MIRACULOUS HEALINGS – ȘTEFAN LUCHIAN (1868 – 1916)

The exhibition “Ştefan Luchian”, part of the “Miraculous Healings” exhibition project, aims to illustrate and bring to the artistically inclined public’s attention the vast universe of a great artist, in a time of great turmoil for the social and artistic world, and, through the creation of a dialogue between painting as an act of creation and restoration work, to combine exhibited paintings with images showcasing moments from the process of restoration, returning the work to its original state.

After 26 years of “reforms” and “democracy”, because of the loss of its own exhibition space, the masterpieces within the Bucharest Municipality Pinacoteca’s heritage cannot be displayed and shown to the public in ample exhibitions, being virtually inaccessible to the general public. The works have been shown only through temporary exhibitions, usually set up for different anniversaries or commemorative events, despite the fact that ever since 2012, according to the nr. 134 Decision approved by the Bucharest Municipality’s General Council, the Pinacoteca (Picture gallery) received as headquarters a building classed as a grade A historical monument, situated at nr. 18-20 Lipscani Str., known as Dacia-Romania.

One hundred years since the death of the painter and one hundred twenty years since the May 2nd 1896 opening day of the “Independent Artists Exhibition”, organized as a manifesto against the “Official Exhibition” and against the time’s authority figures, the 9 works which are part of the National heritage and represent the focus of the exhibition dedicated to Ştefan Luchian (opened in May 2016) cannot be exhibited in the Pinacoteca headquarters because of authorities’ complete lack of interest. Their structural procrastination reminds us of the late 19th century part of society comically described by Ion Luca Caragiale, with their self-sufficient, hypocritical and arrogant tendencies.

“Roșiorul” (term used for a member of the elite cavalry), “Flowers”, “Cornflowers”, “House in Brebu”, “Brebu Monastery”, “Carnations”, “Portrait of a woman”, “Roses” and “The kobsa player” are all works of art from the Bucharest Municipality Pinacoteca collection and showcase multiple artistic techniques, from oil on cardboard, to pastels on paper, cardboard or canvas, to watercolours on paper.

“Roșiorul”, oil on cardboard (40.3x31cm), is part of Luchian’s first period of creation. The theme was inspired by the 1877 War for Independence and portrays a member of the elite cavalry on horseback, in a representative position. It was first exhibited in 1896 at the “Independent Artists Exhibition”, where the works “1877 Sentinel”, “Bravery” and “Sentinel” were also shown.

Among Ștefan Luchian’s works shown in the present exhibition, is the only painting which was a part of the Bucharest Municipality Pinacoteca heritage nucleus, mentioned as being oil on cardboard in the 1940 catalogue. Starting with 1950 presentations in a number of albums and catalogues described it as being in tempera. The confusion regarding the technique used was probably due to the matte and blurred aspect of the painting, caused by inadequate interventions on the painting, such as painting over certain areas with tempera, and the layer of adherent grime present on the work’s surface, dulling the colours used. After it was restored, the painting regained the appearance it had had, according to the research done before restoring the work of art – a painting in oil on cardboard prepared by the artist.

The painting, done using vigorous, crowded brush strokes, energetically applied, either using the impasto technique or allowing transparency, reminding one of Nicolae Grigorescu’s works, as well as Theodor Aman’s, without however being a direct copy of their masterpieces. The work portrays Luchian’s roots as well as the stability of his artistic direction. The unpleasant experiences he had suffered in life, the expectations he had of himself and of society, a rather rebellious internal attitude, intolerant towards the conventionalism and mores of an aristocratic society stuck in ceremony, compelled Luchian to forbid himself from admitting to having absorbed lessons in school under the guidance of Theodor Aman, and to only proclaim his attachment to Nicolae Grigorescu, who he had idolised and who represented the starting point of Luchian’s artistic tendencies and directions.

In his works the original drawing is more than just a preparatory stage in the making of a painting. It assumes a decorative role, and contributes to the formation of shapes. The visible lines in his paintings are just as important as the colours used, be they a discrete line, or a visible accent. These lines are a defining characteristic of Luchian’s paintings, bringing to mind the works “Looking at the album”, “Soiree”, “Odalisque”, “Odalisque with hookah”, “Two women looking at a magazine”, “Contemplative woman”, and “Manodlinate”, painted by Aman.

The juxtaposition between partially transparent painting matter, used almost like watercolour in the depiction of the horse and its rider allows the background drawing to peek through, the fluid black or brown lines of the shapes, and, in some parts, the white coarse preparation made by chalk powder and animal glue.

The calm demeanour of the rider, placed at the centre of the landscape, and the background’s apparent serenity were galvanized by the painter through the creation of an atmospheric effect, suggesting the movement of cold late autumn clouds and the vibrations in the air, through the energetic application of colours in dynamic brushstrokes, with different directions of application, using both a brush as well as a palette knife. Perspective is not represented in a linear fashion, but through a succession of plans horizontally defined by quantitative chromatic contrast, as suggested by the presence of the brilliant white wall, composed of impasto brush strokes opposed with bordering tones, and through a progressive blurring of contours.

The painter, displaying chromatic tints of varied thermo-dynamic groups in antithesis, sets up a cold-warm contrast, with predominantly cool tones used to portray the sky, the ground and the mountains, and predominantly warm colours in the composition of the horse and its rider. The chromatic palette is formed of ultramarine blue, zinc white, and a bit of lead white for the sky portions. The white impasto present in the depiction of the rider’s clothing, or in the immediate vicinity of the equestrian group, were done using lead white, a frequent feature of paintings until the late 19th century. For the ground and the vegetation the painter used emerald green tempered in places with cadmium yellow, Naples yellow, earth-green, burnt umber and red ochre, and lead white. The red used for the rider’s clothing features vermillion with additions of red iron oxide, Naples yellow and lead white, and the brown of the horse was made with red iron oxide combined with burnt umber and red ochre. The accents were done using browns and blacks from iron and manganese oxides.

With this new pictorial vision based on visual impression, “Roşiorul” is part of the works which form the base for Luchian’s artistic evolution.

The spelling with “k” for the lower left side of the painting, done in diluted black oil, was not adopted by Luchian “every time he made a painting in France”, as stated by G. Oprescu among his theories featured in the book “Writings on Art”. Signed, localised and dated paintings made by Luchian contradict the previously stated conclusion, which has been perpetuated throughout the years, being assumed by several generations without any through research. The artist’s French period took place between 1891 and 1893. The painting “Woman working by the waterside” is signed and dated S. LUCHIAN / PARIS 92, “The last race in autumn” is signed S. LUCHIAN / PARIS 91892), “Recumbent nude” is signed S. LUCHIAN / PARIS (1891-1892), “At Auteuil” is signed S. LUCHIAN / PARIS (1891-1892).

From 1893, when Luchian returned to Romania, until 1902, a significant number of oil paintings such as “Roşiorul”, or pastel works, were signed “Lukian”. The oil paintings “Oxcart on the road in autumn”, “Woman with child on the outskirts of town”, “Osier willows”, “Twilight landscape”, “Profile of a girl”, “Oxcart on a field road”, “Unyoked oxen on a field”, “Girl with sheep”, “Oxcart”, “Fishermen’s boats”, “Profile of a blonde girl”, and the pastels “ A transport during the 1877 campaign”, “From the water”, “Portrait of a girl”, “Hay oxcart”, “Head of a peasant”, are examples of the use of “k” within the signature for paintings done in Romania, years after Luchian’s return from Paris.

“Flowers” is an oil painting on cardboard prepared by the author (49.6x70cm), signed “Luchian” on the lower right side in brown oil, and is part of his 1904-1910 series of works.

Flowers of varied sizes and shapes are portrayed in a fanned display, with several having fallen out on the left side of the small pitcher. There are various chromatic tones orchestrated harmoniously through the juxtaposition of white with shades of violet, green and red, scraped with the palette knife in places to obtain transparency, and loaded with impasto only in clearly defined areas. Without being portrayed in a naturalist fashion, they appear full of life and sap.

Contrasting with the flowers, the background is a combination obtained through reapplying paint, erasing and knife scraping of yellow ochre and iron red combined with zinc and lead whites, and, in some places, with the addition of a glaze made from dyer’s madder varnish or golden ochre, contributing to the impression of light in the painting – a pretext in the accomplishment of chromatic equilibrium. As can be seen in landscapes where light pierces from behind the clouds, the background light of this still life seems to shine through canvas.

For this work Luchian mostly used zinc white, but does not renounce lead white yet, as it was still popular in painting until the end of the 19th century.

The shades of violet used in the portrayal of the flowers constitute a blend between ultramarine violet, zinc white, and a bit of lead white.

The green is formed through the juxtaposition or even mixture of chromium green, viridian green, earth-green, Prussian blue and chromium yellow, tempered with zinc white and small additions of lead white.

The background red is a combination of red iron oxide enriched with dyer’s madder varnish.

“Cornflowers” is an oil painting on cardboard, prepared with glue and without primer (45×63.8cm), signed “Luchian” in black oil on the lower right side. Stylistically and technically it belongs to the artist’s 1904 – 1910 period. It bears similarities to the work “Flowers in a cup” / “Cornflowers” from the collection of the Cluj-Napoca Art Museum (oil on cardboard, 42×65.8cm).

The theme of flowers broached in this work is compositionally attained through the accentuation of the equilibrium of the intersected double triangle frame. The chromatic balance is attained through the placement of the two bundles of cornflowers on the surface of the table, on both sides of the small pitcher.

The chromatic palette is dominated by blue – violet blue for the flowers, with great clarity and brilliance of colours through the addition of the painting matter using a palette knife, alternating with mid-sized brushstrokes used to suggest the shape of petals and stems. The blue used in this work is cobalt blue, with small additions of zinc white. For the stems Luchian used yellow ochre mixed with zinc white.

Chromatically complementing the flowers, the predominantly warm-toned background colour is formed of yellow iron ochre with traces of orpiment, and reddish browns featuring vermillion, was initially applied using a brush, and thinned out by scraping with a palette knife to create transparency, creating a lighting effect. Shading was added afterwards with a brush. The use of dyer’s madder varnish blended in with background colours in shaded areas is worth noticing too.

The surface of the table, chromatically the brightest area of the painting, features a blend of zinc white, chromium green, yellow ochre with a touch of strontium yellow, and was obtained through the application of long brushstrokes loaded with paint using a 2cm wide brush, with layering, but allowing the cardboard to show through at the edges of the flower bundles.

The small pitcher was painted ochre-white, using a mixture of yellow ochre and zinc white, and features folkloric decorative elements portrayed vigorously using burnt umber and light green, made of earth-green, chromium green, and zinc white, added by brush on top of a still wet layer of colour.

The drawing accents can be seen in the depiction of the flowers as well as the pitcher, at times covered by later finishing touches.

Unfortunately, between 1978 and 1982 the compositional equilibrium was damaged by the irresponsible attempt at rescaling the painting, cutting off 2cm from the upper part of the work.

The cornflower motif was portrayed several times by Luchian, with varied techniques – oil, watercolours, pastels.

Between 1912 and 1916, in the difficult last years of his life when he could no longer take walks in nature, being confined to a chair and the room of his suffering, flowers became a way of communication between Luchian and the no longer reachable nature, a means to make use of his talent and creative spirit.

The five pastels on cardboard or canvas were painted by Luchian between 1895 and 1908.

Thus, the works “Portrait of a woman” (1895), pastel on cardboard, 30.7x24cm, “Gardenias” (1905), pastel on cardboard, 48×62.2cm, “House in Brebu” (1908), pastel on cardboard, 35.9×49.2cm and “Brebu Monastery” (1908), pastel on cardboard, 50x70cm, represent a group of paintings similar in technique, but differentiated period-wise through the means of plastic realisation.

In “Portrait of a woman”, the first chronologically, the painter was concerned with capturing to the best of his abilities the physiognomy of the portrayed person and the correct disposal of lighting and shading as opposed to the background, where the painter applied his craft more glibly. The Brebu landscape pastels showcase a more significant mastery and ease in the applying of colours, which became, thanks to the theme and the lack of constraints which had to be adhered to when painting a portrait, noticeably fresher, more solar, but without the shine of oil paint. As in his oil paintings, the artist used drawings after having applied colour, to underline and accentuate elements of composition. What was pitched and accentuated in the technique of oil painting, takes on a more secondary role in pastels, becoming sublime and miraculous.

A distinctive note compared to the four pastels presented above, through its plastic way of chromatic display, is the work “Roses”, pastel on canvas fixed on a mobile frame, 45x55cm. The work is signed “S. Luchian 1907” in black pastel, on the lower right hand side. Luchian experimented with pastel on canvas for this work, bringing out the vibration of pastels through very obvious strokes and hatchings, resembling paintings done in oil. It can be said that the artist had found a way to maintain the freshness of visual impression using pastels, in a manner different from the one he had applied in the Brebu landscapes or other florally-themed paintings and portraits.

The landscape, as well as the still life featured in Luchian’s painting, even if it portrayed what existed in nature, does not represent a study of nature on the more apparent level of concrete reality, instead capturing the fleeting essence of nature.

The pigments used in Luchian’s pastels are lead white, chromium green, yellow ochre, red iron oxide, iron magnetite for black, white chalk, vermillion, orpiment, and at times coal black.

Pastels as a painting matter is made of powdered pigment mixed with talc and Arabic gum, and its resistance to touch or humidity is very reduced. For over a century the 5 pastels were subjected to damages due to the sensitivity of the coloured powder not set with fixative, and due to the inadequate manner in which they were stored. In 2016 in the Painting restoration Laboratory there have been operations with conservation and curative purposes, meant to counteract the effects of physical degradations through the fixing of the pastel power and adequate framing of the works (featuring protective glass, at a safe distance from the work itself).

“The kobsa player”, watercolours/paper/cardboard, 47×34.3cm, signed “Luchian” in brown wash drawing on the lower right side, is part of the Old Man Nicolae Cobzarul (the kobsa player) series of portraits, an elderly man from the Devil’s Slum (Mahalaua Diavolului), where Luchian had been forced to live in poverty in 1905.

Unlike the other portraits he had done of the old man, either in oil or watercolours, “The kobsa player” from the Pinacoteca collection is a compositional portrait in which the character is presented holding a kobsa, the instrument which made him stand out as an individual. The painter aimed to capture the inner state of the soul, resigned and debased because of poverty and an unjust life.

Both the character and the background are composed of nervous, visible brushstrokes, the same as his oil paintings, and, despite the fact that most of the painting makes use of warm tones, the viewer’s gaze is drawn to the portrait because of the strong contrast with the cool white with tints of blue, used to paint the man’s beard. The warm-cold contrast particularly noticeable in the portrayal of the subject’s face is cautioned by the contrast which intensifies the compositional structure.

The precursory drawing for the painting was done in graphite, and the shapes are defined through a drawing flow made with the help of expressive brush lines, with accentuations and thickenings in the depiction of facial features, of shades, and of the clothing folds.

Luchian, impressed by the man’s character, said that “Old Man Nicolae Cobzarul is better than all of us. When he lights up and plays, you would think the kobsa catches fire in his hands.”

Because of his expressivity, this character used by Luchian as a symbol of social injustice at the time, invoking the memory of humanity through the ethical message, is also present in the two ample works “Maize sowing” and “The Party”, painted in 1905 and respectively in 1906.

Ioan D. Popa

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