Facing Their Faces

Do Romanians look in a particular way, precisely as Romanians, and not merely as people of their own times? The answer to such a question of image, apparently simpler than the one to the proper being of the Romanians, is actually much more difficult. And this basically because the texts speculating on the essential being of the Romanians make use of abstractions, generalities and projections, in order to build up a coherent representation or idea. When confronted with the picture of a certain individual, one cannot eschew the concrete case in favor of an idea. One meets an individual instead of an ethnic concentrate. How to deal with that individual, how to turn the particular case into a 'national paragon'? Art usually accomplished this task rather conveniently, by means of mannerisms and clichés: the curly beards of the Assyrians, the sophisticate coiffure of the Minoan figures, or the stiff posture of the Egyptian sculptures. However, later on art felt the need of dealing with people as such instead of types: hence the acute realism of Roman portraiture. Paradoxically, realistic as it was, Roman sculpture not only furnished brilliant, minute and precise, as if living portraits of individuals, but also a new, implicit type. Thus despite that the approach of Roman portraiture was not to elaborate on a type, it nonetheless produced its own specific type, embedded into the always particular features of the portrayed individuals. From Caesar to Constantine the Great, the coherence of the Roman figure is striking: notwithstanding the centuries separating them, the same assertive stance, the same remoteness and cool openness still fascinate the beholder, as they glimmer beneath the wholly different countenances of each portrayal. Romanian art has also favored a certain type in rendering the figures of Romanians, but it was neither an anthropological type, nor a 'cosmetic' one. By the mid-19th century painters still depicted Romanian aristocrats and officials wearing the largely Turkish-inspired, Phanariot apparel, with ample mantles and huge headgear. However, by the turn of the century things changed dramatically and the European (then called 'German') clothes won the competition, spreading across all the social layers of Romanian society. It consequently dominated the current portraiture. The eruption of the photographic art and technique by that time canonized the new dress code, now employed as an infallible device in constructing and perpetuating a social status. Certain clothes and certain poses make a certain position visible. From chambermaids to magistrates and diplomats, the photographic studios provided each client with the appropriate props of being (or looking like) the wished-for social self. A basic peculiarity of much of the enormous amount of photographic documents of that time is the keen need of the posing person of aiming a little bit higher (in social terms) than the actual position it occupied in society. Posing meant imposing, that is finally mystifying. Dressed in fancy clothes opposing their daily, regularly dull uniform, chambermaids were provided in the photographer's studio with a complete scenery of social dislocation: they posed as dreaming, well-to-do femmes fatales lingering on armchairs. Sumptuary decompensation was also working for the plump housewives posing as charming actress garnished with jewelry, parasols and fine gloves. Posing for a photograph equaled making a (no matter how imaginary) step further on the hierarchical ladder. Students, especially when studying abroad, used to send home studio photographs fancifully enacting the accomplished drama of professional success. Instead of books around them pointing to their current studies and apprenticeship, they frequently preferred the look and mood of the professionals already inserted in the establishment. Exhibiting the lavish clothes of arrived persons they indulged in counterfeited high-bourgeois interiors sketchily staged in the photographic studios. One may easily misinterpret these documents, seeing their active and general counterfeiting as disclosing some social and personal frustrations. Usually, this was not the case. On the contrary, such photo staging and enactment were not sources of ludicrous self-satisfaction, but a current object of social traffic and exchange. Photographs were given as presents with predilection, like the small Biedermeyer-style portraits of the 19th century. People wanted to look not only as they looked at a certain moment, but rather as they wanted to look forever in the eyes of their beloved ones. They aimed at building a lasting monument out of a look. The ephemeral, direct and only partial feature of much of contemporary photography, the furtive snapshot directed to no one, was not generally experienced until the mid-20th century. Photography, staged or not, was essentially an urban experience. This is why many of the individuals portrayed in this way disclose rather a general, European bourgeois and urban look than a specific Romanian complexion. Produced by centuries of mixtures and syntheses, the Romanians have a very low racial definition: they are not characteristically big or small, blonde or dark. Similarly to the global props and scenery employed in staging their urban stance (basically the same in Berlin, Paris and Bucharest), their clothes and frequently their figures expressed the same attitude of modern people of anywhere employing modern means in order to induce old feelings. However, if one wants to have a glimpse of something which, at that time, was still specific to a sui generis Romanian look, one has to exit the city, the photographer's studio, and the 'German' clothes too. In the villages (and Romania was an essentially rural country until late in the 20th century) prevailed not only the vestimentary codes prior to the 'German' clothes, but even those prior to the Phanariot, Turkish-style attire. This is actually what one could call the Romanian costume. Unsurprisingly, those wearing it look like what one would call the Romanian anthropological type, which is in fact a very diverse, unstable complexion. Contrary to the teaching of the Romanian proverb that it is not clothes that make a man, one may perceive that it is primarily the (Romanian) popular costume that makes a man into a Romanian. The magnificent Romanian popular costume was perceived by the early 20th century as the real anthropological characteristic feature of the Romanians; neither their faces, nor their behavior played this role. A Romanian figure melted into the pool of the European constituency, appearing as a dandy in Paris, like the prince Antoine Bibesco (praised by Proust among others), or as a common tenant in Berlin (the most uncommon writer Ion Luca Caragiale). Yet the imposing Romanian popular costume has always singled itself out of any context. It is not by chance that one of the most famous works of Matisse is La blouse Roumaine (The Romanian Shirt). It matters less that the girl who is wearing it is a Romanian or not. The presence of the clothing is so powerful and specific that gives a blend of Romanianess to the whole. The international prestige of the Romanian costume was so great that it determined a fashion trend in Romania too. Backed also by the popular fancy of the royal house of Romania (of Hohenzollern extraction), and especially of the (somehow ideological) knack of the queens for the popular attire, the national costume determined a real fashion trend in the early and mid-20th century. Queens like Carmen Sylva, the poetess, were rapidly followed by other people, mainly aristocratic and high-bourgeois women dedicated to the rural Romanian costume. Post cards were issued with the queen dressed in this way, but also with other people parading the national costume. Sometimes even pastoral, idyllic sceneries were enacted in the photographer's studio, mimicking the rural atmosphere. To the urban, counterfeited studio standard was thus added a counterfeited rural studio staging. Unsurprisingly, dressed in that way, men and women of the time suddenly received that specific Romanian complexion, the same way as, dressed in 'German clothes', they received that global, European appearance. It is perhaps this proteism that best characterizes the Romanian look.

by Erwin Kessler