Summary: The Image of Violence in Romanian Contemporary Art (after 1989)
The subject of this thesis – the image of violence (to be read, implicitly, as the representation of violence in art) – has been following me for a long time, both in the area of artistic practice, and in the area of theory, based on study and observation.
This particular image of violence leads, in a logical way, to the reversion of the two terms, placing on the other side of the scale, the violence of image (here, I feel compelled to quote, as a correspondence regarding the title, and not the content, the theme of the first edition from the Young Artists’ Biennial 2004 –Identities and visual codes: the violence of image / the image of violence, initiated and curated by META Cultural Foundation, through the 2META group – Romelo Pervolovici and Maria Manolescu).
I have noticed a constant recurrence of the various sides of violence, or of its consequences in the contemporary artistic image and this study means to explain and place, in context, the dimensions of this particular subject, certain particularities or shapes which may occur in different types of artistic discourses, found or recovered in the latest two decades’ Romanian art scene.
The selection of Romanian artists presented in the last chapters is not, in any way, absolute (on the contrary, I might say that they can be substituted, interchanged, recontextualized, or seen from different angles), and it represents a diverse sample, metaphorically speaking – a “critical mass” from types of discourses that reach, in various ways, the matter of violence or its consequences. The fragmented composition of the chapters dedicated to Romanian art is intentionally made after the eccentric pattern of a broken globe, from which I had picked specific pieces (smaller or bigger, closer or further), in order to reconstruct an almost identical image.
In order to avoid getting lost in this diverse and familiar actuality, I employed several iconic figures from Art history and their concerns, as a mirror and counterpoint, at the same time. It can be ideally regarded as a polyphonic composition about the works of living figures, still in motion and those of dead figures, as shown in a museum.
The beginning of this study takes place in Goya’s imagery and the end of it represents another journey, further still, into Caravaggio’s. The reasons are obvious: both are iconic figures, bound to the memory of historical violence, and the theme we have focused upon merges two great themes, which would not exist in the absence of violence: war and religion.
The type of inquiry from large to small, from universal to particular, helps narrowing down a generous subject, with all of its sides, and reveals it in a favoring logic. The period to be analyzed – about twenty years of Romanian art – is particularly rich in violence, like an overstretched sponge, presenting itself honorably as a medium-sized satellite, orbiting international art. However, without the two preliminary studies, acting both as prologue and epilogue, we would be left with a self-sufficient weightlessness of the matter.
Because of the reasons mentioned above, almost every chapter contains at least one reference to a great international event or artistic movement.
In order to perform a precise analysis of the local artistic context, I felt the need of overlapping it upon different periods of the international artistic environment, thus better revealing the images subjected to this study.
This research also needed a theoretical support drawn from theories regarding violence and the reasons that make it possible, theories coming especially from philosophy, psychoanalysis and sociology.
Chapter 1, entitled Introduction in the violence of image – La morte non dimentica nessuno (Death forgets no one) is, as the title shows it, an interrogative introduction, with a rhetorical touch, straight to the core of the matter. My own subjectivity and my own landmarks employed on this treacherous ground are self-questioned.
“The best introduction in a study about violence in the images of contemporary art, how can it be done? What are the best ways to get on this realm of profound subjectivity? And which are the least treacherous?
In this study we tend to embrace clarity and precision and search for those essential landmarks observed in the images that compose our theme, of violence or, regarding it differently – in a convergent manner – towards recognizing and decoding the images of violence out a representative group of objects.
Violence, in itself, is descriptive. Therefore, a violent image is a descriptive one. However the violence of the image presents a wider view upon violence in art, particularly regarding our chosen area of research, but without excluding the general matrix of the subject.
The image of violence subsides under the image of evil, regarded as a general matter, both being inherently human dimensions. As an example in research I have chosen the manner in which Italian theorist and art historian, Vittorio Sgarbi, employed in his study Il Male.
He operates with three stages of inquiry: identifying, extracting and circumscribing. Similar stages will be employed here. Identifying is choosing and underlining the most representative images (scenes) of violence from the chosen period (the last decades of Romanian contemporary art), as well as underlining, on the same basis, international reference-point artworks employed as mirrors.”
The introduction continues with an extended excursion through the life and work of Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, with a focus on the image of the 39th etching plate from the series “Los Desastres de la Guerra / Disasters of War”, made between 1810-20, a masterpiece entitled „Grande hazaňa! Con muertos! / Great deeds! Against the Dead!”
“Goya annulled conventionalism in order to give a realistic touch to his outstanding subjects: mugging, crime, adultery, rape, cannibalism. In the ‘portrayal’ of war and its consequences, Goya reveals the savage brutality, not by any chance the glory or heroism of a conquering nation. He is neither the aggressor, nor the victim, he is just a forensic expert who records the decay and the damage of humanity’s violence upon their neighbors. The 89 Disasters’ plates are representations of violence, bestiality, pain, cruelty, and despair. One of the titles is defining: Nada means Nothing ! and it refers to the futility and the lack of meaning of those unfortunate events.”
“In 1994, the British duo Jake and Dinos Chapman created an artwork with a homonymous title – Great Deeds Against the Dead – a tridimensional work that recreates the compositional matrix from Goya’s engraving, a re-enactment. Being large and tridimensional, the work has another kind of visual impact upon the viewer. It becomes proximity, neighbourhood, a still image of crime and horror, like in a wax-figures museum. A ‚No se puede mirar!’ at an impressive scale, which obliges you to watch and assist the horror scene. But the rigid material from which the Chapman Bros.’ scene is made cannot render the same fleshy, fetid, and rotting atmosphere from the original work. The organic structure of Goya’s line cannot be surpassed by the lifeless plastic, tridimensional bodies, created 184 years later.”
The second chapter, entitled Theories on violence consists of references to various theoretical approaches, modern or contemporary – Ludwig von Mises – human action, Walter Benjamin – critique of violence, Hannah Arendt – the human condition, Patricia Palmer – the dazzling beauty of violence, René Girard – violence and the sacred, Anthony Storr – physiological mechanisms of violence, Slavoj Žižek – types of violence: subjective (criminal), objective (systemic), and symbolic.
„«The ethical illusion» refers to certain, less visible, acts of violence and introduces into the scene two possible scenarios: an aggressor shooting down a man and another pressing down a button which may kill several thousands or tens of thousands of people. The button, may it be real or symbolic, in this case, equals a military order.
At this time we reach the sensitive chapter of perceiving violence, equally important as violence itself. Who is the guilty one? One killing another (Cain killing Abel)? Or one killing millions through an ideologically objective act?
In any case, when it comes to violence we undoubtedly end up with Judaic- Christian-freudian approach of the Near, of the Neighbour. It is all about the way in which we react regarding this Neighbour, this Other, the way we sometimes respect his right to privacy (through tolerance) – keeping out from his vital space (acknowledging the right not to be harassed), or disregarding this right (through intolerance translated into harassment) – to get close and threaten Other’s vital space (disregarding the right to avoid harassment). Which of the following actions is more violent? Keeping a certain distance (isolating yourself) in order to avoid aggression or getting close and, thus, committing an act of aggression through proximity?”
In the subchapter The Violence of the Image of Other we make references close to our contemporary world, revising, again, Žižek’s already identified categories, Ihab Hassan’s Modern – Postmodern antagonism or Foucault’s ideas on power and knowledge.
The violence of the artistic image and its ideological grounds in the historical avant-garde is a subchapter dedicated to Marcel Duchamp, Hans Bellmer and Victor Brauner.
„Our research on violence in images requires this particular study about the historical avant-garde, focused on Marcel Duchamp, Hans Bellmer and Victor Brauner, iconic images of the tear, of the violence that is the changing paradigm, trying to identify and investigate the premises, in theory and ideology, of violence as a particularity of an artistic image in the work of those mentioned above.
The 20th century was the crucible for radical ideological changes, as well in philosophy as in art, and following this lead, we can uncover a multiplied violence regarding the image: the image’s violence in itself and the violence inflicted upon the image (quoting Jean Baudrillard).
In this particular instance, what do we understand as violence? In an early stage it may mean aggression – upon people, upon ideas, upon traditions or rules that have become absolute. It can also mean oppression, tear, kidnapping, forced separation or destruction, erasure, disappearance, eradication. With all of these notions at hand – the sides of violence or, even better, the sides of its manifestation in our physical and moral world, all of it so human, we can decide, at least for a while, what violence actually is and what it became of it in the historical avant-garde.
When we say historical avant-garde we are referring to the violent changes that marked the beginning of the 20th century – the birth of Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism; as representatives we focus mainly on the personalities of Marcel Duchamp as a central figure, but also on his avant-garde colleagues Victor Brauner, Max Ernst etc.
Unlike the classical form of art, where the image is alive through what it depicts, and what it depicts is defined by the degree of clarity, unity and comprehension, the art of the avant-garde proposes an image where subtext and concept are crucial; an image cannot exist without text; without a manifest, it could never be complete. Text and image blend in an androgynous osmosis. Thus, the object of our study can easily become the violence of language.”
„In his Little Anatomy of the Physical Unconscious, or The Anatomy of the Image (1957), Bellmer documents and confesses the pleasure drawn from ripping the body apart, employing almost surgical procedures, mutilating and reassembling it in a random and instinctive way. The inert body stiffness of a dummy may be regarded as a substitute for oppression, for a repressive system, which he enjoys transforming, mixing organic functions into a bizarre, inert, sexual – mechanic golem. The same thing will happen decades later with body art, only this time it will be for real. Bellmer inverts even the time flow along the destruction of any order regarding corporeality. The doll physiognomy pattern was crafted after the likes of his teenage cousin, Ursula, for whom he developed an incestuous obsession.”
“Iubitului Sașa Pană / To the beloved Sasa Pana (1930) is a surrealist version of an officially commissioned portrait, with the subject facing forward (in order to precisely capture his physiognomy). A stylistic short circuit happens in this case, Sașa Pană’s head floats in something resembling a void, above an island (or a chopped mountain). At first glance, the portrait seems to be another piece in the early surrealist inventory of Brauner, being as it is a levitating decapitation or an hommage delivered to Sașa Pană’s spirit (army doctor Alexandru Binder), this avant-garde writer who owned a significant part of Brauner’s works (made in Romania). Just one year prior to this portrait, the one depicting Geo Bogza is done in a firm expressionist manner, around 1930 he’s painting after the strict surrealist rules, classical ones, refraining himself to a rigorous technique. Color is subdued by shape and shapes are meant to construct. The frame is simple, invoking the strong backgrounds of the Italian Quattrocento, but instead of the rocks depicted through an aerial perspective, covered in mist, according to how far they where, Brauner’s rock is in a vacuum suspended monolith, placed over a red flat background which takes us into fantasy and pure fiction. Sasa’s chopped head and the flaming red background create together a bizarre atmosphere, so specific in surrealism and so well depicted in this body-less portrait.”
The third chapter, called Romanian Actionism and its repertoire of violent themes makes reference to an important phenomenon in contemporary Romanian art. In Experimentalism is where we locate Romanian Actionism, it is a phenomenon that directly aids our research on the image of violence in Romanian art before and after 1989.
The main template for this chapter was Ileana Pintilie’s study Romanian Actionism during Communism (Idea, Cluj, 2000).
„The first signs of Romanian Actionism appeared right after 1965 and, accordingly, we can regard them as the first manifestations of Romanian experimental art. As far as the time table is concerned, Romanian Actionism is taking place simultaneously with the Viennese Actionism, however regarding the behavior of the first one a difference must be noted, Romanian Actionism has a shamanic, purifying, solitary, in no way violent approach and is not showing, at least not at this time, the savage activism found in its Viennese counterpart. (see Constantin Flondor, Doru Tulcan, Stefan Bertalan, Mihai Olos etc).
The difference between performance and actionism is a specific forced separation from (the possibility of) having an audience and (the possibility of) not having an audience. The mystery remains in the area of inner chemistry of being an actionist (as an artist). How much did the artist want that audience, compulsory for a performance? What would have happened if, possibly, the action had taken place in an arena full of people? How much of the authenticity of feeling had been lost?
(…) The signs of performative ‚artistic dissidence’ continue all along the 70s and 80s, as Magda Carneci, Ileana Pintilie, or Alexandra Titu thoroughly explained. We oscillate between using the term ‚dissidence’ in what these manifestations are concerned, and the term ‚protest’, as a smooth side of dissidence.
In the 90s, the performance in Romania got a great frequency, three important festivals dedicated to it being initiated until the year 2000: Zona Festival, Timisoara, AnnArt – Sf. Ana Lake, and Peripheric from Iassy.
The Index of ‚violent themes’ in the Romanian performance imagery
Skinning / Skin removal (Alexandru Antik), Skin collecting / Bioart (Christian Paraschiv)
Self-punishment / ”The one who punishes himself alone” / Masochism (Alexandru Antik, Ion Grigorescu, Stefan Bertalan, Constantin Flondor)
The prison (Ion Grigorescu, Lia Perjovschi, Alexandru Antik)
The preservation of organic matters (Christian Paraschiv, K.O.KE.M. Groups)
Sacrificial rituals / Catholic reminders /”Catholic Tastes”(via Peter Ursprung)
The sacrified lamb / ”The Happy Corpse” (K.O.KE.M. group)
“Late Feminism” of Lia Perjovschi’s actions
“Blood Sport” of Teodor Graur”
The Viennese Actionism. The performance show after the Holocaust. The death-wedding is a subchapter regarding certain historical particularities of the Viennese Actionism and one that maintains the grounds for Romanian Actionism to be placed into perspective.
“The Viennese Actionism was the most cruel and nihilistic artistic movement of the 20th century. This was due to the fact that it defied all previous rules, and to be even more precise, it never applied them. In their manifestations, the human body, the main vessel of their actions, becomes a relative course, changeable, transformable, upon which torture may be performed, cuts, profanation, anything and everything as an affront, as a revolt and self-inflicted pain; a result of the contextual sin, which, part of an identity-based group, the artist assumes and pays for it. Here we can enunciate the totalitarian blame, the Holocaust’s burden claimed by the Austrian people.”
“One of Peter Ursprung’s conclusions is that Viennese Actionism may be regarded as marginal, given the fact that too few theorists were interested about this matter, perhaps due to the specific cruelty of the subject and the fact that it is a particularly uncomfortable one, perhaps other priorities and cases were to be studied. In certain regards it may be regarded as an anachronic movement, even in an archaic and pagan meaning. In the end, we are dealing with artists revolted against the system, one that reflects contemporary society and other contemporary art forms, as well.”
“All of these actions, as Ileana Pintilie observes, took place discretely, the same kind of discretion observed when, during the hard days of Communism, forbidden goods where somehow obtained. It is obvious that this kind of discretion led to social isolation, self-exile into the kitchen, or into one’s own closet (see the case of Ion Grigorescu and his actions in the 70s). Later efforts to bring artists of the Romanian Actionism into the spotlight were not meant to last, public exhibitions of certain actions led to dispersing the very substance of the initial act, mainstream and isolationism being, as they are, contradictory concepts. It would be inhumane, for instance, for Alexandru Antik to endlessly repeat on a public stage his Pharmacy performance; it is like an act of sacrifice turned into a vaudeville.”
The fourth chapter, called The violent image, a result of thematic selection: examples in post-War international art displays a subjective selection of themes from 20th century international art, a selection that enables our research in Romanian contemporary art and creates anchor points.
“It is of the utmost importance to recall and explain recognizable foreign influences in Romanian art. Without the western theoretic structure that explains and elucidates the issue of violence, the recognition and legitimacy of violence in images would be impossible.”
We have focused on several details regarding the work of the following Western artists: Joseph Beuys, Gustav Metzger, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Joel-Peter Witkin, Francesco Clemente, Kiki Smith.
The fifth chapter, called The first decade of post-Communist Romania makes reference to several key-figures: subREAL, Dan Perjovschi, Lia Perjovschi, Calin Dan, Gheorghe Rasovszky, Erwin Kessler, Ioana Batranu, Marilena Preda-Sanc.
“A fierce recovery of forbidden aesthetics started after 1989, everything that they failed to do during Communism was brought up. From new free concepts up to public institutions, everything gasped for real freedom. The main question remains: What do we consider to be contemporary art after 1989? Just the works produced after the year 1989 or everything else that was recovered from Communism and revived?”
The 1992 2nd Istanbul Biennial, curated by Vasif Kortun hosted a subREAL (Calin Dan, Iosif Kiraly, Dan Mihaltianu) installation, called Eurasia. A 30 square meter space was filled with 180 wooden two wheeler scooters, with ball bearings. On the wall, lined up, were 80 red medal cases inside of which, instead of the Communist medals, bearings were placed.”
“What is violent in Dan Perjovschi’s work?
First of all, the social message is violent. His work is a well-documented synthesis of contemporary social and political issues, he is questioning geo-political events, conflicts, protests, tense situations from all over the world etc. He brings up all the major debates in contemporary society, from political doctrine and its inoculation up to errors and scandals within the social-political environment. Iconic and equally famous is his phallic image of the Nation’s Redemption Cathedral, as a summary of contemporary Romanian issues.
In Perjovschi’s work, the link between image and text is paramount. Most of the times, writing makes the drawn image whole, and so the drawing becomes the frame for an adorned writing. This is a militant meta-discourse.”
The sixth chapter is called The second decade of the post-Communist period in Romania. Painting in the 2000s. The violence of daily life versus the violence of parallel life.
“2000s in Romanian art stood under the sign of violence in art, both in what Painting and Graphics are concerned, or New Media – film, photography, installation, performance etc. We are talking about the younger generation of artists, more specific, about the ones born between 1968 and 1988, to give an approximate interval. The majority of them graduated after 1989, so we can say that they are a result of the post-Communist period in Romania.
Straight from the beginning of these years, almost simultaneously with Rostopasca group, for example, who emerged in the end of the first post-Communist decade, there had been a “millenarian” movement in the arts, created both by ideological affinities, and also by the context. This movement has been called “neurotic Romanian neo-Realism” by a young art critic, a concept that had been fiercely criticized by Adrian Guta, professor and art critic as well. This combative exchange occurred after the exhibition with the same title, opened on March 16th 2001 at Apollo Gallery in Bucharest, a heterogeneous exhibition, with older and newer names. For example, Valeriu Mladin, already known by his memorable installation from the Venice Biennale in 1997 (as part of an alternative project, curated by Adrian Guta) – entitled Mengele’s Collection, had been drawn together with younger Suzana Dan, Gili Mocanu, or Alexandru Radvan, who were fresh graduates at that time.
Particularly, the curator Luiza Barcan didn’t show a generation, she showed an inventory of neo-Expressionst tendencies, that strongly emerged in those times (and are still there now). Several artists from the selection continued to explore a violent-traumatic imaginary in their further development. (…)
The Painting that had risen in neo-Expressionism (be it German – Neue Wilde, or Italian – Transavanguardia) is purely violent. Whereas the way of making it is violent – with raw, heavy and viscid strokes, that seem to attack the canvas through a rebel alla prima technique, or the colors assault the eye, neo-Expressionist painting fiercely
protests against and accuses the rules and the conventions. A neo-Expressionist painting is, it doesn’t suggest. Moreover, it is often stressed by a very profound and violently- traumatic thematic area.
Through the representatives of this movement, which was very active after 2000s in the area of figurative painting from Bucharest, we find Nicolae Comanescu, Dumitru Gorzo, both were also members of Rostopasca group, Irina Botea, who started using New Media since 2005, Anca Benera, Gili Mocanu, Florin Ciulache, Suzana Dan, Alexandru Radvan, Sabina Spatariu, Roman Tolici, Ana Banica, Emanuel Borcescu and many more.
In Cluj-Napoca, the School of Cluj numbers, as a first wave of painters, names such as Victor Man or Adrian Ghenie, together with Serban Savu, Marius Bercea, Mircea Suciu, David Istvan, Oana Farcas, Szalbocs Veres etc.
A special place is reserved to some figures that are somehow singular – Sorin Tara, Claudiu Candea, Gheorghe Fikl, Ana Maria Micu, Catalin Petrisor, Andras Szabo, Zsolt Berszan.
In what sculpture and installation are concerned, those „violent” years knew the presence of Alina Buga, Raluca Ungureanu, Ciprian Paleologu, Bogdan Rata, Florin Sidau, Felix Deac, Vlad Olariu, Cristian Raduta etc.
The inventory of violent themes in the Romanian painting of the 2000s
Returning to the still image, be it bi- or tridimensional, we can make a brief inventory of the violent themes found in the artists’ creation (including Romanian artists, too):
a. subjective violence:
-the crime scene;
-the portrait of the aggressor;
-police figures / the proximity of violence;
-the portrait of the victim;
-the wounded body;
-the weapons of crime;
-the torture instruments;
-aggression (as) absence;
-the shadow of the aggressor / the shadow of the victim;
-the photo-fit of the aggressor;
-the consequences of violence – the chopped, malformed body, the beheading;
-the anatomic fragment – crime proof.
b. objective violence:
-the trauma / the postcommunist transition;
-the Holocaust / The pogrom under a totalitarian regime;
-the hidden aggressor, the common welfare;
-the anonymous masses;
-the portrait of the dictator;
-the uniform complex;
-the multiplied weapon / the symbolic weapon;
-the propaganda and impelling violence;
-military order / command;
The chapter ends with a series of case studies, of various lengths, on different aspects (specific or general) about the work of artists that have been active since the late 90s: Nicolae Comanescu, Dumitru Gorzo, Ciprian Paleologu, Suzana Dan, Giuliano Nardin, Florin Ciulache, Alexandru Radvan, Sorin Tara, Michele Bressan. The list remains open, and the criteria that I have been applying are related to the fact that I have written before about them or I have even worked with some of them, and I considered direct communication and contact an asset in this kind of approach.
The seventh chapter is entitled Final scene: the violence of image – an apology of Baroque ardour and it represents the end of the road.
Is the invasive and intrusive representation of organic reality so rough, so unforgiving towards human sensitivity? For instance, Caravaggio depicted the rise and fall of the body, as a perishable object, in a noble manner, so human that he reaches an exotic sort of animism which has nothing to do with the hieratic and ascetic biblical figures he painted or was supposed to paint. This particular noble manner disrupts and kills, in an apotheosis, believe and don’t doubt taboo, so specific to that period of Christian ideological absolutism. He brings the saints so close to their human condition, he places them in the scenography of their life over and over again. They encumber through size and mood, but they are not abstract, synthetic or placed outside the work they so vividly animate. The omnipresent Caravaggio throughout Catholic Italy, alongside clergymen and devotees, looks so natural in the dim light of the “under construction” museum, along with other Trecento, Quattrocento and Cinquecento paintings, candles, religious icons, pulpits, sculptural adornments, frescoes and believers, tourists and cameras, jukeboxes for lighting up electric candles and famous sculptures. In this contemporary baroque carousel it stands out and sometimes in a dissonant manner. The scenes he depicted, although inspired by the gospels, differ, they manage to precisely determine in time and even space human typologies, certain gestures with a key role in decoding the whole ensemble, a general state of aesthetic anxiety. The characters scream, they force you to remember them, they generate obsessions and many questions. The perfection of his skills overwhelms and transcends the story.
“What in effect Caravaggio is doing systematically and deliberately, for the first time in the history of art, is destroying the space between the event in the painting and the people looking at it…” It is like whoever is watching end up taking part.”
The study ends with a Chronology of the most important artistic projects and events that touched the issue of violence, between 1990 and 2011, in Romania (the inventory was made with the help of Alexandra Titu’s volume, Experiment in Romanian art after 1960, EXPERIMENT catalogue and the websites of the galleries, foundations and museums that organized those events), followed by a dossier of the author’s activity, as an artist and curator, containing the text for the exhibition Figure In, Figure Out. A fresh index of figurative artists from „a second wave” and a synopsis of the drawing exhibition (the demonstration of artistic practice) entitled Desert lane (an almost violent diary), which were both opened in 2011, in Bucharest (the first, at LC Foundation – Contemporary Art Centre, and the second at Atelier 030202) .
Keywords: violence, Romanian contemporary art, image of violence, Romanian Actionism, Romanian performance, painting of the 2000s
 Vittorio Sgarbi, Il Male (2 volumes – Esercizi di Pittura Crudele; Esempi di Crudeltà), Milan, Skira Publishing House, 2005.
 Hans Bellmer, Mica anatomie a imaginii, Bucharest, Est Publishing House, 2005.
 Quoting the title of the exhibition curated by Erwin Kessler (2009), reminded in the subchapter on Ion Grigorescu.
 Thesis, pp. 118-119.
 Adrian Guta Thoughts on neurotic Romanian neo-Realism, Observator cultural, issue 57, March 27th 2001
 Thesis, pp. 136-138.
 Paul Johnson, Art: A New History, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd, 2003
 Thesis, pp. 171-172.