• Eugenie Coche

Philosophical contemplation over the communistic past: an artistic memory of present alienation

During the communist regime art was a pseudo-critical reflection of the political and partially at least a replacer of politics. Paradoxically, when the process of democratization is set in place, the past floats up again. The desire to recuperate a lost past, the reclamation and reinterpretation of past symbols and the evocation of the previous period as a means of critiquing the still present legacy can be found in different contemporary artist’s works of post-communist states, especially in the philosophically introspective work of Andrei Tonita. His ghastly, with subconscious surrealist tones, social-realist paintings are closely connected with the communist era that continues to leave its mark on Romanian society. As part of a new frozen generation of Romanian visual artists he visually expressing the absurdity of life in a post-communist society.

People and institutions still see this vicious ideology shimmer which has led to a general reluctance to change. The shortage of food and goods dictated by the political leaders of that time, the hard work without any compensation and the constant fear brought out the worst in people. The older generation, who lived throughout the regime, became extremely selfish, greedy and mistrustful of other people. Liberal freedoms, such as freedom of (artistic) expression, privacy, conducting a business, was dangerous and nothing to boast about. People who displayed such behaviour were often severely punished because it was directly against the ruling party's ideology. Unfortunately, this spoiled mentality is handed down to younger generations. Andrei’s paintings capture Romania as still living this nightmare.

Therefore, primary, consumerism, corruption, lack of personal and collective freedoms and the continuing communist hell after the regime are a common thread in his artistic oeuvre. Moreover he consciously feels obliged to offer political and social criticism of the devastating post-communist influences and effects. Characterized by stark chromatic schemes and an overwhelming atmosphere, his works, through visual allegories of real problems and human suffering, transport the viewer to the way the artist experiences Romania. Through his universal symbolic language, Tonita is not only able to convey an accessible message figuratively, but also to literally confront the viewer with the horror that everyone experiences but no one talks about.

Since the economic situation of the country is hardly democratised, the painter quickly learned that poverty is a natural part of many people’s lives. Due to the disorganised education system, people are unable to develop. As a result, many young adults are forced to abandon dreams and, out of desperate need, take up jobs with considerably low salaries. But this battle, people who try to make ends meet, turned out to be a "survival of the fittest" namely an endless source of greed and jealousy among the poor. Although misery is a stubborn characteristic of any modern society, this struggle in Romania is given an extra symbolic charge. Thus, the animal instinct, the desire to provide only for the most elementary needs, is a recurring motif in his grimy work.

Besides the artistic, subjective, translation of the socio, economic and cultural conditions in his country, the concept of his recent works also revolve around a deep, more objectively oriented, social analysis of people's living conditions and emotions. For this quest Tonita draws inspiration from the philosophical and psychoanalytical theories, set out by various authors such as Sigmund Freud, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche, Plato, Kierkegaard and Cioran, endorsing my artistic vision and style. The inspiration drawn from different philosophical concepts led to the formation of a more mature artistic expression which has had an essential part in the creation of an extensive message that conveys his inner battles, as well as social struggles. The compositions and actions, which give an insight into the various social and political critiques occurring in the work, bear the conceptual mark extrapolated from philosophy. In sum through studying philosophy Tonita created a personal opinion, which is reflected, in his paintings.

Utilitarianism is one of the concepts that Tonita ideologically analyses through painting. Being mentioned for the first time by Epicurus, followed by Jeremy Bentham who established modern utilitarianism and John Stuart Mill, who provided a more extensive definition, it regards the actions undertaken by people, to maximize their utility, with the ultimate purpose of summing up individual utility in order to achieve social benefit namely happiness, as in common good, for the largest possible group . The utilitarianist concept defines happiness as being divided in two types: inferior and superior. While Inferior happiness is based on short-term experiences regarding animalistic instincts, superior happiness is based on knowledge as the most fulfilling achievement. The government, using direct or indirect incentives, has a moral duty to pursue superior happiness, social benefit. By this concept the Romanian painter defines the personal and artistic vision of his works depicting the selfish society that surrounds him. Tonita’s paintings reflect on the lack of an utilitaristic backbone of the Romanian government. The imminently threatening atmosphere and visual grotesqueness in his paintings feed the viewer with a social critique which aims to create a sense of morality and awareness.

Another important utilitarian aspect which helps Tonita materialize visual fables is the multitude of choices people have to make daily while being careful not to affect other people’s existence. A personal observation led him to the idea that the consumerist aspects of our society are degrading people’s lives and are straying people away from finding a form of (superior) happiness. These various human tendencies inspired the visual artist to observe, analyse and criticize the animalistic instincts, so characteristic for our human condition, through his works. Utilitarianism is, due to the transcending idea that avoiding harming others in the process of undertaking actions, the philosophic building stone of his personal concept.

Beside utilitarianism, other philosophical ideas contributed to the conceiving recurrent themes accentuating his personal style. Other concepts which help form a better understanding of his works are Hegel’s ideas. The German philosophers’ concept of viewing the world could, through the (dialectical) elimination of specific negative or positive choices and replacing them with the desire to learn and grow, help our society develop. Those ideas influenced Tonita to include portraits of fictional characters, inspired from old photographs, which educate the viewer about the atrocities that humankind is capable of. With a shocking and yet nostalgic feeling, the viewer analyses the symbolism of his works. Hegel reinvigorated my personal beliefs namely that society needs art to communicate different views of the human condition. Moreover, Freud’s Id, ego, and super-ego theory strengthens his personal view on the animalistic behavior which is a heavy influence in today’s society

In short, his works not only analyze a rotting society, but also criticize the choices, based on a false collective ego and animal instincts, that a society makes to maintain this situation. His work shows the subcutaneous, accentuates a constant feeling of restlessness and shocks or frees the viewer. Painting is a kind of therapy in which the artist can channel his hopelessness and sadness and at the same time motivate others not to accept the power of powerlessness.

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