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Magic of Simplicity in the Art of Ivan Generalić

Updated on January 30, 2018
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Maya Ellenson is keen on creating unconventional poetry and prose.

Paintings of Ivan Generalić

Adam and Eve
Adam and Eve
The Deer Wedding
The Deer Wedding
Unicorn
Unicorn

Magic of simplicity

Ivan Generalić (1914-1992) art has been defined as primitive and naïve, but whoever stumbles upon the painter’s artwork and peruses them insightfully, will discover that the adjective “naïve” only scratches the surface of something utterly poetic and profound.

For a self-learned Croatian artist of the 20th century, painting was as natural as being alive. His first images emerged on the sand and continued in pencil drawings on paper bags. One day he got noticed by the founder of the "Earth Group", Krsto Hegedušić. The group defied a slogan of “ art for art’s sake”, focusing mainly on portraying social ills.

This encounter opens new opportunities for the 15-old artist from a small Croatian village Hlebine. The two met in 1931, resulting in the artist’s first and very promising exhibition, held in Zagreb Art pavilion. At that period he paints mostly within aesthetics of the “Earth Group” with its emphasis on "real life". However, the painter puts a new meaning into the concept of “Earth”, Zemlja, which becomes the very extension of his soul. “I’ve been close to the earth all my life, the earth is what inspires me, and it’s the subject of all my pictures. I walk in its midst and look for ideas for my work. While I walk I paint, not with brushes, but in my head”, he says.

In 1934 Ivan Generalić married Anka Kolarek and in 1936 his son Josip was born who will become a renowned artist of the famous “Hlebine School”, founded by his father.

His art reaches and captures everyone, for no one has seen the land with its seasons, routine tasks and earthy things so magical and galvanizing before. Mother Earth speaks through his paintings in terms of simplicity and majesty, clarity and mystery. All that happens on earth is featured as a sacred spectacle to be observed in reverence. It’s the same Mother we observe day after day, but her face is shifted. Respectively, our mode of perception also changes. The animals not just move, but engage in shamanic dance, as in The Deer Wedding, leaving the viewer enchanted.

Generalić never moved away from his birthplace and died close to Hlebine. It was always this little piece of land he painted over and over again. In his fascinating Universe, little means precious and fragile, and his patch of land mirrors the entire Cosmos.

The painter worked in various mediums and different painterly techniques. Painting on the glass, instead of canvas, became an organic channel for expressing a fairy-like aura of his art. “In the beginning I painted with watercolors on paper, and then with oils on canvas and wood. I changed to glass when I realized that with this technique I could obtain fresher colors and put in more details. Colors on glass are more beautiful, more luminous. Canvas somehow swallowed up my colors, made them look dull, and besides I could not show all the details I wanted, not in such a clear way”, he stated.

In his oil on glass painting The Unicorn (1961), the artist depicts an encounter of an old couple with a mythical unicorn one winter night. The full Moon glares in the dark sky, underlying the purity of snow and sanctity of the scene. In the background, we see a remote village at the foot of the fluffy mountains. The couple looks spellbound, watching the unicorn from behind a snow-clad tree in silence, not daring to disturb the full moon mystery. In its shimmering light, all pieces come together in unfathomable harmony.

In Adam and Eve, the concept of Earthly paradise is translated into a language of simple seasonal rhythms. A naked couple is freezing in the snow in stark contrast with the summer landscape in the background. Sheer, archetypal simplicity of its pictorial language enables this eternal drama to unfold naturally with all its drama and complexity. “I’ve always thought of the Earthly Paradise as a beautiful summer landscape, similar to the ones I know and that ran through as a boy when I went to take a swim in the Dava. Outside Paradise, of course, there was only winter. When I did this picture, I remembered that, and I pained Adam and Eve naked in the snow, with a summer landscape in the background, a symbol of what they had lost forever”, he wrote.

“Painting on glass means working on one side and then observing the result on the other”, said Ivan Generalić. His art instills us with a sense of wonderment at our Great Cosmic Mother. As we follow the artist, our visions become transformed. It’s on the other side of his paintings where we truly rediscover Mother Nature to celebrate her daily magic.

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