Inner Nature

Corneliu MICHAILESCU (Bucharest, 1887-Bucharest, 1965) is one of the less known Romanian avant-garde artists, with a particular although somehow exemplar creative itinerary. Despite his relatively long life and apparently static development, he is one of the rare Romanian artists with a convoluted career, youthfully started by the beginning of the century in artistically effervescent Italy, and silently ended in the second part of the century in dull, socialist-realist Romania. Corneliu Michailescu is actually the very first Romanian painter professing and exhibiting Cubist art. From this point of view he should be considered one of the main figures of the national avant-garde. Still, his relationship with Cubism and the avant-garde in general is a peculiar one. He studied – a unique case among Romanian artists – in Florence, between 1912-1915. By that time Futurism was fomenting in Italy, and the Cubist affinities of prominent figures such as Boccioni and Severini was patent. But during this first period of Italian studies, Corneliu Michailescu is not particularly stamped by their influence. He lived in that milieu of cultural debates, he surely witnessed them, but he practically continued, undisturbed, his classical artistic apprenticeship. Urbanism, industrial technique and speed do not represent visible points of interest for him. Neither is he influenced by the major promoters of literary, artistic and existential ideologies in the Florentine and Italian culture of the time, such as Giovanni Papini, Gabriele d'Annunzio or the more eccentric and revolutionary Futurist Marinetti. On the contrary, it seems that the painting of Corneliu Michailescu is more naturally linked to the sober and classical values of Italian Renaissance, specifically to the Florentine, rigorous ones. This first Italian period ended in 1915 when Corneliu Michailescu came back to his native country amidst the gloomy atmosphere of World War I, in which Romania will engage too, in 1916 (and the painter will also enlist as a soldier). But before that, in 1915, he will take the long way home, via Zurich, where he encountered the friends Tristan Tzara and Marcel Iancu, those who grounded Dada at Cabaret Voltaire in 1916. Again, he certainly witnessed or even intersected some of the informal "proceedings" leading to Dada, the most radical avant-garde of the time, but nothing marked him visibly. Despite such artistic and cultural opportunities, despite Corneliu Michailescu's chance of being in the right place at the right time, his faithfulness to his own artistic development, his attention centered on the proper development of his inner vision prevented him from turning into a mere opportunist. Such a conclusion is based upon and reinforced by his second stay in Italy, again in Florence, from 1918 until 1922. Although after the end of the war the avant-garde was on the road of establishing itself all over Europe, and despite the relationships and the role even that the avant-garde had played in the war, Corneliu Michailescu did not capitalize on prior experiences. He did not move hastily toward a "style," the one of the avant-garde that tended to develop into an international one. He made use neither of the cultural experiences he had witnessed in his first Italian stay, nor of the ones he had crossed in Zurich, and not even of his own war experience, which was, at that moment, one of the main inspirational sources of the avant-garde, be it expressionism, surrealism or the "new objectivity." Paradoxically, he enrolled again in more academic studies, following specialized courses of engraving. When he came back to Bucharest, with his first solo exhibition, in 1922 he presented a startling mixture of various modernist formulae, mainly post-impressionist, which nonetheless attracted the interest of many art-world people. Despite that, his own indecision and insecurity made him abstain from any one-man shows for almost ten years. But during this time he indeed developed into the very first avant-garde, Cubist painter. His participation in the first official Salon after the war, the one from 1924, marked a decisive positioning. He did not only exhibit two significant Cubist paintings, a Still Life and The Castle's Guardians but he even received a prize, and perhaps more important, his option raised a press debate on modernism that would last for a few years. Corneliu Michailescu's artistic development was, as his career proves, an organic one, based both on individual research and attuned discerning affinities. Although confronted with Cubism from the very beginning of his artistic itinerary, he inclined towards it only after roughly ten years of personal explorations, and not because it was fashionable. Moreover, the kind of Cubism he practiced was not circumstantial, an imported stylistic framework, but structural, the natural solution of his propensity towards a coherent, rigorous, stable and harmonious, classical composition, in conjunction with a modernist search for a simultaneous multiplicity of viewpoints. This is why his Cubism is not inspired by the Italian variant of it. It has nothing of the pivotal dynamism manifestly associated with the works of Boccioni, Carra, Balla and Severini. Movement is not an issue in Corneliu Michailescu's work. Related rather to the original French Cubism, his main interest lies in position and positioning of the things and the world. This is why his somehow doubtful and listless works emanate a kind of remote metaphysics, as if they explored the inscrutable folds of the elusive, endless relationships of coexistence in space and time. The aggressively mechanical, rapid and sequential movement typical of Italian Cubism is alien to him. This Cubism of substance particularizes Corneliu Michailescu even in the context of the Romanian avant-garde, where a certain surface Cubism, perceived as a versatile technique, reigned from the very beginning in the works of Maxy, Marcel Iancu, and some of the early works of Victor Brauner. As they were Corneliu Michailescu's companions, he exhibited with them many times, especially throughout the thirties, when he was also theoretically committed to defending modernist art, writing and publishing critical articles. However, precisely because his art developed in strict connection with his inner nature, Corneliu Michailescu was gradually alienated from the efforts of his companions to build the avant-garde as an exclusive establishment. For him, Cubism was a personal affair, not a tool for shaping some group interests. This is why he didn't feel bound to any specific orthodoxy, he didn't feel compelled to respect aesthetic or ideological norms in order to preserve his belonging to avant-garde groups. Consequently, like Braque during the same period, he felt free to follow his own explorations that led progressively towards innermost visions and rarefied states. They actually dissolved the Cubist framework of his paintings that literally melted into a kind of regularly obscure expressionist surrealism, a personal idiom that befitted his late interests in dreams and mystery. With this development, Corneliu Michailescu's career reached its end, partly because by the late thirties he cut himself off the artistic milieu due to a nervous illness, but also because he was consistent with himself and disintegrated his harmony- and stability-seeking Cubism when his inner nature inclined to ambiguous, vague and erratic states. He didn't falsify himself by persisting in a finding that was missed, in a firmness that was lost. Moreover, the installation of the communist regime in Romania made Corneliu Michailescu practically exit from the art scene for the last twenty years of his life. Still his case remains one of the most significant ones, as he was one of the rare modernist artists who pursued the avant-garde search fully honestly down to the last consequences, that is loss, erosion, and dissolution.

by Erwin Kessler