Marginal Characters in Rural Wonderlands: The Naïve Art of Mijo Kovačić

When I first encountered the work of Croatian artist Mijo Kovačić, it seemed to me a mix of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1530–1569) and medieval European manuscripts. Like the former, the oil-on-glass images feature romanticised depictions of rural landscapes, and like the latter, they are bright and colourful, as though lit from within.

Kovačić—who was born in 1935 in the Podravina hamlet of Gornja Šuma—belongs to the Hlebine School of 20th century Croatian art. This is a term applied to a group of naive painters working in or around the village of Hlebine, near the Hungarian border, from about 1930.

Mijo Kovačić

The life portrayed in Kovačić’s paintings is harsh and difficult but the artist makes up for the poverty of his characters by highlighting the surrounding flora and fauna. True wealth here lies in the fish of the river, the strawberries in the field, even in the dry oak by the road.

Academic and art critic Tonko Maroević, who is associated with the Institute of Art History in Zagreb, explains further: “With his memory he has evoked the rural environment almost unspoilt by civilisation, and his paintings renew the existential premises of action in limited, ‘untamed’ conditions of existence in a so-to-speak authentic natural setting. It has been said, and supported by many good reasons, that Kovačić’s painting are often of a medieval character, imbued with religion and mystique, inspired by apocalyptic suggestions and a Bosch-Bruegel-like narrative style.

When he paints people he regularly employs systematic deformation, on the verge of caricature, but with an irresistible expressiveness. These are only exceptionally portraits, and much more often types and representatives of the rural vortex of destinies, most often weirdos, marginal characters and wretches in rags. When he paints landscapes, he mainly fills them with lush vegetation, and represents them against the unusual background of tense morning or evening twilight, an eclipse or a stormy sky.”


Gallery Mijo Kovačić in Zagreb


Marking Mijo Kovačić’s seventy-fifth birthday and the sixtieth anniversary of his artistic work, the Foundation which bears his name opened the Mijo Kovačić Art Gallery on 26 February 2011 in the belief that it will thereby permanently preserve a great part of the artist’s output and, thus, make it accessible to the public. Kovačić has created and preserved his works for more than half a century, and one of his permanent motives has been the wish to let his work become and remain part of the Croatian cultural heritage.

Here are the words of the artist: “I have yet to create my best painting. I think of it always. I work from my heart, that I can leave something for my family, my people, my offspring. To let it be known where I was and why I lived. My greatest wish is time: time to complete everything that I have started.”

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Images used with permission.


Winter in the Country, 2010


Egg Thieves, 1973


Winter – Flood, 2006


Miller’s Apprentices, 2004


Man with a Club, 2005


Gale over the Ditch, 1976


Winter Carnival, 2000


Dry Oak, 2010


Lunch in the Field, 1988


Man with Strawberries, 1983


Everyone has his Own Cross to Bear, 1975


The Flood, 1974


At the Spinning Wheel, 1978


The Pit, 2011


Border Guards, 1986