Whose? Interview with Ion Grigorescu

13 October, 2020

“Footnotes” is a monthly column that aims to deconstruct the standard approach of the film history narrative, which is usually looked upon from only one direction, either straight forward or straight back. And it’s because there are many other things to notice around, careers, names, institutions, but also details omitted so far, some additions that still need to be made. The protagonists of these interviews are filmmakers who, for one reason or another, have not been active in the film industry for some time now, people whose memory I dig into to revive the dead time around chronologies. “Footnotes” is a column written by Calin Boto, the new member of the Films in Frame editorial board, which will come out on Tuesday, once a month.“Footnotes” is a monthly column that aims to deconstruct the standard approach of the film history narrative, which is usually looked upon from only one direction, either straight forward or straight back. And it’s because there are many other things to notice around, careers, names, institutions, but also details omitted so far, some additions that still need to be made. The protagonists of these interviews are filmmakers who, for one reason or another, have not been active in the film industry for some time now, people whose memory I dig into to revive the dead time around chronologies. “Footnotes” is a column written by Calin Boto, the new member of the Films in Frame editorial board, which will come out on Tuesday, once a month.

I would assume that, in general, Ion Grigorescu doesn’t need an introduction. But as the present text finds its context in a local film magazine, things are different. Not because fellows in the field wouldn’t know that Grigorescu is one of the most titled artists of the Romanian Neo-Avant-Garde. But in a strange way, as any canon is drawn up, not many could really make out his contribution to cinema. This is because Grigorescu’s films, like most of the audiovisual production of the Romanian Neo-Avant-Garde (kinema ikon, Wanda Mihuleac, Geta Bratescu, the Sigma group, etc.), were territorialized by the visual arts institutions, and this supremacy is hard to shake. Well, not that there was any real effort into it, but the attempts of bringing works to light in cinema were quite few and modest. The truth is I can’t even remember any of them. Grigorescu is a subculture product at UNATC, outside the curriculum, and, in the absence of any donation or acquisition, his films are not part of the National Film Archive. By the way, from my limited experience in art galleries, we can’t even talk about Ion Grigorescu’s films, because only some of them have been shown regularly in exhibitions and museums. I hope I’m wrong, but I have a feeling we’re dealing with a classic case of post-communist canonization, meaning that, first and foremost, only the most cosmopolitan works or the ones kept out of sight were brought into the spotlight, as case studies for the dissidence. Of course, the interview below does not solve the problem.

Baie rituală, fotografie, 1979-2013 (via Prometeogallery di Ida Pisani, © Ion Grigorescu)
Ritual Bath, photography, 1979-2013 (via Prometeogallery di Ida Pisani, © Ion Grigorescu)

Calin Boto: Did you go to the Cinematheque often? Did you have a ticket pass?

I.G .: Yes, ever since the 60’s, when it was on Magheru Blvd (i.e. Studio Cinema). I watched a lot of silent films, then, in the 70’s, I went to Tarkovsky and to the Dalles Hall writers’ cinema, where I watched Italian films.”

Ion Grigorescu is 75 years old. His professional training happened in the last years of the Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej era and the first years of Ceausescu’s rule, the effervescent period of cultural liberalization in communist Romania. In high school he was into sports, a detail that made me, a former amateur athlete, to speculate that part of Mr. Grigorescu’s practice and concepts related to movement are rooted in his training as an athlete, one that requires rigor and economy of movement.

“At first, you don’t see the connection. Athletics is a sport practiced outside, in the stadium, under the eyes of the spectators. Instead, these performances were held in the studio, sometimes with friends or family as an audience. Maybe you can see how it’s all related in Traisteni (The Serf) (1976), when I recreated something I had done as a child when I was in Prahova Valley. I was throwing records around. Then I found a tree trunk and crossed the stream on it. Every little detail flourishes when explored in another field. In our own memory. So when remembering about the athletics training, it rather becomes something artistic – the intensity of the movements, which everyone controls as well as possible to achieve a performance. That’s when I started to tense up. I was too tense. The teacher told me: «You have to loosen up! Otherwise you risk overworking your muscles. Only those who learn how to run at ease become pros.» You build a rhythm, contract, then rest, one arm, then the other, and so on.”

He completed his studies at the “Nicolae Grigorescu” Institute of Fine Arts (class of 1969), Painting Department. He worked as a professor until 1977, first in Busteni, then in Bucharest. His pedagogical career came to an end when he refused to join the party. He got noticed in the media as an essayist and reviewer, then as an artist – photographer, painter, filmmaker, restorer of church paintings. By participating in exhibitions regularly, he stepped into the artistic elites of the time.

(on kinema ikon): “I went to Timisoara and met (Constantin) Flondor and (Ion) Gaita, but they didn’t tell me anything about what was happening in Arad. I knew about Wanda Mihuleac, (Mihai) Olos, who also made films. But when it came to films, everything was more… For example Mihuleac. She invited me to her studio, which was near the National Museum of Romanian Literature. I don’t remember exactly, if in the end she rescheduled and didn’t invite me to see her films anymore. It was like that… they were very skeptical about each other. You were afraid it could get out, that someone couldn’t keep their mouth shut. I invited Mrs. Bratescu to lunch at my house, on a Sunday. When she saw I was working on the film with Ceausescu (i.e. Dialogue with President Ceausescu, 1978), she said “oh no, I wasn’t here!”, and went to another room. “I don’t want to see or know what you’re doing!” Sometimes, I needed colleagues to come and film me. Like with the circumcision moment (in Âme, 1977). It was hard finding safe places where you could be sure no one else would come. A terrace of an apartment building, an enclosed courtyard.”

Marica la mare, fotomontaj, 1971-1974 (via Gregor Podnar, © Ion Grigorescu)
Marica by the seaside, photo-collage, 1971-1974 (via Gregor Podnar, © Ion Grigorescu)

Besides his own films and video recordings, Grigorescu also shot Atelier (1978), a performance made by Geta Bratescu.

“I went to her house, I showed her my films and she got a taste for it. Well, she actually got into it earlier on, when she went to Poland and came into contact with the Polish theater. So the film with the studio was influenced by the Poles.”

Fully aware of the post-December ’89 mythologies, I imagined all sorts of scenarios on how artists would manage to get film on the sly, on how you could get hold of 8 or 16mm in a regime that was fully in control of production and reproduction.

“They would sell film in the city. ORWO film. At one point, in the 1980s, you could no longer find it. It happened once the imports were reduced, when you could no longer find newspapers or magazines, so it was that more difficult to find film for the camera. (Financially) you could afford it. And everything related to photography was cheap. Only that you couldn’t find photographic paper. It was produced by Azomures, but only for export.

C.B .: You had a makeshift lab, didn’t you?

I.G .: Yes, I used to turn off the lights. Close the windows. The first film I made, A Walk at Rosia, I had given it to a guy in the city, who only had orders from athletes. Then I realized it’s not worth it, so I bought everything I needed in order to do it myself.”

Given that his artistic activity is so diverse, it’s quite obvious that Ion Grigorescu had a series of references at hand. I wasn’t interested whether he ever tried to copy any of the styles he noticed in his go-to cinema, but rather if he contributed, in one way or another, to the local film industry, as his other colleagues did (Geta Bratescu, for example, at the end of the 60’s she directed two animations in the Animafilm Studio – Aesop Takes a Walk, in 1967, and Another Little Red Riding Hood, in 1969; artist Serban Epure made the documentary short film Benzile S. Posibilitățile lor estetice și ambientale in 1972, and Emanuel Tet, member of the kinema ikon group, was invited in 1982 by the Animafilm Studio to develop the experimental film Dynamic Poem – 1978 – at a higher quality.)

“It didn’t even cross my mind. If you didn’t have any connections, it was useless to even come, try, or present your work. You were kicked out.”

And yet. One should not live with the impression that Ion Grigorescu only made films that didn’t get out in the world. Some of them were included in exhibitions, or at least got the attention of the authorities.

C.B .: You made almost 30 films during communism. The ones kept out of sight have become much more visible. What about those that had been exhibited? For example, in “The Child of Socialism” you mention a screening of four of your films that would participate in the São Paulo Biennial in ’81.

I.G .: I wonder how the screening went out, I don’t think they were screened after all. We’re talking about Commentary upon Nature (1980), Man, Center of the Universe (1978), Enchantment (1978), no nudes, no … ”

I’m very impressed with Ion Grigorescu as an editor. Not only when it comes to his films, although some of them make full use of the dialectic between the shots he chooses to edit together, but also when it comes to the photographic series he would lay out on the board, along with pieces of newspapers, excerpts from the publications of the time – photo montages. In the work we discussed below, The Cultural Revolution (1971), which come as a response to “The July Theses”, the artist lays out personal and family photos among some that capture mundane snippets – traffic signs, streets, cars, fences, an urban puzzle in around the Arc de Triomphe.

Masculin feminin, film, 1976 (via MoMA, © Ion Grigorescu)
Masculine feminine, film, 1976 (via MoMA, © Ion Grigorescu)

“C.B .: How did you learn to edit?

I.G .: I never did. I was just cutting the white parts. Or whatever… it depended on the time. I didn’t take classes, I think I just heard a discussion about Dziga Vertov and his editing style at the Cinematheque.

C.B .: But I don’t just mean the craft of film editing, but rather editing as something more comprehensive, as the mental process in choosing how to put things together. In The Cultural Revolution photo series, for example, when you arranged the photos on the board, that’s still an edit. Or so I made sense of it, from left to right.

I.G .: That’s true. I tried to show the two paths that separate. To show statically how these edges move from left to right, within the limits of the photo. In a different part, I tried to show how you can force a movement from one image to another by overlapping, like Muybridge did.

C.B .: In Male and Female (1976), for example, you edit documentary sequences shot in Bucharest with self-portrait sequences shot in the studio. It’s interesting that here you combined two major areas that you also approached in photography, documentary and self-portrait.

I.G .: At that time I was thinking about psychoanalysis, on a smaller level. I knew some places around the city, I got some shots of the Coltea Hospital, some details on the facades and a statue that was somewhere in the Old Center, don’t know exactly. There used to be a statue of a woman painted in gold, with a broken arm and put it back wrong, maybe it’s still there. I tried to zoom in and it didn’t work out, my camera was so basic … I’m surprised something came out of it. And it was one of the first films I made.”

As I said earlier on, Grigorescu’s career is a fascinating narrative in terms of canonization. When a friend of mine went to the Museum of Recent Art, he asked if the artist’s films are exhibited, as he wanted to see them. The answer was no, that Grigorescu is so well known as a photographer and video artist that there would be no point in continuing to exhibit the same things. What they do exhibit instead, is the painting Corpse pushed by bulldozers, an intervention from 2011 over an unfinished work by the painter Hrandt Avakian. Evidently, his actions remained accessible only through photos and films.

“C.B .: How do you see the role of photography as a souvenir of performance? If you were to perform now, would you still capture the moment through photography?

I.G .: Why not? I took photos of those performances so that I, myself could look at them as well. Later, when I had an audience, I couldn’t do that anymore, and I have no record of them, those who photographed or filmed them weren’t to be found anymore.

Revoluția culturală, fotomontaj, 1971 (via ArtEncounters, © Ion Grigorescu, foto: Cătălin Rulea)
Cultural Revolution, photo-collage, 1971 (via ArtEncounters, © Ion Grigorescu, foto: Cătălin Rulea)

C.B .: Don’t you appreciate that about performances, that they are ephemeral?

I.G .: No, I don’t think they should disappear just like that. On the contrary, I thought it was a substitute for painting, or drawing. After all, the painter’s or artist’s movements in the creation process also lead to a performance, where the whole body must be set in motion. The whole universe, our life as humans, I always felt to be related to movement and the way it becomes still.”

Since 1985, Grigorescu has been part of the Prolog group, which he initially joined as a photographer. Since 1989, he has been exhibiting with them. In the ’90s, in addition to an extensive exhibition and festival circuit, the artist made the transition from film to video.

“With the video part, I behaved the same way at first, as with the habits I gave up on a few years ago. First I filmed an exhibition in Amsterdam, where I got the money from to buy the camera. I arrived in Bucharest, I filmed the family, I filmed the road, the lopsided axes of the city (New Axes, 1994), as I walked from home to a church in the center, where I had to do some restorations. Then I lent my camera to (Dan) Mihaltianu and he dropped it on the floor. And it went quiet. I took it to Vienna, I was like… how to say this?… like someone being left without their cell phone now. Anyway, it cost a lot to get it repaired, then I went to the Venice Biennale, I filmed a hologram, and the sensor broke. The video that came out was terrible. Luckily, things changed over time and the digital appeared. Back then, videos weren’t coming out great, with that line below, you couldn’t get too many pictorial nuances, they were so in your face. Well, the truth is I wasn’t really looking for pictorial qualities, I was rather looking for movement.

C.B .: Are you still filming things now?

I.G .: Hardly ever. I filmed my wife making elderflower jam, sewing …

C.B .: What about yourself?

I.G .: Sometimes, not that often. I get cramps in my legs. I tried to film that. But it’s very hard to catch it, it usually happens at night, you have to turn on the light. When I get on the roof or fix stuff, I do ask others to film me.”

In my email correspondence with Mr. Grigorescu, which also helped me check some information in the interview, I asked him what’s the status of his film archive, if it’s digitized, restored, all in all, if it’s in good hands.

“The answer should be a real case study, long and consistent. I can only summarize. Almost all films are digitized, some better, some worse. Almost all of them are well kept, I only lost one 8mm film when I moved to the city, but I still remember the title and its content. I have the 8mm originals, except a couple of them which are in Berlin for being copied/digitized. The people at the Podnar Gallery took care of this process, but no else preserves or restores them. And I wouldn’t hand them over to anyone else, although I am no longer able to screen them, as well.

Sources and acknowledgments

Ileana Pintilie’s essay, “Art in the public space or art for oneself: hypostases of the artist Ion Grigorescu during communism and the post-totalitarian period”, Studia Politica: Romanian Political Science Review, 17 (3), p 400, https://nbn-resolving.org/ urn:nbn:de:0168-ssoar-55935-5
 My many thanks to Dana Duma for the information related to Emanuel Tet’s film.
 Autobiographical text translated into English and published in the Plural magazine, no. 2, 1999, pp. 71-78.
Irina Cios, “Profile ’90. Ion Grigorescu Side Stories”, Observator Cultural, https://www.observatorcultural.ro/articol/profil-90-ion-grigorescu-side-stories/, accessed on 09.10.2020.
Călin Boto Călin Boto
Editor-in-chief of the cinema magazine Film Menu and the coordinator of its weekly film club. As a freelancer, he collaborates with several publications and film festivals. His articles have been published by magazines such as Geomovies, IONCINEMA, Film Menu, Films in Frame, Desistfilm, Dilema veche and Film. He’s strangely fond of John Ford’s films.