The most recent acquisition of the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art: Ivan Lacković, A Pauper’s Funeral, 1966, oil on glass, 420 X 800 mm
A Pauper’s Funeral by Ivan Lacković (1931-2004) is an atypical and symbolic invention of the artist. We can see a wintry twilit landscape with a funeral procession of five men and five women, a crepuscular reddish-brown-yellowish sky and huge white-yellow and ochre zones of snow, with the vegetation typical of the artist, leafless trees and little black shrubby plants with a few black birds on the wing. Dominantly positioned in the middle top part of the painting is a large dug grave, in which the coffin is to be laid; arranged around it are numerous red flowers (perhaps poppies). This detail on its own tells of the exceptional and uncommon fantasy of the concept. Also telling of the fantasy is a huge insect, a black stag beetle, at the end of the funeral column, enlarged many times relative to all other things, which in its claws, just like each of the women who is holding one red flower in her hand, has caught hold of three small red flowers.
The painting is constructed with the finest of chromatic relations, and everything in it is extremely simple and succinct, lyrical in essence, however dramatic, even tragic, the scene might be. The contrast between the light snow on the one hand and the dark vegetation and trees, birds and human figures on the other, enhances the dynamics and drama of the composition. The picture is really dominated by the illusion of huge expanses, the space itself, wide and deep. This is helped by the emphatically elongated Cinerama format, one of the characteristic features of this painter.
This excellent painting was reproduced in colour in the first Lacković monograph of 1973, in which the writer, Vladimir Maleković, concluded that Podravina in the artist’s "paintings is not captured realistically but poetically” and that the painter "is interested less in event than in experience”. He says that A Pauper’s Funeral is "the first and most important painting of the series of Lacković mythic nostalgia”. He goes on to write that ten persons are there for the "funeral of this homeless person” to his last resting place, and that with the large "floral mandorla” nature seems to have "raised to the nameless person the finest triumphal gate at the entry into nothingness”. In conclusion he observes that the white snow in "Lacković’s vision is a symbolic moral cloak”.
On a number of occasions, Ivan Lacković drew and painted funeral scenes (the oil painting Threadmaker’s Funeral, 1963, Varaždin Municipal Museum; the drawing Threadmaker’s funeral , 1966, and others) but A Pauper’s Funeral is without doubt his most impressive handling of the occasion. In this painting, everything is lodged on the cusp of dream and waking, real and fantastic, imaginary and possible, dramatic and lyrical. Probably this is correlated with the numerous deaths that profoundly marked the artist’s youth. When he was six, his great-grandmother died, and he could vividly recall her funeral the whole of his life, to which he testified on several occasions; at 13, he lost his father, at 15, his elder brother died, and soon after, the younger.
A Pauper’s Funeral is reproduced in colour in the big monograph of the artist by Giancarlo Vigorelli, published in Geneva in 1983. (A translation of the text was published by the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art in 2002.) We find in Vigorelli’s descripton of the painting, among other things, the following: "Five old women follow the coffin borne by two peasants, a little behind a priest in a white robe, the verger and a neighbour who is holding in his hand a large cross to hammer it in beside the open grave; this grave shines out amongst the snow-covered tombs and is marvellously surrounded by suddenly blossoming flowers, redder than blood. All around is misery, grief, mourning, wretchedness and neglect, but the grave heralds an unexpected triumph in which land and sky partake, and the pauper is as if already taken up into heaven by the angels”.
We would also mention Božica Jelušić’s very complex and telling brief interpretation of the painting in an essay on Lacković in 1987: "Because of the powerful and visible emotional charge and symbolism that suggests secret rites, the mystic, the occult and in a wider sense the religious (the red and white that are the colours of the acolyte during divine service, or implicitly, the colours of Yahwe, god of wisdom and love), because of the poignant manner of expressing by the flowers on the snow the love and loyalty to the Unknown (for the observer) who will rest in the grave, I would say that this is pictorial dirge, a moving fraternal farewell: at the village cemetery in Podravina lies Lacković’s younger brother Petar. His big brother is giving him tulips, calling back to mind childhood, Eden, the fiery coupling and connection of blood”.
Of course, a more extensive and more all encompassing analysis of the many stylistic, morphological, symbolic and poetic features of the work needs to be written later in greater detail. But at the end we should at least in brief indicate and explain the symbolism of the red flowers and the big stag beetle, for inherent in them are the added meaning and value of the painting. Although Lacković often makes use of hermetic symbolism that is difficult to fathom, still the sense of some of the more recondite meanings can be recognised.
If it is really poppies around the grave, as Vladimir Maleković concluded, and not tulips, as Božica Jelušić writes, it is worth recalling that in some interpretations the poppy "symbolises earth, but also represents the power of sleep and oblivion that takes hold of people after death and before their rebirth”. The poppy is the flower that can be interpreted as an elixir of life. Red is the colour of blood and the libido, of vitality; but it is also the colour of suffering, in other words, it can represent both the triumph of life over death, and also nothingness and disappearance into oblivion. Hence the many red flowers around the grave, and the three red florets in the stag beetles claws, can be interpreted as symbols of the unquenchable life that abides in the artist’s memory of the early lost father and both of his lost brothers: one flower for each of the lost, close and loved persons.
The stage beetle can be connected with the symbolism of the crab. It is true it does not have the protecting carapace, as in crustaceans, but it does have big claws. In some beliefs, the crab is the master of life and death. The beetle can be interpreted as a chthonic creature, and also as the embodiment of transcendent vital forces. And when all this is there in a picture that shows a funeral, then it can and must all be interpreted in many different keys.
A Pauper’s Funeral is also reproduced in the Lacković monographs of Ivan Sedej (Belgrade, 1976) and Tomislav Šola (Belgrade, 1986), which also tells of its importance in the artist’s work.
Since this is one of the most important and top works, from the decade of Lacković’s indubitably most creative work, the painting A Pauper’s Funeral was purchased for the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art from the Ledić Collection at the end of 2018, thanks to support from the City Office for Culture of the City of Zagreb.
Vladimir Crnković, January 2019