It was through reading and discussing “Children of the Night: The Strange and Epic Story of Modern Romania” (published this year by Head of Zeus) with author Paul Kenyon recently that I’ve learnt a little about Romania’s contemporary art scene.
It’s towards the end of the book – a history of catastrophic leadership in Romania throughout the 20th century – that Paul writes of the present day:
“The collective trauma of communism, followed by revolution and then a decade of near darkness, has ignited in some a rare level of drive and inspiration. Up in the Transylvanian city of Cluj, a group of pioneering painters have caught the imagination of the art world with their wild and experimental styles, their loose application of paint, and their creation of haunting, sometimes brutal images of post-communist Romania. Members of the Cluj School are in their thirties and forties, working out of an abandoned communist brush factory in the city, while their canvases are exhibited in top galleries around the world… “
So many of the paintings are immediately fascinating, but it’s “The Sunflowers in 1937”  by Adrian Ghenie that really caught my attention. The photograph at the top of the page here is from Romania Insider magazine, the headline that Ghenie’s painting sold for over £3million at Sothebys in 2016.
We all know Vincent Van Gogh’s glorious series of Sunflowers paintings, such as the one at the National Gallery in London, and that familiarity is, perhaps, what makes Ghenie’s painting so shocking and, indeed, so powerful.
The Sotheby’s essay (in full here) notes: “Adrian Ghenie’s The Sunflowers in 1937 is an extraordinary and monumental reimagining of van Gogh’s masterpiece as subject to the events of twentieth-century history”. For, along with the familiarity of the image, is the shocking recognition of the date in the painting’s title: “1937 was the year in which the Nazi regime held the infamous exhibition of ‘Degenerate Art’ at the Institute of Archaeology in the Hofgarten in Munich” and it is this history that haunts Ghenie’s picture. The Sotheby’s essay describes:
As though witnessing van Gogh’s Sunflowers in a state of near inferno, we imagine molten passages of oil paint shrinking to blackened welts as the canvas itself begins to disintegrate and disappear into thin air.
Adrian Ghenie, along with the other Cluj School artists, is only too aware of what fascism, totalitarianism and ‘cultural cleansing’ can do to a society and its people.
Horrendously, such cultural violence is currently being unleashed in Afghanistan where the visual art scene had been flourishing in recent years. Now: