Naïve Art and a Cemetery

The rain of yesterday morning and afternoon stopped today. However, at the start of this morning, clouds filled the sky, allowing nary a blue patch. And the temperature took a drop today. When I checked my weather app after breakfast it reported just seven degrees Celsius in Zagreb. But I layered up and headed out to visit the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art and the Mirogoj cemetery.

Croatian Museum of Naïve Art

The tour book I use gave the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art the highest rating of all the sights it listed in Zagreb.

I’ll be honest even if it once again illustrates my philistine nature, I’d never heard of naïve art before seeing the name of this museum in the tour book and the walking tour app I use.

I thought, naïve? Aren’t all inanimate objects the epitome of naïveté? Don’t they all lack knowledge, experience, and judgment? Isn’t that pretty much the definition of inanimate? So it really makes sense to talk about the naiveté, or lack thereof, only of sentient beings. It’s just a given for inanimate objects.

Then I thought, maybe that’s not it at all. Maybe it’s art that appeals to naïve people. Heck, I thought. I’m naïve about a great many things. Maybe it will speak to me.

Then I read past the title. The tour book explains that in the late 19th century a movement started in the art world that looked beyond the art of academics and upper class salons to artists they thought were worthy of attention, but didn’t necessarily have a formal training in art. As I understand it, it was the artists’ lack of classical training that led them to be called naïve.

Oh great, a veneration of naïveté over expertise. Art is subjective. Like whatever you like, no matter the training and expertise of the artist. But, for all that is holy, such as chopped liver [foreshadowing], please don’t tell the denizens of social media this. They’ll extrapolate it as proof, absolute proof, that we should shun all “elite” expertise, even when it comes to objective life and death matters.

In the Museum

The Croatian Museum of Naïve Art is quite small, just a half-dozen small rooms on a single floor. However, my tour book says it will move to a new building in 2025 or 2026. The book didn’t say, but I assume it will be a larger building. The museum’s collection includes more than 1,850 works. It can display only a very small fraction of that in its current location.

I don’t think the founders of the movement intended any offence, but I find it insulting that they referred to the artists as naïve. Some of the works I saw showed deep insight into the human condition. As evidence, consider the examples below.

Contented fellow (Sorry, I don't know the name of the artist or the piece)
Contented fellow (Sorry, I don’t know the name of the artist or the piece)

Sorry, I forgot to snap a picture of the placard next to this piece, so the name of the artist and title of the piece are lost to me now. But, just look at that fellow above. Could a naïve artist and his or her naïve art capture the contentment of that smile, coupled with the slight sadness of the furrowed brow and downturned eyes? Really. A mix of happiness and sadness defines the human condition.

All that’s missing are a heavy doses of fear, dread, anxiety and consternation. But maybe that’s me.

Ivan Generalić
Eclipse of the Sun, 1961
oil on canvas
Ivan Generalić
Eclipse of the Sun, 1961
oil on canvas

And talk about range of emotion, look at the painting above. Start with the religious procession on the left. Resolutely, they march to face the eclipse with their religion, presumably expecting their god to save them from this ominous event.

Then there are the man and the woman on their knees seemingly begging the eclipse to deliver onto them something. Probably a bagel with cream cheese and lox for one and a large serving of chopped liver [foreshadowing] for the other.

The guy in the pink shirt and vest, with a hat on his head is clearly saying, “What? Really? This is what we get? As if we don’t have enough problems in the world and now something is blocking our sun. Who needs this tsuris?”

But the one who really needs to worry, or maybe rejoice, I’m not sure which, is the woman holding the pillows. Their world blacks out unexpectedly in the middle of the day, but she has a pillar of bright light beaming down on her and her alone. Clearly something of biblical proportion is about to happen to her.

The woman with her should warn her, “Don’t go into the light!”

Those two off by themselves, facing away? Who knows about them?

And the mix of emotions in the large group are too many and complex to get into because I’m becoming bored of this analysis.

But the only ones who seem sanguine about the eclipse are the roosters, particularly the smaller white one, lower down on the tree. Bravo, roosters! Stay calm!

Naïve art? Ha! Ha, I say!

Ivan Generalić
War, Famine, Smog, 1985
Oil on Glass
Ivan Generalić
War, Famine, Smog, 1985
Oil on Glass

I noticed when typing the caption above that the last name of the painter of this piece is the same as the the last name of the artist who painted the previous piece. I don’t know if they are related, but I rejoiced when I saw that. It meant I could cut and paste the last name rather than having to type that accent again.

Looking at this painting, how can anyone call the painter naïve? How deep. How profound. Humans’ inhumanity to humans as represented by war, famine and smog.

What more can I say? No, really. What more can I say? I’d like to expand this analysis a little, but nothing is coming to me.

Matija Skurjeni
Animal World, 1961
Oil on Canvas
Matija Skurjeni
Animal World, 1961
Oil on Canvas

Alright. You got me. I’ll accept calling this one naïve art. It’s titled “Animal world.” There’s a dominant dinosaur in the picture and a whole bunch of species. I don’t think a single one of those other species existed before dinosaurs went extinct. I’m fully prepared to call a young earth believer naïve.

Mirogoj Cemetery

By the time I left the Naïve art gallery, the clouds broke. It seemed to be a great time to take a nice walk to the one remaining tour book- and walking tour app-recommended sight that is open and that I hadn’t yet seen, the Mirogoj cemetery.

Mirogoj cemetery is about a 45-minute walk from the gallery, and would have been a little more than an hour’s walk from my hotel if I left from there. The walk took me out of the main part of the city into some lower density areas. One short stretch felt almost rural. The rest felt suburban, but in a good way.

Entrance to Mirogoj Cemetery
Entrance to Mirogoj Cemetery

The cemetery is absolutely immense. It seems to go on forever and ever.

And the dead-people population density is incredibly high. The cemetery has a number of trees, but few grassy areas. It’s pretty much all graves, with little space between them.

What’s more, they are multi-tenant graves. Unlike in most North American cemeteries I’ve seen, which accomodate one or two people per grave, the two usually being spouses, whole families get buried in the same grave here.

Some of the graves are double or triple width, but most are single width. I saw many gravestones on single-width graves with a half-dozen or so names on them. One I saw had so many names that I had to count just so I could report it here. 12. Twelve people in one single-width grave. Not to get to morbid, but I assume they bury the corpses one on top of the other. But how do they know how deep to dig the grave for the first occupant if they don’t know how many people will have to rest above that person?

Graves at Mirrogoj Cemetery
Graves at Mirrogoj Cemetery

All of the graves I saw had a platform raised above the ground. But most of them weren’t high enough for a body to be buried above ground. Some of those platforms were made of highly polished black or dark-grey marble. Others look like concrete.

Most of the tombstones were quite plain, but some included large statues and other decorations.

All of the inscriptions were just names and dates. I didn’t see any of the mini obits you see in North American gravestones. No, “Loving wife, adoring parent, beloved sibling, indifferent cousin, and the best darned knitter you’ve ever seen.” Alright, I’ve never seen a tombstone quite like that, but most of the ones I’ve seen in North America carry more than just the name and birth and death dates of the deceased. Then again, North American tombstones generally don’t have to list a baseball team sized group of people, so there’s room to say more about each of the deceased on them.

At the entrance to the cemetary, there’s an attractive domed building, with an arcaded space off it. My tour book tells me the domed building is a mausoleum and the arcaded area has VIP tombs. Construction fencing surrounds all that. My guess is that, like pretty well major structure in Zagreb, it’s still undergoing restoration after the 2023 earthquake.

Both the tour guide on the walking tour I took the other day, Marko, and Wikipedia told me that people of many religions are buried in Mirogoj cemetary. Marko said there are different sections for different religions, but the rules are that there can’t be any barriers dividing the sections. He said you won’t know when you leave one section and enter another other than by looking at the gravestones.

A stone angel at Mirrogoj Cemetery
A stone angel at Mirrogoj Cemetery

I don’t know about that. I didn’t look at every grave, but I did walk extensively through the massive cemetery. This is just a guess, but I think at least 90% of the graves I saw had crosses on them. Some others had no religious symbols on them. And I saw three or four crescents, but they were in amongst graves with crosses. I did see one gravestone with both a cross and a crescent on it.

But stars? I saw two or three with stars, but they were shaped like sheriff’s stars, not Magen Davids.

Being culturally Jewish, I was on the lookout for the Jewish section that is allegedly there. I was about to give up and leave, but then I spotted another section off to the side and up a small hill.

The gravestones were way too far away for me to make out any inscriptions or religious symbols on them. So I don’t know what made me think this, but I looked at the size, shape and what I could tell of the material of the tombstones from that distance and said to myself, “Those look like Jewish graves.”

So I hiked over there and, sure enough, I was wrong. Nothing but crosses. I left the cemetery after that.


On the way back from the cemetery, I pulled out Google Maps and looked for the first nice restaurant in the old town along the way I was headed. The one I found is nicely decorated and had great food.

I don’t normally have a starter at lunch, but I did here. I read somewhere a regional specialty is a dish called “strukli.” And on the walking tour, Marko raved about strukli. This restaurant offered it as an appetizer. How to describe it? My understanding is that there are a few ways to prepare it. At this restaurant, it was kind of like a wide, flat pasta, but the texture was a bit more pasty than most Italian pasta. They rolled the “pasta” into coils, and put a few coils into a small dish. There was also a thick white cheese sauce. They baked and served it in that dish.

The closest I can come to describing the taste is like mac and cheese using a white cheese, but tastier. It was very good, but also extremely filling. It ranks high in the “comfort food” family.

Despite the strukli definitely being an appetizer size, I could have left full with just that. But I didn’t. I’d already ordered a lamb patty with a side salad. Very tasty.

Oh, I almost forgot the best part. Before he brought the strukli, the waiter brought a free amuse-bouche. It was a small-finger sized piece of toast topped with chopped liver pâté. How can anyone not love a restaurant that brings you free chopped liver?

I also had a glass of wine and an espresso and, after a lingering lunch, left happy. Or as happy as someone like me can ever be.

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