Collage in Petrescu's Work

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Collage in Petrescu's Work


Tyler, Geoffrey




If Byzantine painting has had the greatest influence on Petrescu's painting, then the next biggest impact has been his long-lived and ever-increasing love of collage techniques. In his earliest works, collage is not often present, but during the 1970s he was increasingly experimenting with this technique. By the mid-1980s onward it had become an almost dominating characteristic. Strangely enough, and somewhat disappointing to him, his love of the technique was not shared by all of his admirers. Some preferred his older and less abstract style. He continued to paint in this fashion alongside his collages because he had not lost his desire to do so. He could do so without any sense of self betrayal, because he still enjoyed his earlier themes and techniques, and his market for this output remained important. But these paintings were not the ones in the forefront of his artistic mind. To this extent it was a slight sadness to him that some of his most respected admirers could not see in his collages all that he saw.

In a sense, metallic leaf elements are a form of collage and Petrescu certainly began to use leaf early in his career. However, it would be difficult to call these earlier paintings collages. He used leaf as a form of paint, albeit "paint' with a very special colour and texture. As mentioned above, it was only during the second half of the 1970s that the collage technique in the normal sense became a common feature of his work. The elements of his collages were almost always paper. On a few occasions he would use more substantial and three dimensional objects. Typical of this latter group is the cover of a school text book he found irresistible as the basis for a "church door". However, paper, especially old paper, is his choice for collages. Old letters, old Romanian stamps, old printed Romanian church documents in church Slavonic, were all available to him in Romania. A large number were inherited from his father. A second major source became the bookstalls on the left embankment of the Seine in Paris. On the various occasions on which he visited that city from the mid-1970s onward, he always browsed in the stalls to stock up his supply. The contents of the documents and maps were not in themselves as important as the colour and texture of the paper and ink, and the general appearance of the writing or printing. Special embellishments such as sealing wax or the impressions of seals were positive attractions.

Not all the collage materials Petrescu uses are old, although probably the majority are. He uses canvas and heavy modern paper that he has used as a palette to mix his paints, or as trials for a painting. He has frequently used portions of American road maps, especially after his visits to North America. Another source of collage material has been reproductions of paintings from sources such as calendars, catalogues and books. In a small number of works he has incorporated photographs, mainly as a whole, not cut.

Generally speaking, the paper collage elements have no particular connection with the painting of which they are part. Sometimes, however, there is a personal relevance to the artist or the person for whom the painting is intended. There is, for example, a particularly attractive autumn landscape of 1978 which includes part of a sheet of a marriage contract of one his aunts, listing the contents of the dowry she was to provide, in addition to two sheets of the paper that comes between sheets of gold leaf in the booklets in which the latter are sold. Another example is a collage of 1982, done for a close friend who is Australian. It incorporates a photograph of the friend's grandfather taken in the 19th century at a gold mining camp in the desert, with a group of prospectors. Another part of the painting contains the cover of a letter written by the grandfather and some old Australian stamps. The design is one that Petrescu used not infrequently at the time, a "Page from an Album", with highly stylized representation of photos pasted into a photo album. In the case in question, the collage elements are wholly realistic and important to the recipient of the painting, and is entitled "The life is full of dusty memories".
Yet another example of direct connection is a small "Entombment of Christ" of 1987 in which an important collage element that forms the slab of stone on which Christ's body has been laid, consists of a page of a church document in church Slavonic lettering (UTT 2013/136).

However, it must be emphasized that such specific connections between the design and the collage elements are generally not present or are weak. There are, for example, a number of winters where old paper or canvas is of a soft gray shade that Petrescu finds appropriate. It is the colour and texture that is important, not any writing that may be present. When maps are used, they generally have no geographical significance; part of an old map of Africa could be part of an American landscape as easily as it could be incorporate in a winter landscape of Romania. There are, of course, some exceptions, as in a 1980 collage. The latter has sections of a 17th century map of Paris streets and buildings, one section covering about a quarter of the painting. Clearly the theme is "Paris". As mentioned, he has used parts of American road maps, but they are as often of areas he has not been to as they are of parts that he has visited, and the paintings of which they are part are not particularly "American" in character.

For a short time during his second visit to America, Petrescu produced a number of collages in which the collage material and the subject are closely connected. Normally when on vacation he spends no time painting, but the trip in question was a long one and the urge to paint was strong. Among the works that he did were collage of skyscrapers in New York. In them he incorporated not old papers, which he did not have with him, but rather newspaper and other items with a specific New York relevance, such as the stock quotations and advertising handed out to tourists. These works have a particular vibrance and evidence the strong impact that New York streets and the buildings as well as the museums, had on Petrescu.

Some collage elements are used in their entirety. This is normally Petrescu's practice when incorporating photographs and stamps, the latter in any case being small enough that will always appear as fragments of the design rather than the principal part. With most other types of collage elements, for example letters and maps, the paper is usually cut or torn into pieces rather than used complete. This is probably because the whole object would be too large for the design, but, more important, the collage elements are viewed by him much as if they were another paint. Indeed, it is central to Petrescu's concept that the collage elements must satisfy his aims of colour, texture and pattern in the same way as does paint and gold leaf. Part of the attraction of collage is that it provides a great extension to the colours, patterns and texture that are provided by paint. Moreover, they can be seen in the finished form in advance, without having to experiment endlessly with paint mixtures. Also, by painting over the collage elements, Petrescu can achieve an additional range of colour and texture variants.

However, it would probably be wrong to assume that for Petrescu collage is merely another set of "paints" that he can use as a substitute for oil and acrylic. The concept of collage, of incorporating the real world of finished objects into the imaginary world that his works represent, is in the end the reason why he enjoys collage. That he has a preference for old objects rather than new probably reflects the fact that for him the past has an importance greater than to most of us.

The origin of Petrescu's collage works came in part from other artists, although his particular use of the technique is strongly his own. He has followed the basis of some other artists, while developing his own particular collage style. Perhaps the most important influences on him were those of Picasso and Braque, who pioneered the technique in the famous period of collaboration and joint exploration in the period from around 1908 to about 1914. One can see in Petrescu's works something of the way in which these two masters fragmented the real objects they were depicting and created patterns reflecting these objects but greatly differentiated from them. The step of incorporating materials other than paint into the patterns was a further stage in this fragmentation.

Other masters of collage who Petrescu appreciates deeply are Schwitters and Cornell. Compared with these two artists, Petrescu's collages are on the one hand more realistic than the former and do not on the other hand have the surrealist elements of the latter. Perhaps the reason is that Petrescu is not an abstract painter in the pure sense and his desire is to represent real things. His intellectual pleasure is to do so in a complex way - complex not only in the abstraction of reality but also in the materials that he uses to present that abstraction.

It cannot be emphasized too much that Petrescu has not been slavish in his use of collage; the influences have been very indirect. It is probably true that the influences have been little more than to persuade him that collage is a technique that he enjoys and that suits his work. Indeed, it is probably true that collage is a technique that can be imagined only by seeing the works of others in the first place, but that its variety and randomness are such that, without direct and deliberate copying, any artist's collage is likely to be different from other artists. (The similarities between Picasso and Braque, are of course an exception, but one with a special and unique basis). Petrescu's collages, while different from his other works, are clearly consistent with his other techniques and with the evolving development of his style.



Tyler, Geoffrey, “Collage in Petrescu's Work,” Tyler Collection of Romanian and Modern Art: University of Tasmania, accessed June 25, 2021,