April 20, 2019
By Ionuț Cioană
Corneliu Baba – An Eastern Artist
In the historiography of contemporary art the term eastern artist was used, especially after 1990, to describe an entire series of artists who were unknown during communism and were slowly becoming famous in the West.
These were tied to the local neo-avant-gardes of Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia and so on, neo-avant-gardes that were becoming, after the Berlin wall fell, ancestors as well as members of the new system of contemporary art which was, thus, extending to the former Socialist Block.
Until 2000, an entire series of exhibitions exploited this Eastern art resource in an attempt to revive the content of Western art, but also to guarantee its supremacy over Eastern art. The labor of exhibiting, acquisition and preservation has been done, only marginally, by Eastern institutions.
After 2010, the Eastern artist loses its relevance because the West changed its point of interest. The contemporary artist makes his entrance on the global scene, there is suddenly a strong interest in Chinese art, so Eastern Europe becomes outdated, fewer exhibitions take place and artists associated this term begin to fade, thus suffering a decline.
Although this term strictly refers to a chapter in the history of contemporary art after 1990, and although it designates an artist belonging to the neo-avant-garde before 1989 and to contemporary art afterwards, somewhere in its historical genealogy there are some roots which, at first glance, seem to have nothing to do with contemporary art.
These roots are deeply connected to the official art of the socialist regimes, or, in the more restrictive sense, they have been labeled socialist realism, which is usually considered both a historical style and a type of artistic expression which did not survive past the 1960s.
Despite all of this, today an entire series of art historians have begun to research this specific part of official art within socialism in order to go beyond neo-avant-garde traditions which, over time, have become somewhat classical and are rather well known. This happened at a different time in each of the countries of the former Eastern Block. In Poland, official art was discussed and researched by local art historians early on. The same happened with Hungary.
Romania needed more time for a series of decisive studies to be conducted on the matter, after 2010. Caterina Preda, (in 2017), along with Monica Enache, Irina Cărăbaș and Magda Predescu (in 2017 and 2018) are known in the history of local art as the authors of some of the relevant publications on official art before 1989.
Their studies fill in the gaps of a previously fragmented overview on artistic manifestations related to the neo-avant-garde. A good example in this regard is Ileana Pintilie‘s book on actionism in Romania (2000) where the author draws a very clear distinction between official art and experimental art, with the book focusing only on the later.
The recent studies on the period between the ’40s and the ’60s answer a few pertinent questions. The most pressing would be – What is the genealogy of local contemporary art? What was before that? Another question would be – If the neo-avant-garde was socialism’s experimental art, what were the characteristics of official art and how did it operate?
This is how we arrive from the notion of the Eastern artist – which is a term that was strongly influenced by its encounter with the West after 1990 – to a historical and artistic landscape that is much more complex, where certain notions, born out of today’s contemporary art historical vocabulary, are in need more nuanced definitions, or need to be re-phrased and re-oriented.
Up until this research was conducted, the answer to the question – What was before? – was formulated in the following terms: “There were, on the one hand, a series of artistic manifestations that were similar, if not identical, to the preoccupations of today’s contemporary art. Besides these, there was also a style imposed by the state, called socialist realism or official art, which is uninteresting or aesthetically unappealing nowadays.”
There are many issues that arise with such an outlook. For example, it denied the very existence of an immense body of visual art works, which demanded to be considered one way or the other. At the same time, the reduction of the entire genealogy of contemporary art to its visible local neo-avant-garde roots obscured a series of social and institutional histories that are still relevant today.
As it happens, these histories articulate at the intersection between formal production and political content within an extremely burdening historical context linked to the Cold War, which left its mark, locally, in the form of multiple institutional and artistic constrains. In fact, the relationship between politics and art, or the problematic encounter between political labor and aesthetic labor, during the respective era, raise a lot of questions that are extremely relevant today for the field of contemporary art.
Moreover, this seemingly distant, or unknown past explains, often in unexpected ways, what we witness on the surface as the phenomenon of contemporary art.
The gap between socialist realism / neo-avant-garde and contemporary art could also be reconsidered via possible institutional, social or historical continuities, but also via a perpetual effort of artists to adapt to the various freedom regimes which they have crossed. And perhaps it is in these biographies of official artists where we will find strong points of interests for today, as they reveal the possible moves an artist can make in a context where very few options are available.
In recent years, contemporary art has been closely studied on the institutional level, and its constrains have become evident. The work of Andrea Fraser, or Bojana Kunst‘s writings, not to mention the entire body of artistic and research work that question today’s international art market come to mind. From the standpoint of all these perspectives, it is easier nowadays to view contemporary art as another freedom regime where there is a fairly limited amount of room to work with.
In Peter Burger’s terms, socialist realism’s limit is the impossibility to considering art as an autonomous domain, free of state control. For the bourgeois art of western societies, the limit is the impossibility of keeping art away from the workings of the market which, sooner or later, transform it from cultural capital into goods to be sold.
It might seem unexpected to open such a discussion around an exhibition by Corneliu Baba. Today, the risk of discussing an artist like him is double. First of all, for the older generations of local art, his work is well known, to the point of exhaustion.
Can anything new be said today of his work?
On the other hand, for the younger generations, it’s very possible he occupies a place of benign indifference. What could be interesting today about his art?
As it turns out, there are quite a lot of things to be interested in. It’s worth noting his personal relationship with the various voices of the art world from the East and the West. As we will come to see, they different in a historical or artistic way, but not without having some strong lines of communication as well.
In his book “Art and Democracy in Post-Communist Europe”, Piotr Piotrowski is in pursuit of these voices, looking for the things that connect them. When speaking about Hans Belting, who is one of the most important European historians of art, Piotrowski mentions the, “two voices of art history”, the Western and the Eastern. For him (Belting. n.n.), one of the main tasks facing art history today is to ensure “the coexistence of very different and sometimes contradictory (art historic) narratives”.
And this is precisely the challenge this text faces. To try to articulate an understanding of Corneliu Baba’s pictorial work, starting from the multiple and often contradictory histories available, which are largely circumscribed by the domains of contemporary art, of the neo-avant-garde and official art, in Eastern Europe.
2. The first contact with the exhibition. A quick view from within the field of contemporary art
This the moment is where we switch from a somewhat academic language, to the more humble language of immediate experience. I will reduce the notion of contemporary art to its minimum, more precisely to that of preconceived notions within the field. In this case, the legitimate question would be – How does someone who is passionate about contemporary art and modernism view this exhibition? What thoughts or reactions might they have?
The written observations from during my viewing start from the very banal – first impressions and personal considerations – and slowly build up to a conclusion which comes closer to what was said earlier about preconceived ideas. To reiterate, this is the first contact with the materiality of the exhibition, followed by a short evaluation from the contemporary viewer’s perspective.
To begin with, it is obvious we are dealing with an artist who has good drawing abilities. As far as painting goes, chiaroscuro is anachronistic in 1953, even for a realist painter. So the artist seems to have a very clear interest for the history of European painting, while ignoring contemporary trends in pictorial art. This is why we are dealing here with academic art, of good pictorial quality.
Corneliu Baba is interested in the materiality of paint on canvas in the broadest sense. The tangible medium of the material is part of the painting as a total image. To achieve this effect, where both matter and representation are simultaneously present, he sometimes uses a figurative style of painting which becomes very “foggy” because of the texture of the medium, which in turn is the support, or the carrier of the image.
At an optical level, he is interested in de-constructing the coherence of the photographic image by using the visible texture of paint; this is why there is this broken, porous, inexact and elusive contour. By insisting on the monumental, by preferring the format of enormous portraits and chiaroscuro, Corneliu Baba is an academic, yet gifted, conservative bourgeois painter.
It was a nice surprise to see the portrait of poet Tudor Arghezi and his wife in the art show. As I viewed the work, I wrote “In the darkness of the chiaroscuro which is not black, the darkened colours are extremely sensual, very well placed in harmonious chromatic relationships. Luxuriant, the work of a fine colourist. Bizarrely, “Madam Paraschiva” is the most interesting visual element out of the whole painting.” And I mention this because I am surprised to learn from the text on the wall that Arghezi’s wife was displeased, although the painting, as far as her figure is concerned, is superb.
2.1. The TV Documentary
Beyond the exhibition in its self which is presented here very briefly, there is also a video projection room – where a National Television documentary can be seen. In it, Corneliu Baba appears to be aware he is anachronistic. Then, Andrei Pleșu, a leading art historian, is reluctant to present Corneliu Baba under the banner of the “resistance through culture” during communism, but he does it anyway. I find it strange that Baba, an official painter, considers himself a dissident.
The few preconceived notions specific to a contemporary artist come into play. A series of automatic evaluations occur.
Corneliu Baba never made any technical compromises, but he did make institutional ones. In his case, a revolt of professionalism against de-professionalisation is believable. But one cannot go beyond that. Corneliu Baba does not employ a mode of working on the concrete history of his time. Andrei Pleșu mentions the term “marginality” when it comes to Baba and I can’t help but ask myself – Can Baba really take on the role of the “oppressed” artist?
Within the frame of a critical attitude, which is specific to contemporary art, Baba’s anachronistic style is risky, because it appears to be a means of disengagement.
And it is of immense comfort to be able to isolate yourself within “a space of normality” in times of dictatorship. I leave the art show with the certainty that the artist is one of the last guardians of “grand” painting, which continued without him for a long time towards modernism, and eventually evolved into minimalism and conceptual art.
This reaction is quite predictable. It can be easily described using another quote from Piotrowski’s book, especially when it comes to what is morally expected of the artist.
„After the political changes brought about by perestroika in the USSR, the West expected an inrush of beneficial, exotic powers from the East. A „crisis of meaning” in the West – the result of speechlessness and surplus – had nourished hopes for a mythographic renewal from the East.
His answer to the question of what exactly could bring about such a cultural renewal of the West was Eastern European dissident art. According to Tannert, the main task facing contemporary culture is not how to maintain Eastern European institutions, but rather how „to protect and stabilize” its moral attitudes, in other words, how to preserve the Eastern European culture of nonconformism.”
The conclusion comes easily. Since Baba shows no interest for stylistic innovation, nor for an engaged attitude towards his time, it is difficult for someone working with contemporary art to approach the artist with interest.
3. The diary
All that being said, something was missing. For the time being I could not be certain about my judgement. Then one night, when I began reading his journal, things became clear. Suddenly, a coherent and articulated man made his entrance. He did not seem, at a first glance, to feel the need to lie to himself. Because of this, he required immediate attention. The journal’s first and only level that I will touch upon here is that of the artist who is confronted with his profession and with the time he lives in.
p. 100. About my removal from teaching
In the winter of 1949-50 I had been removed – for reasons still unknown to me today, after eleven years – from the position of art teacher at the Iași Art Institute. I was very well liked as a professor; as a painter, I had begun to be taken more and more seriously as a painter, my past was untainted from a political point of view, this is why my removal from teaching remains an unsolved misery. There were never any documents handed to me, nor explanations were made in regards to this, nobody knew a thing. Of course Maxy (the future director of the National Museum of Art, an avant-garde painter, n.n.), who at the time was pulling some strings, set me straight when he found out I was no longer a professor. The three reasons were: drunkenness, women and being reactionary. I don’t want to comment on this, because it’s just flat out ridiculous. It’s a fabricated lie. They probably did not approve that I was on the rise. In any case, for me, this shock came at the right time.
p. 131. About The Venice Biennale of 1956:
The first trip to Italy. The 28th Venice Biennale and our first participation in God knows how many years. Preparations started since winter, when it was known that two painters (Ciucurencu, Baba), two sculptors (Medrea, Irimescu) and two graphic artists (Perahim, Ligia Macovei) would be exhibiting. I spent all spring working in my new studio that I was granted on Kiseleff Boulevard. In April, we all exhibited our selected works in a big hall, within the same building as the studios. It was adventurous, quote heroic (for that time) to fight in order for this exhibition to have a certain standard. The Ministry attempted to add “themes” to our selection… We hardly managed to maintain a level of quality, which was at one moment compromised by adding things that were of no use, and at another came back to our initial proposal. Then finally, the departure of our group took place, a group which was a bit ..anachronistic, a bit ..”provincial”. It’s hard to speak about the success or the failure of the show. It was a new world, in the midst of which we found ourselves rather isolated. Our works were in no danger of being criticized for being vulgar, distasteful or… pompieristic. But compared to what was on display around us, we appeared to be on an island that made almost no sense.
p. 134. About success in Moscow:
The pictorial event of 1957 was the Romanian exhibition in Moscow and Leningrad. Many soviet artists who visited Venice for the Biennale came back with the memory of the Romanian pavilion. […] The exhibition opened in early 1957 in a grand room in Moscow. It was a sort of retrospective, as we exhibited the same works from Venice. Personally, I had one of the most resounding of successes. My name started to circulate. I received letters, then an invitation from theUnion of Soviet Artists. […]
Since then, I’ve made a lot of friends among Soviet artists, some of which have lasted, and which I treasure. Back home, in my country, I largely enjoy the effect of my friendship with Soviet artists, rather than the warmth of my Romanian colleagues. Sometimes I feel so alone. Actually, not sometimes, but most of the time, and this is weighing on me every day. Especially since there are so few peers from my generation left, and they seem to matter even less. The rest are at that age when they are all “big” names.
4. The exhibition: “Corneliu Baba – Confessions. 1944 – 1965”
If the previous art shows at The National Museum of Art Romania had publications that mirrored the body of work exhibited and explained it, it’s obvious that this time around it’s quite the opposite. The starting point here is Corneliu Baba’s diary.
Also, because the painter’s notes span over a long period of time, the exhibition as well as the publication that inspired it are only the first part of a larger project. This fall, part two will take place, with a publication and an exhibition of works that will follow the artist’s diary beyond 1965.
For this art show, the period of time chronicled by the first volume of the journal sets the chronology of the exhibited work. Here, we also have to mention that the show was possible with Mrs. Maria Muscalu-Albani’s contribution, who is the person in charge of the artist’s estate. Also, the first volume of the diary was edited by her, and then published by the MNAR publishing house.
And it is at this point in the discussion where it becomes clear that the exhibition has several layers of meaning.
The first one is the direct contact with the artworks. At this level, even an untrained visitor can still have a meaningful experience from the exhibition, as one can see from the above. Yet, it must be said that beyond this first level, in order to understand Monica Enache’s curatorial work as well as Baba’s artist work, a substantial amount of effort, knowledge and reading is necessary.
Ironically, it seems that an art show by a Romanian postwar painter demands more intellectual effort than a contemporary art show, as it is quite obvious already from the introduction. The theoretical, artistic and historical issues raised by Corneliu Baba’s work demand a good understanding of the Western canon before and after modernism along with its accompanying art theory. It also demands a good understanding of local history, as far as art and the Romanian society are concerned. This is why this exhibition might be better appreciated by art specialists, rather than the general public.
Moreover, for someone interested in visual arts, the complex issues which Baba’s contemporaries had to face while practicing their profession remain relevant for artists to this day, even though at a first glance the different artistic manners would have us believe that these people lived in a different world and had other preoccupations. If the paintings produce a strong impression for an art lover, the life and work of Corneliu Baba constitutes a substantial challenge because there is always a need to connect to issues related to art, but also to the historical context in a more general sense.
Monica Enache, the curator of the exhibition, considers that a part of this problem is partially removed by reading Corneliu Baba’s diary, which adds another layer of interpretation to his works. This layer was previously hidden under what was rightfully considered either official art works, or paintings of extremely high quality. Beyond the state’s intention of self-representation in the peasant imagery of the 1907 revolt, beyond the relationship between compositional elements, surface treatment and color, and also beyond the global sensation the art works produce on a visual level, there is the painter’s own intention, which was previously partially unknown.
The exhibition demands accessing this third layer of reading, or interpretation, and I was about to learn more from the exhibition’s curator.
5. A discussion with Monica Enache, the curator of the exhibition
5.1. Do you consider this exhibition caters more to a specialised audience who has some background information on Baba?
Not necessarily, but it is, in any case, destined for an audience willing to do a little bit of reading. We attempted to provide some texts, we selected whatever we considered important, as little as possible. But we also wanted to steer the visitor towards a certain direction. Without the text, however, this would be a Baba exhibition like many others, where works from a certain period of production are on display.
5.2. I am under the impression that the diary is attempting to reproduce the historical context in which the works were made. If absent, then the paintings in the gallery do not establish a normal rapport with the present. And without the text, by being thrown into the present without any guidance, you cannot establish a proper connection with the works. Is such an interpretation plausible?
Without a doubt. But there is also something else to be said. And this is also true when considering a large part of the works produced in the communist era – they have a double life. One is official, attributed by the state, and the other is the artist’s intention.
Herein lies the dilemma. Because if you were to strictly analyse the official dimension, you would quickly be done with these works. It seems quite simple at first. You can automatically research certain historical mechanisms and quickly discover what was wanted from the artist in those days. However, when you get to the other side of things, it gets very complicated. Because some artists imbued their works with a double life. Others did not. This is why you must differentiate between the two and research the available documents.
Nothing that happened during that era can be globally assessed.
Especially when talking about artists, everything is so different from individual to individual, from so many points of view, that it’s all slipping away. Jules Perahim quickly comes to mind as a counter-example. When considering his paintings from the early ’50s, I don’t think there is any other dimension to them other than the official one, however permissive I would want to be.
From what you are saying, it is as if there are two mandatory questions that must be asked when looking at works from 1945 – 1989 in Romania. The first would be – Do I know what the state really wanted? The other being – Did the artist have any other intention and what was it?
Exactly, these are two questions we must always ask.
5.3. During his time as an “artist to the people”, Baba painted dark, desolate images of poor peasants, some group portraits that were striking due to their emotional tension and somber atmosphere. When compared to the dominant optimism, which was an important part of the canon of socialist realism, Baba doesn’t seem to fit in. What is actually going on? Because his images, even his portraits, are rarely, if ever, euphoric.
Indeed, I believe he also talks about this, it was one of the reasons he was criticised. And I’m only speculating here about the 1907 peasant revolt series, for example, or about his peasant painting series in general – it is not quite clear that he named the works. There is information that others might have named it.
In any case, he was sufficiently adaptable, or flexible, that he painted those peasants and claimed they were from 1907. Problem solved.
So he painted an image of dissatisfaction from the past, thus solving the problem of historical time raised by the political party, since the overall theme of the present was linked to the joy of building socialism, with sadness lost to the past.
Yes, sadness seemed to be working better with portraits. But not with peasants or social themed works. Grey backgrounds and ash-like skies were unacceptable back then, and so was the image of poverty.
5.4. On closer inspection, because of the way he painted, Corneliu Baba was anachronistic even within the local landscape of postwar bourgeois painting. They seemed more interested in impressionist work at that time. What would you say about such a statement?
Well, it’s interesting somehow. Because the artist was born in 1906. So he was 42 in 1948. The fact that he did not take to late impressionism, which was still alive in the interwar period, nor to modernism, is important. In any case, he did not make a name for himself before 1948. This could be the explanation. The fact that the visual canon before 1948 was different.
I see. So you are saying that Baba had to build on the foundation of photographic socialist realism. And he ended going back in time, from 19th century French realism to Velasquez and El Greco… But this is very interesting when considering socialist realism, and the manner in which some artists responded to it. The same is true when considering photography as a medium, and the social documentary program of photography in the same context. Because Baba had a very idiosyncratic response to all of this. I did not expect this… So he wasn’t actually relating to a prewar history. He actually started with the era’s criteria, only to discover that he was interested in art that was beyond that of his teachers. This means that Socialist Romania created Corneliu Baba as an artist.
Yes, it’s true. Or rather, his time it gave him the aesthetic frame in which he could create a body of work. Although this work is part of the visual canon that the political regime imposed, it managed to transcend the limits of the descriptive aesthetics, militant or triumphalist in manner, which was desired by the establishment.
5.5. To what extent can we relate the anachronism of Baba’s painting to this very powerful conservative profile in Socialist Romania, especially at an aesthetic level, which was borrowed from the interwar period with only minor changes made, mainly by adding a layer of interest for social subject matter?
It’s simple really, because we already had the Soviet model which was already ossified. It was no coincidence that after 1948 there were a lot of copies and replicas of famous soviet works circulating locally. These were the models. They were brought it, exhibited and talked about. And artists were taught to paint according to the wishes of the local art ideologists. Indeed, there was this labor of re-education. And it was serious. It must be taken into account.
Indeed, the local version of socialist realism was built on the foundation of URSS’s Stalinist art, which was no longer a revolutionary regime, but rather a conservative one.
Absolutely. But we need to clarify some questions of terminology, which often cause confusion: realism from “socialist realism” must not be confused with the realism of the 19th century because it actually refers to a certain reality, that which communism pretended to have created. This is one of the reasons why, once placed under the guise of this very generic term, Romanian visual art had the chance to evolve in a short amount of time, to vastly different areas of pictorial expression.
Sorry, but I was aiming somewhere else with this question. I wanted you to confirm my suspicion, which is that in the interwar period, as well as after the Second World War, there was a dominance of a very conservative type of art, which established a continuity, in terms of the general attitude towards art. It seems as if the dominating art in the public space must be boring, nationalistic, cumbersome, and to not raise any problematic issue whatsoever.
Fair enough, but I believe this is a perfectly valid coordinate for any period, don’t you think? And there are a lot of reasons for why this is so.
So the establishment is representing itself and that’s that.
Exactly. That’s that as far as the establishment is concerned, but only as long as the expectations are all met. It is, however, from here on out that the discussion about the value of this art can begin, which certainly implies a differentiated analysis.
And then we can either view Baba’s anachronism as compliant to this conservatism. Or, according to your interpretation, as a choice that has nothing to do with any of the given options at the time.
Yes, I am leaning towards this explanation, strictly in this case, as I’ve said before.
So do you believe that he respectfully goes beyond art history and is only interested in what is real.
Absolutely, yes. Of course, one can identify Velasquez, Frans Hals or others as references. But if you think about it, what is this realism? And then we’re back at this discussion on terminology. This isn’t about the baroque, romanticism or anything else, this is about establishing a relationship with reality.
So, in fact, you see him as a realist, even if under the guise of Caravaggio or Velasquez, within academic painting.
Yes, within the lines of what I previously mentioned. Realism in a historical sense, just like any other artistic style, has two components: pictorial expression and the content of ideas. In regards to Baba, we’re strictly referring to the former, not the latter. And by adding a psychologically-reflexive dimension to his works, his interest for the particular instead on the general promptly explains his affinity for 17th century painting. I think he is the kind of artist that can be exhibited in any era. Just like that. Because he is not connected to any particular trend. Beyond this point, I would not risk making any categorical statements. But I do believe he is the kind of creator who remains anchored within the classical understanding of the purpose of art: a means of knowledge through transcendence.
5.6. Contemporary art strongly codified its models of presentation. In this regard, the white cube has become a widely spread methodology, accepted by artists, museums and the art market. In the case of Baba, what is the model of presentation you chose?
I chose the white cube precisely for this. Because I thought about the time when the most famous exhibitions of the time were made – the Dalles Hall exhibitions or the state annual shows. These generally had a minimal presentation. A white wall with no scenography.
So the presentation did resemble Western conventions of the time.
Exactly. Well, I am not sure what the reason behind it was, and I cannot be certain without previous research. But this was the reality, this is what I could observe.
So there is a historical foundation for this type of modernist presentation in Romania.
Yes, of course. Perhaps there was an exception in 1948, when the first state annual was organised in the throne room. (The National Museum of Art functions even nowadays within the former Royal Palace, n.n.). That was a political statement. And it holds a special significance over the other exhibitions. However, that’s another discussion. In that case, it was a symbolic gesture of the newly established socialist regime.
It was about representing the change of the political regime.
That’s right. Besides that, things went on like I explained before. We can also consider this museum. In 1944, this wing was still in construction, the interior had not yet been completed. In 1962, when the Știrbey wing of the palace was opened, all the galleries of the Museum of Art of Socialist Romania were moved there.
You can clearly see that this is an interior from the Gheorghiu-Dej period. It does not resemble any other room from the rest of the Royal Palace.
It is, in fact, a continuation of the architecture program which began in the communist period.
Indeed. But much more simplified and done according to that era. And the museum functioned here during most of its institutional life. Until the Știrbey wing was completed, the museum occupied the central area of the palace. And then it was all moved here, where it remained until 1989. And this is a space that we can rightly speak of in terms of its being minimalistic, when it comes to its aesthetics.
That’s because we have to go back to socialist modernism in architecture, after Khrushchev’s speech in 1956, when socialist realism was renounced in architecture. Which allows us to position the exhibition space for Baba’s painting in the broader limits of the International Style, from a historical point of view.
That’s true. Besides, we’re talking about the galleries that have hosted most of the socialist era large scale exhibitions. Of course, other shows were also held at Dalles and other places, but there was no difference in the presentation, in the display, or in the aesthetics of the exhibition space.
5.7. In 1962, Corneliu Baba is awarded the distinction of the people’s artist. What was Baba’s relationship with socialist realism?
I believe every artist wants to be recognised.
Well, this is part of the artist’s job. It comes with this constraint, which is – he has to function within public space. Even if he were a narcissist, or an introvert who is forced to go out into the world, the profession demands it.
This is all true and must be taken into account. But this is just a surface layer to his personality, that’s what I think. However, there are references in the journal pointing to this, he did not seem indifferent to the way he was perceived by the critics or the public.
So you think he accepted this constraint because he had to work in that time and place, and he just did it.
Exactly. Of course, we could go as far as saying he could have chosen to stop painting altogether, for example. Because his dream could not be realised in that era, he should have refused. But I don’t know if we are in the position to judge. How many people are willing to go to the very end for what they believe in? Very few.
Of course, there are more pragmatic people who know their own limitations. They realise they are unable to sacrifice themselves. And they cannot be held accountable for that. It’s very easy to say – But why didn’t he do that? I also felt tempted to view things this way. But I think that’s completely wrong. I’m trying to imagine what I would have done in that situation. And cross my heart, I don’t think I would have been a martyr. Certainly not.
This is why I also advocate for this type of differentiated understanding. Because we are, after all, operating with nuances. We can’t say everybody was the same during that time. There were notable differences in regards to the degree of engagement with the establishment in the case of each individual.
We’re actually talking about the few choices one could afford to make. You either gave up or carried on in the given conditions.
Yes, well, by making more or less compromises. Some would go farther in this others did not.
5.8. If you were to compare Corneliu Baba and Ion Bitzan from the perspective of being an official artist, how would you see them relating to each other? Is there a connection between them? I find them both to be two very productive types who worked in public space, in those conditions, they were also very prominent artists in their own right who had to face professional constrains, and come up with an answer to that.
Bitzan is somehow more dynamic, I would say. You can observe his evolution from point A to point B. He was running on a different lane. For Baba, the evolution is much slower, and the way he “thinks” his art never changes.
I can’t help but think about this image – and I feel forced to make a comparison. Ceaușescu’s portraits painted by Bitzan compared to the mad kings of Baba. This invariably raises some questions. And then we have to re-think this one.
5.9. Due to his international success and international political support, Baba became a very powerful character, who was often inconvenient for Socialist Romania, due to his ties to Moscow. Since 1969, he became an honorary member of the URSS Art Academy. What do you think about this?
We cannot talk about “ties to Moscow”, his own success is what got him there and way beyond. His fame far surpassed his country’s borders, although he was still behind the Iron Curtain. But he made it pretty far, all the way to China.
So he was considered a socialist artist of great value.
He was simply a god. Even today, people in China know who he is. And this displeased our co-nationals.
Because they no longer had any control over him.
Exactly. And they would have wanted that. But basically, after a while, the pressure came from the outside.
He was, in fact, quite independent within a very difficult context simply because he was a very good artist.
As independent as one can be within an oppressive system. But he was surely in another league compared to artists who produced “talking images” strictly within the Party line.
I never thought he needed to be accepted in Moscow or Beijing in order to be appreciated in his home country. Things appear to be the same now, it seems it is always necessary to be accepted by others before you are accepted in your own country. This underlines the subordinate status of local cultural and political elites, but also their incapacity to discover and to support local artists with high potential.
As we speak there is another huge Baba exhibition in Beijing. From what I learned form my colleagues who were there, the older museum specialists who are hosting the shows were ecstatic to be able to welcome an artist they knew and wanted to exhibit for a long time.
5.0. This exhibition also hosts a projection with an interview by Andrei Pleșu, an important art historian who talks of Baba within the terms of the “cultural resistance” discourse. In a way, Baba is described as being displeased with the regime of Socialist Romania, almost like a dissident. Yet, he was a character with such an important political capital within the local political structure, he was also a painter with a studio on Pangratti Street, with a house on Kiseleff boulevard, and by all means he was a leader in his area of activity, as well as a privileged individual. It is hard nowadays to understand this interpretation, where he is presented within the terms of political opposition to socialism. What are we to make of all this?
If we’re talking about the ’80s, he had already acquired all these privileges for some time. Also, he was in a position where he could no longer be removed. What was Ceaușescu to do with him? He was too well known to ever be touched.
In fact, it was within the socialist system where he had made a name for himself, where he had earned a guarantee for his life, for his family and for his independence.
He just continued to do what he liked. He was one of the winners of the era, in any case. I don’t know if Bitzan is one of them. I wouldn’t be too quick to draw this conclusion.
6. Official art / experimental art. The notions confronted with new histories.
Besides being a curator, Monica Enache is also an art historian. For example, she wrote “Art and the metamorphosis of politics”, which deals with the historical themes within official Romanian art between 1944 – 1965. This publication is the final form of her PhD degree from the National University of Art, under Ruxandra Demetrescu’s coordination.
As we’ll soon find out, Monica Enache’s observations from her PhD thesis are also relevant for this exhibition. In her curatorial work, Monica Enache continued the research she began with her PhD, going further with a reconsideration of the postwar period of Romanian art.
I have selected a few relevant quotes that can help us better understand the author’s view on the respective time period. These are accompanied by a series of observations and questions.
p. 55. In his work, Theory of the Avant-Garde, Peter Burger defines the role and status of art in relationship to society, in history. The author argues that, in the first phase of history, sacred and royal court art remains integrated in the praxis of life, and during this time, art works to service a very well established purpose. After the French Revolution, bourgeois art, which is a product of capitalism, is removed from the praxis of life. […]
As a consequence, art gains autonomy, operating as a higher entity, offering the illusory image of the lost whole. (its sacred function, n.n.)
Burger maintains that the individual can be rediscovered within this art as a whole, complete human being. The avant-garde denounces capitalist society, in fact attacking the autonomy of art as well as the concept of “art for art’s sake”. The avant-garde maintains that art must go back to being practical, that it must once again go into the domain of real life, but not in a militant form via content or form like in the past, but by its function within society.
Here, we can observe that Monica Enache considers socialist realism to be a “royal court” type of art, as opposed to bourgeois art, as we shall see.
p. 56. By extending Burger’s theory, it could be said that socialist realism chose to return to the social significance of the content of the art work, specific to royal court art (in the sense of direct orders), thus destroying the autonomy of bourgeois art.
In regards to the above, it would be interesting to see to what extent was Baba part of this process. To this end, it might be worth remembering that in 1956, two years after its beginning, Corneliu Baba, along with Mircea Deac, Ion Irimescu, M H Maxy, Jules Perahim and Mircea Popescu, were part of Revista Arta’s editorial staff. During that period, the magazine had the public mission of promoting socialist realism.
p. 56. In the Communist East we can speak beyond the loss of the critical function, and go as far as to observe the disappearance of art as an institution.
In this context, it’s a challenge to understand Baba’s escape in an area which, within certain reference points, appears to be anachronistic bourgeois art.
p. 56. When attempting to understand the relationship between the avant-garde and Communism, one cannot neglect the dual nature of the dynamics of any political / ideological proposal, which has an obvious, natural, and militant character in the beginning, only to become rather conservative, after having acquired political power.
Here, part of the above interview is relevant, in the area where where the inherent conservative nature of dominant art before and after the Second World War in Romania is discussed. The motivations were different in the two periods, but they nonetheless had the same result when it came to the aspect of art in public space.
p. 57. Compared to bourgeois realism with which socialist realism is often likened to, there is a consistent mutation. The similarity of the two is purely aesthetic, with bourgeois realism illustrating an idealised world, thus revealing the unjust real world. The pair protest / ideal is what defines this artistic style. At the other end of the spectrum, socialist realism maintains that it illustrates the communist world in the making, capturing the joy of society as it builds socialism. Here, there is no more room for protest, art already outgrew the position of protector of violated values.
As we could observe, due to this special take on history, Corneliu Baba had to use a strategy for dealing with the social issues of his time, by projecting them into the past, which was a historical a time when they were permitted to exist, and were they were plausible as artistic subjects, from the point of view of the party.
p. 58. According to official records and despite testimonies, socialist realism was at that time (1944 – 1965) the only artistic doctrine in Romania.
This opens an impotant debate. The author claims that during 1957 – 1965 socialist realism transforms from a political program disguised into an artistic style into a meta-artistic program. By relaxing its formal rules related to realism and also to the themes established by the party, it transforms into something that can be called “socialist modernism”. According to the author, this is a more subtle agenda of control over the domain of art, which appears to bring a degree formal and conceptual liberation, known as the “Dej thaw”.
Monica Enache thinks that this liberation, which some considered a lucky omission of control on the party’s behalf or even an improvement of general conditions, was consciously planned out by the party, who, by then, had only refined its working methods.
Coming back to what are considered to be the roots of contemporary art, related to the notion of official art, maybe it is here that we can find the sensitive spot that can spark an entire series of observations.
Ileana Pintilie considers that experimental art, which was permitted in artist studios and private spaces, was outright opposing the official art of the period which fully occupied the public space and was financed though state commissions. However, Ileana Pintilie also agrees that the possibility of producing experimental art in the private space was a silent agreement, accepted by both the party and the artists. It remains to be seen, with the aid of historical studies, if this convention was the result of a negotiation of sorts, or not.
Monica Enache tends to believe that the entire body of art works from 1944 to 1965 can be labeled socialist realism. After 1965, when the methodology of visual art was updated, the political program behind it remained the same, although the artistic formula had changed.
If the author is right when she considers socialist realism as a political program of the state that manifested itself during the period of 1944 – 1965, and if it was then followed by official art after 1965 – which was a more flexible political/artistic program according to the features outlined above – then the inevitable implication of this statement is that the neo-avant-garde must also be seen in relation to this transformation.
Magda Predescu’s book that deals with the variations of the artistic canon between 1950 and 1970 is relevant here, because it questions Ileana Pintilie’s description of a firm line placed between official and experimental art. Instead, one can observe an obvious interest shown by the state in supporting local neo-avant-garde artists through such institutional means as scholarships abroad, visits to Western museums, a better circulation of international publications at the local level, or the organisation of exhibitions in the country, as well as internationally. All these observations tend to blur the opposition between official art and the neo-avant-garde. They also show that the Romanian state was directly involved in the promotion of experimental art, so far considered to be in opposition to the official art of time.
And it is still to be seen how formal freedom and institutional support in the case of the avant-garde relate to the control exercised by the political / artistic meta-program that socialist realism had become after it had transformed into official art.
The question here is where this maneuvering space of the more refined state meta-program ends, from a political and formal point fo view. Also, this raises questions regarding the previous narrative about the neo-avant-garde, which was drawn along the lines of a direct opposition to official art.
Atelier 35’s existence as a refuge for young artists in the ’80s, when the Artist Union was no longer accepting any new members, but also the long line of art shows closed right after opening are quite telling in this regard. In this context, this exhibition space might seem to be a “controlled space of freedom,” where the energies that existed in the field of art were meant to be manifested in order to be defused in a controlled manner.
The question is, yet again, what the real space of freedom was, what the state’s involvement in this so-called “unofficial” art was, and what all this means for the neo-avant-garde in general, as an ancestor of contemporary art after 1990. More specifically, the neo-avant-garde’s connection to “the artistic gestures associated with the idea of freedom”, in a more general sense, but also the idea of establishing a relationship between experimental artists and the notion of “dissidence”, seem to be in need of a reevaluation.
This is the direct effect of the intersection between two histories of art.
Western history has established a genealogy of the present marked by contemporary art as being grounded upon the local neo-avant-gardes of socialism, but also on international neo-avant-gardes, in a broader sense.
On the other hand, the recent history of the beginning of socialist realism in art, especially around 1944 – 1957, draws a clearer picture of the profile of later official art within the local scene. This profile puts pressure on the Western version, or on those versions inspired by Western historiography concerning the genealogy of contemporary art in Romania.
From the perspective of art history, it becomes problematic to compartmentalise according to the opposition between official art / experimental art, if indeed, socialist realism and then later official art as a meta-artistic program, function within the parameters suggested by the author. The possibility that both official as well as experimental artists be included in the very broad category of “socialist artist” becomes more and more plausible, raising some serious issues for the thought process of art history, which is used to looking at historical periods according to their stylistic characteristics, often neglecting the political structure that stands behind. In this regard, the observation below becomes easier to understand.
p. 59. In our opinion, socialist realism cannot be treated as an artistic style, using the logic of the dynamics of oppositions, which is specific to 20th century Western art.
As we have noticed so far, it is very probable that the intersection between the two histories of art must be built on this foundation. In any case, it is clear that the history of official art must be confronted with the history of the neo-avant-garde, with all the consequences that might arise out of it for the present moment.
As far as Corneliu Baba is concerned, Monica Enache urges us, as we have seen, to take into account both the discourse of the state, at the level of the image, as well as the artist’s intention, to the extent that it can be discovered, once more, with the help of documentary material or, in this case, a diary.
The double gaze – which follows these two coordinates – the official intention and the artist’s intention, seem to be from this point onwards a good criteria for understanding art during this period. As is one can see from the issues mentioned above, it is quite possible that this type of understanding might not be only suitable for socialist realism or, for official art.
Corneliu Baba – Confesiuni. 1944-1965 is open at MNAR until April 28, 2019.
In 2006 Ionuț Cioană started to work as a visual artist, developing a series of projects under the alias Mircea Nicolae....