After the Second World War, Romania with other countries from Eastern and Central Europe entered the Soviet sphere of influence, and, as a result, a pro-communist government was installed here which prepared the major transformations that took place later, after the abdication of King Michael on the 30th of December 1947. The declaration of the Romanian People’s Republic triggered a process of political, social and institutional change which was violent and also gradual. The changes were by no means uniform and had peculiarities related to geography and ethnic composition. In 1945, Northern Transylvania is once again ceded to Romania and must be reintegrated. Everything happens, in the first post-war years, on an extremely complicated background, between the remnants of war with armies which advance or retreat, population displacement, people returning home from the army, refuge or concentration camps, but also great losses in war and the Holocaust. For quite a long time, the new governments from Bucharest were favorable for granting of a degree of autonomy of nationalities, with the exception of Germans who were deported. On the one hand, in the Romanian Communist Party, recently out of illegality, there were many Hungarian and Jewish members, on the other hand, prime minster Petru Groza supported a policy of protecting the identities, especially in Transylvania, where he himself was born (1).
The gradual establishment of communism was reflected in the transformation of the public space in which architects and artists were involved. Most monuments erected not only in the first years after the war, but also until the late 1950’s are related to various forms of commemoration of the Second World War. There is a time breach in which several Holocaust remembrance initiatives have emerged especially through publications and exhibitions. Some of the surviving artists intended to confer to the commemoration of the Holocaust victims a larger, more official dimension but with results of too little magnitude. Egon Marc Löwith returned to Cluj after internment in several labor camps and raised a monument dedicated to the Holocaust in the courtyard of a private individual, which unfortunately, did not enter the public circuit, nor has it been preserved. The only intervention in the public space carried to the end and subsequently left standing, The Monument to The Deported Jews (1947) can be found in front of the synagogue of Dej and is due to another surviving artist Iszák Márton. Other monuments commemorate the war as victory and “the release” brought by the Soviet army. Monuments, figurative or not, dedicated to the Soviet soldier, start to spread throughout Romania, even before the declaration of the republic and the removal of the royal insignia from the public space. In Cluj, located in front of the Orthodox Cathedral, the Monument to the Soviet Army was composed only of a tank placed on a large sturdy pedestal. Although the public space was crucial for the transmission of political messages, the regime’s monumental art program was, for most of the 1950’s, rather restricted due to limited resources. A significant sculpture for the representation of the new communist power, but slightly visible in its time was placed in the courtyard of the footwear factory in Cluj renamed Herbák János. Its bust, former illegal worker (today missing) created by Artur Vetro, signalled the change in status of the factory that had been nationalized.
For the same reason of few resources, the temporal distance from the contest for a monument and its implementation was considerable, being able to stretch for more than a decade as was the case of the statue of Petru Groza designed by Romul Ladea in 1959 and built in Bucharest only in 1971. However, at the end of the 6th decade, the commemorations of the Second World War take on a new scale, but also a new direction: instead of the Soviet soldier, the victorious Romanian soldier is installed, reflecting the shift of Bucharest’s regime towards a national communism following the withdrawal of the Soviet army from Romania in 1958. Already in 1959, the Monument of the Romanian Soldier (Andrei Ostap/ Anton Dâmboianu) appears in Baia Mare, among the first copies of a series that will continue throughout the 1960’s.
The artists respond differently to this context in which, initially, nothing was certain, and the feelings were those of confusion, oscillating between the tragedy of loss and the hope of a new beginning. Immediately after the war, the government, through the Ministry of Arts and local governments, was looking for possibilities to affiliate as many artists as possible and direct the artistic world towards a committed art. Therefore, it supports some initiatives, but also uses them to centralize them under the umbrella of a trade union formation which will get to have representation at national level, the Union of Artists, Writers and Journalists (USASZ). In Cluj, the painter Szolnay Sándor who became a member of USASZ continues to manage the Arts Pavilion in Bărnuțiu Park, which he hopes to keep as an exhibition space. Here in 1947, the Transylvanian Salon took place, the last of a series of such exhibitions initiated in the interwar period. Its place will be taken by another collective exhibition which, since 1948, will be called the Regional State Exhibition of Transylvania. Even if the exhibiting artists were largely the same from one year to the next, the new regime makes its presence felt in the title also by imposing a jury that includes state officials. The year 1948 represented a turning point in the artistic life: artistic groups were forbidden, and exhibitions could be organized only under the auspices of some official institutions. The state becomes the sole commander of art, this role allowing it to implement socialist realism according to the Soviet model. (2) This involved a new system of exhibitions from which personal exhibitions have been missing for several years in a row in favor of the collective exhibitions, be it national or regional ones. The regional exhibitions from Transylvania gathered artists from Cluj, Baia Mare, Oradea, Satu-Mare, Sibiu, Brașov, Tg. Mureș. These have become, with some exceptions that began to appear in the mid 1950’s, the artist’s only possibilities of exhibiting. Within them, the various institutions could make acquisitions, but these were proved insufficient for the needs of most artists. Also, art schools and The Union of Fine Arts (UAP) helped define and maintain socialist realism locally.
The state order that has always existed in the case of monuments will begin to dominate the entire artistic system by creating mechanisms that channelled artistic production towards a theme that articulated the political and ideological desiderata of the regime and, subsequently, also towards the use of classicizing means of representation, based on drawing and perspective. Already in 1948, the titles of the works in the State Exhibition of Transylvania are quite telling: Harvest, Labourer, Collective Work, The Literacy School, Agrarian Reform, Electrification, Iron Casters. Work-related themes, be it industrial or on construction sites, dominated collective exhibitions, being considered the most appropriate representations of the socialist modernization. (3) However, there were various margins for negotiation, so that socialist realism did not present itself as a stylistic unit. In addition, throughout the 1950’s, many modernist formulas survived, and the regime has changed its cultural policies several times.
Although socialist realism was established in Romania following the Soviet model, it was implemented by local artists who have created various forms of adaptation and negotiation. For some it meant an unprecedented ascent, as for Miklóssy Gábor, for others multiple adaptations were required, and others have experienced periods of marginalization. After 1945, several artists, members of the Communist Party from the period of illegality, comrades of the road or left-wing sympathizers in a broader sense, such as Vida Géza, Lidia Agricola, Vasile Kazar (Baia Mare), Ștefan Szönyi, Julius Podlipny (Timișoara), Hans Mattis-Teutsch (Brașov), had the opportunity to express their political options. Still unsolved are the links of the communist movement of the artists from Cluj. Some of those mentioned above were promoted in exhibitions and in important positions in the new artistic institutions, but they have equally attracted other artists as well, who were politically uncommitted. The desire to preserve prestige, to continuation of the artistic career, of obtaining benefits or simply the need for survival has prompted many artists to try to adapt to the requirements of socialist realism, in its various stages. Most artists end up being part of USAZS first, then from the Union of Fine Artists, founded in 1950. It had a bureaucratic and hierarchical structure, serving as the main intermediary between the state and the artists. (4) Outside the center located at Bucharest, the Union was organized into branches and cenacles, which theoretically had the same structures, but they differed in the number of artists. The Cluj branch was one of the largest in the country, being originally made up of mostly Hungarian artists, which actually reflected the pre-war professionalization.
Although the Union had a function of centralization and control, it also functioned as a form of minimal protection even for marginalized artists, such as Nagy Albert, an artist whose works were rarely received in exhibitions of the 1950’s. In two episodes, covering almost a decade (1951-1954 and 1959-1963, respectively) the position of president of the branch is occupied by Aurel Ciupe who already held the position of director of the Art Institute in Cluj. The artist had proved his qualities as an organizer since the time when he was the head of the art museum in Târgu Mureș and had, out of many views, the profile and vocation of a mediator. A characterization of Petru Groza made by historian Stefano Bottoni, fits very well: […] he was the incarnation of Homo transylvanicus, which, without denying his own original identity, moved freely in different national and socio-cultural spheres.” (5)
Especially during the 1950’s, the differences between the branches/cenacles and the center were acutely felt by the artists; they had a lower degree of autonomy which had its say in the financing arrangements, in the state procurements and in the distribution of orders. The changes and the news were circulating with difficulty, which also made it difficult for the demands regarding socialist realism in different places to be asynchronous. Among the branches, Cluj held a special place not only by the number of artists, but also because it was an important regional center by organizing annual exhibitions and through the presence of many local artists in the canon of socialist realism, as it was constituted by museums, exhibitions (either national or international) and publications of that time. Vécsi Nagy Zoltán claims that Hungarian artists such as Miklóssy or Gy. Szabó managed to adapt successfully to the socialist realism having a more conservative education at the schools in Budapest or Munich. (6) The fact that education and the artistic practice prior to the establishment of the communist regime mattered in the case of each individual can be seen from the multiple formulas which the artists propose both in the choice of the subjects, but also in representational concepts, however the privileged position of some artists can be explained equally by the institutional anchorages as well as, in some cases, personal connections. Besides, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 triggered demonstrations in Cluj as well, in which art students were also involved, but beyond this moment that shook the communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe, the ties that Hungarian artists have preserved or created with Hungarian art may have had an impact on the entire artistic scene in Cluj and in other circumstances.
What consolidated the status of some artists in Cluj, be it Hungarian or Romanian and the status of the city as an important artistic center was the presence of the Institute of Fine Arts which has known a period of growth throughout the entire socialist realism period. Here were teachers, at different times, most of the important local artists. After the institutional failure of the interwar school of fine arts that had functioned in Cluj only between 1925-1933, the new school founded in 1948 will consolidate itself, will increase its number of teachers and specializations. Initially, the school of arts functioned as a section of the Institute of Art that included the studies of theatre and music, an institutional formula also implemented in Bucharest and Iasi. In Cluj, two such institutions were provided, with different taught languages, Hungarian and Romanian. It wasn’t a viable solution, because in 1950, each art acquires an institution in its own right, and the sections of the Hungarian institute are absorbed by the institutions taught in the Romanian language. Thus, the Institute of Fine Arts “Ion Andreescu” was born, where many artists came to teach linked to the interwar school of arts, where they had been either teachers like the rector Aurel Ciupe or Romul Ladea or students such as the painters Petre Abrudan, Teodor Harșia, Mohy Sándor and the sculptors Vétro Artúr and Szervátius Jenő. Along with them, also from the first years, teachers and artists were employed who had attended other schools, in Bucharest such as Bene József or at Budapest such as Miklóssy Gábor, Abodi Nagy Béla and Kovács Zoltán (director of the ephemeral art section of the Hungarian Institute of Art). Each of the artists found various forms of adaptation to the requirements of socialist realism both in the work with students in the workshops of the institute, as well as in their own artistic production. The names of the last three remained linked to the standard socialist realism that dominated the first part of the 1950’s through the permanent reiterated works in the exhibitions and publications of the time. Even if, starting with the second half of the 1950’s, these artists, along with others, departed from the formula that had made them famous, the prestige gathered then accompanied them throughout their careers. Abodi Nagy Béla and Kovács Zoltán continued to be the beneficiaries of important state orders in the 1960’s when monumental art campaigns were launched all over Romania. The educational, collective and non-elitist role attributed to monumental art continues, perhaps best of all, the ideals of socialist realism.
In the 1950’s, the basis of an artistic system was laid to implement and support the art committed to socialist realism, an art to provide images of the ideology and socialist history, to convince and activate the attachment to them. It was based on institutions that survived socialist realism and reshaped it according to the regime’s changes of the cultural policies. Socialist realism was never officially declared as ended, but gradually passed into the shadows, as the regime allowed, more decided starting with the mid 1960’s, a reinvention of modernism.
(1) Stefano Bottoni, Romanian Communism and the National Problem. 1944-1965, Cluj-Napoca, the publishing house of the Romanian Institute for Research on National Minorities– Kriterion, 2010, pp. 50-53.
(2) Magda Cârneci, Fine Arts in Romania 1945-1989: With an Addendum 1990-2010, Iași, Polirom, 2013, p. 19–22; Monica Enache, Art for the People? The Official Romanian Fine Arts between 1948-1965, Bucharest, The National Museum of Arts Romania, 2016, p. 37; Magda Predescu, Utopia and Heterotopia in the Romanian Art of the Years 1950-1970: The Variations of the Artistic Canon, Cluj, IDEA Design & Print, 2018, pp. 39-47.
(3) For the themes approached by Cluj artists during socialist realism, refer to: Dan Breaz, “Builders of the Future: Politicization of Romanian Painting between 1950-1989”, in Builders of the Future: Politicization of Romanian Painting between 1950-1989. Works from the Collection of the Museum of Art Cluj-Napoca, Cluj, Museum of Art, 2013, pp. 14-18.
(4) In 1951, the branch had 44 members and 28 interns: National Archives of Romania, The Union of the Fine Arts Trust, file 14/1951, f. 144.
(5) Stefano Bottoni, op. cit., p. 62.
(6) Vécsi Nagy Zoltán, “Hungarian Fine Art in Communist Romania”, in 100 years of Fine Arts in Transylvania, Cluj, Foundation for school publisher, pp. 116 - 117.