Horia Bernea was one of the most famous Romanian artists of the 20th century. He was born into a family of intellectuals; his father had studied with Heidegger and Dimitrie Gusti, and Bernea was inspired by an inter-disciplinary spirit of sociological research. He was unable to apply to the Academy of Fine Arts in Bucharest due to his parents’ “unhealthy” (i.e. non-proletarian) status; instead he studied mathematics, physics and architecture. From 1962 he also studied drawing at the ‘Pedagogical Institute’, and took part in his first public show, put on by the youth branch of the Artists Union (UAP) in 1965 - the same year as Ion Tuculescu’s posthumous retrospective and Ceausescu’s rise to power.
Bernea spent childhood holidays in an idyllic commune in the Carpathians called Poiana Marului. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he brought together a group of artists there, as a kind of refuge away from censorship, which came to be known, informally, as Scoala de Poiana Marului. He was also influenced by the hesychast history of Poiana Marului, finding joy in the silent beauty of the landscape, and a non-discursive, visual spirituality.
The ‘mystical religious’ nature of his work meant Bernea was subject to sustained interest from the Securitate. His long-time friend, the poet and art critic Petru Romosan, turned out to have been an informer, though to relatively little harm.
He painted in cycles, focussing on a single, often domestic, object (e.g. ‘Food’, ‘Apples’, ‘Window’, ‘Hill’), painting them again and again, seeing them as in a contemplative distance. Initially he worked in a style of abstract expressionist and conceptual drawing before returning to natural forms, rediscovering a form of ‘purified’ realism. Later, the theme of funeral banners became dominant.
By the 1980s Bernea was a well-established international artist. He was awarded the Francois Stahly Bursary at the 1971 Paris Biennale and a Romanian Academy prize in 1978; in 1976 his work was the subject of a film presented at a UNESCO conference in Baghdad. His exhibitions included the 1978 and 1980 Venice Biennales; he also exhibited at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and received positive reviews for his solo exhibitions in London, Liverpool and Newcastle. In 1985 Bernea was asked to provide the cover illustration for Secolul 20, a literary and arts journal; the proposed image had a church with a small cross in the background, which provoked controversy and delayed the publication by two years. Although not publicly known in Romania, the controversy was widely discussed by Radio Free Europe and Voice of America.
He was especially active in the group of artists known as ‘Prolog’, founded in 1985 by Paul Gherasim, the group’s spiritual mentor. Bernea exhibited with the group almost every year until his death.
From 1990 until 2000, he was Director of ‘The Museum of the Romanian Peasant’ in Bucharest. The first permanent exhibition he created there was called Crucea (‘The Cross’), and the institution received the "European Museum of the Year" award in 1996.
Entry authored by Dr Alex Popescu, Dec 2016