Horia Bernea and Sorin Dumitrescu - Art and Religion in Romania
by Giles Sutherland
Polovragi Monastery lies at the foot of the 2,000 metre peaks of the sub-Carpathians in west central Romania. Each day the nuns chant part of the ancient Orthodox mass; behind the screens in the 16th century basilica the priest invisibly intones his response. This is a theatre as old as Romania itself where six-hundred convents and monasteries cover the length and breadth of the country.
The faith of Romanians endured, intensified, under the years of Communism and Ceausescu. Now they are free to pursue their religion without persecution by the Securitate. "We believe Ceaușescu's downfall was the punishment of God," states the Mother Superior.
Religiosity, the sacred and art appear to be inseparably linked in Romania. They are part of a huge seamless garment, the origins of which go back to Moldavia's painted monasteries in the late Middle Ages – and beyond. Unlike the West, no apparent schism has occurred between the subject matter of art and the glorification of God.
Sorin Dumitrescu is an artist whose inspiration, subject matter and faith are thus linked. In his studio he produces a huge triptych. A human form is represented in each of its three parts. They repose in death; the faces are masklike, the bodies elongated, the skin stretched tightly over the bones. The viewer's eyes are drawn to the feet: delicate, each feature painted in fine detail with a strange luminosity: Christ's feet on the cross. The paint has the quality and aura of ancient icons – a rich, glowing brown. It comes as no surprise to see an image of the face of the Turin shroud nearby.
Bearded, solemn, kindly, Dumitrescu explains: "The loss of the icon in the West is one of the greatest losses. This is why there is a crisis in Modern Art which I as an artist consider to be a crisis of realism....l believe that the solution to this will come from the East, from the icon. The world deserves to be drawn only from the perspective of the icon."
Richard Demarco, Edinburgh gallery owner and art impresario was in Romania recently to assess the situation of the visual arts with a view to strengthening cultural dialogue between Scotland and Romania. He has his own theories about art and the spiritual in the Romanian context.
"Dumitrescu's works are the nearest things I've seen to Twentieth Century icons. It's a long tradition that he's defending – the idea of icon as art. I am amazed that the work is so timeless and at the same time so modern. As long as you have a church with an icon, a church with with an altar and a church with the promise of sacramental life, you have the possibility of art.
On the studio wall are the photographs of two poets. One, Mihai Eminescu, the Romantic embodiment of the Romanian spirit; the other Nichita Stanescu, more recently departed, a close friend of Dumitrescu. The latter wrote:
O leaven, leaven, leaven,
On my inferno be a heaven.
O, stay, stay,
stay my palms nail and lay
on the cross of flesh
while the world rests.
It seems that they shared not only friendship but also a vision of themselves as Romanians, as artists, crucified on the cross of repression. But perhaps, unknowingly, also with the hope of resurrection.
For Dumitrescu it is a vision which he pursues. He hasn't painted since the Revolution in December 1989, having taken a leading role in the broad-based opposition coalition Civic Alliance as well as becoming involved in the programme to restore the icons, frescoes and churches which were not totally obliterated in the Ceaușescu years.
Horia Bernea, leading painter, and newly appointed curator of Bucharest's Ethnographic Museum is also unable to pursue his vocation. He estimates that it will take three years to re-instate the Museum after its twenty-year stint as Museum of the History of the Communist Party of Romania. Now all that remains is a granite bust of Communism's "Three Wise Monkeys" discreetly cloaked in dust sheets, its future uncertain because of its weight and immovability.
Bernea's painting is deeply religious in feel and content. Since his first Edinburgh exhibition in 1969 he has moved from abstract sculptural forms to gentle examinations of the Transylvanian landscape. He concentrates particularly on churches, their architecture being deeply influenced by the building style of the Romanian peasant. " Ceaușescu wanted to obliterate peasant culture. He was from a peasant background and wanted to deny his own origins," comments Bernea. To paint a church at any time during the past twenty years assumed a huge significance when religion was banned and the church deliberately persecuted.
"What is interesting about recent Romanian art is the reaction against destruction, including the destruction of value. This means looking for the constancies in our own identity and the appropriation of European, Mediterranean and Christian spirituality. Art has no answer to reality if it does not refer to atemporal values. To make art in the real sense of art was for us a very subversive answer," explains Bernea. "If art does not serve a high spiritual purpose we remain on the pagan level. This level doesn't give me hope of realising anything with art, by art or by culture generally."
Twelve months after the Revolution Dumitrescu, Bernea and Demarco agree that a major factor in Romania's salvation will lie in the response of artists to the new situation. Undoubtedly, this will mean sustaining and nourishing an artistic tradition which has its origins in the East, while simultaneously offering this remarkable legacy to the West safe in the knowledge that it will remain free from appropriation and exploitation. Romania's artists must carry a heavy and precariously balanced burden.