The guests were chic, the bordeaux was sipped with elegant restraint and the hostess was suitably glamorous in a canary yellow cocktail dress. To an outside observer who made it past the soiree privee sign on the door of the Anne de Villepoix gallery in Paris on Thursday, it would have seemed the quintessential Parisian art viewing.
Yet that would been leaving one crucial factor out of the equation: the man whose creations the crowd had come to see. In his black cowboy hat and pressed white collar, Ion Barladeanu looked every inch the established artist as he showed guests around the exhibition. But until 2007 no one had ever seen his work, and until mid-2008 he was living in the rubbish tip of a Bucharest apartment block.
Yesterday, in the culmination of a dream for a Romanian who grew up adoring Gallic film stars and treasures a miniature Eiffel Tower he once found in a bin, Barladeanu was to see his first French exhibition open to the public.
Dozens of collages he created from scraps of discarded magazines during and after the Communist regime of former Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu are on sale for more than 1,000 euros (US$1,360) each. They are being hailed as politically brave and culturally irreverent.
For the 63-year-old artist, the journey from the streets of Bucharest to the galleries of Europe has finally granted him recognition.
“I feel as if I have been born again,” he said, as some of France’s leading collectors and curators jostled for position to see his collages. “Now I feel like a prince. A pauper can become a prince. But he can go back to being a pauper too.”
That Barladeanu should remain stoical in the face of his sudden stardom is perhaps unsurprising. In 1989, he was one of many Romanians whose delight at Ceausescu’s fall turned to frustration when work dried up. For the next 20 years, he lived on a mattress amid sacks of rubbish in the garbage room of an apartment block, making collages in secret. In 2007, Barladeanu showed his collages to an artist who happened to also be combing through the garbage. Amazed, the artist called a gallery owner. From that moment on, Barladeanu’s days in the dump were numbered.
“I instantly thought it was something very important, at least for Romania,” said Dan Popescu, whose H’Art gallery specializes in young, little-known artists.
With a face ravaged by more than 60 Romanian winters, Barledeanu was not young, and his anonymity would not last long.
Within six months, he was given his first exhibition, an apartment of his own and a brand new set of dentures. He made his first trip abroad last year and showed some collages at the Basel art fair. This week, he jetted into Paris, saw the Eiffel Tower for real and had lunch with the actor and fan Angelina Jolie, in town for her next movie.
Barledeanu describes himself as a “director” of his own films and considers each collage to be a movie in itself. While many are light-hearted, others are infused with black humor and often focus on the man he calls his “greatest fear.”
“I knew that if he knew about my work Ceausescu would not sleep in peace in his grave,” he said. “If people had found out about my work they could have chopped my head off ... But this is my revenge.”
Many of the most explosive collages were made after 1989, but those that were made during the regime have already interested collectors. Antoine de Galbert of La Maison Rouge art foundation said he appreciated “the risk involved” in Barledeanu’s work.