The exhibition starts with the works of three most renowned representatives of the first generation of the Hlebine School, sometimes referred to as the “Hlebine trio”, namely Ivan Generalić, Mirko Virjus, and Franjo Mraz. Their paintings are displayed in the first room of the CMNA.
Ivan Generalić, who is considered the founder of the Hlebine School, was just a child when he was noticed by another great Croatian painter, Krsto Hegedušić, in 1930. Reportedly, Hegedušić was amazed by the drawings young Generalić was making on paper bags in his uncle’s store, and he organized his first exhibition in the Zagreb Art Pavilion next year. The rest is history.
The display continues with the works of authors from the second generation of the Hlebine School, such as Ivan Vecenaj and Mijo Kova?ić. Vecenaj’s images of grotesque and anxiety are contrasted by hypnotic, yet at times also disturbing tranquillity of Kova?ić’s deep snow landscapes.
Then follow the works of Dragan Gazi, Ivan Lacković, Ivan Rabuzin, Matija Skurjeni, and other Croatian naive painters of the younger generations. The few international naive painters, who are displayed, include among others Germain van der Steen, Simon Schwartzenberg, and famous Polish naive painter Nikifor. The international collection features primarily the works of artists who have in the past exhibited in the museum.
By definition, naive painters “lack or reject conventional expertise in the representation or depiction of real objects”. This may be the common thread the visitor feels but cannot find the words to explain when surrounded by the paintings in the Croatian Museum of Naive Art. For in everything else, these powerful expressions are worlds of their own. True, they also shy away from social activism or political allegory, and they celebrate the peaceful rustic life. But they can also be surreal, psychedelic, grim.
Unlike the grand museums which dominate capital cities, the CMNA is easy to overlook. A visitor would surely miss it if she or he is not headed there specifically. Located in a quiet street and a discrete building, the CMNA is unimposing, essentially as the artists whose works it holds. In his days of retirement, already a world-famous painter, Ivan Generalić used to hang out with the fishermen by the river Drava. He cared for his pigeons and was buried in the village of Sigetac near Hlebine in 1992.
The Croatian Museum of Naive Art is best done alone or with someone you love. Silent and taciturn, it is the ultimate romantic place.