The Slătineanu Comparative Art Collection - An Extinct Art Museum

1947. The year of the most despotic deeds of the communist regime come to power in the shadow of the Soviet tanks. The ordeal of the Romanian intellectual elites (and not only) begins. The Slătineanu family find themselves treated like common criminals. The whole family is under house arrest, as Barbu Slătineanu has suffered an infarction and cannot be moved. His son though, Stroe-Constantin, is arrested, taken to Malmaison, and subjected to a rough investigation (read gruesome beating), under the accusation of "conspiracy against the state." Two months later he is released with the intention of turning him into an informer. Since the young student refuses to obey the orders, the Secret Police arrest him again, only one month later. He is maltreated at Malmaison, the Ministry of the Interior, and imprisoned without a trial in the Pitesti prison, where he remains for more than two years. He is then released without any explanation. 1949. The Slătineanu Estate is nationalised – read stolen. 1950. The family house, situated in the elegant Cotroceni neighbourhood, is nationalised as well. The family is told to evacuate the building in 48 hours. With the help of hundreds of signatures of people of art and culture from Bucharest, the integrity of the art collection in the Slătineanu House is preserved, and under the pressure of the communist authorities certain art objects are partially donated to the state. This is how the Slătineanu Comparative Art Museum comes into being, and the family is given the right to go on living in the house with a series of objects that remained there, Barbu Slătineanu becoming the curator of the museum. The art collection of the Slătineanu family was started by Dr. Alexandru Slătineanu. Descendent of the famous Brîncoveanu family, he was the son of the founder of the Agronomy School in Băneasa – the first tertiary education institution in Wallachia, and the nephew of high official Iordache Slătineanu, the translator of Metastasio's book, Abileff in Skyro, who owned a lot of land on the outskirts of Bucharest, in a place called Săftica after his beloved wife Safta, née Brîncoveanu. As a student in Paris, at what was a most prestigious medical school at the time, Alexandru Slătineanu, a knowledgeable bibliophile, starts enriching the already impressive family library. He specialises in micro-bacteriology, and together with Dr. Jean Cantacuzino, his great friend, he discovers the anti-cholera serum, which saves thousands of lives in the Romanian military campaign in Bulgaria. (Dr. Alexandru Slătineanu was a military doctor in the period between 1916 and 1918.) Back in Romania, Prof. Dr. Alexandru Slătineanu becomes the rector of the Iaşi University in 1924, Secretary General in the Ministry of Health (1931-1933), Director of the Institute of Hygiene (1936). As an art collector, he acquires during the journeys taken throughout the years pieces of decorative art from France, Greece, Egypt, and Turkey, which will constitute the basis of the Slătineanu museum. Still a passionate lover of books, he enriches his library with rare items and subscribes to the main bibliophile editions published in London and Paris. His son, Barbu Slătineanu, is born in Paris in 1895, his mother being Irina Metaxa, a descendant of a famous Greek family. Back in Romania with his parents, he completes his secondary education in Bucharest. He is very fond of sports, he takes part in the Romanian Bicycle Tour and in the University Tennis Championships. He is a very good swimmer, but also an excellent foilsman, and he ends up being part of the Romanian fencing team. During holidays he travels across the country gathering old pottery, which he carries in rucksacks attached to a special device fitted to his racing bicycle, which he had designed himself. This passion will increase in intensity during the years and Barbu Slătineanu will become one of the renowned specialists in the field. His studies at the Polytechnic in Munich are interrupted by the war between France and Germany, and so he comes back to Romania. Animated by patriotic feelings, he joins the School for Artillery Officers. As a reserve officer, he is sent to war in Bulgaria with the rank of Artillery sub-lieutenant and he distinguishes himself in battle at Turtucaia. Wounded, he swims across the Danube; it takes him a day and a half, as he has to dodge bullets, shrapnel, and burning oil slicks that had leaked from the barges set on fire in the Romanian ports along the Danube. He is cited, decorated, and becomes an active officer. His passion for collecting is intensifying all the time. He takes part in the works carried out on all the important Romanian (and not only) archaeological sites. He specialises in the study of Romanian ceramics, publishing a series of articles in well-known journals such as Revista Istorică Română, Convorbiri literare, Revista Fundaţiilor Regale, Artă şi Tehnică, the French publication Arcades, etc. The papers are highly scholarly, covering a wide spatial and temporal span. Here are some titles: 'Ceramics from Dacia and the Principalities,' 'Ceramic Decoration,' 'Byzantine Ceramics,' 'Painted Ceramics in the Near East,' 'Feudal Ceramics in the Principalities of Transylvania, Moldavia, and Wallachia,' 'La céramique populaire roumaine,' 'Course in general ceramics' – which was a course of lectures he delivered at the Belle-Arte Academy, etc. He is well-connected to all the great European museums, and he gives a superb traditional Romanian plate to the British Museum, apparently preserved up to now in a case displaying its origin and the name of donor. His articles lead him towards a first fully-fledged book, the first of its kind and scope: Romanian Feudal Ceramics, published by the Royal Foundations Publishing House and awarded a prize by the Romanian Academy in 1938. This reference book will be reprinted several times even under the communist regime, even at the moment – the irony of it! – its author was being arrested in 1958, and in 1972, several years after his death during an investigation at the sinister Jilava Fort, the "queen" of the communist prisons for political prisoners. Barbu Slătineanu's activity was not limited to his own field. He was also a member of the General Staff of the Army, in which capacity he set up a new department, very important for the modernisation of the Romanian army: The Office for Industrial Mobilisation (the nucleus of the future Ministry for the Equipment of the Army). He also published numerous papers with a military character. In parallel he worked as a professor at the Belle-Arte Academy in Bucharest and was a member of the Commission for Historical Monuments. He made 30000 records on the historical monuments existing on the Romanian territory, complete with historical data and technical, architectural details. They were donated by his family to the Romanian Academy. In this activity, he was competently assisted by his wife, Alexandra Slătineanu, née Lahovary, a talented sculptor. She came from an old family of Romanian diplomats. Her grandfather, Nicolae Kretzulescu, one of the founders of the Romanian Medical School, had been the plenipotentiary ambassador to St Petersburg, and his daughter, Maria, would marry the embassy attaché, Alexandru Lahovary, and would be wedded by Tsar Alexander. The young Lahovary made a brilliant career in diplomacy, representing the country in Rome, Paris, Constantinople, and Vienna. The history of the Slătineanu Museum is in fact much older. As early as 1939, after the death of Alexandru Slătineanu, his son, Barbu, and his wife, Alexandra, started in the Slătineanu house the Slătineanu Museum, a point of artistic interest in the Bucharest of those times, visited both by the local public and by foreign tourists passing through the capital. The house overrun by ivy and wisteria was reached after crossing a garden bordered by big mosaic slabs. Two 18th century ceramic ewers constituted the prologue to the art objects indoors. The collection was on display in the seven rooms on the ground and first floor of the house. Various elements of traditional art, of great beauty, very old ceramics, Romanian but foreign as well – Persian, Chinese, Moorish, and Egyptian – were harmoniously combined with European decorative objects. The foreign furniture, mainly rustic, dating from the Renaissance up to the 19th century. The most valuable pieces were mainly Italian and French: Louis XIV pieces, glass cabinets from Provence, wardrobes from Normandy, etc. The 17th-19th centuries collection of icons on wood and glass was also impressive. On a huge 16th century Italian table sat old arms, muskets with silver handles, pistols, Damascus and Toledo sword blades, Persian shields, Ottoman daggers, Japanese swords, French rapiers, long African and Indian spears. An important part of the collection was the series of paintings and engravings by Romanian artists, such as Nicolae Grigorescu, Theodor Pallady, Ştefan Luchian, I. Iser, Ghiaţă, etc., as well as by foreign artists, such as J. Callot, A. Dürer, Rembrandt, Japanese etchings, drawings by H. Daumier and Vincent van Gogh. The museum was decorated with old Romanian rugs, some of them truly unique, Persian carpets from Shiraz and Bukhara, painted Indian cloth, Chinese fabrics, Persian, French, and Spanish scarves. The Romanian art objects (starting from illustrations of the oldest, Neolithic cultures of the 26th century BC to examples of the 18th and 19th century art) were placed next to Oriental or Occidental ones, inviting a comparison between the various ways of artistic expression that had appeared throughout the centuries. It was actually this manner of display that made the originality of this museum, while the diversity of the objects was its characteristic feature. Within this diversity, the comparative method was an element of unity and a scientific criterion. The presentation of Romanian folk art was made in a context where the traditional objects, feudal and cultivated, Romanian and foreign, worked together to emphasise the evolution of the motifs and decorations, various influences upon them, underlining the universal artistic value of the old pieces, most of them unique. Besides the quality of the exhibited items, the Museum was also breathing the air of an inhabited house, it functioned as a family environment full of beauty, creativity, and intellectuality. The Slătineanu Museum-House was the place where the meetings of a Literary Circle took place, a circle that included illustrious literati, such as Şerban Cioculescu, Vladimir Streinu, the poets Vasile Voiculescu, Dinu Pilatt, etc. Every now and then the meetings would be attended by people like Valeriu Anania, Constantin Bălăceanu-Stolnici, Vulcănescu, etc. This is where Barbu Slătineanu read his more than 200 short stories, plays, memoirs, novels. (Selected texts have begun to be published by the family after 1989, the year that changed the situation in Romania). In the year 1958, though, the members of the Slătineanu Circle were arrested. (The communist regime could not tolerate intellectual meetings, which seemed sinister to the Secret Police, 'hostile,' – thinking was considered 'subversive.') The pretext was the reading in the Circle of Emil Cioran's book La Tentation d'Exister, a book that had been banned. After being interrogated, Barbu Slătineanu was released in the old hope that he would tell on the activity of other intellectuals. Therefore, the Slătineanu family stopped any relationship with their friends and acquaintances. For a year, the family had no guests and paid no visits. The telephone conversations were adjusted to the 'ears listening.' As a result, Barbu Slătineanu was arrested again and died in 1959 during a long investigation. The great man of culture was buried in the prison cemetery with only a small wooden plate with his inmate number on the grave. It is only eight years later, in 1967, that the family was allowed to move the bones of the former political prisoner into the Kretzulescu grave in Bellu Cemetery. When he was arrested, Barbu Slătineanu was working on a history and archaeology book, which, by a series of lexical and toponymical arguments, documents, archaeological documents, records of monuments, citadels, and churches, showed the continuity of our people in Transylvania, the cradle of Romanian civilisation, as well as the way in which Romanian civilisation spread later, in the 10th to 16th centuries, throughout the whole territory. The manuscript was illustrated with a series of maps on which concentric circles followed the spreading of our civilisation from plateaus to the hills, and then to the plains. The Secret Police found the manuscript and the maps during a house search and turned them into a count of indictment, claiming that they were general staff maps regarding the landing of Anglo-American troops! Despite the repeated pleas of the family, of the Literature Museum and of the Institute for History, the manuscript was never recovered. The Comparative Art Collection was reopened in 1960, but without bearing the name of its founder anymore. Sculptor Alexandra Slătineanu was appointed curator. By violating the clauses of the donation act, the communist authorities removed the collection from the house and took it to the newly built Museum of Collections. Before she was evacuated too, Alexandra Slătineanu died (1979) in an empty and deserted house, in a room that had only a bed, a chest of drawers and a stove built after the model of peasant stoves. Although the specialists in the Museum of Collections tried to arrange the Slătineanu exhibits harmoniously, the idea of comparative art motifs, which constituted the originality of the Slătineanu Museum, was lost. Of course the objects remain of great value in themselves, but they are mere vestiges of a beauty long gone.

by Getta Săvescu Slătineanu