Elena Bria: “A true artist is always a cosmopolite”
Interview by Natalia Shmurgun, translation from Russian by Victoria Kulikovski
What is true talent, how ephemeral is inspiration, how creativity can be turned into a tool for self-reflection and how the Romanian royal family ended up at the Academy of Painting in Saint Petersburg. About this and much more in this interview with the talented portraitist from Moldova, Elena Bria, whose exhibition is currently on display at Arbor Gallery in Bucharest.
The strength of a female character lies more often in her ability to reach a certain goal – overcome obstacles, stereotypes, and vicissitudes of fate – and less in her physique. Elena Bria perfectly epitomizes that. She fully entrusts her emotions to canvas and paint, which come out in portraits that impress with their grandeur and “photographic” character, reminding us of those beautiful frescoes from old Italian monasteries. One can’t just pass by without notice – her paintings arrest, they surprise, they catch the eye and make the subject come to life. Her still life paintings have the ability to cast the same spell. They show beauty at its most refined and discreet, full of subtle metaphors and allegories.
Elena, there is an opinion that being a painter is like being born with a certain sexual predisposition – there is nothing one can do about it, one is born that way. When did you realize that painting was your calling in life?
For me painting was like love at first sight! My parents, who were very creative and dedicated their whole life to sport, realized early on my leaning towards painting and they enrolled me into an art group for children when I was seven. I remember one time I came with a high fever in class, and we were told that day to draw a rose. To this day I can’t let go of that emotion – I felt an immense inner pleasure from that creative process that went off between me, a piece of paper and that rose. With every stroke of the brush I felt better, and so the fever went away. I think it was that “passionate impulse” that started it all for me. Then it was the Igor Vieru Art School in Chisinau and my greatest desire to study fine arts in St. Petersburg that further inspired me on this path. It was the Imperial Academy of Arts that really caught my interest, established by Peter the Great in 1757. Kramskoy, Surikov, Vrubel Serov, Shishkin, Kuindzhi and Repin – they all came out from there. It was extremely tough to get in the Academy, and more so for foreigners. Even having had successfully passed the entry exams, my parents could not afford the expense of me studying there. Fortunately, it all turned out well in the end. I stayed on in St. Petersburg on a preparatory course at the Academy and luckily I was admitted the following year on a scholarship grant.
You’ve lived in St. Petersburg for seven years. It was home to Doestoyevsky, how was it for you coming from the South, did it have a transformative effect?
St. Petersburg is a very distinct cultural space, and its image was to a great extent shaped by Dostoevsky’s writing. For a long time he was not ‘my type’ of writer. From my school days his work seemed gloomy and too ‘existential’ for me. However, St. Petersburg has retained much of that Dostoyevskian feel and after having lived in that space for a while I also began to understand his writing better. Of course, this city has a profound influence on everyone who lives there. I can say that a “classic” St. Petersburger is a person with a high level of culture and empathy, who will never disregard someone else’s pain, who will always help and support his closest circle, and all these traits are passed on from one another I’ve noticed.
And yet, you have never forgotten your roots. You went with a “Romanian” theme for your graduation thesis – “The coronation of King Ferdinand I and Queen Marie in 1922”. Why did you make this choice?
This idea came to mind in 2014, during my second year at the Academy. The year I was to graduate, 2018 marked the 100th anniversary from the Moldova-Romania unification and I really wanted to honor this date. King Ferdinand and Queen Maria are legends, highly considered throughout Romanian history. Maria was the grand-daughter of the Russian Emperor Alexander II and as such was related to the Romanovs. Also, my tutors at the Academy were keen on this topic. I was given one of the biggest studio spaces and I envisioned a large 3 x 4-metre piece to produce.
I made over a hundred sketches and changed the composition, the angles and the location several times in order to get exactly what I wanted. I read the diaries of the royal family, trying to understand what Ferdinand and Maria felt on this memorable day in their lives. I only paint from life and never from photography, so for Ferdinand I asked my cousin to pose, he has the same type of physique. For details like the beard and hair I invited others to sit. Ferdinand had very expressive ears so I had a model for two straight days in my studio while I tried to get his ears right. All the costumes that went back to that date were tailor-made and worn by the sitters. I had to work particularly hard on the King’s velvet robe in order to replicate the highly intricate embroidery that was on. Altogether, I finished the painting in six months, relatively quickly, and due to it I managed to graduate.
You have chosen classical painting as the main focus of your work, despite the fact that we live in the digital age where provocation and outrage seem to set the artistic norm and also seem to take the shorter route to success. At what point did you come to realise that this is your style in art?
I always wanted to paint, as an end in itself, and not to sell. The flamboyant buy-sell-and-shock art, most of it goes as it comes, like fashion, and that’s all there is to it. Painting is different. Every working stream has its own line of development – we see how fine art evolved from cave drawings to Renaissance, Impressionism, Realism. We can develop it further, but I don’t think there is a need to reinvent the wheel because a priori it will come out worse than what is already out there. Yes, we live in a world where the price does not correspond to the artistic value, nor to its quality, but that does not mean one should fall for trends, short-lived by their very nature.
As to finding my own style in painting, I think this term is way too much used these days. If you are honest in what you do and you learn and develop by working hard and enjoy the ride, the style will define itself, it will find you. If however one sets to find it, I think one might become less of an artist in that process as this can’t be forced, pressure does not work, unless the end purpose is to sell, and therefore less to paint.
In Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the episode in which Anna and Vronsky travel to Italy describes very well the condition of an artist, the inspiration as well as the torment that comes with creation. There is this scene in which the artist is hunted by this image that he so desperately tries to capture and fails. And then a drop of wax falls on his sketch and all of the sudden everything becomes clear. The artist sees it and finally manages to paint it on his canvas. How do you ‘capture impulses’ like these?
Many great artists say that the hardest thing in painting is to find that “delicate” spot – the soul of the work. Women’s portraits are my favourite. When I come across a woman I want to paint, my mind is on and ceaselessly tries to visualize and think about where would she sit, what would she wear, what colors would best suit her. I come up with a story and live it. I pick up on details from everywhere, whilst walking on the street or on Facebook, for example, the tangle of a hair curl, or the turn of the head.
I don’t believe in inspiration. We have “pseudo-artists” who lie on the couch for months, complaining about the lack of a muse, the lack of a mood or other such excuses. I think these people simply have no goal, no desire, or they don’t really want to paint, nor become artists.
I never work on commission. I find it hard to relax and create when specific boundaries are set upon me. I paint only out of pleasure for the things I care about and am passionate for. Then I prefer sharing my work with galleries or post them on Instagram.
Does your creation help you to get to know yourself better?
I don’t like to do self-portraits if that’s what you mean. In general getting to know oneself is a very long and painful process, and my profession certainly helps me in that. When I try to find some rules in art I understand that the same rules apply in real life. It happens when I work on a part that doesn’t come out, and I don’t obsess over it. Usually, I try to relax and look at the portrait from a different, wider angle, look at it as a whole, and something will come out in the end. In life similar things happen – one should not focus on that one point of imperfection. Step back, take some perspective and you will be able to see through the problem and fix it. When I don’t paint for more than two weeks I get into a bad mood, I become angry and feel dissatisfied with myself. Clearly, my work makes me a better person!
Who has influenced you most from the great painters?
I absolutely adore Ilya Repin – he is a portraitist of the highest calibre. I copied a fragment of his Nicholas of Myra Saves Three Innocents from Death painting, a truly fascinating one for me. Equally I love the work of the American painter John Singer Sargent and the Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla. It almost seems like he took his brush with him even to bed – he managed a great deal of work in his lifetime, superb canvases full on juiciness and expression. I also much admire the work of Anders Zorn and Valentin Serov. Nikolai Feshin’s work leaves a huge impression on me – he is a very cool, innovative artist. I also like Corneliu Baba and Igor Vieru. And, of course, the great Velázquez who was a huge influence on the development of art in general and all those that I mentioned.
Most of your portraits now “live” in the USA. Why America and how do you manage giving your work away?
An American gallerist came to our studio in my fifth year at the Academy. He really liked my work and offered to send 80 of my paintings across the ocean. I don’t know how it happened but they all sold out very quickly. In 2017 my paintings were on show in two exhibitions, and in 2019 they invited me over to join and share my work in another exhibition, dedicated this time to artists from Moldova and Romania. I really like the Americans, I find them open and honest, they literally “eat” art, you can see the spark in their eyes.
When my paintings began to sell, I worried as they were like my babies. It was hard to give them away. However I slowly got over it, especially after I visited an American family who bought my work. I saw one of my portraits hanging over the fireplace in their living room, that it “felt good” where it was, and that it was surrounded by loving people.
Elena, how do you perceive yourself – are you a Moldovan, Romanian or a Russian artist? How do you see yourself and your work evolving in the next 5 years?
I try not to differentiate people by nationality and I think a true artist is always a cosmopolite at heart. Of myself I think to be a “cocktail of nationalities”. I have Romanian, French and even Tatar blood. There are talented people in every single one of these groups.
At the moment I don’t have any major creative plans. All I know is that I want to paint the things I like, things that give me satisfaction. I’m attracted to big layouts so maybe I’ll explore more of that. I really hope to have my own studio in the next 5 years, with lots of space to create, somewhere on the southern side, Italy or maybe Spain. But most important for me is to go on doing what I so much love to do.