As one of the great pleasures of life, art is also one of the best reasons to travel. It is especially satisfying to explore art outside of Paris, New York, and London; beyond those centers, one finds artists that have stood outside the reach of art history surveys, but produced none-the-less beautiful and provocative works. They are artists that help me connect a place and its times to broader movements in the arts. To see modern art outside of Paris, New York, and London is also interesting because one sees more figurative art and so-called genre-painting, that evokes better the local scene than does abstraction and conceptual art (although there was plenty of abstract art in Bucharest).
In Romania, we have examined collections of the National Art Museum in Bucharest and the Brukenthal Museum in Sibiu. Both were marvelous, but I found that I had too little time in them to grasp in any way the ‘art of Romania.’ When we were in the museums, I asked about catalogs for their collections, hoping that I would find a volume of pictures that would help to remind me about the art; however, there were no catalogs and even few books about the art in the collections. In contrast to the museum shops of North American and western European cities, there are were no racks of postcard images of paintings and certainly no ‘on request’ digital reproductions of the art works. The notes that I made in the museums are spotty and incomplete—but I try here to gather a few observations.
On the Piata Revolutei in Bucharest, where a metal fence facing the street has placards with photographs and text that tell a story of the trade unions and velvet revolutions as well as the more violent overthrow of Ceausescu in Romania that led to the downfall of the communist East Bloc of Soviet influence in the late 1980s, the National Art Museum is housed in a former royal palace. The gray monolith dates from the 1920s and now has European art in one wing and Romanian art in another.
The pall of the entryway to the Romanian wing was mortuary. A thin security guard stood when we opened the heavy doors, and he swept an arm toward the ticket window to give us direction. We purchased tickets and walked up marble stairs to the galleries of Romanian Medieval art. On the landing outside of these galleries, security guards were having a vibrant chat that quieted when they saw us. One of them urged us through the closed double doors opposite the stairwell and another of the guards followed us. The mood was faintly ominous—it was an oppressive sense that I had felt before in the East Bloc, especially when I went through Checkpoint Charlie many years ago into the East Berlin of the German Democratic Republic.
If the atmosphere of the museum’s entryway was like a mortuary, the gallery of Romanian Medieval art was like a tomb. The stagnant, old air was thin and hot. I struggled to breathe.
The Medieval of Europe was a thoroughly Christian time, and I have had no religious training. My university courses on world religions and anthropological perspectives of religion don’t really count as the kind of religious training that teaches one the body of stories and symbols of a particular religious faith. I feel this lack of religious training when I am in museums in Europe that have significant collections of Medieval and Renaissance art, in which much of the imagery refers to biblical stories. I am limited to admiring that art in formal ways rather than connecting to the narrative that the paintings were meant traditionally to evoke. I am remarkably devoid of connection to the myths and images of the Christian tradition; thus, when I look at Medieval art in particular, which was thematically largely confined to a few scenes from the life of Christ and so stylistically limited that neither personal artistic expression nor the individuality of the sitter or scene come through, I feel lost.
The displays of Romanian Medieval art began with carved wooden doors from churches, illuminated Bibles, and embroidered fabrics. I began to think about a carved door for my pseudo-Frank Lloyd Wright house, which is all planar surfaces, hard angles, and projecting eaves, and wondered where I could find a craftsman with the adze and chisel skills to sculpt a door. Beyond these fascinating relics there were altarpieces and paintings. The styles were pervasively Romanesque—stiff, highly stylized and highly conserved figures set against a background of gold leaf. Any sense of natural setting or perspective was lacking. Any sense that the figure portrayed was an individual was lacking and so was any expression of artistic individuality. Romanesque art reified selected images approved by the church in Constantinople and its later dispersed bishops. The many Madonna and child images are similar enough to one another that one might think they had been reproduced by computer—indeed, as they are today for sale in tourist shops and monasteries.
This Romanesque style of these earliest altarpieces from Romania is not surprising—it was the art of much of Medieval Europe and was pervasive largely throughout the Christian domain of the time. What surpises me is the long persistence of the Romanesque in Romania.
When Giotto in 13h century Italy began to paint Madonnas with shadowed faces and bodies covered by folds of drapery—giving a hint of human form that went beyond outline and linear features—Romanesque art began to lose its appeal in the West. It soon disappeared in Florence and other cities in which artists became intrigued by classical statues and the marvels of depth that could be simulated on canvas.
There is no artistic renaissance in late Medieval Romania—the Romanesque style persists through the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. One feels the awesome power of the Orthodox Church in this persistence—in the absence of individual expression in art for centuries (at least in the art that remains)—or perhaps it was the isolation of Romania, caught as it was between the Black Sea and Carpathian Mountains, that kept out new ideas.
At least by the 18th century, Romanian art had expanded to include portraits of Orthodox bishops. These are nearly surreal—bright faces enclosed by gray hair and beards and enclosed by black garb and set in a dark umber background.
Had we known that Bucharest’s National Art Museum had an upper floor devoted to modern Romanian art, we would not have exhausted ourselves with the vast collection of religious art. The air on the upper floor was no less like that of a tomb, hot and dead, than on the lower floor, but the art, in contrast, was engaging.
We went suddenly in one flight of stairs from Madonnas surrounded in gold leaf to Theodore Aman’s paintings of garden parties, villages by the sea, and orientalist fantasies of harems. Asserting himself as the center of creation, Aman also interestingly painted his studio, showing a model posing and his paintings on the wall. He is not as audacious as Courbet on this subject of the artist’s domain and power, but one sensed in Aman’s self-reflective paintings his image of himself as a creator, who found great pleasure in the place he had made.
The most powerful of the Aman paintings was “Return from the Ball,” which portrayed a woman, who was perhaps in her 30s, dressed in a ball gown and slumped in a chair. She is alone in the room, except for a few white doves. Two large bouquets of flowers add a certain pleasurable lushness to the scene. The woman’s coat, with its pink lining showing, has been thrown on a chair next to her. In the woman’s reflective moment, having just arrived home alone from the ball, one sees her wealth and privilege, but one feels her loneliness, her sense of promise unmet. The painting has a cool pensiveness—the kind of mood that Whistler would later exploit with mastery.
In the next gallery, there are several paintings by Nicolae Grigorescu (1838-1907), who is often regarded as the great master of early modernism in Romania. Grigorescu’s early paintings reminded me of Delacroix’s work. They were dark, shadowy, and filled with action. There was a horseman speeding across a plain with his sword raised to strike a combatant, and there were soldiers who moved across a battlefield. I was surprised to read later that Grigorescu and others of his circle in Romania were rebelling against Delacroix given the similarity of their pictures to his—and this made me think that subtle change, especially as we look backward, in art can have seemed radical in its time; and every artist who makes a subtle stylistic shift must surely be possessed by his or her own sense of the radical gesture that underlies the novelty.
There change in Grigorescu’s work when he begins to paint en plein air, adopting a style more like that of the Impressionists. He had learned this from a visit to France to study in the 1860s, when he met Millet, Corot, and Courbet. His palette lightened and his brush strokes quickened, and he achieved a light and color similar to that of early Monet or Pissaro—I saw this especially in paintings of a young woman seated in a garden and also of a young woman walking on headlands above the sea. Many of his subjects were like those of Millet and Corot—peasants and pastoral landscapes of the Romanian countryside—but Grigorescu’s paintings are lighter than the work of those French predecessors of the Impressionists, and he began to achieve an effect almost like that of Whistler in the simplicity and limited brushwork displayed.
Paintings by Stefan Luchan and Gheorghe Petrascu followed. Luchan’s paintings of flower girls and flower bouquets from which the petals had fallen were bittersweet. Petrascu adopted a more expressionist style in which his colors were smeared and his figures were outlined boldly in black. And later there were cubist and constructivist games played on canvas by Marcel Iancu, who as a young man had collaborated with another young man, who later would be known as Tristan Tzara, the pappa of dada, on artistic and literary journals at the center of the Romanian avant garde.
In the galleries of Romanian modern art in Bucharest, we found exemplars for all the styles of European modern art. In his book on modern art in Eastern Europe, S. A. Mansbach commented that Romanian artists looked primarily to France for training and maintained what was effectively a French aesthetic. Mansbach contrasted this Romanian tradition of following the French with those of other Eastern European and Balkan countries in which western styles were appropriated and then adapted to intrinsic national and cultural norms.
In Sibiu at the Brukenthal Museum, we found also a handful of galleries filled with Romanian paintings. These were primarily from the late 18th to early 20th centuries, and the most strikig were portraits and landscapes from the mid to late19th century. I was struck especially by the portraits made by Misu Popp, whose work had the detail, delicacy, and psychological taunt of J.-D. Ingres. There was also a painting of a bowl of cherries and peaches, sensually rendered by Aman, and there were several paintings by Grigorescu, although these did not have the quality of the paintings we saw in Bucharest. Since seeing these paintings, I have wished only to have had more time with them.