In its wider weaning, elements of naïve art may be traced all the way back to prehistoric cave paintings. Elements of a style that is defined by painters who never went through formal academic education and display childlike “innocence” in their work can be found in a five-year-old’s drawing on the fridge or a senior home exhibition down the road. The general definition of the style tends to be confusing. The countries in which naïve art movement developed at the beginning of the 20th century usually have a more specific definition because it can describe characteristics of style that a particular group of artists who created in this tradition exhibited. In Croatia, this is the Hlebine School of Art.
Hlebine is a small picturesque municipality in the North of Croatia that in 1920s became a setting against which a group of self-taught peasants began to develop a unique and somewhat revolutionary style of painting. This was instigated by leading intellectuals of the time such as the poet Antun Gustav Matos and the biggest name in Croatian literature, Miroslav Krleza, who called for an individual national artistic style that would be independent from Western influences. These ideas were picked up by a celebrated artist from Hlebine – Krsto Hegedusic and he went on to found the Hlebine School of Art in 1930 in search of national “rural artistic expression”.
The young peasants that gathered under Hegedusic took on many elements and motifs of naïve art in their work: bright colours, childlike perspective and proportion and exaggerated detail. They often painted on glass giving even more prominence to colours. The scenes are inspired by the rural and peasant scenery as well as stories from the Bible. Including the social motifs in their paintings even helped the work of Croatian Peasant Party at that time.
Although the work of the Hlebine School of Art has continued to this day, some names are more famous than others. The most famous internationally is still Ivan Generalic, who lived in Hlebine where he helped with cows and crops after finishing only four years of elementary school. Unlikely, he met Hegedusic on a football field in the small village where most players played barefoot. This meeting would lead to a fruitful corroboration between the two and the establishment of the school of art that would gather around Generalic’s talent after World War II. The term school refers to a general style and motifs that the artists displayed in their paintings and not actual institutional education.
Generalic was always different from the other children and preferred to sketch in his spare time, even though the villagers didn’t put much faith into his talent. Sprevod Stefa Halceka that would find its place in the Brussels World Expo in 1950 was mocked in Hlebine. In his Autobiography from 1972 he admits that he used to try to paint nature as it was, but when that didn’t work out, he painted it the best way he knew how. Some of his work includes: The death of my friend Virius¸Harvesters, The Requisition among many others.
The next generation of artists began their work after World War II. These include names such as Ivan Večenaj and Ivan Lackovic Croata. Vecenaj’s style in particular is very effective and memorable despite, or perhaps because, the use of dark colours and somewhat disturbing scenes. His Evangelists on Calvary seems like something out of a Tim Burton movie at his most gruesome. Yet, it captivates with its bestiality and grotesque until you can get over the madness to discover a method. Ivan Lackovic-Croata had been exhibiting from around 1960s as well. Interestingly, in the 1990s, he moved away from rural motifs to paint scenes of destruction and suffering from the Croatian War of Independence.
Unfortunately, these four names only scrape the surface of the multitude of talented artists who chose to present rural scenes and scenery in the Hlebine School tradition. I am informed at the Croatian Museum of Naive Art that no official monograph or encyclopaedia focusing only on Hlebine School of Art has ever been compiled, which makes it even harder to present an overview or timeline, but hopefully the celebrated art of the painters presented here will inspire you to seek out their art online or at least give you a helpful tip on what to visit, should you find yourself in Croatia.