Curator of Croatian Museum of Naïve Art in Zagreb on Outsider Art

Updated on January 3, 2024 by Meg Pier

Croatian Museum of Naïve Art Has Over 2,000 Works of Art

Croatian Museum Of Naïve Art
The Croatian Musem of Naïve Art in Zagreb Art Director Mira Francetic Malcic

The Croatian Museum of Naïve Art is in the country's capital of Zagreb and is directed by Mira Francetić Malčić.  The Museum is dedicated to the work of naïve artists of the 20th century and has about 2,000 works of art, including paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints, mainly by Croatians but also by other well-known international artists in the genre.

Naïve or primitive art is a distinct segment of 20th century art. In Croatia, naïve art was first connected with the works of peasants and working men, ordinary people; the most successful of these became professional artists. Painters of the Naïve art genre are more or less self-taught, with no formal art training, but have achieved their own creative style and a high level of art. In Croatia, Naïve art is also seen as a democratic movement, as it proves anyone can create worthwhile art regardless of formal training.

Meet Mira, and allow her to share with you her rich insights about the genre of Naïve art, an introduction to some of Croatia's Naïve art luminaries and some distinctions between Naïve art and Outsider art. Our discussion of the genre is a reminder that everyone has the right to artistic expression--and to use it as a way to share their social commentary. You'll also find that Mira's observations about the Naïve art movement relate to a theme we can all always benefit from: the sheer joy and beauty of life!

Meet Director Mira Francetic Malcic

Meg: I’m always interested in how people come to their chosen careers. Can you tell me a little bit about the path that brought you to become the curator at the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art in Zagreb?

Mira: I was born in Varaždin, a small town in the north of Croatia, the city center of which is considered the best example of a Baroque urban complex in the country. Probably this partly determined my fondness for older forms of architecture, life, old-fashioned attire, old handicrafts and trades, and so on. I moved with my family to Zagreb, where I attended elementary and high school and took a degree at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Science.

One dimension of my early life certainly deepened my interest in and passion for old and old-fashioned forms: my mother worked for years in the Zagreb Puppet Theatre, sewing the costumes and working on the set designs. This probably set off my imagination in my youth and inspired my inclination for old stories, fairy tales, legends, and for the past in general.

I worked in the Ethnographic Museum of Istria, in Pazin, as ethnologist curator from 1987-1997, where I studied and documented the material, carried out field research for purchases for the ethnographic and cultural history collections, which had an emphasis on traditional crafts. I created exhibitions and conceived of and wrote catalogues about the traditional working of wood in Istria, about smiths and smithies, old-time fishing gear, the objects used in households, animal husbandry and farming, traditional attire, and the customs of the Lenten and Easter period in the central part of Istria.

I returned to Zagreb in 1997 for family reasons, and since then, I have worked at the Croatian Museum of Naive Art. I manage and process the documentation of the museum holdings, in standard and digitized form, and keep the press clippings of the exhibitions and files of individual artists. I organize educational exhibitions--mainly those that tour--about Naïve art, give lectures in culture centers, schools, provincial museums and libraries. In addition to dealing with museum education, where I run art workshops and expert guided tours, I also created a number of projects that resulted in multimedia and digital editions on CDs and in picture book format.

Croatian Museum of Naïve Art
A museum art tour. Photo credit: The Croatian Museum of Naïve Art, Zagreb

I take part in numbers of conferences and symposia of museum educators in Croatia and abroad (in Italy and Azerbaijan), where I reported on the educational activity in our Museum; on visual art workshops in the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art; the techniques of painterly expressions in the Naïve; the structure and number of visitors to the Museum; the project for the creation of picture books in the Croatian Museum of Naive Art, among other responsibilities.

Working With The Best at Croatian Museum Of Naive Art

I cannot say I had any difficulties in my transition when I came to work at the Croatian Museum of Naive Art, for the work in the two institutions was similar and related, just the focus of interests was different. In the Museum of Naïve Art everything has always been focused on the discovery of, support for and interpretation of authentic art, while in ethnology I was research into and interpretation of traditional and vernacular values as seen with in the field. Apart from that, the Naïve can also be interpreted from ethnological and anthropological standpoints and a string of other aspects, for it tells quite clearly, in many examples, what life was like in Croatia from the Middle Ages to the middle of the 20th century, when the patriarchal manner of life was dominant, with all the attendant backwardness, ignorance and lack of enlightenment.

Croatian Museum Of Naïve Art
Rekvizicija/Seizure (1934) by Ivan Generalić. Photo credit: The Croatian Museum of Naive Art, Zagreb

Just a few months after my arrival in the Museum, Vladimir Crnković came to work there too. He is a distinguished Croatian art historian and critic, one of the greatest experts of the Naïve and similar phenomena, not only in this country but in Europe as a whole. For the previous thirty years he had been a freelancer, working with a number of well-regarded gallery and museum institutions in Germany (Galerie Charlotte, Munich; Museum Zander, Bonnigheim, Stuttgart); in Switzerland (Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich); in Italy (Galleria del Cortile, Novara) and Slovakia (the Slovak National Gallery in Bratislava). Alongside and from him I learned how to recognize the genuinely Naïve, got to know numerous artists and participated in many projects--all of this formed my current knowledge about the phenomenon.

I also took part in the work of numerous projects by Mr Crnković, collecting materials and arranging documentation for books when he edited collections of selected studies, essays, critiques, accounts and polemics from the domain of the Naïve and similar phenomena of several distinguished Croatian art critics and theorists, such as Josip Depolo, Vladimir Maleković and Tonko Maroević.

Vladimir Crnković is also the author of the permanent display of our Museum, which, according to a plan of his own, he built up and supplemented for years, including the classic specimens from the collection. I have been quite deliberate in retaining his conception, for it has proved to be very acceptable to experts and critics as well as to the media and the general public. This is best shown by statistics: each year the number of visitors grows by between 10 and 15%.

An Introduction to Naïve Art in Croatia

Meg: For readers not familiar with the concept of Naive art, can you describe the concept, and what characterizes the style?

Mira: Naïve art, or the Naïve, also called modern primitive art, is not exactly a style, its more of a phenomenon of some unique features of style and morphology, particular subjects, and is one segment of modern art, the art of the 20th century, even without its unique poetics. The Naïve can in short be defined as the artistic expression of artists who have not been trained as such, but by the sheer force of their talent have managed to reach the level of high art. It is in this that they are distinguished from the many amateurs, Sunday painters, vernacular artists and the like. In principle, the Naïve is figural art, which occurred at a time when the heritage of Abstraction was dominant in Croatia around 1930 to 1940.

The first representative of the Naïve is said to be Henri Rousseau (1844-1910), the French painter who appeared on the scene for the first time in 1886 at the Salon of the Independents in Paris. Next, to Rousseau, Croatian painters are generally held to be the most important artists of the world’s Naïve. This refers to Ivan Generalić (1914-1992), Emerik Feješ (1904-1969), Matija Skurjeni (1898-1990) and Ivan Rabuzin (1921-2009). We could also add the self-taught sculptor Petar Smajić (1910-1985). These are the unchallenged classics of Croatian and world Naïve art. But a number of other exceptionally talented, successful and well-known painters can be added to this list, such as Mirko Virius, Dragan Gaži, Ivan Večenaj, Mijo Kovačić, Martin Mehkek and Ivan Lacković.

The Most Active Museum Featuring Outsider Art

Meg: Can you describe the history of the Croatian Museum of Naive Art and give an overview of its collection?

Mira: The Croatian Museum of Naive Art was founded and opened in 1952, and is considered the first museum of this kind of art in the world. For many years the institution worked under the name Gallery of Primitive Art, and in 1994 it obtained its current title. Since 1965 we have been using the same premises in the old core of Zagreb, in the Upper Town. Our Museum is a state institution and works under the aegis of the Ministry of Culture.

The Croatian Museum of Naive Art has a large and very worthwhile collection of Croatian Naïve and Outsider Art, as well as numerous works of the Naïve, Outsider Art and Art Brut from numerous other countries, European and elsewhere (Poland, Germany, Holland, France, Italy, Slovenia, Serbia, Hungary, Macedonia, Russia and Japan). It is reckoned to be one of the most important and most active museums for this kind of art globally.

Majkaikci Mother and Daughter
Majka i kći/Mother and Daughter (1934) by Petar Smajić. Photo credit: The Croatian Museum of Naive Art, Zagreb

The collection of the Museum of Naïve Art consists of some 2,000 items, paintings, sculptures, drawings, watercolors and prints. Unfortunately, the permanent display is able to feature only some 80 major works, for the size of our premises does not permit a greater selection to be on show.

Naïve Art Appears in the 1930s with the Hlebine School

Meg: When did naive art begin appearing in Croatia?

Mira: The Naïve appeared in Croatia in the early 1930s, when the academy-trained painter Krsto Hegedušić (1901-1975) came across two country lads who showed an exceptional interest in painting in the small village of Hlebine in the Drava valley area in 1930. They were Ivan Generalić and Franjo Mraz. From 1931 onward, Hegedušić enabled them to have their first public shows. In 1934 the sculptor Petar Smajić was discovered, and from 1936, Mirko Virius, who was born in and who lived in a village not far from Hlebine and who knew Generalić, also began exhibiting.

Their promotion was intended to show that talent was not the monopoly or privilege of a given social stratum or class. It was a direct consequence of the increasing democratization of social relations and artistic creation, and proof that everyone had the right to artistic expression.

Zimski Pejzaz Sa Zenom Winter Landscape with Woman
Zimski pejzaž sa ženom / Winter Landscape with Woman (1965) by Mijo Kovačić. Photo credit: The Croatian Museum of Naïve Art, Zagreb

Another ambition was to test out how many authentic representatives of “the people” who were without a lot of education, were able via art to speak out about their social and political position.

Since the value of these self-taught artists was recognized early on, before World War II, our institution was founded in 1952 to collect, analyze, evaluate, promote and represent this kind of material in a planned manner.

Understanding Themes at the Croatian Museum of Naive Art

Meg: What are some themes of Croatian naive art?

Mira: I think that the Croatian Naïve, like the Naïve in all other parts of the world, cannot be defined by any specific themes. Some painters do portraits, and there are some who are mainly into landscapes, some do genre scenes, and other scenes from their imaginations; some paint Biblical events, others scenes from the old-fashioned patriarchal life of the countryside, some of them mysticism, old myths and legends, and those who paint still lifes, or scenes full of optimism and trust. In short, all the themes known to painting are also to be found to a greater or lesser extent in the Naïve.

Meg: Is Croatian naive art in any way distinguishable from naive art created elsewhere?

Mira: Croatian Naïve art certainly does display some specific features that characterize precisely that art, that country. The most important segment of the Naïve in Croatia is the Hlebine School, where a number of painters in the north of Croatia show certain similarities from the points of view of style and morphology, theme and poetics. This was of course never an actual school, there were no classes, lots of attendees or teachers. The basic influence was exerted and still is by “looking at paintings”, by the impact made by existing works of art, not by some allowed educational method. All of these artists are characterized by a similar set of themes, primarily scenes from everyday rural life and by the many landscapes. Almost all of them paint in oils or tempera paints on the back of sheets of glass.

Croatian Museum of Naïve Art | The Wind in Winter
Vjetar u zimi / The Wind in Winter (1973) by Dragan Gaži. Photo credit: The Croatian Museum of Naive Art, Zagreb

But what is essential for the Naïve in this country, is the appearance of a run of very talented artists – and very diverse artists as well. Along with the masters of the Hlebine School, there is also a very well reputed group of “independent artists”, discovered after World War II: Feješ, Skurjeni, Rabuzin and others. They were discovered after a search had been begun for talented autodidacts outside the rural, patriarchal centers, in the cities and the suburbs. This was after our establishment was founded, after 1952. They are great individualists – Feješ is a painter of stylized urban vistas, Skurjeni of dream visions and surreal scenes, and Rabuzin of Edenic landscapes charged with symbolism.

Hlebine School, Where Naïve Artists are Found

Meg: Can you share some background on the Hlebine School?

Mira: Typical of the Hlebine School, as already mentioned, is painting with oil or tempera on the back of glass. This is an old technique that was very popular in Central Europe from the 17th to the 20th century. Ivan Generalić started doing his first glass paintings in 1932, and from 1936/38, expressed himself almost only in this technique. Also characteristic of the Hlebine School, apart from the technique, are the motifs and contents of the paintings: the artists show mainly the rural, ever day patriarchal manner of life.

Ivan Generalić and his followers, artists of the Hlebine School, so-called, are thought to be the most technically accomplished painters in the technique of glass painting, in world terms. Glass painting was done by, among others, Kandinsky and his companion Gabriela Munter at the beginning of the 20th century in Germany; in Croatia the first to do glass paintings was Krsto Hegedušić, while he was a student in Paris, in 1927.

Just as Hegedušić discovered Generalić, so Generalić in his own village, in Hlebine, in 1946, discovered several young neighbors who were very talented, among whom Dragan Gaži particularly stands out. Then, in the early 1950s, he helped and supported a few peasant-painters from nearby villages, primarily Ivan Večenaj and Mijo Kovačić.

Ivan Generalić, an Early Artist

Meg: Ivan Generalić is one of Croatia's early naive artists. What can you tell us about him, his style, his role in the development of the style?

Croatian Museum Of Naïve Art | Krave u šumi/Cows in the Forest (1938)
Krave u šumi/Cows in the Forest (1938); Pevec na krovu/Jogenj/Cock on the Roof/Fire (1956); Autoportret/Self-Portrait (1975) by Ivan Generalić. All photo credit: The Croatian Museum of Naive Art, Zagreb

Mira: In his long creative lifetime, Ivan Generalić changed his subject matter, technique, style and poetics several times. He was born into a poor peasant family, went to only five years of elementary school and started painting when he was fifteen. His earliest work is characterized by elementary primitivism, flatness and reduction to essentials. He depicts typical rural motifs, often shot through with social criticism (Seizure, 1934). This was the time when he exhibited together with the members of Hegedušić’s politically and socially engaged group called “Zemlja”, meaning Earth.

In the second half of the 1930s he concentrated on painting landscapes, painting atmosphere more, and human figures less. The emphasis is on the forests, a single tree, grass, plowland, fields of cereals, water in flood and cloudy skies (Cows in the Forest, 1938). - In the mid-fifties he brought a number of symbolic elements into his works, which resulted in allegories and fantasy. He did not paint only what he saw, but what he fancied about the things he depicted (Rooster on the Roof, 1956). - In the early seventies he made new changes when he simplified things powerfully and reduced them down to the essential (Self-Portrait, 1975).

Krave se vracaju Cows Coming Home
Krave se vraćaju / Cows Coming Home (1957) by Slavko Stolnik. Photo credit: The Croatian Museum of Naive Art, Zagreb

Meg: I love the "Cows Coming Home" piece by Slavko Stolnik. Would you say it is typical of Naïve art generally and Croatian Naïve art more specifically to use color this imaginatively?

Mira: You are right about his great freedom in his use of color --the trees are green, red, yellow and blue, and so are the roofs and the facades of the houses, the animal and human figures. Slavko Stolnik (1929-1991) does not belong in terms of origin to the Hlebine School, but adopted its style and poetics and the painting on the back of glass.

Authentically Lyrical and Brightly Colored Paintings Celebrate Joy of Existence

Meg: I also love the work of Ivan Rabuzin. Can you share a little bit about his life and style in the context of Croatia's history during his life time?

Croatian Museum Of Naïve Art
Otoci/Islands (1963) by Ivan Rabuzin. Photo credit: The Croatian Museum of Naïve Art, Zagreb

Mira: If there is an artist from the world of the Croatian Naïve that is particularly close to me, who always inspires and encourages me, this would probably be Ivan Rabuzin, with whom I came most into contact, for he worked together with our Museum consistently and closely. I myself mounted an exhibition of his work entitled "Rabuzin’s Motifs on textiles/Let’s Dress Up in Rabuzin’s Motifs," in 2005. What has always fascinated me about him is the authentically lyrical in his work, the bright coloring, the hymn he sings to life, paintings celebrating the joy of existence. And there is something else: he was an impassioned collector of ethnographic objects from his native area, one more thing that connected me with the man.

Ivan Rabuzin, along with Ivan Generalić and the Frenchman Henri Rousseau, is considered the most important, and is the best known, Naïve artist in global terms. He is also thought to be one of the greatest lyrical painters of the 20th century. In terms of subject matter, he is mainly concerned with flowers and landscapes, and with his compositions, size of forms and light, bright coloring suggests what the basic accent of the painting is on. The size of what is painted never depends on perspective, rather on the meaning of what is shown in the painter’s imagination (Islands, 1963).

The Flower a Symbol of Life and Harmony

In this manner, his flowers, so big as compared with the other elements depicted, and as compared to their position in the painting, take on particular, often symbolic, values. In Rabuzin the flower is not only a symbol of the Sun, but of life itself, the attribute of incessant birth and youth, of overall harmony. With his pure landscape he suggests the way the world ought to be, advocates a life in which there is only beauty, and in a spiritual sense the harmony that gives birth to happiness (On the Hills – Virgin Forest, 1960).

gallery room
Gallery room in The Croatian Museum of Naïve Art, Zagreb full of works from Ivan Generalić. Photo credit: The Croatian Museum of Naïve Art, Zagreb

Rabuzin learned the trade of carpentry, and started painting back before World War II, and went on after the war as an amateur, discovering his personal themes, style and poetics at the end of the fifties, when he was recognized and supported by the Gallery of Primitive Art in Zagreb (today’s Museum of Naïve Art). After a solo show in Paris in 1963, he was acknowledged to be one of the greatest of Naïve painters. At that time he became a professional. He also published a number of very stimulating pieces of writing about his work and his poetics.

An Artistic Phenomenon Is Completed

Meg: How has the value of Naive art changed since its beginnings in Croatia?

Mira: Naïve art in Croatia, as in the world, is a process that has been concluded and rounded off. The conditions of life, social and political conditions have changed profoundly, and since the beginning of the 20th century there have been a number of great industrial revolutions, the world has become more uniform, the digital era has changed everything, from the manner of life and the way individuals function to society as a whole. All this has affected artistic creativity and the way art is perceived. You cannot even imagine how the artists previously mentioned once lived and worked, in the villages or on the edges of cities, without electricity or gas or telephone or television or cars. When Generalić was discovered in 1930, from Hlebine to Zagreb they had to travel by horse and cart, then train, and it lasted a day, not counting the way back. Today the same journey by car takes less than 2 hours.

But even if the Naïve today is considered a historical category, like Impressionism, Surrealism, Fauvism, Cubism and so on, it does not mean that talented individuals won’t arise in the future, and self taught people as well, only we won’t any longer categorize them as Naïve. How they will be defined will be shown by the future.

If your question alludes to the value of Naïve art in Croatia, it has to be said that all the classics of this art are dead, apart from Mijo Kovačić. This is additional evidence that as artistic phenomenon it is a completed process. No younger or young artist has managed to make the kind of name that will place him or her shoulder-to-shoulder with these classics mentioned.

Analyzing the Qualities of Naïve Art

Meg: What is the difference between the Naïve and Outsider Art?

Mira: It is almost impossible to define simply. After consulting my colleague Vladimir Crnković, who retired from the Museum three years ago, I'll share a few fragments from one of his studies, where this issue is discussed:

The concept of the Naïve, or Naïve art, was accepted and established almost completely in the European states where this phenomenon reached its highest artistic levels and where it was theoretically and critically most effectively followed and interpreted--in France, Germany, Croatia, Serbia, Italy, Slovakia and Switzerland. In these countries there were the most important international critical exhibitions of the Naïve, the most important galleries for the promotion of this art, and the most important museums or distinct museum collections of the Naïve.

Today the concept of the Naïve encompasses a large number of artists and works from very different places and cultures, and extremely diverse thematic, stylistic and morphological, metier-related and poetic features. It does thus not comprise a strictly determined artistic movement or consist of a group of artists or works of analogous forms, of a single style, set of themes or poetics; the Naïve is composed of an abundance of extremely different individual creations, which makes a simple definition impossible.

The Careful Treatment of Shape, Space and Storytelling

There are certain similarities among the Naïves at the visual level. Primarily, we recognize a more or less constantly recognisable treatment of shape and space, as well as a more or less prominent story-telling impulse, which does not imply realism as a creative procedure. It is idiosyncratic figuration that is concerned: in the paintings and sculptures elements of the real often appear since the artists do not give shape abstractly but imitatively. Although the Naïve did not originate as a conscious antithesis to Abstract Art, its success and wide acceptance in its first decades and in particular in the middle of the 20th century are incontrovertibly related to this.

A "new reality" can be seen in the Naïve, which, indeed, does come from peripheral areas, but is a successful counterpoint to abstraction. Also found in the Naïve is an anti-academy figuration, which was an additional point in its favor. In this phenomenon we can find both naturalist and realist description, as well as the use of the depicted as sign and symbol; this implies the presence of features of Verismo, Expressionism or Surrealism, as well as Magical Realism, Fantastic Art, often with powerful stylization, and an ornamental impulse and even with some of the gains that came from abstract experience.

If we ignore early isolated examples, the concept of Naïve art or the Naïve became established only in the 1950s, mostly in Europe. Before that, compound forms were in use: "painters of the sacred heart", "the neo-primitives", "modern primitives", "painters of instinct", "vernacular masters of reality", "Sunday painters", "artists of the impulse" and so on. Some more recent proposals, like "marginal art" are no more successful and have not been widely accepted.

A Critical Revaluation of Naïve Art, Art Brut, and Outsider Art

How loose and insufficiently precise the terminology related to this phenomenon is can be seen in the following examples: the name of the celebrated exhibition "Masters of Popular Painting/Modern Primitives of Europe and America," held in the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1938. In 1963 at the Galerie St. Etienne in New York a big exhibition was mounted: "Panorama of Yugoslav Primitive Art." In 2000 the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art put on a major critical and monographic exhibition in the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida, entitled "The Fantastical World of Croatian Naïve Art. "All this shows that in the Anglophone area the same phenomenon is defined by various terms.

Just as some fifty or sixty years ago some Art Brut (the visual art expression of the mentally ill and handicapped) practitioners were classified, interpreted and assessed in the Naïve context, in the last decade we have seen that some artists from the Naïve have been transferred to Art Brut or Outsider Art (another area of self-taught art, different from the classic Naïve or classic Art Brut, although sharing some characteristics with them). This shows vividly just how, over the course of time, certain perceptions and propositions change and are reformulated, how difficult it is precisely to define what the Naïve is, what Art Brut, what Outsider Art, for they often overlap.

Today, the Naïve interests us not so much for its originality, innocence, candor or primordiality, but above all because of its high and very high artistic achievements. For this reason a critical revaluation of the whole of the phenomenon must be undertaken, for genuine worth to be distinguished from the ephemeral, stereotyped, uninventive, uncreative and imitative, from all forms of the pseudo-naïve and dilettante work that contaminate this phenomenon.

The Most Important Thing in Art is Not Education, But Talent

Emotion is privileged over rationalism and intellectual speculations in the Naïve; in it we can find the sheer joy of living, "forgotten nature", "bygone childhood", tales and simple human imaginations, "the forgotten wonder at the world" and a genuine delight in motif. In the Naïve we discover the fascination of "the landscape treatments of childhood", the return to roots, to primordial nature, the earth and the countryside, to all we have lost with the development of civilization and urbanization. But the Naïve does not present just Arcadian art and idyll, it does not show only the celebration of life; for there are in it statements in a minor key, dark chords and traces of the tragic, symbolic and fantastic.

Out of the ordinary and unconventional, Naïve art shattered many widely-held convictions about artistic creation being conditional upon tradition, education and so on. It was revealed that it is possible to become a great artist in anonymous hamlets and muddy farmyards, without any very great contacts with official art and high culture, without systematic education, and that the most important thing in art has always been--talent. Some of the major contributions to modern art have been recognized in the Naïve, for it asks nothing about an artist’s race, ethnicity, religion and social class, or qualifications. It is the victory of imagination and humanist ideals in the alienated world of men and machines, and one of the ways in which the alienation of humanity from itself and from nature can be overcome.

Croatian Museum Of Naïve Art
Left: by Sava Sekulic. Right: by Pietro Ghizzardi. Photo credit: The Croatian Museum of Naïve Art, Zagreb

While in Germany and in Switzerland, the original French concept was employed, with either a French or a German pronunciation (which is in use in Croatia too), Dubuffet’s phrase Art Brut had an Anglophone alternative of Outsider Art. (See the book: Roger Cardinal: Outsider Art, Studio Vista, London 1972.) Although Dubuffet had already classified some works not produced by the mentally handicapped, or people enclosed in asylums or institutions, as Art Brut, the phrase Outsider Art embraced a much broader context. As well as the mentally ill, there were various spiritualists, the autistic, fantasists, the alienated, mediums, socially marginalized artists, numerous eccentrics, self-taught builders of visionary gardens and uncommon forms of architecture and so on.

We should also mention that in the last twenty years or so in Germany, as well as in some northwest European countries, particularly in the Netherlands and in Finland, the phrase Outsider Art has been in widespread use, but often with interpretations that are different from the concept inaugurated by Roger Cardinal in 1972 as a synonym for Art Brut. Still greater differences are seen in the interpretation of Outsider Art in the United States. This shows vividly that the terminology we use to comprehend and attempt to define the various phenomena of modern self-taught art continues to be inconsistent.

Less Important to Classify, More Important to Recognize Artistic Worth

In the collection of the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art there are paradigmatic artists from the border between the Naïve and Art Brut: the Dutchman Willem van Genk (1927-2005), Sava Sekulić (1902-1989), who was born in Croatia but spent most of his life in Serbia, for both of these countries were then parts of Yugoslavia, and the Italian Pietro Ghizzardi (1906-1986). In all three, we are faced with markedly psychotic personalities with strong pathological, paranoid inclinations. We can label all three classics of Art Brut or Outsider Art or the Naïve.

In Croatia, the idea of Outsider Art has an essentially different meaning and importance than that understood by the Cardinal phrase mentioned. The concept has been a feature in criticism and theory in the country for more than six decades; we use it to comprehend, analyse, evaluate and present authors who created outside the mainstream of art and apart from the current trends.

Croatian Museum Of Naïve Art
Painting by Hrvoje Šercar. Photo credit: The Croatian Museum of Naïve Art, Zagreb

These are artists who only in the last decade were brought together and set aside as a separate grouping, which is not surprising, for in the world of art it is a common practice to recognise the appearance of artistic phenomena only a posteriori. These are artists who did not acquire their knowledge or polish their skills in art schools or academies. They are more or less all self-taught, wild talents, as in Naïve art, who, nevertheless, created very personal styles and poetics with very high artistic achievements. And finally, although they have always lived in the pulse of modern, contemporary and current artistic work, they deliberately chose a retiring and marginalized position, for they were completely concentrated on their own personal work, ignoring the dominant artistic trends, fashions, material benefits and fame. The key and most consummate representative of this segment in Croatia is Hrvoje Šercar (1936-2014).

While so interpreting the idea of Outsider Art, along with the Croatian artists, one should also mention as additional paradigmatic examples from the collection of foreign masters of the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art the Serbian artists Ilija (1895-1972) and Milan Stanisavljević (1944) as well as Slovene painter and printmaker Jože Horvat Jaki (1930-2009). It is a fact, however, that we have included these artists for decades in the Naïve, ever since their first appearance.

Croatian Museum Of Naïve Art
Left: by Ilija. Right: by Milan Stanisavljević. Photo credit: The Croatian Museum of Naïve Art, Zagreb

Finally, in spite of all our attempts to define the very nature of the Naïve, of Art Brut, and of Outsider Art--of endeavors to indicate the differences, the features that really differentiate these segments from each other--the most important thing to determine is whether, in each given example, what we are dealing with is art or not; or, to put it in other words, it is not so important to be able to classify some work, but whether we recognize, or can recognize, its artistic worth.

Art Brut, Another Name for the Talented Mentally Ill

Meg: Could you also please define the term "Art Brut"?

Mira: Almost at the same time when the Naïve was discovered, an interest appeared, although in a much reduced form, in the visual expression of the mentally ill, the mentally challenged, today most often comprehended within the French term art brut or rough art. These are manifestations of uncontrolled, often automatic creative work, liberated of rational ballast, where everything is based on the unconscious, subconscious and hallucinatory. It is in the triumph of the absence of logic that the charm of this phenomenon inheres, for numerous representatives of the European avant-gardes of the first half of the 20th century aspired to just such characteristics. It is enough to recall the Surrealists.

It should be pointed out, however, that in the case of such creative work one has to distinguish firmly between painting as psychiatric or psycho-therapeutic method and the practice of visual art in the sense of being worthwhile artistic creation. The most celebrated and in fact the paradigmatic master of Art Brut is the Swiss Adolf Wölfli (1864-1930). In Lausanne, Switzerland, the first museum dedicated to this particular form of art, the Collection de l’Art Brut, was opened in 1976. The initial holdings were collected by French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) and his Parisian association Compagnie de l’Art Brut. The concept of Art Brut is interpreted in theory and practice by a number of different explanations, depending above all on whom the discussion is taking place, and in which country.

The Creative Process Behind Art Brut

Most important for Art Brut is the actual creative process. Evaluation is centered around the authenticity and spontaneity of the expression, while artistic and/or aesthetic achievements are paid less attention, indeed, are sometimes totally ignored. It is here that one of the essential differences between Art Brut and the Naïve inheres. Dubuffet looked for works in which there was none of the skill that characterised the creative work of professional artists; he was investigating "elementary" expression; above all he was interested in the work of individuals who were not "contaminated" with the atmosphere of the world of culture and art and intellectually acquired knowledge.

Pupava Jana
Pupava Jana / Goitery Jana (1962) by Ivan Večenaj. Photo credit: The Croatian Museum of Naïve Art, Zagreb

Put with great simplification, we can define the Naïve as a visual expression in which the world of the real and the recognisable is represented; these are works that on the whole celebrate life and the joy of being. In contrast, in Art Brut, we mainly meet visions of internal perceptions, dreams, phantasms of an opaque and depressing mood, enigmas, often bizarre, terrifying and morbid forms and contents. While the Naïve draws most often on classic motifs and more or less traditional forms, in the case of Art Brut we are faced with an ignorance and negation of tradition. If the Naïve is characterised by order, in Art Brut there is anarchy; if Naïve can be classified within the aesthetics of the beautiful, Art Brut must be included within the aesthetics of the ugly.

The Future of Art, Better Opportunities for Expression and Achieving Success

Meg: Where do you see art headed in the future?

Mira: I think that today, and in the near future as well, an increasing number of people without any very detailed or systematic education in art have and will have ever greater chances to express themselves in very various disciplines and also the possibility of achieving success. What such phenomena will be called, I am not sure, and in the fine arts they certainly will not be classified into the Naïve. But I would not venture to elaborate it in more detail, for the proposition is confirmed not only by authors from the sphere of visual arts, with which I personally deal in a small way, but is revealed in a number of examples in other disciplines.

With pop music, for example, we are faced with on the whole creative people who don’t have any classical academic musical training, people who have not studied scales, composition, orchestration and harmony, the techniques and ways of instrumental playing or singing and everything else that is taught for semesters at music schools and studied at conservatories; rather, with their sheer talent, their basic and instinctual approach, hard work and persistence, they have managed to surmount all barriers and win the respect of large parts of the world. There is always the basic question: in such cases, is it a matter of ordinary giftedness--no matter whether it is about visual art, music, writing, the dance or some other expression--or is it a matter of superlative creation, something that remains for eternity, is it about authentic art.

Two of Mira's Favorite Naive Artists

Meg: Are there a couple of Naive artists we haven't discussed who bear mention?

Mira: Emerik Feješ is a painter of city scenes, architecture and large well known city features of the world. His works are characterized by an emphatically geometrical composition and by bright and expressive coloring (Milan Cathedral, 1966). Although he shows concrete, recognizable things, he creates everything every freely and imaginatively.

Croatian Museum Of Naïve Art
Milanska katedrala / Milan Cathedral (1966) by Emerik Feješ. Životinjski svijet / Animal World (1961) by Matija Skurjeni. Photo credit: The Croatian Museum of Naïve Art, Zagreb

My second artist is Matija Skurjeni, who paints reality as if it were a dream, dreams as if they were real. In him, everything is full of pronounced disproportions and a-logicality, metaphorical and fantastic scenes prevailing (Animal World, 1961). He is moved more by sensations of the spirit than by the real world, he is more fully occupied by thought than event, painting primarily the spiritual and not the physical reality.

Mira's Passion Project at the Croatian Museum Of Naive Art

Meg: Has there been a project that you have found particularly meaningful?

Mira: Probably my most important contribution in projects of the Museum of Naïve Art was the conception and production of seven picture books featuring works by well-regarded Croatian poets, who, each in their own way, interpreted several of the masterpieces from our collection. Previously, at the many art workshops for children of our the museum offered, they had created their own artworks, inspired by pieces they had seen in the museum--doing drawings, collages, and linocuts, as well as paintings. On several occasions they painted small pieces of wood.

Since 2007, we have published the picture books every year to mark International Museum Day (May 18). Each picture book consists of three segments: a reproduction of a work of a classic of the Naives, accompanied by the verses of the poets, and then the reproductions of numbers of works by children. In this way we were trying to make the youngest visitors more familiar and connected with the creative work of a number of the finest artists from our collection. Also in the picture books are numerous photographs of children at work in the Museum and participating in planned activities and outside the Museum. In this combination of beautiful, impressive and complex paintings, drawings, sculptures, and lyrically playful, cheerful and witty verses, we gave the young children a kind of key to get deeper into the visual world of the great masters.

Croatian Museum Of Naïve Art
Children learning about art. Children are the future of the art world. Photo credit: The Croatian Museum of Naïve Art, Zagreb

After several years, to promote some of the picture books, we also engaged a number of composers, who set to music a number of verses and personally preformed them, setting off cheers of delight from the children. Then we began to involve dramatic artists in the promotion of the program, who would recite the verses and actively help us in thinking up the promotions. And it was at their urging that youngsters at drama schools began to recite the verses as well, and thus the youngest participated in the promotions at several different levels over time. It was instructive for us to watch the youngest, from five years of age to 13 years old, managing to authentically and spontaneously express their imagination, exuberance and pleasure, particularly in the technique of collage. In the last few years we have been issuing CDs with recitations and verses set to music.

Living For Art

In order to be as clear as possible, I would give an example that for me has been very telling for years. I like listening to Paul McCartney. His composition and classic performance of Hey Jude from the concert Music for Montserrat, held in the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1997, supported by Elton John, Sting, Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton and Phil Collins, along with others, is for me not just a typical if the brilliant example of pop but also an achievement of the highest artistic level. On the recordings of this concert one has to see not only the beaming faces of the fantastic performers, but also the audience who are moved to a state of ecstasy. Since McCartney has no classical music training, but is more or less self-taught, isn’t it fascinating that he, one the pop music world’s major icons, also composed the Liverpool Oratorio, a supreme work of modern classical symphonic music? I am not personally competent in music, but do love it, love all forms of musical expression, just as I love visual art, the cinema, as well as my own ethnology... not to list any further. Why do I mention all this? For the simple reason that it is vivid proof that in all kinds of creative work, it is always authentic, deep-down talent that is the most important, the crucial, factor. (I know that it might be argued that Carl Davis was involved in this symphonic oratorio, and that he is a trained composer, but this does not change things for me.) It is this need of McCartney to express himself in and take part in such different musical forms that tells not only of his multi-faceted giftedness, but also of his profoundly creative vein.

I don’t think I will go far wrong or exaggerate if I tell you now that this example always makes me think of the artists we have already mentioned so many times in this conversation, that is, Generalić and Rabuzin. I could also add a few more names. All of these are artists who are not trained in art, but have with their creativity achieved great things in art. And this has been globally recognized. Innate talent, then, will always be essential and crucial, and how and when it is going to be discovered, if it is at all, with whose help, and whether this talent will be allowed to develop and come out to the full, these things always have to be considered at the individual level, case by case, artist by artist.

Whether digitization can participate in all this, and how successfully, I would not like to get into, although you have asked me this question. It is not very rewarding to talk in terms of the future.

In closing, I would like to say just one more thing. I am happy to be living for art, from art, surrounded by art, to be engaged in the promotion and interpretation of art, to bring art closer to the many visitors arriving at the museum I manage, happy to be associating with artists and helping their art to be more widely recognized and accepted. For me art is something elevated, almost holy, like a religion, helping us to persist and to carry on. Unlike Oscar Wilde, one of whose bons mots was that “all art is quite useless”, I am convinced artistic creation is one of the essential defining characteristics of the human race, justifying human existence, and helping us, as I said, to survive.

More information on the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art can be found here.

Image Credits. Header: Ivan Rabuzin, On the Hills - Virgin Forest (1960) Photo credits: The Croatian Museum of Naïve Art, Zagreb.

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Meg Pier

Meg Pier

Publisher and editor of People Are Culture (PAC). This article was created by original reporting that sourced expert commentary from local cultural standard-bearers. Those quoted provide cultural and historical context that is unique to their role in the community and to this article.


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2 thoughts on “Curator of Croatian Museum of Naïve Art in Zagreb on Outsider Art”

  1. Is there a catalog or book about the Croation Museum of Native Art. My sister visited the Museum years ago. She is 83years old and often says that the Croation Museum is the one place she wishes she could go back to again because it was such a joyful experiece. I would love to surprise her with a publication. I read the interview and will copy it to read to her. I learned so much. Thank you!!

    • Hi Inge! Thanks for visiting and I am delighted the interview struck a chord with you! I agree, the art is largely really exuberant and joyful! I am afraid I do not know if there is a catalogue or a book but the Museum’s website is and I believe the contact email is I hope you can find something for your sister!


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