The phrase “Yugoslav naïve school” encapsulates a problematical contradiction: “naïve” artists, idiosyncratic creators without academic training, cannot really constitute a “school.” To the extent that the artists subsumed within the Yugoslav rubric drew from local peasant traditions like reverse-glass painting, their work should more accurately be termed “folk” art. The group dates back to the years between the world wars, when Yugoslavia first emerged from the rubble of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as an autonomous nation. Seeking to counter the influence of avant-garde artistic trends from Western Europe, the artist Krsto Hegedušić cofounded a group called “Earth.” Earth sought to promote a distinctive national art, and to that end, Hegedušić began teaching peasants in the Croatian village of Hlebine to paint.
The Hlebine artists began exhibiting together in the 1930s, but the group reached its apogee only after World War II. Hegedušić and his most influential pupil, Ivan Generalić, expanded upon the technique of reverse-glass painting, formerly used mainly to copy religious prints, by enlarging the format and incorporating a variety of subjects ranging from landscapes and farm scenes to folk legends. By the 1960s, Yugoslav naïve art had become an export commodity, promoted by the government as a means of earning hard currency and Western goodwill. Inevitably, the style pioneered by Generalić, with its bold bright colors and stylized flat shapes, was watered down by imitators. There were, however, a few artists, such as Emerijk Feješ, Dragan Gaži and Ivan Rabuzin, who managed to formulate original styles within these broader parameters. On the other hand, true iconoclasts like the Serbian artist Ilija Bosilj quickly fell out of favor with Hegedušić, who by then had established a formidable power base within the Communist regime.
Otto Kallir was interested in bringing the work of the Yugoslav naives to the United States, mounting a major show at the Galerie St. Etienne in 1968. Although doing business with communist Yugoslavia was difficult, the gallery for some years continued to show work by Feješ, Gaži, Generalić, and Rabuzin. From 2006 to 2021, the gallery was the exclusive representative of Ilija Bosilj.