SUMMER IN ROMANIA
“Being the impressions of three Australians visiting Romania”.
[Transcribed from a copy of a report in three parts by artist, William Edwin Pidgeon; writer, Frank Hardy (part missing); and actor, Pat O’Shaughnessy.]
PART ONE – AN ARTIST’S IMPRESSIONS
Two girls who met me at the airport said it was a Romanian “Indian Summer”.
The airfield boundaries simmered and jingled in a brown haze of Australian like heat, and apart from the presence of the fancy buildings and the strange rapid speech, I could have been back home.
A re-emergence of summer had stretched right back over Europe-perhaps had heated the Hungarians into their disastrous autumn.
Beneath the photographically watchful eyes of Stalin and Gheorghiu Dej, my hostesses introduced themselves with the ease and grace which, I found later, was part of the charm of the Rumanians. Somehow they reflected this smoothness of the boulevarded approach of the city to come.
It was a nice city from the air-not over big-ringed by lakes and an easy countryside. Comfortable looking too.
But what can one see from 1000 m of the lives, aspirations, frustrations and despairs of a million people below?
Sleek, efficient Mrs Suteu, responsible for the care of English-speaking visitors, and young Stefanie Rotaru, with Italian Madonna eyes, did their best to explain.
Bucharest, founded on the site of a Roman Fortress, has had a long and chequered history, overrun often by Turkish, Austrian, German and Russian invaders.
Many armies, sweeping into Romania, carrying off the produce of its soil; but the people remaining; proud of their distant Roman connections; speaking a Latin language; maintaining their distinctive quality; an isolated group now associated with others of alien tongue in a common endeavour to achieve some measure of the theoretically perfect state of socialist welfare.
Down the broad tree-lined streets, through the swelling autumn leaves, past the showpiece parks, past the patient women sweepers, and squashing over the mongrel chestnuts which an occasional stooping figure is gathering for pig food. Past the Russian Memorial, its beds ablaze with red salvia, threading through the once ritzy embassy quarters, and down a long and narrow shopping street to the Athenee Palace Hotel which sits on the end of the square that fronts the ex-royal palace. The Athenee, main accommodating house for foreign visitors; in prewar days the stomping ground of elegant women, diplomats, officers and big commercial men; now a bedlam of tongues, skilfully unscrambled by the young interpreters. It is as though one were living under the clock in the Central Railway Station. It is all talk, meetings and appointments-interminable comings and goings. Rough red wines, beer, the inevitable tzuica (plum brandy) and the favourite dry white wine-a hock drunk with mineral water-and food! Mountains of food, at prices well beyond the average pocket. Tiny national flags brighten the tables, identifying this group as Bulgarians, that as Koreans, another as Swedes, there are Italians, and here Australians. Footballers, union delegates, poets, marksmen, painters and agriculturalists, anything you like, some on goodwill missions, others on jours of critical investigation, some merely competitive sportsmen from neighbouring Communist states, but all guests of the Romanian government which seeks to extend its relations with foreign countries.
I never had time to see the inside Bucharest. What lay behind the diverse facades, those plastered fillers that sat so discreetly behind the fading leaves. Many must have been built since 1918, for the population was then only 350,000. French culture dominated the city, influencing much of the domestic architecture with its delegates. The hierarchy appear to reside in the more well kept of these homes, while others with a tired look, are rumoured out to those of more humble status. No one seems interested in the maintenance of these often charming lodgings, for revolutionaries societies are inordinately proud of, and busy with, their latest and greatest projects. Over occupied mansions are falling apart at the corners, while the interiors of full of inhabitants who are seething with dialectical ideas on how to build the future.
Their enthusiasm is tremendous, and is apparently projected completely outward in terms of bigger and better edifices for the glory of the socialist state. The visitor is whisked off to the barren acres, whereon more and more monotonously designed workers’ flats in varying states of construction rise out of the ground like an overnight crop of our own seaside flats. But the new amenities are there-more light, better plumbing, more playgrounds, more space.
Whole suburb-the 23rd August suburb, brought into being as a celebration of the National Liberation Day (August 23 is the national holiday of the Rumanians. On that date the whole country celebrates the anniversary of the day in 1944, when the Romanian Communist Party led the outbreak of insurrection against the Germans). Everything is new and wonderful and breathtaking for the people, because it has been built by the people for the people.
The 23rd August Open-Air Theatre, which I would have liked to have seen in operation, but did not-a beautiful concrete shell, with a neo-Grecian concrete stage beneath a lovely autumn night. It is in projects like this that one senses the urge for the full life. People with scarcely a pants to their suit clamouring for, and getting, riches in the simplicities of art. Occupying considerably less space than a Drive in Movie, the theatre is quite elemental ineffective design (see illustration [location unknown]).
In a large recreation ground in front of the entrance to the theatre the more active and intrepid of the 23rd of Augustians can devote themselves to soccer, high jumps and sundry other death-defying sports. A steel tower 80 metres high caters for those who are too rugged for the Greek chorus. Just for fun one can climb up this glorious symbol and leap therefrom to the ground-with the aid of a small parachute, if you are so inclined. Fortunately, my interpreter Stefanie, was not an enthusiast. Behind all this the 23rd August Steelworks belches fourth flame for the future.
Also included in this terribly healthy suburb is the 23rd August Stadium. An enormous bowl, bulldozed out of the ground; a concrete saucer seating 100,000 people around a standard Olympic field.
But Bucharest’s real pride and joy is the Scinteia House Printing Centre, situated by the lovely Lake Herastrau at the edge of the city. Set in 98 acres of formally laid out parkland, this huge building, designed in typically Russian neoclassical style, is 220 yards in length and depth, and culminates in a tower 327 feet high. The central block accommodates the Cultural Administration offices and the literary workers. The wings, stretching to each side and behind, how’s the machinery which produces practically all Rumania’s newspapers, educational publications and cultural and scientific books. Begun in 1950, Scinteia had one rotary newspaper press in operation by 1951. By 1953 twelve presses were producing, on the average 2,500,000 newspapers a day. The building was completely finished 23rd August Day 1956. Daily production also includes 50,000 magazines and 80,000 to 100,000 books. The floorspace is vast, allowing more than ample clearance for all machines and the whole place is extremely clean; in fact, the working conditions could not be bettered. There is a concert hall, library, club, canteen and so on.
When you leave you sign the Visitors Book saying how fine it is (which it is), you feel that it’s all happened before; this tagging round on some Good Fellowship excursion, through a new steelworks or the latest in synthetic biscuit factories.
Massive buildings, showpieces, impressive portents of the future they may be-but I liked better to wander alone early in the morning round the more ordinary parts of the city and to watch its life begin.
Down past the ex-Royal Palace, unimpressive and dead looking in the cool autumn mist, yet alive within, for it houses now the capital’s Art Gallery, with its superb El Grecos and carefully roped off Rembrandts.
Down to the bottom end of the town, passing some womenfolk queued up for short supplies. Round by the old massive Palace of Justice, a turn to bring you down by the river, the Domboditza, of which it is said, “he who drinks of the waters comes to drink again”. Not that one can imagine accepting any part of this now scruffy stream which seems to disappear beneath the bustling square, perhaps to re-appear somewhere further on in an even sadder state. Up the ancient hill to arrive at the heart of the old civic centre, and a short way on, the barracks alongside as your footsteps clatter over the cobbled streets, through which the laden tram cars run down to the city and a new day.
Back over the river, dawdling to watch the little stands offering their freshly cooked pastries and sweets. Through a fine park its drives and footways circling the lake, the skiffs quietly moored and the statues gleaming in the early light. Through a market square to which the outside peasants have brought, in their quaint carts, the daily offering of vegetables and fowl.
A cold snap has stampeded the proletariat into doing up their shirt collars, and an amazing collection of headwear comforts the hitherto hatless heads. Caps, berets, battered felts, and occasional homberg, and assorted styles in strakan bob up and down the streets. Now looming up a railway station to dole and dreary to be associated with the romance, fictional and otherwise of the Orient Express. It IS Bucharest Station and London is a whole continent off.
Later you realise you have got yourself bushed, for maps of the city seem to be unobtainable, and in the quiet residential area no recognisable landmark is in sight. It is impossible to ask where you are, or the way back. Nothing for it but to follow a tramline and hope it leads you to, and not from, the city itself. It is a lucky day and a couple of miles more place you nicely on the spot and just in time for breakfast at the pub. Such pleasant and completely unrestricted wandering sets you up in the receptive mood for the conducted round that starts at nine.
Museums, art galleries, Pioneers palaces, Houses of Creation-everything that is visible and tangible evidence of economic emergence. The sensing of it all as a national possession, makes the people feel that the construction, or whatever it is, is in itself unique, whereas it is the relationship of the thing to society, that is unique. Rumanians are building big-but so is every other country in the world. What is of real interest is the hearts and minds of the men and women; strange ways, remaining strange, because there is no easy communication with them; for even the most willing interpreter, as I had, leaves you with but half a tongue. You are seated down to a great deal of bones from which the meaty subtleties are gone before you start.
But you can sense the enthusiasm. Bookshops jammed with paper backed volumes on every cultural and technical subject. Foreign language books in English, French, German and Russian-above all Russian-the secondary educational language-all the scientific works copied straight from the Soviet presses. It is somehow moving to see these, until recently, comparative illiterate people taking such huge gulps of knowledge-it is a banquet, and all are feasting.
It was very pleasant to be driven 200 miles or more up country. Ute, the chauffeur, was twenty-three, Stefania twenty-one, so in good spirits, I stripped a few years and the picnic atmosphere was not altogether extinguished. At my least request we would pull up, either to paddle in the oil wells of Ploesti, contemplate the tobacco crops near Sibui, take a photo of Aiud, or scramble off the road near Sebes to gather the wild small pears which a passing peasant couple happily observed were, “Pere padurete pentru soacre” (wild pears for the mother in law). How right they were. But the chicken and ham and beer by a stream in the Carpathians had more than made up for that. In the night the high shrill notes of the locomotives bounced back and forth between the mountains until they slowly echo off and join the silence of the snow and pines.
In Orasul Stalin dear Ute, in our absence, had squeezed a mudguard, God knows against what other car. For cars were few and far between as the girl and I found out when we looked for him as we passed down the long dark street that had neither turning nor offshoot for a mile and whose houses were shuttered against the night and the dark silhouettes which moved in and file down the highway and who were the lifeblood and hope of the radiant town of Stalin to come. From the hills came this sweep of the chill winds bearing with them from the railway yards the grunts of the socialist pigs on the way to the proletarian ham. And still no Ute. But he turned up later, car and all, not a bump to be seen.
My mica mamitza (little mother-I had to call her that because I could hardly eat or drink without her help) was somewhat sour-but, being young, she forgot quickly when dear old Ute later at the Hotel dinner offered her his latest in the dancing line. Greatly emboldened, I asked a Hungarian lass for a dance. Beyond the marble floor, in the more reticent cubicles, sat the English ambassador, ginger-ish and impenetrable. I enjoyed my dance but neither of us could make any sense of my execrable pidgin German. But it made her laugh.
Transylvania-I suppose everybody has licked their lips in Ruritanian contemplation of princes and swarthy knights, of Draculas, werewolves, vampires and crosses of oak.
Transylvania-musical comedy-“the Gypsy Baron” and all that, perhaps true in the far off; but on to Cluj the road cuts through a plateau as commonplace as the Monaro complacently rolling its brown ancient plains against the Australian Alps.
And not a fence to be seen. All the land so carefully gone over and worked through the centuries that each square foot is recognisable, and forever placed in its relationship with its neighbour stop whole families of peasants stop of their timeless four wheeled carts, drawn by a pair of oxen, or more expensive horses, streaming out of the frequent hamlets, towards their known and inviolate plot, marked only by the mutually recognised boundaries invisible in the waiting soil. Here the cart rests, and the oxen go to the plough, the man to his furrows and the women to their cutting and sowing. All day in the fields with a break for the midday meal and a pull at the painted clay water pitchers calling in the shade of the wagon. At dusk, a heel to toe stream back to the village, the younger people exchanging carts-holding hands.
Compactly built villages reflect the native love of colour. Long continuous plastered walls, broken by the courtyard entrances arching over the sturdy wooden doors, are reminders of the days of fortification was more than a picturesque design. The individual residences gaily painted in pinks, ochres, greys, whites and ultramarine.
And the shepherds; older than revolution and war, dressed as you fondly hoped they would be. In tight white trousers, white aprons, embroidered waistcoats and sheepskin cloaks, they shout and batter the sheep (so many of them the black and long-haired dreams of fairy tales), off the road before the approach of the imperious car.
The small flock of bleating animals, three belonging to one of the peasants in the village, five belonging to another, to others, one, four, two or six, all slowly eating their way to the higher pastures with the community shepherd their guide and protector as in Biblical days. In the fenceless pastures they must be watched, in the mountains there are wolves, so their shepherd is always with them, and with him his flute and his folksongs.
The Rumanians are energetic in keeping their folk music vital and alive. Everything possible is being done to record and print extent tunes from every province in the country, and much encouragement is given to the emergence of new themes of folk song. Ballads like “The Song of the Tractor” or “The Light (electric) Has Come” extoll the symbols of the new life in the same way as other generations honoured the images significant to them.
The music which is collected by the Folklore Institute could nominally be divided into three categories:
- Cantice Batrineste — historical or legendary ballads
- Doine — love songs and elegies
- Hore — lively lyrics and dances
The three principal dance forms being:
- Batuta — an ancient national dance performed by men only
- Pe-Picior — in which each man has from 2 to 5 partners
- Hora — a round dance with swaying rhythmic movement embodying varying steps and tempo.
From Leon Feraru’s “Development of Romanian Poetry”, we learn that the doina is the lyric poetry of the Romanian peasantry, and expressed almost all emotions, but is usually offered as a song of longing, or sorrow. By some strange convention, perhaps derived from the peasant’s love of nature, or some primitive form of nature worship, the doina usually begins with the words “A green lead of a … (Rose, oak, or some other flour or tree)”.
“The doina tells of need, grief, textile and death. It takes the shape of threat against oppression, it celebrates wine and carousel, contemplates and worships the Creation. And persistently it intones love. The doina follows the peasant, step-by-step, from infancy until his end — from lullaby to elegy”.
Longing is the grand theme. An unknown author says, “Longing is the invention of the Devil. Longing torments the soul, clings to the soul like a rambler and puts the heart on fire.” The sign is equally disturbing: “I have side so much,” laments one doina, “I have side so hard, that my heart pains me, my soul burns. I have side so much that the Lord became angry, and not it no longer snows, it no longer rains and no longer falls the dew.”
There now exists a considerable number of popular folk music orchestras, the most famous being the Barbu Lautaru ensemble (lautari meaning village fiddlers). This group was formed some years ago for the purpose of experimenting with the further progression of folk music, which to these people, is a living art, capable of greater expression and expansion. These groups present airs from the most remote areas and generally help to keep the Rumanians keenly aware of their own rich musical heritage, as against the pop and bepop of overseas infiltration. The peasants are being taught to make their flutes and suchlike instruments in a standard pitch-they are taught ensemble work, and the tutors in turn, learn from the peasants who are often extremely individualistic in their musicianship. It is, in fact, a two scheme of education.
In the Athenee Concert Hall I heard the Barbu Lautaru group give a most exciting two hours concert, playing the whole time with seemingly inexhaustible vehemence. Forty-five musicians-tarragots-all playing in ruthless fury. The emotion flowing in controlled and canalised perfection-faster and faster and faster to an atomic cessation. The great seething vibrance cut dead, with the precision of a guillotine, by the downbeat of conductor Budisteanu’s baton. Soloists were many who had been proclaimed laureates of their craft at different musical festivals, the most popular being Maria Tanase, a slender good-looking girl who sang Gypsy songs with passion. The great cries of “Bis! Bis! Bis!” (which means encore) were ignored only by sheer physical exhaustion.
This is not intellectual music. The innumerable dances and laments that poor fourth from all the provinces of Romania come from the heart the erstwhile illiterate peasant. His grief, his Geordie, his dancing, and his history are all put to music, and passed on in the most indelible way father to son, and from mother to daughter. Music without the complications of intellectually constructed form. As elemental as the earth, and the people who grew and died on it.
More serious music is not neglected. At the concert Hall I heard a visiting Yugoslav conductor give a combined classical and modern performance; and a few days later, a chamber music recital led by a leading Italian artist.
Apart from the two hot months August and September, the opera houses in Bucharest and the bigger provincial towns are open every night to full houses. Prices are not low, although there are concession nights for youth and factory worker groups. The Opera and Ballet Theatre of the Romanian People’s Republic in Bucharest was built in a few months for the World Youth Festival of 1953. Much involuntary labour was incorporated in the building. The interior is most comfortable, and largely elegant with its sweeping stairways and marbled paved foyers and bars.
Being largely of Latin descent the Rumanians are quite at home with the emotionalism of the Italian Opera. I had the good fortune to see performances of Aida and Rigoletto, but missed seeing any of the works of the Russian composers.
Presentation of both these works was on spectacular and traditional lines. There was none of that portable stage ware one associates with touring opera companies. Egyptian gods (albeit papier-mâché), so tall their heads were lost in the heights of the stage, really moulded gates, columns, stairways and triumphal arches, and lavish costuming contribute to the sumptuousness of the production. I am not qualified to add that the music and singing was on the same plane. Possibly not. And almost nightly change of program over ten months of the year would, I imagine tax the resources of the greatest of artists.
As most of these operas and concerts begin about 7:30 p.m., and you cannot have your dinner at the hotel before 8:30 p.m., you are often distracted by the thoughts of food. But at 10:30 p.m. the artistry is over and the eating begins. The Athenee Palace Hotel Orchestra plays tirelessly-folk songs, Viennese waltzes, German Polkas, English ballads, and even an occasional American hit-sad to say the musicians confessed complete ignorance of Waltzing Matilda-but if I could have hummed the tune with any assurance at all, I am sure they would have played it.
Confronted with a lavish menu, and surrounded by gargantuan eaters, you give due consideration to the right dish. There is no hurry, for the dining room will not be closed until 2:30 a.m.. Lots of people are fond of your interpreter, and you are not altogether isolated because of your linguistic disabilities.
I have long wondered at the curious differences in prices on the menu. Not that it matters much anyway, because it is all on the house so to speak, and if you and your interpreter invite guests to join you, they too, are on the house. It is months now since I started to marvel at this menu, and I have not yet ceased.
Before me is a copy which quotes (as part of the cold buff a preceding the main courses) Sardines a L’huille Jugoslave — 22.50 Lei-the dearest dish in the place. Sardines, mark you!
Taking the Lei as a unit we get the following comparisons:
Salade cavaire carpe is only 5.40, and you get more than you can eat-very good too, even if it is not the high and mighty sturgeon.
3.50 for 100 grams of lemon when it is only 5.85 for the best part of ½ pound of ham. And 5.40 for a great plateful of wonderful smoked pork. 7.50 for an omelette aux fines herbes, and for a mere 9.40 a whacking huge plate of roast pork, or 11.80 for half a chicken; 11.40 for vol-au-vent financiere.
Only 1.55 for pickled whole capsicums, 1.25 for cucumber with a dressing: that 7.40 four filtered coffee. But then coffee is a distant import and is paid for in a hard currency market.
So you can see not too many Rumanians eat out of their own purse in this establishment-especially when they know that one meal will set them back the best part of a week’s wages. But it is no worse than eating at the Ritz.
Speaking of prices, I suppose everyone likes to know what people behind the Iron Curtain can buy with the money they earn. It is extremely difficult for a stranger to form any idea of what the standards of living are. By and large the Rumanians are not well dressed. They spend a lot of money on food because they have the great appetite. Their rents are fixed at a low normal rate of 5 – 6% of their weekly income. With the unskilled worker’s wage at 600 Lei a month, the figures I quote from shop windows in the provincial town of Cluj may give you some idea of what he can do with his earnings.
||500 – 1000
||120 – 230
||400 – 800
||20 – 60
||20 – 90
||140 – 400
|Cabbage (about 2 pounds)
Bicycle 860 Lei
Motorbike (imported) 16,000 Lei
(FOOTNOTE – on the foreign exchange market the Lei is held at about ¼ to 1/6 Australian this may not be a real value rate for no foreigner could exist for a week paying on this basis)
As an artist I was primarily interested in the conditions and functions of the artist in a socialist state.
It is apparent that given the necessary ability, and the willingness to accept theory of socialist art, he is very well off indeed. In fact, he enjoys, relative to his society a much more exalted position in the social scale than does his counterpart in the Western world.
As a unit of promulgation of socialist consciousness he has special privileges and responsibilities of which I will speak later. Like all other workers, he belongs to the Union, in his case, The Plastic Arts Union, which looks after his social welfare, supervisors and commissions his work.
The youth who desire to become artists are selected from the final school grade, and are admitted to the Institute of Plastic Arts where they are given an allowance during thorough six-year course of training which lies ahead.
The Institute in Bucharest, which teaches hundreds of students (among them some Chinese and English), places a great emphasis on draughtsmanship in the academic manner. This is understandable, as art as officially conceived in Romania, as a tutorial aim, and is to be clearly understood by the populace. Drawing is emphasised in pencil and charcoal, pen and ink, in lithography, wood engraving and etching.
Sculpture, or more precisely, modelling in clay, dominates the final year of the course. Ceramics and allied arts are taught to a high standard. The quality of painting was generally disappointing. During the sixth year the student is fully supported before his examination for graduation into the Artists’ Union. After graduation he is under no direction for two or three months, during which time he may go where ever he chooses (still under full allowance) to gather material and ideas for the commencement of his career.
Those students whose aptitude is not considered worthy of continual encouragement by the Union may apply to some other union admission to its particular craft. Failures at graduation may apply for enrolment in allied artistic cooperatives in which a measure of artistic feeling is combined with craftsmanship-the Artisan trades, such as stonemasonry, woodcarving, decoration, etc.
To get back to our young artist.
If he has an idea for a painting, or a series of sketches he approaches the Artists’ Union suggests his ideas and is well received, obtains a loan from the Union to enable him to complete his project.
Having completed his work, he submits it to a committee appointed by the Union, and if approved of, is purchased, and a deduction is made in respect of the loan advanced.
If he should happen to sell his work to an individual, or some unattached co-operative, he still repays the Artists’ Union the sum advanced
If he is on the ball, our artist is now established.
Usually sells his work through the Union, and its local committees; much as if he were to sell through, the commission by, the various selection boards of societies of artists which exist in Australia of course there is nothing to stop him selling his work to individuals, from what little I could see, I doubt whether any individuals were either willing, or economically capable of doing so.
The fundamental patron is the State-or, if you like, the Unions, and other bodies associated with the apparatus collective management. From here we move into the consideration of what all this works out in terms of the living wage.
In Romania, all major buildings and projects, in, or under planned, production are obliged to allocate a certain percentage (I was informed by a sculptor it was equivalent to a minimum of 10 shillings per £1000) of the total cost to the Plastic Arts Fund, which discusses the artistic problems involved, how they should be distributed, and to which artist or artists. Unfortunately I neglected to ask whether these allocations were made on a competitive, or roster basis.
This is undoubtedly constant and practical support from artists from governmental levels.
The Plastic Union also stages exhibitions (the works in which are for sale), encourages discussions between artists and laymen, and generally makes every attempt to synthesise their often opposed points of view.
To give a better idea of how successful artists may become, I quote a few figures from Mr Maxy, Director of the Bucharest Art Gallery, and well-established artist.
As the average wage for an unskilled labourer would be the vicinity of 600 Lei a month, and for a skilled worker, such as a typesetter, 1000 Lei a month, Mr Maxy’s figures seemed to me to suggest the height of affluence. Nevertheless, they received corroboration in other parts of the country so I suppose it does apply to the top man, at least.
An established artist, having made an approved suggestion to the Artists’ Union, will receive 2000 – 3000 Lei a month during the period of his idea’s incubation and appearance.
If his production is satisfactory to the Artists’ Union (which virtually means that it will be accepted by the State), he will be paid anything from 15,000 – 20,000 Lei for and heroic historical picture or 8,000 – 15,00 for a significant landscape.
It is possible for him to earn as much as 40,000 Lei for a grandiose project, or even to name his own fee for what he submits. Mr Virgil Fulicea of Cluj, is one of those who reap the benefits of these arrangements. A sculptor strong, fluent and acceptable concepts, he had in his studio a major work of three peasant girls from the Fagaras region wearing costumes that survive from the Daccian (Roman) days vigourous and optimistic in design, this over life-size work was worth, in the plaster cast, 35,000 Lei to him. It represented six months work and the State pays for and arranges the bronze casting of it. One could hardly grumble at that.
He told me that for the big works it was usually he, one day or month, so to speak, and someone else, the next.
Of course, he does not get this fee all the time. I understand there are certain fixed prices-minimum, average and maximum and that juries consider the necessity, appropriateness and value of the ideas submitted.
On top of all this the living and creative conditions of the artist are given special consideration, for it is the accepted thing in this society that the artist should be spared all possible distractions.
If the artist’s work and ideas are well received he may be allocated special quarters in one of the numerous Houses of Creation, which resemble private hotels housing a community of interests. He is given accommodation, congenial working quarters, and dining and assembly facilities.
I visited two such establishments in Bucharest.
Firstly, the Magosoaia Palace which had been taken over for sculptors, although at the time I saw it, it was not completely ready for occupation. The beautiful palace, built byBrancoveanu in 1724, is small gracefully designed and overlooks formal gardens which lead down to the river lined with rushes alive with the sunlight and the wind.
The architecture with its warm bricks and slender pillars has a Muslim touch, probably influenced by the Turks who dominated the country from many generations. Byzantine gold mosaics paves the main foyer where now the proletarian artist treads and meditates.
House of Creation number two was a much more modest affair, set in a nice clump of trees in the best residential area of the town itself, and is the workplace of painters and top sculptors, Medres and Baraski. Monstera Deliciosa was set in pots around the veranda facing the lawns.
Heroes of Romanian history were lying dismembered in the studios. A plaster head of Balcescu, two feet six from the neck up, lies alongside an equally gargantuan shin and foot of Eminescu. All these bits and pieces awaiting dispatch to the foundry, from whence, assembled and in bronze, they will brave the elements in noble and optimistic city squares.
Newspaper artists working for the daily press get 500 – 600 Lei for each cartoon that appears. They are not on the staff, and are a body of freelance men who make themselves available at extra short notice, like their colleagues anywhere else in the world. So we see that even three or four drawings of week puts these men in the upper crust bracket.
I did not have time to find out how the Artisans, like ceramic workers, woodcarvers, wrought iron workers, embroiderers and the like were paid, but their productions had the technical excellence, and were quite as skilful in design as those of the traditional folklore masters.
I attended the opening of the Biennial Exhibition of Romanian Decorative Art in a new modern Gallery in Bucharest. 280 artists had sent in over 2000 exhibits, most of which were on show, and extremely well done in a form of modernised traditionalism.
The exhibition’s sponsors were the Ministry for Culture, the Union of Plastic Arts, the Ministry for Light Industry, and the Artisan’s Cooperatives. In his official speech Mr Mac Constantinescu sculptor, and Professor of Decorative Art, made the following points.
“Romanian art faces now social aspects of life, and if there are many difficulties to be contended with, it is for us to find a way to surmount them.
There is no doubt there are still great problems, but if all creative forces are stimulated, the artist, or Artisan, knows that in overcoming them he will be able to do something for society, and will be aware of the importance of his work in the decorative ensemble.
If we fight for the development of artistic personality and creative imagination, our decorative arts will be a great success in our days.
Experiments and innovations in the technical and conceptual points of view, which are presented at this exhibition are, and must be, welcome. The task of the exhibition is to submit the exhibits to the critical appreciation of the public. Only thus are we able to choose or select the most worthy from the exhibition, and only thus can we progress.”
I think that within these few remarks one finds the central problem of social start. Or, to be more explicit, the essential contradiction in Socialist realism which has not yet been synthesised. On the one hand we have the demand for “experiments and innovations from the technical and conceptual points of view,” on the other, that these experiments and innovations the only worthy when accepted by the public.
This is a fine and forward-looking thought inferring the best of all possible publics. But no one could seriously dispute the insufficiency of the general public as the final arbiters of what is, and what is not, valid in art at the immediate time of its production. The public has always been a generation behind in the appreciation of the great revolutionaries in any of the arts. Can one imagine how a Cézanne would fare under the critical direction of the masses? Genius is inevitably ahead of contemporary thought and cannot be conditioned by. That genius is rare, so it doesn’t matter, is beside the point. Even the talented artist must have the right to experiment in terms of vision beyond the immediate comprehension of the public.
No doubt a free Socialist art is possible. But there is little evidence that socialism has yet brought forth anything of universal significance in the plastic arts. It is possible to sympathise with the aspirations of socialism yet be completely unmoved by its artistic lecturings. I feel that the Rumanians, and artistic race, are somewhat ware of this, although at the present stage of their social development they are overburdened with official Soviet dogma on such matters. In theory the Rumanians are free to paint in any manner they choose so long as they are sincere and passionate in their interpretation of life (Mr Mircea Deac, who is Director of the Fine Arts Department, a member of The Plastic Arts Union, and art critic, informs me that there is nothing to stop an artist painting in any style whatever, that official recognition is given to those who are sincere, and present the socialistically conceived realities of life. The artist is expected to describe life passionately, and the form in which the artist elects to do so is left to him.) But who was the adjudicator of passion and sincerity?
In practice, the artists reflect the official directives of the optimistic and heroic socialism in terms of naturalism that is to be understood by the dullest of wits. Art is used as an instrument in the education of the masses, and in this respect much of it is scarcely different in essence (although it is in aim) from the insinuative commercial artwork produced in the West.
It is interesting to note a few remarks in “The Literary Gazette” (Romanian) by art critic Petru Comarnescu. Speaking of world-famous abstract sculptor Brancusi, a Romanian, long resident in France, Cormarnescu says; inter-alia…
- That Brancusi enriched universal culture by his works which had their roots in the primitive forms of his own country’s folk wood carvings
- that although he worked abroad he never forgot his formative background Gorj, where he was born; and always maintained relationships with his homeland although he is now 80 and lives in Paris.
- that he went to Paris in 1904 and followed the classical sculptors from Michelangelo to especially Rodin will stop in 1915 became influenced by Romanian folklore and woodcarving, and while he was now placing less stress on naturalistic human form, the abstractions which were emerging Web-based, not on cubist theory, but on Romanian folk art and symbolism.
- That his work was not empty of human content, and that his imitators followed only the abstract and decorative surface elements of his work, and that their work is null and void, because they missed the inner convictions of Brancusi’s art;
- that he was striving to seek for the essence of the subject and that it was not easy to understand the abstract portraits which pretend to express human form;
- that he was mainly influenced by Romanian peasant and Byzantine art which is not concerned with human form;
- that present art critics (I presume Comarnescu means Romanian critics) say Brancusi is presenting reality in an archaic way, insofar as he maintains geometric form rather than humanistic appearance;
- that Brancusi, well appreciated in the West and in India, is universally discussed, and should be discussed in Romania because his work is inspired by Romanian folk art-art which is polished by the hand of a great contemporary sculptor;
- that we (Rumanians) must observe that Brancusi’s art not only expresses the old primitive times, but is an example for our own young artists to find new ways of expression appropriate to their feelings, and with the new demands of their contemporary life.
There it is. Partly a nationalistic claim, partly an acknowledgement of the greatness of his art. And while appreciation of such formers admitted, one, casually at least, finds little tolerance of this style in practice.
However, the artistic Rumanians may yet find room for another innovator, such as Brancusi, one who, while not immediately intelligible to the public, will not be constrained by official thinking.
I excuse myself quoting Russian sources, but I think they indicate generally the socialist idea.
In Bucharest I read in the “Soviet News” (Oct. 16. 1956) and article entitled “Granting Indulgence to Modernism?” By Mattias Sokolsky. Speaking of musicians, which we can equate with artists, he says; “As for dodecafonia, it was never prohibited in this country and is not prohibited now. Even if the idea should it ever occur to anyone to do so, the fact remains there is nothing to prohibit. Dodecafonia has never presented any temptation to Soviet composers. Dodecafonia is something alien to their aesthetic tastes, their ethical views and their creative aspirations.
Soviet musicians write for the people-that is their credo, the force that unites them. In this they strive to carry on the traditions of the classics. Dodecafonial music, on the other hand is egoistic. It is music not even for a chosen few that at best for a single person. The platform of the dodecafonists can hardly hope to unite musicians, for by its very nature it estranges the musician from life, turns him into an egocentric. And it is not a question of the individual inclinations or good intentions of the dodecafonist. It is a question of a whole system of views, the very essence of dodecafonia, which is divorced from the life and interests of the people.
Slonimsky is therefore wrong in thinking that the indulgence will be granted to Modernism.”
NOTE: (“today Modernism in music means dodecafonia. True, this tendency dates back to Arnold Schenberg, is 12 tone system is usually considered the beginning of dodecafonia.” Same article).
Earlier I. Moskvin has said, “The prime maxim of Socialist Realism is that Art shall be true to life. We learned to see life in its movement, in its development, in its endless variety. In the USSR new human relations are developing on the basis of a totally new socialist attitude towards labour, property and the home country. It is its mission to reflect this new outlook. Its fulfilment requires a deep insight into human psychology, emotional power and monumental form.”
Also Karl Radek said, “Socialist Realism means not only knowing reality, as it is that whether it is moving. It is moving towards socialism, it is moving towards the international proletariat. And a work of art created by a socialist realist is one which shows wither that conflict of contradicts is leading which the artist has seen in life and reflected in his work.”
Soviet author Yuri Clesha, thus, “When we speak of art, we sometimes forget that there are in the world to irreconcilable social systems… That the difference between our country and Europe is immense, not only in the economic and political system but in spirit, in ideas-that is to say in the very things which are expresses. We forget that the artist of the West and the artist of this socialist land of ours expresses different ideas and that there is more essential difference between them than between economists and soldiers because the artist not only defines what has taken place but also conjectures what will occur, foretells the future.”
This Socialist Realism is an emotional concept not easy to define-and because of my inability to read the Romanian literature about it-and the inadequacy of non-specialist translation-I feel at a considerable disadvantage in attempting to explain convincingly the attitudes involved.
Suffice it to say that what appeared to be the most acceptable artistic subjects almost invariably spring from an illustrative idea. Pictures of modern and ancient protagonists in the drama of struggle against oppression-genre pictures of workers building and making a new society, and peasants in various rural occupations.
In sculpture, much the same story, although done with more conviction; the heroic figure lending itself more aptly to the massive and elemental forms unadulterated by the atmospheric detains which weaken the impact of the paintings.
An element of expressionism appears and within certain realistic limits is well handled will stop abstraction and the incidental ‘isms’ seem to be completely absent. Art becomes the somewhat bread-and-buttery diet of the many rather than the marijuana of the few.
For a well balanced and simplified outside viewpoint on socialist realism, the words of Professor Radhakamal Mukerjee, eminent Indian sociologist, could scarcely be bettered. I quote at length:
“all authors, painters, sculptors, actors and playwrights receive an encouragement unknown in any other country in the modern world. The State gives regular orders to painters and sculptors for the purpose of decorating public institutions, parks and factories, and also arranges for the cheap supply of materials they use. Artists are relieved once for all of the anxiety lest the products of their art should find no sale-so wide has become the demand for works of art. There are also special cooperatives for authors, painters, sculptors and other artists which also help them on a new and lavish scale. On the other hand the artists must be true to the proletarian ideal, and view life as the proletariat view it. In the first place the artists and public are readily brought into intimate touch with one another. Thus a painter, a sculptor, the novelist or a dramatist are expected and encouraged to meet their audience and to discuss with them the principles of artistic production and obtain their criticisms and suggestions. If the artists do not follow the generally prescribed path of Socialistic Realism, the ruling party in Soviet Russia is strong and resolute enough to discourage any individualistic deviations. Ideological opposition as well as the withholding of orders and ostracism are enough to check the erring spirit. In painting, for instance the object of proletariat art is to give pleasure and regard life with optimism, and the dominant themes are modern life with its fresh possibilities and strong wave of optimism as well as neutral subjects. Landscapes, still-lifes, interiors and above all portraits, are still permissible themes for Soviet painters. But strenuous resistance is offered to ‘painting which distorts the lines of reality and pictures chaotic fragments in place of landscape and people; which shows humdrum and insipid themes instead of joy and heroic reality.’ The majority of good Russian painting is a revolution of the new landscape the new people expressing the sincerity, joy and aspirations of a people working towards a higher social integration and harmony. It is also significant that many of the master artists are coming from the working class. At the same time the danger of the working class, who have not obtained adequate artistic education in such a short period of emancipation, suppressing stylistic distinctiveness of individual artists is not small. If new styles of mass art cannot obtain free expression due to the verdict of the proletariat which is apt to develop standardised artistic outlook and tastes, Soviet art may degenerate into a mere pictorial representation of the environment without any profound implications in emotional experience and form of expression.
Yet there is no doubt that there has been a gain to art to the world in that at least in one country art is a social inspiration, is far removed from a filling in the abstract that subsists on the support of a small coterie, but expresses the emotional experience of the community at large whose restrictions to it have an immediate effect on the attitude and style of the artist…
No state in any other country has been so active in both the encouragement of artists and the diffusion of artistic education and culture among the people. Only where art ceases to be an individual experience and a luxury for the few, but represents a mass experience for the enjoyment of all can it play its due role in the organisation of society. (The Social Function of Art — Radhakamal Mukherjee. Hind Kitabs Ltd. Bombay 1948).