Friday 18 March 2016

Croatian Painting on Glass; and other tales

M Hodge "Bear's Dream" 2012
It's taken me a year to finally get around to this piece but it somehow seems appropriate writing about painting on glass under the clear light of the Adriatic, where colour bounces around with the sharp precision of painstakingly applied oil paint. This so-called naïve method of painting came to my attention last April when I met a modern master of the art at a British Croatian Society event. Melanie Hodge is the reason why, out of the two museums I visited in Zagreb, one of them was the Croatian Museum of Naive Art.

Her exhibition at Conway Hall in April-May 2015 has taken on a new, special significance since I've been here. Not only do you get more a sense of the light and colour of her paintings, or even their art historical context, but you realise she is genuinely taking the medium in a new direction. Some of the art in the modern Zagreb galleries are in danger of pastiche and left me cold, but hers filled me with glee. However, although many pieces in her show contains symbols of the traditional and ideal landscape, they also contain a playfulness and imagination which is goes to the heart of the naïve. After all, fairy tales are supposedly simple tales, told in a naïve way, but their message is anything but simple and naïve. Revisiting some of the paintings on her site, reminds me that she has taken the familiar and made it into something quite dark.

For instance, the Storm in a Tea Cup (2015) takes the magic of Alice in Wonderland and transplants her into a swirling watery vortex; she is either being whisked away from the safety of the London Island in the distance, or being driven towards its toxic glow. Either way, with drowning migrants, and a recent budget set to make the lives of millions much harder, it takes on a new significance for me. Social commentary goes to the heart of this art, and some of the older items in the museum are evocative of a very difficult period of history.
Founded in 1952, this museum is the oldest for naïve - outsider and folk - art in the world and it specialises in painting on glass. The famous Croatian painter, illustrator and theatre designer Krsto Hegedušić discovered the young Ivan Generalić in northern Croatia and encouraged his undoubted talent. He advised him to paint what he saw and the people he knew. The result was the first few paintings in the museum - painted on wood. He couldn't afford canvas so had to make do with the resources that were lying around. This was partly the reason why he turned to glass. One of these first paintings depict a poor family having their cow taken away because they didn't have the money to pay their taxes.

And then nearby in the same room, something truly wondrous happens to his art. His discovery of glass elevates his rather flat and drab oil on wood into something special. An eclipse experienced by a village community provokes an atmosphere of panic; processions of women carry a crucifix and images of saints through the fantasy landscape, begging protection from God - highlighting the irrational ignorance of the people. The eclipse suggests something more than a cosmic event, and more a metaphor of an unenlightened people. The mockingly comic rooster looks on. Cockerels are a recurring theme throughout many of his paintings, and the symbolism changes from ridicule to bad omens.

However, although his landscapes reveal the social issues, it is his self portrait which ensures his inclusion within the roll call of important modern artists. If this is naïve art, then I have a serious issue with the label - labels are always problematic in any case. The sophisticated psychological depth inherent in this image of a grieving man holds you, and pulls you under with him. He was not a bald man, despite this image, but he chose to depict himself as such. The hair has been torn from his head in his extremity, and no longer can he hide the pain and loss. The blue on the glass has a purity not even attained by Barnett Newman and the other colour field artists of a slightly earlier period. The colour here needs absolutely no explanation.

He rightly achieved a high level of fame for his work and a 'school' called Hlebine gathered around him. Many of these artists can be seen in the museum and some are more affecting than others, but generally reflect the people and world immediately around them. The sick and physically afflicted, winter landscapes because they didn't have the time to paint in the summer, and generally demonstrate the sadness of life. War. Poverty. Working. These, perhaps, can be described as more naïve, rather than the founder's psychological insight.

One artist who really struck me was Ivan Lacković. His seasonal paintings suggests a sweeping cinematographic landscape, and actually his Long Autumn (1983) is reminiscent of Jackson Pollock. It has a pattern and rhythm which I can't explain but although it's representative of trees in autumn, they seem abstract in their repetition and shape. Ivan Rabuzin's dreaminess is perhaps nearer to what Melanie is trying to achieve. Where previous glass paintings have a rich glossiness and depth of colour, the pointillism here takes the same bright colours but instead they appear pastel and delicate. Rabuzin is about landscape and nature, as he says, 'only nature is pure enough to paint'. He is currently popular in Japan, and keeping in mind some of their historic landscape images, I can see why. 

There was then a room dedicated to foreign naïve painters, all hugely fascinating in their own right. An imagining of a luxury liner by someone who'd never seen one was extraordinary. But it seems that local women are even more rare and exotic than foreign men, and the only exhibits I saw by a woman were the evocative polychromatic wooden sculptures by Sofija Naletilić Penavuša. Her wikipage is in Croatian, but the men I've been looking up are in English, such is the difference. I can't help thinking that whilst the men could spend their winters indoors painting, the women were raising children, housekeeping, as well as helping in the fields in summer - so there was even less time for them to paint on glass. I need Melanie to put me right on why women aren't represented in the collection - perhaps they have them in store and I was unlucky.

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