Working Environment for Romanian Artists under the Communists

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Working Environment for Romanian Artists under the Communists

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Tyler, Geoffrey

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article

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While the political system under Ceausescu was extremely Stalinist, working conditions for artists in Romania differed markedly from that in the Soviet Union, where art tended to be directly controlled by the state and artists had little individual freedom in terms of what they produced.

In Romania, the art sector was fairly strictly under the central government’s control. In practice, to be a professional artist one had to be a member of the Artists’ Union, since the latter owned all gallery space, produced all exhibitions of the artists’ work, rented all artists’ studios, were the sole sellers of art supplies, and controlled what work eg exhibitions artists were allowed to undertake abroad. For practical purposes, to become an artist one must become a member of the Artists’ Union. The normal method was to go through the university in the Fine Arts faculty, graduate and start to work as an artist.

As a side comment, art supplies came within the orbit of the Artists’ Union. More importantly, however, they came within the purview of the import control system. Imports into Romania were strictly controlled. Imports from the Soviet bloc under bilateral trade agreements were relatively free and cheap. However, they rarely included scarce, desirable goods that could be traded with the West. Many art supplies fell into this category. To take an extreme case, imports of gold leaf were not allowed. Instead, artists had to use as a substitute bronze leaf, which for an artist like Petrescu was a very imperfect substitute. Similarly, high quality brushes and paints were often either unobtainable or in short supply. One amusing incident involved a bronze head portrait that was done of me over a period of several years by leading sculptor Gorduz. It was done at innumerable sittings in clay. When it was finished, no bronze was available for casting. Even quiet overtures that I made to the Minister of Finance could not produce bronze. It was only after about a year that bronze was available for domestic use.

Successful membership of the Artists’ Union carried a very important benefit. The Union owned many studios, which they rented to members. Although not luxurious, these were in many cases relatively large, including small bathroom and sleeping facilities. For some artists that I knew, their studios were more attractive than their apartments, and they spent much of their time in their studios.

Moreover, the provision of regular exhibitions of artists’ work at Union-owned galleries provided a means of selling output, although many successful artists sold directly from their studios. Sales at exhibitions gave the Union commissions but they were at lower rates than those commonly obtained in the western art world. Of course, with a low general standard of living prices for art inside Romania were low by world standards.

The exchange rate system in Romania greatly overvalued the domestic currency. The official exchange rate between the US dollar and the Romanian leu was 9 lei per dollar. On the black market outside Romania, the rate was equivalent to about 45-50 lei per dollar. In theory, a Romanian artist known to and desired by western buyers might be able to sell abroad, convert to Romanian currency on the black market and thus sell at very much higher prices than in Romania. In practice, such transactions would be illegal and punishable. Inside Romania a foreigner could not under the law pay for paintings in foreign exchange, but artists used various means to sell to foreigners who effectively would pay in foreign exchange. A common way was for the artist to sell a work to a foreigner and have the foreigner pay nothing in Romania, but send an agreed amount of foreign exchange to the bank account of a friend of the artist living abroad. The artist would then have foreign exchange at his disposal through his foreign friend when next travelling abroad. Another method might involve pure barter, with the foreign buyer paying in goods unobtainable in Romania and wanted by the artist. Barter, however, required prior knowledge of what the artist wanted, which had to be purchased before arriving in Romania and transported through customs controls; this would be a much less common method. Of course a foreigner could pay directly in actual foreign exchange. There was an active black market inside Romania in foreign exchange, but this carried the risk of being caught in illegal transactions. In general I would guess that few established artists, who after all were respected middle class citizens, would operate directly in foreign exchange. For a foreign buyer willing to operate illegally in foreign exchange, the methodology involved only himself. He could buy Romanian domestic currency in a black market eg Frankfurt at a rate of 45 lei/dollar, carry the lei into Romania and pay the artists or gallery in lei. In itself this was legal enough but it was illegal for the tourist/art buyer to bring lei into Romania from abroad. He was probably unlikely to be physically searched at the airport customs. However, when taking out the art purchased with ‘illegal’ lei, he could be asked to show his exchange receipt proving purchase of the lei with foreign exchange inside Romania, which he would be unable to do. It was also true that customs officials were notoriously corrupt and almost openly demanding of bribes from both foreigners and Romanians.

(The economics of selling Romanian art was greatly affected by the strict separation of the east bloc Romanian economy from western Europe. Some Romanian artists were much appreciated outside Romania, but artists in general could not go abroad to seek galleries in which to have their works exhibited. Mention has been made about the difficulties of travel outside the eastern bloc. Some, however, did become known to Western gallery owners, who were willing to give them exhibitions and sell their works for foreign exchange. Legally the artists would be expected to bring back the foreign exchange and sell it to the Romanian Bank for Foreign Trade at the official rate of 9 lei/dollar. As one would expect from such a rigidly-controlled system, many ways were found successfully to circumvent the intentions of the Romanian rules.)

One might have expected that under the Romanian version of Stalinist rule, artists would face limitations on their work. Modern abstraction, for example might be frowned upon, while realistic industrial landscapes and portraits of the party leader would be common. In practice limitations were few. There were of course artists who painted realistic industrial and urban landscapes and portraits of Ceausescu, and probably benefitted from this choice, but these were in no sense the leading artists. The latter were working in much the same styles as their western European and American counterparts. They were not as modern as these counterparts because of the physical isolation of Romania from the main art centres, and pre-war Paris was more influential than post-war New York. A limited number of artists could visit western art centres. For others, art books and catalogues from the west were avidly sought as a substitute. Still, art in Romania was nothing like that in the Soviet Union. One thing that artists had to take some care with was religious representation, communist Romania being an atheist state. However, even with religion, an artist could find ways around this limitation.

If one were trying to summarise the position of artists in Romania, it might be said that in some respects they had an artistic environment that was as good as or perhaps better than their western counterparts, and their relative position in Romanian society was for many, better than similar artists had in the west. If an artist was selected for and successfully passed through the fine arts system in the university, his/her chances of becoming a professional artist were quite good. However, while economically not badly off compared to the population in general, their standard of living was governed by the poor economic condition of Romania. Also, they lived in a highly centrally-controlled state, isolated from the rest of the world and particularly from the leading countries in modern art. On balance, despite all the difficulties they faced, the work of artists in Romania was extremely good, surprisingly so given the political regime under which the country operated.

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Citation

Tyler, Geoffrey, “Working Environment for Romanian Artists under the Communists
,” Tyler Collection of Romanian and Modern Art: University of Tasmania, accessed September 22, 2017, http://tylercollection.omeka.net/items/show/2082.