The other side of glass. Collector of Croatian naїve art tells about 'Generalić and His Army' exhibition's highlights

September 24, 2019

The Museum of Russian Lubok and Naїve Art opened a 'Generalić and His Army' exhibition presenting four generations of Hlebine school from Vladimir Tyomkin's collection. Hlebine school showed the world a brilliant assemblage of primitivism artists using a unique painting technique. Read in a collaborative article by and Mosgortur Agency about the phenomenon of the Croatian naїve art, its short history and today's life of one of its last representatives.

First meeting with Naїve Art

Vladimir Tyomkin is perhaps the only collector of Croatian naїve art in Russia. He willingly shows his collection in his native town Nerekhta. At various times, it was exhibited in Kostroma, Yekaterinburg, Yaroslavl, Mytishchi and has finally reached Moscow.

In Soviet times, Vladimir Tyomkin worked as a graphic designer. In the 2000s, he got hold of an album of works by the patriarch of the Croatian naїve art Ivan Generalić. ‘I loved those pictures deeply,’ he says.

Once in Croatia, he immediately went to see them live. Croatian Museum of Naїve Art opened in Zagreb in 1952 as a Peasant Art Gallery is considered the world's first Museum of Naїve Art. His initial interest grew into a serious hobby. For several years, Tyomkin met many naїve art masters, visited their workshops and learned Croatian.

‘Now, my wife and I go to Croatia twice a year. This is both a vacation and a creative assignment, especially since I have had five exhibition projects about the Croatian naїve art over the past two years. After each exhibition, I bring catalogues to the artists, tell them how was the event, about Russian public's feedback. I used to wonder, where have they taken these colours from? But, travelling around Croatia, I saw them myself. At sunsets, I witnessed Generalić's autumn 'red forest'. My wife told me, too, that it looked like one of Generalić's painting.’ Naїve artists do not make up things, maybe they embellish them a little, that's all,’ says the collector, an art curator of the exhibition Vladimir Tyomkin.

What is Hlebine naїve art school

Krsto Hegedušić, a professional painter, was the mastermind behind Hlebine school. After graduating from the Zagreb Academy of Arts, in 1926-1928 he found himself in the maelstrom of artistic life in Paris. There Hegedušić met an art critic and collector Wilhelm Uhde, who made Henri Rousseau, the first naїve art master, world-famous, and arranged the first naїve art exhibition by the so-called 'sacred heart artists'. Hegedušić was also acquainted with the Russian neo-primitivists Mikhail Larionov and Natalya Goncharova, who also lived in Paris at the time. As soon as he returned home, he started his search in this direction.

The Yugoslav intellectuals of that time were fond of meeting people in search of rough diamonds in literature, music and painting. Hegedušić's father was born in Hlebine. One day, he went to Hlebine's shop and saw pictures painted on wrapping paper. This is how he discovered the 15-year-old Ivan Generalić.

‘When Ude discovered Henri Rousseau, he was already an experienced artist. Our avant-garde artists discovered Niko Pirosmani the same way. Hegedušić taught Generalić to draw, showed him how to paint on glass, and the latter called him a professor for the rest of his life. Hegedušić wanted to prove that origin does not matter if you are talented, and he managed to. ‘We got lucky,’ he used to say. Hegedušić taught other peasants to paint, too. The first generation of the Hlebine school included three artists — Ivan Generalić, Mirko Virius and Franjo Mraz. Virius perished in a Nazi concentration camp in 1943, Mraz became the Communist Party member after the war and could not return to naїve art, although he tried to. As for Generalić, he became a locomotive to make the Croatian naїve art world-famous,’ said Vladimir Tyomkin.

Old icons and mirror technique

Croatian naїve art features not only amusing subjects, manner and colours, but also a complex technique — reverse painting on glass. The artist paints on the back of the glass in reverse technique — starting from small details to larger ones, and finishes with the background.

‘Looking at the reproductions, first I didn’t realise it was painted on the back of the glass. I thought it was painted on the outside or covered with glass. But it wasn’t! When you paint an ordinary picture, you put canvas on an easel, do the underpainting, background and details and complete it with some overtones. If you don’t like it, you can paint it once again. Painting this kind of picture, you start with overtones and have to slowly proceed with every single layer requiring necessary subsequent drying. You can’t correct a mistake if you start from the foreground. But they are not academic artists, and their  mistakes are of no matter. As you see, Generalić's musician is a left-hander,’ said Vladimir Tyomkin.

This technique dates back to the folk icons painted on glass, which were cheap, and therefore widespread in the former Austro-Hungary, from southern Germany to western Ukraine — in Austria, Serbia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania. In Croatia, they are called glaži or malerei, in German style, (derived from German hinterglasmalerei — painting on the reverse side of glass).

‘Every artist has his or her own painting technique. Some paint according to a schematic drawing they refer to. Zvonko Sigetić always draws sketches the size of a postcard, it is enough for him. But there were unique artists, like Nada Švegović. She started and finished her pictures at a run, never waiting for layers to dry. She was named Podravina's Bruegel. Life was difficult for Nada. She could not forge her own path for a long time. Success came to her in the 1980s, but soon the war began, and her paintings were of no interest to anyone. But the artist has to know that he or she does not work in vain, that paintings are important for someone and are in demand. Then she had another blow — her husband died without leaving her children. Her works were growing darker. I made it to meet her, visited her now and again, we exchanged postcards. Nada's brother sold me two works of hers from the 'Guisers' series after her death. One of them was kept in her house, as a talisman, I guess,’ Vladimir Tyomkin says.

The rise and fall of the Croatian naїve art

With the opening of the Zagreb Peasant Art gallery and a total success of the Ivan Generalić's solo exhibition in Paris in 1953, Hlebine school enjoyed its heyday. In the 1960s, art critics all over the world started talking about the Yugoslav naїve art.

The second, post-war generation of peasant artists from Hlebine and neighbouring villages, has centred around Generalić — Franjo Dolenec, Franjo Filipović, Dragan Gaži,  Ivan Večenaj, Mijo Kovačić, Martin Mehkek and Josip Generalić, Ivan's son.

Peasant art was supported by the New Communist Party of Yugoslavia. In the USSR, their exhibitions were hosted by the Hermitage, the Russian Museum, and the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts.

‘Mijo Kovačić walked barefoot a couple of times from his village to Generalić. We are friends, he is the only one of the second generation still alive.  Mijo told me: `I heard that there is such a person. I came to his village.’ ‘I want to learn to paint, show me.’ Generalić answered: ‘Well, look.’ How could he teach me? We both were peasants. One is adult, the other still a boy. I didn't understand much. I even had no idea there are art paints. Our brushes were also hand-made.’ I think this phenomenon could occur anywhere, not only in Croatia. We also have folk crafts — Kholuy, Palekh, Fedoskino. All peoples have talented artists. All the artists of the first generation of the Hlebine school could not boast any special education. Moreover, the first and second generations attended only four forms of primary school. Even in the 1960s, when they became popular, they stayed in their villages, to care for their homesteads. The third generation already included some 200 artists, but this overabundance broke the spine of naїve art. Each gallery of the western countries wanted to have their work. So, in the 1970s-1980s, almost every farmer within 50 km from Hlebine was engaged in painting. As soon as it became commercial, the artistic level declined, with Yugoslavia's collapse and the war finishing the job,’ says Vladimir Tyomkin.

The last of Hlebine artists

One of the exhibition halls is dedicated to the works by Dragen Tetec, born in 1972. Vladimir Tyomkin and Dragen were true friends. Tetec, the artist belonging to the fourth generation of the Hlebine school, collaborated with Josip, Ivan Generalić’s son.

He has never been to Russia, but is keenly interested to know the Russian audience’s response to his works. Dragen Tetec lives alone and engages in his apiary. He has 180 hives, so he is occupied with bees from early spring to autumn, but in winter he paints. Vladimir Tyomkin hopes that his interest in Tetec keeps the artist going.

The collector can talk endlessly about his friend's paintings, their subjects, symbols and meanings encoded in them.

‘In the gospel, Jesus tells Apostle Peter that he will disown him three times before the rooster crows, remember? Dragen painted his 'Peter and the Rooster' partially on my initiative. I love the works by Misha Brusilovsky, a famous artist of the 1960s from Yekaterinburg. He has a whole series of 'Peter and the Rooster’, 30 or 40 of them. I told Dragen about them, and he came up with a new picture.
In Croatian naїve art, a rooster balancing between night and day, light and darkness, is a metaphysical figure. Generalić used it, too. The Drava River is another most powerful symbol. The painting 'Whirlpool on the Drava' is a reference to the real tragedy that happened in September 1953. The rapid Drava pulled 14 peasants, who had come to harvest cane, into its whirlpool. People still commemorate them, letting lights and wreaths float on the water. Tetec's 'Mist Sellers' is a satire of fellow artists who boast as fishermen. They tell lies, like: ’I sold my paintings in France.’ It features their pictures with some cranes and pigs. When the painting was exhibited at the annual exhibition in Hlebine, artists realised that it was them that Dragen painted. 'Looking for a Man' features Fragen himself, as a rural Diogenes with a magnifying glass and a candle,’ Vladimir Tyomkin tells.

Witness a miracle

To date, Vladimir Tyomkin's collection includes about 100 works by Croatian naїve artists. None of them have been sold, as he believes that his mission is to introduce even more people to Hlebine school, or 'the miracle of Croatian naїve', as he puts it. He is the first and only in Russia to collect and exhibit Croatian naїve art.

‘Russians feel sceptical towards naїve art. In the West, outsiders are trendy now, with the Croatian peasants being already archaic. But naїve art owes to the Hlebine school a lot. Rousseau and Pirosmani were individual phenomena, but the Hlebine school represents as many as four generations of artists, with Mijo Kovačić alone having had over 150 solo exhibitions, an envy of any academic artist. And he is still among the living, thank God,’ concludes Vladimir Tyomkin.


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