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The Invented Peasant. Traditionalism in Modern Romanian Art

Publication: 15 October 2021

NO. 12 2013

Rumunia - Romania - România

The Invented Peasant. Traditionalism in Modern Romanian Art


NO. 12 2013



In the interwar period, the national myth, which was based on the message that “the best in us so far is our peasantry”, gained an impressive following among people of culture; the world of the countryside became a leitmotif for all disciplines of art.

In the Romanian space, the 19th century, the age of social and political upheaval, marked the beginning of the quest for national roots as the Romantic ideals inspiring the European revolutions from 1848 took hold. The foundations were laid for the gelling of the substance of this very young nation’s identity. The search for a definition of the nation, which had strong ideals, if an uncertain future, was abandoned at the threshold of the 20th century, but renewed, with redoubled enthusiasm, in the interbellum.

From the second half of the 19th century, artists began to extricate themselves from the restrictive guardianship of the Orthodox Church and gradually carved out for themselves an autonomous role in society, in a visual discourse that was rooted in the needs and realities of the age. Following the Great Union in 1918, considerable numbers of artists focused on this quest for a national character, and virtually all of them adopted the rural theme as their vehicle. The pastoral space[1] evolved into a universal image that harked back to a concept of beginnings, and the peasant was held to be the only authentic depositary of unchanging traditions. Thus, the art world aligned itself closely with ideas and movements of traditionalist content, which were widespread at the turn of the 20th century, and constructed its artistic universum around the image of the Romanian countryside. In the interwar period, the national myth, which was based on the message that “the best in us so far is our peasantry”[2], gained an impressive following among people of culture; the world of the countryside became a leitmotif for all disciplines of art.

The image of the Romanian peasant, rarely found in Romanian art in the period before Nicolae Grigorescu (1838–1907), is undoubtedly determined by the vast influence that the master from Câmpina exerted on subsequent generations. Grigorescu discovered his creative identity in the rural environment, and his calling to be the narrator of the Romanian countryside remained strong throughout his artistic life. He studied the rural world in minute detail, and recreated it in a Romantic, idealised manner oozing with lyricism. Aside from his genuine affection for the “pastoral space”, his interest in the residents of his native countryside harmonised with the more general questings of the age, following a policy of generating a national discourse that was supported even by King Carol I. (Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, efforts were made in the principalities along the Danube to unite the political nation into a unified state, with culture as a central pillar in the shaping and spread of the national discourse.)

Grigorescu’s successor, Ioan Andreescu (1850–1882), was never to achieve such immense success. Weaker as a draughtsman, although far more accurate as a colourist, Andreescu frequently evinced an interest in the world of the countryside, in particular at the time when he held the position of drawing master in a provincial school in Buzău. In his understanding of the countryside, he was nevertheless far more percipient than his own teacher, whose vision remained superficial and theatrically idealised.

The next generation of painters, educated towards the end of the 19th century and entering the wider world in the early 20th, assimilated Grigorescu’s superficial conceptions and transformed the Romanian art scene into an excess of synthetic, bucolic impressionism. As a predominantly agrarian country, theirs offered an inexhaustible well of rural themes. However, the peasant rebellion of 1907[3] destroyed the idyllic image of the rural world created by Grigorescu. These young artists came to understand that 80 per cent of the country was living on the brink of poverty, and some of them joined forces with the intellectuals fighting for coherent social reforms for the rural population. With the exception of Grigorescu’s epigones, who never gained a voice of their own in the history of art, after 1907 visual representations of the peasant gradually began to depart from false optimism and picturesque plein-air scenes. As Constantin Dobrogeanu-Gherea noted in Neoiobăgia[4], “the optimistic and demagogic current is now gone. A tragic 1907. This immensely bad, sad year has brought so much good that now nobody will dare to claim that everything is looking up in the happy Romania.”[5]

The year 1907 was a watershed in the way the peasant was perceived. We witness the partial “fading” of a myth only recently tentatively delineated. If this myth did surface henceforth, it was almost exclusively from the brush of artists wanting to include a social element in their art. At this point the countryside was depicted in a range of ways; the peasant world was for artists no longer a measure of national character in the propaganda sense, but the Romanian reality, confronted with many inconveniences.

Leading Romanian artists such as Ștefan Luchian (1868–1916), Apcar Baltazar (1880–1909) and Octav Băncilă (1872–1944) began to examine the social aspects of life in the countryside, and made superb compositions illustrating the poverty which village folk faced every day. In 1906 Ștefan Luchian exhibited his work Distribution of the Maize[6] (Rom. La împărţitul porumbului) at the Young Artists’ Salon; this was the first work in Romanian art to address the problems of the social reality of its age. A year later, Băncilă, deeply affected by current affairs, made a series of 15 canvases documenting the “1907 uprising”. Băncilă came up against the censorship of the Romanian authorities: his work 1907, displayed in the window of the “Moldova” bookshop in Jassy, was removed by the police after three days.

Whether on the easels of the Official Salons, at the Young Artists’ Salon, or at individual exhibitions in Bucharest and around the country, the depiction of the peasant changed diametrically. The image of the peasant becomes desperate; he is crushed by social problems. Baltazar Apcar painted the monumental composition Peasants (Rom. Țăranii), a work that became the point of reference for later visual art that showed the indignities of the peasants’ existence in their severe physiognomies and dissatisfied gaze suggesting violent rebellion.

In the new social context it was hard to answer the introspective question that of itself identified the a priori substance of the nation with the peasant. The peasant was no longer solely the unsullied, organic guardian of the national profile, but also a citizen in bondage who was rebelling. Thus, the mythologised peasant figure, suddenly plucked from the notional sphere into reality, ceased to attract interest, at least until the First World War. It was then that he became a national hero and regained his place in the world of ideas, although his image in visual art featured only in the works of artists who sympathised with socialist views. This age was dominated by modernist exploration, which is most palpable in the influences of symbolism and expressionism. These experiments, and the rejection of autochthonism are closely linked with the political events of the previous years. For the first time in the history of Romanian art, young artists were realising that it was not an obsession with the national profile that was writing the pages of art history; the discourse of passéism promoted up to that point was being superseded by interest in European artists.

The press, however, continued to publish articles on the need for a national discourse in art. The theoretical debates continued for years with unabating intensity, and unchanging content. In 1908 Alexandru C. Cuza, a professor of political economy and one of the most passionate ideologists of nationalism, published the volume Nationality in Art (Rom. Naționalitatea în artă). This virulently anti-Semitic study is founded on the premise that “there can be no art other than national art”[7]. Cuza’s thesis presumes an ethnic nation from which “others” (in particular Jews) should be excluded on the charge of falsification of Romanian culture. Cuza approves of the violence with which Nicolae Iorga opposes the amendments to Article Six of the 1866 Constitution, which made confession of Christianity a condition of receiving Romanian citizenship. “No Romanian – of any significance to the national culture – would defend them,” he avers[8]. Cuza’s advice to artists addresses the quest for identity in the rural environment and he categorically rejects “humanistic, cosmopolitan, general, human art”, which, he opines, “negates art”. The “originality of the national genius” is identified with folk art. The volume is notable for its superficial approach to art, of which the author clearly has no understanding, and does not go beyond the standard of an amateur text. His diatribe is purely ideological and propagandist. Unlike writers, visual artists, who were far more interested in aesthetic issues than in their political or theoretical implications, paid little heed to it.

The First World War and the fulfilment of Romanian dreams with the Great Union of 1918 were a source first of national trauma, but later of glory. In the Romanian consciousness their war losses were a necessary sacrifice for the realisation of their long-awaited national project: the union of all territories inhabited by Romanians within the borders of a single state. The discourse underway in the visual arts also gave expression to the sense of spiritual defeat engendered by the war; the years 1916–1920 produced a sudden explosion of expressionism. As a result of the war, the peasant became the national hero. As a war hero and at once victim, with the Great Union he underwent a new process of symbolisation: the wartime role attributed to him bestowed on him the myth of responsibility for the success of the union.

The multi-ethnic Greater Romania that emerged in 1920 pursuant to the Treaty of Trianon soon began to experience an acute conflict of identity. The question: “Who are the Romanians and where is the nation headed?” was being raised increasingly often, while the intellectuals of the period studiously attempted to ignore it. Indeed, many of them gradually radicalised their speeches, either in the direction of nationalism or towards internationalism. Between the wars there was a plethora of tendencies coexisting on the Romanian scene, ranging from the already outmoded impressionism to the most innovative, avant-garde experiments. “On the map of modern sensitivity, currents in art followed one upon the other in rapid succession. The late 19th century abounded in proverbial ‘-isms’.”[9]

The art scene reflected the quest for identity and all the political changes with which society was grappling. Artists responded enthusiastically to the challenge of seeking a “brand” for a Romanian identity. On the political plane, under pressure from the great powers, the 1923 Constitution effected a transition from ethnic nation to political nation, guaranteeing all Romanians the same rights irrespective of their ethnic background, language or religion. At the social level, however, this change did not penetrate to the collective mentality, and the rejection of foreigners remained at the heart of the national discourse. The exploration of interwar traditionalism was based on earlier ideas; once again the peasants became the main source of inspiration for artists of this bent. Their ideological antipathy toward the industrial, urban society, which they considered alien to the “Romanian spirituality”, as essentially rural, became radicalised. Debates on the question of the national character became increasingly heated, with most Romanian intellectuals favouring a national identification with the rural environment.

The salient theoretician of the traditionalist wing, the poet and essayist Nichifor Crainic, made a defining feature of the movement virulent opposition to the avant-garde, which had a revolutionary attitude cemented by a cohesive programme, areas of exploration founded in the immediate reality, and a firm vision of the future. While he attempted to refute the clear element of regression, speaking of a lively dynamic of seeing the present “in the mirror of the past”, as Iorga maintained, the traditionalists never succeeded in balancing the scales of past and present, and remained in a constant utopia of passéism. One of Crainic’s ideological rivals, the critic Eugen Lovinescu, considered traditionalism an impossibility in the Romanian space in view of the lack of any solid tradition. And although his arguments appear astute, history has shown that traditionalism was the direction preferred by the majority of Romanian artists between the wars. Adding tradition – as a form of culture and matrix of a national style – to art became the objective and ultimate point of reference for a sizeable and eclectic group of artists from all disciplines (sociology, literature, the visual and decorative arts, cinema, theatre, photography, architecture, etc.).

Avant-gardism and traditionalism were two radical strains that were in permanent ideological opposition despite their shared origins in prewar modernism. Even if certain aspects visible on the strictly formal, compositional and technical level, in particular the influences of expressionist style, are common to both of them, their ideological background kept them rigorously and permanently apart. While the avant-gardists looked to the future and welcomed the emergence of a modern society with open arms, the traditionalists were constantly returning to the past in search of their origins, their identity and their traditions. And while Ilarie Voronca cried out the imperative: “We live definitively under an urban star…”[10], the traditionalists returned to the rustic, conservative “pastoral space”.

As they joined the prevailing current of the age, major figures on the Romanian art scene took on board and accepted the ubiquitous traditionalist ideas. The most ardent in these explorations were the painters Ion Theodorescu-Sion (1882–1939), Francisc Șirato (1887–1953) and Dumitru Ghiață (1888–1972). The contribution of slightly more moderate artists of a socialist bent was also of significance; these included Ștefan Dimitrescu (1886–1933), Nicolae Tonitza (1886–1940), Camil Ressu (1880–1962) and the sculptor Oscar Han (1891–1976). While the avant-garde formulated cohesive programmes, traditionalism was not consistent in its theoretical dimension. Although its theoreticians were highly productive in terms of volume, the current remained poorly defined and without clear direction. The rural world, the image of the peasant, folk art – these were fashionable “buzzwords”, but the method of valuating the rural environment was in practice a matter for each artist as an individual. Șirato, Sion and Ressu opted for monumental classicist compositions, while Dimitrescu and Tonitza preserved the turbulence of the expressionist dynamic. The former preferred the harmony and balance of classical forms, while the latter were consistent in their use of sensual configuration and imbalance (the exception being their portraits). The stylistic differences visible between them have no bearing on the identification of particular directions and leitmotifs inspired solely by the rural world.

Such nuances and shaky ideology in the theoretical sphere are natural. Although these artists had a common aim and used similar means of expression, they displayed countless differences in perception in terms of their representation of nationality in art. One contemporary theoretician of the traditionalist current in Romanian art, Ioana Vlasiu, remarked that “there is no concord in that which affects the territory of Romanian art”[11]. Although the traditional experiments did not lead to a common denominator, the discussions nevertheless breathed life into the trend and succeeded in gradually remoulding what had been a romantic vision on the subject of ideas of nationhood into a nationalism that sought to find those guilty of the obvious shortcomings in the “second-rate culture”. Traditionalism offered no filtering of the past, but proposed its glorification and emphasis on a cohesive national identity as the angle for its representation in art. The ideas of the traditionalist current, defined as a group of contemporary theories, were above all publicised at the level of various periodicals, via a brand of journalism often devoid of firm arguments or cohesiveness.

The theoretical discussions were far more rounded and nuanced than the visual images produced by this movement. Often such works depicted peasants or the rural environment without any revelation of social or historical truths. In this period, canvases tended to be faultless in terms of their composition. Camil Ressu, one of the best Romanian draughtsmen, signed hundreds of drawings and paintings of rural life, which he observed with passion, often painting scenes of everyday rural minutiae. Ressu’s pastorales are depicted realistically, and his works are documentary, even anthropological in character.

Ion Theodorescu-Sion, by contrast, deliberately assigns greater significance to myth, making compositions imbued with monumentalism, with an unabashed theatricality, inspired by folk legends. Sion, Ștefan Popescu, Samuel Mützner, Rudolf Schweitzer-Cumpăna and the other artists who drew their inspiration from the rural world unfailingly fall into the trap of falsification. The image of the peasant in interwar visual art is typified by emphasis; he is usually depicted in festive folk costume. But the reality was diametrically different from such ceremonious images: the peasants were crushed by their labour, and most of them lived on the brink of poverty. The traditionalism of this period passes over the social reality, the work of these artists offering no more than aesthetic value. They are evidently nationalistic, but most likely not in the political sense of the word.

The second ingredient of this movement, promoted primarily in the periodical Gândirea, is Orthodox Christianity. As the dominant religion, it held considerable sway over Romania’s population, and as such was proposed as a source of creative inspiration for vernacular traditionalism. Nichifor Crainic and his Gândirea colleagues saw Orthodox autochthonism as the sole seat of authentic spiritual life and the primary point of reference for nationalism, and fought to make its discourse heard on a national scale. Promotion of Orthodox ethnicity to the detriment of other possible values turned the paper into a hybrid of xenophobic and anti-Semitic propaganda and a voice of authority for Iron Guardist ideology (which was inspired by fascism). Crainic’s “Gândirism”, while well-represented on the literary arena, remained a fringe movement in the visual arts. It is represented in the paintings of Ion Theodorescu-Sion, who had an interest in wall painting, which he attempted to treat like easel painting. Sion sought the harmonious development of form, and had a predilection for the decorative two-dimensional character of Byzantine painting; he applied the mural perspective to his painting. The oeuvre of Sabin Popp was also devoid of the ideological element of traditionalism. His conformism to tradition was a response to global trends, while his interest in Orthodoxy was grounded in its artistic values – like Ion Theorescu-Sion, he worked in the wall-painting technique and on ways of applying it to easel painting.

A painter who held a different stance, far more militant and ideological, was Olga Greceanu. Her religious paintings, which comprise the main body of her work, draw in terms of technique on the spirit of Byzantine painting – in all her works, regardless of the nationalistic theme she addresses, she adopts the Byzantine al fresco technique. Her interest in Orthodox Christianity is so far reaching that in her book The National Character in Painting (Rom. Specificul național în pictură), published in 1938, she deconstructs all other traditionalist approaches, holding religious painting to be the supreme expression of visual art. Greceanu is a lone figure in Romanian painting. She was evidently genuinely consumed by the Christian Orthodox faith that she professed, and in vain attempted to impose it on her fellow painters.

All these exploratory quests for a national character in art are methodical strategies undertaken on an individual basis in response to a desire to grasp a model of unique identity for both the artists themselves and the wider Romanian society. This new, multi-ethnic political nation, comprising three different “cultures” (those of Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania), inevitably sensed the fragility of their differences in identity, and traditionalistic myths were considered vital to their unity. The histories of the principalities bore traces of schisms that increased the desire of the young state for legitimisation. Superior cultures generated a constant sense of uncertainty that was keenly sensed by artists educated in the West who, on their return to their own country, attempted above all to satisfy their own longing for an identity. “High” art entered the Romanian space relatively late and, as everywhere in the Orthodox East, was introduced by foreigners. The rural world, identified by many as the only guardian of tradition, was essentially the only totem of identity producing objects that could be associated with tradition. Until the end of the 18th century folk art, which was basically a form of production arising out of quotidian necessity rather than artistic motives, and church art, were the only forms of culture in existence. Any analysis of national character in art must take into account that the “Romanian spirit”, of which so much was made by all traditionalists, was an artificial construct vital above all for achieving a certain political goal.

 Translated from the Polish by Jessica Taylor-Kucia


[1] Also: “Mioritic space”, a specific category of Romanian culture.

[2] Constantin Noica, Pagini despre sufletul românesc, Bucharest 2010, p. 36.

[3] Some of the examples and arguments I use are from my own study: Valentina Iancu, “Impactul Răscoalei din 1907 în arta modernă”, CriticAtac (, 18 March 2012. Most recently consulted: 15 June 2012.

[4] Rom. neoiobăgie – neo-serfdom (Rom. iobăgie – serfdom). A socio-political concept devised by C. Dobrogeanu-Gherea to define Romania’s peculiar type of historical development in the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries and the curiosities of the agrarian system in this period, which is characterised by the existence of vestiges of feudalism (e.g. tithing). Although he over-estimated their significance for agriculture, he did capture some of the characteristic features of capitalism in Romania, while at once stressing the need for the industrialisation of the country and the promotion of political and economic reforms (trans. note).

[5] Constantin Dobrogeanu-Gherea, Neoiobăgia, Bucharest 1910, p. 5.

[6] Societatea Tinerimea Artistică, 1906, cat. 31.

[7] Alexandru C. Cuza, Naționalitatea în artă, Bucharest 1915, p. 12.

[8] Ibidem, p. 345.

[9] Ilarie Voronca, “Suprarealism și integralism”, Integral, no. 6–7, Jul.–Aug. 1925, p. 4.

[10] “Manifestul Integralismului”, Integral, 1 March 1925.

[11] Ibidem, p. 27.

About authors

Valentina Iancu

An art historian and curator at the National Museum of Art of Romania. Her most recent research projects have been focused on the relationship between art and politics in modern Romania, in particular the Romanian Jewish artist. In collaboration with the Elie Wiesel National Institute for Studying the Holocaust in Romania she published Jewish Artists in Modern Romania. Destinies marked by Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust (2012), and she has also organised the exhibition Crossroads. Jewish Artist during the Holocaust (2010 – a project that received the Rudich Prize for research offered by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem). Her latest exhibition, which opened in 2012 at the National Museum of Art of Romania, was dedicated to the construction of the Romanian national identity: National Myth. Visual Arts and Romanian Identity (1830–1930).


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