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Extracts From The Book:

Princess Marthe Bibesco
Ana Blandiana
Smaranda Braescu
Madelene “Madi” Cancicov
Nina Cassian
Elena Ceausescu
Ioana Celibidache
Queen Elisabeth of Romania
Princess Gregoire Ghica
Princess Ileana of Romania
Dora D’Istria
Monica Lovinescu
Ileana Malancioiu
Queen Marie of Romania
Dr. Agnes Kelly Murgoci
Mabel Nandris
Countess Anna de Noailles
Ana Novac
Oana Orlea
Ana Pauker
Marta Petreu
Elisabeta Rizea of Nucsoara
Sanda Stolojan
Leontina Vaduva
Anca Visdei
Sabina Wurmbrand

"Blouse Roumaine"
selected and introduced by Constantin Roman.

Blouse Roumaine Cover TITLE:
"Blouse Roumaine"

"From Dracula to
Ceausescu – The
Un-sung Voices of
Romanian Women "

Constantin Roman

By painting “La Blouse Roumaine” Henri Matisse gave it artistic perenity and International recognition. Indeed the painting, which is now in the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris, had become an icon of Romanianness and in particular of Romanian feminity.

But WHY a Romanian blouse at all? Was the artist’s choice fortuitous? One may well ask, as the painter was best known for his models being clad in Moroccan or Parisian attire, rather then in Romanian ethnic dress or better still, not clad at all… So, why a Romanian Blouse, out of the blue?

Looking at some of Matisses’s earlier works one could discern the idea in the blouse of the 1939 dancer “Une danseuse en repos”, showing a seated woman wearing a Romanian blouse. Likewise, another of Matisse’s paintings, “Still Life with sleeping woman” , now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC . The sitter is a woman wearing an embroidered long-sleeve blouse, decorated on the upper part of the sleeve similarly to the Romanian blouses. An even earlier version, with prevailing greens appearsi n 1937. So, from these and other examples, one could suggest unequivocally, that the idea was not new in the artist’s mind. However, what was new on this occasion, in 1940, was that the ROMANIAN BLOUSE had become central to the subject, forcing it on ‘front stage’ and giving it a specific, named identity. The canvass must have been discussed, if not prompted by the visit of an old friend the Romanian painter Theodor Pallady (1871-1956), whose portrait was sketched by Matisse, in Nice, in 1940 (see John Klein, “Matisse Portraits”, pp137). The firendhip between Matisse and the Romanian Pallady went back to their time together at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris (1891-1900). Throughout their long correspondence a close affinity developed between the French and the Romanian painter. Quite apart from the closeness in style and demeanour, the two friends shared a great many complicities, amongst which the image of Romanian muses, much in view in 20th century France, was a recurring subject. In his correspondence, Matisse would accompany his letters by sketches and would use Pallady as a sounding board, sometimes talking about his artistic and personal anxieties.

In this context, the theme of the Romanian Blouse becomes more significant. It was painted in 1940, during one of the darkest periods of the war, which the country had experienced under Nazi occupation. Matisse was soon going to abandon Nice, which was being bombed by German planes, for the relative security of the ‘arriere-pays’, in Vence. Reading some of the artist’s diaries of that period one could detect that the cheerfulness of the ‘Romanian Blouse” was acting like an antidote, as it represented a glimmer of optimism and of hope. What does the artist say?

Le rêve (1940)

“De nouveau la guerre. Il y a ici un tel cafard, une angoisse générale qui vient de tout ce qui se dit et répète sur la prochaine occupation de Nice que j'en suis très affecté par contagion et que mon travail est particulièrement difficile. Heureusement je viens de finir presque un tableau commencé il y a un an et que j'ai mené à l'aventure -en somme chacun de mes tableaux est une aventure. D'abord très réaliste, une belle brune dormant sur ma table de marbre au milieu de fruits, est devenue un ange qui dort sur une surface violette -le plus beau violet que j'aie vu, -ses chairs sont de rose de fleur pulpeuse et chaude -et le corsage de sa robe a été remplacé par une blouse roumaine ancienne, d'un bleu pervenche pâle très très doux, une blouse de broderie au petit point vieux rouge qui a dû appartenir à une princesse, avec une jupe d'abord vert émeraude et maintenant d'un noir de jais. Que tu es belle, ma messagère au bois dormant! tes yeux sont des colombes derrière leurs paupières. Et elle rêve d'un prince français prisonnier d'antan dont j'ai lu et relu les poèmes pour en faire un choix. Je me suis toujours méfié de la littérature, mais je ne l'ai pas seulement illustrée, je l'ai soigneusement, amoureusement recopiée, et l'on en trouve l'émerveillement dans mes thèmes.”
(Cantique de Matisse)

“Dream, 1940”

“The war, again. We live such dark thoughts, such general anguish, which is fueled by anything which is being said and repeated about the imminent occupation of Nice. This rather affects me adversely and I find it difficult to work. Fortunately I just about finished a painting which I started a year ago and which was quite an adventure, in fact each of my paintings represent an adventure. Above all, very realistic, a beautiful woman with dark hair, who was asleep on my marble table, amongst the fruit. She had metamorphosed into an angel sleeping on this violet surface – the most beautiful violet colour which I had ever seen – her pink flesh of bulbous hot flowers ; her corsage had been replaced by a Romanian blouse, of ancient design, of a pale, very soft blue, a blouse embroidered with old ochre stitches, which must have belonged to a princesse, with an emerald skirt which now was of a black jade. How wonderful you ar,e my sleeping beauty of a messanger – your eyes so like doves behind their closed eyelids. And she dreams of a French prisoner of yore, whose poems I read and reread in order to set my choice. I was always reticent about literarture, but now, not only have I illustrated it, here I have lovingly recopied it, so that you could marvel in my theme.”
(Cantique de Matisse)

So the great Master, now nearly 70, dreams of a Romanian Princess in the guise of a Sleeping Beauty, who was bringing solace during the uncertainties of war and old age. The scene he conjures is borrowed from the pre-war Paris and even much earlier on, from “La Belle Epoque”, before the First World War, to which Matisse was acquainted in his youth. This was the time when Romanian princesses were mesmerizing the French. They were the ‘egeries’ of the Parisian intellectual society and there were several of them:

Helene Vacaresco, whose love poems were sung by Tino Rossi (“Si tu voulais”) and her love life inspired Pierre Loti’s best selling novel “L’Exilee” and gave the name to a prestigious literary prize ; “Le Prix Vacaresco-Femina” (now known as the “Prix Femina”).

Or the much lionised Comtesse de Noailles, nee Princess Brancovan, the first woman to become a Commander of the Legion d’Honneur. Anne de Noailles’s poems were awarded the first Prize of the Academie Francaise, at the turn of the century.

Or her cousin, the Parnassian poetess and hostess Marthe Bibesco, who inspired Marcel Proust, Cocteau, Paul Valery and D’Anunzio and who attracted to her entourage all the contemporary names that mattered, with the zest of a consumate entomologist, who would pin coleopterans in his prized cabinet.

Or, perhaps the rombustious Elvire Popesco, Countess de Foy, of the Theatre du Colombier and later of the Comedie Francaise, who delighted the public with her appearance in “Ma cousine de Varsovie” and became known by the endearing sobriquet of “Notre Dame du Theatre”. Popesco played with Sasha Guitry in the “Paradis Perdu” … Doubtless the ‘Lost paradise’ was the object of much anxiety for Matisse and his bringing back to life the memory of these etheral Romanian muses in the form of the “Blouse Roumaine” was an act of faith.

The war was going to put an end to this fertile liaison between Romania and the Paris Literary and artistic circles as the natural link between Romania and the West was fractured by the Iron Courtain. Now the country was going to live ,for five decades, the dark ages of ideological censorship, enprisonment and extermination.

The gap caused by this withdrawal from the French scene was filled to an extent by a number of exiles, who refused to reintegrate their fallen country, but their zest of life was blunted by the enxieties of sheer survival. On rare occasions, after the Cold War, a Romanian soprano or a ballerina might reappear, flittingly, on the French stage, but, by that time, the fire and the imagination of the public had changed and the impact was no longer the same. Besides, Romania would no longer conjure an image of lntellectual excellence, but rather one of inept dehumanising, of the Prison of History. There the Romanian women not only shared their husband’s, brother’s and son’s prisons, but they were further condemned, through their bodies to fulfil the expectation of the “Demiurge”, for population growth… like some interminable genetic experiment of Kafkaesque proportions.

“An entire people,
Not yet born,
But condemned to birth,
In columns before birth
Foetus beside foetus,
An entire people,
Which does not see, does not hear, does not understand,
But moves forward.
Through writhing bodies of women,
Through the blood of mothers
(Ana Blandiana, “The Children’s Crusad”e, 1984)

With it, for nearly half a century the spirit of the “Blouse Roumaine” suffered a long period of eclipse, but survived to tell the story: these are the voices of Romanian women, which we bring about in this Anthology – some famous, other infamous, and most of them with the unconscious freshness of the unknown heroines – simple peasant farmers who languished in Siberian camps, pastor’s wives who suffered for their religious beliefs, self-efacing vives who were sent to concentration camps to expiate the politics of their husbands, or for no other sin than for having edited their spouse’s work – women, who in the normal course of events would have passed through life unnoticed, but whose torment under a genocidal regime, brought them to the fore of their country’s consciousness, for their bravery, their lyrical expression of their suffering, women who fought in the maquis and had to be buried under an assumed name, many others whose bodies were thrown in an unmarked, common grave – The names of these heroines are countless but their roll call, deserves our attention.

After Ceausescu’s demise the image of the “Blouse Roumaine” gradually came back into its own, slowly, like the awakening from a surreal nightmare: is the transition real? Is it for true? Is the past going to repeat itself?

Are the Romanian women, one may ask, going to regain their glittering reputation, which they had enjoyed before the war? For now, the answer is not simple and the road is tortuous. The only reputation which so far seems to have gained currency in the West was sadly one of poverty and desperation, which pushed the statistics of the young women from the “Balkan Vortex” to high levels of prostitution. Long after Ceausescu was put down, Ceausescu’s children who were once “condemned to birth” are now destined to begging for their subsistence, by selling their bodies…
It will take a while before the “Sleeping Beauty’ of Matisse’s canvass will wake up to enchant the world stage, once again.

This day will come, but in the meanwhile the princess from the “Blouse Roumaine” will keep vigil that this dream may come true, like the angel enjoined by the French Master, in his war-time diary..

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