Although dated in 1989, it is very likely the monograph was published at the beginning of the year, before the fall of Communist governments in Europe, which started in Poland with the legalization of Solidarnost (the Polish Trade Union), followed by mass protests in East Germany, the relaxing of border restrictions in Czechoslovakia, the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9th November, and culminating with the bloody revolution in Romania and the execution of President Nicolai Ceausescu on Christmas Day 1989. Remarkable as this monograph might be, Marin Gherasim’s work appears as a sign of the austere times. It was published in poor reproduction, although this suits his restricted palette quite well. The monograph is based on the exhibition at Sala Dalles in June 1986, entitled Drumul (The Way). The anthology draws “a portrait of the painter at maturity, fulfilled through synthesis, clarity and equilibrium” (Ispir, p.5). Gherasim set out as far back as 1978 to explore “the relation between matrix and archetype on the one hand and [artistic] invention on the other. How far can you take development, starting from an archetype?”[i]
Born in 1937 in the ancient town of Radauti, Bucovina, the region of externally painted monasteries, Gherasim came from a family of peasants, although his father was an Orthodox priest. In an interview in 2015 he spoke to me about how his parents used to take him and his siblings along drumuri initiatice (journeys of spiritual initiation) to these monasteries. He acknowledges having been struck by the iconographic frescoes he saw, such as the Last Judgement at Voronet and the Ladder of Divine Ascent at Sucevita Monastery. However, his decision to study painting came relatively late. On finishing high school, he initially wanted to study geology, as, “I was fascinated by everything that is hidden – minerals, mysterious and precious stones which are swallowed by earth. But I chose painting and I owe this to the monasteries at Bucovina, to images of those holy jewels encrusted in my childhood mind.”[ii]
“In the years when our churches were demolished before 1989 I used to build them up symbolically in my paintings. The theme of construction and deconstruction, of reconstruction, has in time become the central theme of my art. In many of my recent images there coexist the emblem, the effigy, the constructive archaeus, the archetype of apse and the aggression against it. The geometry and energy of alert gesture; law and accident; aspiration to what is permanent and durable, and the work of time and its marks left in everything; rationality and the calm of edification (the world is well created!); but also universal entropy like the violence of history. These have been my themes of mediation for a long time. Painting is an act of confession.”[iii]
Marin Gherasim understands painting, in first and last instance, as an expressive language, with pronounced autobiographical notes. “Te pictezi pe tine” (“You paint yourself”, Ispir, p.5). “I conceive painting as a diary of my life”, wrote Gherasim in the catalogue for his first exhibition at the “Ateneu” (“Athenaeum”) in 1969, held together with Horia Bernea.[iv]
His work is characterized by a “sober but relaxed ambience”:[v] “A document of inner states or developments, the act of painting is nevertheless, for him, a mediated document, included in the self-sufficient presence of image. This is a direct transposing rather than transcribing of inner impulses”.[vi]
According to Marin Gherasim writing in 1974, art needs to be integrated “organically among all our other acts”, to be part of “our whole being, our moral being”:
“One needs to feel within the artworks a movement of the soul… the disease of contemporary painting is what is made up, the a priori technique, the mannerism… One needs to feel within the artworks the successive ‘layers’ of action all in a living and fresh manner.”[vii]
Mihai Ispir explores the artist’s journey “de la teluric la spiritual”[viii] (“from the earthly to the spiritual”). Early influences on him include his uncle Vasile Gherasim, who as a student in Vienna had been a colleague of Lucian Blaga, and who was known for his sociological work in establishing the Romanian genealogy of the poet Mihai Eminescu. Marin’s paternal family was originally from the village Marginea, an old centre of Neolithic black pottery in northern Moldavia. In their family house he also used to attend literary or musical meetings, and he himself studied piano and violin in parallel with drawing and painting. In 1960 he met Paul Gherasim (no relation), a hesychast painter,[ix] “a turning point in his artistic becoming, but also in the clarification of his existential options.”[x] Paul Gherasim was the spiritual father for many Christian painters of that time, and in 1985 he set up the group ‘Prolog’ which aimed to express the divine order in their hieratic art.[xi]
As a student at the Institute of Fine Arts ‘Nicolae Grigorescu’ in Bucharest between 1956 and 1962, Gherasim regularly attended concerts at the prestigious “Ateneu” (“Athenaeum”) and the George Enescu Festival. Showing an interdisciplinary curiosity, he organised evenings of music, art, and literature for his colleagues. He also used to attend conferences on comparative literature and became close to the critic Petru Comarnescu, a mentor figure who encouraged him to become an artist. Gherasim used to spend a lot of time in Comarnescu’s home library in Bucharest where he explored the elements and typology of the peasant face and village life.
Another great influence on Gherasim was Ion Tuculescu, whose paintings used to be displayed privately on Oltenian carpets in the latter’s flat. Once, in 1962, Gherasim found lying open on that carpet a book on Van Gogh (a rare book to have in Romania at that time), an association which for him seemed striking and symptomatic. Tuculescu’s work, at that unrecognised by the establishment, determined Gherasim to give a more subjective accent to his painting. Consequently Gherasim’s village subjects were gradually translocated into an abstracting universe with fabulous, mythical elements. In 1965-6 he produced imaginary landscapes of trees or geological structures, rocks and clouds; and also paintings which start from still nature which are dominated by expressionist overtones.
The artist shows a constant interest in telluric geology and the concrete aspects of picture. He densifies pigments by adding sand to them, which confers powerful sculptural effects to his works and reflects his need to control artistic form. Ispir believes that Gherasim has also assimilated a “figurative typology”[xii] with surrealist echoes from Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, Picasso, Victor Brauner and Henry Moore.
In Ispir’s view, Gherasim’s propensity to use “sign and gesture” is expressed within his “proteic” [i.e. changeable] and “urban” cycles.[xiii] Gherasim was preoccupied by what he calls “germinative space” populated with nuclear forms, among which dynamic relationships are established. This is an affective space rather than one of ideas.
In this sense one can talk about Gherasim’s abstract expressionism, although what seems to interest him is not pure gesture but the liminal tension of form composition. After this short expressionist period, the urban cycle illustrates his evolution from pictorial to graphic representation. The artist is seduced by the theme of Megalopolis (Large City), and adopts a conceptualist perspective in relating image to reality in his cycles of cartographies. As another art critic, Alexandra Titu, observed in Gherasim’s more recent monograph:
“The megalopolis is, of course, a space for people, with a complex and aggressive sensory narrativity and overstatement. But its exploitation is not possible in the absence of a mental project of the whole. From this perspective it becomes a symbol of a way of life expressed through the complex pattern of a map. Still, the painter does not reckon without the material concreteness of these places, their material density, on all levels of its diverse materialness that unfolds in space and in time, translated through the substance of the paste in which they are inscribed, with minimum appeal to colour on the outskirts of the chromatic range (white, black, silver) and, rarely, red for the sake of contrast. The images already have the capacity to condense, in the reductionist – meta-sign, an ample stratification/arborescence of significations that articulate meaning. We are facing a profane perspective close to scientific objectivity, of sociological, statistic type – applying codes to the human condition. But this experimental stage at the level of significance and language made room for a perspective that approaches the dimension of human experience in relation to the sacred reference point. This is the agenda of an entire trend that coagulated in the 70s.
The 80s represent a crucial moment for a quest for a Romanian cultural identity, faced with the divergent demands of two universalisms: the populist, proletcultist [proletarian culture][xiv], aesthetic ideology of the communist left, imposed on eastern Europe, and the one that involved casting aside traditional values, originating from the post-modern, post-avantgarde West – a universalism turned into a horizon of novelty….
Marin Gherasim focuses his investigation on the long age of medieval, Byzantine culture and even the age following the fall of Byzantium. It is no accidental option, nor is it prompted by temporal exoticism. It is a period of high Christian culture, of participation to a great civilization on the conscience of the actuality and operationality of transcendental truth, on the conscience of the permanence of manifestations of sacrality in the world.” [xv]
After ‘Megalopolis’, Gherasim characterised his own urban phase as “a scream, an explosion: the attempt to free myself from an obsession”. In this dialogue with Theodore Redlow in 1982, for example, Gherasim explained this need to free himself in more detail:
“I used to express myself in a crude way but I felt that I was leaving unexplored a whole range of data, requests, needs, and experiences, of which I had had intuitions as an expression of what is generally human within myself. I thus wanted to approach through painting and meditation the permanence of humanity and to express it in signs which I would have wished to be emblematic for a vaster human value.” (Ispir, p.21)
The artist experienced a need to re-semantize the theme of creation [to recharge his creative vision with new meaning]. This becomes more precise in the thematic cycle of ‘Apses’:
“The apse imagery is simultaneously a purely pictorial image and at the same time a metaphor, a symbol. It is creation, edification, construction, image, built on a different plan in a different system of reference in a different (i.e. symbolic) system of reference; it is the cave, the mountain, the celestial cupola, the red square at its basis is both gate but also symbol of sacrifice placed at the foundation, it is in another order, the earth itself. The upper semi-cycle is an architectural element – both cupola but also celestial space, light, skies. I believe that the subject offers a fertile semantic opening while remaining essentially in the form of painting… the colour requires functions, symbolical values. It points to “nature”, cosmos (green, blue), moral sacrifice, sacrifice (black, red in one of its hypostases), to the idea of organicity, germination (brown, a certain red), but can become also the sign of a transcendent reality, light (gold, white, golden ochre).” (Ispir, p.24)
Gherasim’s studies of ‘Thrones’ allow this sumptuous monumental theme to emerge whilst his “architecture” acquires an ineffable weightless significance. The relationship between space and object, for example between apse and throne, is revealed as reciprocal and direct as mentioned by the artist himself:
“‘Thrones’ have certainly, in a metaphorical sense, a ‘foundation’, ‘wall’, ‘cupolas’. The interpretation of my images is from below upwards, suggesting ascension. Of course I also construct images which descend, suggesting weight and liquid earth….
…‘Fortresses’ illustrate the construction theme and denote the accumulation of archaeological strata. Like a fragmental truncated pyramid, the fortress highlights the double meaning of image: ascending and descending.” (Ispir, pp.26-7)
In the cycle of ‘Fortresses’, the colours are first opaque and concrete, green and earthy colours, and gradually become more and more transparent, the dominant colour turning towards golden yellow and silvery white, eventually acquiring a diaphanous quality: “fortresses are transformed into light bearing objects.”[xvi]
Ispir’s introduction ends with a section entitled “The reopening of form: from ‘books’ to ‘windows’”. The ‘Book’ cycle (1985) announced a new horizon within the thematic organization of his work. His depiction of books follows a pattern: the book is open and placed in the centre of the painting, but as an object it becomes smaller and smaller, no longer filling in the image, thus becoming a mysterious logo, appearing from nowhere, reverberating above the nothingness from which it emerges, transforming it and giving it consistence and warmth. The book logo has a volume strangely projected in a vacuum and also material density. At other times the book rests on a desk which rises from the bottom of the painting; it is placed on a background which is only sketched enough to point to the reality of participation in a solemn ritual.
“I approach pictorial synthesis with great caution as I am afraid of a too easily won victory. The possible danger is that of a simplicity lacking both expressive power and substance. I intend to get close to that mysterious simplicity loaded with tension as an expressive human essence, a profusion of simplicity.”[xvii]
The abridged English translation is dry and technical, in contrast to the poetry of Gherasim’s own words – about “a profusion of simplicity”, “that mysterious simplicity”. The obviously Christian elements are discussed in terms of spiritual experience and Byzantine tradition, but the exegete does not allow himself to delve into the inherently Christian significance of Gherasim’s hieratic art.
In Gherasim’s most recent retrospective exhibition catalogue, ‘Geometry of Magma’ (2014), he writes:
“Geometry is, in my painting, a metaphor for the illusion that we can freeze ‘the quick moment’, a sign that only in spirit can we prevail over the unrelenting passing, the change. ‘The geometry of magma’ here is a possible generic meaning of my painting”.[xviii] [Written by Dr Alex Popescu, December 2016]
[i] ‘Marin Gherasim’, Monograph (Institutul Cultural Roman: Bucharest, 2007), p.10.
[ii] Marin Gherasim, interviewed at his home in Bucharest, May 2015.
[iv] Quoted in Ispir, p.6. This joint exhibition, a first for both Gherasim and Bernea, was organised on Silvia Radu’s initiative. At that time Radu (slightly older than her two colleagues, and like them, another Tyler Collection artist) was President of the Young Artists Circle in Bucharest and used her influence to organise this remarkable debut at the prestigious ‘Ateneu’ (Athenaeum).
[v] Ispir, p.6.
[viii] Ispir, p.9.
[ix] From the Greek hesychia, referring to the outwardly visible way of life of the hermit monk within the Orthodox tradition - see Appendix II, ‘Short History of Hesychasm in Romania’, in A. Popescu, Petre Tutea: Between Sacrifice and Suicide (Ashgate, 2004), pp.279-85.
[x] ‘Biographical Notes’ in ‘Marin Gherasim’, Monograph, p.27.
[xi] Paul Gherasim died on 3rd August 2016, during this UTAS research fellowship.
[xii] Ispir, p.15.
[xiii] Ispir, p.17 passim.
[xiv] The word ‘Proletcult’ is an abbreviation of the experimental Soviet artistic institution, "Proletarskaya Kultura" (‘proletarian culture’), which arose during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
[xv] Alexandra Titu, ‘The Memory of the Apse’, in ‘Marin Gherasim’, Monograph, pp.16-17.
[xvi] Ispir, p.27.
[xvii] Ispir, p.31.
[xviii] Marin Gherasim: Geometria Magmei [Geometry of Magma], Exhibition Catalogue, December 2014 – February 2015 (H’art Gallery: Bucharest, 2014).
Table Of Contents
Chronology (pp. 32-4)
Selected Bibliography (pp. 35-6)
89 pages of Reproductions
Critical Anthology (quotes in Romanian from other books and art critics following various exhibitions, pp. 37-51)
List of Illustrations (pp. 52-3)
English translation: Marin Gherasim and the Emblematic Space of Painting (pp. 54-6)
French Translation (pp. 57-9)
“For Geoffrey – to remember our art
with love Corneliu