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Collections and Art Collectors in Modern Romania

Beginnings. The Development of the Taste for Art and the First Collectors

The 19th century was one of change in the Romanian Principalities, in the political field, as well as in that of mentalities. The spreading of the ideas of the French Revolution and the establishment of a series of tangible national ideals (the Revolution of 1848) brought on the formation of the modern state (1859), the proclamation of the state’s independence (1877) and implicitly the beginning of a reformation process which set as its goal the accelerated modernization of the state and society, based on a Western model.

The role of the artist in this transition from the belated Middle Ages, founded on Orthodox ideas and principles – which amputated the evolution of art throughout the years – was one of a rather symbolic and peripheral character. The first artists, detached from the tradition of the painters of the thick that organized themselves at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century in the guild of the painters of the thin and joined a group of foreigners that came to exploit the lack of an art market in this area, managed to progressively gain a place for themselves in society by making portraits for the great and middle boyars or for some members of the nouveau riche bourgeoisie. The phenomenon remained an isolated one for a long time, as the presence of art in the upper social classes was rather a flaunting of the social status, not at all a steppingstone for an openness towards art and implicitly towards collecting it. From the portrait-making tradition of the clergy within the Church, which represented an additional confirmation of the privileged financial status of the persons depicted in these portraits, the presence of the portrait in the private space came as a natural continuation of this myth, which had already been clearly outlined in the mentalities of the upper classes. Not even the appearance of a series of artists schooled outside the Principalities, in Western Europe, could determine a radical and visible change of the manner in which the local boyars related to the plastic arts.

The first official exhibition – in 1864, that coincided with the founding of the Superior Art Schools in Bucharest and Iași and of the State Pinacothèque may be regarded as the historical moment which marked the beginning of the phenomenon of art collecting in the Romanian space. The collection of the State Pinacothèque – the first official step towards constructing a public art collection – was exhibited in Iași, at the Museum of Art, and inaugurated on 26th October 1869 in Bucharest. As it did not have a permanent location, it was hosted in two-three secondary halls of the Romanian Athenaeum.

The first generations of Romanian artists had the misfortune of being active in a field that was more than marginal, as the collecting of works of plastic art was regarded as being an eccentric habit, one without too many followers. The sumptuous interiors of the boyars’ houses were still loyal to the Oriental taste and the recently formed petite bourgeoisie was still not showing an appetite for collecting art. The art buyers and enthusiasts represented isolated cases, whereas the only known collection of that period belonged to the man of letters and liberal politician known as Mihail Kogălniceanu (1817-1891). “He mostly collected paintings of the classic names in universal painting, without however neglecting sculpture, the decorative and applied arts and historical items from different eras.”1 Kogălniceanu is also said to have been interested in contemporary art – Romanian of origin, as well as foreign. Although he had intended to donate his collection to the country and to create a museum around it, due to financial problems and the successive refusal of the authorities to get involved in the construction of said museum, Mihail Kogălniceanu sold most of the works and the part he was left with was subsequently sold by his heirs. What the collection encompassed and what its fate was after it being sold off abroad has to this day remained a mystery.

Carol of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen (1839-1914), the future king Carol I of Romania, became an important collector of European art, decorative art and weapons, and simultaneously – a promoter of the phenomenon of collecting art in the Romanian space. A series of the king’s close relations, politicians or varied personalities of high society, influenced by the former’s passion, started acquiring works of art now and then, without however creating a famous collection. The items collected by the king, left by power of his will to the Romanian state, are now exhibited in the National Museum of Art and the Peleș National Museum.

The first collector whose collection is well-known, a true patron of the arts, was the controversial Alexandru Bogdan-Pitești (1871-1922). “Clear details of the life of Alexandru Bogdan-Pitești are rather scarce. Everything is covered in a legend which either seduced or appalled his contemporaries and which insures him an extended presence after his passing.” 2

Banished from Paris under the accusation of anarchy, after he had several times been arrested because of the eccentric manner in which he liked spending his time together with the symbolist or anarchist bohemian groups, Bogdan-Pitești settled down in Bucharest in 1894. The intellectual rebel swiftly integrated into the local artistic scene, quickly befriending the most prominent poets and plastic artists of the times. He got actively involved in the cultural life of the city, financing exhibitions using the brand of the Ileana Society (of which the symbolic patron was, cynically elected, Ileana Cosânzeana 3. Being constantly interested in what was new, Alexandru Bogdan-Pitești frequently organized debates at his private home or in the city’s coffee shops, in order to discuss art, literature, aesthetics, etc. He published the first art magazine in Romania – Ileana –, he signed the manifest of the exhibition of independent artists, and as of 1908 he transformed his manor at Vlaici (in Olt County) into a true artistic colony. Famous names of Romanian modern art worked throughout summer at the manor of the patron-collector: Camil Ressu, Nicolae Dărăscu, Ștefan Dimitrescu, Max Hermann Maxy, Cecilia Cuțescu Stork, etc. The largest part of the works that were created at Vlaici were acquired by Alexandru Bogdan-Pitești himself, who always offered a generous price for the works.

Before the end of summer, in his residence at 36 Știrbei Vodă (which is no longer standing), Bogdan-Pitești gathered over 1,500 works of paintings, graphic art works and sculptures, signed by the most renowned Romanian contemporary artists. The collection was completed by a significant number of icons, old objects of worship, old books, ex-libris and works of popular art. He died on 25th April 1922 without leaving behind a will, although he had more than once announced his intention to turn the collection into a museum. “The house of Bogdan-Pitești! Since he passed away, those few square metres, which represented, in the heart of Bucharest, Athens and Paris, have disappeared.”4, the writer Gala Galaction nostalgically reminisced about the moments spent together with the collector and his circle.

The First Collections to Be Turned into Museums. Failures, Successes, Problems.

It is said that Alexandru Bogdan-Pitești had wanted to see his collection transformed into a museum during his lifetime. The proceedings the minister I. G. Duca undertook in 1918 were rejected for reasons which remain unknown to this day. Two months after his untimely death, Dominica Bogdan, his mother, wrote to the Ministry of the Arts with the intention of offering his famous collection to the state. Initially, Minister C. Banu was honoured to accept the donation but the conditions imposed by the heiress of the collector and the suspicions of some of the employees of the Ministry slowed down and hindered the proceedings up to the point of the donation getting rejected on ridiculous grounds: disputing the clause which requested the Alexandru Bogdan-Pitești Museum to be founded on his premises at Vlaici, the suspicion that the mother of the deceased was trying to avoid paying the inheritance tax and later on, the rumour which turned out to be true: the seizure of the collection by the creditors of the collector. The creditors were actually not involved; instead, the lawyer of the deceased – Ernest Paximade – which had started the confiscation procedure because of the legal fees for the services rendered for Bogdan-Pitești, which he hadn’t paid. The fate of the collection had been set: it was wasted in an auction which had most probably been “set up due to a combination of interests amongst art aficionados, bidders and executors.” 5

All the press campaigns and artists’ protests for saving the collection were in vain. The fate of the works collected by Alexandru Bogdan-Pitești was similar to the famous Hungarian collection of his contemporary Marcell Nemes Jánoshalmi (1866-1930). The sentence pronounced by the writer Perspessicius with regard to this event remains indefectible: “It was a robbery, or if you prefer, a grotesque scene from the Hall of Trinkets.”

An indisputably happier fate befell for the Simu Museum, a private collection turned into a museum by its owner, with the motto: “Not only for us but for others as well.” Anastase Simu (1854-1935), member of the Romanian Academy and politician, PhD of political and administrative sciences, succeeded in laying out the groundwork for the first art museum in Bucharest, back in 1910, an institution that bore his name. Unlike Alexandru Bogdan-Pitești, whose collection of works showed taste and inspiration, Simu’s collection was one of inequality, which adjoined resonating names of contemporary art and names – Romanian or international – of at least disputable value in the field of plastic arts. The artists that knew him kept a fond image of him alive in their memory, admiring the choice of donating the collection to the state, as well as the attitude he had in relation to the artists: “Simu, the founder of the homonymous museum, and his wife had a deep appreciation for our artists (…). He took the advice of the artists that he esteemed into account and his was the merit of having offered all his material means for the freshness of art.” 6

The collection of Anastase Simu encompassed – alongside Romanian artists (Carol Popp of Szathmary, Theodor Aman, Mișu Pop, Nicolae Grant, Apcar Baltazar, Aurel Jiquidi, etc.) and French artists (Antoine Bourdelle, Camille Pissarro, Camile Claudel, Eugene Vibert, Leo Putz, etc.), a series of cast moulds made after famous works from the Italian Renaissance and Classical Antiquity, as the collector was involved in educating the young generations which did not have the means to travel.

With the exception of his big ego, those who wrote about Anastase Simu conveyed a generally pleasant image of him. One single perfectly justifiable nervous breakdown is recorded by Zambaccian, i.e. when the collector criticizes the Romanian state. On the founding of the Toma Stelian Museum, being asked to be part of the committee of the museum, Simu had an outburst:

“’However is it possible for me – who has given to the country this Temple with one thousand works of art, Romanian and foreign, to be the patron of a committee which has the goal of garnishing the residence of Toma Stelian with paintings and sculptures, bought out of the tax payers’ money? If Toma Stelian donated a building, that is very kind of His Lordship – let there be a school, a library instituted in that very place – as he was a learned man but why must there be a museum to carry his name, as the deceased had never cared for art, and had not even left behind a stamp collection, and had never even set foot in the Ministry of Arts!
‘Paradoxically,’ I [Zambaccian] concluded, like in Pirandello’s theatre: A museum without paintings and Seven members in a committee looking for art works. While the state neglects its own Pinacothèque which is moved from one place to the other.” 7

Indeed, paradoxically, shortly after the failure of the Bogdan-Pitești donation, a museum without any works of art was founded in Bucharest!

Another controversial museum of the age was founded by the “rival” of Anastase Simu, Iancu Kalinderu. The institution was based on the collection of Dr Nicolae Kalinderu that uttered the intention of founding a museum during his lifetime. His heirs continuously enriched the collection, and with the support of the state managed to open a museum in public-private partnership. After the death of Nicolae Kalinderu, it was to be partially donated and partially acquired in order to become public. Some of the contemporaries criticized this new procedure, skeptical of the authenticity of the presented works: “the collection, besides the objects coming from Dr Nicolae Kalinderu, offers room for suspicion: many canvasses are of a questionable origin. In the notebook of I. Kalinderu, a payment could be observed, which was made out to the painter D. Serafim for signing several paintings. Yet another piece of evidence for the forgeries in the collection.” 8

The two museums, to which the Toma Stelian Museum (opened on 21st March 1926) was to be added, after being expanded through donations of a few artists or acquisitions of the state, had the merit of forming the taste of art enthusiasts in Romanian society, particularly that of those living in Bucharest.

Simultaneously with Simu and Kalinderu, other collections of art emerged, with the names of their collectors having been forgotten in the meantime: Nicolae Moret Blaremberg, Vasile Morțun, Eugeniu Carada, Goodwin, etc. In turn, the poet Alexandru Vlahuță and the Swiss art critic William Ritter became collectors due to the countless gifts received from the painter Nicolae Grigorescu.

The State Pinacothèque in Iași was enlarged by the donations of several collectors of the time, amongst whom the most renowned were: Scarlat Varnav, Costache Dasiade, Costache Negri, Ioan Aivas, Iancu Manolache Codrescu or the artists Gheorghe Panaiteanu-Bardasare and Constantin D. Stahi.

The Years between the Wars: the Glory of the Collectors

The interwar period stood out through a great cultural-artistic effervescence and, naturally, through the formation of an important collection of plastic arts. The fact that the art aficionados and collectors from the interwar period almost exclusively acquired contemporary art, especially that of Romanian origin, is intriguing. “Personal researches lead to realizing that the sympathy of the art collectors redirected itself, in what concerns the living artists, towards works of clear value, when these reached their full maturity, i.e. around 50 years and did not take risks in encouraging the young talents only very rarely. They supported these sporadically and more out of the ego of not being regarded as rusty.” 9

With the exception of a series of names of resonance in Romanian modern art, like Theodor Aman (1831-1891), Nicolae Grigorescu (1838-1907), Ioan Andreescu (1850-1882) și Ștefan Luchian (1868-1916), the taste of the art collectors was thus directed, almost exclusively towards emerging Romanian artists. Amongst the preferred artists were those of a temperate modernism like Nicolae Tonitza (1886-1940), Theodor Pallady (1871-1956), Gheorghe Petrașcu (1872-1949) and Camil Ressu (1880-1962). Other names which are often encountered in the interwar collections are Iosif Iser (1881-1958), Eustațiu Stoenescu (1884-1957), Cecilia Cuțescu-Stork (1879-1969), Francisc Șirato (1877-1953), Ion Theodorescu-Sion (1882-1939) and Ștefan Dimitrescu (1886-1933). Followers or even promoters of a traditionalist inspiration in art, these very proficient drawers or exceptional painters promoted an art deeply anchored in the local imaginary. With the exception of nudes and flowers, themes which were otherwise preferred by the collectors, the subjects of these artists took their inspiration from the countryside, out of the rural world, onto which they often added an idealized character.

The most famous interwar collections were formed after the auctioning of the famous Bogdan-Pitești collection. According to the biographies of Alexandru Bogdan-Pitești, the most famous collectors that were present at the auction of 3rd December 1924 were: Iosif Dona, Krikor Zambaccian, Adolf Grünberg-Ruleta and Lazăr Munteanu. Other prominent names amongst the collectors of Bucharest in that period were: Nicolae Ionescu Barbă, Henri Tembinski, Virgil Cioflec, Alexadru Răscanu, Mișu Weinberg, Leon Laseron, Aristide Blank, etc.

The most illustrious of these was the Armenian industrialist Krikor H. Zambaccian (1889-1962). “My passion for art made way for all sorts of comments and interpretations. Thus, the sculptor Han used to say that I was afflicted by pictorial angina, and a journalist, hearing someone calling me by my name, offered a correction: his name is not Zambaccian but Kollectian.” 10, the collector noted in his memoires. The Armenian tradesman, having completed commercial studies in Constanța and Antwerp, became passionate about art, starting with the first years of his career. Unlike most of the time’s collectors, Zambaccian gained his fame as an expert, a feature confirmed by the rigour in selecting the works which make up his renowned collection, which is now exhibited in the museum bearing his name, on 21a Museum Zambaccian Street. His contemporaries remember the personality of the famous collector and his role in the Romanian cultural space with great enthusiasm: “Very different from the collector Al. Bogdan-Pitești, a bizarre man, a pamphlet writer and art critic, prone to fraud but generous with the painters, and from Anastase Simu, who had good intentions but was naïve and used to acquire works in bulk, from which Claude Monet, Daumier, Signiac or Bourdelle shone out, Zambaccian opens enlightened roads in art. A passionate collector and a surprisingly self-taught expert, he lived out his life amongst artists, passing the time in museums, at exhibitions and ateliers, selecting famous paintings from Cézanne, Corot, Courbet, Renoir, Matisse, Marquet and many other masters.” 11 Indeed, Krikor Zambaccian managed to lay the grounds for the most well-aggregated collection in Romania, a selection of works of exclusive value, whilst also having the role of patron for artists, and last but not least, a recognized art critic. The Zambaccian Museum carries out the purpose which its founder ascribed to it with flying colours: “a school for Romanian artists and researchers.” Specialists that studied the interwar collections remind us often of the collection of his brother, Onic Zambaccian, which is smaller in items, but remarkable through the sensitivity of the selection. However, this latter collection was not preserved, as it was sold off by his heirs.

An exquisite personality of the interwar cultural scene was the poet Ion Minulescu (1881-1944). A critic, collector and close friend of many sculptors and painters, he actively contributed in promoting the values of Romanian plastic arts. He wrote chronicles about the artists and the exhibitions of the age, in which he demonstrated a very keen analytical spirit and a deep understanding of art. As general director of the arts at the Ministry of Cults and Arts, Minulescu was involved in the reopening of the Official Salon, the most important artistic manifestation in interwar Romania.

Alongside his wife, the poet Claudia Millian, Minulescu collected an important number of works throughout the years. The collection enriched during his entire life illustrates his personal affinities. He collected the works of the artists with whom he became friends, for whom he sat as model, and of whom he wrote. The relationship between the Minulescu lyricism and the art collection of the poet is entirely unusual. The works which caught his attention, especially those signed by artists who were followers of the new trends, as were Iser, Brauner, Michăilescu, Gheaţă, Pallady, Ciucurencu, Petre Iorgulescu-Yor, Ressu, Vasile Popescu showcase the openness of the poet to all that was new in Romanian art. The poet also collected tiny hand-made objects, silver items, carpets, fote (traditional Romanian aprons), China, icons painted on glass, archaeological items, items of Oriental art, etc.

Three years after the death of the poet, in 1947, his collection was transformed by Claudia Millian into a small museum, which is kept unchanged to this day. Hidden in Cotroceni, close to the Faculty of Medicine, in the apartment which hosts the Ion Minulescu collection, Claudia Millian reconstructs the delicate and refined universe in which the two poets lived and worked.

It is intriguing that even if they were notorious names of the international avant-garde, the artists of Romanian origin only rarely found their place in Romanian collections. Constantin Brâncuși (1876-1957) only managed to sell 3-4 works in Bucharest but none of them was significant for the style he became famous for. The same goes for the works of Arthurt Segal (1857-1944) which were rarely to be found in national collections. The works signed by famous active avant-gardists at that time in Bucharest, amongst whom we can list the founder of the Dadaist movement Marcel Iancu (1895-1984), the surrealists of international fame Victor Brauner (1903-1966) and Jules Perahim (1914-2004), etc. also remained – with just a few exceptions – outside the scope of the collectors’ of the time.

The only one who succeeded to gather an exclusively avant-garde collection in Bucharest was the writer Sașa Pană (1902-1981). Close to the surrealist circles that met at The Century (Lăptăria lui Enache – En.: Enache’s Milk Bar), Sașa Pană started laying the grounds of the most enduring surrealist publication in Romania: unu. Around the magazine, a group was formed, of which Victor Brauner was also part and whose works Sașa Pană collected with avid interest; the first surrealist works of the artist are still kept in the Pană family collection. In addition to art works signed by the best of the Romanian avant-garde, the collection also holds a countless number of magazines, ex-libris or editiones principes of the avant-garde writers who were active on the local scene. Kept in its entirety by his family in the house of the writer in Bucharest, the Pană collection remains to this day the most important document of the artistic and literary avant-garde in Romania.

The Seizure of the Art Collections during Communism: Between Reality and Myth

The 1938-1948 decade was perhaps the most obscure in all of Romanian history. In the succession of four dictatorships, the art collections started deteriorating for different reasons. If in the beginning, the Carlist dictatorship which was installed in 1930 encouraged the development of arts and culture, the last years culminated with the beginning of an anti-Semitic law system which offered a preview of the events that were to take place in the Holocaust. In this period, works of art or collections which belonged to Jews vanished, some without ever being tracked down again.

Several other collections were lost amid the war, in the American bombings (August 1943), the Russian bombings (April 1944), and later on, German bombings (August 1944), which also affected many private residences. Today, the bleakest moment is considered to be the beginning of the Communist rule, as this is associated with the beginning of the nationalizations and confiscations of goods with artistic value, which were considered to be of national interest. In his book Deceniul prăbușirilor (En.: The Decade of Collapses), Mihai Pelin devotes an entire chapter to the study of this phenomenon, suggestively entitled Colecționarii, de la celebritate la clandestinitate (En.: Collectors, From Famous to Clandestine). The conclusion of the study raises a question mark with regard to the circulating myth amongst contemporary press outlets concerning the massive confiscation of art collections at the order of the authorities of the Communist state: “For years on end, countless paintings that were private property became practically inaccessible. The fear of disclosure imposed a quasi-secret existence upon them. The natural joy of man in ennobling his day-to-day ambience annexed to itself a nuance of suffocating clandestine.”12 The conclusion of Mihai Pelin sums up a simultaneously complex and complicated situation. In the Communist period, there was no legislative regulation on grounds of which confiscation could be carried out, and nationalization never included art works. There were talks of donation which were made under pressure but this certain aspect still remains a dilemma for Romanian historiography. Another aspect which was contested is made up of the state acquisitions, for which the assigned committee assessed the works of art below the lower limit of a recent minimal value. However, there existed collections created in the times of Communism but secretly. What this system changed fundamentally – through repression and fear – was the mentality of the art collector. Although in most retrospective exhibitions of some important artists there are always works exhibited which belong to private collectors (Ion Chirichuță, Sabina Florian, Ursula and Bucur Șchiopu, Rodica Ciocîrlel Teodorescu, etc.), it is difficult to identify what those collections comprised of, how they were constructed, etc. The collector was transformed out of an important pillar in the evolution of art into an obscure aficionado about whom, year after year, a lot less was known. For the fear of confiscations or that of persecutions? One thing is certain: this suspicious attitude, this clandestine character which was imposed remained a legacy for the collectors even after 1990.

A controversial fate befell the famous collection of Dr Iosif N. Dona. One of the most important collectors of the interwar period, the doctor donated a significant part of his collection to the state in 1950, an example that was followed by two other donations made in 1980 and 1989 by his heirs. This was one of the most well aggregated known collections of the interwar period, relevant for the refinement of the doctor’s personal taste, as well as for the artistic directions of an entire epoch. Dr Iosif Dona’s taste for art, as it was cultivated within his family, was owed to his parents being Romanian art lovers. Dona started acquiring works in 1902, the year in which he bought a painting signed by Nicolae Grigorescu; 8 years later he described himself as being an art collector, and he starts recording his acquisitions in a notebook. The collector was lucky enough to inherit from his aunt Zettina Urechea an important number of works, and also took part in auctions of renowned collections of the moment like those of:

Alexandru Bogdan-Pitești, Eugeniu Carada and his brother-in-law, Alexandru Vlahuță. The donations made by the doctor and his heirs to the state were disputed in court for a long time, what at the end resulted in the return of the collection to the rightful heirs of the collector. This brought on that the majority of the works were to be dispersed in different auctions on the Romanian art market. The Dona case confirms the fact that in the Communist period there were sufficient methods for confiscating works or for arranging donations which today remain totally unknown.

In the year 1978, through the founding of the Romanit Palace of the Museum of Art Collections, a part of the collections created in Romania and officially donated to the state were for the first time exhibited together, thus exploiting the idea of the art collection and its significance in the history of arts.

  • muz toma stelian, foto de arhiva
  • Muzeul toma stelian, sala cantacuzino
  • Muzeul-simu