(video by Douglas Harding)
10th September 2014.
It was a quarter to noon. September had filtered in through the cracks of an unpredictable August; the latter had been torrential and scorching like a very bad game of meteorological roulette. In other words, typical Singaporean weather.
September has so far been more pleasant. A gentle breeze cooled my face as I stepped out of the cab at the upmarket end of Siglap Road. Before me was a stately house three floors tall (and a basement as I would later discover), luxurious and contemporary with a quaint little garden.
There at the porch of this house was Robert Latos to greet me, his thin, steady countenance draped in a loose-fitting long-sleeved white t-shirt and linen slacks. The Polish artist seemed an accidental but ineluctable component of the aesthetics here.
Robert was the first European artist I’ve had the pleasure of speaking extensively to, as chronicled in my December 2013 piece ‘Perceptions by Robert Latos: A Journey In Light‘. I was introduced to him by my friend, renowned Italian gallery owner and art consultant Sabiana Paoli, late last year during the launch of his immaculate ‘Perceptions’ collection. As an artist, Robert is an ardent student of the Renaissance, and brings that beatific light of the old world into his 21st century paintings. As a person, he is intelligent, independent, articulate and progressive.
The house on Siglap Road was owned by an elderly Indian gentleman – Robert had rented a room with an adjoining loft that served as both his residence and studio while in Singapore. Our meeting was an opportunity for me to catch up with him ahead of his groundbreaking exhibition in the Warsaw Stock Exchange in January, and his very exciting exhibition of Singaporean portraits in November.
I have always enjoyed listening to Robert – his philosophies on art and life belie a soul in touch with the subtlest nuances of human nature. He seemed much older than his twenty-nine years – I attribute it to a maturity that comes with forgoing life’s comforts in pursuit of his dreams.
Robert was born in 1985 the middle of three sons in Kraków, in what was then Communist Poland. His father worked for a local train company, while his mother worked administrative jobs for The Polish Army and later, in a hospital in Krakow.
The Latos family lived on the tenth floor of a ‘grey high-rise apartments in a grey estate’, as Robert described it. The dreary, dispassionate greyness of his surroundings pushed Robert to seek out beauty, a lifelong odyssey that would eventually be decanted into an admirable career as an artist.
“I grew up in a place with no art, no concerts. I had a quiet childhood,” reminisced Robert of his childhood in what was then the People’s Republic of Poland. Under the Communist regime, the intellectual, academic and artistic communities of Poland were put under strict political control. Art was created only under approval by the government.
But art was young Robert’s way of expressing himself.
“I started talking at five years old,” Robert stated. Art was how he communicated with the people and world around him. Back in his childhood, his art was merely drawings – doodles on paper of his parents, or of things that captivated him.
“It was something nice to do. It gave me a reaction from other people,” he said of these early forays into personal expression.
But he thirsted for more such abstractions of beauty, and at 14, enrolled in a prestigious high school for the arts in the capital, Warsaw.
By then, the Communist regime had fallen, and was followed by Leszek Balcerowicz’s ‘shock therapy’ policies to return Poland’s economy to a market economy. Poland’s cultural – and more importantly, artistic – output would grow at a much slower pace in relation to its economy.
Art was not exactly a pragmatic choice in those uncertain times, but Robert was adamant about pursuing it.
While his parents were supportive, the school did not make it easy for him. “I almost didn’t make the cut,” said Robert with a wry, enigmatic smile. “There were 200 applicants for 32 spaces.”
“Most of the other students came from artistic families – their parents were in the arts business.” Robert knew that he had to work harder than the rest, given his lack of formal artistic education. “I came from a primary school in the outskirts of Krakow.” He paused. “It was not a good school.”
We both laughed. Art school is notoriously difficult to get through, and harder still when those around you are more practiced in expressing themselves with oil and canvas. So how did he do it?
“Talent helps,” he said seriously, “but it must come with hard work. I spent 7 days a week in school. There was nothing else I wanted to do but art. There was nothing else to do but art.”
I wanted to point out things such as the first Playstation, the Terminator series, Britain’s Spice Girls, marijuana, but stopped myself. These things would be insignificant and trivial in comparison to his pertinacity and cynosure towards his craft.
“Little decisions also count,” said Robert as an afterthought.
I asked, “Little decisions?”
“Little decisions like not partying! When my classmates would go out for parties, I would be in school, in the studio.”
Robert would later graduate from high school with stellar results. The then 19-year-old would already have his mind set on a career as an artist. His dedication, perseverance and immunity to peer pressure was already clear to see by then, but these would be tested again when he applied for Warsaw’s very prestigious Academy of Fine Arts.
“It was a grueling process,” he recalled. “We had to sit in front of a roundtable of 12 professors, some of them huge artists in Poland. They asked me questions about Picasso, about the situation of the arts in Spain and Italy.”
“Were you able to answer them?” I asked.
“Were there any questions you couldn’t answer?”
He replied without pause, “Yes. One professor asked what I thought of literature in Poland. I told him, ‘I have no interest in this subject.'”
I could not help but smile in immense admiration of his courage and honesty, even in the face of some of the biggest names in Polish art.
Robert would eventually win a place in the academy, where he applied the same attitudes he had in high school to his academic work. As expected, Robert did well, but there was a restlessness growing in him. His artistic view had expanded exponentially in breadth and depth, and Poland could no longer contain his cogitations.
“Before my final year, I left the Academy,” he told me, in the same way one might say ‘I went to the supermarket yesterday’.
He explained his decision: “I knew I was doing well in school, but my prospects were limited. The best students end up teaching art in the academy, the rest…”
“Work in McDonald’s?”
“Yes,” he said with a laugh. “I did not want that life, that routine of work from nine to five, go home, rest. I have to plan ahead – maybe in four months, I go for a vacation. I needed to destroy this perception. So I left. I wanted to learn more about art, so I left for Venice, because the best artists I know, like Bellini and Titian, are from Venice.”
And he left for Venice, with €1000 in his pocket. It wasn’t a holiday or an impulse getaway – he was in this for the long run, so he had to spend wisely. And he did so by sleeping in run-down hostels, and even on a bench in the train station. He also slept in the streets.
“They are very nice in Venice,” he said cheerfully. “At 6:30 a.m., the policeman will wake you up.”
Robert spent seven months in Venice, and many more away from home in the streets of Europe’s art capitals, and at times without even a proper bed to sleep on. From Venice, he would go to Milan and Paris, hitchhiking his way through. For sustenance, he would create artistic works for passing benefactors. In Paris, he slept on park benches and on the beach. In the day, he would spend his time in museums and galleries, wearing a set of clean, nice clothes he would set aside for such occasions. “I went to these places to study paintings. It was an investigation in art,” he said. He would learn so much more in these wanderings than he would in the comforts of a classroom.
I’m sure many of us would see his artistic adventures in the light of abject homelessness, and I communicated that to him. He smiled knowingly. “In Milan, they wouldn’t let me sleep in the streets, so I had to walk far out of the city centre to find a place to sleep.” But it was in the Moral Capital of Italy that he had one of the most memorable nights of his life. “At that point, I only had €200 to my name, and I spent it buying tickets to get into La Scala (Teatro alla Scala, a 200-year-old, world-renowned opera house). I used my knowledge of art to create conversation during the reception.” He mingled with important people, the highest echelons of Milanese society. He mingled with politicians, businessmen. I imagined he was charming and mysterious, lucid and eloquent as he spoke of art and philosophy, as he does with me.
“I left La Scala drunk on champagne, but it was six hours of the best opera I’ve ever experienced.” His look was a beatific one, a triumph of the soul – it was apparent that Robert had experienced the Opera in the depths of his being, and not as a passing Saturday evening, like some of the other Armani-clad attendees. Robert later fell asleep on the red carpet outside, feeling a rapturous joy.
Grudgingly, I admitted that it was indeed an impressive story.
He spent almost three years wandering, homeless at times. Then one day in Venice, he asked if he could speak to the manager at Venice’s eminent Opera Gallery. The manager came to greet him, and was very impressed by his works – art that held the soul of the Renaissance, the old world light of Venice, and the trappings of the 21st century. Thus began Robert’s climb into prominence in the art community.
That manager in Venice was Sabiana Paoli.
If anything, Robert Latos teaches us that you can only live your dreams with your eyes open.
See more of Robert’s work at www.robertlatos.com.
You can view his works in Singapore at Sabiana Paoli Art Gallery:
SABIANA PAOLI ART GALLERY
19 TANGLIN ROAD
TANGLIN SHOPPING CENTRE #01-25/26
Tel. +65 9093 5128