A Fragile Collection - The Memory Of Glass Plates

The Romanian Peasant's Museum

Motto: A photo is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know. At the beginning of the 20th century, Alexandru Tzigara-Samurcaş1 was wandering around the villages of Oltenia and Bucovina, looking for folk art objects. He was less interested in commonplace items, he was more attracted by decorated, colorful objects, used at celebration time. In a period in which all around Europe folk craftsmanship had become the main argument for constructing a national identity, Romanians had started to set up folk art collections as well. Passionate intellectuals used to acquire (especially from mountain villages) objects made of chiseled or sculpted wood, fabrics and embroideries, holiday costumes, icons, decorative ceramics, whatever meant the attempt of beautifying the space one was inhabiting. These collections were to become the argument and the source of inspiration for the national ideology and creation. "By using the everlasting heritage of our beautiful folk art in different fields, we will be easily able to get rid of the foreign influences that pervaded Romanian households." (Al. Tzigara-Samurcaş, The Evolution of Oltenian Rugs, 1942). With a huge wooden camera professor Samurcaş used to take photos of the things he could not buy, wrap and bring home. A sui generis collection of images recorded on big glass plates (13x18 cm, or 18x 24cm) was thus gathered. The collector's enthusiasm resulted in an archive whose dimensions are quite impressive (almost 8000 items); it consists of numerous images of people and places – negatives, slides and stereoscopic postcards on glass. All these became part of the patrimony of the museum that existed at the time, the present Romanian Peasant's Museum. The images on the transparencies, made up of black, white and grey surfaces2, may be admired nowadays only by a few privileged people – museum specialists or researchers willing to find out more about this phenomenon. Given the public's wish to share the joy of looking at these works of art, once in a while the museum organizes exhibitions of visual anthropology or publishes old photography albums and in recent years, even CDs. As time went by, Samurcaş's initial collection got richer and richer due to new acquisitions and donations of glass negatives made up in the 1950s. The value of such a collection is the result of two steps of visual memorization: technique and point of view. the technical recording method, which is based on the low sensitivity to light of the old plates and therefore, entailed long exposure in the open air made the models to live within the moment itself. The fact that during the prolonged exposure the leaves of the trees were rusting in the wind, the water murmured over the pebbles or that people moved their gaze, resulted in images representing life in real time, in parallel, mysterious stories, in the memorization of some moments that had been truly lived. Salient examples of such recordings are the cases in which people who had not been invited by the photographer to step into the frame (children, for example) barge in at the last moment and fight to death with the dictator-photographer. the photo gets born from a sum of gazes that intersect, superimpose or complete one another. Firstly the photographer chooses his future subject and cuts it up from the surrounding world through the object lens; secondly the subject gazes at the photographer or away from him; finally, the public watch the image resulting from this. This reality augments the value of glass positive and negative collections and it helps to trace a history of visual documentation in Romania, which is inevitably fragmented and elusive, based on a chronology of types of perspectives on the village and its inhabitants across centuries. The impressionist perspective is the perspective of the early 20th century, when photographic portraits found their place next to engravings, aquarelles and oil paintings; it is the perspective of the photographers who are not acquainted to the place, a curious look, receptive to unusual things, evoking an idyllic, sensuous, exotic world. The images show a village resembling that of Nicolae Grigorescu, in which the picturesque quality of the landscape is enhanced by the grace of the sitters. This is the very message that Romania wishes to send to Europe. The echoes of the Romanian pavilion at the Universal exhibition in Paris testifies it: "Anyway, everything in here sends out harmony. People wipe the bottles of Tămâioasa and Cotnari wine, they eat mămăliga, fleică, they taste Văleni rose marmalade, rahat, halva, baklava or cataif, swung by that strange music of the fiddlers. (…) The head of the folk music band, Sava Pădureanu, a gorgeous young man, concocts a melodic line in which the pan pipe interweaves its variations as if arabesques, while the guitars and violins accompany it, outlining the rhythm. Some of the national songs throw you into divine melancholy; others give you the thrill and make you regret you can't dance the ring dance. (…) Oh! Romanian maidens! Tanned skin, ebony-like hair with bluish highlights, sparkling teeth, profound gaze, of a ravishing ingenuity." (Le Figaro, on the Romanian restaurant-pavilion at the Universal Exhibition in Paris, 1889). The national-romantic perspective is the perspective of the second and third decade of the last century, when the peasant and his village become political constructs, used as a basis of the national identity; it is the perspective influenced by the ideology of the time, that cut up a wise good-looking peasant whose moral attributes will be soon adopted by the urban citizen, urged by a romantic impulse. It is the period of the so-called 'types,' a sort of robot-portraits including physiognomies and costumes typical for every region of the country. The social, militant perspective was imposed by the program of the Sociology School in Bucharest, originating from a scientific attempt to know objectively and thoroughly the rural landscape; it is a totally new perspective that looks for authenticity and reveals a peasant that is not artificially adorned, but one who is looked at while carrying on his day-to-day chores. During the interwar years the images of old peasants making merry are replaced by those revealing people at work or fighting poverty; beggars, gypsies, proletarians and even portraits of researchers on the rural world of the time will soon join them. At the same time, in accordance with the program of monographic research, tradition and modernity come to get together. This new perspective assumes the risk of shocking, of annoying the esthetes with the hope of making them more sensitive to the need of understanding the peasants and their potential evolution. Advocating for the raise of peasants' educational level but also for the preservation of local traditions, the Monographic School put into practice contradictory ideas, for example that of having families of peasants settled in the Village Museum to the purpose of displaying their existence as if in a shopping window, or that of organizing folk shows in the newly founded houses of culture. The communist perspective is limited by the narrow-mindedness the of the Stalinist demagogical propaganda; it is the gaze that sees but what is allowed to see, that twists reality and reveals only the "new man," the peasant turned into agricultural worker, that sings festively, loves (the Party) festively, works festively and dances with acrobat-like movements on the "hop şi-aşa şi iar aşa" rhythm. As I pointed out in the beginning, such a collection is not something unusual for a European museum. Nevertheless, it is original. What makes it special is its scope and diversity and the fact that its items come from various historical periods. All these characteristics are due to the Romanian cultural originality. I have in mind, on the one hand the extraordinary variety of forms, unique in the Balkans, and on the other hand, the continuous oscillation between the traditional mentality and the temptation of European synchrony. That explains for example the very early introduction in Romania of the most modern photographic techniques, used to the purpose of illustrating the traditional village. On the other hand, that explains the fact that during the first decade of the communist period outdated photographic tools were used, to the end of visually maintaining a false legitimating continuity.1 Art historian of European fame, founding director of NationalArt Museum in Bucharest. He contributed to the museum patrimony with his own collection of objects and images from the Romanian village.2 Andre Bazin talks about "phantom-like, almost unidentifiable grey shadows or sepia, that represent no longer family portraits but the troubling presence of some lives liberated from their own destiny." 

by Ioana Popescu