“The married woman is allowed to hold her husband’s hand in a dance, the unmarried girl must only give him lover her little finger, and she’s not allowed to look at him!”
This was one of the lessons Sofia Ionașcu was teaching the girls who came to her house to learn naive painting. This was more than ten years ago. Adina Maria Subonj was one of her pupils. The young woman now living in Timișoara is part of the last generation of girls who tried to carry on the tradition of naive painting in Uzdin, in Serbian Banat. They gave up when they left the village. They got married or went for studies in other cities. They left behind paints, brushes, easel, and a couple of women willing to pass on the craft of naive painting, if there had been people interested.
Sofia Ionașcu has been painting for more than half a century. She has produced over three thousand works of naive art, which have been exhibited from Iași to Paris, and which have found their way into personal collections from Asia to South America. Her relationship with painting began at the age of thirteen. Her art teacher discovered her talent, but that story soon came to an end. “My mother was, shall I say, ‘the culprit’. God forbid, what will your mother-in-law say when you get married, what have you learned? Go and sew, you need to know how to make our traditional costume.”
But paradoxically, it was precisely getting married that helped her resume her relationship with painting. She married Tudor Ionașcu, who was already delighting the people of Uzdin with his voice at village balls. Her mother-in-law realized she had talent and encouraged her to paint something for them. “Ok, I shall!”
And she kept doing it. “My paintings started going to exhibitions and they rarely came back. They sold. And when I saw that they sold, I got an even bigger appetite to paint.”
Except that living in the village wasn’t easy. And Sofia had to take part in household chores. “I also went to the field and took care of the garden, I raised chickens, pigs… My husband and I were like horse and carriage.”
So when did she have time to paint?
“When everyone went to bed, I would start painting. Then, when my family would wake up, they would ask: ‘when did you make this?’ I made many paintings before dawn. That’s when it was quiet. And when the children were small, I would put them to bed, [and then paint], and on Saturday, when there was no school the next day, I could stay up longer because I didn’t have to get up early.”
She painted everything she saw. She got inspiration from “everyday life”, says uina Sofia, as she shows us a painting titled “The Wedding Call”. It’s a winter landscape with a sleigh, inspired by a real scene that took place in Uzdin more than half a century ago. “The carriage with the musicians, the orchestra, went through all the streets, to all the relatives. It was a four-horse carriage and my little boy said: ‘Wow, mom, you had carriages like John Wayne, with four horses!’” Whatever she saw in the village, that’s what she put on canvas. “I paint against forgetting,” she says.
Like Riding a Bike
On average, she works two or three months on a painting. She plans well in advance, and that’s what she taught her students to do. “We had to have from the start a vision of what we wanted to achieve, where we were going to put the characters, so that we leave that space blank and not cover it with a cloud, with sun or with earth. You couldn’t change it afterwards,” says Adina Maria Subonj. It’s been more than ten years since she last painted, but she’s convinced that if she picked it up again, she could do it. “It’s like riding a bike.”
She started missing it two years ago when she returned home because of the Covid pandemic. “I went up to the attic and looked to see if I still had any canvas. I did, I found some brushes, but the colours were all dry.”
She had given up painting in 2010-2011, before leaving Uzdin to go to high school in Zrejnanin. She had made 15 paintings which her mother had placed around the house and which were inspired by stories she heard from her parents and grandparents, or by ujna Sofia’s paintings. “I saw a detail of hers that I liked, I would add a detail from another painting, let’s add more boys, let’s take another detail from there, let’s add an unmarried girl, let’s include a dance. I used to paint horses, carriages, weddings… It was harder for us because Mrs Sofia paid attention to every detail. But she had lived all those things, she knew the costume. We, on the other hand, we could never tell the difference between the costume of a woman during engagement, then as a bride, then six months after the wedding.”
“We have a lot of variations of the traditional costume. When she’s a little girl, in kindergarten, she wears fotă, then she wears poale and cotrânță. Then she only wears cotrânță and one of those things where you put the pins through the hair and braid the hair and some zvonițe too. That’s the costume of the unmarried girl. When she’s to be married, the garment is even richer, you can easily see it, stiff poale with cotrânță. After getting married, the woman wears two cotrânțe. And during engagement, it’s special, everything is with flowers and golden thread. And everything is handmade.”
“What’s It Like on the Moon? Same as in Uzdin!”
The details of everyday life in historic Banat have also drawn attention across the ocean. David Scott and Jim Irwin, the seventh and eighth men to walk on the moon as members of the Apollo 15 mission, admired her paintings.
“They came to see the art gallery in Uzdin. And then the husband of one of the painters went up to an astronaut and asked him: ‘what’s it like on the moon?’ You can imagine, at the time there was no asphalt in Uzdin, it was a typical village, with mud and things. And one of them says: ‘well, it’s kind of the same as here.’”
Sofia Ionașcu is proud that her paintings, exhibited in Belgrade and other major cities of the world, have been admired by names such as Sofia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. Some of them have even found their way into personal collections in Brazil.
“I didn’t want to give it away, I asked a hell of a price for it! But he said it’s not a problem. I thought he wouldn’t be able to carry it, it wouldn’t fit in any suitcase. So he took the canvas off the frame, rolled it up and put it in the suitcase. When he got home, he put it on the wall and sent me a photo.”
Painting on the Sly
But Sofia is not the only member of the Ionașcu family who paints. Standing by her side, day by day, watching her carefully as she guided the brush across the canvas, her husband Tudor also took up painting one day.
“One night I left the painting and the colours and everything, and I lay down to rest for a bit, and when I woke up, I looked… This is not my work! What have you done? You’re ruining my work!” Sofia laughs now, remembering how it all started.
“I saw what she did and what she needed to do to finish, and I did that,” explains her husband.
But painting is not uica Tudor’s greatest talent. He’s been singing for as long as he can remember. He started in the choir, then went solo. For years he took part in festivals in the former Yugoslavia and Romania. “Look at all these diplomas – she a painter, me a singer. Can you imagine, back then, in Romania, I couldn’t believe it. There were 42 vocal singers and 20 well known people and me getting a prize: Petrică Mâțu – 1st place; Ionuț Horia – 2nd place; and me – 3rd place”.
He sang Romanian songs heard from the village elders. But he has stopped participating in festivals in 2010. “I said to myself that I don’t need prizes anymore, they should give them to young people. For years I took part in the festival and I got all the awards, so now I wanted the young people who take part to also get awards, because if they don’t, they won’t go on,” explains uica Tudor. Still, he shares with us some of the lyrics that have made him famous:
“My love for you grows, my dear,
When I see how good you look,
With your traditional skirt and vest…”
“Well, I haven’t sung in a long time…”, he says and then goes on reciting:
“Your skirt has flowers stitched on it,
Flowers made by your own hand,
For your mother taught you well,
How to make yourself look nice.
Be nice to me, my wife,
And love only me.
Beloved tender flower
Know how dear you are to me.”
When Tradition No Longer Goes On
But the art of painting was not passed on to the next generation of the Ionașcu family. They have two sons. Both left Uzdin to go to highschool in Zrejnanin, then to university in Novi Sad, where they now live with their families.
“When they were younger, I tried to get them to draw, I would draw them a house, I’d make a little dot, yellow goes here, or green, or another colour, this is where the windows go, colour inside the lines… But they didn’t stick to it. They had talent. Teodor, the older one, he studied Electrical Engineering. That’s a difficult university. He had technical drawing in his first year. He was the best in his generation. He’s still passionate about it. He knew where every millimetre went. He was patient.”
As she couldn’t pass on painting to her own children, she tried with other children in the village. “We had girls from school coming in. The younger ones are more attentive, when they get older, they put the music in their ears, I can say whatever, they can’t hear me. I gave them the first frame, the first canvas, colours, they got them from me. They would come to those drawing classes as if it were a section at the university of arts. In 2010 we had an exhibition at the community centre with dozens of paintings. 30 paintings by me, 30 paintings made by my girls, under my supervision. The community centre had never seen so many paintings in the gallery.”
But the girls left too.
Two got married and left Uzdin, two went to university in Timișoara. Only one, Flavia, still does portraits for friends, every now and then. Her sister, Adina, has a degree in pharmacy and wants to finish a master’s degree and obtain Romanian citizenship. She hasn’t painted for ten years, and her brushes and paints have dried up in an attic in Uzdin.
90 kilometres away from Timișoara, in the same Banat, but in a different country, Sofia Ionașcu occasionally picks up her paints and brushes, sits down on her little kitchen stool and paints houses with flowers and horses the same colour as the sky. Because, she says, it’s important “to remember what was before. It’s important to paint against forgetting.”
Photo credit: Ionuț Suciu