Backpacking around Eastern Europe, you’d be right in thinking that I saw plenty of impressive art. I saw the Lipizzaner stables in Vienna, Charles Bridge and the History of Art Museum in Prague and even a surviving statue of Stalin in Bratislava. I saw the St Alexander Cathedral in Sofia, laden with 8kg of gold and Bled Castle in Slovenia fabricated by the gods of tourism, but as fantastic as everything was, nothing compared to the new art movement brewing in Zagreb.
Because of Croatia’s location and turbulent past, the Renaissance mostly passed her by. Conflicts with the Ottoman Empire and the need to fortify cities meant that we weren’t expecting to be impressed by much art at all and were looking forward instead to cocktails along cobbled streets and watching the catwalk of the chic Europeans saunter by… but we were to be surprised.
Zagreb has flourished as the centre of cool art, bearing the dubious title of having ‘hip factor’. They have found their own niche in the creative, I don’t-care-what-anybody-thinks, fun art, and for this I love them.
We began our tour at the Naive Art Gallery which has been described as ‘primitive art’ because each artist is self-taught. They are plumbers, and factory workers, farmers and hotel owners and have no interest in art except to create it (the movement was first called ‘Peasant Art’). So they cannot copy art, or steal ideas, or in any way compromise their imagination, giving Zagreb a huge supply of diverse, individual creations: you won’t find anything pretentious here!
The paintings aren’t trying to recreate a metaphysical world, to play with light or use hidden symbols in a way that requires an art degree to understand them. They show emotions: happy, sad, or silly, or just looking at the world in a different way through bright, random colour use, in dotty designs, in dream-like or childish details. There are no rules!
My favourite artist was Mijo Kovacic, who made landscape art based on seasons and how human survived in them. Autumn and winter were bleak and dismal and forced the viewer to empathize with the characters, such as “Woman in Winter Landscape”, 1965. I didn’t need a book to see how her hunched shoulders and meagre pot made her feel out in the cold, just as I didn’t need any explanation of the simplistic view of the world presented by Ivan Rabuzin. His art was based on landscapes too: but he used dots and bright colours to portray his country. A carpenter by trade, he created what he saw on a daily basis and saw its detail fade into small dots that still created a beautiful, basic image before him.
We left that exhibition on a high, excited about making our own attempts at Naive Art (though I have yet to buy a paintbrush) and entered the cathartic, but gloomy, Museum of Broken Relationships. This we left in silence, in sympathy, and with fears for the future!
The premise of the museum is simple enough: you break up with someone, it breaks your heart, so instead of throwing things away you donate them to Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubiši, the creators, and ex-couple, to gift your unhappiness to posterity to share with the world. Cue: feeling better about the end of your relationship.
I don’t know if it works, if it provides closure, or a way to have your feelings recognized. It’s meant to be an exercise in catharsis for the broken-hearted, but to me and my friend it was pure Schaudenfreude; a great way to nosy into other peoples’ lives. Anything can be left in the museum if it means something to you, if it holds memories of your old relationship, if you are willing to share it, and share its story.
We saw a suspender belt that, if only she’d worn it, might have fixed their relationship. A tin of love incense merely entitled “doesn’t work”. Shards of her furniture, the only remains of his axe-fuelled rage. Or most poignantly the key bottle opener, “You talked to me of love, gave me small gifts every day; this is just one of them. They key to the heart. You turned my head; you just did not want to sleep with me. I realized how much you loved me only after you died of AIDS.”
And so the full extent of human emotions was contained in those four walls as love, and losing it, can trigger any reaction and can go to any depth. These people had opened their lives, and their hearts, to share a piece of it with the world and the regret shuddering around these walls is disturbing.
If you want to look around the exhibition, or even to donate to it, it will be touring around Paris, the City of Love next. I wouldn’t, however, recommend you take the special person in your life with you. You wouldn’t want to give them ideas…