BUCHAREST, Romania — What are the arts worth?
In straitened times it’s easy to mistake cost for value. You might also say it’s the difference between cash and culture, the price of something and what’s ultimately priceless.
Romanians, it seems, have been prone to confuse the two since even before the revolution that overthrew the country’s Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, and executed him and his wife, Elena, nearly 20 years ago.
That’s one explanation, at least, for why, when the courts here recently ruled that some art formerly in the possession of the Ceausescu family should be returned to Nicolae’s only surviving child, Valentin, Romanians hardly blinked.
The art is mostly Romanian paintings, but also some Goya prints. That ruling was not quite an equivalent to German courts handing art formerly at Berchtesgaden over to Hitler’s relatives. But it was close.
A soft-spoken 60-year-old physicist who never helped run his father’s regime, Valentin Ceausescu has said the works he wanted to get back belonged to his own former wife, Iordana, an art historian and the daughter of a onetime Communist leader. Valentin’s father, who didn’t approve of the marriage, expelled her years ago to Canada.
Other works being returned, however, belonged to Valentin’s brother, Nicu, a much-loathed figure when he was the dictator’s heir apparent. He died of cirrhosis in 1996, at 45. (Ceausescu’s third child, a daughter, Zoe, who also had some works of art, died from lung cancer in 2006, at 57.)
Ultimately, of course, everything that belonged to the family of Ceausescu, a onetime apprentice shoemaker from a peasant village, derived from the privileges of power.
The case went through many convolutions over seven years. Valentin argued in court that what had been confiscated from him after his father was overthrown was not state property — never mind if, as the state argued, none of the Ceausescus ever bothered to document properly what was in their possession, as the Ceausescu regime required every Romanian to do.
An eyebrow or two might have been raised when the court then agreed with Valentin, at least among Romanians who could recall how the dictator enriched his homes, his family members and others close to him by seizing art and property from innumerable countrymen.
But the ho-hum response here speaks volumes about this struggling country’s cash-versus-culture climate. With most barely scraping by, Romanians admire private enterprise more than they value some vague notion of shared artistic heritage.
“Since the revolution the country is only about private enterprise,” said Cristian Stanescu, a journalist who covered the trial for the local newspaper, The Guardian. He echoed what others here say: “Romanians sympathize with Valentin because he worked the system to his advantage. Our idea of culture now is making money. We still have too many basic needs to worry about elevated ones like art and the state.”
Alin Ciupala, a thoughtful young historian of Romanian history at Bucharest University, put his countrymen’s indifference to their artistic heritage another way: “In Romania under Ceausescu there didn’t exist, as there did in the Soviet Union or Czechoslovakia, any underground cultural movement. There was no samizdat culture. And so there never was a tradition here of cultural liberalism, of cultural resistance. Intellectuals were opportunistic. The instinct to survive has always been highly developed in this country.
“If Valentin had obtained from the courts big castles, or land, it might have provoked a reaction and reduced public sympathy for him. But paintings and prints, works of art? They don’t mean that much for most Romanians.”
The art the court agreed should be handed over to Mr. Ceausescu is still in storage in the National Art Museum, where it has been since being seized years ago. One estimate put the price tag for the lot of pictures, some 40, at somewhat less than $1 million, but that was only a wild guess.
Goya aside, the best-known artists among the work being returned, Victor Brauner and Theodor Pallady, aren’t exactly big names outside the country. Like Valentin Ceausescu and his wife, but for very different reasons, Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu also amassed works by Romanian artists, in their case pre-modern and Socialist Realist, although for a while, while the Communist leader was courting Richard M. Nixon and Charles de Gaulle during the 1960s, the state officially tolerated modern art for the sake of Western consumption. Briefly Romanian artists had a window onto what was happening in America and Western Europe.
But then, culture having only been a political tool, the window eventually shut. After Ceausescu visited Pyongyang in North Korea, he decided to rebuild his own capital city. The result was to wipe out much of historic Bucharest to make way for grotesque and gigantic building projects that still spoil the city center, and sycophants kept a virtual army of state-approved artists busy painting portraits of Ceausescu and his wife, thousands of them. These ended up in public buildings and in the various homes of the dictator, who loved to receive as birthday gifts pictures of himself showing how much the Romanian people loved him. Ceausescu constructed a whole building to store these portraits.
As it happened, the National Museum of Contemporary Art here had some of them on view the other day. Mihai Oroveanu, the museum’s director, hung them in one gallery — diagonally, to make clear that the show was not actually a tribute.
Big, brightly colored scenes of Communist kitsch, they showed the dictator and his wife smiling before reverent mobs of workers, receiving flowers from ruddy-cheeked female soldiers, and wearing white 1970s leisure suits that, like the peaked winter hat Ceausescu made de rigeur for all loyal apparatchiks, became the height of Romanian fashion once upon a time.
Radu Filipescu, a former dissident imprisoned and beaten under Ceausescu for distributing antigovernment leaflets, recalled Romanian life back then. “The most interesting books I read were in prison,” he said one recent evening, with a laugh. “There was not a lot else to do.” But he was also half-serious.
“Today Romanians are totally consumed by competition and money,” he explained. “It’s easier for them to keep warm memories of the past, when life certainly was not better, but in some ways it was not as difficult. They don’t want to concern themselves with Ceausescu at the moment.”
All of Europe wrestles with the last century, at different speeds. A generation of Spaniards is just getting around to unearthing the graves of Republicans killed under the rule of Francisco Franco, more than three decades after his death; France and Poland still haven’t quite confronted their conflicted roles during World War II. Germany struggles with addressing the legacy of its division, 20 years after the Wall fall.
Here, Ceausescu and his wife aside, few Romanians were prosecuted for what happened during the Ceausescu era. Nobody served more than a few years in jail.
“It is incredible to give back paintings to the son of a dictator,” said Stejarel Olaru. He oversees the government-sponsored Institute for the Investigation of Communist Crimes in Romania. “But people don’t care.”
And so it’s left to Valentin Ceausescu, of all people, to deal with the past. He agreed to meet one afternoon in a nearly empty restaurant outside Bucharest. Nervous and defensive, he stressed that the art his parents had in their homes was borrowed from state-owned museums. The works he fought to recover, the only ones he really cares about, he said, were collected by him and his former wife, a private affair.
“I was defending my name,” he said. “These works were part of my past, my life. Some were gifts from a painter who was a friend.”
If the museum abides by the court order and turns the pictures over, which he said he still doubts, Mr. Ceausescu plans to give most of the works to Iordana, keep two or three for himself, but sell none.
The issue was never profit, said the son of the dead dictator. It was justice.
“I’m not pressed for money,” he wanted to make clear. “The whole point was that there should be a fair trial.”