Nationally-Specific Art In Interwar Romania

Art history is usually at ease when imposing its own concepts and technical terminology upon an apparently unconscious body of visual accomplishments called works of art. For art historians and art critics, art seemingly exists in order for theorists to put words on it and to impose order on it. Like Molière's bourgeois who made poetry without knowing it, impressionists for example were, at the beginning, making impressionism without being aware of that, until, out of irony, a scornful critic baptized them, and a whole theoretical framework emerged then, linking together disparate endeavors and inaugurating one of the most famous chapters in the history of art. However, this is not at all the case with traditionalist trends flourishing in interwar Europe. On the contrary, traditionalist artists were overtly, and even excessively, conscious of their work. Crucial terms like tradition, traditionalist, traditionalism, national art, local and specific art, nationally specific art, etc. appear frequently not only in the critical texts on their works, but in their discourses, manifestos and confessions, in theoretical writings produced by the very self-conscious traditionalist artists. This situation poses a serious theoretical problem: how can one take as unconscious and manipulated a certain artistic production that is the offspring of an explicit and engaged theoretical approach? What is the relationship between theoretical and artistic practice? Traditionalist art of that period is currently seen as a retarding, regressive and aesthetically crippled production, heavily manipulated by the nationalist politics boosted by the new European order installed in the aftermath of the First World War. From Neue Sachlichkeit to retour à l'ordre, and from the Italian groups Valori Plastici and Novecento to the pan-Slavic aesthetic ideology of the Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic, a whole range of artists and groupings of artists shared the vocation of working and writing in a cohesive way, focusing on similar issues such as the national relevance of the work of art, its connection to tradition, the resurrection of artistic craft, and a renewed interest in nature and the human. The nationally specific art was a central, conscious cultural topic in Romania in the interwar period. It is not surprising that the issue of the nationally specific art imposed itself so strongly in Romania after the First World War, as it did in all the other newly emerging states established after the peace conference in Paris, which configured European states precisely in terms of nations and nationalities. It seems that there is a direct connection between the political emergence of national states at that time and the development of a nationally specific art in Europe. In both cases, it is about an ethos based on nation and ethnicity, a certain sense of national competition especially in Central Europe. It was a sui generis competition of states, of national states, of national cultures that aimed at defining their irreducible particularities in order to cut themselves out of a previously general framework or pattern, usually identified with the Austro-Hungarian model of civilization. But an unexpected cultural move was occurring. Although the Romanian national ideology was practically generated by the end of the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century, basically as a civic consciousness promoted essentially by urban Transylvanian intellectuals faced with the national discrimination from the part of the Austro-Hungarian imperial authorities, after the First World War and the subsequent realization of the unified national state of Romania, the national ideology went in the direction of the village and of the peasant almost exclusively. And this happened in the puzzling circumstances of Romania's most significant industrial advances of all times, when mining, oil industry and infrastructure investments were booming. Arguably, the focus on peasantry was prompted by the predominantly rural feature of the southern and eastern Romanian provinces, and by the rural feature of the Romanian population in Transylvania, where the urban population of many towns was mainly Hungarian and German as a consequence of the Hapsburg and later Austro-Hungarian politics of implantation of a non-Romanian administration in Transylvania. But this is not enough as an explanation. In fact, the sole element of ethnicity, the particularizing Romanian nationality that challenged as an irreducible difference the Austro-Hungarian culture in order to promote the national consciousness, was not enough in the new framework of a national state that was already Romanian. There was no battle to fight inside it, and no difference to observe. In the new situation, the difference needed to be invested with content. The peasants in the works of Ion Theodorescu-Sion, Camil Ressu, Marius Bunescu, Dimitrie Ghiaţă, Rodica Maniu, Olga Greceanu, Aurel Popp etc., are embodiments of the natural forces, they are as impressive and absolute as the mountains and the woods. They are definitely the product of a new national consciousness emerging after the First World War in a historically submissive and profoundly victimized country, which had experienced a recent catastrophic sacrifice, as fighting together with the Allied Powers meant for the country both occupation by the Germans and immense losses in human and material terms, followed by the confiscation of the whole national treasury by the ex-ally Russia, after the Soviet revolution. The realization of the unified national state after the First World War was largely perceived as an outcome of these sacrifices. And the basic contributors to all these sacrifices were, in both material and human terms, the peasants, the most numerous inhabitants.Yet, the way the peasant was represented and the actions he was meant to engage in were governed by other influences, added to the main political and historical ones. It was precisely the industrial advancements and the beginnings of the globalization that enforced the traditionalist, nationally specific art that, not only in Romania, was a definitely reactive art, not merely a more or less consciously conservative, even regressive one. The early globalization and industrialization were perceived as a menace to the anthropological, rural profile of the nation. Interestingly enough, when this menace was not present, at the end of the 19th century, the village poetics of Nicolae Grigorescu and the like proposed an easy-going, digestible and sentimental peasant figure destined to unproblematic cultural consumption. On the contrary, the peasant figure at the core of the nationally specific art was only rarely palatable, seductive. It was not an embodiment of 'le bon sauvage' type. Instead, the idealized, heroic, monumental and stiff, oppressive and distant characters were rather repellent and arrogant as if not made for cultural consumption, but only for supporting certain ideological statements. The intrinsic refusal of comfortable cultural consumption inscribed both in the iconography and in the artistic treatment of figures in nationally specific art is a matter of contradicting the consumerist commodification of art, one of the cultural outcomes of the triumphant, global capitalism to which the traditionalist art was implicitly or explicitly opposed. The rural retreat of traditionalism to an arcadian, passeistic utopia is therefore not a simple aesthetic choice, but a historical and political, as well as an economic one.Moreover, the political choice was not an ambivalent one. The previous, sentimental village poetics outlined by the end of the 19th century was able, by the beginning of the 20th century, to receive some superficial political touches too, at the moment of the great peasant riots of 1907 that shattered the Romanian establishment, as well as public psyche. Artists with leftist inclinations depicted what they thought to be the tragedy of the starving peasantry deprived of land and indebted for the whole life. But those depicted scenes pertained again to the sentimental mood so typical of the late 19th century perspective on the village and the peasant world. The pathetic denunciation of the peasant's exploitation was only the reverse of the poetic description of the enchanted, rapturous blissfulness of his life and of the charming countryside landscapes. Notwithstanding, after the First World War it appears that this strain of political, leftist argument was almost forgotten, as if the peasant's exploitation has ceased. It is true, the leftist rhetoric of exploitation was opposing the right-wing perspective on the peasant as the perennial essence of Romanianness, and on the village as the matricial place of the national psyche. After the First World War a shift was occurring, and leftist politics in art was connected almost exclusively to the urban milieu. Beside the previously remarked contribution of the peasantry to the catastrophic sacrifices required by the realization of the national state, there were recent historical traumas that prompted the idealization of the village and the subsequent denigration of the city. During the 1917-1918 German occupation of a large part of Romania, the government and the whole administration were transferred to Jassy, the former capital of the Moldavian province, as Bucharest was de facto governed by the Germans. In Jassy were amassed not only the administration and the families of the government-linked people, but also a large part of the remaining Romanian army, the services, and many refugees from the southern occupied cities. Jassy was so overcrowded that it crumbled under the outbreak of typhoid fever, but also under generalized corruption and shortcomings of every kind. The traumatic experience of the cruel winter 1917-1918, with so many civil deaths and civic dissolution in the urban milieu became a landmark in the national psyche. Novels were written, inspired by those harsh times. Pictures were taken and published, stories mushroomed about the terrifying circumstances. The city became an epitome of decay, especially when compared to the village, the place were the refugees were safe and secure.When confronted with so many and diverse, simultaneous connections, one may have the feeling that the nationally specific art's main supposed task, i.e. making visible a certain aesthetic and anthropological constituency that particularized a certain people, could be nothing but an illusion. But this is not true. In fact, despite the so many circumstances and contexts, which could induce the idea that the nationally specific art was a construction that addressed less a certain national essence and more a historical assemblage of theories and interests, one may perceive in the proper works of art that something indeed pertaining to the national specificity was acting. This is why one may argue that the nationally specific art was not only a matter of manipulated and manipulative theories applied to the arts, but also, at least sometimes, an insightful approach to a certain ethnic phenomenological essence visible in the most accomplished works. It is not only the ethnic essence of the people of which the artist was a part of, but also that of some peoples that the artists of the time were interested in, like the Tartar minority in Romania, one of the main themes of the inter-war period, not only for ethnic Romanian artists, but also for Jewish, German and Hungarian artists. Tartars constituted a privileged theme, and something from the psyche and the specific In-der-Welt-Sein of the Tartars transpires from the works of art. Similarly, something from the ethnic essence of Romanians is perceivable in the many works dealing with their anthropological profile and their way of being in the world, produced by artists pertaining to the ethnic minorities such as the Jewish, Hungarian, German and even Armenian one. Indeed, the nationally specific art was a second-order art, with little commercial success. Yet it answered a need of the collective mentality, not one of the living artistic market which was inclined, as today, to the avant-garde and global, urban modernism. Thus, one may affirm that the nationally specific art was not simply a mystification technique, a political emulation of certain themes at a certain time, but it also manifested a real interest in the anthropological particularities of the other, in its phenomenological, if not metaphysical, essence.

by Erwin Kessler