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April - 2005



Banality of evil


Never has mediocrity been so compelling, argues Michael Bird, as he views over 150 works praising the Ceausescu era

This is not an art exhibition, as that term would denote some kind of selection on the grounds of quality. Instead the National Museum of Contemporary Arts has taken the brave step of exhibiting the old regime's collection of its most obsequious works of art. This throws up the worst history has to offer into the public gaze, making it probably the most essential exhibition this year.
There does not seem to be a utopia ready to be shattered, as there is lack of conviction in almost every composition, replaced by a fear of possible prosecution and hope the work will satisfy the demands of the mean-minded leaders. Given almost self-parodic titles such as ‘Dialogue with the country’, these pieces show the typical communist imagery of factories, cosmonauts, fake optimism and blind belief in the greatness of industry. Many of them were the birthday presents from state companies keen to prove their loyalty to the crippled regime, with each gift trying to outdo its neighbour in glorification of the leader and his wife.
The works come from the collection of the National Museum of Art, the Ministry of Culture and the communist mausoleum in Parcul Carol, while others are gifts made by skilled craftsmen and amateurs.
Many of the dates and authors are unknown, so the works appear as archaeological relics from some distant age that would need to be carbon or DNA-tested to prove the time or artist. Few would admit to their composition. And many authors may never be known.
Ceausescu and his wife smile from inside the frames like a pair of freaks in a multitude of disguises. Nicolae is the literary critic, checking the proofs of his latest book. The youthful revolutionary, preaching to his cadres, leading the pioneers or demonstrating for peace and against the neutron bomb. The country gentleman, in a flat cap and furry ruff, leaning on his rifle and overlooking a line of dead bears. The dreamer, strolling with his wife through a winter wonderland. The master of industry, showing off the latest cuboid Dacia.
Truly gruesome is that when Ceausescu commands a utopia of suspension bridges and factories, the spaces around him are empty of people. It is as though he has built the entire country with his own hands for the benefit of only himself. And Elena, of course.
Stranger is Ion Bitzan's pointillist portraits of the leaders on a Worker's Boulevard. The couple are the only well-defined figures, while the cheering crowds are depicted in a faceless confusion of vague, one dimensional bodies and heads, slowly disappearing into the background.
The style is almost entirely two dimensional and figurative and, as time moves on, this transforms from naïve and industrial art to an infantile and lazy aesthetic. The worst picture is a Henri Rousseau-style portrait where the grinning dictator is surrounded by children at least twenty times as small as himself and a further ring of white pigeons, larger than the kids.
The use of materials is bizarre. A pink-faced and feminine portrait of the dictator, eerily resembling the face of Liberace, is surrounded incongruously by felt patches of red, yellow and blue. Other portraits of the couple are made from seeds, wood chip and beads. These are the materials of the infant school and one wonders what inventive resource will be used next: a potato print of the leaders? Or a sculpture in Lego?
“This is not a witch hunt,” says the curator Florin Tudor, who does not intend to prosecute or criticise the artists. Instead this is an artistic truth and reconciliation commission, purging the artworks of the dark times from the vaults and hoping the country can come to terms with the crimes against aesthetics the regime inflicted upon the populace.
Is there anything of genuine quality? No. From the Grupul Industrial de Petrochimie Pitesti there is a beautiful reproduction of Brancusi's Infinity Statue. But a top-heavy plastic blob has been positioned at its summit, containing a hammer and sickle and the wreath of the Communist Party, wrecking the image. Nevertheless, this still hints at a talent at work. Dan Hatmanu's naïve pictures of a Russian high school and the Iasi regional headquarters are vaguely interesting, but are also infected by a Communist banner or a portrait of the leader.
The better works do not contain the couple. Early paintings are more interesting and optimistic. Ioana Uites's 1962 'Activity of cultural centres' shows women in scarves watching TV, reading together and singing, detailing how the state monopoly would like to gain credit for bringing education to the masses. It is bad, but not dissimilar to public art promoting comprehen-sive education in the west during the same period.
There is also a wood carving of the old and new Sibiu, which is a proficient and well-composed picture showing the mountains in the background, then the medieval city and finally the new modernist blocks and factories in the foreground in an almost sublime contrast.
By the 1980s, sincerity in the artistic discipline, like belief in the regime, seems exhausted. Ceausescu has become younger. Forty years younger. The paintings all seem to show the couple as more fresh-faced than ever before. In Eugen Palade's 1980s 'Homage' the dictator and his wife (then at pension age) are even depicted holding up a newly-born baby.
Meanwhile a Dan Hatmanu from 1983 praises the leader in what one could hardly believe is not a parody. On Ceausescu's birthday, the couple stand before a painting of Stefan cel Mare, where the Moldovan martyr leans out from his frame and clinks his wine with Ceausescu, who appears to be holding what resembles a Martini glass.
Is there any subversion? A technically brilliant pastiche of the Trajan Column, made of wood, copper and small pieces of coal, shows a helter-skelter frieze of mining and smelting activity, praising the industrial regime. But the original 30-metre high statue in Rome depicts the defeat of the Dacian state by a brutal Empire and the suicide of its leader. Are the authors trying to suggest something here?
Those looking for hidden treasures will be pleasantly disappointed as this exhibition confirms that there is nothing more banal than art honouring an immoral dictator. Better Romanian work from this period exists, but this is a great insight into the idiocy of the official mind of the time.
'Socialist Realism' at the National Musuem of Contemporary
Art, the Parliament Building, Calea 13 Septembrie entrance. Until 15 May