Horia Vancu, you reside in Nuremberg, and this is where you have spent the majority of your career…
Yes, I came to Nuremberg in 1990, but studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bucharest until 1995, so I went back and forth between Nuremberg and Bucharest. I still had my parents, actually it was just my mother at that time. My studio is private, just a one-room apartment purchased in 1997, so I have 19 years of activity here, and worked on my paintings at home prior to purchasing my studio. So I have about 20-21 years of work in Nuremberg.
What is synthetic realism?
Let me explain what synthetic realism means for me, since it sounds like a very abstract concept and not everyone understands what it means. I call it realism because I returned to figurative art from abstract art. For me abstract art is done, but it can still continue with it, or I can paint in baroque style, it’s not a problem, or I can choose the impressionist style. But we already have had 100 years of abstract art. I wasn’t too satisfied with abstract art and after I worked for a while in the beginning in an abstract style, I transitioned into a figurative style. This figurative style is real, in fact, it’s reality. It’s realistic.
”This realism in my painting, which I consider to be closer to what we see in nature, I call synthetic, because I’ve tried to eliminate unnecessary details.”
And then, having this history of realism as a starting point, I said that painting is not HD, nor in relief, nor unidimensional. Painting remains something bidimensional. After all, it’s an object, a surface. And this surface, even if it’s figurative, is still abstract because it’s not reality. This realism, in my painting, which I consider to be closer to what we see in nature, I call synthetic, because I’ve tried to eliminate unnecessary details.
Nowadays we have art movements like hyperrealism, an exaggeration which was made possible by the fact that technology, through photography, can show artists details that perhaps they had never even noticed previously. Realist painting existed in times before people could even imagine photography being invented. In 17th-century Netherlands and later, many painters worked in an extremely naturalistic style. They had a particular technique. Even during Albrecht Dürer’s times we can say that portraits were extremely realistic, almost hyperrealistic. I’m not interested in this realism, or hyperrealism as it was called by Dali or Magritt and other artists at the beginning of the 20th century. Realism strays somewhere far from the middle, and sometimes can become kitsch. It’s not interesting. This isn’t everything in art.
Then, abstract art strays from the middle on the other side, it’s too abstract. It’s extraordinary for the artists who works in this style, and some express their unconscious thoughts in making abstract art in a formidable way. But it’s too subjective. I consider extremes like hyperrealism and pure abstract style exaggerated, and in my opinion, a middle path is better. Thus, I come closer to a type of realism that is not abstract, nor hyperrealistic, nor is it ordinary realism in which amateurs work with reality. I named it synthetic because I extract the essence from what I see as real.
„…in fact painting is nothing but layered color…“
Painting works with surfaces. I have this theory. Someone once asked me this question: “What does painting mean for you?” And I said that, in fact, painting is nothing but layered color, there is nothing else in painting. How you create the layers, how you position them, how you adjust them, it’s a different thing. It’s more complicated. More problems stem from this. But, in fact, painting is nothing but layers of color, no more than that. The surfaces synthesized by me actually show me the object that I want to represent and its essence.
The essence of the entire work of art is part of the synthetic concept, with everything it represents as objects, because I’m trying to communicate an esthetic message, not a story, and thus, I have to remain within the visual concept of art. What I depict is not literature. I have to depict an esthetic side of reality, one that I consider to be reality within its limits. So I named this idea synthetic realism. Whether I manage to achieve this idea is a different story. Some works follow the idea more, some less. It doesn’t always coincide with the concept. When I start working on a painting, I don’t always intend to create this concept. I just paint. And the concept sometimes shows up, and I keep it when I consider that it can be depicted in that particular work of art.
“The essence of the entire work of art is part of the synthetic concept, with everything it represents as objects, because I’m trying to communicate an esthetic message, not a story, and thus, I have to remain within the visual concept of art.”
What are the subjects that interest you most at the moment?
For the last year now, I have been working on a theme I haven’t started painting yet. It’s more realistic and it has to do with the monumental complex in Stonehenge. It’s a large work in two parts, a dipticum. One part is shorter, so the surfaces are not equal, and the work will measure about three meters by one meter. What is important is not Stonehenge necessarily, but rather the idea that this monument sends you back in history and is extremely present and current. And I want to bring this existing time towards the present. The work, the dipticum, will have a current, present part with Stonehenge and the other part will be in the past. It will be done in a synthetic way, without many details. Of course, with the passing of time, these stones are not so new anymore, at least not as new as they were at one point, and I would like to create that atmosphere in the past and in the present. And then, presented side by side, they will be in two different times, one in the present, and one in the past, and in this way, I want to somehow cancel out time.
Painting cannot depict time. This is the question, how to paint time? At one point there was a contest that had time as a theme. Actually painting is more than time, is very metaphysical. In the end it doesn’t depict time, it can’t ever depict time. The fact that sometime, in a different era, artists painted is enough to make that era very present in the here and now. For example, when we look at a Renaissance work, the painting is extremely current, although it depicts a person in the clothing of that time. The clothing marks the moment in time and it transports you there, and you live in that distant present in the scene that you see. This is very interesting.
“I would like to create that atmosphere in the past and in the present. […] Presented side by side, they will be in two different times, one in the present, and one in the past, and in this way, I want to somehow cancel out time.”
So, when you look at the character in the painting, you are there in the same time?
Yes, you are there exactly during the moment when the painting was finished and the artist is showing it to you. That image remained the same, it never changed. Maybe some lacquer layer or vernis (varnish) was applied, maybe it was restored if it had cracked, but the paintings, most of the time, are the same. Any painting that was well preserved, in good condition and not damaged, is very present. So the image was finished in that time, and the artist is no longer alive, but the strokes of his brush remain exactly the same and we live in that moment. We disappear, others come along and experience the exact same moment. The moment is transmitted, it is present. I think this is fantastic, and only painting can do this.
It’s a fascinating idea, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before.
Maybe there are other artists who believe this, nevertheless, this is not very important – this is also something that exists in art. So this is what I’m working on now. For example, I’ve changed the themes of my paintings. Earlier, I only painted houses, or there was a time when I only painted mythology. Therefore, I had compositions with steps or which were more abstract. In any case, the composition, if it had no characters or fantastic animals, was practically concrete constructive or abstract constructive. This is still a popular movement in art. I tried to bring in some characters like those from mythology and this served as a pretext.
I had a period when I painted antique temples. I did that for about ten years. I don’t paint them anymore, I abandoned them. They were only pretexts, and I never became the slave of one idea, meaning I never painted only antique temples or concrete constructive art with mythological elements, or modern houses in a certain style. All were pretexts, but they helped me to configure the concept of synthetic realism.
Were the houses inspired by the houses in Germany?
No, they are imaginary. Even mythological characters are imagined. At the Academy of Fine Arts in Romania, we worked a lot from nature, and since I mastered the technique, I don’t require a model. I can paint a lion with wings, i.e. a griffon or a centaurus, I don’t necessarily need an image. The compositions are clear and simple, and I don’t need reality. I use my imagination. Of course, when I painted antique temples, I looked for inspiration. I had to see how the columns cast their shadow, but it wasn’t a photographic depiction. I wasn’t interested in this, but only in depicting shapes correctly, and constructing them well.
Are there other painters that are part of this movement?
I believe so. If I were to study what other artists are currently working on, I think many would be a part of it. Many artists today work in a synthetic manner, i.e., they extract the form and make it more simple and even more realistic. Sometimes they work in a realistic style. I’m convinced there are many artists that could be a part of it.
I understand that you discussed the concept of synthetic realism with Christian Lucian Hamsea, but that his works are more abstract.
He could participate very well with his paintings and be a part of synthetic realism like I am, but he also has other personal directions that are not necessarily a part of synthetic realism. He does, however, have many works that fit this description.
In current postmodernism, which continued even after the ‘80s were over, everything is possible. Artists are working in all styles, and there is no singular, primary direction. Or, we might have something new, and it’s extraordinary. It’s like Babylon. It’s normal to have many artists nowadays, especially when we’ve had an explosion in the population – it’s fantastic. Never before have so many people lived on earth, and the possibilities to create art are greater than ever.
We have a very large number of artists. Many of them follow an idea similar to synthetic realism. And there are so many modalities to paint, very many. I believe that there has never been as many waves, movements and ideas in the history art as we have today. The means of receiving information too numerous compared to the past, and thus, people are often disoriented. There is an explosion of images and art, and since painting is also an image, it has started to defend and protect itself.
Because images come to us through technology from all directions, and the colors that flood our world are fantastic and abundant, thanks to current technology and science, all of this makes painting withdraw into its shell and that makes oddities appear in art. This also exists. Accordingly, many people are tired and it’s not interesting for them anymore. People are tired of images, they don’t want new art. What can they do with art? Painting is subjective, it depends on the artist, it’s not uniform, nor is it a cellphone that shows the same image everywhere. All cellphones show the same image, some are more advanced, more HD, but for most people, it looks the same.
“Never before have so many people lived on earth and the possibilities to create art are greater than ever before.”
What can people do with painting? In the past, there was nature and if a person wanted to see something different in his home, then the artist offered him an image, and that was special. Nowadays it is unfortunately less interesting. But what makes painting different when compared to technology? Photography is part of the technical world, but it’s considered an art today. What does painting have? Painting works with contemplation. Painting used to be contemplative and this continues to exist today, so contemporary painting works with the spontaneous and the contemplative. Technology cannot do that. Technology is not contemplative, it works with spontaneity.
Besides, each painting has something else that no one can deny and it will continue to exist. It’s original. One creates an object only once. It doesn’t work a second time, and creating this object at that time is done at a certain time, in a certain space, and the artist will never be able to repeat the moment.
That moment is special. It’s alive, it’s unrepeatable, it’s unique. And that moment gives the work of art its value. That’s why nowadays there are works of art that sell for fantastic amounts, because people who invest money in something like this invest in an unrepeatable moment. Technology is equal, it does the same thing, it multiplies it in infinite numbers without adding value. I don’t want to say anymore about technology relative to art.
“…painting has something else that no one can cancel and will continue to exist. It’s original. […] That’s why nowadays there are works of art that sell for fantastic amounts, because people who invest money in something like this invest in an unrepeatable moment.“
There is another problem. Many people want an explanation about a particular work of art. I say that I have a connection to literature and visual arts, not philosophy like some people believe. Philosophy has its own clear means, it’s special, it’s extraordinary, it’s supreme. In my opinion, art doesn’t philosophize. Art doesn’t have anything to do with philosophy. That is a mistake. Many people see literature or film in an image. Visual arts and painting don’t have anything to do with literature and film.
Then we shouldn’t try to express too much in words.
It would be a mistake. Art is explained in words too much. People need words to explain art. Visual arts have their own language. Words are also a means of language, because the art of words is literature. Otherwise, words are just a simple means of communication between people. I don’t consider it necessary to depict this literary aspect in art, in visual arts and especially in painting. The language exists, and color is the language. Color, construction and composition are already languages, they don’t have to be explained, they have to be felt. They have to be felt somehow.
“Art is explained in words too much. […] Color, construction and composition are already languages, they don’t have to be explained, they have to be felt.”
So this is what painting and sculpture offer us.
They have their own language just like music has sound and literature words, but painting shouldn’t use words, it doesn’t need to. An explanation may be offered, no more than that, but only to guide the eye of the public, to see what the artist intended, and from there, language becomes visible.
Shape and color are enough, are signs. If we think about it, this is how writing was born, through visual arts signs and their synthesis. For example, a bird was depicted, which later became a letter. Images existed from the beginning, and may be the oldest of all. Probably sound as well, but sound was not recorded during primitive times, while images were often preserved. It was abstract until it later became a letter or a word. Since then art changed, it has a different language, more solid than a sign or symbol. If someone depicted an animal, it stood for another word or a religious symbol. Now it has become so much more.
As noted by Elena Richard.
Photos from the artist’s personal archive.
Translated from Romanian and edited by Elena and Paul Richard