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Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in a series of interviews with artists that will continue indefinitely, without direction, and outside any one person’s control. The artists are asked seven questions about their art and their ideas about art. The questions are blunt, but open-ended enough to be answered in any way the artist chooses. The final question is a request for the artist to select the next artist to be interviewed — anyone they wish, well-known or unknown, working in any medium, anywhere — any artist whose work they think highly of, an artist deserving the same public interrogation.
Serban Savu lives in Cluj, Romania and makes his paintings in a former paintbrush factory. His subjects are his surroundings, his people and places, sometimes painted directly or other times invented. This context — historical, intellectual, and environmental — is his home living in the aftermath of Communism, or in his words, “its results, the effects of a failed utopia.”
His soft cool palate that creates an atmospheric distancing, and his straightforward, unfllourished manner of depicting subjects from a vantage point surveillance cameras might have, presents a world both convincingly real and alienating. Events are non-events. People are specific, yet without names or faces. Everything is quiet, maybe at times silent. Artist Eftihis Patsourakis wanted Savu to be interviewed for this ongoing series, citing his work’s “bitter sense of humor and resourcefulness through which he reactivates a poignant discussion with history and art history.”
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Rob Colvin: Why did you become an artist?
Serban Savu: I think I didn’t have a choice, as I have wanted to be a painter ever since I was five. My family supported me so I didn’t have to fight someone to achieve my goal. I have a brother one year older than me and he grew up in the same socio-cultural background that I did and he became an IT specialist. So you draw your [own] conclusion.
RC: How would you describe your development and what you’re doing now?
SS: After I finished my education I was kind of clueless about what was going on in the contemporary art world and of course, I was clueless about what I wanted to do with my painting. Back then the internet was only at the beginning in Romania and it was difficult to travel as you needed a visa for all Western European countries. And above all I didn’t have any money. When I won a two-year research grant by the Romanian Government to study in Venice … well, I will not tell you here the story of my life, but the conclusion is that when I returned home in Cluj I discovered that I can paint things that interested me since I was an adolescent but I didn’t imagine that I can paint them. It is like in that story from One Thousand and One Nights about a man who travels far and wide only to come home and discover that the treasure he had been looking for had been always there hidden under the roots of an olive tree in his back garden.
Nowadays I manipulate the reality in order to make it more relevant.
RC: Have you been influenced by anyone or anything in particular?
SS: I always associate painting with literature. In order to speak you need to learn the language from your parents. In order to write a novel it is not enough just to know how to speak. I think you need to read a lot from the beginning of literature until today in order to have an idea about how to write a novel. I did the same with painting and I have seen art museums around the world and bought a few art books with artists I love. But after living in Venice for two years I deeply fell in love with Venetian painting. Painters like Giorgione, Bellini, Titian, Veronese or Tintoretto, to name just a few, are the figures that I venerate.
RC: What challenges are unique to your process?
SS: Because I need to be “on the field” to find inspiration or to gather material for my paintings, sometimes I put myself in weird situations. For example, two weeks ago at midnight I was in my car speeding in order to catch a truck because I was interested in its very inspiring front lights — Romanian style. It was an impressive image looking like an altar floating on the road. I was chasing the truck for 20 kilometres but when I overtook it in order to capture that image I discovered that I was chasing the wrong truck, it was a normal and boring one, so my hunting was totally unproductive.
RC: If you could own any work of art, what would it be?
SS: If I could own any piece of art from this world it would be Titian’s “Diana and Actaeon” (1556–1559) from the National Gallery, London.
There are many reasons why I love this painting. I remember the first time I saw it in the National Gallery in London a few years ago. I was struck by the illuminated shadow of the women in the middle ground, a very significant detail that I hadn’t noticed before by looking at the reproductions. For me this paradox, the glowing shadow, was the key to enter more deeply into the painting. Since I was able to read I was very much attracted by the myths of Ancient Greece and I definitely vibrated to the theme of this masterpiece.
Another reason for my emotional approach to this painting is that the sequel of this story is represented by Titian in another painting “The Death of Actaeon” (c.1559–1575), which is also in the National Gallery, and to see them together is such a privilege. The viewer can read the tragic fate of Actaeon from the first painting by observing the skull of a stag on the top of a pillar. After Actaeon had discovered the secret bathing place of goddess Diana, as a punishment he was transformed by Diana into a stag and was hunted to death by his own dogs.
But beyond these considerations about the subject matter, the painting is a masterpiece of composition, chromatic harmony and pictorial technique. The whole set up looks like a theatrical scene: Actaeon is pulling away the red curtain while Diana is covering herself moving in an antagonist position. Thus the scene is revealed and the focus lies on the naked women bodies in the middle ground. In my opinion this painting can be also read as a glorification of the naked human body — a very actual concept in the Ancient Greece and Renaissance period — with an extra layer of eroticism, typical for Titian. I also love the way Titian uses the colors. The painting seems very colorful but in fact there are just a few colors used: four kinds of reds, two blues, just a bit of green, the warm tones for the skin, and some earthtones. But all the colors vibrate so deeply, some of them, the reds for example, are obtained by juxtaposing many layers of different tones in order to create an optical effect which is more complex than a simple opaque color. And we already know that the Venetians were using the best pigments of their time.
Sometimes when I walk in the forest — not to hunt but to forage for mushrooms — I like to imagine myself as Actaeon during that surprising moment when he discovered a few young ladies taking a bath at their secret bathing place in the woods.
RC: So what is art anyway?
SS: Honestly, I stopped asking myself this question, as I am not interested to find an answer or a definition. My practice reflects this lack of interest and doesn’t concentrate on questioning the idea of art or expanding its limits.
RC: Who should be interviewed next?
SS: My choice is the British artist Tom Chamberlain. His paintings can be understood and enjoyed only live and they do not reveal themselves immediately. You need to spend some time with them but the reward is great.