The painter, poet and surrealist commercial illustrator Milena Pavlović-Barilli (1905–1945) was considered one of the most important Serbian artists. She was living in Paris when the clouds of the European war gathered. In 1939 she came to the United States to find, among other wonders, the New York World’s Fair’s, “The World of Tomorrow.” She was swept away by the magic of Salvador Dali’s Surrealist exhibition “The Dream of Venus.” Although New York was a temporary refuge, when war broke out she was stranded in the city and died here at age 40.
During her brief time in the U.S., to earn a living she turned to commerce. In the catalog for the 1997 exhibition in Zagreb, Milena Pavlović-Barilli: Commercial Design Work in New York 1939–1945, Olga Bataveljić writes that Pavlović-Barilli’s life and work in the country were interwoven with nostalgia and the hope that one day she would return to her homeland. “Her wish was not fulfilled. When she left for the USA in 1939, she did not know that she had left Europe forever.” In March 1945, Pavlović-Barilli suddenly passed. Her death was reported in the press with brief reviews of her work—but without mention of the honors that she later received back home.
Her artwork was praised for creating enticing decorative elements, a characteristic feature that benefited her commercial projects. All her illustrations from that time were fashion tableaux for the biggest department stores in the city, including Bonwitt Teller, Lord and Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue. She illustrated women’s clothing and footwear—”her advertisements are gentle and delicate,” wrote Bataveljić.
Pavlović-Barilli’s illustrations were fixtures in many American magazines. She did covers for Vogue and one piece was published on the front cover of Town & Country magazine, showing a female figure in a pink transparent dress gracefully jumping, with a bird in her hand. Her style sourced classic artists, including Botticelli, as a direct inspiration. She frequently intertwined the poetic grace of Renaissance art with the props of the “prosaic modern world” without triviality.
The results and successes of Pavlović-Barilli’s “new endeavors in American design,” the critic Rosamund Frost detailed, was that in business circles, “pure art has been finally understood as a significant factor.” Frost underlined the most successful achievements of individual artists and, along with Herbert Bayer, Salvador Dali and Bobritsky, she praised Pavlović-Barilli, citing her as among the artists who contributed to the visual appeal of American fashion and society magazines. The examples here show the reason why Pavlović-Barilli helped to define her times.