness? 

Saša: Old Slavic faith was a religion of the nature; this is what makes it highly inspiring for my painting. Art may indeed contribute in raising awareness, provided it does not lose its primary purpose – (portraying) the beauty of the nature.

Dažbog, 2013

Dažbog, 2013

If an artist’s work can define, for example, why a flower is magnificent in its beauty, then he will surely communicate this beauty to someone who might be blind to even noticing that flower itself, and may awaken consciousness about preserving nature. It is my intention to define why a spiderweb is magnificent in its beauty, why a bat is a wonderful phenomenon, and, in general, to break the prejudices that exist in most people.

Seeker, oil on canvas, 2012

Seeker, oil on canvas, 2012

I am fond of a note from Leonardo da Vinci’s treatise on painting, which is a universal wisdom for both visual artists and the art of living, and it states: “Remember: there is something in the middle between light and darkness, something twofold, equally related to one and the other, like a light shadow or a dark light. Look for that, artist, for it holds the secret of magical beauty!”

The art that is engaged in social criticism in a banal manner yields no results. It is only if it can engage in the celebration of beauty that it has a chance of contributing to societal consciousness. By elevating the spirit, we build a more beautiful and more moral world.

Lost Steps, oil on canvas, 2013; 260 x 80 cm

Lost Steps, oil on canvas, 2013; 260 x 80 cm

K!K: You often portray animals, from wolves, lions and hyenas, to monkeys, moths and different species of birds. However, the owl seems like one of your most frequent motifs. What does the owl signify to you? 

wind's fiance 28 x 18 cm

Wind’s Fiance

Saša:  I have always been fascinated by nature’s predators. The intelligence they possess causes me to think of them as creatures very similar to humans. And isn’t man part-beast himself? It may be that only if we were to look at ourselves realistically that we could change and become better. Owls are the only species of birds whose eyes are set directly in the plane of its face, like human eyes are, and since my visual poetics seldom feature humans, it may be that the owls are there to take their place. 

Painted logs turned into adorable owls

Painted logs turned into adorable owls

K!K: The spiderweb seems to be another consistent theme. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that, when it comes to trees, you dedicate particular attention to birches, and when it come to objects, to swings? 

Saša: Exactly. Apart from catching insects, the spiderweb also traps light. That’s what I find so interesting about it.

Sun as prey

Sun as prey

I’m fond of birches because they return my gaze as I look at them. On the surface of their bark, they form a shape of a human or godly eye, as if telling that we are being watched by someone we seem to be failing to notice.

Eye of Providence

Eye of Providence, photograph

Like all the other motifs, the swing came into my painting spontaneously. I’ve always relied on intuition, and motifs have somehow emerged in my paintings all by themselves. It wasn’t until later that I would realize, probably only partly, what their role and significance has been to me. The swing is one of the motifs I still don’t understand myself. Maybe it relates to transience. Today, someone is swinging on it, and that someone is part of ourselves; and the next moment we look, all we see is an empty spot, a swing that is still swinging, slower and slower. A swing is in fact our memory, and our impression of the intensity of its movement is in proportion to the recency of a particular recollection.

Tree Swing, 2010

Tree Swing, 2010


Seagull, photograph

K!K: You have recently started posting photographs as well as paintings on your deviantART page. Can you tell us more about it? 

Saša: I probably would never have started working with photography if I hadn’t gotten myself a dog three years ago. He has been taking me for long walks in Zemun, and wishing to record the magic moments I witness every day, I started taking pictures. At first I was using an amateur camera, and changed to a semi-professional device later on. I still know nothing about the camera’s technicalities, but I still succeed in making photographs that receive professional commendations. A photograph can be a document, but also high art close to painting.

K!K: You have had received opinions from many literary authors, journalists and art critics. Has a particular comment, whether positive or negative, stood out, or influenced your work? 

Saša: My painting has been reviewed by the author and art historian Tamara Ognjenović, as well as the art critic and theorist Dejan Đorić. In both cases, I worried about the “outcome”, but they only had words of praise for me. Of course, it would have been useful it it had been different, because criticism can be as constructive as an appraisal. There is no such thing as a flawless work – perfection can be touched, but not accomplished.

Sleepwalker,oil on canvas, 2010

Sleepwalker,oil on canvas, 2010

K!K: Your work has been characterized as “hyper-realism and fantasy, magic realism, inspired by  Expressionism and Romanticism”. What is your own clearest perception of your personal style?

Saša: I never thought about fitting into a particular style, as that would limit my creativity. My only goal is to record the magic in the moment, and I see all the necessary sense in it.

K!K: Have you got role-models in art or in life? 

Saša: I have multiple role-models: they are mainly Renaissance personalities from the past, but, luckily, people like that are found in our time as well. A young artist looks for identification with the authorities in his line of work, and later he reaches his own mode of expression. I am already at an age when creative maturity should reveal itself.

K!K: You have reached a professional level in painting, you’re working as a freelance artist, and you’ve participated in both solo and collective exhibits in clubs and galleries, and your paintings are being sold for hefty amounts of money on specialized art websites. Which of these accomplishments do you feel is your greatest so far? 

Monography in hardcover, 150 pages: reproductions of 100 paintings, in 28 x 23 x 2 cm format

Monography in hardcover, 150 pages: reproductions of 100 paintings, in 28 x 23 x 2 cm format

Saša: To me, my greatest accomplishment is creating a work I’m happy with, which is a very rare occasion. In most cases, works like that are recognized by the audience. I don’t care whether it will turn out well in the market, I just enjoy its presence on a wall within my own space. I dream of a possibility of making room for other artists in that space, and I’ve even started assembling my own collection of works by artists I find personally significant.

K!K: Your solo exhibit, “Forest Spirits”, opened in April (2014). Can you tell us something about its concept, and your own experiences throughout the two weeks of its duration? 

Saša: I’m glad that every new exhibit of mine attracts more visitors than the last. It’s a great honor for an author to have a real audience, when friends and relatives comprise only a small percentile of the visitors – and this has been the case with me so far.


There is an increasing number of exhibits poor in content, but pompously heralded in popular galleries. Such exhibitors have found a formula: by opening their exhibit, they provide their acquaintances with an excuse for an evening out, and those acquaintance return the favor with their presence – in such a relationship, they are a false audience. Communication is then reduced to trivialities where, for a good reason, the interest in looking deeper into the works on display is absent, as is the communication of the audience with what is supposed to be the very point of exhibiting. I’m glad I don’t belong to that kind of artists.

DSC_9492Saša Montiljo was born in 1978 in Belgrade.
He graduated from Graphics High School, and learned to paint with professor Aleksandar Luković Lukijan.
He is a member of the Association of Applied Arts Artists and Designers of Serbia (ULUPUDS)

Personal website:


Facebook Art page:

Solo exhibits:
1998. Club Underground Gallery, Belgrade
2003. „Abysses“ – Open University of Subotica Gallery
2011. „Webs“ – „Vuk Karadžić“ Cultural Institution
2012. „The Light“ – National Bank of Serbia
2013. „Forest Spirits“ – Radul-begov konak, Zaječar
2014. ‘’Forest Spirits” – „Vuk Karadžić“ Cultural Institution

This interview has originally been conducted and published in Serbian, by Danijela Nikolić. Translation by Milica Naumoska.

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