Romanian and East European Modern Art
On the 6th of January 1868, the Romanian painter Stefan Luchian was born in Ștefănești, a village in Botoșani, Romania. When he was still young, he moved to Bucharest, where he trained under Nicolae Grigorescu at the National University of Art. He studied a short spell at the Munich Fine Arts Academy where he copied masters such as Correggio and Rembrandt, then at the Académie Julian in Paris under Bouguereau, but was deeper influenced by the trendy Impressionists.
At the time, Paris was the Mecca for nineteenth-century European artists, who tried to enrich their countries’ traditional repertoire of icon-painting and church decoration, most ending up greatly influenced by the Barbizon School, Impressionism and subsequent developments. However, it is also true that, “Much of what has become accepted as canonical modern art was born on the eastern margins of industrial Europe: Dadaism in royal Romania, Constructivism in the czarist Russian empire and its successor states, and uniquely creative forms of Cubo-Expressionism in Habsburg Bohemia, to cite but a few examples. Moreover, it was in the immense geographic swath from the Baltic to the Balkans that aesthetics of a progressive character and insistent social applicability were first articulated – philosophies that would fundamentally define the modernist mission universally. Within this strikingly diverse region, the Balkans represent an important and long-neglected chapter in the development of a universalizing modern visual culture.” (S. A. Mansbach, ‘The “Foreignness” of Classical Modern Art in Romania’, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 80, No. 3, Sep., 1998).
It is often too easy to leave out important parts making up the tapestry of modern art in Europe by dismissing its peripheries as ‘provincial’. Stefan Luchian and several other plein-airists painted canvases depicting the conditions of peasants, yet the artist was not employing the ruthless realism which would have suited their sad predicament. He used the subject to practice the lessons learned in Europe. “With Stefan Luchian, Post-Impressionism attacks the Romanian homelands. His lively (much palette-knife wielding) landscapes and figures combine an intimiste flicker with downright observation. He painted what he saw, unscreened by late romantic veils. And a single male portrait acknowledges a debt to Cezanne.” (Stuart Preston, ‘Romanian Impressionism’, review in The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 133, No. 1s062, Sep., 1991).
Stephen Mansbach pointed out that by comparison to other East european countries such as Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Serbia, Romania was “unburdened with defining for the nation its unique history and enduring values. (…) Romanians of all strata subscribed to the belief in their national singularity as “Europeans” living in an Eastern environment whose habits, customs, and mores they purported to reject but for the most part accepted. Such disparity between cultural aspiration and geopolitical reality endowed Romania with one of Europe’s most troubled modern histories as well as with some of the most potent modern imagery-in poetry and painting, as well as in architecture and music. (…) Their uncritical enthusiasm for wide-ranging pictorial styles and philosophies, from Barbizon through Art Nouveau, foreclosed the possibility of any single national mode of expression. Thus, the plein-airism of Grigorescu and the gentle realism of Luchian never crystallized into a Romanian school, movement, or national idiom. (…) they were always recognized as essentially foreign (primarily French), and, indeed, that was a dimension of their great appeal: Romanian art became validated more through its assimilation than through its transformation of progressive modes from abroad.” (S. A. Mansbach, ‘The “Foreignness” of Classical Modern Art in Romania’, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 80, No. 3, Sep., 1998).
In Mansbach’s revisionist interpretation of modernism, Modern Art in Eastern Europe: From the Baltic to the Balkans, ca. 1890-1939, it becomes clear that this reliance on the “foreignness” of Romania’s artists was continued in its future culture and is in fact an aspect which makes it more progressive than other Eastern European countries. In general, the book pointed out that extensive contact did exist between Western Europe and these Eastern areas in the 1920s and before the Cold War severed communications or started distorting their true nature. Artists and works travelled freely and frequently between the two. Exhibitions were mounted, journals circulated, and the latest artistic developments, with their supporting manifestos, were eagerly discussed. Western artistic movements were not simply copied but were creatively assimilated and reinvented by imaginative artists in the East who produced unique styles, distinct from their Western counterparts. They shifted from Constructivism to folkloric pattering, or from cubist-style still lifes to portraying national mythical heroes. Therefore, the work of an artist such as Luchian and many other Eastern Europeans should be seen as an interesting mix of periods and trends, of local history and cosmopolitan aspiration – comprising, in a microcosmic sense, the developmental journey of modern art itself.