The Ion Creangă Publishing House (Editura Ion Creangă) was officially established on December 1, 1969 by “Resolution 2215/1969 concerning some measures to improve publishing activity.” The cultural departments subordinated to the State Committee for Culture and Art (music, theater, fine arts, museums and monuments, cultural foundations, libraries, cultural propaganda, etc.) had to be dissolved in the political athanor of the state from which they would resurrect later, improved and metamorphosed.
Thus, some publishing houses changed, a few preserved their names, and new ones appeared. Two major transitions in the cultural system took place: the publishing system was partially leaving the capital city, branching out all over the geography of the country, becoming thus more open to peripheral culture; and the publishers gave up their (inter)disciplinary character (political, literary, scientific, etc.), focusing instead on mass market appeal. According to Art. 3.c of Resolution 2215/1969, the newly founded The Ion Creangă Publishing House, headquartered in Bucharest, “has as an objective the publishing of original and translated preschool and school children’s literature in Romanian and the languages of co-inhabiting minorities”.
One positive byproduct of the initiative to administratively reorganize the Romanian publishing system was the immediate visibility of book illustrations.
Until the 1950s, book illustration, especially for children, had been caught in the trap of clichés that considered it a minor art, in line with other decorative arts and crafts. With the establishment of Ion Creangă Publishing House, both visual artists and children’s literature authors were concentrated around a cellular institutional mechanism that facilitated creation. From a minor art that elbowed its way around a culture that was already centred on literature and unfriendly with the visual as the Romanian culture was, book illustration became the protagonist of an entire administrative and institutional apparatus, its very own celebrity culture. Suddenly, book illustration had the attention of national and international fairs, contests, and export through the translation of the illustrated texts.
It’s important to emphasize that the history of children’s book illustration provides but a few pages in the full history of the visual arts. Everything we know from the first books of the 19th century to George Löwendal (1897–1964) and Lena Constante (1909–2005), or Jules Perahim (1914–2008) and Eugen Taru (1913–1991), who were active during the King Carol II’s, Dej’s, and finally Ceaușescu’s dictatorships, are just a drop in the bucket. A visual history of children’s books illustrations before 1950 does not exist yet; it can at most be reconstructed by an accumulation of chapters, subchapters, passing references spread in the body of texts that constitute the canonic history of the Romanian visual arts. The periodical Almanahul Graficei Române, Craiova, 1925–1931 (Year-book of Romanian Graphics) or Tudor Vianu’s articles about Atanase Demian (1894–1977) or Eugen Drăguțescu (1914–1993) may also provide fruitful archeological sources on book illustration in general, if not specifically on children’s books.
Against this historical background and in the political context described above, The Ion Creangă Publishing House appeared in the newborn publishing landscape like a launching pad, ready for decantation and long-awaited recuperation. Initially (and until the late 1970s) headed by the writers Gheorghe Zarafu (b. 1933) and Tiberiu Utan (1930–1994) The Ion Creangă Publishing House operated on several aesthetic and political fronts. It gathered local visual artists who practiced book illustration, such as Eugen Taru, joined (in alphabetical order) by Constantin Baciu (1930–2005), Silviu Băiaș (b. 1931), Sandu Florea (b. 1946), Val Munteanu (1927–1996), Vasile Olac (b. 1936), Livia Rusz (b. 1930), Done Stan (b. 1937), Dan Stanciu (b. 1952), Helga Unipan (b. 1938), and others.
With them, The Ion Creangă Publishing House began a long, consistent process of translation and adaptation, both into Romanian (of canonic books and authors, e.g. Rabelais, Grimm, Carroll) and from Romanian authors. It exported to countries such as the USSR, the GDR, and Sweden. All its massive book production, whether original or translated, imported or exported, had to comply with pedagogic and political requirements. Collections and series like Schoolchild’s Library, Library for All, or My First Library, as well as Timeless Stories and Stories without Borders, took both their authors (the illustrator and the writer) and their readers on a sort of cultural slalom between the two kinds of requirements. Under these local political and cultural mandates, in which the alternative visual arts attempted to resist the increasingly nationalistic official steamroller, Romanian children’s books illustrators participated in the Bologna Children’s Books International Fair, Leipzig Beautiful Book Fair, and the Moscow International Book Exhibition, where they collected medals and awards. The Ion Creangă Publishing House continued to exist, functionally, after 1989, now managed by the poetess Daniela Crăsnaru (b. 1950), on subsidies from the Ministry of Culture, but without the wide scope and chromatic ebullition of the “golden age.” Its activity ceased de facto in 2003, and de jure in 2009.
As can be easily seen, the time gap between 1969 and 1989, extended till 2003, poses quite a few problems when it comes to the recuperation and contemporary re-contextualization of the entire illustrated output of those artists who collaborated with The Ion Creangă Publishing House, as we know very little, at least on the curricular level, about what was done before. To negotiate the thorny issue of the critical recuperation of the past and recent history of children’s book illustration, I relied on the memories of two artists and intellectuals who worked with The Ion Creangă Publishing House.
Livia Rusz left the Socialist Republic of Romania in 1987, “at an age when one does not usually start a new life”. She simply says, “I had to.” I ask about her debuther entry into the world of illustration. “Ever since I was a student, in 1955, I worked for several magazines and publishers. I strove to meet their demands, but quite often I could not stand to see my drawings after publication. The quality of the print, as you know, left much to be desired. Anyway, I packed one copy of each book I illustrated in Romania in a box, but they molded in a damp garage and almost everything was destroyed.
My heart is still aching.” I ask her when she was entrusted with the first book for illustration by The Ion Creangă Publishing House. “I don’t remember the year, nor the first book they proposed, but I must have lived up to their expectations, because they continued to offer me story books for illustration, and I conceived and illustrated them gladly.” As for the contract procedures, Livia Rusz says, it was like this: “I received the proposals from the Head of the Graphic Department, Mr. Adrian Ionescu, and the contracts from the management, which, like all illustrators, I signed in blank. Over the years, I illustrated stories by famous authors, books that I loved, but the greatest honor was the offer to illustrate the 1972 edition of Ion Creangă’s works, Tales, Stories, Memories, later translated into Hungarian and English.” We talk then about cartoon art; Livia Rusz once was, and in recent years became again (through a spectacular, heartening revival) a very appreciated maestra. “I drew many cartoons for Arici Pogonici, Luminița, Cutezătorii, and Napsugár magazines for children, as well as four albums by Mrs. Lucia Olteanu of The Adventures of Mac (1966–1976), which I believe were well-received by the young people. Fodor Sándor’s Cipi the Dwarf (1983) was also a successful story, translated into Romanian, German, and Lithuanian.”
I later met Herbert Gruenwald, in his current capacity of illustrated children’s books collector, and as a former editor (1984–1988) of the German section of The Ion Creangă Publishing House. We leafed together through his books, gathered from second-hand and first-run bookstores, both before and after the fall of Ceaușescu. I listened to his stories about illustrations, illustrators, and the censors at Casa Scînteii, but also to his belief that “in Romania, ironically, there was no greater creativity and diversity in children’s books graphics than precisely in those years of ideological control and leveling social and cultural policies, either before communism, or after it.”
Gruenwald states, “After high school I wanted to study graphic art, but for fear I wouldn’t be admitted, I went to German philology.” He adds, “…if I had not been admitted, I would have been conscripted into long-term military service. I was horrified by the perspective of the military service in communist Romania, which is what was in store for me unless I was admitted to university. My collection is a sort of compensatory act for an unfulfilled dream of my youth, that of doing book design myself.”
In the 1970s, Gruenwald bought his first illustrated books from second-hand bookshops – not Romanian, but German. He says, “There were quite a lot of books in German, from Jewish and German families. I was interested mainly in book design and the visual arts.” He then adds with a smile, “Or, as my file from National Council for the Study of Securitate Archives (CNSAS) mentions summarizes: ‘He praises American and German culture to the detriment of the Romanian one.’ Browsing the second-hand bookshop shelves in 1970s and 1980s Bucharest, I discovered the transformation of Eugen Taru from a crude proletkult caricaturist into a flamboyant illustrator of Münchhausen and Pinocchio. In his illustrations of Grigore Alexandrescu’s Fables, Taru, on the one hand, cites in a postmodern spirit Grandville’s archetypal ‘Scènes de la vie privée et publique des animaux’, and on the other gives a subtly humoresque picture of the 19th-century Romanian costume’s transition from the Balkan-Ottoman to Western fashion, delightfully enriching the visual information.”
“With regard to Jules Perahim, whom I had known only as a surrealist genius stranded in socialist realism, after his return from the Soviet exile, I discovered his good-natured illustrations for the Book of Apolodor, visually consonant not only with Gellu Naum’s verses, but also with the entire visual stylistics of Western modernism of the late 1950s. But the books he had illustrated, even the realist or proletkult ones, were no longer available to the public. Perahim, now exiled in Paris, had been put on the communists’ black list of names that had to be forgotten. Fortunately, this did not happen, as Romanians are often too talkative to be condemned to muteness…”
“It was then that I realized the extreme care these illustrators took for all the aspects of the book, including the font size and placement of illustrations and vignettes within the text. For example, when one looks at the covers and illustrations by Geta Brătescu for Nastratin Hogea, Benedict Gănescu for Gargantua and Pantagruel, Val Munteanu for Till Eulenspiegel, Silviu Băiaş for Bertoldo and Bertoldino, or Done Stan for Păcală and Tândală, one cannot deny that in communist Romania, for the first time, there existed not only a coherent development of book graphics, in the sense of modern book design, but also a wealth of creative individuals.”
Gruenwald continues “Certainly it is a paradox that a political system based on total control of artistic creation and ideological uniformization allowed the emergence of a genuine tradition of stylistic diversity and even ludic experimentation in book art, a tradition that abruptly ended after 1989, the year of Ceaușescu’s fall. It’s a shame that nobody attempts to understand this paradox by talking to artists like Done Stan or Vasile Olac, who were members of the artistic board of The Ion Creangă Publishing House for years – and those were good years precisely owing to the professionalism and creativity of people like them. In this context, the late Val Munteanu must also be mentioned, who was, I believe, the head of the board. It’s a pity that nobody asks Silviu Băiaş, who, with each centimeter of line drawn against the grain, implicitly opposed Ceaușescu’s commandments regarding ‘new man’s’ reflection in propaganda. They, and others of their generation, know a lot about how a book could captivate one with its beauty, despite censorship and ideological command, in times of oppression that allowed fewer and fewer opportunities for creativity.
At The Ion Creangă Publishing House I came more systematically into contact with what I had only met by chance till then, namely the way in which classical titles of literature for children and youngsters had been illustrated in Romanian-language editions. In addition to German editions, I started to search for Romanian editions of world and domestic literature classics. The Ion Creangă Publishing House had launched a folio series (about 22 cm wide x 33 cm tall) after a French interwar model that has always seemed an imperfect format for children’s books, but pleased the illustrators by allowing them greater opportunities for creative illustrations and layouts. A significant number of remarkable books were issued in this series, the pride of the publishing house and of the socialist book export: Illustrated Fables, by Eugen Taru; Pinocchio and Till Eulenspiegel, illustrated by Val Munteanu; Bertoldo and Bertoldino and Childhood Memories, by Ion Creangă, illustrated by Silviu Băiaș; Păcală and Tândală and Munchhausen, illustrated by Done Stan; The Singing Wizard, illustrated by Livia Rusz; and Alice and Tom Sawyer, illustrated by Vasile Olac. All these books were made with an obvious understanding of book graphics, and with the clear intent to create a work of art in the book itself, or what Germans know as Buchkunst, and Swedes as Bokkonst.
Too often, however, these books, illustrated with sensibility or flamboyance, subtlety or exuberant humor, were brought from the sphere of art down to the rough reality of the ‘multilaterally developed socialist society’ by the lousy quality of the paper they were allotted and the absence of any concern for honorable printing or binding. Only books made for export to the GDR received some attention, lest they be rejected by the paying partners. Speaking of export: Romanian illustration – in a rather treacly version, I admit – reached as far as Sweden in the form of two little cardboard boxes, issued in 1973 and 1975, that each contained eight thin booklets of prose by Mihail Sadoveanu and Emil Gârleanu, titled Mitt Sagobibliotek, and illustrated by Ileana Ceaușu Pandele.”
“The mid-1950s and early 1960s saw the publication of a great number of children’s books liberated from proletkult and socialist-realist command. These books were paralleled by book production ordered by the communist party and the apparatchiks represented in the publishing houses through the censorship system. For instance, during Ceaușescu’s ‘golden age’, tribute anthologies had to be issued on the occasion of ‘the beloved leader’s’ birthday, even by publishing houses specializing in children literature. In the 1980s, a campaign was initiated to reduce the number of books that did not directly mirror communist reality, with protagonists identifiable as ‘homeland hawks’, ‘pioneers’, or members of the Communist Youth Union. As a result, fewer fantasy or fairy tales books were published, along with less prose and poetry that could not be placed with precision within the realm of communist reality.”
“During that period, I worked for about four years at The Ion Creangă Publishing House. I remember how, during a meeting with all the readers, this new, unpleasant directive was communicated to us. Most of us used our professions as a means of shirking the propaganda orders. I felt relatively protected, because I was in charge of German language books issued for the German minority and for export to the GDR. The books I read could not be controlled by anyone from management, because I was the only German speaker in the publishing house. However, before sending manuscripts to print, I had to meet the Ministry of Culture’s censor in a big office filled with gentlemen in grey suits, reminding me of those in Momo, all of them time-stealers, just like in Michael Ende’s novel. These men in the grey suits would frequently hack the manuscripts to various degrees before publication.”
“My ‘German’ censor was usually tractable, meaning that the text and intentions of the author could be preserved almost intact, so I didn’t worry too much. However, now I would have to be questioned several times, directly and at leisure, by the editor-in- chief, about the adequateness of the gallery of characters in the upcoming books. It felt like an interrogation, in which loaded questions came up again and again: ‘Are there any pioneers’ activities in this book?’ ‘Can’t it be interpreted that the plot unfolds in Germany, or before the unification of Transylvania with Romania?’ The interrogation was stepped up when the editor-in-chief noticed that no child in two of the books was wearing a pioneer’s scarf and, to top it off, a Roma woman was indisputably present! Authors were frequently asked to significantly change their texts, and then the next questions started: ‘Does this boy go to school?’ ‘Why aren’t there any pioneers in this book?’ ‘Why are there no school uniforms in that illustration?’ ‘Where is this story set? Is this present-day Romania?’ Eventually, salvation came from the censor himself, who knew the authors Ricarda Terschak and Georg Scherg, who made possible the publication of Elmolin and Wendelin and the Rainbow, two fantasy novels, completely apolitical to be sure, whose action takes place in a timeless Transylvania. In one of them, a Roma healer plays a positive role – to the best of my knowledge, it is a singular case of a Roma character in the children’s literature of communist Romania.”
“Censorship was always present, forcing, through the periodical control of the publication plan made by the editor-in-chief, the elimination of writers who criticized or opposed the regime, or those who wanted to emigrate, even if they had not openly protested against the communist dictatorship. Thus, I had to remove three members of the Banat Action Group from the German section publication plan: Richard Wagner, Rolf Bossert, and Herta Müller, the laterlatter of whom would go on to earn significant fame along with a Nobel Prize. Bossert, who was himself a reader at the Kriterion publishing house, the publishing house specialized in co-inhabiting minorities literature, taught me a subversive little trick that prevented his brilliant translation of the poem Ragamuffin from falling out of print: by merely anagramming his name into Robert Floss, nobody would recognize the proscribed poet! But the joy of this small victory against censorship was short-lived. During the same period, though without any connection to our undetected little anti-system ploy, the Securitate secret police began to submit Rolf Bossert to systematic psychological terror lasting for months, and eventually this led him to suicide.”
“There is no reason to present that period as an idyllic one, although it was prolific for book graphics. At no point either before or after communism have Romanian publishing houses issued so many children’s books, even if we only count those that are graphically remarkable. Among these notable books are Rolf Bossert’s tale of two little cunning mice, Mi and Mo, who overthrow a dictatorship of the rats (guess who?), and a micro-novel illustrated by Helga Unipan with the same zany humor and striking pop-art chromatics as Franz Hodjak’s Joho the Dog.
I remember a story that was told in the publishing house corridors, about a communist ‘comrade’ from Maramures, a headmaster who filed a written complaint to the minister of culture about Done Stan’s decadent illustration of the Păcală and Tândală stories. As a result, the artist was summoned to answer to minister Suzana Gâdea in person, and the book was to be withdrawn from stores for mocking Romanian folklore. Ironically, this interrogation took place on the same day Păcală and Tândală received a prestigious Italian book award. Done Stan wisely referenced the award to excuse his creative nerve during the meeting with the minister. Left speechless for a moment, Gâdea severely reprimanded him: ‘This time we’ll forgive you, but, comrade Done, let it never happen again!’”
“Happen what? Receive an award? Illustrate?” Herbert Gruenwald asks himself, reading from the German edition of the book: “Received the Honorable Mention of the Children and Youth Book Award in Arco, Italy, 1976. In 1975 it was published in Romanian, in 1976 it received the award, and in 1979 it was translated into German for export, its success due to the illustration.”
Thus we reach the present-day illustrated children’s book market in Romania, and Herbert Gruenwald underscores the idea of a missed chance of “continuity in the Romanian illustration school”:
“Already in the late 1950s, of the work of sisters Florica Cordescu (1913–1965) and Marcela Cordescu (1913–1984), Eugen Taru, and Jules Perahim made it easy to see how masterfully a richly illustrated book was conceived, how perfectly mastered was pagination and the art of choosing the appropriate typeface. This special craft of creating books that function as objects of art seems to be lost, with few exceptions, especially in the children’s book industry. A few publishing houses became prominent in recent years by publishing children’s books, but even they leave the impression that they have few ambitions with regard to design and illustration. A lack of creativity, of play with pagination and fonts, is obvious, as if these elements that add appeal to a book are simply no longer of interest to anybody.”
“There is a sort of appeal in a well-made book which prompts one to seize it, leaf through it and enjoy its illustration, then buy it, read it, savor it, and put it on one’s bookshelf with love, so one can keep it and page through it from time to time, tenderly or with amusement, with melancholy or laughing out loud, rediscovering after many years, with nostalgia, its historicity, or, with amazement, its freshness. Sadly, I do not feel this appeal in most of the children’s books being published today.”
“It may sound nostalgic, but starting in the late 1950s, a series of great Romanian children’s book illustrators managed to keep in sync with the most creative ones worldwide. They managed it either by duping censors or by taking advantage of its tacit agreement, The question ‘How was it possible?’ is worth answering, as is the next question: ‘How far did this synchronicity with the free world go under communism?’
The fact that these authors and illustrators could attend international contests and fairs automatically placed Romanian illustrators in the same league as those from countries whose book production was not ideologically controlled or censored. At the Leipzig Book Fair, even though it was organized in the communist GDR, the participants were children’s book publishers from all over the Western world, and the prizes were awarded by prestigious international juries. Another important contest in which Romanian illustrators used to participate was that of the Bologna Book Fair, where they received a plethora of medals. Current children’s book design (with the notable exception of the activity of the Illustrators’ Club) does not seem to be in sync with the international scene.”
Herbert Gruenwald summarizes it quite nicely when he says, “What is published today in Romania seems to me a bit boring.” He goes on to list “some notable exceptions, the foremost being the extraordinary Stela Lie and her colleagues from the Illustrators’ Club, especially Irina Dobrescu, Oana Ispir, Veronica Neacsu, the Surducan sisters, Sebastian Oprița, and others. But these young people, except Irina Dobrescu, are not enough in demand. It is a great shame that there are so many excellent illustrators still unpublished, like Amalia Dulhan or Doina Roman, and many others from the Illustrators’ Club.”
“It is as outrageous that we have people with immense experience like Livia Rusz, Silviu Baias, Done Stan, Vasile Olac who not only are almost forgotten, but no one in the publishing system seems to be willing to take advantage of their expertise and experience. I believe that in Romania, book illustration and design still suffer from the break in tradition.”
“I don’t know exactly how current Romanian publishers work, but it is evident that they do not have an operative board of professional graphic artists to act as style consultants, despite the fact that such specialists can be found in Romania. An amateur does not realize why a book is visually attractive or not, nor does he or she necessarily have to know what makes a book’s aspect appealing, and what takes one to another world when one opens it. That is the role of book illustration and design: to visually accompany, underline, or strengthen the textual content. This is true especially for children’s books. Recently, more such books have been published in Romania. But it is very important to resume the connection with the tradition and the illustrators who left their mark in the heyday of The Ion Creangă Publishing House.”
I ask Herbert Gruenwald, “So what are we supposed to do? Where do we start, and with what?” He doesn’t know. “I am just a collector and observer who, sometimes by chance, sometimes out of bibliophilic interest, met for a brief period of time some personalities of Romanian illustration before 1989.”
He goes on, “As time goes by, I admire them more and more, understanding better, from this distance in time, how much it means that they preserved their creativity during the miserable Ceaușescu period. I cannot enumerate all those whom I admire, but for a reconstruction of the conditions in which children’s book design was done, in order to reveal influences and traditions, or the models of the time, I would insistently recommend Silviu Baias, Livia Rusz, Vasile Olac, Done Stan. Also, not least, István Damó, an elegant illustrator with a fine humor, who was for some time the graphic artist of The Ion Creangă Publishing House. István Damó no longer lives in Bucharest, but in Hungary, and he is a very interesting partner in dialogues on how children’s books were made then.”
Closing the dialogue with Herbert Gruenwald, I think that this kind of oral testimony may be a good starting point for a future history of the art of children’s book illustration, which should be back on this track on a recurring basis, in order to verify the results of research carried out in time and to ask new questions, to push the documentary approach one step further.
For quoting this document: © Igor Mocanu, „Ion Creangă Publishing House”, text published in Stoenescu, Arina, editor; See what we do! Clubul Ilustratorilor; pionier press 2013, translation from Romanian to English by Adrian Solomon and Lily-Rygh Glen, pp. 15-25.