Not many artists can boast to being engaged to Miss Universe Australia. But, then, Alesandro Ljubicic is not like many artists.
The only child of Bosnians parents who fled the war in the 1990s, ambitious, smart, young, and hip, Ljubicic is as likely to appear on the paparazzi pages of the Daily Mail as in the arts pages of the Australian.
Before we meet I scan the former. Pictures show a radiant Miss Australia, the Bosnian-Australian model Monika Radulovic, skin glowing, hair flowing, skipping through the airport, having recently touched down from Miss Universe in Las Vegas, where she was placed fourth.
Staggering behind her is Ljubicic, pushing an enormous trolley of towering suitcases.
In the brash world of wannabe celebs, Ljubicic may pale compared to his future spouse (she has upward of 80,000 followers on Instagram). But over the last 18 months, he has burst onto the commercial art scene with two sell-out shows, establishing a reputation in his own right. Radio broadcaster Alan Jones and, more impressively, a former Spice Girl (which one, he won’t say) are among his clients. Prices for his luxuriant oil paintings can reach $24,000 a pop.
Ljubicic’s latest solo exhibition, The Scent of Painting, is now showing at the Michael Reid Sydney gallery (four days after opening just three paintings are left unsold). Lurid, flashy eruptions of flowers line the walls, some an exuberant, violent array of blues, reds, and pinks, others more muted and meditative.
Distinguishing Ljubicic from the stereotype of the youthful, starving artist – he is 29 – is his entrepreneurial drive. On sale at the exhibition are bottles of bespoke magnolia-infused scents concocted by luxury Damask Perfumery. Limited edition hand-made scarfs by Edinburgh-based designer Kmossed, featuring Ljubicic’s drawings, are also available.
‘Through my fiancé I’m influenced by fashion, colour – this is where the scarfs came in,’ explains Ljubicic earnestly. ‘Matisse, Picasso did it. Fashion is art. Many people might disagree but it is art – it is colour, it is texture, it is patterns, it is composition.’
‘Me, I’m also more of an entertainer,’ he adds, sitting back in his chair, lifting a finger to stroke a shadow of stubble. ‘I want to get the audience involved. They don’t have to buy a $10,000 painting, they can walk away with a fragrance that has a story about it.’
Born in the 14th century town of Jajce, Ljubicic moved with his parents to Sydney in 1993 following the outbreak of the Bosnian War. Once a family of successful clothes manufacturers (his grandfather employed 300 workers), they arrived with nothing. Ljubicic’s father found work as a pastry chef, his mother in a factory.
‘You’re not going to cry and dwell on what happened. It is what it is and move on,’ he notes, adding they were just ‘grateful for being alive. You can have everything one day, lose it the next.’
As a teenager Ljubicic, a talented sportsman for the Sydney City Comets, toyed with playing basketball professionally in the States. An injury, however, left him unable to compete for six months. It was then he began painting in earnest, winning a coveted place at the National Art School.
‘Everyone kept saying: Why are you doing art? There’s never any money in it,’ he recalls. Determined to prove them wrong, Ljubicic started selling online art supplies from his bedroom in Bankstown. Soon other students were placing orders. In order to start a brick-and-mortar shop, his parents gave them their entire savings, some $60,000.
That was eight years ago. Today, both Ljubicic’s parents work for him at The Sydney Art Store in Zetland. (He insists: ‘If they didn’t believe in me and didn’t offer that support I am not sure what I would be doing today.’) Ljubicic stocks products he likes to use: handmade paints from New York, lush Dutch oils made from a three-century old recipe, priced at a cool $3,780 a tin, and creamy pastels.
He is also developing his own lines. Sporting a Sydney Art Store black cap, sleek blonde glasses, tanned in a black V-neck, Ljubicic picks up a brush, emblazoned with his logo, and runs his thumb over the silken bristles. ‘I have ideas for more products I want to develop, I’m still being creative from a business side of things,’ he says.
Upstairs is his studio, a chaotic, glorious mess, with half-finished paintings strung up on the walls and pots of open paints, swirled like raspberry ripple ice cream, strewn on the floor. Scattered around are his smaller colour studies on birch boards, profuse and riotous sculptural whirls and slabs of thick paint.
‘It’s like me cutting out sections from my large paintings and amplifying them 100 times – this is what you get,’ he enthuses, gesturing to one with his shoe. ‘I thought they’d be quite beautiful abstracts.’ Bucking the trend for contemporary art, Ljubicic shies away from the conceptual, noting proudly ‘you don’t have to read a thesis to know what my paintings are about.’
Ljubicic has the Internet to thank for much of his success: he is an avid self-promoter online, started his store on the web, and met psychology graduate Radulovic (the first ever ‘Miss’ Australia to be crowned while engaged) on Facebook. Self-assured, confident, with a hint of brassy cocksureness, he asked her out after seeing her photo in 2012. ‘We’re the perfect couple,’ he asserts.
Since then – and the proposal on a Paris bridge; the artist engraved a lock with the words ‘Monika, will you Marry me?’ – both have seen their careers take off. It has not all been plain sailing.
Last month, Radulovic found herself in the centre of a sexism storm after a Channel Seven sports reporter hugged her live on air (she was performing duties as a fill-in Weekend Sunrise weather girl). More recently, the model’s revelation on The Grill that the top three Miss Universe contestants ‘weren’t nice’ led to an uproar and a grovelling apology on Instagram, replete with a dusting of pink hearts. It received more than 3,000 ‘likes’.
Despite this, Ljubicic believes the pair are ‘big on positive energy’, an attitude that spills down to his art: ‘Why not have a painting on the wall [that] puts a smile on your face?’
This was drummed home when a woman bought two of his paintings online; she had never seen them in the flesh. Curious, Ljubicic asked her why. She replied that a close friend was Tori Johnson, the Lindt Sydney siege victim. Ljubicic’s large luscious floral abstracts reminded her of the flowers that flooded Martin Place. Another client purchased a bright, uplifting three-metre magnolia still life to put in his living room. His wife was battling depression.
Back in the café where we meet, Ljubicic is waxing lyrical about the benefits of dating Miss Australia. A steady stream of free products courtesy of Radulovic’s Instagram endorsements means ‘we have no room in the wardrobe, it’s ridiculous,’ Ljubicic says, shaking his head. ‘The amount of clothes, watches, and things, it’s amazing…’
He tails off. Then he adds quickly, as if to reassure me that they really are, deep down, the kind of couple who gorge on fast food, ‘we landed from Vegas wearing trackies, picked up our cat from our parents, and went to Mad-Mex… The Mexican place.’ He pauses. Checks to see I’ve registered.
‘You know what they say, artists are the most dangerous people, because they mix with all crowds – the rich, the poor,’ he laughs. And, of course, the beautiful.
Alesandro Ljubicic is exhibiting at the Michael Reid Sydney, 44 Roslyn Gardens, Elizabeth Bay NSW 2011, until 27 February.
Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore is a regular contributor to The Spectator Australia