Gheorghe Saru was a Romanian-American painter and children’s illustrator, born in the South West of Romania on 1st March 1920. He spent the last 20 years of his life in the United States, where he painted up to his last days even though he was declared legally blind. He graduated first in Iasi, then received his Masters of Fine Arts in 1948 at the Academy of Fine Arts, Bucharest; in 1963 he was able to study at the Academia di Belle Arti Pietro Vannuco, Perugia, Italy. Saru studied and first exhibited during the Second World War at a time when Romanian painting was mainly narrative, confined within a restrictive environment for deep analysis and synthesis. At a time when travel outside, and even within, the Iron Curtain was beyond the reach of most people, his works were exhibited in Mexico, France, Spain, Portugal, England, Italy, Switzerland, USA, Denmark, West Germany, Belgium, Holland, Luxemburg, Sweden, Norway, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, USSR and other countries. He was invited to live and paint abroad twice, first in 1965 in Mexico, then in 1983 in the United States, an invitation extended by the USIA (United States Information Agency).
As a student of a great Romanian artist and pedagogue, Jean Al. Steriade, the young Saru was preoccupied, following the tradition of Francisc Sirato, Stefan Dimitrescu and Dumitru Gheata, by a modern synthesis of motifs from Romanian folk art which “rejected the pleasant picturesque” (Grigorescu, p.7) in favour of a balanced construction. From the sixties onwards he explored experimental and abstract avenues, but remained faithful to the ideas of his youth, dominated by an acute sense of logical construction and complex compositions. He also worked alongside his wife Liana Saru on large tapestries. Saru died in 2003, having been planning to return to Romania, and is buried in New York. His later paintings reflect an inner world emerging from his approach to the reality behind the reality.
Saru’s work illustrates the transition from traditional figurative art - with its emphasis on a descriptive, almost narrative style of representation - to non-figurative, even abstract, art in which “tradition was no longer a landmark, either as a supporting element or as an obstacle. An endeavour to link up with the modern currents of world art often made it necessary to give up some national features, and that price was paid especially by those who developed towards abstract art, conceptual art or objectual art.”[i]
Saru’s meticulous approach to line and colour is similar to that of a portrait painter. He has an ability to visualise transparency and to depict a glowing radiance (e.g. Perla Rosie, Red Pearl, 1979), animating geometric constructions and transforming the figurative quality of Romanian folk art by simplifying his forms, shapes and lines. His work gives the impression of living and developing objects: some of his flowers resemble inflating balloons which are just about to be released. His careful preoccupation with the ordering of space balances both the visible forms and the anticipatory invisible ones with full control. His pictures are not picturesque, although, in spite of their complex composition, the subjects are recognisable by their stylized vegetal elements (i.e. leaves, stems, corollas), e.g. Flori (Flowers, 1981). Within the shape and colours of these flowers, he dictates their quality and meaning; but at the same time they are framed within a bell jar, both protected and asphyxiated. Unlike Plath’s suicidal heroine, Saru’s flowers seem to attempt to expand beyond the bell jar, inviting the viewer to release them and embrace them. Saru always, but only just, maintains control and keeps the rigorous forms and colours, he controls them by the environment in which they are implanted.
After his trip to Mexico in 1965, when Saru was exposed to Inca and Aztec cultures, his work began to combine elements of Romanian folk and Aztec art. However, Grigorescu claims that Saru’s influence was primarily Romanian rather than Mexican, and he labours this claim almost to the point of obsession. This is perhaps rooted in Grigorescu’s need to conform to establishment requirements: it was desirable for an artist like Saru to be presented as a national artist, not merely anchored in material reality but also in his national identity. Grigorescu draws on vague and nationalistic ideas about Romanian art and employs simplistic clichés to enlist Saru within “a tradition among Romanian painters… who, fathoming foreign cultures, re-evaluated the sense of the national tradition.”[ii] His didactic style comes across even more strikingly in Irina Bojin’s English translation:
“Whoever chanced to see the fabrics and earthenware made in a region spreading north of Rio Grande, from the Navajo and Pueblo settlements in Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico to see the high plateaus of Sierra Madre, could not possibly help being struck by the frequency of familiar ornamental motives and colours belonging to the equally ancient peasant creation of a civilization so remote as that developed in the Carpato-Danubian zone.”[iii]
Petru Comarnescu, quoted in Saru’s 1977 exhibition (the year of the great earthquake in which many of his fellow artists died), offers a more digestible take on the artist:
“Gheorghe Saru suggests in his landscapes of caves, windswept walls, gardens in various seasons, the metamorphoses of substance, the tribulations of geological transformation, the poetry of spaces and seasons, the strangeness of forms, whether real or imaginary.
He paints forms and spaces as if taken from the essence of abstraction, quickening them by means of coloured harmonies and by transforming geometry into a set of transparencies and signs which, in their imaginary representation, respect a poetical order. Through the unreal or fantastic atmosphere of his pictures, a blending of primitiveness and modern refinement, he receives echoes of Aztec art and Klee’s art, yet without breaking the relationship with his native tradition of painting.”[iv]
Similar themes seem to re-emerge between the introductions to these Meridiane monographs, particularly between the ones on Pacea, Gheorghiu, and Saru: a concern with reality, the material world and the importance of the subject; the unity of line and colour; downplaying external influences (e.g. mythology, Mexico, etc.) while emphasising the importance of Romanian folk art; comparison with the greatest international artists (sometimes just suggestive quotes). [Written by Alex Popescu, December 2016]
[i] Florea, p. 144.
[ii] Second page of Irina Bojin’s English translation of Grigorescu’s introduction text, ‘A Painter of Serene Geometries’.
[iv] Petru Comarnescu, Five Contemporary Romanian Painters, Catalogue (Memphis, Tennessee: 1967), quoted in ‘Saru ’77: Pictura’, exhibition catalogue (Galerile de Arta ale Municipiului Bucuresti: 1977).
Table Of Contents
Critical Commentary (anthology of quotes, in Romanian, pp. 21-26)
Chronology (pp. 27-8)
Selected Biography (pp. 29-31)
84 pages of Reproductions (with two “experiments”, No. III and IV: drawings on plastic overlaid onto printed colour schemes, see English explanation on final page)
French translation (Un Peintre de la Géometrie Calme, pages unnumbered)
English translation (A Painter of Serene Geometries, pages unnumbered)
Geoffrey Tyler cu toata pretuirea pe care i-o port
Washington 13 May 1983
(“To my friend Geoffrey Tyler, with all my appreciation, Saru”)