Mijo Kovačić, the youngest of five children, was born on 5 August 1935 in the Podravina hamlet of Gornja Šuma, several kilometres from Molve and Hlebine. A delicate boy, Mijo spent his childhood close to his mother Ana, who passed on her imaginative strain to her son: she enriched and developed Mijo’s fancy with folk, often scary stories, which left an indelible mark on the boy. Abundance was an unknown in Podravina. One could only survive by embracing the two peasant virtues: hard work and thrift. As a child Mijo spent his days looking after the family cow in the pasture. He came to know “the soul” of his cow, and it would later accompany him as a model throughout his work. For four years Mijo attended the primary school in Molve. The daily seven kilometres which he covered on foot were not only a phase of his “accommodation to society” but also a special kind of education “in nature’s great classroom”, in which he won mastery of plant and animal life, anatomy and all other rural “courses”. In that “academy” he only had to fine-tune his painting skill. Mijo’s childhood was melancholic. Kovačić revealed his versatile talent very early on, while still a child. He wanted to continue school, but his wish could only remain an undreamt dream, Later on, in some of his pictures this lonely and withdrawn boy appeared next to a cow-drawn cart, a vat of grapes in the vineyard, sitting silently on a rung of a peasant’s cart, cuddling a cat, watching astonished from his mother’s back the world sunk in mud of the Flood. An unforgettable boy, unconsciously opposing growing up, aware that the experience of adults is a flood in which the beauty and the naiveté of the world founder. There are no winter joys in Mijo’s winters, and no child has even skated on the ice of his paintings. To put it bookishly, he was a “poet of a Shakespearean tragic bent.” Kovačić does not play with any of his subjects like a verbal juggler Kovačić treats each of his subjects seriously, and he is equally unchanging whether the theme is “frivolous” or related to a tragic event. His seriousness equates the motif of love and eroticism with any motif of life and death.
In 1953, a crucial year, the eighteen-year-old peasant from Gornja Šuma first heard of Krsto Hegedušić and Ivan Generalić. Hegedušić was out of reach in faraway Zagreb, but Ivan Generalić lived in nearby Hlebine.The meeting with Generalić was not as crucial as a “school lesson” as an encouraging example: he met an uneducated peasant who had become a painter famous throughout the world! Kovačić’s wisdom did not ask for more. Thus started his long study in the “academy” of a peasant yard in Gornja Šuma. It was indeed a course of study in which the self-taught artist won the highest degree, supreme mastery. In that “academy” Kovačić was both student and teacher.
In 1954, at the age of nineteen, the young painter exhibited his work for the first time in Koprivnica together with Gaži, Filipović and Večenaj. It was an encouraging and promising appearance. One of his more important encounters was certainly the one with Grgo Gamulin, the first to tackle the theory of naïve art in Croatia with no biases. Its result was the most exhaustive monograph on Kovačić’s painting (Kovačić, 1976). More than ten years later, Vladimir Maleković, excellent art naïve connoisseur and theoretician, penned another monograph (Mijo Kovačić,1989). The third monograph was published in 1999 by Kovačić’s Viennese friend and patron Peter Infeld. The three books integrated Kovačić’s painting in current Croatian and European art.
Kovačić faced the great masters and their work boldly and, more often than not, with great self-confidence. “The great masters could not sway me, they observed their people and their landscapes in their own time just as I observed them in mine”, he emphasized. He “reads” them with passion and pleasure, discovers in them everything he had to discover on his own in his “academy” in Gornja Šuma. Wise and self-denying, he still creates, convinced that he has not yet produced his best painting.