Gems on a child's face: the universe of innocence in Nicolae Tonitza's paintings
Childhood, the space-time of fantasy and unique flavours, is a topic dear to all kinds of artists. Armies of writers and poets have constantly praised its glory and fragrance in delicate words, while painters have chosen to knit innocent flesh and rosy cheeks out of sheer paint, on canvases damp with melancholy or liveliness. The universe of purity and round, apple-like cheeks is a sought-after haven in times of storm-haunted moods or shady horizons of the mind. What is it that draws the painter, for instance, into the playroom of those neat, tiny souls fueled by affection? The artists dive into their own past, plunging deeper and deeper into the memories of a long-lost state of being, when the world encircling the pain and happiness of a fragile body was a canvas of crude, brilliant colours. The element best depicting the true nature of a miniature human being is, perhaps, the double gate leading to the very core of the faultless essence of a child. Piercing and wide, the embodiment of a pristine mind, a child's eyes can bring depth to a painting without the need of any subterfuges.
One of the painters who have chosen to paint the vivid microcosm of the children's eyes is the Romanian painter Nicolae Tonitza. During his short existence (he passed away in 1940, at just 54 years of age), the renowned painter, who illustrated the Romanian Post-Impressionist and Expressionist movement, has created an extensive gallery of portraits featuring young children, from infants to young kids. Tonitza grew in a large family, together with four other siblings of which he was the oldest, thus playing an active role in the life of the youngsters, from the earliest stages of their life. Children bond easier with other children, and Tonitza might have been receptive enough to the behaviour and ways of his siblings in order to assimilate, unknowingly, the seeds of his future artistic trademark, nowadays a synonym for the painter's own personality.
Later on, as an adult, Tonitza lived in the daily presence of his own children, and that particular context delivered to him the fine fabric of a child's mind as it was possible to be perceived by a caring father. The cosmos of his own offspring was a bonus in the process of observing, understanding and detailing the nature of tender age. Tonitza's close bond with his family was transferred to his childhood-related art. Most of the painter's models were members of his family and the painter took great care to observe them in as many instances as possible of their activity or inactivity.
The striking aspect in Tonitza's paintings of children is the depth of the models' glance, dark, mysterious waters sparkling with melancholy and silent, simplified understanding of the real world. What the painter shows to the viewer is not merely the visible spectrum of reality, but also the hidden reality of a parallel cosmos where humans, blinded by mundane thoughts and stripped of their purity, cannot reside without being branded with the scarlet letter of guilt. Tonitza might have painted with the aid of that corner of his mind which he had managed to keep unspoilt by the maculated hand of maturity. The children in Tonitza's paintings, real or fabricated models, may have originally had other eye colours, but the artist's vision effaced that trait and transfigured colour into meaning.
The perfect orbs dominate the peachy visage, tinted by alabaster, mating darkness and light into a graceful dance of contrast and complementary, dove-like expression. It is in those melancholic spheres, chambers full of wonderful tales, that Tonitza decided to plant the grains of mystery and life, and we are left to guess what lies within. Full lips resembling red carnations in bloom look like final pieces from a puzzle, added for the completion of a delicate gauze. Red and pink colour the plumpness of the tender cheeks belonging to these little Snow White-like characters. Tonitza chose not to put too much emphasis on the facial lines and curves, thus managing to bring out more the microcosm floating trapped inside the matte shade of the eyes.
The vibrant palette used by Tonitza spreads tones of freshness on the canvas- red, green or warm tones of orange and brown tell the dreamy story of warm flesh smelling like dew, milk and cinnamon buns. The background seems to float, it's a sort of wallpaper where flowers and leaves crown the heads and busts of the models in a protective manner, or creamy cotton candy floating around like a watchful guardian entity. Several items of clothing, such as collars, scarves, headscarves or nightcaps confer a finishing touch to the doll-like image of the models. They are either white or brightly coloured, suitable for the fair nature of a child.
Looking at the children in Tonitza's paintings, I find myself trying to decipher the individual story of the future adult, to decode the mental pattern without erasing the innate enigma of the work of art, by walking along the curved road to the mind of their creator. Every painting has a story to tell, and in the process we manage, if we are careful enough, to discover the person behind the colours and shapes.
Lo Romanov 2015