My dad Antun, or as most people knew him, Tony Painter, was an enthusiastic man who loved a good laugh and to enjoy the finer things in life — classical music, a glass of red wine and the company of good friends.
However, to truly understand Tony, one must understand that he was a solitary man. When I say solitary, it is important to understand the true root meaning of the words solitary and alone, which simply means to be “all one” or “wholly oneself”
I say he was a solitary man because in the positive sense, Tony had a rich mysterious inner world that he would reveal through his work. When he was creating he was truly being one with himself, true to himself, and in doing so he brought beauty and joy into this world.
Speaking of his creative soul, I have a story about a painting, one that hung over the mantel of every home we lived in. I remember gazing up at it as I grew up, this somewhat crude and dark painting of two skeletal beggar boys eating fruit. I was fascinated by it, but I never knew the story of that painting until my father told me this last October. It was the painting he stared at during his illness as he grew weaker day by day. Lost in his memories he recounted the story of how this painting came to be…
It was 1963 and young Tony was reluctantly serving mandatory army duty. Somewhere along the way, he had seen a painting by the Spanish Painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo and was deeply inspired. His drive to create something beautiful in a grim and confining time of his life was so great that in secrecy he started to recreate this painting that touched him so deeply. He made his own paint from raw materials that he sourced from around the army barracks and he even fashioned a paint brush from the hairs he collected from the army horse’s ears. The wooden frame was also handmade by him at a later date.
One day Tony's sergeant spotted him painting this picture and liked it so much that he demanded my father hand it over to him. My father, always the rebel, wouldn’t dare see his creation go to someone he despised, so he made a false bottom in his trunk to smuggle it to freedom. The sergeant never did find the painting as he searched my fathers things upon his release from the army.
This painting made the long journey to Canada, hanging over the mantel in every home we lived in. We were unaware for so long that it symbolized our father's creative spirit and ultimately his freedom.
"A man can be himself only so long as he is alone; ... if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free."[Schopenhauer, "The World as Will and Idea," 1818]
Side note: I just learned of the origin story of this painting and the original artist when I was with my father for the last time this past October. Days after I tearfully said goodbye and returned to Vienna, I was at a small Gasthaus for dinner when I spotted the painting on the wall. I had never before seen the original painting by the Spanish artist hanging anywhere until that day, which I almost missed as it was partially obscured by the curtains on the other side of the room.