Bucharest’s Museum of Recent Art (MARe) opened in 2018 with the first permanent collection of modern and contemporary art in Romania. To give you a peek into its archive, we asked its director, art historian Erwin Kessler, to pick 12 paintings by Romanian artists which reflect the significant changes in the country’s culture and politics since 1965. Until 1965, Socialist Realism was the only state-approved style of painting and sculpture in Romania, after which the communist regime decided to pursue “stylistic diversity” in art.
Kessler said he would give us an “anthropological” overview of Romanian art; rather, he gave us a political tour of Romanian art, choosing artists and groups who opposed the totalitarian socialist regime, or at least questioned it. “Art has to take a stance towards power — whether that’s political or commercial power,” Kessler explains. “I chose artists and art groups that shared the spirit and ideas that sparked the rebellion of 1989.” Kessler’s selection below includes radical art groups and self-taught artists from the margins of art history, who have lived through poverty-stricken communist Romania, the wild and dark 90s, and the more recent consumerist boom and continuing inequality of the late 00s.
After 1945, the government requested artists to adopt the Socialist Realist style favoured by the Communist Party. A self-taught painter, Ion Țuculescu worked as a doctor during the day, and made hundreds of artworks in private. Existing outside of the art world allowed him to pursue his own path. “Țuculescu was the only artist who could afford not to make concessions with the regime. His paintings were first exhibited in a retrospective two years after his death, in the spring of 1965. The exhibition had a great impact over all artists of the time. People were shocked by how complex and distinct his work was.
That same year, the [dictator] Gheorghe Gheorghiu Dej had died. In July, Nicolae Ceaușescu came to power, and at the 9th Congress of the Socialist Party, no one had cited Socialist Realism in culture — ‘stylistic diversity’ was recommended in its place. It’s no wonder that in 1966, Țuculescu was invited to represent the Romania pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
This painting is a repertoire of all of Țuculescu’s themes, including the tree of life, and totems. It is not Socialist Realist, it is truly stylistically distinct, and constitutes a new reference for Romanian painting.”
“As the son of [the ‘enemy of the people’] general Cădere — who was a military attaché in Poland during the Second World War — Andrei Cădere had no chance of pursuing higher education under the socialist government. Instead, he got his introduction to art by working as a life model. He did in fact make his mark in the art world and Bucharest more broadly. If you visit the Muzica window shop in Bucharest, you’ll notice beautiful mosaics designed by Ion Oroveanu and stuck on by Cădere.
This is Andrei Cădere’s only self-portrait. His oversized brush recalls his best known works, a series of painted round wooden poles, which brought him recognition in France [as André Cadere] after he emigrated there in 1968. The poles were assembled using several pieces of wood handmade and painted by Cădere. As a conceptual artist, he often tried to break down the boundaries between painting and sculpture. This self-portrait presents him as a painter, wearing trousers à la Elvis Presley. It was exhibited at the Georges Pompidou Museum in Paris last year, precisely because of its important reinterpretation of Cadere.”
“This is a bow to the historic avant garde, as well as a nod to iconic silk-screen printed images by Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. The bottom left corner represents the Otopeni airport [in Bucharest] as it was being built. These are the building sites of communism. This work is a unique cocktail: taking inspiration from Russian constructivists, who were propagandists for the left, and pop art, which drew from Western popular and commercial culture.”
“In 1985, Paul Gherasim founded Prolog — the longest-running art group in the entire history of Romanian art, which is still active today. His contributions were not only artistic, but also religious (he wasn’t a theologist but he was a great lover of holy texts and liturgy). His works look perfectly geometrical at first glance — typical for 60s and 70s modernism — but they are also mystical and symbolic, conveying ideas about religion and nationalism [during a time when religion was persecuted under the communist regime].”
“This is one of his more unusual paintings included in Horia Bernea’s Hills series from the 1960s. Compared to his other paintings, often of ploughed hills, this one looks empty and dark, and on the verge of a storm. At MARe, this painting hangs by another of Bernea’s Hills, which is in full bloom. But I chose this work for the list because it carries an ominous, political message.”
“Bertalan is the founder of the 111 (1963-9) and Sigma (1970-1981) groups. Though he was the kingpin of the group, he often worked independently, and left a controversial legacy. He was once beaten up on the street [on the command of the authorities], while he was on his way to his studio. After that, Bertalan started believing that he was always being followed; his life became a nightmare because of the trauma of his persecution. This led to the eventual breakup of the Sigma group.
In 1982, he lost his job at the University of Arts in Timișoara — and respectively his studio, his home, and his whole universe. After this, he went to live with his wife’s parents in Sibiu. Her father was a doctor and while the house was large enough to fit a studio, Bertalan moved into the cellar to draw. Powerless, he describes himself during this time as a ‘potato’, growing and blooming in the cellar. Bertalan wasn’t preoccupied by masterpieces; he was a researcher and so was interested in processes. Still this is no doubt a masterpiece in its own right.”
“Bârlădeanu started making collages in the 70s, when loo roll and soap did not exist in Romania. The content of his paintings are the pleasures of food, sex, cigarettes, drinking, as well as Hollywood, freedom, political rights — all of which were prohibited under socialism. And what did you do if you couldn’t get your hands on these products? You painted them on cardboard, of course. Bârlădeanu frequently criticised the regime for allowing the nomenklatura the joys and pleasures of fine goods but not other citizens — this is why we see Ceaușescu drinking in Bârlădeanu’s collages.
Bârlădeanu was self-taught, having only graduated primary school. He worked many low-paid jobs from digging graves to being a docker, a sawyer, or a security guard. He had been imprisoned during communism. He was homeless when his works got discovered in 2007. Although his discourse has not changed since the 70s, his works are just as radical today.
He found international recognition, after receiving the Emmy Award for 2009 the film biopic made in his honour, The World According to Ion B. Soon after, Bârlădeanu was exhibited in Paris and London, among works by Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol.”
“This is perhaps the most political work we have in the permanent collection. The art work is not entirely made by Ion Grigorescu, and was first started in the 1950s by an Armenian painter called Arutiun Avakian. It represents Avakian with his wife, their guests, and his son — Dumitru Avakian, then a promising pianist who later became a classical music critic — at the piano. Though this could be taken as a bourgeois scene, it is painted in a profoundly socialist realist manner as if it were a political party meeting. The work was never finished. Grigorescu was given this canvas after Avakian’s death by his family. Grigorescu then painted the dead body at the bottom of the work with a touch of black humour, inspired by the political murals of Mexican painter José Clemente Orozco (who greatly influenced the first realist socialists). This is the only socialist realist painting in the museum that is inherently anti-communist.”
“Mitroi is the ultimate political artist but he remained completely invisible. Born in 1938, he never had an exhibition under socialism. His works stayed in his studio. 70 per cent of his works defied not just the regime but the whole communist society.
His first and only exhibition during his lifetime, which took place in 1993, was radical, dramatic, existential, showing his magnitude as an artist. In his works, there is no escape — this written on everything he produced.
This painting represents the essence of communist depression, but also the changes that followed 1989, when after one year of hope, Romania experienced a suffocating decade of poverty, strikes, and unemployment.
Mitroi trained as a professor and left an indelible mark on the younger generation of artists, including the group Rostopasca [presented below, in the positions 11 and 12] whom he taught, passing down his bold lines, dramatic atmosphere, as well as his obsession with death and sex.”
“Vrana was a unique voice and character. She didn’t go to university to study but to express herself. She would arrive on campus in the evenings, after everyone had left to go home, and would paint in a black velvet gown. Everything was visceral about her.
This painting represents Vrana’s friend, poet Sergiu Daian, who was just as eccentric as Vrana — and would be spotted at private views with a cockerel under his armpit. In this painting, he seems to be engulfed by Vrana’s animals — his head is a fat cat, his mouth is a rat, and in the bottom left corner there is a photo of Vrana from childhood. Vrana painted her inner world — and this is a fantastic example of her imagination and art’s newfound freedom after 1989.”
“This work comes from a cardboard series entitled Non-Stop Painting, produced as part of a group performance painted for 24 hours without stopping. At the end of the performance, its authors realised they became a group, which they called Rostopasca.” This Bucharest-based art group consisted of Angela Bontas, Dumitru Gorzo (presented below), and Alina Pentac, in addition to Comănescu. Later on, Alina Buga, Florin Tudor, and Mona Vatamanu joined them. The group disbanded in 2001, after shows in New York and at the Venice Biennale.
“The performance was staged to reflect the absurd circumstances in which artists found themselves after the transition to capitalism — with no state or social support, no future, no market, no galleries. The performance ridiculed the idea of art as a capitalist competition in ‘who paints more?’ They had no money for canvases or oil paints, so they used cardboard boxes and car paint which was given to them for free. They invited art history students to the performance, asking them to stop the artists when they thought an artwork was ready, as if they were factory workers serving the capitalist machine.
Their actions were raw and provocative: they swore, portrayed senseless scenes, treated their materials without care as if it were all a drunken party. This was in part a response to the stale and conservative artworks of their forebearers.”
“Gorzo, like Comănescu, was also part of the Rostopasca Group. Artistically, he sought to achieve the opposite of his forebearers: instead of belief — blasphemy; instead of beauty — ugliness; instead of pleasantness — foulness. He channelled their energy and aggression and transformed it into a new provocative aesthetic, which soon gained traction and found its way into the mainstream. This is where the cycle of rebellion ends, with Rostopasca entering the art market. Under capitalism, there are so many who criticise the system, but are just pawns.
Gorzo is now the artist-resident at MARe, and has been doing online performances under self-isolation.”
If you’re interested in learning more about the country’s art, we suggest reading up on more key figures, such as Ana Lupaș (acquired by London’s Tate Modern), Geta Brătescu’s versatile and joyful neo-avant-garde practice, political artist Dan Perjovschi, Romania’s bestselling contemporary painter Andrei Ghenie, or the photo-realist provocateur Roman Tolici.