Recent Public Memorials In Bucharest: Paul Neagu's Century Cross

Paul Neagu's Century Cross was set up at Charles de Gaulle Plaza (the former TelevisionPlaza), Bucharest, in September 1997, as a memento of the 1989 anti-Communist riots. It is a six meter wide lenticular bronze disk with a large cross pattern on both faces made up of strings of rhombi that perforate its surface. As it is rotated under a 45 degree angle with respect to two major avenues that reach the Plaza at a straight angle, the Century Cross marks a point of visual connection between two important public monuments situated further down on the avenues. Both of these monuments used to be isolated previously from one another: the Triumph Arch, a twenty-five meter tall ivory-white stone structure (Arch. Petre Antonescu, 1935-36) erected in commemoration of Romania's major victories during the First World War; and the Pilots' Statue (Lidia Kotzebue, 1930-1935) a memorial to military victims of air fighting in the first decades of the 20th century. Neagu challenges common perceptions by placing the Century Cross in proximity to the considerably more ponderous Triumph Arch and the almost equally high Pilots' Statue, both of which are situated about 700 meters away from it. For instance, the Triumph Arch dominates the circus where it is located; its white stone hypnotizes the eye, its majestic proportions compel the onlooker to grow aware of the imperative rhetoric of architecture. While, on the contrary, Neagu's shadowy six meter wide disk loses its outline, as the passers-by circle it around. Yet, this is a deliberate antithesis. With the Triumph Arch and likewise with the Pilot's Statue the cardinal theme is military bravery, whereas Neagu's monument commemorates a genocide. In December 1989 and during the first months of 1990, well-armed terrorists (belonging to the security forces of the communist regime) taking shelter on the roofs of houses, sure of their physical invulnerability, shot several hundred young demonstrators in the streets. So, one of Paul Neagu's main problems in designing the monument was to tune his sculptural discourse so as to leave no room for ambivalence of the subject dealt with, within a pre-set context of environing monuments. The young people marching through the streets of Bucharest in 1989-1990 had no guns. Nor did they want to fight. To them, one thing was obvious and had to be acknowledged as such. Communism had come to an end, and was imploding under its own inefficiency. They kept shouting 'No violence!' so as to make plain what kind of victory they had in mind. A victory that would avoid physical clash, that would convert armed conflict into a mental conflict, inviting debate and communication. The rhombi piercing the surface of the disk can be seen as functional: they consolidate the disk and keep it from getting distorted under its own weight, which is about nine tons. However, though it would have been easy for the artist to conceal the network of grids that secure the disk, the fact that they were deliberately converted into a visible pattern of holes calls for analogies. In 1989, the attempt of the communist regime to annihilate a number of personalities led to a massive response from the population. The reasons for the rebellion were the 'absent', the 'holes'. Likewise the Romanian flag with a hole in the midst of it (with the arms of socialism on the flag cut off) immediately grew into a symbol of the rebellion. Neagu was free to chose any pattern of holes to strengthen the disk. His choice of a cross pattern enhances symbolic intercommunication with the Triumph Arch and the Pilots' Statue. An architect would imagine a triumph arch by drawing first the horizontal axis of the way troops are expected to parade along. So the arch takes shape around a horizontal vector, and is meant as a monument to the living. On the other hand, the project of the Pilot's Statue, showing a winged human body, is a composition developed around a vertical vector. The figure recalling the legend of Icarus implies the idea of levitation and extols it as a gift of freedom – of that absolute freedom which is the privilege of death. Thus, the surface of the disk acts as a sort of mirror in which both the inward drives of the Triumph Arch and of the Pilots' Statue coalesce. Paul Neagu, who devoted about 25 years of his sculptor's career developing Hyphens, a motif slowly grown into a emblem of his strivings, did not miss an outstanding opportunity to advocate – this time at a monumental scale – the value of his aesthetic credo. For the Century Cross successfully hyphenates the two monuments with which it is visually related. The Triumph Arch, the Pilots' Statue, the Century Cross: fight-and-triumph, fight-and-sacrifice, sacrifice-without-fighting. The Century Cross brings to life a heroic triangle within the geography of Bucharest. The triangle pre-existed en puissance before Neagu's monument was put up. It resulted from the symbolic conjunction of the Triumph Arch and the Pilots' Statue, as mediated by VictoryPlaza. Yet, owing to the Century Cross, added visual interrelation reaches the 'critical mass' and invites to be experienced at a distinct level of awareness. The Century Cross, Neagu explained in the press release at the inauguration of the monument, "refers to a deep space and a solid time, both belonging to history and tradition." It is tempting to interpret the Century Cross in the context of Neagu's outstanding interest in providing sculptural comment to a would-be graphical sign. At closer examination, Neagu's hyphens turn out to be a disguise for an advocacy of the virtues of geometrism in sculpture. Hyphen, as tantamount to a straight line, is Neagu's subtle tool for advocating a reappraisal of sculptural language – as part of an elaborate system of aesthetic thinking called 'generative art'. For the Century Cross, its perfectly round contour engulfed in the very center of the vast space of the Charles de Gaulle Plaza, can be imagined as the hypertrophied avatar of another graphical sign, the dot, which also possesses a geometric avatar: the point. The Century Cross looks like a point (a dot). The cross pattern made up of dots traversing the body of the sculpture does emphasize this feeling. And while the two orthogonal lines meet in a central dot to designate what can equally be perceived as a pair of axes – a subtle metaphor for a nation compelled to make a new start in 1989 – the Century Cross all of a sudden seems to acquire a distinct signification. One that would detach it from any historic contingency only to transfer it to the 'deep space and to the solid time' of geometry. For geometry inescapably pushes the 'visitor' to meet the friendly sign of a cross that is surely representative as of 'the Century'. Outstanding acts of heroism are sure to be entered into history records. And so does hubris when it reaches an exceptional scale. Still, while wounds inflicted upon a community as part of a heroic striving are readily healed through the very compensatory effect of heroism, irrespective of whether it results in victory or defeat, wounds consecutive to acts of hubris are bound never to heal but to set in motion the destructive wheel of vendetta. In Charles de Gaulle Plaza, the rhombi perforating the disk evoke the atrocity of murder. There remained for the artist one way to commemorate the drama while at the same time pleading for wisdom and social harmony. The sign of the cross on Neagu's disk is meant to exorcise evil. And exorcism was needed. This is the more clear for the older population of the city of Bucharest who still remember that the previous names of the now Charles de Gaulle Plaza were, in direct succession: Hitler's Plaza and then Stalin's Plaza.
Paul Neagu1938 Born in Bucharest, Romania1959-65 Art Institute Nicolae Grigorescu, Bucharest1969 Arrived in London1972 Founded 'Generative Arts'1976 Naturalized British1991-92 New Romanian Citizenship1995 Registered 'Generative Art Trust' London 

by Matei Stârcea-Crăciun