Create like a god, command like a king, work like a slave. (Constantin Brancusi)
I was whisked to Bucharest for work a week or so ago and although I didn’t have long, I did take a look at a couple of things. Although I was not really expecting the city to really be the Paris of the East, it did in some ways feel like that. There is the contrast between ornate Nineteenth century architecture and modern brutalist apartments, chaotic traffic and lots of graffiti. The women are very dressed up too, and there is a certain intense superficiality that feels Parisian. But people are a lot more friendly (how could they not be?) and the few tourists have even fewer places to eat. Its galleries and museums are also very different.
After a long search for food one afternoon we visited the National Art Collections museum. A massive museum which houses a spectacularly mediocre collection of post-impressionist Romanian art culled from individual collections that the state has acquired: it was a dispiriting experience. It is a large building with a handsome courtyard; there are several doors. When you go in you are not sure you have chosen the right one because there is no-one else to be seen. But in a little while a cloakroom attendant appears and directs you to the ticket office in the bowels of the establishment. There is a lot of stone on the floor and walls and everything echoes, you are still the only visitor in sight. When you get there and buy a ticket the lady gives you a map and tells you at length the route to take in order to see absolutely everything. But museum fatigue sets in around about the second room and you realise you are never going to make it. There are endless rooms of genre scenes, flowers landscapes charmless dingy daubs that break your will to look at art. But you are the only punters there and the staff (of whom there are many) are very keen to help you round and make sure that you see everything…so you go on. Room after room of hopeless stupidity of so many artists pursuing a goal with no vision and the equally terrible determination of the state to keep it all.
But a Brancusi exhibition in the other National Gallery a bit further along the road was closed. Days passed. It was my last morning and it was raining hard. I had to walk all around the building (which is very large) to find the right door for the Brancusi show. I felt briefly like a pilgrim. When I found it, my faith in looking at art was restored because although only two small rooms, it was a gem of a show. Black & white photographs of Brancusi’s studio in Paris that he took himself shortly after being taught how to use a camera by Man Ray. They are breathtakingly atmospheric, and totally fill you with the aura of creativity of that time and of the man himself. Beautifully composed, the forms breathe next to one another – they seem relaxed in a way that they never could in a gallery, freshly created or still coming into being. Behaving naturally like animals in their natural habitat rather than a zoo.
Charmingly, also in the gallery there was a little stand with wood, marble and metal and tools to cut and polish them to give the visitor an idea of Brancusi’s favourite materials, without safety restrictions.
Brancusi was of course Romanian, but he went to live and work in Paris, the Paris of the West with the rude French people. The crumbling legacy of the Ceausescu era lies quite close to the surface here and much of value has, like Brancusi, gone to find richer pastures.
I was dismayed to learn that in Paris you can visit a reconstruction of this studio, which cannot be anything but a soulless theme park. Paris may have all the crowds at its celebrated shows, but there is something in Bucharest of life that is still felt and experienced directly in a way that some more sophisticated places have forgotten.