Petrescu's Work and Romanian Politics

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Petrescu's Work and Romanian Politics

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Tyler, Geoffrey

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article

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Through virtually all of his adult life, Petrescu lived in a country with a Communist regime, at times one of the most oppressive. Certainly not a Communist himself, quite the reverse, he was in a State that was inimical to many of the things about which he felt most strongly and which influenced his art. Although he tried to live and work in a way that was influenced as little as possible by politics, his life and work could not but be affected by the Communist regime.

Most art lovers in the West have little idea of the way in which a Communist state impacted on the artistic world. All art was, for practical purposes, controlled by varying degrees by the State. A person who painted in his spare time, did not exhibit, did not sell and kept his art to himself, could, of course, ignore the State, and the State would mostly ignore him. Moreover, while in theory the Constitution gave a degree of personal independence, the practicality of an artist’s life was, however, quite different. No artist wanting to live a full life as such could work completely outside the State apparatus. All artists had to live with this in mind. How the individual artist reacted to the political environment could not help but affect his work in some way. At the extreme, some artists sold their talent and painted politically correct works, such as industrial landscapes, peasants at work in the fields, romantic portraits of political leaders, and the like. Some were lucky and could paint the same way as they would have in a quite different society, since what they wanted to create was politically acceptable, for example landscapes and portraits in the traditional style. Some, whose artistic desires led them to work in a less acceptable style could exist much less easily. They would not be jailed but they would find it hard to get exhibitions and the State would not purchase their works, an important loss of income. Petrescu existed, and gradually flourished in a quiet fashion, partly because some of the works that he wanted to paint, or that he could paint with only small adjustment, were acceptable to the authorities. Mostly however, he kept his artistic freedom and development because his work was less visible to the authorities than that of most artists.

Leaving Petrescu’s particular position aside for the moment, it is necessary to have a general understanding of the world of professional art in a Communist State such as Romania. As a practical matter, the State controlled all artists endeavour to varying degrees. If an artist wished to live professionally as such, for practical reasons he had to belong to a branch of the Artists’ Union. The Union controlled the art world. It was the source, at subsidised rents, of artists’ studios. The Union owned the galleries for exhibitions and sales. It organised exhibitions, both in Romania and official exhibitions abroad. It had to give approval for private exhibitions abroad, and approve all the works in such exhibitions. It controlled the foreign travel of artists, which meant that in many cases it prohibited it. It made purchases for the state from artists’ exhibitions, in many case a major source of income for artists. It owned the art supply shops, and therefore determined what was available for use. Gold leaf, for example, was never available except for very specialised use such as renovation of icons. Petrescu could buy none. The Union could and did, make and break artists. Favoured by the Union, an artist could make money, travel abroad, and, if he became a high official in the Union, influence the basic lives of his colleagues for better or worse. Opposed by the Union, an artist might not be given exhibitions, would almost certainly not be allowed to travel abroad, and would effectively be put in the position of depending on whatever purely private patronage he might have. In a society with a low standard of living, relatively few individuals had the means to spend much on artworks. It was in this kind of milieu that Petrescu had to live and work. Petrescu came from a background that was not especially acceptable to the authorities. However, he had the advantage that he was never politically active himself. Moreover, he had an acceptable training and profession as a medical doctor. Although art was always his desire, his parents thought that he should have a profession and he went to medical school at Bucharest University. Actually, there was a tradition in Romania associating the medical profession with the art world and perhaps this made the situation more acceptable to him. Petrescu specialised in endocrinology, an area in which there is a long history of Romanian specialisation resulting from the strong incidence of thyroid disease in parts of the country. In not too many years after graduation, he became a member of the Research Institute in the field, situated in Bucharest.

Until the early 1970s, Petrescu was both a doctor and an artist. While working in the Institute, he both painted and did graphic works, and it was the latter that gave him his first entry into the Union as a graphic artist. He was fortunate in that the Director of the Research Institute greatly admired his artistic work and turned a blind eye to the increasing intrusion of art over medical research. This, together with the fact that he obtained a small, indeed a minute, studio in a Union studio complex close to the Institute, made it easier to divide his time between his two professions. The doctor/artist blend slowly but steadily became an artist/doctor blend, until by the early 1970s his artistic work was full time. In any life there are always specific, fortuitous events that have an overwhelming influence. Petrescu’s Director was such an event in the former’s life. The duality of Petrescu’s life had an incidental but important significance. As an artist, he was not dependent for his livelihood on selling his works. This almost certainly gave a freedom to paint what he wanted and to experiment, which could have been much more difficult in other circumstances.

There was, of course, also a cost. Petrescu did not go through the normal channels of the art profession. He did not have formal training and was not a graduate of the art faculty. He was not, therefore, a member of the various cliques that such institutions engender and that form part of influence and patronage, especially in Communist Romania. Although he obtained a studio, it was very small, especially in comparison with the normal run of those officially available to artists. These studios were generous in space, and typically had a well-lit room about 20 feet by 25 feet with a very tall ceiling, plus a storage room, and generally a small inside balcony with space for a bed and a wash bowl and toilet. For many artists, the studio was more luxurious than their apartments, in terms of space and privacy. Petrescu’s studio, in contrast, was about 6 feet by 12 feet, with only a wash basin, and a small window high in one wall.

Although he was of necessity a member of the Union, Petrescu took no part in its affairs, nor an activist role which often brought studio accommodation, exhibition and travel advantages to artists. His work was not overtly attractive to the Union and politicians; he painted no industrial landscapes or fawning portraits. Perhaps to some in authority, the spectacle of an outsider from a respected profession becoming successful in art, was less than appetising. Petrescu could not expect to be a high flier in this Communist art establishment.

Petrescu himself certainly wanted his work to be known and successful. He wanted painting to be his whole career. He wanted to travel abroad not only to show his own works but also to see the great museums that he knew only through photographs. In the situation facing him, to an outsider it would seem a difficult choice for Petrescu to satisfy his own artistic desires, those of potential buyers, and additionally, the State. Compromise might seem an almost inevitable result.

The degree of compromise was negligible. Petrescu painted only what satisfied him. There were no officially-inspired works. The relatively small size of most of his paintings (an 18 inch by 15 inch work would be his larger size) tended to direct his market to private collectors wanting works for their homes, in contrast to large canvases requiring museum walls. More importantly, his paintings were attractive to enough private persons to provide a flow of sales both from his studio and to a lesser extent from Union galleries. Moreover, in the earlier stage of his career, he found landscapes very attractive to paint and the State would find no problem with these. In fact, the Union gradually began to include his work in collective exhibitions both in Romania and abroad, first his graphic work and later his paintings. He had his first one-man show in Bucharest in 1963, which was of graphics, and in 1966 he had his first one-man show of paintings. In 1971, he had his first solo exhibition abroad, in Holland, when he made his first trip to the West. He was not accompanied by his wife, since at that time few married couples without children were allowed to travel to the West together.

Potentially, a difficult conflict with the State could have developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Increasingly the religious, byzantine elements in his work, and his growing love of Flemish and Italian painters, with their religious works, were leading him to some themes with a more overt religious character. In practice however, the problems were not too difficult to solve. The State neither knew, nor in a sense cared, what an artist painted in private. It was only when paintings were submitted for exhibitions that they took an interest. For exhibitions, Petrescu was careful to exclude works that he judged the Union would find difficult. He could do this without compromising the quality of an exhibition, although it did mean that sometimes he would have to exclude works that to him were particularly attractive. For works submitted to Union galleries for sale, the problem was minor, since generally speaking he sent his less rather than more important ones. Petrescu has always taken a particular interest in knowing his clients and anonymous sales were never quite as desirable as ones to collectors that he came to know. Privately, from his studio, collectors would have the widest of choices from his whole output, and it was these buyers whom he valued most. It should be emphasised however, that the artist took great care, as is normal, with the quality of his exhibitions and buyers at them could choose from a selection of his most valued paintings.

In fact, Petrescu by chance or design found a means to incorporate religious elements in his work in a way that was politically acceptable. A painting based clearly and solely on the idea of an icon might cause no problem when titled ‘Byzantine Composition’. Another series of paintings based on Flemish altar pieces were called ‘Memories of a Museum’. While opposed to religion, the State was not particularly anxious to start unnecessary conflicts, at least at that time.

Furthermore, the State itself had a dilemma. To improve its domestic popularity and to try to separate Romanian communism from that of the Soviet Union, which was strongly disliked by the Romanians, the State strongly supported old Romanian art, which was effectively religious art. Petrescu’s byzantine paintings based on church frescos and icons therefore had a ‘legitimacy’ that made it possible for the State to accept them not only for domestic consumption but also in the context of exhibitions abroad.

Petrescu found another relief valve in his growing circle of foreign admirers. His exhibitions in Holland, West Germany, and the United States were very successful. His domestic exhibitions and the presence of some of his works in Union sales galleries gave him exposure to foreigners visiting or working in Romania. Gradually he gained a significant number of non-Romanians who became consistent admirers and purchasers of his art. He had a small piece of luck in that his studio happened to be in a section of Bucharest where embassies are concentrated. A number of diplomats began to buy directly from his studio, which in turn allowed others to see his work and gradually expanded the number buying from him.

Finally, in 1973, groups of experts from the international organisations in Washington – the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank – began to visit Romania on a regular and frequent basis. Gradually a significant number of these staffers became Petrescu admirers. Sales to these and diplomatic buyers had the advantage that thy bought directly, avoiding any censorship that sales through the Union galleries entailed. These buyers were also ones that the authorities had no wish to mistreat. In theory and practice, the State Security Organisation took an extreme interest in the interaction between foreigners and the population and basically discouraged it. Romanians, for example, were obliged to report all contacts with foreigners. Chance meetings could be forgotten but sustained contact would have to be reported. Petrescu’s contacts with Westerners was, of course, known very well to the Security authorities, but they tolerated it, to the extent that they eventually permitted him to accept official invitations for cultural visits to West Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Thus, by chance and through his art, Petrescu the artist may have become of some positive political value to the State. The benefit to Petrescu was that he was able to travel and have exhibitions abroad on a relatively regular basis, and gain foreign exchange, the possession of which made life inside Romania enormously more bearable. Access to foreign exchange was, however, of lesser importance to Petrescu than the opportunity to travel abroad. The latter had an enormous artistic value to him since it gave the chance to see new things, for example landscapes, to visit museums and add to his art experience. There was another great advantage. In 1976, for the first time, the State allowed Petrescu’s wife, Mariana, to go with him. Thereafter, she went on all of his foreign travels. Obtaining visas remained a tremendous bureaucratic chore, but the presence of his wife was to both of them an enormous advantage, the more since she is very practical, which probably has made the stress of travel easier for the artist.

The State’s willingness to allow foreign trips for the Petrescus stimulated him in various ways. At the most mundane, it gave him access to some supplies which otherwise would have been very difficult to obtain, most notably old documents for collage use. More important however, were the artistic stimuli. The trips to the United States were instrumental in causing the long and continuing series of Western landscapes. Direct contact with the works of artists using collage, especially Schwitters and Cornell, undoubtedly had an impact on Petrescu’s ventures into this area. Important also for both him and his wife, the opportunity to live away from the daily problems of life in Communist Romania was valuable. Moreover, they were able to visit many old friends from Romania living in Europe and the United States and had a ready welcome from these and many others who had become their friends through the artist’s work. It is, in fact, a credit to their friendliness that, wherever they are, they often have more invitations than they can accept.

In considering the improved situation of Petrescu relative to the State, it should not be seen as special treatment to him above that accorded to most of his peers. Artists of his age, with a talent that led to requests from foreign galleries for exhibitions, would normally obtain travel visas for them and their wives – many years earlier and without the long delays that Petrescu experienced. But his growing foreign support in effect made it difficult for the State to not provide him the facilities that his talent deserved and that his activities inside Romania gave no reason to deny. That it took some degree of outside pressure to encourage or force the State to give him the treatment that was consistently given to his peers is a sad commentary on the regime.

However, although the State was more genial to Petrescu from about 1975, as it was to most other established artists, it should not be thought that life for an artist, or anyone else for that matter, in Romania was comfortable. After a brief time in the second half of the 1970s, when the standard of living improved somewhat, in the 1980s the economy deteriorated sharply and political control became very oppressive. Petrescu was to feel the repression relatively soon before the collapse of the Ceaucescu regime. Some mindless functionary at a Petrescu exhibition in Bucharest noted the old papers and writing in some of his collages. As a result, an official investigation by the Union was begun to determine if Petrescu was destroying important old documents that should be part of the country’s patrimony. Many of his old papers were confiscated and an ugly enquiry begun by a high official of the Union, one whom Petrescu had long considered a friend as well as a colleague. The unpleasant and ridiculous episode was resolved by Ceaucescu’s trial and execution. Petrescu never recovered his confiscated property but his relations with the Communists had ended.

The impact of the State on Petrescu’s art is thus a complex subject. Neither inside nor outside Romania did he ever act against the State that he disliked, nor did he defect. The State, through its minor functionaries in the Union, denied him for much of the time the treatment that they gave to his colleagues of equal or lesser talent. Eventually these functionaries had to take account of his international reputation and perhaps of his many foreign admirers. That they did so is no credit to them. On balance, Petrescu’s work is probably in total little different than it would otherwise have been, although it caused him many heartaches that he should not have had to suffer. In this, he shared the misfortune of most Romanians. It is to his moral credit that Petrescu maintained his principles and developed his art through the most difficult and slightly easier times in his country and consistently produced the works his artistic conscience demanded.

Collection

Citation

Tyler, Geoffrey, “Petrescu's Work and Romanian Politics,” Tyler Collection of Romanian and Modern Art: University of Tasmania, accessed July 27, 2017, http://tylercollection.omeka.net/items/show/2083.