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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 7

Mona Ciciovan: Memory & Perception

by Wah Keung Chan / April 6, 2011

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There is a curious similarity between the trajectories of Romanian-Canadian painter and visual artist Mona Maria Ciciovan and Constantin Brâncuşi (1876-1957), known for his famous Endless Column. Both were born to peasants in small Romanian villages, and both dabbled in the arts in solitude at a young age. Brâncuşi is considered a pioneer of modernism and a patriarch of modern sculpture. Ciciovan’s painting is a continual search in the world of her memory and imagination; she creates purified landscapes that in essence are games of shadows and light.

WHEN YOU MEET CICIOVAN, HER SUNNY DISPOSITION and youthful complexion hide the fact that her path as an artist has been unlikely, if not improbable. In her time, communist Romania only supported the arts in large cities. Ciciovan's native village of 300 in northern Romania only had a small schoolhouse for ten students, and at age four, her only outlet for creating art was waiting for the rain to create a canvas of mud, ready to be modeled or receive forms by drawing. “When I was 10, I studied at the school house (of thirty students) in the next bigger village,” said Ciciovan. “During the winter, I had to board at the village and when it was warm enough, I would walk the 7 km each way; there were no buses.” While Ciciovan yearned for formal art classes, she contented herself with the general art courses which were available. “I was always drawing, always in my own imagination.

“My parents didn’t understand my need to do art,” said Ciciovan. “They wanted me to do something stable.” Married with two young daughters, Ciciovan found herself in the next biggest city, where there was a three-year arts college. She enrolled, but on the first day of classes, she had to abandon the course for lack of a babysitter.

A turning point was the family’s decision to immigrate to Canada, which became possible following the 1989 revolution. It was two years before they were accepted, and after a year of preparation, the Ciciovan family arrived in Montreal in April 1997—in a snow storm, she recalled. Ciciovan spent the first few months taking in the city and raiding the local Omer Deserres for art supplies. “What fascinated me were the bridges, autoroutes and North-American architecture” said Ciciovan. “All this was new for me.”

Ciciovan finally satisfied her dream of studying art formally at the University of Montreal (minor in studio arts) where she studied with fellow Romanian Peter Krausz. “He didn’t believe I had never had formal lessons,” said Ciciovan. She then continued on to UQAM, from where she graduated with a Bachelor in Visual Arts. It was Antoine Pentsch’s course that left the best impression on her.

“At first, I learned the techniques by myself,” said Ciciovan. “As you experiment, you discover things. As Giacometti said, there is no failure. The more you try, the more you learn. I started drawing even before I started to write. Painting is colour; it is not far from drawing. At university, I discovered the engraving, which is a medium I like, and there were courses in sculpture, photography, and ceramics. All of the things I learned in one technique, I could use it in another. It’s very important for an artist to have the same vision, same touch, and same signature. Each technique has its limits, but it can also give you something to discover in other techniques.”

Her next turning point came in 2001 when she met Michel Buruiana, who became her benefactor and agent. Their first meeting did not go well. Like most artists, Ciciovan organized her own shows and designed her own invitations. When Ciciovan handed an invitation to Buruiana, he was taken aback. “I told her to correct the five French spelling mistakes because it is a shame to present an invitation like that,” said Buruiana. The shy artist was not deterred, “I was shocked, but at the same time, I was happy because nobody else would have told me.”

As luck would have it, Buruiana, who had decided not to attend, was nearby during the vernissage. “I was surprised,” said Buruiana. “There was no equality or unity, but there were some extraordinary things. I told her what I liked and didn’t like, and I told her she should continue. Her drawings were fabulous. The interplay between the shadows and the light was exceptional. I understood the depth of her nature and of her grasp of the world around her. Her research into form, composition, and light was impressive. I rarely encounter anyone who has such a mastery of drawing and lighting.”

Three months later, Ciciovan invited Buruiana to another exhibition, and he noticed that an evolution had already taken place. “There were more paintings, small format. I noticed her sense of colour and nature. I encouraged her by purchasing three small paintings. Her daughter made the calculation and told her, 'Mama, we covered our expenses.'”

“I said that I would like to work with her, but it takes time and patience to acquire knowledge and to tap into all the secrets of the great artists that precede her,” said Buruiana. “She and her husband accepted to take up the challenge, and one year later we had an exhibition at the Centre Pierre-Péladeau, which we also presented in Romania at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucarest. We then decided not to exhibit for two years, and to set up a studio for her to work in every day. We discussed art a lot.” Since then, Ciciovan has averaged one exhibition per year, concentrating on paintings, and her work is in public and private collections all over the world.

Buruiana intentionally marketed her work under the name “M. M. Ciciovan” to make it gender ambiguous. “The women who have marked the history of art are few, like Frida Kahlo. In the 1900s women were neither admitted into academies, nor recognized. It was a masculine form. It was very interesting to give liberty of expression to women and to explore their rich and luminous universe.”

The best way to describe Ciciovan’s work is that it is based in memory, more specifically Ciciovan’s memories and perceptions of the places of her life. She explores an aesthetic and is in search of its beauty and harmony. She challenges her own universe, pushing it to the ideal. The colour palette mixes earth tones with light to create a world in orange with hints of blue and yellow and green. “It’s like closing your eyes and remembering what you just saw,” said Buruiana. Ciciovan doesn’t rely on photos to capture her images; rather, they are stored in her active imagination, which has served her since childhood. Consequently, there is a playful aspect to her work.

In reviewing her 2008 show at the Chapelle du Bon-Pasteur, Kristine Berey wrote in La SCENA, “The viewer enters a world of images evoking cityscapes and waterfronts, bridges and trees—city trees. It is a world of majestic silence conveyed through the geometric elements of monumental structures, yet there is a certain music in the rhythmic representation of some figures, as in a fugue, sometimes through repetition, sometimes through inversion. The artist seems to move across the canvas, taking the viewer with her, like a pianist through the keyboard, always in the flow of the moment.

“The viewer has the sense of looking fleetingly at the world through a kaleidoscope or a crystal at twilight—a time of day when everything briefly turns to gold. In her quest to communicate her inner vision, the painter scratches outlines in the paint, conveying a sense of spontaneity and sometimes employs oil paint as if it were watercolour, in transparent glazes dabbed on and or allowed to drip, providing a sense of the intangible and unfinished.”

“Over the years, my palette has changed. It was sombre and now it’s more light,” said Ciciovan. “I hope viewers will find that it touches their heart.” In her studio lie many paintings in progress. “Some paintings take five years, others take two months. I start a new painting with the gestures, the emotions of the moment. The painting is revealed bit by bit. Each day, it becomes a new creation, changing from one session to another, up to the day it’s finished.” It’s not surprising when she says, “My favourite painting is the one I’m working on.”

Does Ciciovan have any regrets? What advice would she give her younger self? “I wouldn’t change a thing,” Ciciovan said with her usual positive attitude. “She must have all her experiences. She should stay a young girl. You have to guard the spirit of youth all your life to create. It’s essential to being an artist.”

The French poet Paul Valéry said, “Two dangers constantly threaten the world: order and disorder.” Buruiana felt that, “We have been living in an era where disorder has prevailed in the art world. Ciciovan’s work strikes a fine balance between the two.”

Ŕ la recherche du temps perdu, exhibition of paintings by M. M. Ciciovan,
Chapelle historique du Bon Pasteur, April 14 to May 15. 514-733-0909

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