The Romanian Imaginarium – a magical title! And indeed, when entering the room on the first floor of the Romanian Cultural Centre, I’m confronted with shadow-creatures, flowery skulls and birds that ride on faceless humans. Even though the exhibition space is not purpose-built, the period-style chandelier and stucco decoration on the ceiling add to the sense of folksy mysteriousness that the exhibits contain. All the works on display are giclée prints, or digital fine art prints, created by Romanian artists who work in a variety of media. Each artist’s work is displayed in its own section, and while the labelling is placed slightly impractically for the viewer, the works are so engaging that it’s fun to look around without explanations or definitions, and to discover what the main themes and interests of each of the six artists may be.
My first encounter with the works is focused on the aspects of “Romanian-ness” I might be able to discover in them- the fact that the exhibition is in the Romanian Cultural Centre and displays works by Romanian artists presumably aims to introduce some kind of Romanian identity. The only images that do so in an obvious way are Matei Branea’s, including Doina – the Great Romanian Nude, drawn in the colours of the Romanian flag, and part of his series “Eat my Balkans.” The latter visualises Romanian sayings from everyday speech, for example: “Why do your feet smell? Because they come from your Ass.” They are funny little drawings that convey everyday humour and highlight the idiosyncrasies of languages and dialects as part of a wider culture. While Branea’s drawings are quite simple graphically, the fact that they link word and picture relate it to a story-telling tradition that has been brought into the twenty-first century.
Branea’s comic-style drawings are similar to Kitra’s crazy-coloured pieces, which are displayed next to his. From an aesthetic point of view, Kitra’s exhibits don’t work as well as the other illustrations do in the room – their neon colours appear weirdly exaggerated in contrast to the magnolia walls, and the fact that they’re smaller than the other works on display and sited on top of the fireplace makes them seem weirdly incongruous. Then again, the works are inspired by street art and Kitra is involved in toy design, so a bit of rebellion is probably intended. When comparing Branea and Kitra’s works, it’s fascinating how similar they are in some aspects, like the street art influence, yet how different the end result turns out to be. And as I move along, this turns out to be the feature all the works on display have in common: the surrealist, folkloric roots of twentieth century Romanian visual culture are captured and developed further, paired with modern popular culture like street art, and international influences. This creates an eclectic mix of imagery in each artist’s work, yet they all share a concern for playfulness and imagination. A wonderful example of this are Aitch’s illustrations for Beautiful Us. At first sight, the works are very naïve with organic shapes like flowers and cutesy animals in bright colours. However, upon closer inspection they’re intricately designed and contain the imagery of a strong folklore tradition – not solely Romanian but from a mixture of influences.
A mixture of influences – this is what all the illustrations have in common. I wonder, is that a reflection of modern Romanian culture? And what aspect of it? Certainly, we find ourselves in the realm of popular culture here: many of the exhibiting artists also work with global companies like Coca Cola.
Everything here is bright, funny and playful, and the detailing in most of the images allows us to look at them several times and discover something new. A fresh, young show with folkloric roots would sum it up best. I do wonder though what makes it all Romanian. Is the big mixture of old and new popular influences maybe a reflection of idiosyncrasies in contemporary Romanian culture? As I leave the exhibition, I promise myself to learn more about Romania and its art- the Imaginarium has caught my attention.
The Romanian Imaginarium is at the Romanian Cultural Centre, Manchester Square, until 5th February 2015 (opening hours 11 am – 6 pm).