The Woman Painter Of Modern Life

Women artists (originally women-painters) became a reality in Romanian culture only by the turn of the 20th century. Barely having an artistic tradition of the western kind (that is, academic), the national cultural milieu in the 19th century was rather deprived of a professionally women-directed artistic framework. Occasionally, young ladies of the well-to-do upbringing received a basic training in drawing and painting (usually just watercolor), but this was confined to a curriculum that never aimed at the real development of an artistic career in the professional sense.On the contrary, such training targeted the accomplishment of all the esthetic capabilities currently ascribed to young ladies, art mixed with music, literature and dance in a tentatively harmonious though frequently shallow and mediocre unity, best suited to their actual careers as noble housewives bound to shine just in the confines of aristocratic salons.Nonetheless, this apparently marginal position of women vis-à-vis art was not prompted by male-managed control over the realm of art, but rather by the generally poor status enjoyed by fine arts at that time. Although the artists were essentially men, their art was still not fully emancipated from the traditional, Byzantine icon-making (or more precisely copying) which was practiced and viewed less as an art in our "cultured" sense, but more as a ritual, metanoetic handicraft that bound together faith and esthetic contemplation precluding any importance given to "creation" and human genius. This applied to all artistic productions, independent of the artist's gender. As a consequence, one may say that although there was in the history of Romanian art before the 20th century no Artemisia Gentileschi, neither was a Leonardo.The art-and-faith block started to split in the 19th century. Arts, in the western sense of the fine arts, broke with the religious establishment and built another identity inside the new institutional scheme of the flourishing schools and Academies of Fine Arts. It is at this very moment that the women artists made their way into the realm of art, though not to the same extent as men, who still occupied the front stage.Precisely because the emergence of cultured fine arts was so belated and marked by institutional sliding from Church to School, and from the religious to the secular, a new – albeit paradoxical – retard occurred. As this institutional shift was under way in Romania by the end of the 19th century, the European art scene was suffering a dramatic, thorough make-up, as Modernism was pushing away on its path. Unfortunately for the newly emerging Romanian fine arts world, Modernism was not hatching into schools and academies, that is in the recently, "revolutionary" adopted institutional framework in Romania.Although new and even "modern" for Romania, the Academies (and their widespread, global, corporatist "academic" style) constituted the very conservative, reactionary artistic establishment that modernists have set under siege, with their "Salon des indépendents" and "Salon des refusés" that marked a fissure in the French art scene by the end of the 19th century. This was further deepened into an abyss by the radical avant-garde, entrenched in the theoretical and practical statements of the most innovative trends which shaped the face of art in a decisive manner, imposing Impressionism, post-Impressionism, Expressionism and Cubism as the future landmarks of art. Yet none of the leaders of these movements entered the traditional art schools system, nor did they found art academies. Their influence (that replaced formal teaching) was more informal, as it was exerted inside the circles of disciples in a way that opposed the academic, institutional framework.Contrariwise to these developments, the somehow still innocent Romanian art scene was mesmerized by official salons as a mark of prestige, and by teaching in academies as the epitome of success. It is in this environment that the emergence of the first significant women-artists began, as a consequence of this state of affairs, they targeted a rigorous academic teaching, one which was supposed to be still missing in Romania. Tehrefore, both Cecilia CUTESCU (later married to the sculptor Frederic STORCK), and Lucia DEM. BALACESCU, like Micaela ELEUTHERIADE and Margareta STERIAN were following the same path leading to the schools of Paris.One can even speak of them as the Julian-Ranson promotion or wave of Romanian female painters, because they studied either at the Julian or at the Ranson Academies of Fine Arts in Paris. Thus, as early as 1899, Cecilia CUTESCU-STORCK entered the JulianAcademy, and afterwards the more conservative Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris (in 1902). In the early 20s, Lucia DEM. BALACESCU attended both the Julian and the RansonAcademies in Paris, and was followed by Micaela ELEUTHERIADE, who studied between 1924-1927 at the RansonAcademy, and by Margareta STERIAN, who also studied studied there between 1926-1929, and then entered the Ecole du Louvre. A little different, Magdalena RADULESCU was also targeting Paris (and later decided to live in France), although she did not aim at the academic schools there. On the contrary, as wife of the Italian avant-garde painter Massimo Campigli, she encountered and made friends in Paris, starting in 1925, with Giacometti, Chagall, Calder, Carlo Carra, Marino Marini, and Brancusi.Thus, though much awaited-for, the first wave of significant women-painters was indeed cosmopolitan and particularly learned. Yet precisely this newly-gained freedom of expression and professional means to make it heard and seen, made them follow a strikingly similar path. It is not only the resembling curricula, but also the more profound compliance with the institutional framework of exhibiting in official salons in Bucharest and Paris, which was understandably followed by the largely unproblematic insertion into the cultural and propaganda machinery installed after 1947 in Romania. This social adaptation reflected the adhesion of women artists to the higher status ascribed to artists in general, and to the special status ascribed to women artists, viewed as particularly emancipated and praised as such, while the praise was generating a sought-for conformism from their part.Nevertheless, while their status was acutely mirroring the model of modern woman (creative, emancipated, etc.), their art was reflecting rather the lesser modernist paradigm of female expressiveness, stamped by the taste for ornamental features, playful appearances and sentimental stances. This is why one is struck by the unexpected similarities of the works of all five women painters. Rather than their common background as Julian-Ranson students, their artistic options were shaped by assuming a certain, indeed modernist role of a woman artist, but with means and scope specific to the old, traditional position of women. In short, as was prescribed by all the unwritten statuses of women, the works of the five artists are somehow excessively beautifying the world.This was less an esthetic option motivated by style and theoretical assumptions, but a profound effect of a deeply internalized role informed from inside the very expression of their womanhood. Their specific propensities toward symbolism, expressionism or post-impressionism notwithstanding, the five women-painters coincide in the decorative sense they gave to each of these propensities, making them converge on a sui generis academic modernism suffused with all-encompassing estheticism. The five women-painters generally produced affectionate landscapes fructifying the picturesque features of traditionally catch-eye sights such as Venice, Paris, or the surroundings of Balcic (once in Romania) evoking the atmosphere of southern France. Unsurprisingly, such themes as the circus, figures of princes and princesses, popular masks and fairy-tale characters abound in their paintings.Although they were the contemporaries of Romanian avant-garde artists such as the forefathers of Dadaism (Tristan Tzara, Marcel Iancu), and surrealists and cubists such as Victor Brauner and M. H. Maxy, the women artists, sometimes themselves members of "progressive" groups such as Criterion, never borrowed the typical avant-garde universe delineated by speed, mechanics and prophetic utopia. On the soft part of modernism, the women artists preferred the sunny side of their time, the daydream of the eternal beauty of an optimistic self, at ease in an uncorrupted nature. Thus, even if their femininity was playing off their modernism the way their academic training was playing off their avant-garde aspirations, the chapter opened by the first significant Romanian women artists remains shining, appealing and enthusing, like all the innocent, wholehearted beginnings in art.

by Erwin Kessler