63-year-old former tramp celebrated for collages made during Ceausescu regime
Lizzy Davies in Paris
Friday 26 February 2010
The guests were chic, the bordeaux was sipped with elegant restraint and the hostess was suitably glamorous in a canary yellow cocktail dress. To an outside observer who made it past the soirée privée sign on the door of the Anne de Villepoix gallery on Thursday night, it would have seemed the quintessential Parisian art viewing.
Yet that would been leaving one crucial factor out of the equation: the man whose creations the crowd had come to see. In his black cowboy hat and pressed white collar, Ion Barladeanu looked every inch the established artist as he showed guests around the exhibition. But until 2007 no one had ever seen his work, and until mid-2008 he was living in the rubbish tip of a Bucharest tower block.
Today, in the culmination of a dream for a Romanian who grew up adoring Gallic film stars and treasures a miniature Eiffel Tower he once found in a bin, Barladeanu will see his first French exhibition open to the general public.
Dozens of collages he created from scraps of discarded magazines during and after the Communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu are on sale for more than €1,000 (£895) each. They are being hailed as politically brave and culturally irreverent.
For the 63-year-old artist, the journey from the streets of Bucharest to the galleries of Europe has finally granted him recognition. "I feel as if I have been born again," he said, as some of France's leading collectors and curators jostled for position to see his collages. "Now I feel like a prince. A pauper can become a prince. But he can go back to being a pauper too."
That Barladeanu should remain stoical in the face of his sudden stardom is perhaps unsurprising. In 1989, he was one of many Romanians whose delight at Ceausescu's fall turned to frustration when work dried up. For the next 20 years, he lived on a mattress amid sacks of rubbish in the garbage room of a block of flats, earning money from odd jobs and making collages in secret.
"This was a man living on the border of society and still retaining a sense of self," said Alexander Nanau, a Bucharest-based director who has filmed a documentary on Barledeanu for HBO Central Europe. "He was lazy in a good way because that was the only way he could make his art – by hiding from a society he didn't want to get involved with."
Eventually, in 2007, Barladeanu showed his collages to an artist who happened to also be combing through the garbage. Amazed, the artist called a gallery owner. From that moment on, Barladeanu's days in the dump were numbered. "I instantly thought it was something very important, at least for Romania," said Dan Popescu, whose H'Art gallery specialises in young, little-known contemporary artists. With badly decaying teeth and a face ravaged by over 60 Romanian winters, Barledeanu was not young, and his anonymity would not last long.
Within six months, he was given his first exhibition, a flat of his own and a brand new set of dentures. In 2009, he made his first trip overseas and showed some collages at the Basel art fair. This week, he jetted into Paris, saw the Eiffel Tower for real and had lunch with the actor and fan Angelina Jolie, in town for her next movie.
Barledeanu describes himself as a "director" of his own films and considers each collage to be a movie in itself. While many are light-hearted, others are darker, infused with black humour and often focusing on the man he calls his "greatest fear". "I knew that if he knew about my work Ceausescu would not sleep in peace in his grave," he said. "If people had found out about my work they could have chopped my head off … But this is my revenge."
Many of the most explosive collages were made after 1989, but those that were made during the regime have already interested collectors. Antoine de Galbert of La Maison Rouge art foundation said he appreciated "the risk involved" in Barledeanu's work, while Jérôme Neutres of the Grand Palais said the artist's background lent the collages a unique appeal. "Of course there is a fairytale aspect to his work, but that is not important to me. What I like is that he has been spared the usual artistic circles and his work is refreshing as a result," he said.
Whatever the world thinks, Barladeanu says he will carry on working regardless. "It's like eating pie or sandwiches. It fulfils me," he said in his fast-paced Romanian slang. "If I were reincarnated in another life I would still be making collages, and if I could take them to the moon I would."
• This article was amended on Saturday 27 February to add reference to Alexander Nanau and HBO.
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