Cluj joins the carnival of cities where the ballast of tradition was negligible and cultural life modest, and where into this kind of void an artistic movement was born that was unhindered by a past and could draw freely, even nonchalantly, on many traditions, and make its own rules as it went along.
They’re an interesting generation. They were teenagers when the watershed came. By way of a reminder: mid-December 1989, Timișoara, people are gathering outside the home of Pastor László Tőkes. They don’t want to allow the resettlement of the inconvenient preacher. There are Romanians and Hungarians. It all started with them. A few days later, in Bucharest, the crowd booed and heckled the dictator, but when the news came in that people were dying on the streets of Timișoara, it became clear that this was no Velvet Revolution. Ceaușescu announced a state of emergency. The crowd stormed the Central Committee building, where the dictator was speaking from. His only escape route was, literally, flight. At 12.06 a helicopter took Nicolae and Elena away. They reached Târgoviște, where their asylum became their prison; tried in a fast-track court and convicted, they were executed by firing squad on Christmas.
Romanians followed the spectacle of the trial and death of their tyrant on television. This was the first revolution to be broadcast live, though at the time the extent to which the information flow was manipulated had not yet become clear. The sight of the bullet-torn dead leader, so different to how those teenagers had been used to seeing him – the “Beloved Leader”, who had swept them with his indifferent, timeless gaze – that new, terrifying sight was to rise to the rank of generational experience. As artists they are still grappling with that image.
Power, meanwhile, was assumed by Ion Iliescu, an erstwhile collaborator of the dictator. Had there been a revolution? Hadn’t there? That dilemma remains unsolved to this day. The mineriads marched on Bucharest, and before long Iliescu popularly became known as Ilyich, because nothing had changed. So they grew to maturity in a country that was a mixture of stagnation and hurrah modernisation, where the system of misinformation had taken a permanent hold, become institutionalised. Any attempt at change, any action, any gesture – even artistic ones – were leaps into the void, to borrow a reference from the now famous photograph by Ciprian Mureșan. Re-enacting the performance of Yves Klein, in which the artist, arms outstretched, throws himself into space in a liberating artistic gesture, Mureșan also showed the reckless jumper three seconds later, lying motionless after his crash to the ground. All this took place in a small alleyway in Cluj, just outside the centre, an alleyway deceptively similar to the backdrop in Klein’s photograph, yet at the same time not mistakable for anywhere else but Cluj – as a definite, painfully definite place.
In addition to this generational experience, the artists in the Cluj group also share the same artistic formative process. The majority of them are natives of Transylvania, although only a few are from Cluj itself. They met at art school there. What they say about their years of study reveals a further important formative experience.
“We were isolated, cut off,” says Adrian Ghenie. “The only places you could get hold of books on art were second-hand bookshops. The Greeks? – No problem. The Old Masters? – Sure. Picasso? – Yes. Only nothing contemporary.”
I get a peculiar feeling when I see Ghenie’s books from that period: Rembrandt published by Matica Slovenska, Cesty malířskeho umění by Odeon of Prague, Żyć z Picassem by the Krakow-based publisher Wydawnictwo Literackie… They’re all so familiar. A black-and-white history of art on offset paper. The history of painting with no colour, but studied from cover to cover nevertheless, perused to the nth degree. And what did they gain from them? Nothing. The true art world – that of contemporary, current, present-day art – was like an unattainable promise to them.
Ghenie says bluntly: “I was crazy about it. If you haven’t got anything else, you feed on what there is. But at the same time you feel that somewhere out there there’s so much going on, only you’ve got no access to it. And you won’t let anyone else tell you about it, because, well, how could someone like that, stuck here just like you, know what it’s like there on the outside? You’re left with a dream, and the profound resolve that as soon as the opportunity ever arises, you’ll leave, go, to check it out, touch it for yourself. And in the meantime you ruminate.”
In a video work of 2011, untitled but known as “Monks”, Ciprian Mureșan filmed actors in habits, scribes in a monastery scriptorium. But they are not copying either the Word of God, or the writings of the Church Fathers. They are copying pictures by Malewicz, Mondrian, Beuys, the saints of modern art, out of books. And to be more precise, they are copying out the book by Elaine Sturtevant, whose works themselves are copies of the modern masters indistinguishable from the originals. In a word, Mureșan’s monks are making reproductions of reproductions. And anyone who looks more carefully at the monks will recognise the Clujians, Mureșan’s artist friends, these days often increasingly known as the “Cluj school” or “the Cluj Generation”. So it is a work both about them and about art today. (It is no coincidence that it was made in the same year, 2011, that Sturtevant was awarded the lifetime achievement Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale.) In talking about repetition, imitation, and even mindless adoration, Ciprian Mureșan touches on an issue that is particularly uncomfortable in Romania – that of “form without content”. Ever since Romanian culture underwent a radical swerve in the direction of the Occident in the 19th century, this matter has grown into a major dilemma, but Mureșan is not one to shy away from critical auto-reflection.
Nevertheless, viewers may be surprised how easily the Cluj Generation has found its place in the “western”, “modernist” idiom of art, and at the dexterity with which they navigate its repertoire of genres, from conceptualism through traditional oil painting. If it is as Ghenie says, and he really did first come into contact with the paintings of Francis Bacon in 1998, then they have done their backlog of homework in record time. Over a century ago, Titu Maiorescu chided the Romanians for over-hasty adoption of forms without comprehension, without assimilating what they are accumulating; would he have cause for worry today?
Transforming clichés, unpicking myths
Instead of speaking of “forms adopted”, it would be better to speak of “forms found”. This is not a new strategy: Dadaism certainly made this its speciality, as the objet trouvé, or ready-made. The young artists from Cluj are following in these footsteps. They are reaching for objects that are not so much “ready-made” as found, and in fact not so much objects as ideas and images, myths and clichés. Central and Western Europe second-hand? This is how we were seen in the 1990s and even in the first decade of the new century. Used cars, household chemicals from Germany, second-hand clothes shops – so why not take it further?
Ciprian Mureșan is a master at this game. He selects figures, themes and ideas to re-address, from a different perspective, with a different weight of experience, in a new period. His need to be constantly reinterpreting history, and the canon of culture and art, produces works with a superb twist, a subtle irony. Recycled, second-hand in this case means seen anew, as in the above-mentioned Leap into the void … or the work The End of the Five-Year Plan (2004), based on Maurizio Catellano’s sculpture of the pope hit by a meteorite.
Anyone who has seen Shrek, whom Mureșan selected to act out the main scene from Un chien andalou, the famous scene with the eye, in his 3D animation of 2004, will comprehend the impossibility of separating the fairytale idyll from the perverse brutality of reality. Nevertheless, myth is often akin to a drug. In Romania there is a strong tendency to succumb to the power of myth.
“We have been fed myths to bolster us up,” the artist admits, “and in at least this atavistic way to satisfy history, which has treated us mercilessly.”
Myths often go hand in hand with hypocrisy, and this interaction is of great interest to Mureșan. On one of his paintings – an acrylic on canvas from 2005 in the “soc” convention – miners perform the purifying gesture of planting flowers in Bucharest’s University Square, the scene of their bloodiest involvement: the 1990 June Mineriad.
“Would you be able to paint Ceaușescu?” Ciprian Mureșan once asked Adrian Ghenie.
“Why would I want to paint him, now it’s all over?” Ghenie asked, bewildered, “and Bucharest’s museum stores are littered with hundreds, if not thousands of his painted portraits.”
“To paint him,” Mureșan persisted, “as a contemporary painting, one that would be of value to us, now.”
In their childhood, he was everywhere, at every turn: in kindergarten, in school, at the health centre, at home, when they sat down to do their homework and opened their books. Ghenie realised that Ceaușescu to him was not human, yet few other faces were so instantly, unmistakeably recognisable. That fleshy, ruddy face of a man of indefinable age, yet unlike any other living person in his environment. To a child, Ceaușescu was merely an arrangement of shapes and colours, something inhuman in a very rudimentary sense.
And this was the source of the shock when the recording of his trial and execution were broadcast on television. Adrian Ghenie well remembers the impression that sight made on him. Instead of cheeks rendered in printer’s ink there was bluish, dead skin, clots of blood, dirt, mud. The sight of a man that it was at last possible to say something about: that he was old, broken down, and well dressed, although bedraggled and dirty.
“He could have been my grandfather,” he adds, confused.
When he painted him for the first time, in 2008, he chose scenes from the trial, not only because both the event and the image had been weighing on him and all his generation. He chose them with the awareness that our iconosphere is full of bullish dictators in the prime of life and at the height of power, but there is no knowledge of what a despot who has received his comeuppance looks like. We have no such images. But Ghenie does not want to go to the other extreme and show Ceaușescu dead and his body mangled. He depicts him as a man hunted down, surrounded, still attempting to defend himself, rather bravely negating the credibility of the tribunal trying him, but one who is no longer in control of the situation, has lost the assurance of what will happen to him, and perhaps even senses the outcome.
In another painting – The Trial of 2010 – we see them both, Nicolae and Elena, in dingy barracks in Târgoviște. They are sitting, cowed, in the corner of the improvised courtroom, wedged in by the tops of very ordinary-looking tables. A strident note in the interior, which resembles a common room in a cheap workers’ hostel, with walnut-veneer panelling on the walls, heavy, mouse-coloured drapes, a chair, a random armchair, is struck by Elena’s tigerskin coat. She was fond of such curiosities. The talk was that her rare furs came from animals she shot herself at the zoo, although they were more likely gifts from African dictators, “friends” of the First Couple. Strange, tiger skin. Perhaps that is what gives the couple an air more of hunted big game than of bigwigs.
The difference between a likeness and a portrait is of fundamental significance to Adrian Ghenie. The portrait, as in the work of the Old Masters, is an image of the person and their corporeality, while a photograph is merely a record of a figure or face. This corporeality, which eludes the photographer, is for Ghenie as a painter an obsession symptomised by the way he moulds the surface of the painting, scraping away layers of colours applied one on top of the other so thickly that they often peel – like pore-pocked, flaking skin.
Adrian Ghenie’s painting is characterised by a refined colour scheme. Its texture, deep, saturated palette and use of deformation render it obscure. An occasional theme is that of the persecuted artist, exile, and art as the “obscure object of desire”, its torturers’ desire. The Collector, painted in 2008, is Göring sitting in confinement, in a cellar somewhere in which he has amassed the canvases he looted for his personal collection. In spite of the claustrophobic nature of the scene, his melancholy mood and resignation lend him humanity.
Such a landscape
While the art of Adrian Ghenie may be positioned on a line running from Rembrandt, through Velázquez and Goya to Bacon, the paintings of Șerban Savu must be seen in the context of several traditions. Our first association might be a kind of “post-socialist realism”. In unobtrusively observed episodes from the lives of ordinary people, Savu attempts to find something that would offer an illustration of everyday Romanian life today – insignificant, entirely prosaic occupations, often taken up simply to kill time, or just waiting, biding time. Presumably it is time itself, elapsing, trickling, that is the content of these pictures, which are composed with the utmost precision, down to the most minute detail. In the painting No Train Coming of 2009, a station master is standing on an empty platform, looking in the direction from which no train is coming. In fact, he doesn’t really appear to be expecting one at all; he is standing there looking more out of ennui than a sense of duty, as Savu paints a life liberated from excessive expectations, perhaps, indeed, from any expectations at all, save that the day comes to an end.
The light and simple framing of prosaic happenings liken these pictures to the painting of Manet, or the Impressionists as a group. But Savu’s palette is muted, and the scenes he captures are rendered with an air of melancholy that is absent from their work. Edward Hopper, then? This likeness would be justified in view of their kind of loneliness and emptiness. Perhaps, just as Hopper offered a painterly reflection of the state of the American soul, Savu can capture something uniquely Romanian. His paintings are Romanian also in the extent to which they enter into dialogue with the vernacular painting tradition, with the current that began with Nicolae Grigorescu, the plein-airist, author of intimate, bucolic scenes, the impressionist lyricist who in the second half of the 19th century transposed his Parisian experiences onto the Romanian landscape. Grigorescu laid the foundations for modern Romanian painting, and at once offered a sublime interpretation of it. The painterly idiom of the Romanian rural idyll that he created is a canon, but one that has now been exhausted.
Savu’s paintings have their genesis somewhere on the fringes of two unfulfilled dreams: that of the countryside, which proved too idealistic to be possible, and that of the city, of life “under an urban star”, which the modernising Romania yearned for. Both these dreams were effaced by another star, when the socialist models of urbanisation and systematisation revealed their full depravity. What was left? Those fringes, a place between, where in the melancholy of the suburbs Șerban Savu seeks life, light and colour for his paintings.
After their degrees, many of those who made up the Cluj group, wanting to avoid making a leap into the void, attempted to carve a niche for themselves abroad. Austria, Italy, Israel… But they would return a year or two later, with a sense of failure, and thus Plan B was born. The name expresses exactly what they were feeling at the time – that they had to have a back-up plan. Plan B is the gallery that Adrian Ghenie and Mihai Pop founded in 2005. At the same time, it was an informal initiative, because they simply needed a place where they could get together, talk, do something, show things – anything to avoid spiralling into gloom and despondency. And it worked. The gallery attracted such interesting artists that three years later they opened a branch in Berlin.
It was in 2009 that the Clujians saw the ad “Factory for sale or to let”. The factory in question was a former paintbrush factory in a fairly central suburb. To be able to manage the rent, they established a federation of artists and galleries. The five storeys of former production space were divided into studios, exhibition spaces, meeting rooms, workshop space and lecture rooms. There were also places where tenants and their guests could get together over coffee or tea for a chat, or to leaf through a book from their growing, shared library. The functional programme of the factory is as natural as it is typical, but its form is rather unconventional – a quasi-cooperative, a long way from institutionalisation. What is more, the Paintbrush Factory is not a post-industrialist bubble to be animated by culture as dictated by global trends. It coexists as a place of work with the small businesses that also still operate there. This is the source of its “post-socialist realist” attraction.
A visit to the artists and galleries in the Paintbrush Factory reveals just how diverse they are as a group, and also shows that their strength lies in their ability to build their own means of expression at the intersection of a range of artistic idioms. “The young art from Cluj” is a phenomenon that goes way beyond the walls of the Factory, although its focus is within. Cluj itself joins the carnival of cities – such as literary Chernivtsi or Trieste, and more recently Ivano-Frankivsk, and musical Katowice – where the ballast of tradition was negligible and cultural life modest, and where into this kind of void an artistic movement was born that was unhindered by a past and could draw freely, even nonchalantly, on many traditions, and make its own rules as it went along. Expressive, with designs beyond the local. Global?
They exhibit in galleries across Europe and in America. Their works are bought for prestigious collections. Paintings by Adrian Ghenie are setting new price records. The Paintbrush Factory has redrawn the cultural map of Romania.
In Dan Prejovski’s words: “If I were Ciprian Mureșan, I would photograph the leap into the void again, but this time, instead of crashing to earth, I would have the leaper collide with the sky.”
Translated from the Polish by Jessica Taylor-Kucia
Copyright © Herito 2020