Backyard Resistance: Art as Savoir-Vivre

Since the artist could not participate in social life without paying an artistic tribute to Ceauşescu and Elena, the artist had to assume a new sort of individualism: the – apartment – backyard – individualism – of – a – terrified –self. One had to understand that one was a prisoner of a generalised panoptikon, which was strict at the centre and sleepier on the margins (the official historians do not agree with that!). On these margins, real life/art was sporadically possible. Was this resistance or normality?

Who wishes to retrospectively become a hero? Does she/he? My characters don’t seem to wish that. They simply confess their normality within an abnormal environment. And these are my stories that I want to tell, stories I cannot tell to everybody (they are certainly not for art history “from above”).

The state apparatus asked in an official way its artists to refrain themselves from representing any “obscure”, “anti-human”, “mystical”, “ugly or depressive”, “unclear and tenebrous” or “sexual or naked” bourgeoisie. At the same time art had to reflect optimism, conviction and it had to be easily recognisable. How about a huge piece of pork? Is this optimistic enough and easily recognisable? Perhaps it is but an official in charge of art in the late 70’s did not approve that such a painting could be sold in the kitschy shop Consignaţia. I imagine him saying: Comrade Artist, what are you trying to say with this painting? Do you want to say that there is no meat in butchers? Is that it? Ha, ha I got it…You thought I was brainless, isn’t it?

Ion Grigorescu, Washing my Body,Performance, 1979
(Ion Grigorescu’s private collection)

“The artist of the communist regime was pale of hunger, like the majority of the population”. This conclusion is that type of excuse too often used by the beloved artists of Ceauşescu’s era. They struggle to convince us: What is the difference between a portrait and ‘homage’ when you are starving? I’m a portraitist. Is it a crime to paint in order to survive? Well, maybe not. But when you “survive” drinking whisky or Pepsi and driving a Fiat in communism, it means that you are really a “great artist”, the kind of specialist who can portray the “everlasting young and beautiful Ceauşescu and Elena.”  Even the “average” artist, who was not too skilled in paying homage, was still in a privileged position in the socialist society. Let’s say that the artist had the possibility of choosing whether he/she wanted to be a courtier or not, even if this dichotomy is, of course, an excessive simplification. In this sense, and in many others, the artist was afforded a freedom that was not available for those in other social categories.


He was a sort of “average” from below. That type of lunatic detested by communists who established a set of procedures for dealing with human realities in painting and photography, which made him for more than three decades a paradigmatic image of the human condition under political oppression. Still, some of his artistic attempts were never exhibited. They lie under dust in his flat.

I asked him why his apartment-studio (this eastern European duck-rabbit of poverty) was jam-packed with gargantuan photographs covered with oil and dated from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. “Because I like reality as it is and I don’t want to impose a style on the real.” After this he added, “It was a general conception under communism, according to which the medium of painting was very different from the medium of photography…In painting the artist has a role, has a mission because she or he transforms reality. Reality is not “average” because art has a high scope in intervening in reality. In this interpretation, reality becomes “more real”. In painting, the artist strives to find his own territory. In the case of photography, the author is pulverized. Or in other words the photography blows up the author. In a communist lecture, photography mixed with painting is “ideologically dangerous” because a document (the photography) is distorted by the intervention of the artist’s hand.

Accessible mostly for private gatherings, Grigorescu’s movies from the 70’s made him appear ideologically dubious in the eyes of authorities. Romanian art criticism mentions Grigorescu’s anti-regime productions, such as Dialogue with Comrade Ceauşescu, Masculine/Feminine and only some photographs. So little is known about his Cultural Revolution and many other collages. They are not so much against the regime directly. They rather document the savoir-vivre under oppression. Among other more or less popular figures of Romanian modern art, Grigorescu tried to avoid, to surpass, to mislead and sometimes to ignore the censorship requirements. The “relationship” between art and censorship was heavily distorted. From time to time, art tried to trick censorship by using some aesthetic mechanisms through which a subversive image appeared as totally “inoffensive.”

Ion Grigorescu, Cultural Rrevolution, collage, July 1971
(This image is a photo with the artist’s TV screen, representing insects. The text says: “on TV – an invasion of insects. An allusion to the cultural revolution, or the invasion of the territory?” (Ion Grigorescu’s private collection)

In 1970, Ion Grigorescu found a few old family photos (very small photos representing scenes of leisure) and decided to enlarge them (2×2 m).  He exhibited one of them at the Friedrich Schiller Culture House, the German Cultural Centre in Bucharest, and recognized the fact that this event had only taken place because Ms. Pfaiffer (the person responsible for exhibitions in the 70’s in the German Cultural Centre) agreed to exhibit something that was not really connected to the appropriate images of the working class. In the communist period, to exhibit Macro-Photography (a very common artistic practice nowadays) was an element of bizarre novelty, not because of its huge dimensions, but because of their fear of the “supra-dimensional.” In fact, the regime didn’t like it and nor did the art-going public: in their collective mentality, these enormous photos didn’t go with the red armchairs from living rooms. 

Ion Grigorescu, My Mother and my Elder Brothers, 1977
This is a very big photo (2×2,5 m) and represents the artist’s mother and brothers in Sunday’s atmosphere on a field with flowers. The photo was covered by Grigorescu with oil(source: Ion Grigorescu’s private collection)

So, Ion Grigorescu exhibited macro-photography in The Art’s House (Bucharest). The artist explained that in 1974 it was still possible to exhibit macro-photography even if that art was regarded as something uncanny.

He refreshes my memory regarding the moment of controversy in art during Ceauşescu’s rule.  It emerged in 1975 with the exhibition entitled Art and History. The main critique of the exhibition was addressed by the National Committee for Art and went like this: “Comrades, these ancestors (Romanian historical figures such as Steven the Great, Vlad Ţepeş, Mircea the Old, etc.) are too sad and too ugly in a way… Mircea Spataru’s sculpture of Steven the Great without hands is unconceivable. Something has to be done in this sense… There is too much ugliness, loneliness, and strangeness in this exhibition. The Party cannot accept it as art”. 


A special kind of survival through artistic “(self) therapy” is Bertalan’s authentic amazement, when he encounters an everyday thing – a human destiny, a slice of sky, a plant, or a landscape. This survival of inadaptability was classified as insanity. Even if his art is close to the limit of mental illness, it is still for the large part uncontaminated by socialist clichés and it inspires respect.

His work is difficult to recuperate for art history because his art works are chronicles about himself. A drawing-diary made in 1977 is entitled Self-Therapy. He used to combine the drawings with confessions in art works, which were half diary and half drawing. In one of them he wrote: “Every morning I have to finish a drawing in order to cure myself. They want to transform our spirits into slaves. They watch me all day long”.

There is no evidence according to which the Securitate was really spying on the artist, but in his mind and work this danger was ubiquitous. The threat was real, as real as the possibility of being watched. Many times the artist said “look at these holes” (showing the wooden fence that separated his yard from the unknown and hostile neighbours), “they spy on me through these holes”. He thought that “they” (the Securitate) were undercover as tractor drivers and forest workers, and they stopped him from drawing even in the mountains, in Raşinari.

In 1960, Bertalan started contesting the state-sponsored Socialist Realism by abandoning any representation of the figure. In the 60’s and 70’s, he combined visual interpretations of natural phenomena with his own lifestyle. His paintings speak about mechanisms of alienation. As a kind of ritual, he assists the fate of a plant from its creation to its death.
Ştefan Bertalan applied visual quotations marks on Ceauşescu’s portrait and achieved a new portrait (in fact, a caricature of Ceauşescu’s portrait). In this way the artist commented on the first image in which the communist leader was represented as a king (with the sceptre). Bertalan’s intervention appears as a portraiture of Ceauşescu’s portrait.

Bertalan, The portrait


Geta Brătescu is one of Grigorescu’s old friends. She confesses that all her life she has lived surrounded by objects because she loves objects and what they represent. One of her beloved objects is the object-book entitled Voici Ton Maitre-Thonet (the end of the 70’s). As the artist said, “Sir Thonet and Lady Olivier… Their escort was immediately formed of small objects that carry within the human spirit and the elegance of the years before the wars, the time of my parents”. As far as I could see, the most interesting aspect of her work is the creation of a personal mythology within the boundaries of the house and the openness to the imaginary possibilities. This work can be considered a part of what the artist called “my imaginary universe”.

In Self-Portrait toward White the first sequence represents the artist’s face as it was immortalized in an average photograph. The artist’s face is gradually changed in the other six sequences, little by little becoming covered by nylon. In the last one, the suffocated face becomes white. When I asked her whether the officials of the regimes understood her art and enjoyed it, she answered, “Well, as I told you, my actions in art were like a ‘serious game’ mirroring the very essence of life. This playful character of my art reflected the fabulous mental world in which I could develop my personal mythologies…Perhaps, using what I called ‘the visual Aesopian language’ I passed as a totally innocent artist…Maybe I was…”

I don’t know exactly what the meaning of this art from below was, but I do know what its function was: it was a space for the exercise of freedom and normality in the most abnormal place in Europe. To be able to exercise the normality you had to know how. You had to know how to live normally, to learn the art of know how.


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