Landscapes in Petrescu's Art
Through his entire career, Petrescu has painted and drawn landscapes. Together, his Byzantine works and his landscapes comprise a majority, perhaps a large majority, of his total output. Because they have been so prevalent, and because they have been painted to satisfy his own demand for expression of his inner feelings and not to satisfy market demands - although the landscapes have been much appreciated by buyers - a study of his landscapes alone would reveal his evolution as an artist. Although the progression from his earlier, relatively literal works to his later, sometimes highly abstract landscapes, is a long and complex journey, it is one in which his love of nature shines through, whatever technique he may use and wherever in the world the landscape, real or imagined, may be.
The origin of his landscapes, however, is by no means insignificant. As might be expected, by far the most important source has been the countryside of Romania, in all its variety. However, a significant number came about because of his reaction to the southwest of the United States, where he spent two vacations in 1976 and 1978. Immediately after the first visit he began painting "western" landscapes and he has continued to do so ever since, long after the visits themselves.
For the most part, Petrescu's landscapes are of the imagination. A relatively small number, including pen and ink drawings, were made directly in situ. Occasionally, he may use photographs taken during vacations or in books or on postcards to remind him of what he has seen, as for example after the American trips. But these are the exception rather than the rule.
The Romanian Landscapes
Putting aside for the moment the American works, the majority of Petrescu's landscapes are based on his life and experience in Romania and its countryside. The Romanian landscapes obviously reflect the characteristics of that countryside as he sees it. Broadly speaking, he paints the countryside itself. With relatively few exceptions, his works do not show people and their impact. There are rarely villages or houses, or farmers to be seen. There is, of course, farmland, often with the special feature of strip farming common to a significant part of the country in his youth and still now where private land holdings were not consolidated into large state combines. The old-style strip farming could be expected to attract and artist such as Petrescu, since it leads to different texture, colours and patterns that do not exist with more extensive modern agricultural techniques. A knowledge of strip farming and its impact on the appearance of the land is something that fewer and fewer people in the industrial world understand, but which is strongly evident in many of Petrescu's Romanian landscapes. In winter, for example, snow melts more quickly on ploughed land than it does on fallow grassed strips and in a Petrescu winter landscape one can see the difference in colours, without which the paintings would be much less interesting. In the late 1960s and the early 1970s, many of the landscapes have the impression of sunshine and lushness that characterize the early Italian primitives. The colours are rich and bright. The outlines are rounded and fluid. Petrescu often included in the sky abstract shapes that could be read as birds, butterflies or angels.
Although mostly imaginary, the landscapes are always conscious of the season. An exhibition in the early 1970s in fact included paintings showing the cycle of the seasons. Most, however, are not conscious “cycles” - indeed those in the above exhibition may not have been painted as a cycle - but simply because the artist cannot paint a landscape without showing what the season is, given that in Romania the countryside changes strongly through the course. Whether a landscape be representational or abstract, to Petrescu it must reflect the feeling the differing season brings to it. The greyness of the winter scenes capture the melancholy and sadness of the countryside covered with snow, the cold and the short, cloudy days, whereas summer landscapes are bright and sunny.
An excellent example of an abstract winter, which Petrescu painted in a number of variants, comes from the mid-1970s. The design is roughly centred in a rectangle of greyish white, at first sight uniform but in fact with subtle shadings and textures. The central design is based on strip fields after a snowfall, long enough ago for some to have melted, leaving the strip fields visible in various shades of white grey and brown, the latter of metallic leaf. To a viewer who knew nothing of the artist and did not know the title, the painting would be a purely abstract design and would not be taken as a landscape, but Petrescu's intention are clear.
Autumn, as winter, has been particularly attractive to the artist, much more so than spring, if one is to take the frequency of the theme as a guide. No doubt the colours of autumn have a particular appeal to him - the rich browns, reds and gold of autumn leaves, being particularly stimulating. Perhaps, too, the slight melancholy of autumn with its warning that winter is approaching, strikes a chord in him. For whatever reason, the autumn landscapes have been many and various.
In contrast, there are not many Petrescu landscapes that can safely be said to depict spring. This is perhaps understandable in that his preferred palette is more one of red than light green. There is more scope in his art for depiction of summer, which are redolent of the hot sunny days of southern Romania, with golden fields of ripe wheat and corn and sun dried pasture, combined sometimes with the thunderstorms of sultry afternoons. The colours of summer allow him to use gold leaf freely, which is perhaps part of the attraction of the season to him.
A quite different series of landscapes are contained in Petrescu's many paintings of sea shores and river landscapes, particularly of the wide Danube that is the southern border of Romania. Of all his landscapes, these are of the imagination rather than direct vision, since the artist rarely spends much time in Romania in these regions. These paintings are more stylized and abstract than the landscapes of the countryside, although many of the former are far from realistic. Most of the sea and riverscapes are as much or more concerned with the land as with the water. It appears to be the division between the water and the coloured patterns of the land that especially attract Petrescu, with the sky a not particularly important element, nor the colour and texture of the water itself. In most of this series, the sea or the river is indicated more by the presence of some kind of a stylized vessel or bridge than anything else. However, the range of style is very wide. In a few, the landscape extends from the countryside down to the beach in a very realistic way, without the abstraction present in most of these works. Perhaps to Petrescu the most important part of these works is the contrast between the many variations of the land and the flatness and sameness of the water. It may be significant that in some of the paintings it would be hard to judge whether the water is the sea or a large river or lake.
The American Landscapes
The American landscapes are a quite separate and easily identifiable body of Petrescu's work, completely distinct from Romanian examples. Their genesis was the two vacations that he and his wife had in the southwest of the United States, from Colorado to the Pacific coast, in 1976 and 1978. It is useful to examine the itineraries and the context of the two trips since they indicate the type of scenery that Petrescu saw and the opportunity he had to absorb a countryside so different from what he had known until then.
Both trips were by car, made at a leisurely pace with ample time to stop where he and his wife wanted to. Many photographs were taken and books on the region purchased. There was plenty of time to walk and to look at the scenery at leisure. The journey in 1976 was from Denver in Colorado, south to the desert country of Santa Fe, west to the region south and north of the Grand Canyon, through Las Vegas and Death Valley, east of the Sierra Nevada range to Los Angeles, where they stayed with a friend and colleague from his days at medical school in Bucharest. This trip was completed by driving north along the coast to San Francisco. The trip in 1978 was confined to California, with a round trip from Los Angeles north through the National Parks of Sequoia and Yosemite and back along the east of the Sierra Nevada range. Most people would agree that the areas covered contain some of the most magnificent scenery in the United States.
With a few exceptions, what interested Petrescu most and has been reflected in his subsequent paintings, was the desert part of the journeys. He used other regions as sources, but it was the desert that remained most in his memory. It is easy to see why this was so. The most obvious impact was the pure grandeur of the southwest. The great National Parks - the Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Death Valley - cannot help but affect all who visit them, let alone a sensitive artist. Romania and Europe have their mountains and other natural features but, apart from the Alps, they do not have the same enormity as the American west. Moreover, Petrescu was seeing them not only for the first time, but in tranquility. He had none of the problems of daily life in communist state and for the first occasion he was traveling abroad with his wife. He had nothing to concern himself with about the mundane details of the trip. He was not driving and accommodation was arranged. In addition, the weather of October was warm and sunny. He had nothing to do but enjoy himself; his health was good and long walks were possible.
But these physical facts were fundamentally not the important things. It was the characteristics of what he saw that influenced him. Beyond the grandeur, the countryside was particularly amenable to established elements of Petrescu's work. The colours, above all, the reds, browns, yellows and black, are those that have always stimulated the artist. They are included in the typical palette of his beloved Byzantine icons. The patterns of the colours and the rock formations, with their fragmentation and abrupt changes of colour from one rock stratum to another found a sympathetic observer in the artist. In the mile after mile of largely uninhabited desert, he also found the essence of nature, untouched by humans, that lies at the centre of many of his Romanian landscapes. To all of this was added the intense blue skies and the extreme clarity that is innate to the region.
As has been said elsewhere, Petrescu rarely paints his landscapes in situ. In the southwest, away from his studio, he had little opportunity for immediate work. It was not really until he returned to his studio in Bucharest that his experience was transferred to canvas and paper. His memories were the most important source but they were augmented by photographs taken at every stage of the trips and by photographs from books and post cards.
Most of his subsequent paintings are imaginary scenes reflecting what he recalled. A small number were painted using photographs as models. Typical of the latter is a large vista of the Painted Desert, which he painted in at least two versions, one of which he used some ten years later for the poster for his exhibition at the Library of the US Embassy in Bucharest, entitled "Petrescu in Amerika". The two versions are quite close to each other, meaning either that one is basically a copy of the other or that both are based on the same photograph, probably the latter.
While the two "Painted Deserts" suggest a direct subject, few other of the extensive western series do. The vast majority are clearly not meant to represent an actual piece of scenery of the real world. They are imaginary views that could not be mistaken for other than what they are, yet at the same time they are abstractions designed to reflect rather than represent the real world that Petrescu had seen. Some paintings are definite enough to clearly call to mind the source, for example some based on scenes in Death Valley. Others recall the character of the region without bringing to mind a particular site. One of the most impressive is a 1979 work on canvas (UTT 2013/131). The black of the sky cannot be night, since the mountain below glows with light. The striations of coloured rock, reminiscent of Utah, are a mosaic of gold leaf, and red, grey, black and yellow oils. If the painting were cut in half, the bottom would appear to be a completely abstract work; as a totality, the painting vividly brings to life the colours of the desert.
Although since 1978, Petrescu has not returned to the region, the stimulus remains. He has continued to paint the deserts. However, with the development of his style towards more abstraction and the incorporation of collage into his works, the western landscapes too have changed. The degree of reality has decreased and that of abstraction has become dominant. It is not that it is now more difficult to recognize an American landscape for what it is; the works remain distinctive and unmistakable. However, it is the mood and the colour of the landscapes that is the most important element, not the so much the precise delineation of geographical features.
As stated above, the use of collage techniques has become increasingly common in these landscapes, and after the 1980s, most include collage. The collage structures are, interestingly enough, rarely with American connotation. Mostly they are portions of old maps and documents, which, since his sources are mostly Romanian and French, are inherently European not American. However, too much should not be made of this, since in his collage, Petrescu is interested in the colour of old paper and inks, and the overall pattern of printing and writing rather than the literal meaning of what is on the paper.
It is perhaps fair to say that the later American landscapes are more sombre than the earlier ones. Many of the latter were exuberant in colour or subject. Brilliant red rocks, intense blue skies and a relatively great use of gold leaf were common in the first western paintings. In contrast, in many of the more recent works, colours are more muted and the use of gold leaf more restrained. The increasing use of collage and the greater abstraction of these later works add to the different effect.
The western landscapes are testimony to the profound influence that the southwest of the United Sates had on the artist, an influence that partly changed his life as a painter. But it is equally a testimony to the originality of Petrescu that he reacted to his experience not by painting picture post card representations of what impressed him so much. He interpreted the wild beauty that he saw in works that are as uniquely "Petrescus" as are his Byzantine works and his Romanian landscapes. The western works illuminate the beauty of the southwest through the eyes, thoughts and technique of a Romanian painter. They are unique in his total output, a tribute both to American landscape and to the painter.
The majority of Petrescu's works are mixed media compositions, including the landscapes, on canvas or paper. He has, however, at various times done a variety of works, including landscapes, on paper. These form an interesting annex to his main output.
Early in his life as an artist, he did quite a number of landscape drawings in pen and ink when he was a young doctor in the Romanian rural districts. Not many remain, but those available show the same affection for the countryside as his later works, and all exhibit considerable skill as a draughtsman. They are mostly attractive village scenes, rather different in character to his later output, where it is the land and not what people have done to it, that attracted him most. They also include some related scenes of country towns, including some of those on the Danube. Despite the fact that they are relatively early works, they show all the hallmarks of the mature Petrescu.
A different set of drawings comes from the period of his first visit to the United States in 1976. That visit was his longest in America and it was in many ways the most restful in that he spent relatively long periods in both New Haven and Washington with a great deal of spare time. The combination of leisure and a long period away from painting, led him back to his art. He felt obliged to paint, despite the difficulty of not having a studio and he painted both byzantine compositions and a number of collages based on New York cityscapes, which are discussed elsewhere.
More important for his landscapes, when on his trip to the southwest, the stimulus to work was overwhelming. His outlet was to draw landscapes. In Los Angeles he was able to buy proper paper and pens and ink. The result was a beautiful series of scenes from his medical friend's house high above Los Angeles in the Pacific Palisades. The drawings of the wooded area around the house, with its lush tropical growth and the sea far below and beyond are both technically assured and evocative of the area. They are, of course, in Petrescu's most realistic style. At the same time he also produced a number of portraits of his wife, but these are dealt with elsewhere.
Quite different are works that he produced "on the road". Before reaching Los Angeles and during a short visit to the southern coast and San Diego, Petrescu did a large number of rough drawings of the countryside he was passing through (UTT 2013/503.1-32). The only available paper was motel notepaper and the only pen and ink, ball point pens. However, both at the end of the day, and at times in the car driving through the desert, he penned his reactions to what he had seen. These rough sketches of the southwest were in a very real sense the precursors of the long series of paintings of American landscapes. Done very quickly, they capture the essence of what he experienced and some became the models for finished painted landscapes done in Romania. They were also another indication of the powerful attraction that the west of America had for the artist.
On the same visit, Petrescu reacted with compulsion to New York. He spent about two weeks visiting that city, and was, of course, impressed by the richness of its museums and galleries. But it was the vibrancy of the city itself and the unique skyline that stimulated his own art. It was after this visit that he bought painting supplies and committed his impression to canvas. The results are happy, exuberant works, full of the extravagance of the architecture and life on the busy streets. The elements of collage - stock exchange quotations from the newspaper, advertising cards handed out in the Times Square area to tourists, entrance tickets to museums - were all connected directly to New York. They were done under difficult conditions, with the laundry room in a friend's house as a studio, and with materials at times not as good as he normally used, and they do not have the finish of his Romanian works. They do attest, however, to the stimulus that New York had for the artist.