Tucked away up a narrow flight of steps in the small seaside resort of Cavtat, is the home of one of Croatia’s most celebrated artists. I knew nothing of Vlaho Bukovac before visiting the home in which he grew up. What enchantment lay within the old stone house which Bukovac inherited from his Italian grandfather! Stepping from the heat of the garden into the cool interior, we were greeted by a diminutive young woman with a gentle, old-fashioned manner. Her enthusiasm for the artist and his works was quiet but fervent.
Bukovac’s frescoes cover the walls of the house: exotic animals, fish and birds fill painted panels on the lower section of the walls, with family portraits and washes of ochre and umber above. All were revealed beneath a layer of paint when the house underwent restoration after the Croatian War of Independence. The worn, rubbed away quality of these works which Bukovac painted as a teenager recalls ancient Pompeiian frescoes, but they have a charming naïve quality: a slightly odd rhinoceros stands guard at the top of the first flight of stairs,
an anteater flicks out its long tongue and a gracefully rendered swan opens its wings.
But the room which took my breath away is entirely blue – a heavenly lavender blue. Between painted columns wreathed in foliage, faintly sketched classical statues emerge as if from a mist. Arabesques of leaves and yellow flowers are strewn across the ceiling and a central garland encloses a a white-clad female figure. This is a room to sit and dream in!
The top floor of the house contains Bukovac’s studio and a selection of his paintings – portraits, landscapes and studies in a variety of different styles. After a successful period in Paris, studying at the École des Beaux Arts under Alexandre Cabanel and exhibiting at the Paris Salon, he returned to Croatia and became the leader of a new modern movement known as the “Colourful Zagreb School”. His portraits, especially those of his sisters and his children, display a great sensitivity. The academic style of Cabanel, which he adopted in Paris, is the least pleasing, having none of the spontaneous charm of his other less mannered works or lively half-finished sketches.
Shortly after visiting Bukovac’s house I came across this very beautiful painting of two women, in the collection of the museum at the Franciscan monastery in Dubrovnik. Very pleased to have discovered this largely unsung artist!