Croatian naïve art is one of the most unique things about Croatia. It’s as delicious as our food and wine and as famous as our national parks and UNESCO sites.
In fact, if you’ve fallen in love with Croatia, you must experience the work of Croatian naïve artists. And I don’t mean only a visit to the Croatian museum of naïve art in Zagreb.
Sure, let this be a starting point. But then, head to Podravina region. And more specifically, the village of Hlebine. Because this is where it all started. And to understand each brush stroke and each colour hue of those amazing paintings, you must go to the source… the cradle of naïve art in Croatia.
Hlebine school of naïve art
In the 1930s the already established artist Krsto Hegedušić spent summers in his ancestral village of Hlebine. He had already featured the surrounding countryside in his paintings. But the real naïve art began only when he discovered a 16-year-old boy who soon became his protégé.
That boy was Ivan Generalić (1914-1992). A boy so talented that he painted on village fences with charcoal, drew on shopping paper bags and etched in the dirt with wooden sticks.
Hegedušić helped him transform that raw talent and become globally recognized. He inspired young Generalić to paint the everyday village life – the reality around him without beautification.
He next guided him to use and perfect reverse painting on glass. This technique came from Bavaria and was a popular way to reproduce religiously-themed paintings (glaže).
So when Generalić’s peasants found themselves captured on glass, two landmark features of the Croatian naïve art were born.
Gallery of Naïve Art, Hlebine
To see how Generalić’s talent evolved over time, a visit to the Gallery of Naïve Art is a must. This unique and award-winning building is situated in the centre of the village.
It was built in 1968 as a ‘home’ to the Hlebine school of naïve art. But since Ivan Generalić donated a large opus of his work in 1982, the Gallery has become one of the main ports of call for all lovers of the naïve art in Croatia.
Generalić introduced two stylistic ‘twists’ to his art that contributed to his worldwide recognition.
Since the 1950s we can notice a turn towards the lyrical atmosphere of the countryside. This shows as his most striking motif of the so-called ‘coral’ forests – bare trees with intertwined and minutely detailed branches and twigs.
From there he followed his imagination and began painting the mystical and the imaginary. He claimed that what he imagined was as real as what was around him. He saw both, equally.
You will notice this twist in the cows painted red, blue or other unnatural colours. Such is his famous painting Cows under the Eiffel Tower – a remake of the earlier work created after his exhibition in Paris.
The triptych Snow is Falling, for example, was commissioned by the Catholic Church in the Vatican, but never delivered. Allegedly, the pigs near Christ were ‘too much’ of a reality twist so the work was never shipped to Vatican city.
This subtle play between the real and the imaginary was Ivan Generalić’s true forte. An expression which gave life to his famous white deer and a horse with a horn. But to see at least their glimpses, you need to head to Josip Generalić Gallery.
Josip Generalić Gallery, Hlebine
Art theory defines naïve art as work created by self-taught peasant artists. This is a good approximation, because it is true that Croatian naïve artists did not attend art colleges.
But the first generation artists, such as Ivan Generalić, did a lot to educate and inspire those who followed. Among them his son Josip, Ivan Večenaj and Mijo Kovačić – who is the only still living artist of the second generation.
Those painters who honed their own voice are the ones that stood the test of time. Yes, the countryside motifs are there. Yes, the reverse glass painting is there. But there is also a leap forward and a sense of their uniqueness.
You can best see that when you visit Josip Generalić Gallery. This is a complex of several houses where both Ivan and Josip Generalić (1936-2004) lived and worked. There, each painting still echoes with real-life stories of these two doyens of the Croatian naïve art.
Marijana Generalić, ex-daughter-in-law of Josip Generalić is the heart and soul of the Gallery. She will give you a tour of all the houses: Ivan’s old house, Josip’s house and atelier, the gallery and the ethno house.
And as you follow along, you’ll have a sense that Josip, in particular, is still around. And that each moment, he can turn up to join you for coffee. Her stories are that vivid, her memories still strong and filled with emotion.
Marijana will show you Josip’s last, unfinished, painting The White Frogs that is left untouched in his atelier. Ask her about the reverse glass painting technique and she will explain this amazingly complex mastery.
Ivan and Josip Generalić: from father to son
When two generations of artists live under the same roof, it is very rare that both are equally great. But this is exactly the case with Ivan and Josip Generalić.
They are both masters of the Croatian naïve art, they share the stroke of genius but they are also so very different.
Where Ivan is lyrical, Josip is humorous. Where Ivan takes his cows to graze by the Eiffel Tower, Josip invites Sophia Loren, Janis Joplin, and the Beatles into his home. Both paint realities that are far beyond what surrounds them. But one will turn mystical and the other dark and surreal.
I could never choose whose style I liked better. And this is why my most cherished memory from the Gallery is of the white deer which are both Ivan’s and Josip’s.
As we sit on the terrace, it is Marijana who tells this story. We gaze into 4 white (wooden) deer caught in their leap. They seem so alive – just like on Ivan’s painting The Deer Wedding. We learn that Ivan gave this painting to his son as a wedding gift.
Josip always wanted to see the white deer leaping through the forest. So in 2014, to mark 100 years from his father’s birth, the deer sculptures were set up in the yard. You can see them every summer.
The stories go on. Especially when Marijana shows you around the ethno house. The famous red door in the kitchen reveals Josip’s cheeky side.
He debated what to put inside the old pantry: erotic or religious paintings. Once he decided in favour of erotica, he painted the door red. And he wrote down the height of the door because he banged his head against it too many times.
Then one day, he had a change of heart in favour of religion. He swapped the paintings and wrote ‘praise Jesus’.
Third generation Hlebine artists
Hlebine school of naïve art is still going strong gathering dozens of artists, known as the third generation naïve artists.
I visited the atelier of Zlatko Kolarek (1959-), president of the Association of the naïve painters and sculptors from Hlebine.
His work follows in the steps of Ivan and Josip Generalić. And this year, his painting The Nettles represents Podravina Motifs – a traditional festival which takes place every June in Koprivnica.
Podravina Motifs (Podravski motivi) was also the title of the collection of drawings by Krsto Hegedušić, published back in 1933. Every year, the namesake event showcases the best naïve artists in an open-air selling exhibition.
So if you’re wondering where to find the best Croatian art for sale, pencil in Podravski Motivi for the next year.
Of course, you can visit Hlebine throughout the year. At the atelier of Zlatko Kolarek, be prepared to laugh – if you can understand the dialect. And to see excellent art, even in the making.
I totally fell for Zlatko Kolarek’s miniatures that represent 14 Stations of the Cross. Each of these tiny paintings is 29-42 mm and made by the landmark technique of the reverse oil painting on glass.
Zlatko’s atelier is filled with his paintings from floor to ceiling. He can tell you a story of each and every one but will also make you laugh by revealing that you’re actually in ‘the world’s most modern barn’.
The real and imaginary Podravina
Croatian naïve art is deeply immersed in the surrounding nature. And here, this is the river Drava valley: Podravina.
Hlebine village is some miles away from the Drava. But there are naïve artists living closer to the river who belong to the same school of art.
I am much closer to the Drava when I reach Gabajeva Greda village. Here, I meet Stjepan Pongrac (1968-), another third generation naïve artist. He shows me around his home and atelier. And as I look at his river-inspired paintings, I soak up the memories he shares.
It’s hard to imagine that the Drava flooded his house almost every year. When he was younger, the floods were both dreaded and enjoyed. When the river spilled over, the brooks would fill up with fish, offering an unexpected gift of food.
The life of the river as Stjepan remembers it is largely gone. The regulation of the Drava began in the late 1970s. The floods were prevented but also all the random joys that the capricious river would bring.
Still, naïve artists of Podravina keep painting that bygone Drava. Many of them also stick to the motif of the grazing cows. But if you go on a walk today, you won’t see a single one out in the fields. I am told there was an illness a few decades ago and the cows have lived indoors ever since.
Here’s what I’m thinking… All these serene cows and the bubbling Drava brooks are not really here anymore. And so, for the third generation naïve artists, they are just as imaginary as white deer and pink unicorns were for their elders.
People change, even nature changes… But that spirit of unmediated fascination remains. The sparkle of genius and the flicker of defiance.
Across the Drava – Ivan Večenaj Gallery
When Ivan Večenaj (1920-2013) began painting, living on the other side of the river Drava meant isolation. This second generation naïve artist also belongs to the Hlebine school. Ivan Generalić was his inspiration and role model. But just getting from his home village Gola to Hlebine or Koprivnica was like crossing the ocean.
The story of how Ivan Večenaj bought his first paints is bitter-sweet. I learn of it from his son Mladen and granddaughter Petra. We are in his house now turned Ivan Večenaj Gallery.
So there he was, a young man, eager to put his first drop of paint on the glass. His trip to Koprivnica was long because it included crossing the Drava. Uninformed about the different types of paints and colours, he walked into a hardware store and asked for one tin of each.
Yes, he bought the ones for painting cast iron. But that didn’t stop him from pressing on with his art. Inside Večenaj’s atelier, you can also see one of his first brushes. A contraption that he made with the hairs from a cow’s ear.
Večenaj is one of the best known Croatian naïve artists. Isolation forced him to mix colours on his own which only contributed to his unique style.
You can see that only if you visit his Gallery. The bewitching hue of each colour is so alive and vibrant that no printers could reproduce it completely.
His other distinguishing feature are elongated, pointy figures. Similar to those of Alberto Giacometti. The most striking example is the painting Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which features in the Bible Book of the 20th century… alongside world masters such as Picasso, Chagall, Dali and Kokoschka.
A self-taught painter and a peasant painter
Ivan Večenaj called himself a peasant painter (seljak slikar). Not so much to say that he was self-taught. But to emphasize that he actually worked the land like a proper peasant. And that he fully embraced it.
A lovely anecdote proves this point. When Yul Brynner was filming in the former Yugoslavia, he visited Večenaj and the two artists became close friends.
Brynner invited him and his wife to come fishing to Alaska, but Večenaj never came. It was time to harvest the corn and he was simply a peasant painter!
Hlebine naïve art
If you visited the Croatian museum of naïve art in Zagreb and liked it, you must come to Hlebine. Artists have a special bond with the world around them. And in the case of naïve art, this immersion is even stronger.
Your deepest experience of the Croatian naïve art will happen as you hear stories behind each painting. When you get shown how complex the reverse glass painting really is. Or when you stand in the same space where your favourite artists lived and created their work.
Museums are great but naïve art is a living thing. Come to Hlebine to see it for yourself.
And from autumn this year, you can even stay in Hlebine. Tihomir Želimorski who runs several old crafts workshops has just opened the first tourist apartment in the village.
For more detailed information about your trip, contact the Tourist Board of the region of Central Podravina here.
Many thanks to the Tourist Board of the region of Central Podravina for arranging and sponsoring this trip.
All photos are copyright of Saša Pjanić.