Hristifor Crnilović’s life was an exciting one, certainly more than his slightly pompous old-school name and passion for national costumes, would let on. Born in a middling family in Vlasotince in 1886, Crnilović decided to pursue a painterly career and moved to Munich to learn his trade. In Munich, according to one source, he was in class with Adolf Hitler to prepare them for the artist Academy, which his classmate famously failed to achieve.
When he returned to Serbia after his studies, Crnilović achieved some acclaim with his modernist paintings, however the outbreak of WWI, meant that he and his brothers, had to join the Serbian army in its gruelling retreat though Albania as part of the famous “1300 Corporals”. One of Crnilović’s brothers died during the retreat, and Hristofor fell gravely ill, which in later life made his painting difficult. After the war he returned to Vlasotince as an art teacher, however he did not settle into typical provincial life. His appreciation of the Balkan handicrafts and bachelor status, inspired him to travel and collect handicrafts around Southern Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia.
He would spend all his free time (and inheritance) on travelling around the remote towns to try to negotiate with local artisans to sell him their crafts. He was especially keen on acquiring very ornate gowns and jewellery, the most prized possessions of local women, which he acquired mostly by haggling with and befriending old ladies. Through all his travels he kept a journal that detailed these encounters (as well as his many stays with local female school teaches), but also contains invaluable ethnographic detail. Crnilović systematically captured the way local women made their clothes through diagrams and drawings which helped later generations replicate the craft. Unsurprisingly, Vlasotice townsfolk found him strange and called him “pustood” (a bit like “loner”) for his preference for travelling to strange villages over enjoying the booming provincial town’s social scene. Despite the ridicule, as we can glean from the letters to his sister, he was unfazed and found his project to give him meaning, especially after the trauma of war.
It is to Serbia’s great benefit that he continued with his hobby. The most celebrated result of his travels is an impressive collection of richly embroidered women’s clothes, currently on display in Manak’s house (one of the few remaining traditional Balkan houses in Belgrade) as part of Ethnographic museum’s collection. His collection also comprised other objects, from traditional furniture to coins, as well as a mass of photographs, drawings and journal entries. As the regions Crnilović travelled through rapidly modernised, his collection preserved their vanishing crafts and culture from early 20th century.
Despite his contribution to Serbian ethnography and art, after WWII Crnilović fell on hard times and died in 1961 in abject poverty. Thankfully, with the recent renovation of Manak’s house and a documentary film about Crnilović the memory of his extraordinary life is better preserved. It is well worth going to see his wonderful collection, especially as the knowledgeable museum staff are very keen to tell you stories about Crnilović and give you an idea about the lives of Balkan women at the turn of 20th century by telling you the history of their magnificent clothes.