Mijo Kovačić, the youngest of the five children of Andrija Kovačić and Ana nee Halaček, was born in Gornja Šuma on 5 August 1935. The Podravina hamlet was a typical God-forsaken place some kilometres from Molve and Hlebine. All his neighbours, he remembers, had between three and seven children. His sister Marica died in a fire, his brothers Ivo, Pero and Martin learned a trade and started families of their own, and he continued to live with his parents. A delicate boy, Mijo spent his childhood close to his mother Ana, who passed on her imaginative strain to her son: she enriched and developed Mijo’s fancy with folk, often scary stories, which left an indelible mark on the boy. He remembers from his childhood the red sky above Gornja Šuma, and his mother’s words: “A burning sky bodes misfortune and war” And Podravina suffered a plentiful share of both. The apocalyptic visions of the boy’s mother inspired the later mature artist for some of his best paintings in which the fire in the skies of his childhood has never been extinguished.

The land in Podravina is frequently ravaged and fertilized by the furious floods of the Drava, so that the simple and meagre family farm barely managed to feed the many mouths. “We never went hungry”, Mijo remembers, “but there was never anything left over either. Abundance was an unknown in Gornja Šuma. One could only survive by embracing the two peasant virtues: hard work and thrift. Every member of the family, from the children to the adults, was a cog in the farming wheel which had to function”. As a child Mijo spent his days looking after the family cow in the pasture. That was “the only happy period of my childhood”, he said later. He came to know “the soul” of his cow, and it would later accompany him as a model throughout his work. This friendship and close relationship with his model are recorded on his paintings as a child’s touching message. For Mijo the cow was never an “anatomic fact” but always a “childhood friend”.

For four years Mijo attended the primary school in Molve, three and a half kilometres from Gornja Šuma. The daily seven kilometres which he covered on foot with a dozen other children from Gornja Šuma were not only a phase of his “accommodation to society” but also a special kind of education “in nature’s great classroom”. The cutting in the woods crossed by the dusty road to Gornja Šuma reminded him of “the parted waters of the Red Sea through which the Israelites escaped from Egypt”. The cutting made the boy feel as if he were “walking through the Bible”, and he found it “both scary and appealing”. There were, of course, many reasons for Biblical subjects in his paintings. The sensitive child absorbed the unforgettable pictures, which he later on repeated on his paintings on glass. As a painter he did not have to “invent” the continuously varying forest motifs and trees, and their mysterious and frightening appearance in the semi-darkness; they were stored in him as “subjects sufficient for several artist’s lives”.

During these daily patrols through the woods Kovačić even as a boy came to know thoroughly the plants of Podravina, and later on he did not need any special artistic training for painting them. Kovačić’s painting actually confirms the proposition about the crucial influence of childhood on creativity, well known, of course, in modern psychology and pedagogy. In a way, it suggests consideration of the theory according to which childhood is the foundation for later experience and perception. The school drill is only a matter of methodical thinking, a means “ordering” the “anarchic accumulation of information”. Therefore, in such terms school needs to be considered as a means and not as an end. It is an irrefutable fact that Mijo entered his “Gornja Šuma academy” with a “clean record” confirming his mastery of plant and animal life, anatomy and all other rural “courses”. He only had to fine-tune his painting skill.

Mijo’s childhood was as melancholic as a boy can be melancholic. He kept to himself, given to incessant monologues in which he tried to explain his dissatisfaction with his social status. That was the period of “unpainted paintings” in which he “painted” without being aware of it – for how can someone be a painter without painting? Later on, in some of his pictures this lonely and withdrawn boy appeared next to a cow-drawn cart, a vat of grapes in the vineyard, sitting silently on a rung of a peasant’s cart, cuddling a cat,, watching astonished from his mother’s back the world sunk in mud of the Flood. An unforgettable boy, unconsciously opposing growing up, aware that the experience of adults is a flood, in which the beauty and the naiveté of the world founder. It has already been said that there are no winter joys in Mijo’s winters, and no child has even skated on the ice of his paintings. Everything was too serious, and that cog in the rural wheel was never supposed to stop, not even for a moment, not even to bring joy to a child’s winter delight. Was Mijo “too little a poet”? Certainly, he has never been a lyrical poet, which could hardly be expected from someone carrying the millstone of his peasant destiny round his neck like a martyr on an altarpiece. Everything in his life has been focused on the dramatic and has never tried to change that. On the contrary, he has stressed it in every painting. To put it bookishly, he was a “poet of a Shakespearean tragic bent”, and that explains everything. The lyrical “cantilena” is an “element” not envisioned in this rural Mendeleevian periodic table. Idylls written in red are not found in the black peasant calendar.

A lyrical mood can be discerned only in one of Kovačić’s many paintings (Love in the Field). In that picture the object of adoration stands rigidly before the declaration of love, while the awkward kneeling suitor gives the impression of a punished boy kneeling on corn kernels. Yet, there is undeniable charm in this “tragicomic” scene, as if restrained tenderness has no nerve to touch this love scene. While the solitary Love in the Field represents Kovačić’s “lyrical” summit, scenes of erotic love are much more frequent. Obviously, it is part and parcel of life, and its “nature” involves a dramatic charge, which is much closer to the artist’s temperament than “lyrical” outpourings. Yet, Kovačić does not approach erotic motifs “pragmatically”, as a “species-preserving force”. In his erotic scenes in corn fields, especially in Sodom and Gomorrah, there is sensuality of an undeniable human dimension. What is the purpose of this turning to love and eroticism in the context of the artist’s biography? In my view, it is precisely the sensitive theme that penetrates the deepest under one’s skin, offering the opportunity for the deepest breakthrough into the layers of our human nature. Kovačić does not play with any of his subjects like a verbal juggler: for him love and eroticism are at the same level of life just like all other motifs, just two dimensions of the same human quality. Kovačić treats each of his subjects seriously, and he is equally unchanging whether the theme is “frivolous” or related to a tragic event. His seriousness equates the motif of love and eroticism with any motif of life and death.

Kovačić revealed his versatile talent very early on, while still a child. He wanted to continue school, but his wish could only remain an undreamt dream, a live ember smouldering under the ashes of rural reality. Who could have changed the fate of Adam banished from Eden? As a matter of fact, Kovačić felt like a person displaced from paradise carrying the memory of his artistic talent. In sophisticated terms, we could call it “memory of the future”. “I was never a top honours pupil”, Kovačić remembers, “but my drawing was always excellent”. His teacher, Mirko Lauš, recommended the highly talented Kovačić for enrolment in the Academy of Painting. But at that time that was equal to recommending someone for a trip to the Moon on foot. Therefore, quite absurd. But the moment for an unexpected turn of events nevertheless came.

In 1953, a crucial year, the eighteen-year-old peasant from Gornja Šuma first heard of Krsto Hegedušić and Ivan Generalić. Hegedušić was out of reach in faraway Zagreb, but Ivan Generalić lived in nearby Hlebine. Mijo summoned up courage and went to see him. Seeking advice, encouragement, a lesson? It is a fact that during that first meeting the Hlebine master did not recognize a “genius” in Kovačić. He was just patronizingly kind. Considering his rural experience of human relations, Mijo did not ask for more. “I did not expect much from him, but he told me what he could, and I quickly understood it all”. The “what he could” referred more to Generalić’s example and success, and much less to any lesson. What the eighteen-year-old from Gornja Šuma “did understand” was that his talent and ambition could make him an equally successful artist. As it turned out, that was sufficient. Actually, what happened was typical of most naïve painters: instinctive wiliness and wariness before an unknown intruder in the already famous Hlebine house. I do not know of any Podravina master who welcomed a pupil and unselfishly transferred his knowledge and experience to him. For if everyone became a painter, who would till the land? This rural pragmatism was actually a dam against the flood, as reality soon after confirmed. Talented young men from Podravina found painting too simple, because they had talent, but success? The farmer’s wisdom, however, just as anybody else’s, is always wary. As the wise proverb says, a stitch in time saves nine. The conclusion was logical: talent will always find its way, just as the talent of the Hlebine master. Krleža wrote a poem about a young man who brought his verse to an old and famous poet for his opinion. Krleža’s poet is sophisticated, old, tired, listless. Unlike him, the Podravina “poets” were cautious, cunningly silent, and politely saw the ambitious young men off through their famous door. That will, of course, constitute a special chapter in a possible history of naïve art. Kovačić was wise enough to understand this first “lesson”. He accepted it bravely and learned a lot from it.

The meeting with Generalić was not crucial but rather a “school lesson” and an encouraging example: he met an uneducated peasant who had become a painter famous throughout the world! Kovačić’s wisdom did not ask for more. Thus started his long study in the “academy” of a peasant yard in Gornja Šuma. It was indeed a course of study in which the self-taught artist won the highest degree, supreme mastery. In that “academy” Kovačić was both student and teacher. His curiosity knew no bounds, but his will and persistence were incomparably higher. He could hardly have found a better teacher than himself, and he reduced the four-year academy course considerably. He carefully watched what was being painted around him and did not miss even the most surreptitious artistic technique. Only a “born painter” could achieve that. Initially it was a case of sailing by the stars, like Columbus, and thus discovering countless artistic tracks by the impeccable radar of Kovačić’s intuition and experience.

In 1954, at the age of nineteen, the young painter from Gornja Šuma exhibited his work for the first time in Koprivnica together with Gaži, Filipović and Večenaj. It was an encouraging and a promising appearance. Andrija Brozović commented on the work presented by the young and unknown painter: “This young man carries a marshal’s baton in his hands”.

After having repressed for years the awareness that he was a painter, Kovačić accepted the “baton” with no hesitation or complexes, indeed with self-assurance and self-confidence. The great artist never betrayed the honour offered at his first show. He was indeed a wise strategist of his talent, his painting and his spectacular success.

Kovačić’s following development remained fully balanced with his outstanding talent, his ambitions and his determination to develop his painting to the highest level. He was a painter seeking cover for his success not only in his talent but also in his wisdom. His success did not blind him, he never went beyond the bounds and never let the emotional side of his nature to prevail. When writing this biography, which, I hope, avoids routine, I assumed that it would be more necessary to become familiar with the early part of his life hidden in the deep shadow of anonymity. In general, everything before the Koprivnica exhibition has remained unknown, whereas subsequent events can already be found in quite a few lexicons and professional publications. I must admit that this “séance” with Kovačić’s unknown past was quite a challenge: the reticent and unsociable Kovačić never forgot the wariness typical of his Podravina roots, which was at the same time a way for survival. Experience had told him how dangerous it is to open all dams and abandon oneself and one’s work to sensationalism. All this was also the reason underlying the “disproportion” between the early anonymous period and the later one, when almost all the facts were accessible to the public. In writing Kovačić’s biography I started out with the assumption (I leave it to the reader to judge whether this was proper) that any work, any personality needs to be examined in its unknown origins undisturbed by biases, sensationalism and skilfully designed neon lighting. As it turned out, originality has always been the unmistakable challenge. Of course, to be clear, getting at those origins was no easier than the later “cleansing” of the artist and his work from the accumulated biases and untruths.

Which dates and events should be singled out from a biography conceived in this way? In my view, the dates of most exhibitions are definitely less important than certain meetings, and Kovačić’s travels and visits to great museums and art galleries. When we know Kovačić’s sensitivity and capacity of reception, we shall understand the importance of his human and art contacts. One of his more important encounters was certainly the one with Grgo Gamulin, head of the History of Art Department at the University of Zagreb and a brilliant theoretician, the first to tackle the theory of naïve art in Croatia with no biases. This early meeting (1964) was equally fruitful both for Kovačić and for the famous professor. Its result was the most exhaustive monograph on Kovačić’s painting (Kovačić, 1976). More than ten years later, Vladimir Maleković, excellent art naïve connoisseur and theoretician, authored the monograph Mijo Kovačić (1989). The third monograph was published in 1999 by Kovačić’s Viennese friend and patron Peter Infeld. The three books clearly contributed not only to introducing and winning recognition for Kovačić’s work but also to integrating it with a refined ear for historic trends of modern art in current Croatian and European art. Of course, this still leaves open the question of how much the many meetings with Croatian and foreign critics left a mark on the artist and his work. However, taking into account the fact that these meetings occurred at the time of the artist’s personal profiling and artistic formation, I assume that the impact was negligible. I shall quote Kovačić’s account of that somewhat later. Kovačić was never involved in any glamorous scandal and that, I am convinced, is a telling indication of his personality and his work.

I believe, where Kovačić’s biography is concerned, that it would be especially interesting to read his comments on his visits to major foreign museums, his dialogues with great masters and with the history of art. It is a fact that Kovačić has never turned his back on great masters and their work. He faced them boldly and, more often than not, with great self-confidence. There was a lot of logic in his words: “The great masters could not sway me, they observed their people and their landscapes in their own time just as I observed them in mine”. That is certainly no pythian evasion of a direct answer; it was a reflection of the artist’s “Podravinian” pragmatism. In doing so Kovačić has shown no complexes and has not been burdened by the “avant-garde” period in which he lives and paints. Regardless of the loudness of the avant-garde, he also considers himself a witness of our (and his!) complex time, convinced that it is not unambiguous. He considers that the avant-garde and naïve art did not meet accidentally in the same period: there are good and unavoidable historic reasons for the meeting. After all, our pluralist art is not the only kind of art in history. Don’t these reasonable conclusions overpower all the counter-arguments of the die-hard dogmatists from the ranks of trendy fault-finders?

I believe, where Kovačić’s biography is concerned, that it would be especially interesting to read his comments on his visits to major foreign museums, his dialogues with great masters and with the history of art. It is a fact that Kovačić has never turned his back on great masters and their work. He faced them boldly and, more often than not, with great self-confidence. There was a lot of logic in his words: “The great masters could not sway me, they observed their people and their landscapes in their own time just as I observed them in mine”. That is certainly no pythian evasion of a direct answer; it was a reflection of the artist’s “Podravinian” pragmatism. In doing so Kovačić has shown no complexes and has not been burdened by the “avant-garde” period in which he lives and paints. Regardless of the loudness of the avant-garde, he also considers himself a witness of our (and his!) complex time, convinced that it is not unambiguous. He considers that the avant-garde and naïve art did not meet accidentally in the same period: there are good and unavoidable historic reasons for the meeting. After all, our pluralist art is not the only kind of art in history. Don’t these reasonable conclusions overpower all the counter-arguments of the die-hard dogmatists from the ranks of trendy fault-finders?

In other museums Kovačić also observed and appreciated the masterly perfection of his favourites. His experience had taught him that perfection of the artistic idiom is not an art-for-art’s sake game but, rather, an unavoidable condition for the clear expression of an artist’s ideas. A “stuttering” artist can never express his thoughts, if he ever had any in the first place! Can anyone be a writer without a vocabulary and knowledge of syntax and grammar? In the Louvre he saw Rembrandt, Rubens, the Flemish master, in the Hermitage the impressionists and Repin, and in the Modern Gallery in Zagreb he admired Bukovac, Medović, Iveković, Račić, Kraljević. All these are names he can recall spontaneously as he draws them out of his subconscious, familiar interlocutors in the lonely days spent in his Gornja Šuma “studio”. This selection, these visits tell us everything about Mijo Kovačić: he is not ashamed of their “non-modernity” and does not snobbishly slam the door of his studio in their faces in order to confirm his own “modernity”. He knows he would find it even harder to slam the door in the face of his own art. He saw a lot, “on this and that side of art”, as he says, and understood, with the wisdom of a “country man”, Hippocrates’ “everything flows”. From Gornja Šuma he watched fashions, sham celebrities, loud manifestoes and art movements come and - more often than not, - go, leaving only deeply rooted talent. He watched art movements dying in the cradle, and he also watched his Podravina school surviving for no less than seventy years, which has no precedent in any modern art movement. Indeed, naïve art is still there, in spite of all malicious ill-omened prophets! And that is the most direct message of his biography.

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