Cultural Zig Zag – Confluences
Françoise Gilot, a successful painter and memorialist, died on June 6 aged 101. And beyond her venerable age, the name of the artist has appeared in almost every important cultural publication in the world. Why am I mentioning her here? Because her story is, in a way, exemplary of the condition of the female artist, and beyond that because it created some connections for me with Urmuz.
Let me briefly introduce who Gilot had been and what she represented for the world of art. Those who know something about her, because they are interested in the world of modern art, remember that she was Picasso’s lover despite a 40-year age difference. She lived with Picasso for 10 years and bore him two children, Paloma and Claude, and is the only woman to leave him, rebuild her life and, despite Picasso’s considerable efforts to block her, build a career for herself as a painter and writer whom many consider remarkable. In 2021, the portrait made of her daughter in 1965 and titled Paloma à la Guitare, sold for 1.3 million dollars. The Musée Estrine in Saint Remy de Provence  dedicated to modern art of the 20th and 21st centuries, dedicated a retrospective to her in 2021. In 2009, she became an officer of the French Legion of Honour. Françoise Gilot was an independent woman who wanted to step out of the shadow of powerful men, from her father to Picasso, and who fought to keep her own identity. In her bestselling book, Life with Picasso, co-written with art critic Carlton Lake in 1964, she recalls that a friend warned her before she entered into a relationship with Picasso that she was heading for catastrophe. “I told him he was probably right, but I felt it was the kind of catastrophe I didn’t want to avoid” . And also in her memoir, she firmly says “I’m not just a creature, I’m a creator. I am not an object to be painted, I am a subject, I am a painter” .
What impressed me about Gilot was her remarkable vitality, self-confidence and courage to move forward. Certainly, her belonging to the bourgeoisie made it easier for her to find options that might have been difficult for less favoured people to access. But the personal courage, the effort to transform herself from the muse of one of the most powerful, but also toxic painters of the moment, Picasso, into a master of painting (from muse to master ) deserves all our admiration. Just as in our own culture, we must admire Cella Delavrancea, who was an accomplished pianist, a remarkable writer, but also a courageous and passionate woman who passed over the madness of a very unfriendly social history with commendable dignity. I cannot forget her admirable speech, built according to all the rules of the art of rhetoric, delivered freely with incredible dignity, humility, as well as humour in the frozen hall of the Romanian Academy, when her centenary was celebrated in December 1987 .
What binds both of these ladies, in the minds of those willing to make such connections, is a passion for multiple fields of art, a passion for life, even if life is often cruel and merciless, an almost unimaginable capacity to rise up against injustice and start over. Both had the good fortune to have met and live with or among people who were brands of cultural symbols of the geography in which they evolved. And, yes, they have become spiritually richer themselves taking the best from all those who have crossed their lives, and lo and behold their strong genes have helped them survive to be role models for those who are convinced that they have something to say and leave behind.
At the other end of my neuronal sparks, there is a strange character, at first sight totally different from the two centenarians. I say at first sight because the one known today rather by his literary pen name, Urmuz, did not even live half a century, although it seems that the intensity of his life makes up for its brevity in a fascinating way. Like the two ladies mentioned earlier, Urmuz transcends genres and, perhaps rather like Gilot, looks at the world through the lenses of the absurd theorized and later transformed into surrealism, or, to quote from his own pages, through a “tube, through which sometimes smoke comes out, and through which one can see, at night, the seven hemispheres of Ptolemy, and during the day two men descending from apes, and a finite row of dry okras, alongside the infinite and useless Self-Kosmos...”.
I would probably never have met (virtually) one of the graphic artists who contributed to the cultural project initiated and coordinated by Nicolae Ioniță and materialized in an impressive album  if I had not visited Iran in 2022 and I would not have maintained academic connections with PhD students and students in Iran. The album dedicated to Urmuz (Figure 1) is an impressive achievement to which 180 artists from 60 countries contributed.
Figure 1. Cover I of the album Urmuz / 2023
I had the curiosity to look up Amir Soghrati on the internet, but on my own I would probably never have been able to find him because the essential information exists only in Farsi. So I turned to a former master student, Iranian, who settled in Romania. Vahid Shahriari was kind enough to look up the graphic designer Amir Soghrati and found and gave me his email address. The rest came naturally. Despite the fact that Iran was in turmoil because of the death of young Mahsa Amini, Soghrati was kind and answered my questions. He also sent me the catalogue of his most recent exhibition. Unfortunately, the catalogue is only in Farsi, which made it impossible for me to understand the text.
What made me look for him? The natural curiosity towards a man from a culture so different from the Romanian one, a man who invested substantial efforts to get to know our culture and respond meaningfully to the invitation to participate in the project A Foray into the History of Romanian Literature .
I was interested in the perception of a man from another culture towards Urmuz, who is so little known even in his own country. Ours was an unpredictable correspondence sometimes on Instagram, sometimes by e-mail, but in the end I managed to receive the requested information. And I was extremely impressed by the responses I received. Below is a summary of Soghrati’s responses.
From the very beginning, Amir Soghrati wanted to emphasize the interest of his compatriots in the art, literature and films of Eastern European countries. He believes that this interest is primarily caused by the fact that Eastern European art is characterized by depth, innovation, anchoring in contemporaneity and thought. And he explains this interest by, perhaps, the similarity of the types of governments which, by limiting freedom of expression, have forced their people to be more creative than in other countries in making artistic and literary works!
Eugen Ionescu, Mircea Eliade, Tristan Tzara, Zaharia Stancu are very well known and popular in Iran, says Soghrati. And he continues with Matei Vişniec and Herta Müller, who are two of his favourite authors. Constantin Brâncuși was always popular and loved. But the new generation of Romanian artists is also creative and important.
Regarding the project A Foray into the History of Romanian Literature, Soghrati drew 125 portraits of Romanian authors. The project lasted a year, and during this time he worked on it with attention, interest and pleasure, especially since he improved his skills as a portrait drawer. Images of important Romanian characters were gradually published on the Internet and there was also a Wikipedia page for each character. He considers that it was an important and good experience, because he got to know the Romanian culture and its representative figures. He was struck by the similarity between some of those faces and Iranian historical figures from different periods. Despite the pleasure of having worked on the project and getting to know the Romanian culture better, he was later disappointed by the rough treatment through which communication, anyway minimal to use a euphemism, was subsequently interrupted.
One of the questions I asked him referred to his being aware about the possible publication in Iran of a book by Urmuz or about Urmuz. Unfortunately, the answer was negative. Amir Soghrati made the portrait of Urmuz that we reproduce in Figure 2 and that also appeared in the album Romanian writers seen by great graphic artists of the world: Urmuz.
Yes, it was only natural and expected that Urmuz would be interpreted differently by different artists. For Soghrati, Urmuz has the massive and determined features of a true Persian. An imposing figure, probably due to the extraordinary stature conferred on him by those who considered him a forerunner of the literature of the absurd not only in Romanian culture, but through descendants and confluences, in the international one as well. Where is in this image the shy and hesitant debutant author who, without Tudor Arghezi’s insistence, probably would not have had the courage to publish his literary attempts that he kept on polishing to bring them to perfection? Rather, we can see the turbulent prankster Urmuz, which G. Ciprian describes in the text “O raită prin târg” . The gaze, however, is of a man aware of his own worth and his astonishing ability to see beyond the cultural clichés of his time, a man who had not only the ability to use words to express himself but also the paint brush (he used to paint in oil) and preferred musical notes (music was the highest form of art in his view). He had been, in other words and speaking in retrospect, what we call in today’s clichéd terminology a “hub” for those interested in literature and art. “Urmuz ... a kind of railroad junction that you cannot avoid, if you are interested in Romanian literature and, in general, literature” . And maybe it’s just me, but his imposing stature emphasizes the slightly haughty and ironic gaze of somebody who only reveals himself to those who are willing to make the effort to discover him, to listen to him and to open up to a different kind of sensibility.
Figure 2. Urmuz seen by Amir Soghrati
Although he has never travelled to Romania, Soghrati has friends who studied painting in our country and told him only good things about Romania. Therefore, he hopes to visit us at some point and likens the country he has only known virtually to the natural beauty, art and culture of Iran. Certainly keeping the proper proportions.
What country marketing is more significant and influential than cultural marketing? And what marketing is more effective than the one generated by the invisible yet powerful networks of interest and often passion for culture and art, and which now, through the power of the internet, of the metaverse if you will, materialize into infinite points of attraction towards people who, beyond their individual destinies, meet at the points of confluence that each of us can determine according to the power of our own neural networks. Let’s not forget that we live in the age n which in marketing the customer is king or queen! And in art ... who is there to tell us which should be our own cultural landmarks and preferences?!
Yes, painting and music often transcend the power of words, especially of those coming from less widely spoken languages like English. However, it is our duty as citizens of our own languages, whether Romanian or Farsi, to talk more and more about what is happening in our cultures and, if we have the personal, and especially institutional power, to tell others about these stories in international languages. It is only this way that we can create more and more points of confluence and enrich ourselves as people and communities.
Photo source (main illustration): The Florentine Academy by Baccio Bandinelli (Welcome Images).
 Scriitori români văzuți de mari graficieni ai lumii: Urmuz/un proiect cultural de Nicolae Ioniță, 2023, Editura Muzeul Național al Literaturii Române.
 G. Ciprian, 1926, O raită prin târg (Amintiri despre Urmuz), în Contimporanul, Anul V, No. 71, decembrie.
 Alexandru Vakulovski, 2023, Salutări de la Don Pedro, în Lucrările Simpozionului Internațional Urmuz 140 - 100, Editura Tiparg 2023, pp 338-339.