Milo Lazarevic


At a time when the plastic arts are being condemned and replaced by various anti‑art movements, it is important to look at an art form that has existed almost unchanged throughout Yugoslav history and which has avoided (until recently) contamination from any of the trends and movements characterizing academic art. Naive or "primitive" sculpture in Yugoslavia has been extant since at least the twelfth century when it took the form of the Bogomil steles of Bosnia and Hercegovina. These gravestones, 30,000 of which still survive, are the products of a pagan peasant population who rejected the influences of both the Roman Catholic and the Christian Orthodox Churches. Since they have only been discovered and recognized comparatively recently, academic publications contain only a few references to these Bogomil tombstones and Serbian tombstones (Grajkutasi). Accounts of contemporary naive sculpture have been even rarer, since this artistic endeavor has been generally ignored or discounted as a significant art form by art historians and art critics. It is also possible that a survey of this sculpture may have been avoided because the accepted methods for the judgment and evaluation of art by art historians and art institutions are inapplicable to folk art.
            When naive art began to achieve recognition about twenty years ago, it was not even art institutions and museums which were responsible for its discovery. Rather, it was foreign collectors who realized the potential monetary value of these works as examples of a new "primitive" art. The art world followed the lead of these collectors and finally accepted the carvings as a reputable art form. However, with the incorporation of folk art into mainstream art, it became clear that the classical approaches to defining what is art and what is not had to be re‑evaluated and altered. The consequent changes of definition contributed to the evolution of modern art as well as to the recognition of naive sculpture. While influences from abroad dominate the works of Yugoslav academic sculptors, the naive artists until now were genuinely naive. The academic artist speaks foreign languages, travels abroad, compares his work with the work seen elsewhere, knows artistic tradition and heritage, reflects and criticizes society in his work, and proposes changes affecting both art and society. He therefore is bound to accept artistic principles and to be influenced by ideologies which eventually shape his artistic attitudes and determine his expressive moods. The naive sculptor, on the other hand, creates in isolation and is motivated by different reasons. His attitude has not been formed by any outside factors since he has generally remained ignorant of the situation outside his own village. He has not needed external influences in order to create, since his inspiration derives from his soul and his immediate experience. He has produced his sculpture more to satisfy himself than to influence or serve the needs of others. Thus, his reward is firmly grounded in the process itself rather than in the hope of public recognition. Even though these artists have been ignored by the artistic elite, their lives have been dignified through their abilities to express themselves through their media.
            Even a brief consideration of this art shows that naive sculpture is based on direct feeling and not on calculated effect. Direct carving is the predominant technique, and wood is the medium most often employed. True naive sculpture is not influenced by any outside artistic trend or sculptural principles, except, of course, the tradition handed down through the generations of the craft itself. Artistic fashion remains outside the concerns of naive sculptors. The fundamental sculptural properties such as balance, symmetry, proportion, rhythm, weight, and composition, are applied only instinctively by naive sculptors, because they are not formally trained but, rather, naturally gifted and basically self‑taught artists. These artists have no intellectual knowledge of visual or aesthetic logic, but they intuitively carve what they find significant and in harmony with their own character and peasant life‑style.
            If naive sculpture could be connected to any particular themes or sources, it would be those of rural life and perhaps those of primitive cultures of the past. The most frequent subject matter involves ceremonies such as weddings and funerals or scenes of peasants and animals. Although there are many naive sculptors presently working in Yugoslavia, only four will be examined here in any depth: Bogosov Zivkovic, Dragisa Stanisavljevic, Milan Stanisavljevic, and Dragutin Aleksic. Mato Generalic, Petar Sovanovic, Evan Knez‑Jurjevic, Djordje Kreca, and Petar Smajic are also among the most highly admired of the naive sculptors. All these artists have achieved eminence through their participation in various worldwide exhibitions since 1960.
            Bogosov Zivkovic, carving in wood, makes full use of the essential characteristics of his material. His earthy sculptural images peer calmly from the tree trunks on which they seem more drawn than carved. They seem to have no pretensions towards spiritual significance, although they perhaps relate to folk tales involving spirits of the forest or countryside. Zivkovic carves members of his family and of his community; he combines their bodies and heads with animals, vegetation, architecture, and characters from old Serbian manuscripts to create the elements of a fully elaborated narrative. Crowded in different scales into the confining cylindrical space, they seem like characters from a fairy tale as they confront the viewer frontally.
            The Column (Fig. 34) contains an unsophisticated world of figures and animals, houses, and plants. In order to absorb the full richness of this work, it must be perceived in the round. However, once undertaken, this endeavor can overwhelm the viewer since the complexity of detail makes it difficult to draw a simple meaning from the work. The elements are packed together, one on top of the other, in a vertical pattern of upright poses which gives an upward movement to the piece. All the figures have massive features and are portrayed rigidly and awkwardly, but a close observation discloses that there are indeed subtle differences in gesture, direction, and expression. The simplification of each individual element unifies the composition, but because there is such a large collection of forms and details that overlap one another, it is difficult to experience this column as a unified sculpture. Unity does exist, though, in the dependence of all the figures on the column itself, indicating the sculptor's regard for his medium, or perhaps his fear of venturing far from its traditional limits. The moody faces barely project from the wood, while the sculpture of Zivkovic's son Milan is much more disturbing with its suggest‑ion of a primitive surrealism.
            The Figure (Fig. 35) by Milan emits a variety of sensations and messages, and is a bit more susceptible to modern interpretations than the piece by Zivkovic. It is dramatically expressive, bordering on the tragic; yet, it also possesses a bizarre humor and touch of irony. The features revealing the darker aspects of this work include the distortion of the human figure, the shackles capturing the legs and waist, and the device chaining the heart, tongue, nose, and forehead. The ear, which is formed of a human profile and seems to be whispering to the head, and the heart, which has escaped the confines of the chest cavity and is perched on the breastbone are lighthearted features which counteract the overall seriousness of the piece.
            The interplay of round and angular forms emphasizes the dual nature of the work. The overall shape is round; its curves are dynamically contrasted with the serrated "crown," rectangular nose, rigid belt, and the diagonal bars resembling chains on the legs. The sources of this work are still instinctive rather than rational. Its imaginative properties could almost be seen as childlike and the work holds its own against intricate interpretations.
            The Unhappy Shepherd (Fig. 36) by Dragutin Aleksic is calm and restrained in mood. It is carved in a distinctive controlled style. Sadness is reflected in the deeply‑hollowed eyes of the face; yet the figure emanates a spiritual strength which prevents it from being overwhelmed by anguish. This sculpture is less insistently cylindrical than most other naive works, but it is still carved from a tree trunk which limits the sculptor by its dimensions and characteristics. Although pierced by space, the piece's three‑dimensionality is restricted because the frontal emphasis of the sculpture requires a relief‑like approach.
            Since up until the present time, naive sculpture has remained outside of the cultural mainstream, it has not become contaminated by outside influences. With its new‑found popularity, however, there is not only the reasonable fear that it will suffer from self‑consciousness or be corrupted by the invasion of new technological materials, but there is also a more dangerous phenomenon to be considered. This involves the incursion into Yugoslavia of tourists from Western Europe and the United States who have quickly become interested in acquiring native art products. Realizing the demand of the tourists for handcrafted goods and the high profits to be made from this, entire villages in some instances have abandoned their agricultural activities and have undertaken carving as their means of livelihood. As a result, the works lack the homogeneity of high craftsmanship that characterized the genuine naive artist of the past. Previously, each sculpture represented the individual talent of the artist and the unconscious experiences in his soul. Now the new demands of the market have caused the carver to sacrifice his artistic freedom in order to make only products that are the most commercially viable.
Many folk artists have also become aware of the international art circuits and of the existence of art galleries and museums. Even as recently as fifteen years ago, the naive sculptor had no contact with other sculptors and did not even have access to photographs of their works. Now, the media have contributed to their awareness of art and the possibility of making money by complying with the art market. Naive sculpture receives attention from art critics and art historians and is exhibited in museums throughout the world.
​             Due to these developments, naive art must strive very hard in order to stay "naive." It must fight the influences of contemporary art critics who are trying to absorb it into their modernist philosophies. It must resist the art dealers and their ideology of profit, and avoid bowing to the art collectors and their zeal for acquiring unique works of art. There are still many genuinely naive sculptors in Yugoslavia, as well as many who are not quite so "naive." At this point, one can only hope that the great tradition of naive art will have a future as well as a past.