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Pictures of innocence

Mannered works with an eerie twist - Nicolae Tonitza is a unique but unassuming talent, argues Michael Bird

April 2010 - From the Print Edition

4 Photos
Rosy-cheeked, short-haired, small mouthed, red-lipped girls on a background of flowered patterns are a common subject for any pre-war Romanian artist - but Nicolae Tonitza introduces a unique distinction.
He transforms the eyes of the portraits into hazy dark spots, which brings a haunting but desensitising quality to young women.
Although many critics argue this is a heightened representation of innocence, the introduction of the abstract robs the subjects of the means of expression and renders them nothing more than a still life.
Shown here in the dazzling interiors of the former royal palace at Cotroceni are 80 works collected from Romania’s regional and national museums, which reveal Tonitza’s talented application at not only these bizarre portraits, but also tasteful landscapes, nature morte and sketches.
Most of these works are from the 1930s heyday of the Moldavian-born and Paris-trained painter - when he was a fashionable European name - and they capture the heady naivete of the interwar period.
Tonitza’s works lack the drama and dynamism of his Art Deco contemporaries and instead build on the Fauvist style of the 1900s, with large blocks of culture and thick brush strokes, using a subject matter common to Impressionists - peasant girls and country living - which he locks into a perfectly framed composition.
There are well-proportioned reclining nudes, beautiful pictures of the Romanian coastal regions of Dobrogea and Balcic, which capture the summer light on the white-plastered cottages, the twisted iron chimneys and wooden pillars of Tatar peasant families.
But Tonitza he is not a major force in need of reassessment and this retrospective only confirms Tonitza as a mannered talent and a competent craftsman, but too modest for further international acclaim.

Nicolae Tonitza: Harmonies of Colour
National Museum Cotroceni, 1 Bulevardul Geniului,
Tuesday to Sunday, 09:30 to 17:00 hrs
[ID required for entry]
Until 12 May

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