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‘Painters of all countries, unite!’

A Romanian artist speaks about the time of communism’s artistic censure.

“I am an honest and shy person, with a lot of common sense and I had to suffer because of that.”

In a conversation about the artistic censure, Ileana Sbârcea-Mureşanu revealed to me her story as a painter during communist-era Romania. As a Romanian student, whose parents have spent most of their youth living under the communist regime, this subject has always been present in my life. I learned about it at school, I had various exams about it and ultimately the tales told by my family were something that stuck with me. I haven’t lived in these times, but many of our parents did, and I believe that the injustices that happened shaped not only our mindset but many of our habits. 

I met Ileana Sbârcea-Mureşanu while she was exhibiting her work at a gallery. She started to tell me about her experience with the communist censure in the seventies and so an impromptu interview was born. Her story is still so relevant and important because there are still places in the world where freedom of speech is a luxury, where the power of expressing yourself is stripped from you and where your individuality and opinions do not matter. This is the story of a painter who managed to maintain her voice and artistic integrity in a time where self-expression was almost non-existent. 

Arising from a bright family of doctors, and many other talents, Ileana’s interest in art started in her 11th grade, when she was 17. “My first work was made during a math class. It was Ponte Vecchio from Florence, which I was copying from a postcard. The teacher saw me looking at the postcard, after all I was sitting in the first row. He asked me to bring it forward and when he saw my work, he said ‘either you paint me one for tomorrow, or I’ll grade you with a four’, which was a very bad grade. I made one and my teacher pinned it on the wall”. I pointed it out how detailed this work was for someone so young, at which she replies jokingly: “Well it’s certainly better than a four.”

After WWII, communism took a dark twist leaving many Eastern European countries stranded in harsh conditions. In Romania, the communist regime begun its instalment during the years 1944-47, and after a year the People’s Republic of Romania was born. A number of restrictive changes emerged in the country which reshaped the whole system of the society through terror. Culturally, Romania entered a time which was defined as the culture of the proletariat. The Romanian academy was dissolved and numerous libraries, publications and bookshops were closed, all of which were considered a threat to the communist ideology. The role of any artistic or literary work was solely to promote subjects with a national, militant and revolutionary character. Overtime, the system seemed to get worse and worse, and in 1965, Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife came to power. Surprisingly, his reign started with a period of ‘cultural defrosting’ where the communist party was more indulgent on western oriented works. 

In 1971 the regime became almost unbearable, with food being limited, as well as heating, warm water and electricity. Ceausescu’s face was present on the front cover of every existing book and classroom. Many intellectuals and students were imprisoned and tortured for their liberty-oriented ideas and remarks against the regime. Those who were left and still active were classified as illegal and marginalised, the communist censure banning more than 80,000 books, countless writers, poets and artists. The crowd could not bear it any longer and the revolution of December 1989 ended with a bullet through Ceausescu’s head, leaving the country in a state of confusion, its people ecstatic and their future unclear. I can hardly describe the state of my people when the revolution ended. It was such a moving feeling to know that we were finally free, yet panic started to arise because we had no idea what to do with ourselves. Romania was the only country in which communism has fallen through bloodshed. 

Sbarcea finished her art studies in 1972 at the University of Cluj. “I didn’t learn much about drawing during my studies, the teacher wasn’t helpful at all. I never had an actual teacher when it came to art. I used to steal techniques from my colleagues who had a better artistic academic training and already had a style of work. We used to align the easels in a semi-circle and then the professor would come around and discuss them.” The university did not provide them with enough workshops, so when someone was lucky enough to find one, there were usually about three artists assigned to it. Ileana was not too fortunate with her workshop colleagues, as they occupied all the space and left her none. “I never had a workshop before. Only now at 77, I finally have my workshop.” Referring to a room filled with paintings in her lovely apartment: “My dad often allowed me to paint in the kitchen at evenings. I used to soak the paper with water and play with the colours, layer it with another paper and spread the colour evenly. Out of these experiments with colours resulted my knowledge of chromatics.” Her work is very lively and colourful, with almost childlike use of shape and form. It gives the viewer a very light and free feeling, quite the opposite of what the regime was aiming to do. “I was completely against the regime. In our family we didn’t discuss politics, but we definitely knew that we weren’t for the communist regime.”

In 1983, Sbarcea decided to become an art teacher at school number 14. She speaks highly of her students and remembers many of them fondly, telling me that her work as a teacher and her pupils have helped her overcome certain hardships in life. After a few years had passed she moved to Bucharest, where she met a family of painters. “The wife worked for an artistic union and she was making skirts. I also started doing all sorts of things, because after all I had to sustain my family. There I discovered velvet and I had the brilliant idea of painting on it,” she told me. It was a creative loophole for which she could escape painting Ceauşescu’s portrait because the movements of the velvet when painted would distort his face, which would never have been allowed and even seen as an offense. “I’ve seen Nikita Mihalkov’s film, Burnt by the Sun, where in one of the scenes they lift up a veil with Stalin’s face painted on it. As the wind was blowing the veil, it completely distorted the image of him. And I thought to myself, I had that idea first!” Ileana exclaimed. Her determination for creative freedom led her to be one of the few artists that have managed to paint on such a difficult fabric, one which moves the paint constantly.  “My work didn’t fit into graphic painting anymore, but rather decorative art. I became unique by painting on velvet. I used to paint two a day, about 1-metre long and 80cm wide.”

Civil liberties were highly controlled by the communist censure. “We had to paint factories, workers, fields with tractors, blocks of flats, portraits of Ceauşescu, and propaganda. I couldn’t stand to paint such things. We weren’t allowed to paint flowers, and I loved nature! You had to paint certain things and that was it. I worked in all sorts of conditions, but I never gave up. And that was very important because I ended up doing what I loved.” 

“There were few of us, unfortunately,” she told me. The artistic censure was fierce, and the corruption was too often found. “Those who sold themselves and their art to the regime lived well during these times. One time, I visited a sculptor in his workshop, and as soon as I walked in, I noticed sculptures of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu. I instantly felt sick. I couldn’t sell my art and I had to suffer because of it.” All of the paintings were evaluated by a censure commission before allowed to be a part of an exhibition. They ensured that the artistic work was following along the lines of the communist ideology. The union of painters usually arranged and handled the exhibition alongside the artists. “I was a member of this union only after 1989, when things changed”. In her exact words: “I didn’t lick anybody’s trail to get into the union”. A nice expression to those who had no ethical values and sacrificed their integrity to obtain a position. 

When reminiscing about her life during those times, Sbârcea says that she had lived a hard life, many of her sorrows caused by the oppressing regime. Yet after years of working hard to do what she liked and after living a life dictated by circumstances built from the egoism of people, she managed to create an environment where she is truly happy. After the interview, I visited one of her exhibitions in both our hometown Brasov and she said to me at the end: “I didn’t have an easy or exceedingly happy life, but I couldn’t be more content with what I have.”

The story of Sbârcea is important. She faced and challenged the rights to creativity in a time that had little hope, a time that many people who are still alive went through. A time, that you as a Kent reader probably had no idea of. She taught me to recognise the luxury of freedom and creativity that we have in a time that seems so dark. What stuck with me the most is when she told me: “In life anything can happen. Live your life the way you should, don’t make a mockery out of it. Make beautiful things.”

Written by Tímea Koppándi.

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