bio-Ilija Bosilj Basicevic

Ilija Bosilj Basicevic

(Serbian, 1895-1972)
"My Portrait from Ilijada" by Ilija Bosilj Basicevic
Ilija Bosilj Basicevic: My Portrait from Ilijada. 1966. Pencil, gouache and oil on cardboard. Private collection.

Ilija Basicevic (who later adopted the surname Bosilij as an artistic pseudonym) was born in 1895 in the town of Sid, in what is now Serbia and Montenegro. His family were peasants who earned their living farming and raising pigs. Ilija was allowed four years of elementary school before he had to assist his father more or less full-time on the farm. Basicevic hoped to improve his life by joining the army, emigrating to the U.S., or apprenticing to a trade. These dreams were all quashed by his parents, presumably because they needed his help at home.

Until 1918, Serbia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and after the outbreak of World War I, Ilija and his older brother were threatened with conscription into the army or forced labor. By repeatedly changing places with one another and then running away, both brothers managed to avoid combat. After the war, Ilija returned to the family farm, married, and had two sons, Dimitrije and Vojin. While Ilija had little formal schooling, he was highly respected within the local community. He harbored great ambitions for his children, insisting that both his sons receive full academic educations. At this time, such education was almost unheard of among the peasant class. However, Vojin would become a physician and Dimitrije (much to his father’s dismay) an art historian and critic.

World War II brought further hardships to the Basicevic family. The Ustasa, a Croatian militia, colluded with the Nazis to exterminate the Serbian population within the territory what was then Yugoslavia. Sentenced to death, Ilija and his sons temporarily fled to Austria. Although they were all able to return home after the war, matters did not improve under the Communists who had now come to power. Ilija, a hardened individualist, resented being corralled into collective farming. Under protest and the threat of being branded as an “enemy of the people,” he finally joined the local agricultural collective. However as a matter of principle, he refused to do his share of the work. As a result, he was eventually kicked out, stripped of his land, livestock and farm tools, with no way to support himself. Hereafter, he received regular visits from OZNA, the political police, and was periodically jailed on trumped-up charges.

In the 1950s, a “naive” art renaissance swept through Yugoslavia. Although the official style, as in the Soviet Union, was Socialist Realism, Krsto Hegedusic, a trained artist, had been attempting to foster a revival of native peasant traditions for several years. This peasant revival–vehement in its opposition to the “decadent” modernism of Western Europe and in tune with nationalistic sentiments–was condoned if not actively encouraged by the Communist regime. Hegedusic’s artists were mainly peasants from the Croatian village of Hlebene, whom he instructed in the venerable technique of reverse-glass painting. Characterized by crisp lines, meticulous detail and bright, clear colors, these complex compositions typically depicted happy peasants, fairy-tale forests, and bountiful fields. The Hlebene artists were showcased at the Gallery of Primitive Art in Zagreb. As their fame spread, similar groups sprouted in Slovenia and Serbia.

Ilija’s art-critic son, Dimitrije Basicevic, was an early partisan of the most famous Hlebene artist, Ivan Generalic. And it was thus that the unemployed and persecuted father, now 62 years old, got the idea of painting. At first, Dimitrije did not approve of his father’s work: it did not have the precision and refinement of the Hlebene school. In fact, Dimitrije even destroyed some of his father’s early paintings and drawings. However, the longer he looked at his father’s art, the more he became convinced of its quality. Ilija drew on extremely personal aesthetic resources, and his work is extraordinary precisely because it lacks the somewhat canned quality typical of many Hlebene-school pictures.

The gulf separating Ilija from the Hlebene school was more than style. For one thing, he was a Serb, while the others were Croats. This may partly explain why Hegedusic turned against the self-taught painter from Sid, despite the fact that Dimitrije had been a supporter of the Hlebene phenomenon. The rivalries and personal attacks that characterized the quest for power within the Communist hierarchy may also have played a role. Lastly, there was the matter of Ilija’s adversarial stance toward Communism. In any case, Dimitrije sensed potential trouble when he first decided to organize an exhibition of his father’s work; he advised Ilija to adopt the pseudonym “Bosilij” and conceal his artistic activities. But Ilija was a talkative fellow, and secrets were in any case hard to keep in a small town like Sid. The news of the painter’s identity soon leaked out, and scandal followed. When Ilija had his first one-man show at a Belgrade gallery in 1963, Hegedusic organized a campaign in the press to denounce the artist as a fraud, suggesting that Dimitrije had done the paintings.

Hegedusic’s campaign, notwithstanding Ilija Bosilij’s work, was received to great acclaim, not just in Yugoslavia, but throughout Europe. In the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, his art was exhibited repeatedly in such Yugoslav capitals as Zagreb and Belgrade, as well as in Amsterdam, Basel, Bucharest, Dortmund, Düsseldorf, Munich, Paris and Rotterdam. Bosilij was also championed by the two leading scholars of European naive art, Anatole Jakovsky and Oto Bihalji-Merin. Bihalji-Merin anointed him as one of the most powerful and original of all the naive painters from the postwar period. In 1971, Sid established the Museum of Naive Art—Ilijanum to honor the work of its native son. Unfortunately, the museum, though still extant, floundered due to lack of financial support from the regional and national governments. The civil war that led to the dismemberment of Yugoslavia following the fall of Communism has further served to limit Ilija’s international exposure in recent years. Nonetheless, his work figures prominently in the permanent collection of Charlotte Zander’s Museum of Naive Art in Bönnigheim, Germany. His work may also be found in the permanent collection of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, France.

Although Ilija was embraced internationally by aficionados of naive art, his work actually falls somewhere between the “naive” and art brut. These categories are, of course, notoriously difficult to define and disentangle. It may, however, be said that, like the naives, Ilija had a conscious sense of himself as a painter, and the fact that he worked principally in oil on canvas attests to his artistic ambitions. On the other hand, his subject matter is not derived from observable reality, but rather, in the manner of art brut, from the artist’s own idiosyncratic visions and dreams. One critic has likened the work to a personal conversation with God, in which angels and demons battle for supremacy. The double-headed creatures that feature repeatedly in Ilija’s paintings symbolize the duality of human nature, the constant struggle between good and evil impulses. Although much of Ilija’s work has Biblical overtones, Ilija considered faith a private matter and, like most Serbs, went to church only on special occasions. The artist was also influenced in his choice of subject matter by the largely oral traditions of Serbian folk poetry, myth and history. Stylistically, one can detect the influence of Byzantine icons and regional folk art, but Ilija’s work nevertheless is largely sui generis: doubly remarkable because of the rather unpromising artistic climate from which it sprang.