Today I would like to revisit a departed artist from my own county, Constanta. I discovered the works of Ion Bitzan in my first art history seminar at Duke University, through the research of Prof. Stiles, who interviewed the artist in 1993. I chose to write about Bitzan today in conjunction with my previous post on the socio-political transformations in Romania in the past 20 years.
Born in 1924 in Liman, Bitzan spent most of his adult life under the Stalinist and then communist regime in Romania. His work spans the spectrum from the Dada movement of the 1920 to the postmodern projects in contemporary art. Like my grandparents who remember all too well the human rights violations in communist Romania, Bitzan grew up under the tormenting shadow of the "State and Party". In this repressive system to oppose the will of the Party, Stalin, then Gheorghe Gheorgiu-Dej and finally Ceausescu, was to be an enemy of the nation and as the artist himself confessed, to feel guilty to be human.
Bitzan's choice was to be an artist of the state, agreeing to paint eulogistic portraits of Ceausescu and his wife, and also to privately create his own work, in his own secret language. As a member of the Art Academy, the artist had the privilege to travel outside Romania, unlike most of his countrymen and women who were forbidden to do so up to 1989. Because he was exposed to the conceptual works of international artists, Bitzan began experimenting with collage, assemblage, painting and art-objects, pursuing a personal, hidden artistic journey, parallel with his socialist-realist works. Bitzan's conceptual art-objects evoke humanity through books, mysterious symbols, maps, food and spices, furniture, particularly human legacy confronted with decay.
He is the first Romanian artist to use books as a medium, which he arranged in highly sculptural compositions (such as The Banquet exhibited at the Venice Biennale, 1997) while at the same time conveying the metaphysical richness of their covers, pages, the characters and format. Bitzan's book-objects, which he coined the "Constellation series" (1982) provoke a haptic experience, triggering memory and narration, their inner abundance. As always I invite you to discover the artist works by yourselves by taking a look at his excellent website or in person at these museums: The Museum of Modern Art (New York), The Kunsthalle (Hamburg), The National Museum (Poznan), The Stedelijk Museum (Amersterdam) or The National Art Museum (Bucharest).
What does one make of Bitzan's life and the choices he made to be an artist? I have struggled with this questions both personally (as my family was faced with the same harsh decisions) and professionally - how to analyze this artist's double life critically and with empathy at the same time? I also think how easy it would be for me now to judge the generations that had to crawl and fight their way to the freedom I effortlessly enjoy today. For me, part of that freedom entails the responsibility to actively try to understand the past, to critically examine where my generation came from so that we, as a civil society can make informed choices about our future.
Communism, repression, censorship, trauma are all part of our history as a people, and individually. As much as the our elected officials want to quickly ventriloquate Western ideals, hoping against hope that the IMF will save us from bankruptcy or that the EU won't kick us out for being too corrupt, Romania is still a country burdened by its past. If we try to look at that past with altruism, we can start to change ourselves and create bonds of solidarity and compassion instead of fear and mistrust. Memory can in itself become a form of justice.
So wherever you are reading this from today, enjoy your freedom responsibly!