His story has been told by The Guardian, the BBC and even made into a movie. From complete obscurity, Ion Barladeanu, a Romanian artist in his sixties, a freedom fighter of sorts who for much of his life chose to live outside of the system, skyrocketed to fame shortly after his work was discovered while he was living by the garbage bins behind an apartment block.
Before this time, Barladeanu had only shared his remarkable collages with a few trusted friends. “Especially before ’89; otherwise there was a risk of being jailed,” he told Czech Position. Today his work has been shown in Paris and London alongside that of Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamps. In his most comprehensive exhibition to date (featuring around 200 pieces from the late 1970s until today), Barladeanu’s work can now be seen at Prague’s Czech Centre in “Art Against All Odds.”
“He had only obstacles to doing his art; society was against him, his father [a communist] was against what he was doing, he had no training ... but he still found a way to make his art function for him,” says Dan Popescu, the curator. “It’s hard to find an artist who uses art for inner purposes. For him his art was always a way to survive. He poured everything inside his art.”
Popescu, owner of the H’art gallery in Bucharest, was the one who paved the way to Barladeanu’s remarkable path after being introduced to the collages by another artist. Popescu, who regularly attends art fairs, brought Barladeanu and his work to the Basel Art Fair, which led to shows in Paris and London; as they say, the rest is history.
Barladeanu’s history began in 1946, the year he was born in the village of Zapodeni. “For more than 30 years he refused to become an ‘honorable citizen’,” Popescu writes in the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue. He worked various jobs throughout the communist era, “refusing socialist labor,” Popescu says (which led to a three-month jail sentence at one point), eventually ending up in Bucharest were he worked as a grave digger, a security guard, a frame saw worker and even as an unqualified worker at General Secretary of Romania’s communist party Nicolae Ceausecu’s infamous “House of the People.”
It was after 1989 that Barladeanu eventually found himself, as did many other Romanians at the time, with little work. From 1996 up until his remarkable discovery in 2007, he was living in the area where garbage was discarded behind the apartment blocks doing small jobs for the people who lived there.
There he also continued making his collages, which he had started with in the late 1970s (preceded by drawings and portraits). Using whatever resources he could find, Barladeanu cut up magazines and fashioned the various images into powerful, provocative, political, humorous compositions that each tell their own story. “I wanted to be a movie maker,” said Barladeanu, who thinks of each of his pieces as a film. “Working with collage helped me do what I could with no means whatsoever.”
The manner in which Popescu has displayed the works for the exhibition speaks to Barladeanu’s cinematic ambitions, “It resembles a film strip,” Popescu told Czech Position. The order in which the work is shown marks Barladeanu’s progression. It begins with a few portraits from the late 1970s, including a self-portrait. It then moves on to several colored drawings done in a kind of comic style, which Popescu describes as “kind of grotesque, Fellini-like.”
Of his first collage, Popescu points out Barladeanu’s oft-repeated images of hats. From there, he remarks on Barladeanu’s consistent refinement of his collages, how the compositions became more complicated and how he eventually moved away from drawing in his own backgrounds to the compositions being made entirely from cut up magazines. On Barladeanu’s use of Romania’s unique brand of humor, Popescu says: “It’s sometimes over the top, with no taboos.” He had fairly advanced design skills for communist times, the curator says, and an abundance of “basically [everything] what was lacking” alongside symbols of the West: “women, cigars, booze.” ‘It’s sometimes over the top, with no taboos.’
Describing Barladeanu’s art as a kind of Pop Art with Dadaism — “a touch of Surrealism and a hint of communist gulag” — Popescu says his art was kind of risky. “It wasn’t for that time; his pop style should only be in an open, free society,” comments Popescu. “His art expressed his dream of freedom with a focus on Western brands, celebrities and planes — his dream of flying away.”
It was after 1989, between the years 1991-1996 that Barladeanu became more overtly political in his work. Images of Ceausescu are scattered throughout his work during this time period. There is even one piece with an image of communist leader and president of Czechslovakia Gustav Husak. Popescu points out the image of a sign reading, “re-elect nobody” commenting on its sense despite Barladeanu understanding no English.
He relates this back to two other images he pointed out in earlier works–a Campbell’s soup can (as in Warhol’s use of a Campbell’s soup can, of which Barladeanu did not know of, Popescu asked him) and an image from 1983 of a high rise with a plane flying directly toward it. “You get mystical,” says Popescu. “An artist should put himself in a position to receive something.”
Of Barladeanu’s most recent pieces, those he has created since his discovery, Popescu remarks that they are glossier and points out themes of religion, advertising and erotica. Featured celebrities include Jim Carrey and Brad Pitt, amongst others. With his own unique sense of humor and his obvious pleasure in his newfound fame, Barladeanu repeats a comment he said to American actress Angelina Jolie when he met her person in Paris, “I am the biggest director ever.” He continues, “I am doing worldwide cinema and using whoever I please at the time as actors.”
As for how Barladeanu is living his life post-discovery, Popescu says that he hasn’t changed his way of living. “He just changed his context.” From the description Popescu gave of Barladeanu’s two bedroom basement apartment, it seems to bare a resemblance to his collages, with found objects everywhere including a collection of hats. “He lives off his fame [not monetarily speaking, but personally], everyone knows him. He went from zero to hero.” In his own words, “I was an artist even before, I just wasn’t known,” says Barladeanu. “The only thing that has changed is that now I am known. I like it.”
Ion Barladeanu: Art Against All Odds
Through May 26
Czech Centre Prague
— Joann Plockova is a Prague-based freelance journalist