Cluj: The abandoned paintbrush factory producing art’s new superstars

adrian-ghenieIn Romania’s second city, a new school of artists led by Adrian Ghenie is making headlines by confronting the country’s troubled past. Maria Howard talks to Post-War and Contemporary Art specialist Cristian Albu about the key players in this extraordinary movement, says

Adrian Ghenie made headlines recently as his Van Gogh-inspired painting The Sunflowers in 1937 sold for £3.1 million against an estimate of £400,000–600,000, but what is behind this spectacular success?

Certainly the painter has been making waves in the contemporary art scene for over a decade with impressive shows at Pace and consistently strong auction results, including the $1,565,000 realized for Pie Fight Interior 9 (2013) at Christie’s New York in May 2015, but his success is part of a larger contemporary art movement from Cluj, Romania’s vibrant second city that’s home to a generation of artists bringing painting back from the dead.

Adrian Ghenie photographed in his studio in Cluj, Romania. Artwork: Persian Miniature, 2013. Oil on canvas. Photograph Courtesy Adrian Ghenie Studio

First showcased by the pioneering Plan B gallery and curator Mihai Pop, the Cluj school of artists, led by Adrian Ghenie, Victor Man and Marius Bercea, is revolutionising contemporary painting. The Eastern Bloc aesthetic, inevitably tinged with a history of Communism and violence, continues to attract collectors and institutions worldwide to this city at the heart of Transylvania.

Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art specialist and fellow Romanian Cristian Albu insists, however, that this is nothing new for a country whose forebears include sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi and surrealist Victor Brauner. ‘Romanian art doesn’t start now,’ he says. ‘The art community in Romania has had incredible links with Paris and Berlin since the beginning of the 20th century.’

Marius Bercea received his MA from the University of Art and Design, Cluj, in 2005, and is regarded as one of the leading artists of the Cluj school. His large-scale colourful paintings often combine landscapes of post-Communist Romania with a surreal element.

Szabolcs Veres starts with the traditional notion of the portrait and proceeds to distort it into something disturbing in the manner of Bacon and Ghenie. Living and working in Cluj, he is represented by Spencer Brownstone Gallery in New York.

But if Bucharest was once a ‘little Paris’, it wasn’t for long: ‘Communism came in 1957, and Ceauşescu in 1962 — politically things changed but artistically they didn’t. Artists still thrived within their own community, but the only place where they could display art was in a church. Artists had to show in their own apartments, for just 24 hours, and then it disappeared.’

On the fringes of Mitteleuropa, Cluj was, until the Revolution of 1989, in the hands of conquerors and dictators — ‘a crossroad of empires’, from the Romans and the Ottomans to the Austro-Hungarians and eventually the Russians. ‘Everybody put their stamp on it,’ says Albu, ‘and then they left, so there is a certain darkness and survival element to everything.’


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