She once painted propaganda posters for the regime of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
Now the walls of the gallery that artist Claudia Cotrutza French has opened in downtown Los Angeles use Ceausescu’s own words and deeds to paint a bleak picture of the dark decades of his rule.
There’s the oil painting she calls “Brainwashing,” which depicts a faucet spewing meaningless rhetoric over a head that is symbolically cut open to expose a vulnerable human brain.
The stream of phrases carefully printed in Romanian are taken from an actual televised speech that Ceausescu delivered in late 1989, three days after his police and soldiers had fired on students at an anti-government protest.
“They’re meaningless words,” said the 54-year-old Cotrutza, who uses her maiden name with her art. “He was calling the students he’d ordered killed ‘spies’ and ‘enemies of our country.’ It would be the last speech before he died” — the dictator was executed five days later as his government was overthrown.
In the gallery space at 446 S. Main St. hangs a series of 4-foot-square oil paintings. They each use a tree as a metaphor for the artist’s life: the time she spent under Ceausescu’s rule, her 1984 arrival in the United States as a refugee and her existence today.
In the first painting, the tree’s roots are pulled loose from a drab landscape. In the second, they are shown taking hold in a brighter location. In the third and final painting, the tree is depicted as firmly rooted and flourishing against a vivid background.
Her most striking work involves Ceausescu and the cult of personality he tried to cultivate in Romania.
Cotrutza started painting at age 7 and studied art in high school and later at an art institute. She remembers how limited she was in choosing subjects for her canvases.
“Everybody was working for the government. We had to show how great communism was and how capitalism was evil,” she said. “I was aware of Western art — we’d studied art history in college. But we were restricted. You had to be careful what you painted because you knew eyes were watching.”
Those who spoke out — or showed any dissatisfaction with the government — were hauled off to prison or put under house arrest, Cotrutza said.
Her father was imprisoned for three years because of his Christian faith; her parents eventually immigrated to the U.S. as Romanian refugees.
“You couldn’t show anger or frustration. You couldn’t show your true thoughts. You would be shut down by the Securitate, the secret police, if you put your true thoughts on a canvas. You wouldn’t be allowed to be an artist in the future,” Cortrutza said.
So she and other artists painted smiling and happy peasants, busy cranes at construction sites and propaganda billboards — huge posters with images of a handsome-looking Ceausescu and communist slogans lettered in white or black on red backdrops.
On one occasion, Cortrutza was instructed to craft fake leaves and attach them to barren tree branches for a visit Ceausescu made to an otherwise drab location.
In 1984, when she was 28, Cotrutza followed her parents to the U.S. She found a job at a Loma Linda bakery, then as a design staffer for a department store. She stayed there for a decade before finding work as a computer-aided draftsman. She began painting again in January after completing a long-term drafting project for the firm. She currently lives in Corona with her husband, Jim French, a musician and teacher, and their family.
Echoes of the Ceausescu era abound at the Main Street gallery. One spotlighted collage features images of a hammer and sickle; anonymous rows of communist youth; Romanian newspaper clippings filled with stores and photos of Ceausescu; and ominous, gray blocks of ugly apartments.
Another work depicts Ceausescu in front of a map of Romania that is composed of shattered crystal. Crowds of people are shown, each of their faces represented by what appears to be Ceausescu’s thumbprint.
There’s a portrait of the dictator with images of Lenin, Marx and Engels floating in his head. A painting titled “L’eye to Me” shows a series of eyes with communist government symbols reflected in each pupil.
“She captures the personality of that time,” said Anca Gheorghe, another Romanian immigrant who now works as a Loma Linda choir director.
“To me, it means a lot, since I come from that place. There are a lot of memories there, a lot of symbols from that time.”
Gheorghe, who has known Cotrutza for 25 years, said she is glad her friend has returned to painting.
“I feel sorry she didn’t do this before,” Gheorghe said.
Cotrutza said about half of those who visit her gallery realize who Ceausescu was. She said she explains his story to the others and translates Romanian phrases on the canvases.
“We are in a beautiful country here,” she said. “Every day I kiss the ground that I’m here.”