28 October – 23 February 2012
Johnen has a revelatory mini-retrospective of modernist Florin Mitroi (1938-2002), a singular, reclusive Romanian painter in tempera of stark portraits and disconcerting still-lifes.
Mitroi stands out for his moral/ political energy - in scant supply in this play-it-safe year.
Frieze Art Fair review by Jackie Wullschlager
Financial Times, 14 October 2011
In his life, Florin Mitroi (1938-2002) had only one solo exhibition, in 1992 (Catacomba Gallery, Bucharest). And he retracted, spurned it. A lifelong Professor at the Bucharest Art Academy, known in person to most of the artists, art historians and art critics, Mitroi was, however, a secretive, quiet, self-effacing figure. Few disconcerting works exited his atelier for some rare, collective shows in the past 40 years. Even fewer people entered his atelier, where the works were carefully covered, hidden not shown during the visits. Caution, mistrust, and discretion mixed into a tortuous personality.
Mitroi voluntarily flattened his own public appearance as a human and as an artist. The amazing richness of his work was discovered only after his death, when hundreds of works on canvas, wood, glass, metal, and thousands of drawings and photographs immediately made him into a major figure of the Romanian culture in the second half of the 20th century, a model for a life struggling into the confines of melting Communism, turned later to savage consumerism.
His work evolved in the late 50s, during the hardest times of Proletkult-grounded Socialist Realism. Artists and students who declined propaganda art were excluded from schools, lost their ateliers, were marginalized or arrested. To adapt to the “social demand” (so it was called the political motifs imposed by the regime) meant, for some, to survive, while for others to prosper. Pathetic heroes like Stakhanovist workers and kolkhoz-peasants, together with the figures and the deeds of communist leaders became mandatory “sources of inspiration” for official art. Under the pressure of repression, soon internalized by the opportunist artists, ethical issues were wiped out and aesthetic standards were left floating. Classical modernisms of every kind, resurrected traditionalism and, from a certain moment on, even neo-avant-garde idiom was tolerated by the communist power with only one provision: not to challenge the system. And the system was largely left unchallenged until December 1989.
For misfits like Mitroi, exasperation turned into personal and historical drama. He, the inoffensive one, was left with the only possibility of internally offending and challenging the whole world around him. In real life a master of discretion and dissimulation, Mitroi turned into a master of exposure and indiscretion in his surreptitious art. Nobody suspected him of an ultimate, coherent and wide-ranging research in desperation and evil. Mitroi’s work is a huge fresco of a passionate theatre of powerlessness: hatred, fear, doubt, hypocrisy, malice, abuse, deceit, perversity, the whole range of a mean mankind flourish in his gallery of dystopic, yet delicate characters of a voluptuous misanthropist play. When the human figure becomes a limit, allegorical objects substitute it: axes, sickle, knives turn apparently benign still-lives into a stage for anxiety, menace and violence, lived with a suicidal fervor. His painterly experiments resurrected ancient techniques. Like the psychotic one, his technical research was, however, politically-charged. He rebuffed oil painting, refusing its opportunity to repair, to embellish, to obtain effects through layering and shading. In contrast to it, the crisp, ancient tempera technique he employed is uncompromising: only one trait, only one colour, only one truth at a time is permitted, in a direct, immediate and un-alterable way. Each work is the accurate and indelible embodiment of a distinct fact and state of mind. Consequently, the works are named after the day they were made, as if to pin-point a transparent reality, verity or revelation, like a crude diary.
Today, most analytical attention is paid to the two kinds of heroes of Communist times, either to the clamorous opposition (“the dissidents”), or to the vocal supporters (“the apparatchiks”). This because nowadays power still seduces even the critical eye. Yet, opposition and regime shared the language of the same power (frequently the dissidents were mere apparatchiks deprived of benefits, and then turned into detractors). But Mitroi enacts the language of powerlessness. His anti-heroic position is still challenging nowadays too, defying the public consciousness mesmerized by vacuous force. Mitroi’s barb-wired art is self-defense against the invasive, violent rhetoric of an ideological social body. Hence it’s cruelty. In his works, protest is disfigured by fear, humanity by survival, and charity by bestiality. His values are still difficult to stomach. Sincerity, immediacy, fervor, panic, weakness, desperation, and suicide as the only way out continue to challenge the beholder eager for visual comfort.
Now is safer to accuse the political system (the Communist, but not only) and to turn individuals in mere victims. Mitroi simply couldn’t see the system: all what he saw were people mutilated by their own accepting of the given. Moral rather than conceptual, the work of Mitroi works like a lens for ecstatically monitoring the far-reaching evil inside, its self-destructing and de-legitimizing action. Based on his communist experience, his work addresses poignant questions to the contemporary consciousness too.
text: Erwin Kessler