"Rites of Passage: Art and Religion in Romanian Life," July 30-Oct. 9, 2004, at the Gallery at the American Bible Society, 1865 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10023.
Amid the concrete, steel, and glass of Manhattan, its a little incongruous to discover a lively exhibition devoted to art by Romanian peasants. But thats what "Rites of Passage: Art and Religion in Romanian Life" presents.
Colorful textiles, vigorous carvings, masks and extravagant mixed-media ritual dance objects are among the highlights in the exhibition of 150 folk art works at the Gallery of the American Bible Society, courtesy of the Museum of the Romanian Peasant in Bucharest. Photographs of the rites and of peasant house interiors add immeasurably to the enjoyment and understanding of the works.
It seems hard to believe that three-quarters of the Romanian population still lived in rural areas into the 1940s.
Traditional Romanian rituals, a mix of pagan, Eastern Orthodox and some western Christian influences, are particularly expressive at birth, marriage and death.
A large, carved wooden cradle contains one of the fanciest diapers Ive ever seen, actually more like a swaddling cloth, in a handsome brown plaid. It was probably used only when relatives and guests came to visit.
But the whole community turns up at carefully choreographed weekend-long weddings. On Saturday, relatives and friends of the groom go from house to house issuing oral invitations, sealed with a swig of a local brew, either wine or plum brandy. In the evening, there is a farewell dinner for the groom and bride given by their friends. The festive wedding takes place on Sunday morning.
Textiles with lots of embroidery play a major role in the festivities. Besides an embroidered shirt that the bride gives to the groom and embroidered handkerchiefs made into a wedding staff, the clothes of each member of the wedding party are decorated with embroidery in traditional patterns, blue for the grooms shirt and trousers and red, blue and other colors for the brides skirt and apron.
Most impressive are the multi-colored borders on leather coats worn by the wedding party. Among the participants are the godmother and godfather, an older couple whom the bridal pair has chosen as mentors. At the wedding banquet following the ceremony, the godparents give them special gifts and receive a decorative pitcher from the newlyweds, which they will hang from the rafters of their house.
A death is announced by church bells or a bugle in mountain communities. Special "towels for the dead," or burial cloths, are woven and embroidered. Three days are allotted for visiting the deceased with interment following a procession filled with sung laments and wailing. A tree with crosses, usually at or near a cemetery, receives another handmade wooden cross as a way to help the living remember and to supposedly shorten the way to heaven for the deceased.
Ritual dancing with an impressive array of masks and fetishes is done during Christmas and New Year celebrations. "The Dance of the Goat" can be done with either a mixed-media goat or stag. The exhibition has an impressive example of each.
A patterned woven blanket over a wooden core is used for the body of each beast. The head is made of wood with real horns. The stag here sports a huge rack of antlers, trimmed with tinsel, bells and tassels. The wooden mouths of both the goat and stag are made to clack.
The goat or stag is danced by young men in costumes and masks representing old people, shepherds, and the devil. Whether goat or stag, the animal is killed, mourned, buried and resurrected.
Processions can include many other masked characters, both human and animal, which perform satirical skits on contemporary subjects. A devil mask in the show is a standout, a grotesque with huge ears, horns, feathers, fur, a straw beard and a huge, blue bulbous nose.
Another dance-drama in enacted with a costumed "bear" and a gypsy character, which makes the bear dance. A small, realistic bear figure with fur and a face guard and chains accompanies the dancers. The one here, roughly three and a half feet high, snarls with real teeth yet called to mind the laws against cruelty to animals.
Religion is an integral part of domestic life with icons, especially icons in paint on the reverse of glass, being found in every home. The deft orchestration of primarily red, blue and white makes an icon in honor of the Prophet Elijah from Transylvania especially memorable among many 19th and 20th century examples.
A number of hand-crosses, carved and/or painted, and carved communion wafer stamps are among the wooden items used by the clergy but appreciated by all.
A crude but vigorously carved dowry chest would seem to be a purely domestic thing, but its incised with both tulips and crosses. Painted Easter eggs serve both religious and decorative purposes, too, with designs of flowers and plants, animals, angels, and abstract motifs.
Rugs form an important and varied category of Romanian artifacts. A "Rug/Throw/ Bedspread" from the 19th century has soft, pure colors with an abstract central design and openwork. A 20th-century, more tightly woven kilim has a central panel with a tree-of-life, animals and birds surrounded by several borders.
"Rites of Passage" offers a penetrating look at a little-known, rapidly changing culture. A brochure is available to all that might just make you yearn for still more information on Romanian folk life.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.