The Role of the Romanian Artists’ Union in the Production of State Socialist Art

During the establishment of the new socialist regime in Romania, “in order for visual artists to be it was felt necessary to create a new form of organization, a new organism that [would] become an active factor in the work of culturalization of the masses, and for the development of creation.”(“Introductory remarks for the future Country Conference of the Romanian Artists’ Union (UAP) of the Romanian Popular Republic (RPR),” File 1/1950, Fund UAP, The Central National Archives of Romania (ANIC), f. 1.) This article is an adaptation of part of a forthcoming book about the role of the Romanian Artists’ Union (Uniunea Artiștilor Plastici, UAP, established in 1950), the Artistic Fund (Fondul Plastic, FP, 1949) and the Artistic Fund Production Factory (Combinatul Fondului Plastic, CFP, 1952) in the production of state art during the socialist regime in Romania (1945–1990). Using the official archives as source material, the article briefly sketches the establishment and function of the UAP, the role of the Fund and its Factory, and the concept of the “state socialist artist” in Romania.

The Romanian Artists’ Union: Planning Ideological and Creative Issues

Between 1945 and 1990 the Romanian visual arts were organized by the socialist state through several institutions and organizations. The creation, production, and distribution of art were under the control of the state, and art had to be ideological in both style and content to be exhibited in the only existing network of gallery and museum spaces, which was controlled by the state as well.

This new model of articulation for artistic activity was organized between 1945 and 1954. Before 1945, the organization of the artistic field consisted of a Ministry of Culture that financed diverse artistic activities, but it also included private actors. During the 1940s and under the extreme-right wing governments there was a first attempt to create a state fascist art, but this was only partially achieved. During the period of 1945 to 1954, the state nationalized cultural actors (museums, theaters, cinemas, and publishing houses) as well as the system of artistic education, and it formally imposed the only accepted ideology, Socialist Realism. For the ideological needs of the new regime the state—through its institutions—allocated significant funds to support propagandistic artworks. The different organizations and institutions that dealt with artistic affairs evolved during the four decades of the regime, but the same logic was in place throughout this period. Cultural infrastructure was organized around Party and state institutions, including the Ministry of Culture (which changed its name several times),(The institution was called the Ministry of Arts (1945–1948), Ministry of Arts and Information (1948–1949), Ministry of Arts (1949-1950), Committee for Art (1950–1957), Ministry of Culture and Education (1957­–1962), State Committee for Culture and Art (1962–1971), and finally the Council of Socialist Culture and Education (1971–1989).) and the Directorate of Propaganda and Culture of the Central Committee of the Romanian Workers’ Party/Romanian Communist Party (RWP/RCP). The unions for writers (established in 1949), musicians (1949), visual artists (1950), and architects (1952) all fell under the control of the Ministry of Arts.

In the field of visual arts, one of the most important organizations for creative issues was the Romanian Artists’ Union. The Union was created following the Soviet model of articulation of the arts and it used local bodies (the Syndicate of Fine Arts, SAF) as a basis for an organization that centralized artistic activities and imposed a new canon for the visual arts (that of Socialist Realism). Its establishment developed through several steps. First, in 1945 the new regime reorganized the Syndicate of Fine Arts (first founded in 1921) and affiliated it to the broader Union of Syndicates of Artists, Writers ,and Journalists (USASZ, 1945). Afterward, in October 1950 the representatives of the SAF and of other syndicates from around the country founded the UAP as the centralized institution for visual artists.

The structure and organization of the Union expanded during the forty years of socialism in Romania (1950–1990). Beginning with four territorial branches in 1950, it had fourteen in 1968, fifteen in 1971, and twenty-four by 1984. The Union had four presidents between its establishment and 1990; it had 576 members in 1953 and 1,318 in 1989. The patrimony of the Union also changed in terms of studios, galleries, creation houses, shops, and its headquarters.

From its inception, the Union openly declared its ideological character, stating that it had the role of educating artists in the spirit of the new ideology, under the guidance of the Party and with the purpose of achieving the cultural revolution by engaging the masses in this process.(File 2/1950, Fund UAP, ANIC.) The Union’s ideological positioning evolved during the communist regime—from the hesitations of the beginning of the 1950s regarding the application of Socialist Realism, to the style of homage art that celebrated Nicolae Ceausescu’s cult of personality, realized in the 1980s by certain members of the Union in parallel with other artworks that did not follow the official canon. Throughout the socialist regime, art continued—at the official level—to have an instrumental definition that saw creativity as a simple manner of expressing political ideas and one bound to an ideological function.

The analysis of the definition of art in the statutes of the Union is one important indicator of this ideological evolution—and of certain ideological consistencies. In 1950, when the Union was created, it declared in its first statue that its members wanted to transform their art into an arm to build socialism in the Romanian Popular Republic. Artists were guided by the Socialist Realist model based on the Marxist-Leninist method and the promotion of the Party spirit in art. Art had to have a profoundly patriotic form and at the aesthetic level it had to oppose cosmopolitanism, formalism, and Impressionism, following Soviet principles. In the statute of 1963, the Union promoted a Socialist Realist art, but also the “use and development of the best traditions of Romanian visual art, as well as of the realist and progressive traditions of universal visual art” and supported “multilateral manifestations of the creative initiative of visual artists”. Following de-Stalinization, Romanian art became more nationalist. After Ceausescu’s “theses of July 1971,” in its 1973 statute the Union promoted “art based on the principles of socialist humanism” which was inspired necessarily from the Romanian reality and which wanted to valorize local traditions. In 1978 the Union encouraged the fight to build a multilaterally developed society through “a valuable art,” “profoundly patriotic, of high humanist level inspired by the life and work of the people, by the ideals of socialism and communism,” which militantly advocated for the formation of the socialist “New Man.” The Union declared that it also supported popular artists and authentic traditions by shining light on newly created patrimony.

In fact, from its beginning, the Union had the task of helping amateur artists through the identification, guidance, and support of their artistic skills and efforts. In the 1950s, the Union’s documents reference the existence “everywhere in enterprises, factories, and in the farthest villages among workers and peasants, many people” who were creatively talented. It emphasized the support granted to the Party through the creation of popular art schools and of cultural houses.(“Let’s Ensure the Success of the VIth Contest of Amateur Artists,” File 62/1955, ANIC.) Syndicate artistic competitions—such as the “Third country contest of artists’ collectives and trade-union amateurs” of 1952—were prepared with the help of professional artists, who were assigned to the “syndical artistic collectives of amateurs.”(File 2/1952, 111, ANIC.) The juries included activists from all the artistic fields who were designated to select the best candidates, and in the end “the best elements [sic!], who proved to be very talented, were sent to art schools.”(File 2/1952, 112, ANIC.)

The Annual State Exhibition of Plastic/Visual Arts (Painting, Sculpture, Graphic Arts), 1953

According to a statistic from 1964 published by Arta Plastică (Visual Art), the official art journal of the Union, biannual exhibitions were organized for amateur artists starting in 1958.(Arta Plastică 6–7 (1964).) In that year, there were 110 circles of amateurs with 3,000 members, and 103 regional exhibitions. Moreover, “artists’ brigades” were organized for several events such as the Youth Exhibition of 1963. These brigades were meant to create “a stronger contact between the artists and the mass of working people, and for a better knowledge of the artistic problems by workers, technicians and civic servants.” The Union sent more than a hundred young painters, sculptors, and graphic artists to enterprises, collective and state farms, and building sites.(File 14/1963, ANIC.) The Bucharest region was supposed to be studied by artists for its collectivized agriculture, and in certain regions, such as Mureș or Cluj, “smaller groups were assigned, but with more precise objectives”.(File 14/1963, ANIC.)

Because the Union wanted to expand the public for visual art, there were meetings organized with the working people in order to gather their appreciation and critiques. As one worker declared, “these are beautiful things that pierce you when you look at them.”(Meeting of UAP with the school C.C.S. of 23.01.1954, File 9/1954, Fund UAP, ANIC.) During one such meeting, the artist Jules Perahim began by lauding the exhibition of 1953, where over 1,000 works were exhibited, twice the number from the year before. Perahim introduced the comments of the students of a political school (The Superior School of the Central Council of the Syndicates), as those of working people. The participants asked questions such as: “What is formalism?” and commented positively, but also criticized the artworks they saw at the Annual State Exhibition of 1953. For example, one of the workers, comrade Georgescu, lauded some works, but criticized certain shortcomings:

“I liked a lot the work by comrade Bene Iosif which depicts the moment of entrance of new members into the collective agricultural farmhouse. There the artist reproduces realistically how the peasant workers were glad that a new member was entering into the collective. He combines the form and the background, you can see very well their collective life. [… In] the work by comrade Angheluță Octavian where he depicts the repair of an oven at Reșița […] you could almost see and feel the heat that made the back of the workers drip with sweat […] I want to show some flaws that I have seen in some of the works. I think that if the comrade painters will deal with them, and will take into account the help given, they will succeed in giving us more and better works.”(Meeting of UAP with the school C.C.S. of 23.01.1954, File 9/1954, Fund UAP, ANIC.)

Octavian Angheluță, Repair of the ovens at the Reșița Plant, n.d.

Then, the consecration of amateurs was validated by the establishment of the Festival “Song to Romania” (1976–1989), which centralized pre-existing initiatives concerning the activity of amateur artists and pushed for professional artists to participate in their coordination.(After 1990 there was no continuity in the Union’s policies in regards to amateurs.) The event was organized “as an ample educational, political–ideological, cultural artistic manifestation of creation and interpretation, that included the large masses of working people meant to enrich and diversify the spiritual life of the country and to increase the contribution of the creative genius of the Romanian people to the national and universal patrimony.”(Regulations regarding the organization of art exhibitions at the National Festival of education and socialist culture, Song to Romania in Bucharest, CCESMB, UAP of RSR, File Song to Romania, 1977, AFCP.) The festival wanted to create new works inspired by Romanian reality and by the heroic facts of the past by stimulating the “creative spirit of the people’s talents” so as to frame culture as the direct result of creation by the masses, to increase the number of exhibitions and cultural manifestations, and thus help increase love of the Party and the people.(Ibidem.)

In order to ensure its educational role, the Union planned the creation of its members based on a thematic plan established every year by the different bureaus of the sections of the Union (painting, sculpture, graphic art, etc.). These plans served to produce the artworks needed for the annual exhibitions, which served to establish the Socialist Realist canon. Artists were also supposed to “elevate their ideological level” through their participation to debates, conferences, and ideological meetings.

The Union was envisioned as an ideological organization subordinate to both Party and state institutions that played the role of intermediary between them and artists, dealing with creative issues. Despite the apparent centralization of creative production around the Union, there were other institutions that interacted with visual artists: the Artistic Fund and the Factory of Production.

The Artistic Fund: Supporting Artists, and the Production and Distribution of Artworks

If the Union dealt with creative affairs, the Artistic Fund was in charge of everything connected to the functioning and administration of artistic works.(Pichon-Bonin made the same observation for the case of the Moscow Artists’ Union. Cécile Pichon-Bonin, Peinture et politique en URSS: L’itinéraire des membres de la Société des artistes de chevalet (1917–1941) (Dijon: Les presses du réel, 2013), 310.) The Fund was created before the Union, in 1949, and was initially subordinate to the Ministry of Arts. Its status was modified between 1954 and 1958, when it was associated with the Union but still under the control of the Ministry of Culture and Education. In the following decades its status changed again, and it became part of the Union, defined in its statute of 1973 as the economic and commercial organ of the Union. Despite the institutional subordination of the Fund to the Union and to the subsequent unification of their administrative apparatus in 1973, the Fund is often mentioned in archival documents as a separate structure. In fact, their distinct responsibilities were not clear-cut, and in many ways they overlapped.

The Fund carried out several functions. First of all, it dealt with the support of artistic activity of its members through loans, grants, and support for creative missions in different locations (factories, agricultural cooperatives, etc.). Secondly, the Fund was in charge of the allocation of social rights that included pensions, and financial assistance in cases of sickness, maternity, and death. It also dealt with the production of artworks though a system of public commissions. Finally, it was responsible for financing the distribution system of galleries, shops, and studios.

The Fund was the first institutional structure that provided artists with the necessary means for their producing work, including creative aid. Its revenues comprised contributions from members, a budgetary allocation, resources obtained from its properties, and revenues gained from the 2% tax on artworks, taken from the honoraria received by artists.

The production of artworks, both for thematic exhibitions and for propaganda art or “visual agitation,” progressed from the organization of artists’ collectives (or production collectives) to the organization of studios of artistic production, and the founding of the Artistic Fund Production Factory (Combinatul Fondului Plastic, CFP, in 1952) and of the system of Art Galleries (1954) that gradually established branches in the larger cities. These production enterprises played an increasing role inside the economic system of the visual arts. If in the 1950s the Union received a sum from the state to support its activities, it was increasingly encouraged to support itself through the production of artworks or objects designed by artists. There were also discrepancies in the factories in terms of their relations with respective territorial branches, compared to the central one in Bucharest.

In its first period, the Union created artists’ collectives to produce the propaganda art it needed to decorate the public space (portraits and busts of the communist leaders, posters, signs); the first of these were established in 1951.(Caterina Preda, “The Role of Artists’ Collectives in Producing State Socialist Art in 1950s Romania: The Bottom-Up, Pragmatic Professionalization of State Commissions,” ARTMargins, 9:3 (2020), forthcoming.) These collectives were supposed to redirect responsibility for the production of the needed propaganda material toward the artists of the Union and their establishment influenced the professionalization of the public commissions. The Factory, Combinatul Fondului Plastic (established in 1952) was subordinated to the Fund and the Union, and to different policies enacted by the Ministry of Culture. It furnished materials for artistic creation, such as paints and canvases, and it mass-produced artworks in bronze, cast replicas of stone originals, and supervised the production of statues in stone. Additionally, it manufactured other types of objects that were sold in the shops of the Fund or executed commissions from factories. Through the construction of its own headquarters (1965–1971) with several production studios (printing, textiles, bronze, ceramics, etc.) the Factory became the main source of revenue for the Union in 1989. The Factory had also an annual planned production established by each of its sections.

The Union supervised the organization of public commissions and of assignments of contracts for monumental works or for monuments, the organization of commissions of specialists for the evaluation of works, the buying of artworks and the assignment of those already realized and acquired by the Socialist Committee for Culture and the Arts (CSCA), or by other state institutions from artists’ studios or through contracts.

The most important sponsors of public commissions in the 1950s and 1960s were the Fund and the Ministry of Culture (in the 1960s the Ministry of Culture and Education). In the 1970s the most important resource was the centralized fund of the State Committee for Culture and Art and the funds of the Household Department of the Party (Gospodărie de Partid), the Fund of the Central Committee of the Communist Youth Union (UTC), the funds of the General Union of Syndicates (UGSR), other ministries, and local authorities. Public commissions were obtained either through a competition or an assignment. The contracts with artists were signed and supervised by the Artistic Fund. Since 1953 the Fund was designated as the institution that could sign contracts with artists for public commissions and public acquisitions of artworks.

The Fund supervised the creation of artworks for institutions, enterprises, and state organizations (according to article one of the Decree 591 of 1955).(File 15/1969, ANIC.) After a commission was given by the Fund—including details about the type of order, the time allotted for the execution, and the potential artists who were to be in charge and the source of financing—the Fund wrote the contract, which was sent to the beneficiary. Then, the beneficiary transferred 50% of the price of the artwork to the Fund, and after having received the advance, the work was realized. Afterwards, it was evaluated by a commission of specialists that worked with the Fund and who wrote an evaluation report. On the basis of the evaluation, the final price was established in agreement with the beneficiary, and its work was given to the Fund, accompanied by an invoice.(File 15/1969, ANIC.)

The Socialist State Artist

The members of the UAP were expected to create art for the socialist state, which was supposed to be exhibited at least once every year in the Republican exhibitions, but also in regional and local expositions. Their role can be conceptualized in terms of “state artists.” According to Miklós Haraszti, in his book The Velvet Prison: Artists under State Socialism, the “state artist” was “an organized professional.” As workers, artists were a “thoroughly organized and rationally subdivided group of state employees,” to which the state guaranteed a public, and through regulation offered them protection.(Miklós Haraszti, The Velvet Prison: Artists under State Socialism (London: I.B Tauris, 1988).)

While state art exists in other regimes, the category of the socialist state artist describes the situation in the former Central and Eastern European communist countries, where the Communist Parties established a different relationship between artists and the state than what democratic states experience under the rubric of “state art.” Thus, the concept of the socialist state artist designates the reality of artists during communism in which, in order to be able to create—and to have access to the state-owned infrastructure for the production and distribution of art—one had to be a member of the system that included art institutes, and the Union. Although there were differences in terms of allegiance of artists to the state, and there were methods to elude the Party’s control through the Union by engaging in several types of creation, parallel to the state demand, the latter was valid throughout the regime. The state conceived artists as producers of ideological art. Gradually, forms of artistic expression other than openly politicized art were tolerated by the state authorities, as long as they were not politically motivated.

Of course, some artists only seemingly complied with state demands, while others were fervent supporters. In fact, at different moments during socialism, artists in Romania took advantage of the “safety valves” provided by the regime. One such example is that of Studio 35 (Atelier 35), or the Youth Cenacle. The Youth Cenacle appears in documents of the 1960s, and then Studio 35 was created at the beginning of the 1970s (1972–1973).(File 32/1972, Fund UAP, ANIC.) In the 1980s the Union significantly decreased the number of new members it accepted every year, and from 1986 on it ceased taking in new members. Thus, Studio 35 functioned for some young artists (under 35 years of age) that were graduates of the art institutes as a place to find an exhibition space, and to be—at least partially—integrated in the artistic world. Because it staged several exhibitions that did not conform to the official canon, Studio 35 received (at the time, and after 1990) the reputation of an oppositional space. However, a thorough study of its programs in all its branches shows there were important differences between the cities far from Bucharest and the capital city in terms of the freedom artists could take.

The assignment of artists to the “socialist sector” was not automatic. In 1951, the Artistic Fund complained of the difficulties that artists faced in their attempts to be considered “people working in the creative field, for the construction of socialism” and to be paid as part of the socialist rather than the private sector.(“The Difficulties Encountered by Visual Artists,” File 6/1951, Fund UAP, ANIC, 161–162.) Furthermore, there were fluctuations of the official ideology of Socialist Realism in the 1950s, ranging from the “Socialist humanism” of the 1960s to what has been called neo-socialist realism(Mirela Tanta, “Reenacting the Past: Romanian Art Since 1989,” Stedelijk Studies 6 (2018).) or “Ceaușescu (sur)realism” of the 1970s and 1980s. The relationship of the state to artists was modified, but its essence was not altered, they were still viewed by the regime as producers of ideological art needed for the sake of propaganda. Artists’ admission to the Union was not incremental. In fact, in the 1950s many artists were admitted to the organization, and in the late 1950s and early 1960s they were purged, as too many artisans had been included. In the 1980s the Artists’ Unions were subjected to even more control by the Romanian Communist Party, and their influence was also limited by privileging amateur artists as part of the “Song to Romania” Festival (Cântarea României). With the establishment of this festival, the role of professional artists changed again; they had to guide the artistic creativity of the people, of amateur artists.

The state financed artists to create this art inspired by the ideological principles of the time, and then closely monitored the accomplishment of these projects. Despite these requests, the works acquired were sometimes (in the 1960s and 1970s) not politically relevant and had neutral titles such as “Landscape,” “Portrait,” and so forth.

Public commissions were also given by Party and state institutions, and by public enterprises that expected to have their headquarters decorated or to receive artworks to decorate them. Some state artists were privileged because they received reimbursements, prizes, and awards, and benefited from an extensive social security system that included, pensions, and paid vacations. The prices of artworks were established officially, although in practice artists also sold different artworks directly from their studios. At the same time, there was a system of censorship and ideological control, which used different institutions, including the secret police, to supervise artists.

The relation between the Ministry of Culture (under its different names) and the Union included the discussion of public commissions and the assignment of works, the contests organized by the Ministry, the evaluation commissions and the system of acquisitions, and assignments of works to cultural institutions. The relation between the Ministry and the Union comprised the signing of contracts for monumental art, for exhibitions, and for the acquisition of artworks from exhibitions (republican, county, municipal, personal, and group) as well as from the studios and from private persons.(File 49/1973, vol. 2, ANIC.) The Ministry was in charge of the organization of exhibitions and elected juries for these, coordinated those that left abroad with grants or fellowships. Thus, this article’s analysis of the role of the Romanian Union of Artists in producing socialist state art, shows that the most important actor in this sense was in fact the subordinate and parallel institution of the Artistic Fund. The Artists’ Union provided only the framework in which contracts and assignments were distributed and supervised by the Fund.

Other articles in the issue include:

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