The inter-war years: the glory of the collectors

Valentina Iancu

Simona Vilau: Art Collecting in Romania


The inter-war period distinguished itself through a cultural-artistic effervescence as well as through the formation of some important art collections. It is interesting that both the amateurs as well as the art collector acquired almost exclusively contemporary art, mostly Romanian. “My personal research concluded that the interest of art collector was focused on accurate values in which regards living artists. They were especially attracted by artists who reached maturity, around 50 years old, and had only rarely supported young talents. The latter were only sporadically encouraged and the reason laid rather in the collectors’ fear of not being considered rusty.”[9]

Excepting some resonant Romanian modern art names, such as Theodor Aman (1831- 1891), Nicolae Grigorescu (1838-1907), Ioan Andreescu (1850-1882) and Ştefan Luchian (1868-1916), the collectors’ taste focused almost exclusively on the Romanian emerging artists. Among the most popular were the temperate modern artists such as Nicolae Tonitza (1886-1940), Theodor Pallady (1871-1956), Gheorghe Petraşcu (1872-1949) and Camil Ressu (1880-1962). Other names frequently encountered in the inter-war collections were Iosif Iser (1881-1958), Eustaţiu Stoenescu (1884-1957), Cecilia Cuţescu-Stork (1879-1969), Francisc Şirato (1877-1953), Ion Theodorescu-Sion (1882 – 1939) and Ştefan Dimitrescu (1886-1933). Advocates and even initiators of using the traditional art as source of inspiration, these exquisite drawers and colorists have promoted an art profoundly anchored in the autochthone image. With the exception of nudes and flowers, themes highly widespread among collectors, the subjects of these artists were inspired by the village life, to which they often conferred an idealistic image. The most “wanted” piece was the nude of the Turk girl named Aişe, exhibited by Camil Ressu at the Official Salon in 1928. The paining was bought by the doctor Iosif Dona, an important collector of those times, for a fabulous amount of money. The best represented crayon-draft of the painting was immediately bought by Zambaccian.

The most important inter-war collections were formed after the auction of the Bogdan-Piteşti collection. According to the biographers of Alexandru Bogdan-Piteşti, the most well-known collectors present at the December 3rd 1924 auction were: Iosif Dona, Krikor Zambaccian, Adolf Grünberg-Ruleta şi Lazăr Munteanu. Notorious names of Bucharest art collectors of those times were also Nicolae Ionescu Barbă, Henri Tembinski, Virgil Cioflec, Alexadru Răscanu, Mişu Weinberg, Leon Laseron, Aristide Blank etc.
The most popular among them was the Armenian industry-man Krikor H. Zambaccian (1889-1962). “My passion for art gave room to many comments and interpretations. Thus, the sculptor Han would say that I suffer from a painting angina, while a journalist when hearing someone calling my name said he’s name is not Zambaccian, it’s Colleccian”[10] mentioned the collector at some point in his memoire. The Armenian trader, with studies in Constanţa and Antwerp, became passionate about art during his first career years. Unlike many of the important collectors, Zambaccian became famous for his exquisite knowledge, aspect confirmed also by the harshness in selection of the pieces which compose his well-known collection, today exhibited by the Museum with his own name, on Zambaccian Museum Street 21A. His contemporaries remember with enthusiasm about the reputable collector’s personality and his influence within the Romanian cultural sphere: “Strongly distinct from Alexandru Bogdan-Piteşti, a bizarre person, pamphleteer and art critic, inclined toward charlatanism, but generous with painters, also different from Anastase Simu, well intended, but naïve, who acquired indiscriminately various paintings among which painters such as Claude Monet, Daumier, Signac or Bourdelle shine, Zambaccian breaks fresh grounds in art. Passionate collector and surprising autodidact, he has spent his life between artists, lingering in museums, exhibitions and ateliers, selecting famous paintings of Cézanne, Corot, Courbet, Renoir, Matisse, Marquet and many more other maestros.”[11] Indeed, Krikor Zambaccian managed to found the best connected collection in Romania, a section of extremely valuable pieces, being in the same time a Maecenas for the artists and last but not least, an important critic of art.  The Zambaccian Museum manages to completely fulfill the desire of its founder: “a school for Romanian artists and researchers”. Specialists who have studied inter-war collections, often mention his brother’s, Onic Zambaccian, collection, much smaller but remarkable for its sensitivity in selection. The collection though was not kept, being sold by his inheritors.

An exceptional personality of the cultural environment of the inter-war time was the poet Ion Minulescu (1881-1944). Critic, collector and dear friend of many sculptors and painters, he had actively contributed to the promotion of Romanian fine art. He wrote chronicles about the artists and exhibitions of the time, in which he showed both an exquisite analytical spirit and also a deep understanding of art. As Director General of the Ministry of Culture and Arts, he has organized the reopening of the Official Salon – the most important artistic event of the inter-war Romania.

Together with his wife, the poet Claudia Millian, Minulescu has gathered an important number of pieces of art. The collection, formed along his life, illustrates his personal affinities. He collected many pieces of the artists who became his friends, for whom he posed, about whom he had written. The relationship between the minulescian poetry and his art collection is novel. The pieces which have attracted his attention, mostly those signed by adepts of the new trends, such as Iser, Brauner, Michăilescu, Ghiaţă, Pallady, Ciucurencu, Petre Iorgulescu-Yor, Ressu, Vasile Popescu, show his openness towards novelty in Romanian art. The poet has also collected minuscule handcrafted objects, silvery, carpets, china, glass icons, archeological pieces, objects of traditional Romanian and oriental art, etc.

Three years after the poet’s death, the collection was transformed by Claudia Millian into a small museum, which is intact until this day. Hidden in Cotroceni, close to the Medical University, the apartment which shelters the Ion Minulescu collection redeems the delicate and elegant universe in which the two poets lived and worked.

It is interesting that notorious names of the international avant-garde, native Romanian artists, have only rarely found a place in Romanian collections. Constantin Brâncuşi (1876-1957) has only managed to sell 3-4 pieces in Bucharest, but none of them significant for the style that made him famous. Also Arthur Segal’s (1857-1944) works have found only seldom a place in autochthone collections. Works of reputable avant-garde activists in Bucharest, among which the initiator of the Dadaistic move, Marcel Iancu (1895-1984), internationally renowned surrealists, such as Victor Brauner (1903-1966) and Jules Perahim (1914-2004), have likewise remained, with very few exceptions, outside the preoccupations of the contemporary collectors.

The only person who managed to create an exclusively avant-garde collection in Bucharest was the writer Saşa Pană (1902-1981). A close friend of the surrealist circles, who were gathering at Secolul (Lăptăria lui Enache), Saşa Pană has funded the most long-lived surrealist Romanian magazine: Unu. Around the magazine he created a group, part of whom was also Victor Brauner, whom Saşa Pană collected with high interest, the Pană family still possessing the painter’s first surrealist works. The collection encompasses, together with works of art signed by the most important avant-garde Romanian painters, a great number of magazines, ex-librises and princeps editions of the active avant-garde Romanian writers. Kept integrally by his family in the writer’s house from Bucharest, the collection remains to these days the most important document of the artistic and literal Romanian avant-garde.


[9] Petre Oprea, Collections and collectors from Bucharest in inter-war times, Conference held at Cotroceni National Museum on April 15th 1993, Technica Agricola Publishing, 1994, p. 9
K.H. Zambaccian, The notes of an art amateur, ESPLA, 1957, p. 86
Octav Moşescu, From the journal of a collector, Litera Publishing, Bucharest, 1974, pp 74-75