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Nicolae Ghibu, Certsign
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The price of loss

A new exhibition at the National Museum of Arts shows Jewish artists’ vital contribution to Romania’s cultural development in the first half of the 20th century Review by Michael Bird

November 2010 - From the Print Edition

4 Photos
Black-clad Turkish women strut up to the viewer against a landscape of crowded urban housing with a plain minaret hanging in the distance - one of the ladies, her dark scarf thrown open in the wind, places one hand on her hip in a teasing pose - the glance is firm, in command of its actions and pregnant with sexuality.
Dating back to the end of the First World War, Iosif Iser’s ‘Landscape in Dobrogea with five Turkish women’ is a showcase of cultural diversity - a Romanian scene by a Jewish painter of predatory women in Muslim dress.
The work is also a modern vision that heralds the optimism of liberation that a unified Romania was set to experience until it made the idiotic decision in the 1930s to ape the anti-semitic policy of Nazi Germany.
At the end of the 1910s, Romania was victorious in war, Bucharest was preparing to become a significant European capital and Romanian artists were poised to be among the most influential on the world stage - led by Constantin Brancusi and Tristan Tzara.
This detailed and comprehensive exhibition at the National Museum of Arts illustrates how Jewish artists were crucial to such a development.
In the works from the 1920s, Marcel Iancu’s and Max Herman Maxy’s experiments with cubism are compelling, but the most stunning individual is Victor Brauner - one of the unsung geniuses of surrealism - here showing his experiments in creating a menagerie of fantastic beasts.
Meanwhile naive artist Margareta Sterian’s 1930s skaters on Cismigiu park, the Romanian circus and a Jewish wedding capture moments of delight in a rich and varied capital city.
But in the 1930s the encroaching fear of anti-semitism begins to infect the artists’ works, which become a bell-weather for Romania’s initial enlightenment and then descent into intellectual corruption - especially Alex Leon’s nightmarish etchings, such as a man rowing a coffin-shaped boat along a river bracketed by claw-like trees.
However the exhibition’s title is misleading – Jewish Artists in the Period of the Holocaust. On the one hand, this shows how the imaginative breadth that Jewish culture brought to Romania was crushed by the tragedies of the 1940s and Romania’s nationalistic form of Communism.
But what emerges is a celebration of the solid contribution that Jewish artists made to the richness of Romanian culture in the first half of the century - which should not be defined by the Holocaust - because many of these works have the integrity to stand on their own. ■

Destinies at the Crossroads
‘Destine la Rascruce’
Jewish Artists in the Holocaust Period
National Art Museum of Romania
1-3 Strada Stirbei Voda
Until 13 February 2011

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