This painting by Rusu Ciobanu reminded me so strongly of my mother's work. There is the Eastern European element, for sure, and although the brushwork here is harder, or harsher, than my mom's, immediately on seeing this portrait, I knew this artist had worked this painting just as my mother would have done, in a studio with her subject in front of her, looking at and intuitively adjusting proportion and color, and winnowing away the extraneous details.
I love the marginally small, intense head, the big sensuous hands. The dead (possibly) Soviet architecture outside the window. I would love to talk to my mother about this painting, and see what she thinks. Unfortunately that conversation has no longer been an option, not since May of 2018.
Last year, Rusu Ciobanu's family still had her with them for those conversations (even though cataracts have long past cut short her painting life). There's a substantive article in the Calvert Journal (elements of which seem scrounged from this Romanian-language piece at Scena9) which touches through the major arcs of her life and art career. I'm not surprised to feel the additional detail I've learned slotting into my mental landscape, locking down my interest in both her life and paining. This is an artist who has lived through "interesting times": A 19th century manqué Romanian rural childhood; the transition to portraiture of the Soviet collectives of the 1960s. And then, mature intellectual rebellion as she cemented her home in Chișinău, Moldova's capital city, hosted the Moldovan equivalent of a salon--a hidden, artful garden, within the concrete city--and began producing portraits of the artists and intellectuals of that grouping.
A fair amount, it would seem, about a past, and a life, that was so sharply cut away from her by the geopolitics of the 1940s. "She paints like a fox," an admirer observes. Through her paintings, her harmless old lady comments twist under the weight of now long past decades of Soviet oppression. "People are all the same,” she says, on her centenary. But what really do those words mean?
„Îmi plac plantele, pentru că pe ele când le tai, nu le doare, ci se bucură, cresc mai mult,” i-a spus vara asta fiului ei. „În jur totul e viață, grădina mea e plină de viață, plantele, copacii, iarba, florile, totul înseamnă viață. Chiar dacă tai un copac, în locul lui cresc doi. Chiar dacă frunzele îngălbenesc și cad, primăvara apar alte frunze, proaspete, verzi. Viața nu poate fi nimicită, lucrurile, ființele trăiesc și vor trăi mereu.”
The portrait above left, of her neighbor, was not the spontaneous moment of observation we think we see. To create this portrait, Rusu Ciobanu borrowed traditional Romanian-style clothes from a local museum. She did not stop there. Rusu Ciobabu wore the outfit herself to a Soviet-run artists' conference in Kyiv. To Rusu Ciobabu, the clothes were not museum pieces. They were part of something, in Soviet Moldova, that was at risk of vanishing. For wearing these 'historical' clothes, she was formally rebuked.
One translation of her centenary exhibition has the title "Valentina Rusu Ciobanu - A Century of Loneliness.” Another "Valentina Rusu Ciobanu - one hundred years since birth." Can both translations be simultaneously correct? I feel the tense dance in her work between conformity to the arbitrary system that surrounded her, and her internal flight above those earthly cares. For Rusu Ciobanu, that dance was, is, a highly defined series of needles to be swiftly threaded, imposed by an authoritarian and threatening government. A folklore maiden facing the impossible tasks imposed by an wicked sorcerer could hardly have managed the task more deftly.
Rusu Coibana painted many, many interesting surrealist images, which I highly recommend taking some time looking over, if that is the work that speaks to you (I think valentinarusuciobanu.com, is the official site). For myself, at this day and time, I like, best the portrait of Dumitru Fusu.
I wonder what styles and forms will speak to me a decade from now, if I'm still here and moving forward in time on this journey of my own.