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Măiastra: A History of Romanian Sculpture in Twenty-Four Parts
Dr. Igor Gyalakuthy
Lemn is the Romanian word for wood. Derived from the Latin lignum, meaning gathered wood, lemn translates almost directly as the material makeup of trees.
Like a good many Romanian words, however, lemn carries with it a deeper and more complex meaning than its English equivalent, one that only those who’ve grown up in the forests of the Northern Carpathians, in the pine and birch, Norwegian spruce, silver fir and poplar, grey alder and black locust trees, the oaks, sequoias, walnuts and occasional cypress trees, can truly understand.
Maramures is a region in northwestern Romania, on the country’s border with the Ukraine. Nestled in the forests of Northern Carpathian Mountains, Maramures is most famous for its wooden Orthodox churches, some of which date as far back as the 17th century and are classified as UNESCO-protected heritage sites. These buildings are master classes in carpentry, many built without a single nail, and the methods used in their constructions have been passed down through generations of senior carpenters. But the churches are only one aspect of the woodworking tradition in the region. Passing through even the most remote of villages, one is likely to happen upon grand wooden gates with intricate, carved columns enclosing lovely wooden farmhouses and carriages.
The “Happy Cemetery,” another one of Maramure’s main attractions, is a collection of wooden, not stone, gravestones, inscribed with folksy, often humorous epitaphs instead of the usual grim, maudlin affairs. Like the departed they commemorate, these memorials are meant to disintegrate with time, hopefully slowly, but positively.
As a young student of sculpture, I was equally hapless with each of the many materials. But my love of wood and its deep connection to the land of my birth was all but quashed by the time of my introduction and consequent love affair with the marble of the Renaissance. For scholars, it seems, our tastes mature along the same excruciatingly slow timelines we hold dear. By the time I discovered the work of Constantin Brancusi, Romanian lemn had already begun to play a crucial role in the development of modern sculpture, one that continues to reverberate throughout Western art.
Brancusi worked often in wood. Some of his earliest pieces, Prodigal Son for one, were carved from blocks of oak or assembled from pieces of found wood. He used the material to mock up earlier versions of some of his most famous stone and bronze sculptures, including Head of a Child, The Cock and Endless Column. But the majority of his wooden pieces were pedestals for other works. These bases functioned not only as exhibition platforms but as showcases for the material itself, its complexity and color, its mass and the strength with which it supported his stone and bronze works. They represented for Brancusi one metaphysical step outwards in the realm of concern of the artist. Suddenly, the meanings of the sleek, sparkling forms above were tied inextricably to the rough, terrestrial forms that supported them.
Many of the world’s greatest sculptors wouldn’t go near wood. The European schools thought of wood as a purely folk material, incapable of rendering the same sacred stillness they found in marble. The complexity of wood grain makes carving clean, exact lines nearly impossible, and the striated shades of color found in wood absorbs shadow and dulls the visibility of certain details.
As sculpture moved towards abstraction in the early 20th century, however, wood as a sculpting material began to represent a kind of blue-collar stoicism missing from the priggish fastidiousness of New Sculpture. The desire to let form be dictated by a material’s natural tendencies is one of the most important shifts in the history of sculpture. This shift allowed artists to follow a material’s potential like a path and, for many, the path returned them home.
No sculptor embodied this spirit like Geza Vida. Born in Baia Mare, the capitol of Maramures County, to a family of miners, Vida began carving wood at an early age. As a young man, he began to sculpt the miners, farmers, laborers and peasants around him as a way of voicing his increasingly leftist beliefs, beliefs that kept him in hot water during most of the fascist occupation of Romania. Though he was undoubtedly talented with stone, he preferred wood, a vital and earthly material, one that connected his revolutionary politics and the formal value of his work to the craftsmanship of his hometown. In 1964, he was awarded the title of the People’s Artist, and arguably no artist sharing that title has deserved it more. Two years later, in 1966, he completed one of his most celebrated pieces, the Monument of Moisei, a tribute to the twenty-nine Romanian citizens massacred in the town by retreating Hungarian troops in 1944.
The monument was originally composed of twelve carved oak columns arranged in a circle, each topped with a primitive mask specific to the region. The masks look outwards over the wooded countryside, and the space inside of them forms a sort of sanctuary. “And each one of these figures, born of the ax that shapes the tree trunk, speaks about the artist. Eveything is here so vigorous, focused, sober and at the same time so tempestuous and passionate, that we seem to hear the tool biting the flesh of the wood, as if we hear the bruise of Vida’s heart that leads his creative hand.” 1
But time and weather wore on the wood, and in the early 1970’s, Vida was forced to replace the wooden totems with stone versions. Though it is certainly fortunate that the monument’s memory should live on, the look of these primitive forms carved from stone instead of the original wood has never sat right with me. To my eyes, there is something chillingly absurd about them. [Note: today, even the stone masks are falling into disrepair. It seems not even the strongest substances can withstand this country’s tendency towards ruin.]
Wood, like people, shows its age. From the moment a piece of wood is cut it begins to absorb moisture. The water soaks through the wood completely, and with each abrupt shift in weather, the wood expands and contracts until it splits. Once the splits have opened, their sharp edges began to soften as they erode. The sight of decay in our memorial statuary is unnerving. Any monument of wood, no matter the subject, is a monument to the rapid biological decomposition of the human body. As a material wood undermines the very aim of monumentality, which, more than admiration or the transmission of information, is a willful contempt for mortality. And this is the key to its power.
After Communism, some embraced fully the sprint towards European and American modernity that swept through the cities. But some looked backwards, or, I should say, outwards, towards the rural villages and farms that for so long gave this country its identity. A new veneration for the agrarian roots of Romania began to appear all over the country’s cultural centers, in the cuisine, the architecture, the music and in the institutions. [Note: walking the streets in Bucharest I have on more than one occasion seen young women wearing chic, updated versions of the floral, embroidered white blouses and tunics worn by traditional peasant women.]
In 1990, the Museum of the Romanian Peasant re-opened its doors after a turbulent history under Ceausescu, which saw it merged with the Village Museum, dangerously underfunded and ultimately closed. Today, the MORP has come to stand in reverent opposition to institutions like the National Museum of Art, which, for all its great works, is representative of a history that is more European than Romanian. Stored in the eclectic rooms of the Peasant Museum is the truth of where we come from, as most of us can trace our ancestry out of the cities and into the countryside in a generation or less. As a sprawling, chimeric whole, it presents a vision of country life that is currently being relearned by its citizens. In 1996, the Museum of the Romanian Peasant won the title of European Museum of the Year.
Lemn is more than a material, it is a reminder that the greatest histories often are those imagined, not those that might have been, but those that were and no longer are, those that remain hidden away, and those protected from the destructive speed of change. Trapped within the forms of some of this country’s strongest three-dimensional work is a love not for the sleek, sparkling modernity of the city but for the rough, terrestrial landscapes that support it.
1 Eugen Schileru, Contemporanul, nr. 11, 21 mar. 1958, p. 6.
Dr. Igor Gyalakuthy is a professor emeritus at the Universitatea Nationala de Arte in Bucharest. In 1993, he received the national medal for achievement in the field of art history. He lives in Cluj- Napoca with his Lakeland terrier Bausa.