The fact that I lived for a longer period of time in a village, in a peasant house, was for me like an unexpected rebirth. As a child, I had traveled to the countryside several times with my father—an admirer of peasant culture. In the early ‘70s, I rediscovered and gained deeper insight into it, when I was involved in the works for the restoration of the frescoes in Humor and Moldovița monasteries, and in other villages which were virtually untouched at the time. Those who have not managed to get acquainted with that world are, possibly, bereft of an essential experience: that of the world from which we come. It is like being an intellectual without being acquainted with the fundamental texts of our culture—the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Bible, Dante, Shakespeare, Eminescu—or like a school where no Greek or Latin are taught.
What I deemed to be fundamental at the time was how peasants understood nature as a whole that encompassed people and their world. The peasants knew how to name things, gestures and beings of which I was not aware. Each day brought along its events, transformed into stories, and they all kept pace with the celestial rhythms of the seasons, with the customs and crafts to which they were suited. I had the feeling that I was living, together with them, within some universal time, largely unchanged for centuries, a prolongation of the ancient and medieval worlds; within a world of intuitions that had been a casual concern of the Presocratic world, with which I also became fascinated around that time. A society in which each person’s creative potential manifested itself in every house, first of all that (which we call to-day “artistic”) of the women, in which every person grew up by learning and doing, by appropriating himself the knowledge acquired by previous generations and by producing new versions, new associations of colours and shapes, new textures and embroideries, new stories…
Almost everything was made by the hands of those who were able to listen, to watch, to feel, to follow and to name everything that went on around them, to work, to raise their children and to guide that boat that was their farmstead—and, together with the other villagers, the village itself, like a sailing ship on the waters of surrounding nature. Almost everything was made from surrounding materials: wood, earth, clay, stone, plants… It was a self-sufficient society, with rare and small exceptions (the salt, the paraffin for the lamps, the paper…). Later, the electric light, then an increasing number of factory-made items, paints in various colours, the industrial fabrics and the like resulted in the gradual alienation and ultimately in the disappearance of an essential value: the independence this all-making power granted, due to that hard everyday labour on one’s farm, in the field, on the hills, grazing the cattle [in Romanian vite] (from the Latin vita—life?), growing and washing the flax and the hemp, looking after the sheep, collecting the wool and weaving at the loom, gathering the medicinal herbs and hanging them on the hay barn’s wall to dry.
I was under the impression that two parallel worlds were merging, that I was immersing in an ancient river that never dried up, flowing alongside us, unbeknownst, forgotten. The world from where I came, to which I belonged, was something foreign here, something which I cherished, of course, but which I also thought to be artificial, a bizarre overlapping structure devoid of a genuine supporting base (a reality evoked by the saying “two dig in the fields, five supervise”). I felt no tendency to idealise things; but poetry was present, inherent and consubtantial to that world (and it was that common spiritual ground that brought Paul Gherasim and I closer together). I was feeling a desire for wide truth; I understood that that world was closer to the whole, to the essence, than we, city-dwellers, were constantly prompted by needs which could not possibly be met by our work, or industry (in the etymological sense) alone.
With the eyes of an adult I saw a spring, at that point, I understood the water well was something crucial. And I have carried them with me ever since, like (re)founding realities. I became more aware of the light and heat of the sun, of the water taken out of the well and poured into a small jug for drinking, or into a larger jug for washing my face and thoraces, early in the morning, on the veranda. Water, in the cup of my hands, its droplets falling on the ground, the towel [in Romanian prosop] (from πρόσωπον—prosopon—face, figure). The water of the spring, like a miraculous apparition, gushing forth continually from the ground, through the grass, soughing clearly, a familiar, but mysterious, uncomprehended melody. The flowering grass, the people mowing the hay on the hills, the mown grass, the ventilated hay, the building of the haystacks, ceased to be chores, and became intimate partakings in the cycles of nature.
For me, these feelings marked the beginning of a new way of thinking, drawing, writing down the thoughts crossing my mind or the images appearing before my eyes. It was a release, an opening; I began to draw on large sheets, which captured several moments of one thought, the evolution of an image by itself or due to its intuited connection with another.
Moldovița. Black-and-white negative films, Agfa 21 DIN, 24×36 mm. Enlarged on photographic paper, 19,8×29,8 cm
The water well, a chosen place, a wooden construction with a particular architecture, functional and carefully crafted, a large wheel, surely made by a wheel-worker, similar to cart wheels. The bucket is made of wood as well, with metal lags. The well is cylindrical; the shelter has a square plan; the bucket is a truncated cone or a truncated ovoid with circular cross-section, the pole is a wooden cylinder whose time-worn portion has been reinforced with iron clasps. It can be accessed from the two opposite sides, with a wood lattice placed on the well’s edge presumably to prevent the kids from easily climbing onto it. Pulling the pole and bucket into the well resembles the way in which a weight-actuated clock operates; dragging them up recalls a medieval crane used to lift stones or bells at considerable heights.
Humor, 1972. 4 images from a sequence of photographs. Black-and-white negative films, Orwo NP 20, 24×36 mm
Hay making and everything related to it—mowing, ventilating and gathering the hay, building the haystacks and carrying them to the hay barn—is made while closely scrutinising the weather and the surroundings. Human gestures are performed in constant relation to the movements of the sun, the clouds, the wind, the rain.
The first generations clothed in factory made, impersonal city costumes dance beneath the old trees, on a bandstand made of boards fastened to logs, like a raft. They were getting ready to start their adult lives under the eyes of those watching them still dressed in their unique clothes, which had been woven, braided, sown, and embroidered differently for each of them.
Back in Bucharest, the small samples of the black-and-white photographs I have taken in the village world have naturally come together in a bowl. I stuck them on its inner side—possibly out of a desire to surround myself with what I had seen in that other land—more firmly rooted in reality and in history than my previous reality. The two worlds live inside me, interwoven.
Bucharest, 1976–1977. Black-and-white negative films, KB 17 DIN, 24×36 mm
At work, in the pot which served us to make coffee, I could “see” in the grounds all sorts of animals and hills, clouds, magma and rivers of lava, continually changing landscapes.
“Wed., 22 May. Understanding the general interdependence of things. A photograph of some shoes, next to a photograph of the road, next to that of a carpet, chairs, desk; of the IRTA bus and the hitchhiked truck; of the starry sky and the dusty trees, of newspapers, milk jars and milk jar lids, of the water fountain and of the Garden. What are the fundamental things behind these associations of past, present and future days? The spring, the sun, the garden, each person’s path and everybody’s path, an understanding of man, of the universe… Newspaper, spectacles, the reflection of the sun. Doi Mai. 1973.”
Books, notebooks and ideas. Tree with human branches around the sun. The silver angels of the stream.
“My white page, my beautiful page with the black point running free, inventing, here you are again! I may be holding the end of the thread that leads to freedom; this time, I have some money aside. It will surely evaporate fast, but not right away, not tomorrow. I have no more debts, for the time being. I must come up with another way of doing things, a way that would allow me to eat, while letting me work in my genuine profession. My first ideas, after this long break…”
Matei Lăzărescu, born in 1948 in Bucharest, emigrated in France in 1979, where he lives and works both as an artist and murals conservator-restorer. After 1990 he started exhibiting with Prolog Group, at the invitation of artist Paul Gherasim. Since the 1960s, the photography acquires for the artist the function of a black-and-white visual diary, an add-on to his personal diary, and to his preoccupation with the drawing from one’s own imagination. This interest overlaps with the attraction for the immediate reality, for the “heraklithic impetuosity of the other present,” “the submergence in one’s own existence,” for “the light and the shadows of the moment,” rendered in his painting in the spirit of a new realism, almost photographic. He takes contact with the rural world, guided by his father, physician, poet and designer. Between 1972 and 1977 he worked as a restorer at the Directorate of the Historical Monuments, being present at the Humor and Moldoviţa monasteries, and later in the south of Transylvania where he lived in the villages, at peasants’ houses. On these trips, he made a series of photographs surveying the daily routine of rural life and a series of drawings.