Viewed in retrospect, the evolution of fine arts in Romania is marked by a certain lag in relation to the European context. The brilliant “Byzantium after Byzantium”, often mentioned for its endurance in the Romanian space, remained for several centuries the prisoner of a model in which God was omnipresent. Our kind of orthodoxy never faced the turmoil of the Catholic or Protestant spaces, nor the religious movements that preceded Reformation. In our case, the Byzantine tradition prevailed over any form of synchronisation with the European West. As brilliant as it may have been, Byzantinism appears to be however an island reserved for eternal laggers. The religious scenes painted on the walls of medieval churches were all it took to convey the message of Jesus to the viewers.
Once Italian and Viennese, German and Balkanic painters made their way East, an obvious change took place, on a fertile ground ripe for emancipation, the signs left by the presence of these artists being the first indications that the Romanian Principalities were becoming connected to the West’s artistic experiences. The East would nevertheless have to yield exclusivity under the pressure of an unavoidable modernisation. It is true that the centuries-long tradition of the land resulted in persistent stagnations as a defence mechanism. However, certain church painters applied themselves, with perseverance and inevitable limitations, to the art of the portrait; among them, Nicolae Polcovnicul, Petre Zugravul and Nicolae Teodorescu, the one who dedicated at least seven portraits to Bishop Chesarie. It is, then, the portrait that opened the way to emancipation, and the transition from clerics to laymen ensured the transition from the votive mural to the easel portrait. From the self-portrait painted by Nicolae Polcovnicul to the one made by Petre Zugravul, the art progressed to produce Dimitrie Dimitriu’s Milos the shepherd. We must mention here Ion Balomir, who arrived in Moldavia from Sălişte, the artist who, apart from portraits of the notabilities of the day, painted Woman with a fan and Woman in an old costume, currently at the Art Museum in Suceava and at the Art Museum in Iaşi.
The arrival of Eustatie Altini in Iaşi vitally influenced the process of modernisation of expression in easel painting; the techniques he had acquired in Vienna allowed him to use an artistic vision based on perspective and chiaroscuro. In parallel, Ludovic Stawski has the merit of authoring the first landscapes featuring the city of Iaşi. His paintings appear frozen, without being able to suggest the transition to movement and expressiveness. The landscapes he painted in Iaşi look similar to the postcards today’s tourists send home as a memento of their holidays. Defining himself as a “painter of portraits and history”, Giovanni Schiavoni, invited in Iaşi by Gheorghe Asachi, bequeathed the Moldavian capital several remarkable ceremonial portraits. Schiavoni would be replaced by the German Mauricius Loeffler (alte surse spun ca Loeffler era polonez). Niccolo Livaditti also came to Moldavia, painting portraits with several characters, as in the case of the family of High Steward Alecsandri. Iaşi was also the host of the German Josif August Schoefft, who painted – apart from good-looking Iaşi demoiselles – a canvas kept in the Iaşi Painting Collection, Portrait of a man with his son. We cannot leave out Theodor Kirangelou, brought by Asachi from Rome, who approached historical – glorious, to be more precise – themes in his painting Stephen at the gates of the Neamţ Fortress. Kirangelou taught at the Arts and Crafts School in 1835.
After finishing the murals of the Bucharest Cathedral, Nicolae Teodorescu devoted himself to the art of the portrait; the school he ran was called “Şcoala de zugrăvie şi portreturi” (“the school of painting and portraits”). The times when the aristocrats were afraid of being shown in paintings for fear their shadow would be stolen and, consequently, they would die within forty days, seemed to be over. The easel portrait had made its way into the country and was here to stay…
The providential role played by Gheorghe Asachi, a Renaissance man, in the evolution of art education culminated in the establishment of the Vassilian Gymnasium, of the Arts and Crafts School, of the French School in Miroslava and, eventually, in the establishment of the Mihăileana Academy. He was also the founder of the Lithography Institute.
An essential moment in Romanian art and culture was the establishment in 1860, through a royal decree issued by Alexandru loan Cuza, of the Iaşi School of Fine Arts, an event of historic significance. The responsibility for managing the school went to the indefatigable and talented Gh. Panaiteanu Bardasare. Some of the first beneficiaries of this school would be Gh. Lemeni, Gh. Năstăseanu, Gh. Siller, Emanoil Bardasare, C. D. Stahi, Dimitrie Tronescu, artists that would later attend art academies in Rome, Vienna or Munich. The absence of local art galleries was not an issue at the time, as many of the artists often exhibited their work in shop windows. Even later on, the great Nicolae Grigorescu did not shy away from using the shop windows of the Gebauer, in Bucharest, for displaying his painting.
In fact, the first show organised according to the western model took place as late 1864, hosted by the Saint Sava’s College in Bucharest. The exhibition had its own set of regulations and a jury, and it produced a catalogue. That was the moment, it could be said, that synchronisation with European behaviour in art occurred. Shows would end with the handing out of prizes, and it was very often that the painters coming from Moldavia were awarded such prizes. On the occasion of the show of 1865, for instance, Gh. Panaiteanu Bardasare received an award of 100 gold coins; so did C.D. Stahl and Emanoil Bardasare.
The show was a success, even though N. Petraşcu was of the opinion that the taste for fine arts was poorly developed in this country. Naturally, it had been decided that the yearly shows would take place, in alternate years, in each of the two largest cities, Bucharest and Iaşi. Unfortunately, the show of 1866 was boycotted by the Bucharest artists, with the notable exception of Theodor Aman, the director of the Bucharest Fine Arts School. The Iaşi artists exhibited only drawings and atelier studies, underscoring the appetite for drawing of the young talents of the day. Despite the impediments, the shows that followed in 1868 and 1870 rekindled the interest of both artists and viewers. The show of 1870 was held in the building of the Academy (University).
The year 1870 marked the triumph of Nicolae Grigorescu, and the authorities granted him a scholarship for studying in Paris.
The later shows, of 1872 and 1874, were categorised as “family” shows. However, the year 1873 was a providential one, because Ion Andreescu came to see it; he went on to exhibit 65 paintings at the 1881 show. Occasionally, Andreescu himself would show his work in the shop window at Gebauer’s. This is the year when, for the first time, works were put on display not only in the exhibition halls at Stavropoleos, but also in the gallery of the Romanian Athenaeum and in the galleries of the first Art Museum, established by Ernest Henri Starke on Calea Victoriei. These exhibitions showcased, apart from the omnipresent Theodor Aman, the work of artists C.D. Stahl and of Dimitrie Tronescu. In Iasi, the shows of the Fine Arts School of 1862, 1863, 1865, 1866, 1905, 1907, 1912 were organised in the School’s own exhibition halls.
As far as the commentary on these artistic events is concerned, it was provided by the journalists present at the opening, who covered the events from a journalistic, subjective and non-specialist angle. Over time, however, exhibition reviews evolved separately from mainstream journalism, and even some of the artists entered the game of evaluations of taste and, more rarely, of authentic value judgements. The commotion caused on the art scene by the emergence of the Independents’ Salon in 1896 was spearheaded by Stefan Luchian and by the controversial Alexandru Bogdan-Piteşti. Behind them came Constantin Artachino, Nicolae Vermont and cartoonist Nicolae Petrescu-Găină. The Ileana Society also marked a genuine awakening from the languor of the gentle academic style and of the profuse production of idyllic landscapes, still-lifes with flowers and portraits of dusky gypsy women. Even watermelons began to fall out of fashion… The art of the 1900s, Art Nouveau, is spontaneously adopted and emerges as a new direction, due to the luxuriant opulence of agreeable decorative pieces. Artistic currents come and go, and so do stormy manifestos.
In Moldavia, the art scene of the inter-war period bears the marks of the First World War, which had had severe repercussions on the act of creation. In 1911, for instance, the eminent painter, art commentator and teacher Gheorghe Popovici became head of the Iaşi School of Fine Arts and of the Iaşi Art Collection. The School was located in the old building of the Mihăileana Academy, which was a memorable site both in terms of architecture and of the legends surrounding it. The building would be demolished by the communist authorities in the ’50s. Under the leadership of Gheorghe Popovici, the art scene parted ways sensibly with the academist trend, heading towards a more substantial dialogue with the challenges of real life, translated into a visual expression that had freed itself from canons. During those years, just under 50 shows were organised, peaking with the Exhibition of the Grand General Quarters in Iaşi, showing works produced as a result of first-hand experiences on the front line; the exhibition was opened in four halls belonging to the Iaşi School of Fine Arts and included works produced by all the artists who had been mobilised to the front line. In 1926, Gheorghe Popovici retired, but he remained Head of the School until 1929, when his replacement, Stefan Dimitrescu, was appointed. As of 1931, at the insistences of the latter, the School ascended to the higher level of Academy, and its structure include now departments of graphics, painting and sculpture. Dimitrescu himself was appointed by the Ministry as Academy Rector.
After the premature demise of Stefan Dimitrescu, the position of Rector was filled between 1933 and 1937 by A.D. Atanasiu, who founded, as part of the Art Collection, an Ethnography department. Efficient and enterprising, the Academy Rector devoted himself to the reorganisation of education in the areas of fine arts and applied arts, to the development of the ethnography department, to expanding the space of the Art Collection and to printing a catalogue listing the assets of the Iaşi Art Collection, insisting strongly on the implementation of decorative arts in Iaşi. Atanasiu set up a scholarship for the most praiseworthy student, and provided the funds himself. For the professors he set up the Masters’ Salon.
In complete agreement with the artists’ interest in becoming associated in professional structures, the establishment of the Arta Română (Romanian Art) society in Iaşi, as well as of the association Tinerimea Artistică (Artistic Youth), the organisation of the official salons, the foundation of the groups Contimporanul (The Contemporary), Grupul Nostru (Our Group), Integral, Arta Nouă (New Art), Grupul de Artă Modernă (Modern Art Group) etc. led to the better organisation of the trade and to the shaping of their status as professionals. An important moment in Romanian painting is the emergence onto the national art scene of groups whose impact immediately resulted in the dynamisation of the artistic energies of the Group of Four, consisting of N.N. Tonitza, Ştefan Dimitrescu, Francisc Şirato and Oscar Han; the group’s exhibitions in the interval 1926 – 1935 expectably generated a great deal of interest. After the death of Ştefan Dimitrescu in 1933, the group survived for just another three years, 1933, 1934 and 1935, and in this interval the remaining three artists displayed their works at the Dalles Foundation Gallery in Bucharest.
After the retirement of the proficient rector A.D. Atanasiu, it was N.N. Tonitza’s turn to be appointed as leader of the artists’ trade. It is around this time that the painter put together a team of volunteers and, during the summer of 1935, painted the murals of the hermitage in Durău, together with Nicolae Popa, Călin Alupi, Corneliu Baba, Mihai Cămărut, Al. Clavel among others. In 1939, due to ill-health, Tonitza stepped down from the position of rector at the Iaşi Academy of Arts. He would be succeeded by Roman Simionescu, who taught perspective, and then by Jean L. Cosmovici, Otto Briese and Iorgu Iordan. Corneliu Baba was appointed director of the Art Collection and remained there until the 1950s, when part of the Iaşi Academy moved to Cluj, and another to Bucharest. The sculptor Ion Irimescu ended up in Cluj, and Corneliu Baba in Bucharest. The Academy would be re-established ten years later, in 1960, as the Faculty of Fine Arts, part of the Pedagogical Institute of Iaşi. During most of World War II, the teaching activity continued, despite the fact that in 1940 the Academy building had been damaged. The art collection and the Academy were evacuated at some point, and the Academy continued its activity in exile, in Făget; the art collection had its fair share of difficulties, but it survived without major losses. In Făget, classes went on almost normally, and the end-of-year shows were prepared zealously; there was even one edition of the Official Moldavian Salons organised around this time, continuing the tradition established in Iaşi by Roman Simionescu in 1939. Each exhibition was marked by the printing of a catalogue.
After the 1950s, the politicisation of art brought to the foreground the face of the New Man, a debatable concept, but one that also spurred artists into a kind of socialist competition for immortalising steelworkers, miners, builders on sites and children kissing the various beloved leaders – of whom some died natural deaths and others ended their days in helicopter-surveyed barracks. The creation of the Artists’ Union, following the model provided by the sister countries of the invincible socialist bloc, provided artists with lucrative commissions, and many gladly became attached to the system. Others, enlisted under constraint by the regime, were, of course, less glad. The great industrial plants injected new life into the craft, and the Yearly Salons at the Dalles Gallery, the Biennials, the Triennials of all kinds, as well as the symposiums gave rise to a period of victories of all kinds. The awards of the craft, generous when compared to those set at stake by the international salons in the countries of the socialist brotherhood, looked meagre when compared to the prizes put up by western meetups. Most artists dreamt of going to, and hopefully living in the West of so many temptations. The officials of the time managed to keep in check for quite a while the artists’ desires. After the year of the revolution, 1989, everything became liberalised, everything became privatised, everyone started fighting for survival. A transition occurred, towards an individual-based existence, with the support of the group each individual was a part of.
Despite all these, the substantial national selections managed to survive, and so did the county salons. As did the Lascar Vorel Biennials in Piatra Neamţ and the Ion Andreescu Biennials in Buzău, as well as the once-famous artists’ colonies in Măgura and Arcus. After several celebrated editions of art colonies, in Galati, the artists’ visions in steel currently create the visual atmosphere for a city of Indian steel. A great impact was created by the events organised by the George Apostu International Centre in Bacău, by the sculpture colonies, the National Aesthetic Symposium organised by the Romanian Academy, the colonies organised by Mihai Pascal, the shows of the Iaşi Branch of the Artists’ Union, coordinated by the painter Constantin Tofan and currently by the talented Felix Aftene, all showing a real fervour in the dynamic and the exhibition of artistic productions.
This overview of the arts in Moldavia, reminiscent of Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, defines the Moldavian space as one privileged by creative virtues. This possibly subjective remark only comes to underscore the idea that Moldavia is only revealed in depth when accessing the sacred. Aware of the emotional artistic heritage, memory has however been often reserved in establishing priorities on the value scale. Generally speaking, in the area of Romanian art, the tools for building possible and inclusive art histories are not completely absent, nor are they overwhelmingly present. The literati, for instance, cannot stop publishing literary histories – more or less subjective, such works exist. What could our trade put on a pedestal next to literature’s monument of criticism written by George Călinescu?… The achievements, so far, of George Oprescu, of some of the more recent authors, especially the volume put together by Vasile Florea and published in Chişinău, as well as the collective volumes that Meridiane Publishing used to print, penned by Vasile Drăguţ, Dan Grigorescu, Marin Mihalache, Vasile Florea, have a genuine value. What is lacking, however, is a research of the artistic phenomenon from the perspective of the tools of the trade, and there have been almost no attempts at compiling dictionaries of Romanian art.
Only occasionally did we have the required interest for writing dictionaries, exhaustive monographs or studies regarding important art groups. Luckily, there are artists whose practice results in both cultural and financial gain. Art auctions edit albums that are genuine sources of pertinent information and evaluation. Other Europeans, more pragmatic and having a better vision, have done this for centuries, and such works are extremely useful in the research of the evolution of styles, of individualities; this happens in the civilised Europe we should aspire to be a part of. I have the utmost respect and appreciation for the efforts of Petru Comarnescu, Radu Bogdan, Mihai Ispir, Petre Oprea, Octavian Barbosa, of Mircea Deac, Vasile Florea, of Constantin Prut, Corneliu Stoica, Adrian Silvan lonescu, Răzvan Theodorescu, lon Frunzetti, Dan Hăulică, Andrei Cornea, Negoiţă Lăptoiu and Mircea Ţoca from Cluj. The volumes in the series regarding the centennial of fine arts in Iaşi, Bucovina, Moldavia, the Moldavian Dictionary of Fine Arts, the connections with European art, are just the beginning in the undertaking of a rigorous and ample research in this domain. I believe that such an effort should involve the coordination of the National Institute for Art History and Theory, reuniting the works of many into a solidary endeavour.
It is not necessary to go to the earliest beginnings in order to know in depth the values of the Romanian space. We should only recover the values that have been ignored or less well known and that have been scattered throughout the world. This would be the expression of messages launched in the name of perennial humanistic ideals. We should reintegrate in the Romanian culture these genuine ambassadors, credible and illustrious, of our native creative intelligence. If by now we have included in the dictionary almost one thousand artists, starting with the year 1800, it was not in order to achieve some vainglorious rankings by province, but instead to reawaken the interest in a dialogue with ourselves and with others, reaffirming certain obvious priorities that Moldavia has in the art domain. People of other ethnicities living in Romania have also been authentic ambassadors of Romanian spirit, opening new horizons in international art. Constantin Tofan’s two terms as chairman of the Union in Iaşi have meant a re-kindling of interest in communication and in imposing a convincing standard of values, one that is receptive to dialogue based on professionalism and European openness.
The initiative of the current chairman of the Iaşi Branch of the Artists’ Union, Felix Aftene, to print a compendium of Fine Arts in Iaşi will certainly increase the interest of collectors and art lovers, especially since the newer generations of artists communicate much more easily with their peers in Europe. Scholarships abroad, dozens of personal exhibitions, the sessions of experience exchange, art colonies, free circulation in the European space give fine arts as many opportunities for a fertile communication. This album is a peremptory argument…Valentin CIUCĂ
Member of the Iaşi Branch of the Artists’ Union, receiver of the Romanian Artists’ Union Award
the George Oprescu Award granted by the Romanian Academy
the Constantin Brâncuşi Award granted by the Romanian Academy