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  • Scott Williamson

Friday afternoon in Timișoara

At the Muzeul de Artă, Timișoara

After a self-guided walking tour of a pair of the city's squares or Piața (like Piazza in Italian), I'm glad I stopped in the Art Museum for the Abakanowicz exhibit, "Presence, Essence, Identity." The Polish artist, as her dates suggest, lived through not only the horrors of WWII but the communist era which perpetuated repression and evil in these parts of Eastern Europe in particular. (I recommend Robert Kaplan's "In Europe's Shadow" for friends interested in learning more about Romania in this context).

Once inside the exhibit, I was not prepared for the impact the last two galleries would have after my non-plussed initial reactions to her headless, androgynous, primitivist humanoid sculptures in burlap, resin and wood. (The "heads" below were the exceptions to these figures).

Abakanowicz: Heads (burlap, wood, resin)

The main wing’s exhibit culminates with two rooms of grouped figures – at once embodiments and representations of humanity, and our inhumane capacity for violence, for turning individuals into faceless, nameless objects.

"Backwards Facing" sculpture group

The first “Backwards facing” group of 13 adult-like figures immediately recalled the sculpted group of standing inmates from the Dachau museum. I was caught completely off guard by this association and the impact it made.

Ungewisse Gruppe, Dachau museum

I spent a few minutes contemplating the figures, walking between them and considering the implications of this anonymous yet universal representation of the 20th century’s horrors (and the mass displacement and endless wars which continue two decades into the 21st).

Then I entered the dimly lit final room and felt punched in the gut, the wind knocked out of me as I beheld a room crowded full of “Children” sculptures, 83 in all, each c. 4’ tall. Reinforcing the moving power of this installation’s chatimah (conclusion) was the hardening of materials.


The burlap and wood now calcified into cold wrought iron. Where the earlier figures – especially those with outstretched arms – recalled scare-crows, mummies or totems – these bodies were like groups of Golems, shelled out corpses, upright and frozen, sculpted cadavers hollowed out by the horrors of genocide. Shadowy presences with fragmented limbs, “an effigy for eternity” as the guide wrote in the accompanying brochure.


The mechanised figure in "Armament" underscored the connections between the artist's subject and the times she lived in and through. What a powerful experience. I'm so grateful I retraced my steps back to the museum after initially noting the exhibit and saying "I'll catch that later..."

"American Corner" library

The "American Corner" of the city's library was closed by the time I found it. The picture, however, is representative of the city. Damaged facades lay exposed while all over the town scaffolding and construction are ongoing as Timișoara prepares to become a European Capital of Culture in 2021.

When I last visited, in June 2018, the Sinagoga din Cetate (Synagogue of the Fortress, referring to Timișoara's historic design and layout) was under closed for construction, but had no scaffolding.

Sinagoga din Cetate (Synagogue of the Fortress)

I enjoyed a beautiful walk home through some of the city's parks, along the narrow Bega river, the boundary between the city center and the surrounding neighborhoods.

Student rowing on the Bega

In the background is the impressive facade of UVT's main building (University of the West), which depicts a pair of Romania's most famous men (sic) of letters.

Sun setting over the Bega

The sun setting over the Bega was the perfect image to end not only a full day but a great first week in Romania!

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