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Mihai Zgondoiu - Artist's Golden Hand Triptic

Mihai Zgondoiu – Artist’s Golden Hand Triptic

Romanian masterpices at the Grimberg Gallery: Balancing originality and autonomy with tradition and patronage in contemporary artistic styles

By Claudia Moscovici, art critic, founder of the postromantic art movement, and author of Romanticism and Postromanticism (2007)

Since the modern era the notion of “artistic style” has become synonymous with “originality”. Originality represents a step beyond individuality. It traces each artist’s unique fingerprint, setting his art apart from the works of other artists. This understanding of “style”, however, is relatively new in the history of art. Before the nineteenth-century, originality and individuality were not the most highly prized qualities of art. As for autonomy, or regarding art as separate from social functions, this notion didn’t even exist before the modern period.


During the Renaissance, the artist emerged as an individual assumed to have a unique talent that was in some way useful to those in power. Artists helped elevate the status of the Church or the State through their masterpieces. They were also considered useful to society in general, by providing works of rare and incredible beauty that the educated public could enjoy. Despite, in fact, being “original”, Renaissance artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo perceived their paintings and sculptures as a means of elevating and preserving the social order of their times not only as a mark of their individual genius. No doubt, both Leonardo and Michelangelo could afford to select among patrons and to aggravate those they did serve by postponing deadlines to perfect their masterpieces. In this way, they created the blueprint of the temperamental and independent “artistic” personality that would emerge more fully with Romanticism. Despite the increased prestige of masterful artists, however, Renaissance art contributed to the glory of the patrons and the community (or the nation) it was created for. In other words, art’s undeniable beauty was inseparable from its social usefulness.


As artists’ prestige increased during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, so did their relative power and independence from patrons. Romanticism marked this transformation by explicitly declaring the artist to be a creative genius and by regarding individuality and originality as the supreme qualities of true art. Yet for most Romantic poets, writers and artists, as for the Renaissance masters, art was still bound to its social function. The artist or writer imagined by poets like Wordsworth, Lamartine and Hugo spread to the public, through his unique aesthetic sensibility, imagination, discernment and talent, not only aesthetic pleasure but also a heightened and more empathetic moral and political consciousness.

While earlier forms of Romanticism couple social utility and beauty, late Romantic and Modern art and literature would come to disassociate them. As early as the 1830’s, the autonomy of art from society was proclaimed by Théophile Gautier’s phrase, “art for art’s sake” (l’art pour l’art) and by his criticism of the notion that art had to be in any way useful to society.

postmodern philosopher, Arthur Danto

postmodern philosopher, Arthur Danto

Postmodern art resurrects the notions of art’s utility and individuality, but usually only to critique them. Gautier’s well-known polemic in his 1834 preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin—“the most useful place of a house is the latrine”—seems to have turned into a twisted prophecy almost a hundred years later, when Marcel Duchamp, under the pseudonym R. Mutt, exhibited a urinal as an objet d’art at the 1917 Independents’ Exhibition in New York City. With this partly joking provocation, art took a seemingly irreversible conceptual turn. As the philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto convincingly demonstrates, what constitutes art can no longer be discerned visually.

Ion Dimitriu Barlad - Enescu

Ion Dimitriu Barlad – Enescu

Contemporary Romanian art, however, seems to distinguish itself through a partial return to the worthwhile aesthetic values of the past. And it’s about time. The Grimberg Gallery features some of the best contemporary Romanian artists, each of whom has a unique style; each of whom pays homage to the artistic past rather than only turning away from it. To offer only a few examples, among many talented artists: Ioan Dimitriu Barlad’s masterful sculpture is perhaps the most explicit homage. His bust of the composer George Enescu (1881-1955) captures the musician in a realistic style and paradigmatic pose: a particularly expressive moment of sensibility and contemplation.

Ioan  Stoenescu - Icoana cu medalioane

Ioan Stoenescu – Icoana cu medalioane

Ioan Stoenescu’s Christian icon, “Icoana cu medalioane”, evokes the now lost art form of medieval “illuminations”: smaller oval portraits of revered saints surrounding the central depiction of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, painted with great delicacy and skill. A gilded foil illuminates the composition from within, giving it an otherworldly aura.


Adam Baltatu - Nuduri in peisaj

Adam Baltatu – Nuduri in peisaj

The painter Adam Baltatu reawakens our interest in figurative art, which is, indeed, after decades dominated by abstraction and conceptual art, becoming popular once again. His “Nuduri in peisaj” (“Nudes on landscape”) shows the beauty of the countryside enhanced by the beauty of feminine forms. The artist conveys the two women with a sense of harmony, balance and muted colors reminiscent of post-Impressionism, particularly of the paintings of Gauguin and Cézanne.

Iosif Iser- Odalisca

Iosif Iser- Odalisca

Iosif Iser’s “Odalisca” (“Odalisque”) also evokes post-Impressionism in style, although the odalisque was a favorite theme of Neo-classical and Romantic painters (particularly Ingres and Delacroix). Iser’s odalisque holds a relaxed, modern pose, displaying her half-veiled body in an almost defiant manner reminiscent of Manet’s Olympia.

Doru Moscu - Alfred's dream

Doru Moscu – Alfred’s dream

Doru Moscu’s “Alfred’s dream”, painted with broad brushstrokes of blues, grays, browns and greens, is more Expressionist in style. In this painting color assumes extreme importance, suggesting a somber mood, as furtive and enigmatic as the shadowy man on the right side of the canvas.

Mihai Zgondoiu -Artist`s Golden Hand  Triptic

Mihai Zgondoiu -Artist`s Golden Hand Triptic


Surrealism has experienced a contemporary rebirth as well, as we can see in Mihai Zgondoiu’s “Artist’s Golden Hand Triptic”. In this monochromatic composition the artist’s hand, in a golden cast, stands out in poses suggestive of classical sculptures yet truncated, headless, and fragmentary: like the pieces of a disjointed dream that assume great symbolic significance.

Aurel Tar - Lectura

Aurel Tar – Lectura

Aurel Tar’s “Lectura” carries the legacy of Impressionism forward, into the relatively new field of digital art. A painting reminiscent in theme and style of the works of Morisot and Cassatt–a mother reading to her tired, sleepy daughter as they wait together at the train station—has a (paradoxically) new feel through its explicitly retro look (the newspaper print-like pointillism of digital art).

Why is it is it so important for contemporary artists to reinvent, in their unique and original styles, some of the greatest traditions in art history? I think, first of all, because no art exists in a cultural vacuum. Complete individuality is an illusion. Originality, when pushed to an extreme, risks degenerating into mere shock value. Just as contemporary artists can’t reject the influence of the artistic movements that came before them, they shouldn’t underestimate the importance of their patrons: the critics, the viewers, the buyers and the lovers of art.

Picasso and Gilot

Picasso and Gilot

For, to conclude my introduction with a citation by Picasso—arguably the most subversive and original modern artist—even subversion cannot exist without tradition, nor can originality exist in the absence of sound aesthetic standards:

“Today we are in the unfortunate position of having no order or canon whereby all artistic production is submitted to rules. They—the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians—did. Their canon was inescapable because beauty, so-called, was, by definition, contained in those rules. But as soon as art had lost all link with tradition, and the kind of liberation that came in with Impressionism permitted every painter to do what he wanted to do, painting was finished. When they decided it was the painter’s sensations and emotions that mattered, and every man could recreate painting as he understood it from any basis whatever, then there was no more painting; there were only individuals. Sculpture died the same death. … Painters no longer live within a tradition and so each one of us must recreate an entire language from A to Z. No criterion can be applied to him a priori, since we don’t believe in rigid standards any longer. In a certain sense, it’s a liberation but at the same time it’s an enormous limitation, because when the individuality of the artist begins to express itself, what the artist gains by way of liberty he loses in the way of order, and when you’re no longer able to attach yourself to an order, basically that’s very bad.” (My life with Picasso, Françoise Gilot, 21)

Returning to some shared artistic criteria and reclaiming art’s role in society doesn’t mean reverting to the rigid criteria of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, which can be respected but not revived. It means revitalizing the importance of art today. As we’ve seen in my brief perusal of Romanian contemporary art featured by the Grimberg Gallery, individuality of style can coexist with respect for past artistic traditions and artistic freedom is entirely compatible with an appreciation of art’s patrons: us, the viewing public.

Claudia Moscovici, postromanticism.com