By Jeff Britton / SDUN Arts Reporter
If most Americans think of Romania at all, it’s usually from the dark side: Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, Transylvania or, perhaps, the evil Ceaucescu regime, which kept this Eastern European country in the darkness of brutal dictatorship for decades.
But a more beautiful picture of this ancient culture emerges at the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park with its current show, “Between East and West: Folk Art Treasures of Romania.” The exhibit features the impressive collection of Lucia Ionescu Kanchenian, a San Diegan of Romanian heritage, who recently donated many of the treasures she brought back from multiple trips to her homeland.
Romania’s borders have altered considerably over the centuries but it has always been a repository of many cultures, including Romanians, Hungarians, Germans, Armenians, Jews and Roma (also known as Gypsies). But the nation itself stems from the Romans, whose Latin language is the basis of Romanian.
As you enter the Mingei’s exhibit, you first notice the fine white silk day dress of Queen Marie, with its intricate hand-pulled embroidery. The granddaughter of England’s Queen Victoria, she championed the folk costumes of the day and made “peasant chic” a popular fashion. Her leather briefcase adorned with beaded straps almost suggests a Native American design.
Opposite this finery a rather plain ceramic wine jug covered in grape vines suggests the simplicity of a harvest celebration in a rural village. Other jugs are more richly glazed in various shades of green. Turn around and you witness a lovely 19th-century carved wooden chest from Transylvania perched on a muted cotton and wool kilim rug.
Most charming is a set of dresses juxtaposed with two male costumes, one with cotton leggings and the other with a skirt, jacket and snappy wool cummerbund. A warm coat, clearly made for those cold Romanian winters, stands next to an outfit with long leather boots, implying a people who walked a great deal in a lifetime.
Masks are always indicative of a culture’s beliefs, and the half-dozen on display mark festive occasions like New Year’s. Made of wool, cotton, animal hair, feathers, beans and goat horns, they look to good crops and good fortune in a spirit of raucous merriment.
Practical objects in a display case are equally artistic. They include a pipe, salt containers, powder flasks and an ornate leather money belt. Among the musical instruments is a bagpipe made from a goat’s stomach, capped with a plum-wood goat’s head. There are plum-wood and brass flutes, a woodwind horn and a Moldavian violin of metal, wood and horsehair. Terra-cotta whistles complete the scene.
On one wall of the exhibit, a large kilim carpet from Moldavia announces the simplicity and rugged beauty of the region, while a beautiful hand-painted dowry chest from Transylvania contains classic wall plates of painted chickens, fruits and flowers.
Ornate vests are popular in this part of the world, and a colorful sheepskin example for a child is adorned with leather trim and buttons. Icons are integral parts of the Eastern Orthodox religion that dominates the country. More primitive than the Russian variety, they are nonetheless quite striking. Most unique are the eight reverse painted glass icons reproduced from paper patterns. Decorated eggs are another hallmark of Eastern Europe, and the 30 pieces on display are a riot of colors and different materials, including beads.
Water jugs of every hue and shape–a ubiquitous staple of village life–and an assortment of lovely dowry chests and a bench suggest home life. Above all, don’t miss the elegant wool and cotton skirt with metal strips, presented flat like a painting, just outside the entry to the exhibit. It is a rapturous study in black and gold with just enough colorful embroidered patches to keep it from being somber.
The exhibit continues through April 3, 2011 at the Mingei, 1439 El Prado in Balboa Park. Open Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (619) 239-0003 or www.mingei.org.