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Interview with artist Eugen-Florin Zamfirescu in Romanian newspaper “Observatorul”

“I think that artists are probes in parallel universes, satellites exploring alternative existences…”

When did you first discover an interest for painting?

“In the beginning there were the simple sketches I made as a child…..I was a naughty kid, at least that’s what my mother used to say, relentlessly curious, full of energy as well as bruises. Some people collect stamps, or baseball cards, I was busy collecting scars on a daily basis.  I am still “wearing” the marks, I call them “archeological vestiges”. When I get a glimpse of one, childhood rushes back with all its memories.

I remember one day very well.  I was taking a short break before exploding again into the Great Adventure, when my mother brought me a notepad and a box of coloured pencils: ”Look what I found in one of your brother’s cupboards…he did not take to drawing….let’s see what you can do! And that was that. I forgot everything else and the night shadows found me under an old cherry tree, with a notebook and coloured pencils in my hand. In some ways I am there still…

A blank paper waiting to be filled with words or drawings makes everyone shy as well as excited. It is the abyss, the unknown, the first smile of the sun after a heavy winter, the first kiss, it is the omnificence. As I was starting to slowly move the pencil around the empty surface the hesitant forms and broken lines coming out of my fingers surrounded me with a magic charm. I was diving on coloured skis through the snow-fresh purity of the paper. It was the midst of summer and everything around me was drenched in colour, wondrous and full of mysteries I needed to unravel.

When was your first encounter with the  Old Masters?

“I met them during long winter nights with heavy snow back home in Romania….
We inherited from my grandparents a big radio, a wooden box with a magic eye continuously blinking green. In the evenings classical music was stemming out of it, enveloping our living-room with a grave perfume. My parents collected art books and those were my playmates during the winter. I remember Dad smoking quietly by the stove. My mother was a dreamer who loved recalling life and youth before the war.   I was listening to her, to the radio and looking at the lives of famous artists. Under a yellow light I was discovering forms, colours, unknown worlds. My active imagination was building stories about each painting or sculpture, page after page. This is how I met Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Monet, Lautrec, Dali and Durer, this is how I first travelled to London and Paris, Amsterdam, Delft or Florence.

And then?
And one day, like a hurricane, I was caught in Adolescence with its love and intense emotions that entered my blood like a virus. I still have it. After college I discovered multiple passions, one being photography. From negative to film, from film to paper, it was pure magic. How not to fall in love with it? I pursued this love with all my might and in 1985 I was accepted as a member of Federation Internationale de l’Arts Photographique (FIAP).

I am one of those people who is curious and passionate about every subject and at one point I thought films would be able to satisfy this insatiability. For about five years I took private classes with Professor Mircea Gherghinescu, one of the best cinematographers from the Institute of Theatre and Film of Romania (IATC). Each week my task was to analize a movie: from lighting in support of the narrative, to colour in support of the characters, from geometry to movement in support of the action. Then I had to analize a painting : composition, equilibrium, light, texture, brush work. At the end of all this I would take a photo, just one in which I’ve had to apply everything I’ve seen and learned in the movie or painting studied. It was a phenomenal process, a tough one too, that taught me a creator should leave nothing to chance. If there is a nail in the wall it is there because it has a role in the whole narrative.”

When did you start to dedicate yourself seriously to painting?
I arrived in London in 1991 and there I continued to work in film and photography. When work was not heavy National Gallery or the Tate were my favourite haunts. I used to stay for hours on end in front of a painting, studying on my own, looking, analyzing, reading, looking again, taking notes. In front of me were the masterpieces seen a long time ago as a child, in my parents’art books. Finally I was looking the Old Masters in the eyes, so to speak.

I was in museums for hours on end, an almost permanent piece of furniture. To the museum personnel I probably came across as dubious, sometimes I wonder if they thought I was planning a break-in. It would not have been far from the truth. I was indeed planning one. I wanted to break-in the secrets of the Old Masters. We know very little about how exactly they painted. And HOW was the big question for me. I was searching in each painting for that elusive, microscopic area where the surface allowed a glimpse of primary layers. Those areas were treasures, riches beyond riches, true archeological finds.

Leonardo da Vinci has in the National Gallery in London a charcoal drawing “ The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist”. So as to avoid fading the drawing is kept in a room with hardly any lighting. You have to allow some time for your eyes to adjust. But when you start seeing….it’s breathtaking. I imagined that Master Leonardo was there, drawing in the low light and behind him, myself, his apprentice, was preparing the colours.

It is my belief that major artists continue to live not just through their work but inside that work, as well as in the sacred space around their masterpieces. A part of their souls hangs around forever…

Can you tell us more about the technique you use in your paintings?
I am fascinated by the luminosity found in the paintings of the XIV and XV centuries. There is no book that could fully unravel the painting techniques of the Renaissance.  For over fourteen years that discovery was my adventure.  There was no time for anything else.

We do not know exactly what medium was being used then in the mix of pigments. The medium was crucial in attaining a unique luminosity. How was that possible? We know they were using siccative oils but of what viscosity and how it was obtained? How many layers of colour, of what density, with what pigments? I like to think I discovered some secrets but I am still in search for the complete answers.

Each painting takes me about eight or nine months, sometimes even longer to complete. An idea is followed by research, sketches, more research, more sketches until I have a clear vision of what I want to do. Next step is preparing the panel and the canvas – my work surfaces – another long and complex process.

The technique I use is called glazing – multiple layers – and it requires patience and attention to detail. There is a huge amount of detail in my work. Each painting is an invitation to the viewer to come closer in order to discover details, the hidden keys required in order to better understand the subject. It is the opposite of impressionism. The closer you get to my paintings, the longer you look the more you discover and understand….and the more you question….

What are you telling us is the exhibition in October?

A subject that has become an obsession for me: civilizations. How are civilizations born? How do they develop? How do they fall, disappear and are reborn again? What factors contribute to their evolution? Can art help science and philosophy, can art help humanity find answers to fundamental questions about our stay here on Earth? Can art help in finding solutions?

I’ve seen recently a documentary filmed in Antarctica. After a long winter a whole community of penguins is going north towards spring, food and survival. All of them, except one. A lone penguin that goes unexpectedly in the opposite direction – south – where the only thing waiting is the never ending ice. “Why?” asks the film maker? “I don’t know, answers the researcher, it is not the first one, we see this every year”.

Artists, scientists, philosophers are similar to that lone penguin. Without them taking the unknown road societies would ossify, civilizations would never evolve.

I come back now to your question and the paintings in the exhibition “Whispering Civilizations”. The paintings represent my quest to identify and to pinpoint essential moments of our existence, a personal vision on the history of civilizations.

For each painting I chose very carefully a significant moment in the history of civilizations. It is in many ways very similar with chosing from a long movie one single frame, the one you consider most charged with meaning.

Our past is rather opaque. We don’t see or hear anything clearly. All that reaches us from before are just whispers. Around each of my paintings the viewer will encounter those whispers, I call them “gliding factors”, essential elements of our social, economical, political structures, of our humanity. Each gliding factor has its own characteristics, variable from one historical moment to another.

“Whispering Civilizations” attempts to draw a possible map of our past in the hope that it might help us reach a future thus saving us from a highly probable destruction.  The exhibit is more than a series of paintings, it should be seen as a “thought experiment”. A thought experiment whose fundamental questions are “Is there a Genome of Civilizations? Are we able to decipher it?”


Opening reception: October 3rd at Twist Art Gallery, first floor, 1100 Queen Street West, 18:30 – 21:30.
The exhibition will be on display until 25th October.



This interview was  published Toronto in “Observatorul” ( monthly Romanian newspaper)

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