1/04/2021 - 23/05/2021

Vernissage on Thursday, 1 April, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., observing all anti-epidemic measures and with controlled access.

The National Gallery is presenting fifty-seven paintings and graphic works by the eminent Romanian artist Corneliu Baba. Most of these works are kindly loaned by a foreign private collection, whose owner is also the initiator of the exhibition catalogue’s publication on the eve of the event—“Corneliu Baba in Bulgaria”, featuring essays by Romanian and Bulgarian artists.

The name of Corneliu Baba, a painter who enjoyed life for almost a century (1906–1997), is, regrettably, not among the most popular. The twentieth century divided the world as well as his life in Romania with the Iron Curtain, placing him on the periphery of the art centres of prominence. That, of course, affected his popularity. Another reason is that the painter chose not to be contemporary as a matter of principle; he did not want to “push art forward”, as the avant-garde would have it; nor did he want to react to trends and experimentation.

The artist was convinced that his path led through the treatment and interpretation of innermost experiences, of emotions and states, through the use of “traditional” and eternal artistic means such as colour, form, and composition, because their expressive potential is unlimited. Even in the darkest of times for art—the totalitarian decades, in isolation and during the “witch hunts” for formalists—painting remained for Corneliu Baba the instrument for expanding horizons, for universalism, and for what we might today call a global and timeless Humanity. For him, the task facing the artist was not to be a hero of his own time but, rather, to partake in the history of art through active and constant labour in the autonomous and eternal domain where there are no past achievements, and which overcomes alienation and simplification.

Corneliu Baba was true to his principles and, perhaps because of that, he is one of the few painters whose influence on their own work is self-acknowledged by many of his colleagues, even in Bulgaria. Here, the impact of his massive exhibition in 1981 is still very much alive. That event at the 6 Shipka St. Gallery in Sofia showcased 100 paintings and 100 graphic works, and represented the result of the artist’s participation in the International Triennial for Engaged Painting in Sofia (1973) where he was awarded the First Prize for his portraits.

Apparently, the impact of Corneliu Baba’s works was due to their immense superiority compared with the rudimentary nature of the contemporary examples of Socialist Realism, as well as with the superficial metaphoricity of its consequences. It was in Bulgaria and, indeed, in his native Romania, where this kind of figurative art suffered heavily from political propaganda and dependency on power, that the artist’s greatness was best appreciated. And, of course, the virtuoso yet controlled painterly qualities of the works, the combination of the smooth and the textured handling of paint, the vibrant hues, the incisive white brushstrokes that make the entire composition “light up” instantly.

This exhibition is realised with support from UniCredit Bulbank and the SUN Collection. It features works by the early, as well as the mature, Baba with all of the themes that were important to him—the mad kings, the fear, the compositions based on dramatic religious and historical subjects, the portraits and self-portraits, the nudes, and the Venetian vedute.

Iaroslava Boubnova
National Gallery

Corneliu Baba began his artistic education under his father, the academic painter Gheorghe Baba, before briefly studying at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Bucharest, but did not graduate. He held his first exhibition in 1934 in the city of Băile Herculane, which gave him the opportunity to continue his studies at the School of Fine Arts in Iași (1934-38) under Nicolae Tonitza. In 1939, he was accepted to teach at the same faculty as an Assistant, then in 1946 as a Professor. In 1948, following his official debut at the Art Salon in Bucharest, he was arrested and imprisoned in Galata in Iași; the following year, he was suspended without explanation from his job and sent to Bucharest.

Despite difficult relations with the Romanian Communist government, which denounced him as a formalist, he managed to establish a career as a book illustrator and designer. In 1955, he was allowed to travel to Moscow and Leningrad to participate in exhibitions, and in the same year he was awarded a Gold Medal at the International Exhibition in Warsaw. In 1956, he exhibited in the Romanian National Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

In 1958, Corneliu Baba was appointed professor at the Nicolae Grigorescu Institute of Fine Arts in Bucharest. Over the next decade, he actively exhibited worldwide: in 1964, his personal exhibition was organized in Brussels, then, in 1970, in New York. In 1963, he was appointed Corresponding Member of the Romanian Academy of Sciences. In 1990, following the Romanian Revolution, he was elevated as a titular member of the Romanian Academy. However, although he was extremely famous in Romania and, to a lesser extent, throughout Eastern Europe, he never achieved a comparable prominence in the West.