The Children's Corner

1. The Virgin Mary with the Child, Orthodox icon, 17th century
2. Constantin Brancovan and his family
3. Ştefan Luchian (1868-1916), The Washing
(see also Gallery)

Romanian painters met the Child long before local art itself was born, in the modern sense of the word (the fine arts, basically in the late 19th-century European cultural framework). The icon painters elaborated on the centuries-long Byzantine iconographic tradition, with its not so numerous typical themes, among which the one depicting the Virgin and Child was almost a cornerstone. The Virgin and Child theme developed a paragon-like figure of perfect cohesion of the two (sometimes so different, even opposite), universes, the one of childhood and the one of adulthood. The harmonious adjustment and mutual agreement, the actual fusion of Mother and Child in the act of intercession through their pure, entangled presence, tend to practically obliterate and efface the distinction of ages, as the mystical power and religious properties of the two protagonists are reciprocally enhanced, complementary and consistent. However, the appearance of the Child and of (holy, saintly) children in the Orthodox, Byzantine iconographic tradition was rather scarce. Except for the abundant occurrences of the Virgin and Child theme, there was practically no other significant iconic structure implying figures of children. The Orthodox iconographic canon was not as receptive to the sentimental and affectionate mysticism of the children's world, so keenly developed by the typical Catholic iconography. In the Byzantine iconographic tradition there is no place for the moving and (symbolically) playful encounters of, for example, the child Jesus and the child John the Baptist, and of other, numerous children that assemble in the depictions of holy kinship so typical of the common Catholic iconography. Seen from the children's corner, the Byzantine iconographic canon seems too mature, a dusky world of ascetic and bearded, wise saints and armored, young and exquisite, but nonetheless military martyrs. There is almost no place to accommodate the brittle tenderness and delicacy of the children's world. The angels themselves in the Orthodox iconographic tradition, the cherubs and seraphs, are most frequently depicted as resplendently feathered adolescents sporting weapons such as spears, almost ready to change their gentle, downy attire into the hard cover of the military saints' cuirass. In the Byzantine iconography there is little place for the likes of the delicate little putti so characteristic for the late Catholic iconography. The hard little world of children in the Orthodox iconographic tradition comes under even greater pressure. As normal with every Christian representational tradition, in the Byzantine depictions of the Virgin and Child the central character, as volume is concerned, is the Virgin Mary. Consequently, the Child is most frequently squeezed in the lower right corner of the icon, fixed there by the protective and at the same time controlling gaze of the Virgin. Canonically prevented to develop a larger, more complex and kind, humane vocabulary of emotional ties to the Virgin, like the (sometimes extremely sophisticated) ones of the Catholic iconographic tradition, the Child in Byzantine icons appears like a small adult crammed in the children's corner, exclusively accomplishing the task of a redemptive instrument. Only rarely, and especially in the late, popular tradition of the reverted, painted glass icons, is the Child endowed with emotionally appealing, empathic features. But this is a further development most typical of the Northern, Transylvanian area, strongly influenced by the Catholic world and representational tradition, powerfully active there. In the consistently Orthodox, traditional areas of Southern Romania, the influence of the Byzantine iconographic patterns extended to other, non-religious fields. Among the most significant ones, in relation to the children's world, is the depiction of the young aristocratic offspring, princes and princesses. Most frequently, this happened in the religious milieu of the mural decoration of churches. Princely foundations, many of them were painted inside with frescos representing the donors, kings and queens or aristocrats showing for posterity a small model, a prototype of the dedicated church they founded. They were followed by their progeny, usually depicted as little figures compressed in the corners of the fresco, next to the ample, rich and protective clothes of the princely parents or right under their feet. The progeny were always depicted as tiny adults, wearing adult clothes and posing in adult attitudes, with minute crowns and diadems, as mere diminutive copies of their aristocratic parents. One of the most famous depictions of this kind is the dedication fresco of the princely foundation of the Hurezi monastery church, presenting Constantin Brancovan, the ruler of Wallachia, together with his wife and children. The children were not only small duplicates of the parents, but they also had almost the same responsibilities and obligations. Only few years after the consecration of the Hurezi church, Constantin Brancovan, a promoter of more independent politics in relation to the dominant Ottoman Empire, was caught by the Turks, imprisoned in Istanbul, accused of treachery and assassinated. All his male offspring, notwithstanding their ages, were killed together with him, thus partaking not only his glory, but his doom too, as if conscious subjects of some actions that, when either good or evil, certainly transcended them, their power, understanding and liability. In their case (and this case was not an isolated one at all), the children's corner was definitely a dangerous one. Politics of this kind turned children into a real instrument of pressure on the local rulers from the part of the Ottomans. Thus, in order to control the movements and the loyalty of the Romanian princes, their offspring were taken into custody by the sultans and raised in Istanbul, as a means of blackmailing the possible independent undertakings of their parents, their foreign diplomatic contacts and alliances. As children were historically used as proper objects of a political trade, they were conceived as smaller copies of their parents, only more easily to be handled. This ancient fundamental relationship to the children's world left a stamp on the future developments of the representation of childhood in the subsequent art, even in the fine arts rapidly blossoming in the last decades of the 19th century. Childhood was seen in perfect continuity with the adult universe. Almost no breach was perceived between them, and no particular, irreducible actual substance of childhood was recognized. Childhood was constantly focused upon from the point of view of adulthood, condensed as merely a passing age, already adjusted to maturity, a propitious field of overtly exhibiting relationships of power and authority, of submission and early (one would say premature) responsibility. For Nicolae Grigorescu, the first modern Romanian painter and artist in the European sense of the word, the children's world was not really significant in itself, as a distinct universe, with its own duration, relevant rules and relationships. Instead, he was depicting the little ones as part and parcel of a compact, rather undifferentiated rural world, consistent with the mental pattern active in the cohesive universe of the Byzantine icons of Virgin and Child or of the frescos of the kind of Constantin Brancovan and his offspring from Hurezi. Little boys were usually represented by him as shepherds, endowed with the same clubs, accoutrements and equipment as mature shepherds. The toys and the whole paraphernalia of the young age were of less interest to him. Little girls were usually represented by him as soon to be women, working for their bridal dowry or simply exhibiting themselves as diminutive, fine and enticing sexual objects, even when lacking the external signs of sexual maturity. The sense of childhood missing a proper essence or substance, unable to propound a world of itself (the way it happens today, when childhood is even expanded and exploited as a real cosmos chock-full of particular products, services and even philosophies) permeates the future developments of modern Romanian art until the first decades of the 20th century. Then, especially in the works of Ştefan Luchian, childhood is approached from a more sensitive point of view, with greater interest for its irreducible, specific features. Girls, such as his favorite model Lorica, occupy a significant place in his output. Luchian was fascinated by the incomparable mixture of melancholic daydreaming and silent blossoming of pubescence, of the girl impersonating at times either the calm, traditional role model of the housewife or the modern, poetic and desirous role of the yearning young woman conscious of her appeal. The traditional pattern of the consistent continuity between adulthood and childhood, with its acute intertwining of power and submission, of pleasure and (delicately prevented) pain receives a formidable turn in one of his masterpieces, The Washing. There, the bathing little child, presented almost like an extension of the washing hands of his mother, succeeds in filling her with the warmth, delicacy and freshness of his own age and body. Contrariwise to the older tradition, in Luchian's masterpiece, instead of the adult imposing maturity onto the children's world, the child imbues the adult with his own childhood. The continuity remains, but its sign is changed. The delicate equilibrium of this standpoint was permanently challenged in the later work of Nicolae Tonitza, where childhood was a central theme. Tonitza explored the exposed childhood from a much more sexually focused point of view, sometimes verging on voyeurism and offence. His adolescent female nudes are imbued with fantasy and phantasms, but their somewhat sad figures turn them rather into imagined puppets instead of actual objects of desire. The sense of being a victim, of disempowerment, of fragility and despondency, of exposure and bareness is much more intense than the feeling of charm and temptation. Problems of sickness, death and disappearance are much more significant for the girlie nudes of Tonitza than those of illicit sexual commerce. It is only by the mid-20th century that, in a much more modernized Romanian civilization, a consistent interest in childhood as an autonomous age with a cultural substance of its own succeeded in preoccupying the artists. Brancusi was perhaps the most penetrating modern sculptor facing childhood. His Newborn sculpture, together with his drawings of little children, are remarkable masterpieces that explore the intimate specificity of a child's unique way of being in the world. Other artists, especially women artists such as Lucia Dem. Bălăcescu, Nina Arbore or Micaela Eleutheriade were particularly attracted by the children's world as already constructed by consumer civilization. They approached it from the point of view of what characterizes it externally, that is the toys, the games, the carnival baby world, the really modern children's corner placed at the very core of the contemporary home. The new arrangements conceal, preclude, and ideally indeed expel the ancient relationships of power and domination, the menace and victimization so characteristic of the traditional representations of children too crudely placed in their corner.

by Erwin Kessler