Slow Beasts, Easy Life

See Gallery One would wonder why the ox is so preferred by most of the Romanian landscape painters at the turn of the century. One reason is a name, Barbizon. Both Nicolae Grigorescu and Ion Andreescu, the leaders of the generation, were configuring their artistic project in the confines of the French Barbizon School. And Barbizonists were not only consummate landscape painters, but also fond of the cattle, of those animals that look like a landscape themselves, with their huge bodies covered by a patchwork of colors. Massive cows and oxen reign especially in works by Troyon, Dupre and Diaz de la Pena. The Barbizon painters liked deep forests and romantically impressive trees. Oxen, with their heavy bodies, seemed to be part of the same rough, deep nature. In the thoroughly reified symbolism of the Barbizon school, cows and oxen stood, like trees and rocks, for the heaviness of the given, of the natural world that they identified as "the real". Back in Romania, the representatives of the new, realist current, and especially Nicolae Grigorescu, rapidly adapted the Barbizon kit to the homely given. Yet, Nicolae Grigorescu's knack for the grand plains of southern Romania compelled him to elaborate upon the mise-en-scene of his landscapes. His school-stamped preference for oxen was forced to adapt to the local employment of the ox, basically in the ox-drawn cart, as they were used to ship heavy burdens on the dusty roads of the flatland. Thus the oxen, although massive as a given, are usually represented by Grigorescu in a way that is contrary to the traditional, scholarly Barbizon way. Instead of being massive, impressive and a landscape in themselves, they are almost sucked, absorbed and melted into the landscape. Grigorescu's oxen become more and more fine and, sometimes, even immaterial, as they are consumed and compressed there where the hot, sunny skies conflate with the burnt plains. Ox-drawn carts, with their slow pace, appear like a kind of fata morgana in the fields. Their power is sublimated by heat and effort, and their appearance turns into an apparition. Thus a certain immobility emerges, the slowness of the oxen fusing with the dustiness of the road and with the immensity of the open, infinite horizon of the plain. As everything is slowing down, the refrained, contained moves of the people around the oxen become more and more uncertain and unassertive, and the feeling of hard labor suddenly turns into a strange feeling of a paradoxical easiness of the living. This is not strange for Grigorescu, as he tends to de-monumentalize the romantic-realist landscape construction of the Barbizon school and to adapt it to a mix of nostalgia, idyll and picturesque qualities fitting with the local expectations for an art able to construct a peaceful and idealized rural life.By the beginning of the 20th century, a new, mostly urban art and civilization paradigm emerged, and, although perpetuated by Nicolae Grigorescu's epigones, the ox's painterly fate dwindles, as it is replaced by the more adequate animal fetish, the horse. Already Nicolae Grigorescu himself, together with Sava Hentia and other artists who immortalized the Romanian Independence War of 1877, perceived the impact of the figure of the horse in matters of constructing history and national legends with heroic and militaristic vectors. In the early 1900s, the work of Stefan Luchian is produced under the influence of Degas, and especially of his horse-race paintings. The horse is now an epitome of urban standing, of the wealthy, sporty and relaxed bourgeois society. The horse gives a touch of tamed agitation, of velocity and dynamics to the modern and active people who, paradoxically, are engaged not in hard labor, like the peasants next to the oxen, but in frantic entertainment. Men on horses in the early 1900s, in Stefan Luchian's works, are the precise opposite of the men near the oxen in the late 19th century paintings of Nicolae Grigorescu. A slow civilization leaves the place to a rapid one. Nostalgia is followed by stamina.Oxen and horses, their occurrences in the local art world by the turn of the century, incorporate two successive idealized ages of the national civilization (the rural ideal, followed by the urban one), but they also mark the successive influence of two ages of the French modernist School on Romanian art (the Barbizon realists, followed by the late Impressionist work of Degas). 

by Erwin Kessler