The contemporary art scene in Romania is in rumbustious good shape both creatively and commercially, the northern city of Cluj currently leads the way but there’s no shortage of cool galleries displaying exciting, edgy art in the capital either
by Giles Eldridge
(photo above: Geta Brătescu, Self-portrait – Mrs. Oliver in her Traveling Costume, (1980-2012), Venice Biennale 2017)
Romanian Pavillion, Venice Biennale 2017, Geta Brătescu
If someone, who knows about contemporary art, in London or New York is asked what they could say about today’s Romanian art scene it is likely that they would cite Geta Brătescu and Adrian Ghenie, two internationally recognised artists from different generations. There is current interest around these two names for very different reasons. Countless other artists could be mentioned if one is thinking in international terms but the stories behind Brătescu and Ghenie are particularly intriguing and they say something about some aspects of contemporary Romanian art.
Brătescu, now 91, represented Romania in Venice this year, as Ghenie did for the 56th Venice Biennale two years ago. This accolade is a sort of International contemporary art Olympiad Gold medal. Artists who occupy their country’s pavilion attract the attention of galleries at the very sharp end of the international contemporary art system, both in terms of critical and commercial acclaim. From this point of view it is certainly success. For Brătescu it has been a long, long time in the making. Born in Ploiești in 1926 she has been an artist for seven decades funding her practice by being employed as the artistic director of the art and literary magazine, Secolul20 (now Secolul21). Her work ranges from a modernist approach to line
and drawing to performances and films using the notion of The Studio as an identifying factor; with the expressive and commercial limitations of communism the studio space had more subjective possibilities than the exhibition space. Her widespread recognition outside of Romania has been relatively recent. She is now represented by the renowned Swiss gallery Hauser and Wirth and, with works in major collections and museums throughout the world, she can be considered the mother of Romanian contemporary art, having worked through two waves of endless communist years and she is still currently maintaining a daily studio practice.
Adrian Ghenie, Persian Miniature, 2013
Ghenie’s story is a very different one. Born up north in Baia Mare in 1977, he is 50 years junior to Brătescu. The references in his paintings range from ‘copies’ of Rothko or Van Gogh pictures to depictions of events around the fall of communism, such as Nicolae and Elena firmly trapped behind the L-shaped table during their military trial. These paintings are all done with a vaguely Francis Bacon like handling of paint, producing a sense of things shifting in and out of focus. At any event they have proved to be extremely commercially successful on the international art market with a painting selling for £6.2 million at auction just last year. The story starts in 2005 when Ghenie set up a gallery space with curator Mihai Pop in Cluj. Called Galeria Plan B – it was just that, a plan B to the situation they found themselves in. Motivated by the lack of contemporary art galleries in the city the duo decided to do it themselves; an idea not rare in the field of Fine Art but few examples are as notable as this one. The gamble seriously paid off, due to a series of events that were both fortuitous and strategic. The English freelance curator and art writer, Jane Neal was invited to travel to Cluj to see an exhibition by the painter Victor Man, whom she had met in Prague. The exhibition was the first to take place at Galeria Plan B in 2005. She was so impressed by the show and the whole Plan B enterprise that she went on to curate a show for the prestigious Haunch of Venison gallery in its Zurich outpost. Entitled Cluj Connections, it showcased seven artists from the city. Ghenie’s paintings sold well and he was offered a solo exhibition, Shadows of a Daydream, at the gallery in 2007. In the same year the editor of the eminent international Italian art magazine, Flash Art, referred to what he called the School of Cluj and the myth was born; nothing wrong in that, all of art history is made of myths. This name tag resonated with what had happened in Germany some years previously – namely The Leipzig and Dresden Schools.
The School of Cluj was therefore produced for an ever hungry art market looking for the next East European exotic big thing and this group of artists fitted the bill; having been apparently left out in the cold in a country where, for obvious historical reasons, there was no art market or sustained gallery system. They cheerfully allowed themselves to be exoticised by the West. After 2007 things just got better for a number of artists from Cluj and Galeria Plan B, which relocated to another huge Cluj success story – Fabrica de Pensule; in 2009 a former paintbrush factory had been transformed to house galleries, studios and performance spaces under the fastidious and talented care of art manager Corina Bucea. Plan B launched a second gallery in Berlin during 2008. More recently the ever developing Paintbrush Factory has fractured with a faction of artists and galleries setting up a second Factory elsewhere in the city. Whilst looking like an initial breakdown of internal communication the expansion can surely only be seen as another success, opening up further possibilities and developing a broader base beyond the idea of the School of Cluj.
So, you might be thinking, what was happening in the capital during this time? Well, I would say a very different kind of success, more complex and less commercially orientated whilst being international more in terms of import rather than export. There is no Paintbrush Factory or School of Bucharest myth. It is more a case of individuals working independently within a loose network. The first commercial gallery to open in Bucharest was H’art gallery in 2002. Around the same time, not for profit Galeria Nouă opened to show artists working mainly with photography and video. Gradually things have developed in a less centralised way than Cluj. The museum of contemporary art (MNAC) opened in 2004. Located at the back of the Palatul Parlamentului, it is an extraordinary setting for a museum of any kind. Requiring airport style security to get inside it establishes a somewhat difficult environment for experiencing art and can seem a little austere, no bookshop, no cafe or bar, there is little reason to stay after seeing the exhibitions. It does host some good and important exhibitions but it is the other excellent and idiosyncratic art spaces that exist throughout the city of Bucharest that I think are where the art scene really exists; many seemingly reinventing the idea of an art gallery rather than looking West for a model. I will mention just a few of the very best here.
Gallery Tranzit – This is part of a group of spaces funded by the Austrian Erste foundation and presents a broad range of exhibitions and activities. Situated in a former light industrial building just two tram stops from Piața Unirii at 44 Str. Gazelei, it looks anything but conventional. There is both a gallery and an event space plus a vegetable garden tended to by the artists! The curator Raluca Voinea maintains a fastidious programme of exhibitions, talks and garden parties. For more details visit tranzit.org
ODD – Returning to Bucharest in 2014 from her studies in London the writer and curator Cristina Bogdan immediately set to work on this project space with boundless energy and integrity. ODD stands alone in terms of its ethos and the participation of artists, writers and thinkers from all over Europe and beyond. Expect to see exhibitions, talks, presentations, reading groups and music events. It’s home is a former Artists’ union gallery space, which has now incongruously found itself placed in the heart of Lipscani at 13 Str. Șelari, surrounded by bars and restaurants. For more details visit oddweb.org
Poterașu Gallery – Anca Poterașu established her gallery in 2011. Anca shows mainly young Romanian’s paintings, videos, installations and photography and is set in a lovely 19th century building at 56 Str. Plantelor. Around six solo and group exhibitions are held each year and there is an international artist residency programme accommodating an artist for several weeks once a year. For more details visit ancapoterasu.com
Ivan Gallery – With Marian Ivan at the helm, it is like an art space that you might find in London or Berlin in terms of the scope and quality of exhibitions. Often to be found at international art fairs, Marian works mainly with Romanian artists from differing generations, although he also shows international art. This is the gallery that represents Geta Brătescu. Now 10 years old Ivan Gallery operates from a very approachable town house space in Cotroceni at 13 Str. D. Grecescu. For more details visit ivangallery.com
There are all sorts of other aspects to art in Romania that could be discussed at length and a long list of artists and gallery spaces but visiting any of the above mentioned places would be a good start to understanding contemporary art in Romania. All of the spaces have extensive online information and as with any art gallery it is always best to contact them directly to confirm exhibition opening times etc.