By Karen Chen
Contemporary Romanian art has been described as being on the rise -much like Romanian film, there has been a new wave which has spread across continents. Exhibitions including Romanian artists, notably Adrian Ghenie, have spanned from LA to Berlin, with many Asian buyers at their doorsteps. This rise of contemporary art however, has been led by a new generation of artists, who have lived through the fall of Ceausescu and the integration of Romania in the EU -not just politically but also culturally. Much of their art don’t find homes in Romania, with there being very few exhibits and a small market for it, but the themes and motifs used are deeply rooted in Romanian tradition and, most importantly, its history. Granted, Romanian artists were also present in the 20th Century, many of them being very prominent such as Brancusi and Grigorescu. However, these new artists have been hugely influenced by their experiences during the fall of Ceausescu, many of them, discussed below, have underlying, if not explicit, communist and socialist themes. Yet they have also made a point to juxtapose present-day Romania, the notion of capitalism and of Western culture in their art -most notably in the works of Muresan. Overall, their recollections are expressed in a variety of styles, and each one expresses a unique message – the portrayal of their personalities and recollections is arguably what is so attractive about Romanian art.
The common link between these rising Romanian artists doesn’t simply lie in their shard past. The majority have graduated from Cluj-Napoca, the ‘Cluj School’, which has influenced the artists below: a looser, more contemporary use of paint -creating an abstract feel, surrealism and sombre tone are distinctive features of the school. This style ties in with the darker themes many of the artists explore, as not only is their art dark literally, but also metaphorically. The art scene in Romania has also helped nurture Romanian art much like the Cluj School, much of it having been developed by the school’s graduates. Most notable is the Fabrica de Pensule in Cluj-Napoca, a paintbrush factor turned art space, where leading artists such as Ghenie and Savu lead the project. This creative space has also, much like the Cluj school, helped nurture the artists’ distinctive style, and so the Cluj area is bursting with creativity.
What Romanian artists are trying to achieve, in my opinion, is to express the recent history of Romania and the dislocation of change to create elegiac or even critical works. The rise of art in Romania is result of the creativity and personal aspects of each artist, and although they are shaped by the styles within Cluj, there is ultimately a more intimate dimension to art which makes it so meaningful and on the whole, wonderful.
Adrian Ghenie, born 1977
Ghenie’s style is contemporary yet also has remnants of traditionalism within them. His take on portraiture, the strokes and distorted faces are very much like the modern styles of artists like Francis Bacon. Ghenie grew up during the time of Ceausescu and is heavily influenced by Communism as well as Nazism, which both feature prominently in his art. His paintings, such as those of Dr Mengele (a Nazi physician) and Ceausescu are in this contemporary yet traditional style -most evidently in ‘A Study for Boogeyman’ (2010) and ‘Dr Mengele 2’ (2011). He takes the traditional form of portraiture and warps their faces, the effect reflecting, in my opinion, the deterioration of the regimes which they represent or simply a criticism on them as being unnatural, warped even.
Ghenie’s background is extremely interesting, like many rising contemporary artists, his childhood and teenage years were spent under Soviet influence. The fall of Ceausescu left a sour taste for many, and so Ghenie’s art reflects the sorrows and frustrations felt.t The darkness of the paintings and even the destructive nature of his style (the distortion) reflect a darkness in the human condition, that people can achieve the atrocities seen in WWII and during Ceausescu’s rule. His often dark, clinical and also warped backgrounds reflect a degree coldness. In his ‘Self-Portrait as Charles Darwin’ (2011), the coldness of the background creates a sense of alienation from the viewer, which serves as a criticism to how inhumane the principles behind Nazism (natural selection etc.) were. Despite the strong political undertones, Ghenie’s art style should be enjoyed as a piece of art than as a commentary. His other works resemble traditional elements of still life, and the colours and style he uses are able to convey messages through their warmth or cold tones. Personally I find his style to be very expressive and powerful -he calls it abstract, yet I find that despite the seemingly confusing connotations of the term ‘abstract’, Ghenie manages to pack a lot of meaning and emotion into each stroke.
Marius Bercea, born 1979
Bercea’s art is, as he describes himself, a very personal archive of memories. This sense of memory is most evident in his use of colour, which creates a nostalgic effect. His inspiration comes from old photographs, particularly one of Chernobyl which he has had from a young age, and their sepia/mustardy tone, which has been imitated by the yellow tinge in his works. Yet his landscapes as a whole are striking. He mixes this nostalgia with bright greens and blues, a contrast between the old and the new. ‘Truths with Multiple Masks’ (2011) reflects this contrast of the old and new; the huge, soviet building in the background contrasts with the green foliage and more surrealist elements in the foreground. This resembles how Communism is in the past, yet it is still a large looming figure in perhaps not just literally (soviet buildings being still in Romania), but also metaphorically as the main in the foreground observes from a distance -showing how it still looms in the minds of not just Bercea, but perhaps of Romanians as a whole. The fall of Ceausescu and early-capitalist Romania and the capitalist cultures of America is presented more in his recent works. He amped up the brightness and capitalist overtones in his work in his Hypernova collection, which documents his travels to America and as such, mixes iconic symbols with historical Romanian symbols. ‘Seasonal Capital of Itinerant Crowds’ (2013) is an amalgamation of the past and present -in the background are buildings reminiscent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, yet this merges into the Hollywood sign which is central to the composition. This reflects how Romania has perhaps changed in terms of its history and overall attitude, from the control of empire and Communism to the freedom of America. Yet more importantly, and what viewers focus on, are the bright caravans and objects in the foreground, which are again a symbol of America given the influence of the desert and caravanning on Bercea during his time in America. In Bercea’s art, we a see the influences of Cluj School for more than in Ghenie, given that his compositions are verging on surreal and include the warped and freer style of painting, but of course, his own personality and style are still present in his use of colours.
Mircea Suciu, born 1978
Suciu’s art is heavily symbolic and deals with the concept of identity. His subjects are often surreal, with no heads, and thus, faces and identity, like in ‘Wise Guys’ (2011) or with items that hide or manipulate their individual properties such as in ‘Ghost’ (2014). ‘Wise Guys’ presents Suciu’s interest in the mass and how identities can be lost, this can be linked to the socialism which he experienced, having been a child at the time of Ceausescu and his fall. The darkness of his paintings creates a sombre tone, and combined with the plainness of his subjects, creates an elegy for individualism and identity, and how it is lost in socialism.
Serban Savu, born 1978
Savu’s art is largely figurative. His paintings portray ordinary Romanians working or playing amongst sweeping surroundings, like fields and buildings. Yet the drabness of the settings and the concrete, communist-era buildings create a realism which gives a hugely realistic portrayal of modern-day Romania. Parts of communism still linger in the form of buildings or infrastructure, yet his subjects juxtapose the symbols of oppression in their leisure -such as in ‘The Old Roof’ (2009) where they play on top of the communist apartment blocks. This goes to show how Romanians have been liberated from the constraints of communism, and despite their surroundings there is at least a sense of freedom in their interaction with the structures. The distance and alienation he creates through the angles makes each painting a simple commentary or observation, and his unfanciful portrayals combine with the perspectives to create a poignant message that plainly presents to the viewer what Romania is in the present day.
Ciprian Muresan, born 1977
Muresan’s work is more overt in its links to socialism as he uses strong visual messages to convey criticisms and simply observations over the change after the fall of Ceausescu. One of the most poignant pieces, to me, is his video ‘Choose’ (2005) which shows the influence of capitalism and the freedom of choice after Ceausescu.
Overall, it is clear that Romania has a wide variety of artists emerging, and that there are many common underlying themes in their work such as socialism. Yet that said, it is ultimately art and we should appreciate for not just the messages they convey but also the beauty of the pieces.