Contemporary Art in Cluj – Revisited
A Critical Overview
Cluj-Napoca. Photo: Viator.
Adrian Ghenie / Mircea Cantor / Ciprian Mureşan / Victor Man / Alex Mirutziu / Mircea Suciu / Marius Bercea / Serban Savu / Gabriela Vanga / Oana Farcas / Mi Kafchin / Cristi Pogăcean / Teodora Axente / Radu Cioca / Mihai Iepure Gorski / Radu Comșa / Răzvan Botiș / Szilard Gaspar / Sergiu Toma / Ana Maria Micu / Dan Maciuca / Szabolcs Veres Robert Fekete
Introduction — Status Quaestionis
Since the new millennium, there has been coming a lot of noise from the Transylvanian city of Cluj, Romania. This new hotspot of contemporary visual artistic production has been delivering exciting artists at an incredible pace.
When discussing this phenomenon in contemporary art, the term Cluj School – or School of Cluj – is used very often, with varying connotations and/or meaning. A term which is often – rightfully – contested or sometimes even detested. One thing is certain, the contemporary art scene in Cluj has been one of the of the most exciting phenomena of recent art history and continues to draw great interest to the Mitteleuropean city.
In this article, we will critically discuss the term Cluj School, sketch the historical context and the art scenes bounding factors, as well as the main representatives of the Cluj art scene, such as Adrian Ghenie (b. 1977), Mircea Cantor (b. 1977), Ciprian Mureşan (b. 1977), Victor Man (b. 1974), Alex Mirutziu (b. 1981), Mircea Suciu (b. 1978), Marius Bercea (b. 1979), Serban Savu (b. 1978), Gabriela Vanga (b. 1977), Oana Farcas (b. 1981), Mi Kafchin (b. 1986), Cristi Pogăcean (b. 1980), Teodora Axente (b. 1984), Radu Cioca (b. 1982), Mihai Iepure Gorski (b. 1982), Radu Comșa (b. 1975), Szabolcs Veres (b. 1983), Răzvan Botiş (b. 1984), Szilard Gaspar (b. 1991), Sergiu Toma (b. 1987), Robert Fekete (b. 1987), Ana Maria Micu (b. 1979) and Dan Maciuca (b. 1979).
Further, is the artistic mythical buzz of Cluj as a purveyor of art's new superstars over its peak? Does the new generation of Cluj artists fulllfil the high expectations and standards set by their illustrious role models? Or is the artistic production in Cluj a hype of overrated, monotonous and predictable art?
S.n.: The reasoned selection of the main representatives is in no way to be interpreted as complete or absolute. The artistic landscape continuous to shift with artists climbing the ladder of succes every day while others see their exposure limited on a national scale. The critical overview which is presented in this article consists of an intersection of the main representatives over the past ten years.
Ciprian Mureşan at the Prague Biennale in 2007. Photo: Simona Nastac.
Terminology — What is the Cluj School?
Although the terminology is often contested, it is customary being used in various (international) artistic and academic circles. Generally speaking, the term Cluj School could be described or defined as;
An art historic phenomenon and group of contemporary artists from Cluj-Napoca, bound by the historical context of their generation, growing up in the aftermath of the Romanian Revolution in 1989, characterized by life in Post-Communist Romania and well-known by their dominant manifestation in the contemporary art scene.
The term exists since the Prague Biennale in 2007, where it was used for the first time to describe a group of emerging Romanian artists whom participated in the biennale. The term Cluj School originates from the tradition of naming such local phenomena as 'schools'. Think of the Barbizon School, the School of London or more recently the Neue Leipziger Schule (New Leipzig School).
Marius Bercea working in his studio. Photo: Widewalls.
Further, there is the Art and Design University of Cluj-Napoca where many of the main representatives have received their MA education and training. Some of these artists hated their passage at the University and found their traits after the University, others have manifested themselves as important figures for the future generation of artists from Cluj. Think of Marius Bercea, an internationally celebrated painter and professor at the University of Cluj-Napoca. However, one may not underestimate the importance of the forged alliances in the form of friendships back in the late 90s.
The term Cluj School is contested too, often by the representatives themself. It is to say, the group of artists coming from Cluj may not be interpreted as a homogeneous group, rather as a number of different circles, styles and visions on contemporary art. Adrian Ghenie:
"There's been a fair amount of tension at times between groups, which is natural. We might have different ideas about what constitutes "good" art, which can result in discord or fallings-out, but the one thing we've all come to realize is that we have to create a cultural platform in Cluj; we have to communicate to the world that something interesting is happening here. So we all turn up to each other's openings and initiatives and thereby support each other. The city is too small to excuse someone from simply not showing up."
Portrait of Adrian Ghenie working in his Berlin studio (2014). Photo: Oliver Mark.
Further, these so-called schools are often used as an economic lever by galleries and other entities. By associating a certain artist with this school or 'movement', the connection is often used as a justification to profile the artists and his works as very valuable, pushing up the price tag. Although the new generation of young artists from Cluj is still in search for a distinctive style and may arguably be too rooted in the style of their successful predecessors, gallerists continue to travel every year to Cluj to pick up graduates from the Art and Design University of Cluj-Napoca.
The key pitfall followed by its contestation and misconceptions concerning the term Cluj School, lies in the modernist approach, connotation and interpretation of any art historic school, movement, wave, group or phenomenon. The artists of the Cluj School are individuals, they do not share a revolutionary program or have written any manifesto's indicating they have a shared vision on art, the world, and how they'd like to change it as it was the case with more historical avant-garde movements and modernist schools of painters.
There is also a quasi-direct association with the term Cluj School and painting. Since the introduction of the term, the main emphasis has been on painting. By times, it is even called the Cluj School of Painting. A logical association considering the incredible array of painters emanating from this local phenomenon, think of Adrian Ghenie, the aforementioned Marius Bercea, Victor Man, Mircea Suciu and Serban Savu.
As a result, it often feels a bit deceitful when one categorizes or denominates a neo-conceptual artist such as Ciprian Mureşan or Mircea Cantor as a Cluj School representative, as one might argue the formal characteristics of their oeuvre are diametrically opposed to the body of works by the aforementioned Cluj painters. However, they are in fact strongly linked to their compatriots than to, for instance, Joseph Kosuth or Piero Manzoni. They share a common ground, rooted in their historical context and reflected in their subject matter (cf. infra).
Fabrica de Pensule. Photo: Fabrica de Pensule.
The Paintbrush Factory as a Cultural Hotbed
One of these cultural platforms in Cluj is the Fabrica de Pensule or the Paintbrush Factory which played a very important role in the rise of the contemporary art scene of Cluj. The brutalist former factory building found its new purpose back in 2009 as a hub for contemporary art, bringing together creative minds, galleries, producers, artists and other cultural organizations. This initiative was a reaction to the lack of space for exhibitions and artistic production.
Ten years later in 2019, this initiative in its original form comes to a halt. It disintegrated while other actors took over the identity of the Factory by night. However, the community and efflorescence of Cluj as a cultural hotbed isn't going anywhere, as different groups of different shapes continue to set course. Even more, although the Factory may have fallen apart, ideologically and as a collective, it remains a landmark in Cluj's recent (art) history without which things could not have gone further.
One of the greatest success stories connected to the Fabrica de Pensule must be Galeria Plan B and its main artists whom became the art world's new superstars. The gallery, an exhibition and production space for contemporary art, opened in Cluj in 2005 followed by a second gallery, a permanent exhibition space, in Berlin in 2008. Founded by Mihai Pop and Adrian Ghenie, the artist-run gallery became not only an inspiring story of success for other artists from Cluj, it also became a model or exemplum for other galleries. As a result, in 2009 Plan B were one of the main initiators of the Paintbrush Factory project bringing their international exposure to the wider art scene in Cluj.
Galeria Plan B seems to be a hit from the start. The genuine combination of New Figurative Painters and Neo-Conceptualists proved the art world that both spheres or disciplines aren't opposites at all, but work together establishing a synergetic relationship. Their opening show in 2005—presenting the works of Victor Man—was covered by the major art publication Art in America and in 2007 hosted the Romanian Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale presenting Plan B's artists, followed in 2015 when Mihai Pop curated the Romanian Pavilion at the 56nd Venice Biennale featuring a solo show of Adrian Ghenie.
Galeria Plan B, Cluj. / Photo: Fabrica De Pensula.
Historical Context and Analysis
But what factors contributed to this series of successes? What aspects transformed Cluj into this thriving cultural hotspot? And what makes the artworks an sich produced in the Transylvanian capital relevant as such, taking the art world by storm and nesting in the highest tiers of art world and sustaining their presence?
As always, several factors come in to play. From a stylistic point of view, one can state the interest of Western galleries, curators and collectors around the new millennium is rooted in the distinctive figurative painting style by many Cluj artists. Figurative painting had been on the up in an exponential manner since the 80s and 90s with Neo-expressionism or the emergence of New European Painting.
A more important similarity than the distinctive visual language with New European Painting, is the strong affinity for historical issues, which is in my opinion the primary characteristic of the Cluj artists. The so called Cluj School artists belong to a first post-communist generation. From a cultural and socio-political perspective, they were set to deal with a complex transition from a totalitarian regime to a democratic, capitalist organization of the new Romanian society, paired with difficulties and issues concerning internationalization and globalization.
Jane Neal: "(...) Growing up during communism and witnessing its disintegration, followed by the rapid onslaught and effects of consumer culture on their society, has given them a unique perspective. It could be, as Romanian critic Mihnea Mircan proposes, that the artists have developed a kind of "allergy to Utopia" that has imbued them with a watchful detachment, a desire to deconstruct and uncover things for themselves."
Main Representatives — A Critical Anthology
The following critical anthology consists of the twenty most important artists for the Cluj art scene's current generation and the so-called Cluj School. For instance, Miklos Onuscan (b. 1952) is one of the most important Romanian artists and is connected to Cluj. However, as he is part of a different generation, Onuscan is not included in this anthology as it is our aim the sketch the current generation's main representatives.
The selection is based upon objective career facts, such as the artist's artfacts ranking, their presence in professional literature concerning the Cluj art scene over the past two decades, the gallery representation of the artist and participation in major shows, biennales or their presence in major public and private collections.
S.n.: The list is not to be interpreted as a ranking.
Adrian Ghenie (b. 1977)
Adrian Ghenie, The raft, 2019. Oil on canvas – 230 x 360 cm. Courtesy of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac.
Adrian Ghenie is arguably the most prolific and most influential artist from the so-called Cluj School, most commonly illustrated by mind-boggling auction results such as the 7 million pound auction record at Christie's in 2016.
The Romanian superstar is born in 1977 in Baia Mare and currently resides and works in Berlin, Germany. Ghenie is known for his dynamic and collage-like compositions, marked by virtuoso impastos, strong contrasts and lively colors. In an eclectic manner, Ghenie combines (art) historical references, humor and a critical mind by building hallucinative narratives in his paintings, often large in scale.
To discover more, feel free to read our artist spotlight on Adrian Ghenie or our exhibition review on Adrian Ghenie at Tim Van Laere Gallery, Antwerp (BE).
Mircea Cantor (b. 1977)
Mircea Cantor, Supposing I could hear that sound. Now, 2015. Concrete and two shofars – 200 x 123 cm. Courtesy Dvir Gallery.
One of the first artists of his generation to achieve international praise is Mircea Cantor. Born in 1977, Cantor is known for his videos, photography and mixed-media installations.
The Marcel Duchamp Prize winner (2011) effectuates evocative and metaphorical works reflecting upon a broad world view examining concepts such as ideology, the self, the other and multivalence. As a true postmodernist, Cantor inflicts a multitude of meanings into his (found) objects, playing with language, categorization and interpretation.
Ciprian Mureşan (b. 1977)
Ciprian Mureşan, Debandadă istorică, 2019. Installation view. Courtesy of Nicodim Gallery.
Also born in 1977, Ciprian Mureşan is a neo-conceptual artist living and working in Cluj-Napoca, Romania.
His oeuvre is marked by a multidisciplinary practice, encompassing installation, sculpture, video and drawing—although his drawings feel just as conceptual as his installations. Mureşan's postmodern and conceptual approach combines irony, a critical world view and a strong affinity for (art) history, resulting into subtle and smart commentaries on certain topics.
Discover more by reading our artist spotlight on Ciprian Mureşan.
Victor Man (b. 1974)
Victor Man, Self-Portrait at Father's Death, 2016. Oil on canvas mounted on wood – 27 x 19 cm. Courtesy of Gladstone Gallery.
Further, we have the enigmatic paintings by Victor Man. Born in 1974 in Cluj, Man is a contemporary painter living and working in Cluj, Romania and Rome, Italy.
What distinguishes Man from other paintings is the spiritual aura and nocturnal character residing in his works. His styled figurative imagery is build upon an art historical dialogue, using darker tones and mysterious compositions.
For further reading on Man, feel free to have a look at our artist spotlight dedicated to Victor Man's unique painted oeuvre.
Alex Mirutziu (b. 1981)
Alex Mirutziu, Because, 2019. Wooden object, cutout text – 190 × 130 × 20 cm. Courtesy Art Encounters Foundation.
Alex Mirutziu, born in 1981 in Sibiu, Romania, resides and works in Cluj-Napoca, Romania and London, England, United Kingdom. Mirutziu is known for his performance-, installation-, and object-based practice and body of works.
The Romanian multidisciplinary artist is occupied with the body, misunderstanding, fault or correction, examining topics such as self-familiarization, mediation, interaction, social processes and more. The main concept dominating his artistic practice is his own body and autobiography, using it as a vehicular medium and tool from which the artwork is navigated.
Mircea Suciu (b. 1978)
Mircea Suciu, Still Life with Lemon, 2019. Oil, acrylic, monoprint on linen – 13 4/5 × 13 4/5 in / 35 × 35 cm. Courtesy Zeno X Gallery.
Mircea Suciu, born in 1978 in Baia Mara, Romania, resides and works in Cluj, Romania. The Romanian artist is known for his mixed media paintings and his drawings, combining materials and techniques to achieve his characteristic figurative imagery.
It is to say, Suciu implements the monoprint technique into his painterly practice. Photographic material is transferred onto the canvas, often creating a grid-like effect when working on a larger scale, from which he tackles the transferred image with oil and acrylic paint. The topics and subject matter of the paintings are often dominated by socio-political themes or psychological aspects examining concepts such as (psychological) pain, metaphysics, mass identity or even philosophical questions.
Marius Bercea (b. 1979)
Marius Bercea, Semantic Pair, 2020. Oil on canvas – 76.2 × 61 cm. Courtesy François Ghelaby, Los Angeles.
Born in 1979 in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, Marius Bercea lives and works in Cluj, Romania. Bercea is known for his – often large in scale – paintings filled with colour, contrast, objects and an almost horror vacui setting.
Based on photographs and from memory, Bercea depicts post-communist Romania in an early-capitalist state. Certain objects and in particular the vivid colours feel as if exotic Romania is not so different from Los Angeles. Bercea depicts figures in these settings, mostly in a state of leisure or engaged in a collective activity.
Serban Savu (b. 1978)
Serban Savu, The Thorn, 2020. Acrylic on board – 62 × 84.5 cm. Courtesy Galeria Plan B.
Born in Sighișoara, Romania, in 1978, Serban Savu lives and works in Cluj, Romania. The graduate from the University of Art and Design in Cluj is known for his skillfully rendered paintings depicting the daily existence of Romanians and Romania today.
In a Courbet-Manet manner, Socialist Realism is a central topic throughout his oeuvre. This realist approach is combined with a touch of melancholy, showing abandoned factories, structures or old cars, but also figures and nature.
Gabriela Vanga (b. 1977)
Gabriela Vanga, Mirare, 2015. Wood ladder, 2 mirrors – variable dimensions. Courtesy Art Encounters Foundation.
Gabriela Vanga, born in 1977 in Târgu-Mureș, Romania, lives and work in Paris, France and Târgu-Mureș, Romania. Vanga is known for her intriguing sculptures and installations and has been extremely influential in Cluj and beyond for her multimedia practice.
Vanga is married to Mircea Cantor and together with Ciprian Mureșan they launched the artist-run magazine Version, which is still up to now a very important initiative for the Cluj art scene.
Oana Farcas (b. 1981)
Oana Farcas, The lady and the unicorn , 2015. Oil on canvas – 80.5 × 80.5 cm. Courtesy Galleria Doris Ghetta.