Peasant Artists and Communist Praxis in Interwar Yugoslavia

By Christina Novakov-Ritchey

Anti-capitalist and anti-colonial revolutions erupted across the globe between the two World Wars, and southeast Europe was no exception. Following the First World War, much of the population of the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes—later to be renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia—felt disillusioned with the idea of “Europe,” and understandably so after suffering hundreds of thousands of casualties during the war. The war brought an end to Habsburg occupation, but the specter of the war’s costs remained. Living under this morbid shadow, communist revolutionaries sought to expose exploitation by western and central European powers and to galvanize revolutionary movements at home. The founding of the Kingdom was no substitute for proletarian revolution, and the peasant’s intensified exploitation under nascent capitalism was impossible to ignore. Peasant debts soared in the wake of the global financial crisis of 1929-1939. People’s livestock were repossessed, prices for agricultural products plummeted, and people went hungry. Police violence escalated and debt payments were enforced beyond the line of subsistence. 

After experiencing success in federal elections, communist activities were banned by King Alexander I in December 1920. Driven underground, art became one of few arenas in which communist praxis could continue developing. The art collective Grupa Zemlja (The Earth Group) and their collaboration with peasant artists of the Hlebine School articulated a significant anti-colonial, anti-fascist, and communist aesthetic agenda during the interwar period, which later became a central element of socialist Yugoslavia’s official artistic agenda.

Formed in Zagreb in 1929, Zemlja and its tendentious allies on the literary left critiqued how Croatia had been forced into a dependent relationship with the Habsburg Empire, and then with central and western Europe. [1] Krsto Hegedušić, one of Zemlja’s founding members, wrote that as a consequence of the imperial occupation of Croatia, “[o]ur bourgeoisie was underdeveloped, and economically, politically and culturally connected and dependent on the cities of central Europe.” [2] Following independence from the Habsburg Empire, Croatia did not witness a decolonial blossoming of authentic local art. Rather, Hegedušić diagnosed the post-war art scene as dominated by confusion as painters became “lost in the ape-like imitation of various Parisian art courses,” which were imported without any critical reflection. [3] Rather than adapting bourgeois western aesthetics to the local milieu, Zemlja’s goal was to produce “art that would serve social progress, which could become a public good, and not the private property of individuals.” [4]

While Zemlja began as a group of academically trained artists, the group’s crowning achievement was its collaboration with peasant artists from the village of Hlebine, where Hegedušić had grown up. The value of the peasant artists, for Hegedušić, lay in both their intimate experience of exploitation and their expertise in aesthetics that could effectively communicate with the peasant public (then over eighty percent of the population). Hegedušić identified peasant aesthetics as authentically local, communist-leaning, and something that “could not be poisoned by anything imported.” [5]

Generalić, Ivan. Chicken Thief / Kokošar, 1934, watercolor. Šid, The Museum of Naive Art  “Ilijanum.”

Hegedušić approached the Hlebine School of peasant artists in 1929, after seeing Ivan Generalić’s work displayed in the village. Generalić witnessed firsthand the violence of the state as people’s livestock were repossessed for mounting debts that they had been coerced into taking on. With Hegedušić’s guidance, Generalić began synthesizing his critique of state violence and exploitation. Describing his watercolor Chicken Thief (1934), Generalić said “I painted the injustices the peasants had to put up with. The police came often in those days, and since no one was ready to give up his animals or his last sack of grain, many were beaten up or even arrested. The police always came with bayonets, and I painted many pictures like this one because I couldn’t stand the injustices.” [6]

As a consequence of his politically-engaged artistic activity, Generalić was arrested multiple times and was later imprisoned during the Second World War. Recalling one of his experiences he said, “They arrested me as a communist and took me to the police station, and from there in chains to a place called Drnje. There I was beaten, and my nose started bleeding; with my cap I tried to stop the blood from dripping on the floor, but one of them told me to go on painting with that communist blood! And yet at the time I didn’t even know who Marx and Lenin were.” [7] Notably, the collaboration between Zemlja and the Hlebine School developed not out of a shared political identity, but out of a shared diagnosis of the exploitation and abuse of the peasantry and the proletariat. Generalić demonstrated communist politics before he even encountered the official discourse.

Generalić, Ivan, The Đelekovec Rebellion / Đelekovečka buna, 1936, oil on cardboard.

One of Generalić’s most significant paintings from the interwar period is The Đelekovec Rebellion (1936), which depicts successful peasant resistance to police violence. The painting shows peasants rising up against police and priests alike, featuring a priest tripping over his cassock as he runs away with the disgraced police officers. In an interview, Generalić narrated the original event: 

The police had come as usual to carry away the peasants’ belongings and had taken everything that could be sold. But the exasperated people attacked them with hoes and sticks and anything else they could get their hands on—and chased them away. Even the priest had to escape with the police, and while he was running he kept tripping over his cassock and got a good beating besides. When they told me about it, I had a good laugh at the priest. [8]

Generalić’s use of humor perfectly captures the peasants’ relationship to the banalized violence of the state. By humorously depicting the priest tripping over his cassock, Generalić invites the viewer to laugh at the priest and the police. His use of humor also deepens his political critique as he identifies the police and the church as both perpetuating the violent exploitation of the peasant. 

Zemlja’s turn to the village echoes what Amilcar Cabral has referred to as the “reconversion of minds,” which “is completed only during the course of the struggle, through daily contact with the popular masses in the communion of sacrifice required by the struggle.” [9] All of the peasant members of Zemlja, in addition to the university-trained members, participated in the armed liberation struggle. However, some of Zemlja’s peasant collaborators never lived to see the fruits of their labor. Hlebine School artist Mirko Virius produced watercolors and paintings that dealt with the harsh material conditions of the interwar village. Arrested for his communist politics, Virius was killed by fascists in a concentration camp in 1943. [10]

Yugoslavia’s revolution was a peasant revolution. The vast majority of the 800,000 Partisans who fought in the war were peasants. [11] Grupa Zemlja recognized that a successful communist revolution required the support of the peasantry, and they knew that to achieve that support, they had to understand the village on their own terms, to spend time with the people, and to learn from them. After the success of the revolution, Generalić and Hegedušić became influential figures in the formulation of Yugoslavia’s cultural agenda. Generalić is heralded as one of the forerunners of Yugoslavia’s self-taught art movement (also known as “naïve art”) and Hegedušić notably produced some of the most visceral memorials to the hundreds of thousands of people who died in the struggle against fascism.


Christina Novakov-Ritchey is a Ph.D. Candidate in Culture and Performance at UCLA. Her work focuses decoloniality, peasant aesthetics, and socialist modernity in the Yugoslav region. She also works on video and performance art in global postsocialism. On Twitter @NovakovRitchey

Title Image: Generalić, Ivan, Death of Virius / Smrt Viriusa, 1959, oil on glass. Zagreb, Croatian Museum of  Naïve Art.

Further Readings: 

Crnković, Vladimir. Art of the Hlebine School. Zagreb: Hrvatski muzej naivne umjetnosti, 2005.

Kirn, Gal. The Partisan Counter-Archive: Retracing the Ruptures of Art and Memory in the 

Yugoslav People’s Liberation Struggle. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2020. 

Prelog, Petar. “The Association of Artists Zemlja (1929–1935) and Artist Networking.” Život umjetnosti: časopis o modernoj i suvremenoj umjetnosti i arhitekturi 99, no. 2 (2016): 28–39. https://hrcak.srce.hr/180254

Robertson, James M. “Literature, Revolution, and National Aesthetics on the Interwar Yugoslav Left.” Nationalities Papers 46, no. 2 (2018): 301–17. https://doi.org/10.1080/00905992.2017.1341471

Lange, Barbara, Dirk Hildebrandt, and Agata Pietrasik, eds. Rethinking Postwar Europe: Artistic Production and Discourses on Art in the late 1940s and 1950s. Vienna: Böhlau Verlag, 2019. https://doi.org/10.7788/9783412514020

Endnotes:

[1] On the literary left, see Stanko Lasić, Sukob na književnoj ljevici 1928-1952 (Zagreb: Liber, 1970).

[2] Krsto Hegedušić, “O našem slikarstvu,” Savramena stvarnost, no. 2 (1933): 45. All translations are the author’s.

[3] Hegedušić, “O našem,” 46.

[4] Ibid, 47.

[5] Ibid. 

[5] Nebojša Tomašević, The Magic World of Ivan Generalić (New York: Rizzoli, 1976), 121. 

[6] Tomašević, Magic World, 56.

[7] Ibid., 123.

[8] Amilcar Cabral, “National Liberation and Culture,” in Return to the Source: Selected Speeches by Amilcar Cabral(New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973), 45.

[10] Virius was killed in the Zemun camp. Generalić memorialized his death in his 1959 painting The Death of Virius. See title image.

[11] Chalmers Johnson, Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1962), 173.

One thought on “Peasant Artists and Communist Praxis in Interwar Yugoslavia

  1. A SUPERB post, thank you so much!

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