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Matija Skurjeni

The Dance. 1970. Oil on canvas. 15" x 21 1/2" (38.1 x 54.6 cm).

ILIJA!

His First American Exhibtion

The artist now known simply as Ilija is one of the most enigmatic painters to emerge from the land formerly known as Yugoslavia. Born Ilija Basicevic in 1895, he received international acclaim in the 1960s and ‘70s under the pseudonym Ilija Bosilj. Despite his impressive exhibition and publication history, however, the Serbian-born Ilija was at the time somewhat overshadowed by the more heavily promoted “naives” from the Yugoslav republic of Croatia. Indeed, his work stands in sharp contrast to the Croatians’ crisply rendered scenes of idyllic peasant life and farmland. Ilija’s subject matter depicts no recognizable world, but rather a nearly abstract parallel universe concocted by the artist from an amalgam of local history, myths, Biblical tales and imagination. Beyond the arena of squabbling “naives,” “outsiders” and “folk” artists, Ilija stands alone, as puzzling as he is compelling.

 

The field of “naïve” art originated in the early decades of the twentieth century in part as a reaction to Western European industrialization, which was killing off rural folk art along with traditional agriculture. At the same time, industrialization fostered feelings of alienation and a yearning for lost authenticity, which the bourgeois intelligentsia found in the work of lower-class painters who, often for financial reasons, had never dreamed of going to art school. Eastern Europe, by way of contrast, remained predominantly agricultural. In Ilija’s hometown of Sid, some farmers had more land, more pigs and more sheep than others, but these peasants were all relatively equal in terms of education and occupation. The rifts that would come to divide them and eventually shred their entire nation derived less from the pressures of modern development than from centuries of history as a battleground between forces of the East and of the West.

 

Though Croatians and Serbs are all Slavic peoples who speak the same language, Serbia was incorporated into the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire in AD 395, whereas Croatia was ruled by the Western Roman Empire. As a result, Croatia has since been predominantly Catholic, while Serbs tend to adhere to the Eastern Orthodox faith. Serbs are also distinguished by their use of the Cyrillic alphabet, introduced by the Greek priest Cyril in the ninth century. In later centuries, the Ottoman Turks descended upon the Eastern territories of Serbia, while the Hungarians and then the Austrian Habsburgs took over much of Croatia. Sid, in the northwest Serbian province of Vojvodina, came under Austrian domination in the late seventeenth century. The ever-shifting frontier separating the Christian West from the Turks was thereafter roughly twenty miles to the east of Sid, and local farmers were routinely conscripted by the Austrians to patrol the border.

 

Growing up in this contested terrain, where rule was always arbitrarily imposed from without, Ilija developed a fierce independence of spirit and a lifelong disdain for authority. As a boy, he dreamed of becoming a soldier, emigrating to America or apprenticing to a craftsman, but his parents needed his help at home, and so he stayed to take over the family farm. Drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army in World War I, Ilija employed several subterfuges to minimize his service. Both he and his brother managed to avoid combat by repeatedly changing places and then running away. Subsequently, Ilija deliberately injured his leg so that he would be hospitalized instead of being sent to the front.

 

Despite these desultory military experiences, Ilija was not one to shirk his duty. He was an extremely hard worker, rising every day at 3 AM and tending his land and livestock until nightfall. A simple lunch of bread, bacon and onions was eaten in the fields; chicken was a treat reserved for Sundays. The men on Ilija’s street owned a single pair of proper trousers among them, which they shared around for formal occasions. Nevertheless, Ilija was one of the more prosperous peasants in his little community, and he was proud. Although he himself had not gotten beyond the local elementary school, he was well-read and attuned to the latest advances in agriculture. Ilija hoped that his two sons, Dimitrije and Vojin, would receive university educations—something almost unheard of among the local peasant class. But once again, politics and world history intervened.

 

After the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, the South Slavic peoples (“Yugo-Slavs” in Serbo-Croatian) were united in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes under the rule of the Serbian Karadjordjevic dynasty. However, this union quickly began to fray. In 1934, the Serbian king, Alexander I, was assassinated by the Ustase, a Croatian fascist group battling for complete independence. During World War II, the kingdom was taken over by the Axis powers, with Hitler controlling Slovenia, northern Croatia and Serbia, and Italy occupying southeastern Croatia and Montenegro. In cooperation with the Nazis, the Ustase soon began systematically exterminating Jews, gypsies and Serbs. The fascists made a particular point of targeting the wealthier and more educated peasants. In 1941, Ilija and a number of fellow villagers were herded into the basement of the local church. Half this group was beaten and then shot by the banks of the Danube, while the other half, including Ilija, was released after a few days without further explanation. Following this narrow escape, however, it was clear to Ilija that his days in Sid were numbered. The Ustase’s police chief, who was married to a childhood friend of Ilja’s, advised him and his sons to get out.

 

In October 1942, Ilija, Dimitrije and Vojin fled to Vienna, choosing that city because it was on a direct railway line. There, they easily found work in an airplane factory. However, after several months, Ilija was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Told he had only a few months to live, and worried about his wife and home, he returned to Sid, where he remained under regular surveillance by the Ustase. But before leaving, Ilija fulfilled one of his long-cherished dreams: he enrolled his two sons in the University of Vienna. Vojin and Dimitrije remained in Vienna until 1944, when they joined up with Tito’s partisans to fight the fascist occupation of their homeland. While the partisans represented the only option available at the time, none of the Basicevic men really supported Tito’s alliance with the Communists. Given their choice, they would have preferred to have the Serbian king back. And so, as the old kingdom was incorporated into the postwar Communist state of Yugoslavia, Ilija and his family once again found themselves at odds with the reigning regime.

 

Tito’s brand of Communism was somewhat gentler than Stalin’s: foreign travel was not impossible; collectivization was for the most part imposed not through brute force, but through extortionate taxation; dissenters were harassed, but less often sent to labor camps. Nevertheless, Ilija found himself under great pressure to join the local farmers’ collective, because it was believed that, as one of Sid’s more prominent citizens, he would serve as a role model for the others. The political police became a regular presence in his life, and he was repeatedly thrown into jail on trumped-up charges. Although he had recovered from his bout with TB, Ilija was no longer as strong as he had once been, and his sons finally convinced him to donate his land, horses and tools to the collective. Still, Ilija was as stubborn as ever: he refused to work the land that was no longer his, and so forfeited his share of the crops. Fearing starvation, his wife instead labored on the collective, while Ilija took care of their small home. Hereafter, they lived in near poverty.

 

In the meantime, both Ilija’s sons had completed their university educations. Vojin had become a doctor, and Dimitrije an art historian, critic, poet and artist (exhibiting under the pseudonym Mangelos). Ilija was not happy with Dimitrije’s choice of profession, for he believed artists contributed nothing useful to society; “hollow men,” he called them. Regardless, Dimitrije was to introduce an important new element into his father’s life. During the 1950s, Dimitrije worked as a curator in Zagreb at the Modern Gallery of the Yugoslavian Academy of Arts and Sciences, under the supervision of the artist Krsto Hegedusic. Dimitrije and Hegedusic shared an interest in the work of untrained peasant artists, whom they considered more vital than academic painters. Unfortunately, this shared interest was to develop into a bitter rivalry.

 

Just as “naïve” painters were being “discovered” in Western European cities during the period between the two world wars, Yugoslavs had in the 1930s organized a group, called “Land,” that united academically educated artists, including Hegedusic, with untrained peasant painters. After the war, Ivan Generalic was hailed as the most important self-taught member of this group. His hometown, the Croatian village of Hlebine, became something of a Mecca for self-taught artists, who often emulated Generalic’s method of painting on the backs of glass panes, a technique that accentuated colors and produced clear, crisp lines. Self-taught painters--including Emerik Fejes, Ivan Rabuzin, Sava Sekulic and Matija Skurjeni--also emerged in other Yugoslav villages and towns. Unlike the Russian Communists, who took a hard line against any type of art that did not conform to their brand of socialist realism, Tito’s regime allowed this home-grown “naïve” art movement to flourish. Recognizing peasants as an important constituency, the Yugoslav Communists had secretly supported “Land” before the war; now they saw both an ideological counter to “decadent” foreign modernism and a potential export commodity in “naïve” art.

 

As the Yugoslav “naïve” movement gathered steam in the 1950s, Dimitrije Basicevic became one of its most important champions. He organized seminal exhibitions of such major figures as Fejes, Generalic, Rabuzin and Skurjeni, first at the gallery Peasants’ Harmony (where he was co-director) and then at the Gallery of Primitive Art (which he co-founded in 1957). Increasingly, Dimitrije came to challenge Hegedusic’s primacy as the instigator of the peasant artistic renaissance. In particular, Dimitrije questioned Hegedusic’s claim that he had taught Generalic to paint. Given the nastiness of these professional squabbles, Dimitrije was dismayed when his father Ilija suddenly decided, in 1956, to join the growing ranks of peasant painters. Not only did this present an unneeded complication, but Dimitrije did not even like his father’s work: compared to the exquisitely crafted, lyrical images of the Hlebine group, Ilija’s paintings seemed crude and ugly. At first, Dimitrije actually destroyed some of them.

 

Ilija was not to be dissuaded from his late-life artistic vocation, however, and in time Dimitrije came to appreciate his father’s paintings. Still, Dimitrije faced an undeniable professional conundrum. As the Director of the Gallery of Primitive Art, he could not exhibit his father’s work without being accused of a conflict of interest. And Dimitrije knew that Hegedusic, who had an extensive network of political connections, was just waiting to pounce on him. So Dimitrije came up with a plan that was as ingenious as it was, in retrospect, foolhardy: he instructed Ilija to conceal his artistic activities, and to disguise his artistic identity with a pseudonym. Thus Ilija Basicevic became Ilija Bosilj, taking his new surname from the Croatian island village of Bosiljna, where the family had a vacation retreat. Dimitrije’s goal was to get Hegedusic to endorse Ilija’s paintings on their merits, without knowing the artist’s true identity.

 

Of course, Dimitrije’s plan backfired. Ilija was not one to keep a secret, so it wasn’t long before everyone knew he was painting. And Hegedusic went beyond accusing Dimitrije of conflict of interest: he declared that Ilija was a fraud. The paintings must have been done by Dimitrije himself, or by Vojin, or perhaps by some of Vojin’s patients at the pediatric clinic where he worked. The entire Serbo-Croatian art world split into two camps, comprising accusers or supporters. Finally, Ilija was called to Zagreb, where he proved himself by painting in front of a tribunal of witnesses. Nonetheless, to publicly clear his name, Ilija had to sue the journalists who had denounced him; only after he had been vindicated in court did the press formally recant.

 

Although Ilija never received the wholehearted official backing enjoyed by other Yugoslav “naives,” he did go on to exhibit extensively, not just in Zagreb and Belgrade, but in Western European capitals such as Amsterdam, Basel, Bucharest, Dortmund, Düsseldorf, Munich, Paris and Rotterdam. Ilija was also championed by the two leading scholars of European “naïve” art, Anatole Jakovsky and Oto Bihalji-Merin. Bihalji-Merin, an internationally renowned art historian who did much to promote the art of his native Yugoslavia, anointed Ilija as one of the most powerful and original of all the postwar “naïves.” In 1971, the year before Ilija’s death, Sid established the Museum of Naïve Art—Ilijanum to honor the work of its native son.

 

The Yugoslav “naives” benefited internationally from the same desire for authenticity that fueled the ongoing interest in Western European self-taught artists, but Yugoslav peasant painters were much closer to traditional folk art than their counterparts in more industrialized countries. Reverse-glass painting, the technique favored by Generalic and his followers, was a craft historically used for devotional icons. Furthermore, the passing of the technique from generation to generation in Hlebine, while at odds with Western European notions of individualism, was in keeping with the communal nature of folk art. In addition to religious icons and church decorations, Ilija’s immediate artistic influences would have included embroidered towels and tablecloths, painted furniture and the woven wall hangings used to insulate homes in winter. As or perhaps more important than any visual stimuli, however, was the largely oral tradition of Serbian folk tales and history. The stories that Ilija told in his paintings were the same stories that he had told to his boys when they were growing up.

 

Given Ilija’s avowed disdain for artists, it is hard to understand what prompted him to begin painting. His conflicts with Dimitrije over their respective artistic careers suggest that an element of father/son rivalry may have been involved. Ultimately, of course, it is impossible to know what drives any person to paint. What is clear is that, from the moment he first picked up a brush, Ilija was obsessed. He painted all day, with the same energy he had formerly devoted to farming. He painted far into the night, despite failing vision. He painted everything in sight: the walls of his cottage, the beds, the armoire, little scraps of wood and other chance objects. Professional materials—especially canvas and linseed oil--were hard to come by in Sid, so Ilija painted on whatever was at hand. A printmaker friend volunteered to produce an edition of silk-screens, but could not sell them; so Ilija painted over those.

 

Ilija’s oeuvre can be loosely grouped according to subject matter: there are Biblical stories, scenes from the Apocalypse, episodes from myth and history, depictions of local animals, birds and the Dzigura (Sid’s main street), and most idiosyncratically, images of winged people and an idyllic parallel universe called Ilijada. These subject groupings are not discreet categories, but rather are interrelated. The flying people are on their way to Ilijada. The Dzigura exists both on earth and in Ilijada. Overall, Ilijada is a paradise that balances and opposes the horrors of the Apocalypse. Given the evil that Ilija had witnessed in his own life, it is understandable that he was obsessed with such dichotomies. His paintings are full of double-headed and two-faced creatures, which represent dualisms, not just of good and evil, but of truth and lies, kindness and aggression, the conscious and the unconscious, the outer and the inner.

 

Ilija’s symbolism is complex and at times obscure. For example, some of his paintings contain “keys” that represent flowers or refer to the female uterus, but it is not clear what doors or secrets these keys unlock. Animals often perform allegorical functions. The owl, conventionally, represents wisdom. Peacocks (a bird not entirely exotic in Sid, where one of Ilija’s neighbor kept several) are ambassadors: enchanted princes from the time of the Serbian kings, or messengers from the perfect world of Ilijada. Depicting animals came naturally to the farmer Ilija, and their presence in his work further reflects the duality and interconnectedness of the human and natural worlds. Ilija’s paintings might best be interpreted as pictograms: employing a symbolic language to tell tales that defy explication in words.

 

In this, there are interesting parallels between Ilija’s work and the art produced by his son Dimitrije. Taking the pseudonym Mangelos from the birthplace of a friend who had been killed in World War II, Dimitrije created paintings and globes covered with elegantly scripted words in many languages and colors. Mangelos’s work (exhibited to great acclaim at the 2004-5 Carnegie International) is a metaphorical Tower of Babel, alluding to the ultimate impotence of language. Both father and son had lived through terrible events that belied any available philosophical or ideological rationale, and each artist attempted to grapple with the unfathomable in his work. Because Ilija was a self-taught peasant whose sources were the Bible and Serbian myths, he has traditionally been categorized as a “naïve” artist. Yet his work amply evidences the inadequacy of such labels. “Naïve,” after all, suggests a lack of sophistication, but Ilija was looking to unlock the deepest secrets of life, the mysterious co-existence of good and evil.

 

We would like to express our heartfelt thanks to Ivana and Vojin Basicevic; without their cooperation, graciousness and hospitality, this exhibition would not have been possible. Vojin Basicevic, in particular, has been a cherished resource, whose memories and astute understanding of his father’s life and work form the basis of the foregoing essay. Copies of Dimitrije Basicevic Mangelos’s book, My Father Ilija, may be purchased for $50.00, plus $15.00 for shipping and handling. New York residents, please add sales tax. , Where applicable, checklist entries include inventory numbers and references to the Mangelos book.