Adrian Ghenie made headlines recently as his Van Gogh-inspired painting The Sunflowers in 1937 sold for £3.1 million against an estimate of £400,000–600,000, but what is behind this spectacular success?
Certainly the painter has been making waves in the contemporary art scene for over a decade with impressive shows at Pace and consistently strong auction results, including the $1,565,000 realized for Pie Fight Interior 9 (2013) at Christie’s New York in May 2015, but his success is part of a larger contemporary art movement from Cluj, Romania’s vibrant second city that’s home to a generation of artists bringing painting back from the dead.
Adrian Ghenie photographed in his studio in Cluj, Romania. Artwork: Persian Miniature, 2013. Oil on canvas. Photograph Courtesy Adrian Ghenie Studio
First showcased by the pioneering Plan B gallery and curator Mihai Pop, the Cluj school of artists, led by Adrian Ghenie, Victor Man and Marius Bercea, is revolutionising contemporary painting. The Eastern Bloc aesthetic, inevitably tinged with a history of Communism and violence, continues to attract collectors and institutions worldwide to this city at the heart of Transylvania.
Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art specialist and fellow Romanian Cristian Albu insists, however, that this is nothing new for a country whose forebears include sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi and surrealist Victor Brauner. ‘Romanian art doesn’t start now,’ he says. ‘The art community in Romania has had incredible links with Paris and Berlin since the beginning of the 20th century.’
Marius Bercea received his MA from the University of Art and Design, Cluj, in 2005, and is regarded as one of the leading artists of the Cluj school. His large-scale colourful paintings often combine landscapes of post-Communist Romania with a surreal element.
Szabolcs Veres starts with the traditional notion of the portrait and proceeds to distort it into something disturbing in the manner of Bacon and Ghenie. Living and working in Cluj, he is represented by Spencer Brownstone Gallery in New York.
But if Bucharest was once a ‘little Paris’, it wasn’t for long: ‘Communism came in 1957, and Ceauşescu in 1962 — politically things changed but artistically they didn’t. Artists still thrived within their own community, but the only place where they could display art was in a church. Artists had to show in their own apartments, for just 24 hours, and then it disappeared.’
On the fringes of Mitteleuropa, Cluj was, until the Revolution of 1989, in the hands of conquerors and dictators — ‘a crossroad of empires’, from the Romans and the Ottomans to the Austro-Hungarians and eventually the Russians. ‘Everybody put their stamp on it,’ says Albu, ‘and then they left, so there is a certain darkness and survival element to everything.’
A self-proclaimed abstract expressionist, Dan Măciucă paintings resemble those of Frank Auerbach, the paint layered on like a thick paste and occasionally smoothed out like one of Richter’s Abstrakte Bilder.
Currently living and working in Cluj, Cristina Gagiu completed an MA in painting in 1996. She has contributed to many group and solo exhibitions in Cluj, and focuses mainly on interiors and painting.
Albu remembers the revolution ‘like a dream’, and then the sour taste of corruption left by Ceauşescu’s successors. He describes the country’s upheaval as a catalyst for young painters to ‘express their sorrows and their frustrations in art’. This is particularly true of Ghenie’s work which explores ‘the darkness of the human condition, the darkness of our ability to destroy each other’ through portraits of figures like Charles Darwin and Josef Mengele, who appropriated the former’s theories of natural selection in the search for Aryan perfection.
The influence of modern artists such as Francis Bacon is also evident in these portraits — faces are distorted and the paint gives the impression that the skin is melting before our eyes — yet the compositions, the dark ground, suggests the presence of Rembrandt, whose work Ghenie studied early in his career.
With an academic background in painting, Ioana Iacob now practises both installation art and painting, working with the idea that art should confront the socially generated expectations of the public. Her latest exhibition used the same image again and again, creating a sense of nostalgia.
Another graduate of the University of Art and Design, Cluj, Istvan Betuker is a portraitist who is just as interested in the manipulation of his medium as the depiction of his sitter. He paints neighbours and cats alike with broad brushstrokes often in poses reminiscent of Lucian Freud’s later work.
Ceauşescu is given the same treatment in paintings such as Study for ‘Boogeyman’ and The Trial, depicting the dictator and his wife awaiting execution by firing squad just days after the initial wave of dissent began at a rally in Bucharest.
By focusing on these dark figures, Ghenie shuns the canon of history painting and presents us, instead, with something strikingly contemporary yet rooted in tradition — much like Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter, who experienced life under the Third Reich and later in Communist East Germany, and whose influence is very much evident in the work of many other leading Cluj school artists, including Marius Bercea and Victor Man.
Oana Fărcaș’s influences are evident in her 2012 series depicting artists in their studios such as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Picasso, but it is the works inspired by Romanian fairytales that ‘play with reality and logic’ and catch our attention.
One of the more conceptual artists within the Cluj school, Radu Cioca has moved away from the city’s tradition of painting to focus on sculpture and installations that challenge materials and ‘interrogate a given reality through a series of connections’.
Aptly centred on a brutalist paintbrush factory-turned-contemporary art space, the Fabrica de Pensule, the school is transforming Cluj into a hub for painting. Although the setting naturally invites associations with Warhol, Albu prefers to compare the movement to the Bauhaus school: ‘It’s that feeling of socialist culture where great minds get together to give birth to great ideas.’
Ghenie had his first exhibition in 2006 with Plan B gallery, and was featured in Art in America, which Albu credits with kicking off interest in the artist. This led to him being picked up by Mihai Nicodim gallery in LA, Tim Van Laere in Antwerp, Nolan-Judin in Berlin and now international giant Pace, where his 2014 show Golems at the Museum of Mankind in Mayfair featured a beautiful and unsettling installation that proved Ghenie could do more than paint. ‘He took you from the gallery into the world of Darwin to question where we come from, who we are. The room was dark, a shy and singular space [where] you retrieved yourself,’ Albu muses.
That was the year Ghenie’s paintings passed the $1 million mark with works like Duchamp’s funeral and The Fake Rothko more than doubling their estimates and placing him firmly at the forefront of the contemporary art market just 10 years after his initial rise to fame.
Albu credits this result to the artist’s American following. ‘It was owned by an LA collector and must have been seen by half the world. He made the most of it, put it into the right context at auction and… boom!’ Boom indeed.
After an onslaught of video, performance and conceptual art in the post-modern era, Ghenie, Man et al. are satisfying a need for painting among the kind of collectors Albu has brought to Cluj. He describes a recent visit to the paintbrush factory: ‘We arrived at the factory and [the collectors] were like children in a candy shop, they would not get the hell out of that factory for 10 hours! They were going from one studio to another with that joy of talking directly with the artists. They forgot about lunch, drinking; the meal was art. They haven’t stopped talking about it since.’
The Cluj connection: More emerging stars at the Fabrica de Pensule
Serban Savu is a figurative painter, creating poignant canvases that capture the daily existence of contemporary Romanians at work and leisure. The angle from which his subjects are depicted often generates a feeling of distance from the subject and a sense of alienation.
One of the more conceptual artists in the Cluj school, Ciprian Mureşan is well known for his short videos that focus on contemporary post-Soviet life in Eastern Europe. Strong visual messages are characteristic of Muresan’s work, making it historically and politically engaging.
A graduate of Ceramics and Sculpture in Cluj, Mihuț Boșcu Kafchin has experimented with various mediums. He has a reputation as one of Cluj’s more experimental artists, and takes his inspiration from science, space exploration and science fiction.
Mircea Suciu paints often surreal subjects with a sombre realism that alludes to Goya and Magritte while parodying Socialist Realism.
One of the most significant artists to emerge from Romania in recent years, Victor Man represented Romania in the 2007 Venice Biennale and is known for his enigmatic paintings and installations which shift between eroticism and the canon with references to Piero della Francesca and Goethe.
Inspired by the human figure and animal expression, Gabriel Marian focuses on Abstract Impressionism. Having graduated from the University of Art and Design, Cluj, in 2011 with an MA in Fine Art, his work is part of the Benetton art collection. He has showcased his paintings in multiple exhibitions across Europe.
Main image at top: Exterior shot of Fabrica de Pensule, Cluj. Photograph © Roland Vaczi. Courtesy of Fabrica de Pensule, Cluj
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