Culture in Romania is still trying to recover from the oppression of Communism.
However, the country had a thriving cultural life in the interwar period, when foreign architects were responsible for a plethora of beautiful buildings and middle-class urbanites debated French literature. Some of this spirit lives on today, holding its own against the huge enthusiasm for American and Western offerings.
Arts and crafts
While the country has a few world-renowned artists, particularly Constantin Brâncuși, one of the spearheads of modern sculpture, the essence of Romanian life is summed up best by its arts and crafts, which are still going strong in some of the remoter, rural areas. Pottery and ceramics are mostly made using traditional kickwheels, and finished off with simple tools. Designs vary by the area in which they are produced, but often include floral patterns and simple human and animal figures. Apart from the ubiquitos presence of iconography, the tradition of painted eggs (hallowed out, rather than the hard-boiled variety eaten by families at Easter) underlines teh strong influence religion has on the country’s art and culture. Again, the intricate patterns have regional variations.
Woodwork, the main origins of which are the timber-rich northern region of Maramureș, is used not only in a purely decorative capacity, but is integrated into the household, in kitchen utensils and furniture. The showpiece item was historically the gate, the level of its elaborateness conveying the family’s status in the community. The symbols used in items of woodcrafts encapsulate yhe country’s respect for superstition: moons, wolf’s teeth, flowers and stars were among the motifs used for luck or to ward off evil. Masks, usually hewn from animal hide, play a similar symbolic role in festivals, particularly in Maramureș and Moldavia.
Despite its late advent, Romanian theatre developed quickly. The first proper performances came in the 1810s. The encouraging cultural climate of the time saw the emergence of top plawrights and actors and frequent visits from foreign troupes. Under the Communism, many of the big names in drama left the country. Eugen Ionescu, one of the foremost writers in the Theatre of the Absurd, was one of the exilesm dividing his time between Romania and France, where he ‘francofied’ his name to Eugène Ionesco. There are now said to be around 60 theatres throughout the country, including some spearheaded by ethnic minorities. A few foreign-language productions are also staged.
Local films have made a big splash internationally in recent years. Cristian Mungiu’s 4 luni, 3 săptămâni și 2 zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2007, following on form the success of Moartea domnului Lăzărescu (The Death of Mr Lăzărescu) at the same festival two years before.
The mishmash of etnic influneces Romania has undergone has left its mark on the buildings, from teh Saxon houses of Transylvania to the Byzantine touches in the south, and from the shiny tin roofs of Roma homes to the foreign-inspired Art Deco buildings of Bucharest. But what makes the greatest visual impact are the legions of demoralisingly monotonous grey Communists of course did not live in such dreary places. The elite were housed in superior blocks, some of which make up the Communist cemtre of Bucharest, a Ceaușescu vanity project that had the main boulevard deliberately built a metre wider than Champs-Élysées. At the end of it stand the People’s Palace, called by one guidebook ‘the world’s bigger eyesore’. Wandering around this area gives a revealing insight into the psyche of the former regime. The disparity is also clear in Romania’s architecture, which runs the gamut from hovels, with no running water or electricity, to gaudy mansions for the nouveau riche.
Modern Romanian literature, which began when Latin replaced Cyrillic as the official Romanian alphabet in 1860, was initially influenced both by peasant traditions and French writing.
The two main luminaries were 19th-century writers Mihai Eminescu and Ion Luca Caragiale, both of whom have a surfeit of streets named after them. Eminescu was a Late Romantic poet, whose themes were nature, love, history, social commentary and nostalgia. Caragiale, who wrote plays and short stories, was ironic and provocative. His output displeased the establishment and he eventually left Romania for Berlin. Much of modern Romanian literature is concerned with the effects of Communism, with the German Romanian author Herta Müller, whose work addresses this theme from a minority standpoint, winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2009.
Early folk music featured different pipes, with rhythmical accompaniment from a lute. Flutes and especially violins are now the most common folk instruments. Traditional music varies significantly from region to region.
Themes include love and drinking. Simple, communal dances are often performed, which may involve participants forming circle or line, arms draped around each other’s shoulders. It is not easy to came across a live performance, unless you are invited to a traditional Romanian wedding, but 24-hour cable channel Etno TV, accessible in many hotels and homes, will give you a glimpse.
Classical music also has a strong tradition, not least because of the links between Transylvania and Austria and Germany, with Sibiu in particular a centre and shop-off point for top composers and musicians. Among local-born practitioners, composer, violinist, pianist and conductor George Enescu is widely considered one of the greatest performers of his time.
Inspired by local folk music, he studied in Paris, composing highly esteemed rhapsodies and an opera among his canon. Enescu is celebrated once every two years in an eponymous classical music festival.
Modern music is heavily influenced by Western sounds. After years of censorship, rock and hip-hop galvanised the frustrated youth and both foreign bands and local version had huge and enthusiastic followings. Most urban radio stations play predominantly English-language pop and occasional derivative Romanian versions, although rural stations play more local music, The other strain of contemporary music is more Eastern in flavor, manele, primarily a Roma genre, is descended from Turkish and Arab love songs. Themes are usually limited to desirable women (the singers are mostly male) and self-aggrandisement. Manele’s misogyny, kitsch style and bad grammar infuriate many intellectuals, but the genre remains hugely popular among the Roma and lower-class Romanians. For that reason, it has been compared with rock-and-roll and particularly rap.