When in Romania
Three decades after Romania freed itself of Communism, its capital, Bucharest, still shows signs of neglect under that regime, with many of its beautiful Beaux-Arts and Art Deco buildings, once the pride of the “little Paris of the east”, in need of repair and refurbishment. (Only recently was a law passed requiring private building owners to maintain them.) However, there are still plenty architectural jewels to impress visitors, while days of yore are evoked in the bustle of the Old Town, a pedestrianised warren of narrow, cobbled streets.
Most of the main art museums are state-run, ranging from the National Museum of Art of Romania, the flagship gallery showcasing work by the country’s all-time greats, to a clutch of smaller museums in formerly private villas with mid-19th to mid-20th century works donated to the state by artists and art collectors. There are also opportunities to view art created in recent decades right up to contemporary work by emerging artists.
Located in the former Royal Palace in what is now Revolution Square, the National Museum of Art of Romania holds the country’s most comprehensive collection of fine art with over 100,000 works. It is divided into three major categories.
The marble-floored Old Romanian Art Gallery is heavy on religious and mythological scenes, including medieval works salvaged from monasteries destroyed during the Communist regime under the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
The Modern Romanian Art Gallery provides a great overview of 19th and 20th century Romanian art, including works by major artists such as Nicolae Grigorescu, Theodor Aman, Theodor Pallady and Ion Andreescu. Names of later artists may be unfamiliar to western European observers, as they lived under Communism and were unable to travel to show their work abroad. There is also a roomful of early works by the great Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi.
The European Art Gallery comprises some fifteen rooms and includes greats such as El Greco, Rembrandt, Breughel (father and son), Rubens, van Dyck, Wouters and Teniers, while the Impressionist section includes the likes of Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, Pissarro, Sisley, Signac, Courbet, Rodin and Boudin. The building also includes the sumptuous Throne Hall reached by an astonishing marble staircase.
Occupying a glass-encased wing of the gargantuan Palace of the Parliament, or People’s Palace, the National Museum of Contemporary Art (MNAC) is the city’s newest museum. Works by established and emerging national artists help to put contemporary Romanian art into an international context. An open plan, split-level layout with connecting stairs enables the museum to make maximum use of the high wall space and allow visitors to view the artworks at different levels.
A unique feature of the museum is In the Guts of the Collection, whereby twice a month the public has access to the museum’s storage room to view the many works not on display upstairs. Kept in large, cage-like frames, the sculptures in particular seem trapped.
A note about the Palace of the Parliament: One of the biggest buildings on earth and dominating the city’s skyline, it is despised by Romanians as a megalomaniac folly by Nicolae Ceausescu, who had 20,000 homes demolished to make way for it, forcibly relocating the residents. So vast is the building that about 70 per cent of it remains unused. There are public tours.
Housed in the restored former Romanit palace, which is fronted by a beautiful garden and fountain, the Art Collections Museum houses over thirty private collections donated to the state, each displayed in a series of interconnected rooms and ranging from Romanian folk art and European art and applied arts to Oriental carpets and Japanese prints and drawings. Many well known Romanian painters are represented such as Theodor Aman, Nicolae Grigorescu, Ioan Andreescu, Gheorghe Petraşcu and Theodor Pallady.
You may hear the Museum of Recent Arts before you see it. Emanating from the sleek building, the clip-clop of horses’ hooves is actually Equestrian, a permanent soundwork by Alexandru Papuc and Cristian Macovei. Built on the site of the former home of Ana Pauker (she served as the Communist foreign minister in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the first woman in the world to hold that office), the strangely disproportionate building seems to float on its fully glazed ground floor.
Inside is an impressive collection of Romanian art from the 1960s to the present, including works created during the tightly controlled Communist era. The museum is just a few minutes along the street from the Spring Palace, Ceausescu’s former private residence, which is open to the public.
Bucharest also has a number of smaller museums housed in villas located in mostly quiet residential areas and which were once the homes of collectors or some of the country’s most revered artists, who donated their collections to the state.
Dedicated to the works of the Bucharest-born sculptor Frederick “Fritz” Storck (1872-1942), one of Romania’s most prominent artists between the two world wars, and his painter wife, the Storck Museum is an intimate space which feels like the previous occupants have just popped out for lunch.
Some 250 of Storck’s sculptures, inspired by the classicism of Rodin and Maillol, are displayed around the elegant house (his studio is particularly evocative), while the walls and ceilings are covered with elaborate frescoes depicting the Garden of Eden by Cecelia Cutescu-Storck, a keen advocate of recognition for women in the arts.
In a busy street near the National Museum of Art of Romania, the Theodor Aman Museum is a jewel of a building from 1868. One of the most beautiful private residences in Bucharest, it is also one of the few which have not undergone changes over time.
The house was the home and studio of the artist Theodor Aman (1831-1891), known mainly for his historical paintings and Oriental scenes. Exuding the atmosphere of the Belle Epoque, the entire house was either created or designed by Aman, from the paintings, furniture, frescoes, stained glass windows, parquet flooring and stucco ceiling to the bas-reliefs on the facade, one of Leonardo of da Vinci, made in collaboration with the sculptor Karl Storck.
After your visit, be sure to cross the street to the beautiful auction house Artmark, where several rooms are stuffed with all manner of art and crafts, some for sale without going under the hammer.
In the former Armenian district east of the city centre, the Theodor Pallady Museum is named after the Paris-trained Romanian artist. Pallady (1871-1956) never actually lived in the now beautifully restored house, built around 1750 and reputed to be the oldest in Bucharest. Rather, his eight hundred or so landscapes, cityscapes, nudes, portraits and interior scenes form the core of what is the Serafina and Gheorghe Raut Collection.
Gheorghe Raut shared a house with Pallady in Paris. He went on to collect 16th to 18th century European paintings, sculptures, decorative arts, furniture, religious icons, tapestries, carpets, folk art and Oriental ceramics. The house is fronted by a rose garden in which a bronze likeness of Aman sits on a pedestal as if on a throne overseeing his domain.
In the 1940s the art critic and collector Krikor Zambaccian (1889-1962) had a house purpose-built to display the collection of paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings and furniture that he had acquired over more than half a century. Zambaccian (pronounced ‘Zambac-chian’) subsequently donated both the collection and the house to the Romanian state and today the K. H. Zambaccian Museum has retained the display as it was conceived by the collector himself.
One of the most valuable private collections in Romania, it provides an overview of modern Romanian art, including works by Ioan Andreescu, Nicolae Grigorescu, Stefan Luchian, Theodor Pallady and Theodor Aman. There is also a selection of Impressionist paintings by Renoir, Picasso, Sisley, Derain, Pissarro, Cezanne, Matisse, Bonnard, Delacroix, Corot and others.
In a busy side street in the heart of the Old Town, a visit to the Little Paris Museum is like stepping into a bourgeois apartment at the end of the 19th century, when French influence on culture and architecture earned Bucharest the nickname “the little Paris of the east”.
Resembling a film set for a costume drama, the museum’s four rooms, some reflecting the Turkish influence of the Ottoman Empire which at its peak included Bucharest, are packed with period furniture, artworks, mirrors, photographs, lamps, clocks, porcelain and more evoking the ‘fin de siecle’.
Opened in 1888, the Romanian Athenaeum is an opulent concert hall and architectural gem which hosted the Romanian premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Every year it presents the classic music festival named for the Romanian composer George Enescu (1881-1955). A gorgeous fresco by Costin Petrescu around the circular Big Hall depicts important events in Romanian history.