The “Alexandru Tzigara-Samurcaş” Image Archive Shards of Entangled Worlds

Toader Popescu

Drawer archaeology” is an often neglected discipline. Before embarking upon ambitious endeavours, expending time and resources in the search for novelty in faraway places, we should first see what we can find in our own pockets. They may often contain pleasant surprises. This is what the Department of the History and Theory of Architecture and Heritage Conservation has been trying to do, for the benefit of the scholarly community, by restoring and shedding light upon its priceless archives. It is a duty we owe to our illustrious predecessors, to the academic world, and to ourselves.

The Alexandru Tzigara-Samurcaş Image Archive of photographic slides has been in the possession of the Department for decades. After the death of Samurcaş, it was transferred from the Nicolae Grigorescu Institute of Fine Arts, probably by Professor Grigore Ionescu. The slides served as teaching materials in the Aesthetics and Art History Courses Samurcaş taught at the Fine Arts School from February 1899 onwards1. Another part of the archive remained in the custody of the National University of Art and was donated, after the year 2000, to the Museum of the Romanian Peasant (MRP), the rightful successor of the museum founded by Samurcaş2.

The courses, first hosted by the University and later by the Museum itself3, continued in this format until 1916. This, together with year inscribed on some of the slides owned by the MRP (1904), allows a partial and approximate dating of the archive.

Of course, even a cursory examination of the collection points to the fact that Samurcaş himself cannot possibly have been the author of all the slides. We are, in all likelihood, dealing with an archive whose sources are multiple (including, of course, Al. Tzigara-Samurcaş himself).  It is also certain that some of the slides were purchased (for instance, those illustrating bird’s-eye views of cities and landscapes, those reproducing plans and maps, and the majority of the pictures taken outside Romania). On the other hand, a few of the images can be found in various publications of the time (such as The Bulletin of the Commission for Historical Monuments), and their authorship is well documented (i.e. they are known to be photographs not taken by Samurcaş). The fact that most of the slides were inventoried by The Department of the Nation’s Schools and Culture4 is also an indication of the source of funds for the purchase or, in some cases, processing of the slides. So, the title “the Alexandru Tzigara-Samurcaş Image Archive” does not imply sole authorship, but rather designates a relatively heterogeneous collection, established for teaching purposes. Its importance resides in the fact that it illustrates a vision of art, city, man and world that is particular to a certain epoch.  

This work is the first in a series of similar publications, the purpose of which will be to bring to light a large amount of currently unfamiliar information and research. Thus, we modestly take upon ourselves the task of perpetuating the spirit inaugurated by Professor Grigore Ionescu and his Documents of Romanian Architecture.

Alexandru Tzigara-Samurcaş was born on 23 March/4 April 1872, in Bucharest. He studied at the Matei Basarab Lycée and attended courses at the Faculty of Letters (History Department), under the supervision of his mentors Alexandru Odobescu and Grigore Tocilescu (the latter hired Samurcaş, even before graduation, as a “trainee curator” at the National Museum of Antiquities, of which he was the head). Samurcaş was awarded his PhD by Munich University (after also having studied for a while in Berlin), on the basis of his thesis on Simon Vouet, court painter to Louis XIII.

After his return to Romania, he resigned from the National Museum of Antiquities, following a conflict with Grigore Tocilescu. From 1899 onwards, he worked at the Carol I University Foundation (first as librarian and, after 1914, as director) and, at the same time, taught an Aesthetics and Art History course at the School of Fine Arts in Bucharest.

But the most important position Samurcaş was to hold, and one to which he dedicated four decades of his life, was that of director of the National Museum Art and Ethnography, which he founded in 19065. Up until his “promotion” as honorary director in 1946 (a disguised form of forced retirement), Samurcaş was the foremost professional and moral authority in his field, and left his mark on everything that this museum represented in the history of Romanian culture. In this context, it is worth mentioning the decisive role both his stubbornness and competence played in the construction of the museum building itself.

Begun in 1912, under the direction of architect Nicolae Ghika-Budeşti (after the abandonment of a series of other designs for various sites, drawn up by German architect Schmeiden, Austrian architect Nieman and, most significantly, Swiss architect Louis Blanc6, author of many important projects in Romania around 19007), construction work was to last for an astonishing amount of time (such a long time that Samurcaş – who died in 1952 – was not able to see the finished building). Countless times interrupted and then resumed, crippled by chronic under-funding, the construction work was a source of perpetual conflict between director and architect, both strong-willed personalities, disinclined to compromise and often having different visions as to the design. After nearly three decades of collaboration, in 1941 Samurcaş finally had Ghika-Budeşti replaced by architect Grigore Ionescu. Under the guidance of the latter, the main wing of the museum was finished in the early 1960s, after the death of its founding father8.

During all this time, Samurcaş continued to teach his Art History course at the School of Fine Arts, until after World War I (his dismissal had to do with the fact that, during the German occupation of Bucharest, he had held the position of chief commissioner of the city police). He continued to teach at the Carol I University Foundation, however, and as a substitute teacher at the Bucharest Faculty of Letters and Philosophy until 1926, when he was appointed full-time professor at Cernăuţi University9. He held this position until his retirement in 1938.

Even a summary enumeration of the positions and public functions held by Samurcaş during his lifetime will be illustrative of the range of his interests and abilities: librarian at the Statistics Department of the Ministry of Agriculture, Industry, Commerce and Domains (1892); custodian at the National Museum of Antiquities (1892-1896); assistant at the General Department for Royal Museums in Berlin (1896-1897); French and German language teacher at the Bucharest Pedagogical Institute (1897-1900); founder of the Romanian Tourist Society (1903); librarian (and, after 1914, director) of the Carol I University Foundation, teacher of Aesthetics and Art History courses at the School of Fine Arts, the Carol I University Foundation, the Bucharest Faculty of Letters and Philosophy, and Cernăuţi University (1899-1938); Director of the Museum of National Art and Ethnography (1906-1946); Director of the Aman Museum (1908); attaché to the Army General Staff during the Second Balkan War (1913); chief commissioner of the Bucharest police (1916-1918); delegate of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in implementing the Peace Treaty with Austria-Hungary (1920); director of Convorbiri literare magazine (1924-1939); senator for Teleorman county (1926-1927); President of the Administrative Board of the Art and Comfort Anonymous Company (1930); member of Bucharest City Council’s Street Naming Committee; member of the Romanian Architects Association and of the Romanian Writers Society; commissioner of the Romanian pavilion at the International Exhibitions of 1925, 1929, 1935 and 1936; General Inspector of Romanian Museums (from 1922 until probably 1940); and corresponding member of the Romanian Academy (from 1938)10. During all this time, he published more than twenty books and roughly two hundred and fifty studies and articles in the fields of Art, History, Architecture, Education, Museography, and other topics11.

After 1945, the life and career of Samurcaş took a tragic and undeserved turn. Dismissed from the museum he founded, evicted from the house he himself had built, hauled through the courts by former employees, his material possessions sold at public auction, suffering from bad health, and humiliated, he died on 1 April 1952. Even so, he managed to preserve his charm, wit and lucidity until the very end, according to historian Nicolae Vătămanu, who visited him in 194912.

This biographical outline is useful for an understanding of the context, aims, methods and inception of the archive. It will now be obvious that what we have here is a collection established for didactic purposes and assembled over many decades (Tzigara-Samurcaş taught Art History, in one form or another, from 1899 until 1938). Although most of the slides were certainly processed before 190413, it is highly likely that the archive continued to grow thereafter, with the addition of photographs taken by either Samurcaş himself or other authors14.  The main scholarly interests of Samurcaş (history, archaeology, European art history, ethnography, Romanian folk art) are clearly visible in the choice of the objects, landscapes and characters and in the way they are presented (this does not necessarily indicate his authorship, and may also be the result of his purchasing choices).

It should be said that the interest of Samurcaş in the traditional world (the subject of a significant portion of the archive) began very early, as he himself states: “In a wholly unconscious way, my education in this direction dates from my childhood years. It was then that I gained my respect for tradition, my love for so-called ‘old junk’ and my passion for conserving it, all of which are obligatory qualities in the authentic museum curator. Even today, I fondly remember the joy we felt when, as children, we used to rummage through the old cypress chest with its pleasant scent of oldness, and my mother would let us touch, with all due respect, the legacy of her parents and our grandparents15.

We also know that as early as his lycée years Samurcaş learnt from Ion Al. (Zizine) Cantacuzino the technique of how to prepare glass photographic slides16 (a meticulous and labour-intensive process, rather rare in nineteenth-century Romania). This provides yet another reason for us to believe that a major part of the archive is the creation of Samurcaş himself.

Last, but not least, the fact that, throughout his life, he travelled widely, both in Romania and abroad (in Germany, France, Hungary, Austria, Spain, Belgium, Norway and, undoubtedly, many other countries) also goes towards explaining the great geographic variety of the subjects.

Regardless of the uncertain authorship of some of the slides, the images are remarkable thanks to their documentary richness and, in most cases, their aesthetic strength. Of course, many slides have a strictly didactic purpose and can hardly be judged using aesthetic criteria. The others, however, are very diverse and symptomatic of a certain attitude adopted by the urban intellectual toward the rural world at the turn on the century, and of the way the “foreigner”, the fin de siècle Romanian, related to his “close vicinity” (the Balkans, Bulgaria, Turkey) as well as to distant and often exotic places17.

In the spirit of the age, which combines, in various proportions, rationality, national feeling and romantic thinking, the author “speaks” more through the way in which he looks at the surrounding world than through the image in itself that he delivers.

For the images representing the peasant and the Romanian rural world at the turn of the century, ethnologist Ioana Popescu has established a classification that comprises three types of “view”18:

  1. The picturesque view, with exotic nuances: the subjects are not people, but “types”; the posture of the characters is, more often than not, stereotypical, since they are the personification of beauty, wisdom and traditional values. The visual discourse is one “aimed at the eye and the heart”, and is both lyrical and realistic. The frames are portrait-like compositions, with the characters gazing at an indefinite, distant point, and the relationship between subject and viewer is devoid of intimacy. Carol Popp de Szathmari or Preziosi are some of the photographers who worked in this manner.  
  2. The national-romantic view: part of a wider ideological programme to forge a national identity. The subject is no longer distant and exotic, but well known and familiar. The result is a sort of “performance-image”, directed by the photographer. The latter carefully constructs the images, in order to make them seem “real”. In the pictures there is often a trace of nostalgia, of longing for lost perfection. The subjects are no longer exclusively rural, given that photographers such as Franz Mandi also focus on the urban world.
  3. The sociological and militantly documentary view: here, the truth is taken to be the supreme value. The Bucharest Monographic School, headed by Professor Dimitrie Gusti, tries rationally to understand and describe the world as a whole, at all its possible levels. In a virtual manner, the photographer establishes a dialogue with and becomes part of his subject matter, which is vivid and contemporary. Iosif Berman is, without doubt, the best-known photographer among those involved in this complex research programme.

As might be expected, the archive we are dealing with cannot be clearly situated in any of the above categories. It is a heterogeneous collection, and so are the worlds it depicts. Neither entirely romantic, nor wholly realistic, treating mixed topics, focusing with equal interest on objects, people and landscapes, with scientific ambitions and picturesque allusions, of uneven technical quality, comprising both urban and rural images, from both Romania and abroad, the collection offers itself to the researcher in all its diversity.  

Even if we take into account the limits and uncertainties generated by the variety and abilities of the authors, as well as by the long period during which the collection was assembled (or precisely because of this), the archive is a fascinating research subject. We invite you to decode it, by showing you a selection we have deemed relevant. The criteria for classification described above represent merely one possible example. You are free and welcome to create as many combinations as you want, by imagining other criteria, by adopting different perspectives and by using other instruments. You will thereby discover shards of entangled worlds, some fragments of which are surprisingly modern.

Selective Bibliography:

  • POPESCU, Ioana, Foloasele privirii, Ed. Paideia, Bucharest, 2002.
  • POPOVĂŢ, Petre, Muzeul de la Şosea in: Martor, IV, Bucharest, The Museum of the Romanian Peasant, 1999.
  • TZIGARA-SAMURCAŞ, Al., Scrieri despre arta românească, ed. C.D. ZELETIN, Ed. Meridiane, Bucharest, 1987.
  • VĂTĂMANU, Nicolae, Icoane şi fotografii de bucureşteni, Ed. Bucureşti, Bucharest, 1981.
  • Notes:

    [1] Popovăţ, 110-111. [back]

    [2] This section of the archive, only partly inventoried until now, contains over 5000 slides, compared to the roughly 2500 in the custody of the Department.[back]

    [3] Source of a conflict between Samurcaş and painter G.D. Mirea, school manager, see. Popovăţ 43-45. [back]

    [4] Cultural foundation functioning within the Ministry for Public Instruction, established in 1896, during Petru Poni’s mandate; after 1900, it becomes, under the coordination of Spiru Haret, a very efficient institution for financing and administering the education process, as well as for editing and publishing teaching materials. [back]

    [5] The initial title was Museum of Ethnography, National Art, Decorative Art and Industrial Art.[back]

    [6] Popovăţ, 25-27. [back]

    [7] Among his most relevant projects for public buildings, the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce in Bucharest (1896), the University in Iaşi (1893-1897) and the Faculty of Medicine in Bucharest (1900-1902).[back]

    [8] The museum was expanded in 1965-1966 with a new wing behind the main building (arch. Leon Garcia, arch. Horia Maicu, mosaic by Jules Perahim).[back]

    [9] In spite of his desire, Samurcaş never could obtain the position of full professor at the Bucharest University, because of a long lasting conflict with his in-law, the great historian Nicolae Iorga. Their adversity went so far that, in 1939, Iorga demanded as punishment for the “traitor” Samurcaş “the dark and damp salt mines or, as a supreme atonement, the expiatory gunshots” (Neamul Românesc, febr. 1939, apud: Popovăţ, 69).[back]

    [10] Most of the biographical information is taken form Popovăţ, 108-123 and Tzigara-Samurcaş, 27-36.[back]

    [11] For a complete list of published works, see Tzigara-Samurcas, 407-417.[back]

    [12] Vatamanu, 57-63.[back]

    [13] The date inscribed on some slides now in the custody of the Romanian Peasant Museum, see above.[back]

    [14] There are some slides in the collection that are certainly datable after 1925, either by analysing their subject or by following their apparition in other publications.[back]

    [15] Al. Tzigara-Samurcas, Memorii, apud: Popovat, 108.[back]

    [16] Popovăţ, 108. [back]

    [17] In the following part, we shall focus strictly on this part of the archive, trying to outline a classification based on aesthetic and anthropologic criteria. This neither means these images represent the majority of the collection, nor that these criteria are unique or universally valid. Further more, we do not claim that the slide selection in the album is illustrative for the entire archive. It is simply the result of the subjective choice of the authors and has no integrating ambitions. [back]

    [18] Popescu, 135-149.[back]