Cut out for success: the rags to riches tale of a Romanian artist

At 63 years old, Ion Barladeanu and his secret collages prove an unlikely art world winner

Ion Barladeanu, Romanian art discovery

As little as two and a half years ago, home for 63-year-old Ion Barladeanu was the garbage room of a Bucharest tower-block, a badly lit basement piled with plastic sacks of rubbish.

He'd been homeless since 1989 when, following the fall of communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu, he was unable to find work and forced to survive on odd jobs and the occasional charitable handout.

Yet Barladeanu's basement provided one consolation in the form of plentiful material for a long-held, secret pastime: collages created from old magazines.

The hermit-like artist had always kept his work under wraps for a number of reasons. Firstly, he had no one in particular to show it to, and secondly, its often biting political nature meant that while the communist regime held sway in Romania, it had to remain clandestine.

Ion Barladeanu, contemporary art Romania

Barladeanu sees his works as miniature movies, the act of assembling clipped-out artwork on hand-painted backgrounds akin to the roles of screenwriter and director. While many of his works are infused with comedy or light-hearted satire, others are the stuff of subversive film noir.

Ion Barladeanu, contemporary art collage

Compositions depicting the notorious Ceausescu with blood on his hands or the unwitting target of gun-toting liberationists were, quite simply, an extraordinary risk. "If people had found out about my work they could have chopped my head off", says Barladeanu.

Consequently, his hoard of dozens of collages remained unseen until, in 2007, Barladeanu decided to show a few to an artist who also happened to be combing through garbage for cast-offs.

Struck by the works, the artist called a gallerist acquaintance and a meeting was arranged.

Dan Popescu, whose H'Art gallery specialises in emerging contemporary artists, remembers the moment he first set eyes on the product of Barladeanu's singular imagination: "I instantly thought it was something very important" he states, "at least for Romania."

A show was organised, and Barladeanu's alternative history of his homeland instantly captured the attention of Romania's art critics and buyers, as well as the imagination and affection of its public.

Ion Barladeanu, Romanian contemporary art

But interest in Ion B, as he is now popularly known, is starting to extend further afield. In 2009, his collages were presented at the prestigious Basel art fair, a first foreign outing that was followed in 2010 by a solo show in Paris.

Barladeanu himself, while definitely relishing the attention - and once unthinkable luxuries - that success has earned him is phlegmatic about his change in fortune: "Now I feel like a prince. A pauper can become a prince. But he can go back to being a pauper too."

And it's certainly true that while the fairytale aspect of this artist's unlikely discovery exerts particular appeal, the attraction, eventually, may prove difficult to maintain. Despite a surge in international exposure, his dealer's note of caution - that Barladeanu's real importance lies in a specifically Romanian context - could well curtail his continued success.

Yet equally, there's a strong possibility that the authenticity and verve of Barladeanu's outsider Pop will endure on its own terms. French curator Jérôme Neutres, for example, downplays the rags to riches story to focus instead on the artist's specific appeal. "What I like is that he has been spared the usual artistic circles and his work is refreshing as a result." he says. And if others agree, Ion Barladeanu may well be a name that's with us for some time.

Art from Romania: Ion Barladeanu
Images © Ion Barladeanu
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