Jane Neal - art curator, art consultant, art writer
Light of Life: The Paintings of Bogdan Mihai Radu
The artist Bogdan Mihai Radu never strays far from nature – in his mind’s eye or in his richly textured, light-filled paintings. Born in Romania in the historic city of Sibiu – a picturesque citadel and one of the seven walled cities of Transylvania founded by Saxon settlers in the 12th century – Radu spent his childhood in Tălmaciu close to nature. The fields that he played in were filled with irises. The countryside was lush, unspoilt and inspiring.
Any visitor to Transylvania is struck by its wild beauty, but also by the dramatic effect of light on the landscape. In the shadow of the Carpathian Mountains, the undulating hills are often dominated by dramatic shadows that shift as the wind blows the clouds. The light is low, sometimes heavy with moisture or suddenly radiant as the sun bursts forth. The literal translation of Transylvania means ‘across the trees’ and the province is heavily wooded from the mountains to the valleys.
The play of light that was constantly changing around him left its mark on Radu. An admirer of Constable’s studies and paintings of nature, he – like the great artist before him – has also born witness to how the sky ‘governs everything’. Though Radu’s practice can be divided according to different genres – landscapes, seascapes, floral still lifes, abstract works and, more recently, scenes of London life – whatever the artist’s chosen focus, we are always aware of the shifting play of light and how it affects his subject matter.
Radu’s feeling for how the light changes the appearance of the sky and then everything beneath it is especially evident in his landscapes and seascapes. Transylvania in Spring (2020) depicts an idyllic pastoral landscape. Irises and wild flowers tumble together in the foreground, their heads and faces coming forwards or receding according to the play of hazy light that diffuses across the softly undulating landscape, glancing over the village in the mid ground and fading to softness in the background so that the horizon line remains deliberately indistinct, a soft blanket of cloud hovering over and slightly obscuring the fields beyond.
Everything Wet (2021) is another example of everything starting with the sky. In this case, the spiral of rain clouds that appear to have drawn everything into their path. The ground looks sodden, weighed down by the deluge. There is something very tactile and inviting about Radu’s painting. His work is very textural. The paint glides onto his canvases in thick, glistening strokes and he pushes it around, creating layers and then scraping back and working again into the new skin of the surface. This multi-layered approach is very engaging as it lends a certain animation to Radu’s work, a liveliness that suggests the works are in flux, even in conversation with, the elements and landscapes that the artist captures.
This liveliness is perhaps even more apparent in Radu’s seascapes. The artist was always fascinated by marine landscapes but it took him some time before he had the courage to tackle the subject for himself. In 2018, the artist painted Restless Sea. Instead of taking a tentative approach and starting small, Radu chose to go big and worked on a canvas of 1.5 metres in height and 3 metres in width. The decision to work on a ground that was wider than it was tall makes perfect sense given the nature of the subject. It is difficult to ascertain or create depth with marine landscapes because of the strongly present horizon line that divides sky from sea, so we look to the sky and to the waves to find markers to focus on. Here though, Radu has created a thick bank of cloud that serves as a very effective counter-balance to the animated waves crashing against the rocks below. It is a powerful painting – one that required bravery to make, as well as skill. The work also marks a turning point in Radu’s artistic journey.
The artist says he chose a large scale for this painting because he wanted to mark the decision to differentiate his new work from his previous practice, and also to express the ideas and emotions that he felt had been building up until this point. Given the title of the work, it is of course also possible to suggest that, in a way, the painting is a self-portrait – or at last indicative of the artist’s restless state of mind as this work and this time marked a number of significant changes in the artist’s life. If we look at Material Nature, which was painted in 2020, we see how Radu was already beginning to move his practice in a more abstract direction. In some areas, it is as if he has scratched into the painting’s surface – with sgraffito-like technique. Bright-blue lines criss-cross the foreground from right to left and back again, and, in the mid ground, moving up to the top right-hand corner, we see how the artist has scraped the paint in a horizontal direction, as if with a card or squeegee.
It is very clear when studying this painting that Radu had started looking beyond the frame of reference he had previously been influenced by when creating his works. In this case we can look to artists such as Gerhard Richter – most notably his 1994 painting Abstract Painting (809-3), now in the Tate Collection, the first of a series of four paintings. Up to this point, Radu had been inspired by and a follower of the Cluj-based artist, Cornel Brudașcu. The older artist was an important figure for several painters who have emerged from Cluj, most notably Victor Man. Brudașcu returned to certain themes again and again, such as floral still lifes, the landscape and the male nude. While not an ‘official’ teacher at the academy, students considered it a great honour to be invited to the artist’s studio to see him at work and to receive what can best be described as a ‘master class’ in painting. He clearly inspired the young Radu – particularly in his lively, painterly style and choice of subject matter. Perhaps the best and most important gift Brudașcu bequeathed, though, was to encourage his ‘students’ to be brave and independent in their thinking and working. He himself was one of the few Romanian artists to be associated with pop art at a time when state-sponsored socialist realism was the prescribed form of artistic expression.
So, for Radu to begin looking further afield than his native Romania for inspiration was to be expected. Another important reference for the artist – also German, like Richter – was Anselm Kiefer. Even while he was still working on his floral subjects, such as the 2018 Flowers Left Behind, Radu was conscious of wanting to try something new. He began to bring the state of mind he felt he had held growing up under Ceaușescu’s regime to his more abstract landscapes. Radu started to employ rusty reds to suggest something corrosive, and to depict corn fields that had been ‘bathed’, not in sunlight, but in darkness, to allude to the shadow Romania had been under for almost 50 years thanks to the political regime. It is not surprising then that Radu found something of a pull towards the plasticity of Kiefer’s practice. Kiefer looked back at the atrocities of World War II, notably the Holocaust. Black is the all-pervading colour that dominates Kiefer’s paintings, but, for Radu, it is red that he associates with terror and darkness; with a fear of losing the courage to be who he is, to be able to behave openly in society and live in freedom in a way that the citizens of Romania were not able to under Ceausescu.
Several of Radu’s works engage with this theme. They are: Field and Factories (2020), Searching for Monet II (2021), Corn Field Before Harvest (2021) and Rust (2020). It is important to remember that Ceaușescu’s Five-year Plan and the drive to build a new Romania where the worker was at the centre and the people would live in blocks on the peripheries of cities rather than predominantly in the countryside, as they had for hundreds of years, ripped into the heart of Romania’s pastoral identity. Before Ceaușescu, the majority of people lived in country villages. They lived in communities with extended family around them. They loved their surroundings, they were inspired by nature, they tended their fields and their animals. Most families had chickens and their own pig. Ceaușescu’s regime and vision changed all this. Thousands of people were made to leave their countryside homes and move to the ‘sleeping cities’ – clusters of tower blocks that were erected on the outskirts of towns. Many people even tried to continue to live as before, to take some of their animals with them to their tiny apartments and grow vegetables in the small patches of communal gardens. The Cluj artist Șerban Savu has made this phenomenon the subject of many of his paintings. Radu has responded differently. He saw it as something that has eaten away at the fabric of society, smudged it, even tried to erode it. We see this most clearly in Field and Factories, in which the landscape has a strange, red hue, almost as if it is bleeding.
Radu’s own mother worked in the cross-stitch department of a string factory. The artist remembers visiting his mother at her workplace and was fascinated by the plethora of colourful strings, the various vivid dyes they were soaked in and what he describes as the ‘whirlwind’ of colours. He was also drawn to the themes and subjects that accompanied the cross-stitch kits: landscapes and flowers. Radu associates his first contact with colour with the experience of visiting his mother at work in the factory in Tălmaciu. He still thinks about the experience when he mixes colours on his palette. It is a fond memory and it also planted the seed that turned the young Radu into an Anglophile as he heard many stories about his mother’s workplace – the most interesting (to him) being that the factory was built by Englishmen and that the factory owners also built villas for their workers – one of which housed Radu’s grandparents. Radu had the chance to come to London following his participation in the Oxford International Art Fair 2018, where he was awarded first prize. The move to England was a positive one for Radu as it reconnected him with many of his artistic heroes. He began a series based around the word ‘searching’ that culminated in an exhibition at the Romanian Cultural Institute in London entitled ‘Searching for Life’. Radu saw himself in search of the soul of his practice. During the first part of his life in London, the artist lived on Hampstead Heath and he began to recall the many great painters whose works he had cross stitched as a child, as they had also drawn inspiration from Hampstead, such as William George Jennings, who painted Hampstead Heath Towards Harrow (c. 1828), and of course John Constable’s work Hampstead Heath Branch Hill Pond (1828; Victoria and Albert Museum, London).
More recently, Radu has become fascinated by the work of Lucian Freud. His style has intrigued and captivated Radu. It is not so much Freud’s choice of subject matter – or the symbolism we find in his earlier work that moved Radu. Rather he was more interested in the texture and materiality of Freud’s paintings – how he layered his colours, the consistency of his paint which became increasingly ‘chewy’ and impastoed. Radu had the opportunity to visit Freud’s workshop which enabled him to have the chance to see these textures in close detail.
There is something very fresh about the works Radu painted in London. We can feel his excitement, the newness of being in another country, the buzz of London all around him. Radu continued to paint nature and capture the effects of the changing sky on his surrounding landscape, but now he was also observing young men, often naked and embracing on Hampstead Heath. For a gay man from a still conservative part of Europe, this was a revelation. His joy at witnessing the carefree abandon of these encounters is palpable and especially apparent in Hampstead Heath I and Hampstead Heath II (both 2019). The palette for both these scenes is composed of light, ‘joyous’ colours – sky blues, luscious pinks and spring greens and the sunlit scenarios could be taken from a classical Arcadia. Radu has not abandoned his flowers, however. They continue to be a central and recurrent symbol throughout his practice, a constant that he returns to – partly thanks to his former studies in horticulture and forestry.
Always, though, we are acutely aware of the role of light in Radu’s paintings. As the sun shines or the clouds move, so Radu captures how this can change everything. For him, the sky is indeed the light of life and the illuminator of everything it governs.