Visual Arts

Robin Ashenden reviews ‘Lee Miller: Romanian Rhapsody’ at the Romanian Cultural Centre

14/07/2014

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For any more-than-casual visitor, it’s always interesting to see what others have made of Romania.  The country is like nowhere else in Europe – to a visitor it’s more hospitable, more generous, and, for all its bafflingly unspoken codes, apparently less hemmed in by rules and regulations. A note of the surreal hangs over everything: Bucharest is filled with its famous flock of unwanted dogs, the House of the People – Ceausescu’s city-sacrificing folly – looms over the centre like an enormous tomb, and everywhere there seem to be explosions of energy, and unexpected hidden, private worlds. This is the country where I once accepted an invitation only to find myself in the house of a mushroom fanatic, his sitting room piled sky-high with every kind of fungus in existence, which he insisted I try, ticking off the names on a sheet of paper as I went. Once, taking a train to Timisoara, I asked the ticket-collector what time we would arrive: he searched his brain frantically for the right word in English and finally, with triumphant relief, simply wrote the time in biro on one of the train’s leather seats: a very Romanian solution, I was later told. Everything seems slightly on the slant here, and often bracingly:  borders of acceptable conversation are more flexible, the talk correspondingly more vivid, and the educated young feel hungrier and more abandoned to their enthusiasms – whether they are for old vinyl LPs, Beatles lyrics, Jabberwocky or the world of stand-up comedy. Romania may want to be a normal country, just like anywhere else, but its great strength is that it isn’t – it’s not quite Europe, not quite Asia, though it has traces of both and contains, as one Romanian émigré once told me, ‘all the colours of the spectrum.’ Attitudes to time-and-planning seem to break down: make too many advance arrangements and you will be told you are following the ‘occidental model’: hurry is bad and it’s better just to let things unfold. The writer Eva Hoffman, visiting Romania in the early nineties for her book Exit into History (1993), found that only by letting go of  ‘internal trying’ could she fit in, and feel in harmony with her surroundings. She also, at the end of her travels there, had a dream, almost Ionesco-like in its strangeness, that ‘synthesizes [her]  impressions of Romania in a condensed scenario…’:

‘In it, I’m among a group of Italian men – Romanians always talk of themselves as Latins – with vaguely disturbing faces. One of the men keels over – he’s having a heart attack. The others don’t do anything to help him, though they’re doctors. I try, with great difficulty, to cover him with a blanket. He grows paler and paler, though strangely he isn’t quite dying. Then, the door opens, and another ambiguous person enters and informs me, “This was all an experimentation. A show.”  Stefana and I agree that the Romanian atmosphere has penetrated my consciousness.’

Lee Miller, 1944, by David E. Scherman

Lee Miller, 1944, by David E. Scherman

It’s this note of surrealism – so hard to define, but ever-present in Romania – that animates the Romanian Cultural Centre’s recently opened ‘Lee Miller: Romanian Rhapsody.’ Put together from a cache of photographs discovered in a farmhouse attic, long after her death, by her son Antony Penrose, it’s a vivid portrait of a country that was soon to disappear under the onslaughts of Hitler and Stalin. Motoring through Romania in 1938 and through a different post-war country in 1946, Miller photographed gypsy-communities, markets, cities, politicians, royalty – many of which were about to be swept away forever – the Roma into the concentration camps, the politicians and the Romanian royals into the dustbin of history. But it is the relish of shape, design, pattern that stands out and makes you feel the word ‘rhapsody’ is not too strong: there is a real sense of visual rapture about the pieces as Miller photographs the decorative costumes, ornate interiors, wrought iron railings.  In one, ‘Legs of the Culusari’, Miller restricts herself to photographing just the fetlocks of some dancers – awesomely decorated, sheathed, haltered, fringed, turned into still lives and looking like fantastically ornate plant pots. In others children play Alpen Horns almost twice their size, looking vaguely illicit, as though smoking giant bongs, while a shot of a Sibiu market place turns the windows of the buildings beyond into Picassoesque eyes, ‘peering, prying’, as down below the market-vendors, Breughelesque and almost cubic with layers of clothing, sit among baskets of onions – two eras meeting, surreally, in front of you. Miller is also fascinated by festival and ritual, and often the strangeness of the events shown give rise to pictures which seem to change their emphases in front of you. The upheld arms of dancers look like tuning forks or bull-horns. Little girls – some with the self-awareness of photographic models – light candles at the ritual feast of Parastas, the edibles on the rug underneath so oddly shaped they seem almost nautical, little boats sailing among the temples and lighthouses of the bottles set out beside them. The detail with Miller is so uppermost – vegetables, cakes laid out like bones, marionettes, bell-shaped hats that seem to chime with the peasant roofs behind them – that the people in the photos seem turned into giants. In a particularly magical work, Lena Constante, the puppeteer she travelled with, is shown rising through the hole in a table, flourishing a puppet of Hitler, and her witchy aquiline face (shades of Nina Cassian) only adds to the picture’s menace, its atmosphere of the Brothers Grimm.

At the centre of these things is the people themselves, and at times in her pictures we feel a long way from Europe. Two children dressed in grass-skirts of tobacco leaves do a rain dance, while a ‘mediator with the world of the dead’, a bearded Sufi-like character, looks absolutely Far Eastern in appearance. There are ragged children who never seem to have been young, and women plaintive and widowed-looking, with faces seared and scored. Poignant too are Miller’s portraits of Romanian doomed royalty – the Queen mother Elena, miniaturised to the point of pathos amidst the splendour of Bran Castle, almost vanishing into the geometric designs of the architecture, and King Mihai, the young monarch forced to advocate and leave the country a couple of years later, a study in jadedness – threadbare, fatigued, down-at-heel-looking, and grasping a cigarette – the absolute fag end of an era. Romanian history – European history too – hovers over all these pictures, and it’s the knowledge of what would happen just a few decades afterwards – the organised extinction of folk customs, and a new, far more virulent form of rulership, itself no stranger to the surreal or menacing –  which lends this exhibition its sense of elegy, and makes it so worth seeing.

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Lee Miller: Romanian Rhapsody will be showing at the Romanian Cultural Institute, Manchester Square, 18 Fitzhardinge Street, London W1H 6EQ. ADMISSION FREE | Booking is essential at bookings@romanianculturalcentre.org.uk

The exhibition runs until 17 August 2014 | Mon – Fri, 11.00 am – 6.00 pm

 

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