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Belle Baranceanu: The Artist at Work

September 16 - May 29, 2007


The following information was extracted from text panels that appeared in the exhibition Belle Baranceanu: The Artist at Work, and was edited by Joel Aaron Levanetz, Assistant Curator, San Diego Historical Society.


Belle Baranceanu

Of the many Works Progress Administration (WPA) artists that resided in San Diego during the 1930's, Belle Baranceanu is among the most celebrated. From her abstract landscapes to her disciplined portraiture, Ms. Baranceanu's talent was as diverse as it was profound.

The artist was born in 1902 as Belle Goldschlager to Jewish-Romanian parents living in Chicago. It was not until later in life that she began to use her mother's maiden name, Baranceanu. After her parents' separation in 1904, Baranceanu and her sister moved to North Dakota to live on their maternal grandparents' farm. When she was seventeen years old, her parents reunited and she moved to Minneapolis to live with them. It was there that Baranceanu attended the Minneapolis School of Art and became involved in the emerging art and teaching community.

During her years in art school, 1924 to 1927, Baranceanu studied under Anthony Angarola, a rising artist on the Chicago scene. She enrolled just as he began to teach at the Minneapolis School of Art. When Angarola left Minneapolis to instruct at the Art Institute of Chicago, Belle Baranceanu eagerly followed her teacher.

Angarola taught her to focus on the experiences of average people and to paint scenes from everyday life using an abstract and angular style in which line was central. He taught his students that, "It is not the function of art to illustrate, to teach, to preach. It is the function of art to be beautiful in and of itself. Each picture is to be complete and whole within itself without dependence on external things."

A strong connection developed between teacher and student. Angarola considered Baranceanu the most talented student he had ever encountered. He introduced her to the local art scene and encouraged her to submit her work to competitive exhibitions. By 1926, this connection had developed into a romantic relationship between the two.

Anthony Angarola was nine years older than Belle Baranceanu, an Italian-American Catholic and a recently divorced father of two. Belle's father, Abram Goldschlager, did not approve of the relationship, which Angarola attributed to the fact that he was not Jewish. In an effort to break apart the couple, in 1927 the artist's father sent her to Los Angeles to live with her uncle. Rebelling against her family's wishes, Baranceanu maintained a long-distance relationship with Angarola.

Baranceanu stayed in Los Angeles for two years (1927-1929). Near the beginning of her stay, Angarola came to see her, but the following year he was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship which took him away to Europe. On the outskirts of Paris in early 1929, he was injured in a car accident. Found to have no serious injury, Angarola was released from the hospital soon afterward. He proposed to Baranceanu from Paris and planned to meet her in Chicago a few months later.

Unfortunately, when Belle arrived in Chicago, she was met with a tragedy that would impact the rest of her life. As she waited in her apartment for Angarola to join her for a civil service marriage ceremony, she was told that her fiance had been found dead in his hotel room. Angarola had suffered a fatal brain aneurysm related to the accident in Paris.

Following this devastating event, Baranceanu's work shifted to more intimate and emotional subjects. Among these are the many prints and paintings of nudes she created in the years after Angarola's passing. Through these works Baranceanu expressed her belief that the human body is a reflection of the inner spirit and psychological condition of the soul.

By 1932, Baranceanu was ready to embark on a new life. She decided to erase the name 'Goldschlager' from all her finished paintings and to replace it with 'Baranceanu', her mother's maiden name. This gesture spoke of a new identity and independence from her father's dominance and intolerance, something she associated with the tragedy of losing her fiance.

Baranceanu's parents moved to San Diego in 1933. As the artist remained very close with her mother, she elected to join them. Luckily for Belle's profession, it was at this time that President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (WPA) program was being developed. This program provided a subsistence wage to professional artists by employing them to create art for public spaces. Taking a cue from a similar initiative begun in Mexico in the 1920s, WPA art was designed to bring a message to the people. It was intended to be educational and inspiring, and to focus on human dignity and purpose, giving the public hope during economically harsh times.

Working for the WPA in San Diego, Belle Baranceanu joined a small group of local artists who had begun to explore innovative forms of art, such as cubism and abstraction. Many of these artists were also newcomers to San Diego who had been trained and exposed to ideas in the larger cities of both Europe and the United States. The collaboration between them was instrumental in shaping a new direction for local art at a time when decorative impressionistic paintings were still popular. Influenced by the styles of modern painters such as Paul Cezanne, Henri Matisse, and Diego Rivera, Baranceanu used her talent to test the boundaries of traditional artwork, thereby creating a new sensibility and creative aesthetic.

Many of Baranceanu's early paintings were city scenes of Chicago and Los Angeles. In the most innovative compositions she used hillsides and angled walls, some in shadow and some hit with sunlight, to create movement and emotion in her scenes. The outlines of roads and rooftops were often emphasized, especially using diagonal lines. Many of these daring paintings were accepted by the Art Institute of Chicago and the Los Angeles County Museum to be included in their annual exhibitions of American art.

Also during her years in Chicago and Los Angeles, Baranceanu painted a series of successful figures and portraits. Her interest in the dignity of the common person was something she learned from her instructor, Angarola, and possibly from both her Romanian immigrant roots and her rural upbringing.

Baranceanu painted members of her family and friends in addition to paid models. In works such as Virginia and The Johnson Girl, Baranceanu showcases her talent with abstract shape, color, and line, while capturing the personality and mood of the sitter.

Another subject that required her careful study was still-life painting. In her still-life pieces, Baranceanu painted everyday objects, such as flower buds, books, and dishes. She arranged the objects to form harmonizing combinations of color, texture, and light.

Broadening her talent, Baranceanu began working with block prints. Her block printing method was to carve an image into the surface of a piece of wood or linoleum, keeping the printing areas level with the surface. The surface of the block was then covered with ink, leaving ink upon the flat surface but not in the carved away areas. Paper was then placed facedown on the woodblock and pressure was applied to the back by a printing press. The ink was transferred to the paper by the pressure and a mirror image of the block's surface was printed.

In 1935, Baranceanu applied her block print method to a WPA project for the San Diego City Schools in which she designed covers for teaching manuals. One series of covers were prints of local animals that she studied at the San Diego Zoo. After she finished the project, Baranceanu decided to re-cut many of her designs and produce her own limited editions of these prints.

Along with her work with block prints, Belle Baranceanu spent much of the 1930's and 1940's creating murals for such public spaces as schools and post offices. One of her murals, The Progress of Man, shows how Baranceanu dramatically changed her painting style. Her figures became more realistic and rounded, similar to the method used by Diego Rivera. Also, historical themes and early cultures became an important motif. This new approach was intended to make her work accessible to everyone in terms of subject matter and presentation.

During her period as a muralist, Belle Baranceanu also applied her talent to teaching at the Francis Parker School in Mission Hills. There she was known for wearing sandals and gypsy-style skirts. Baranceanu, or "Ms. B." as she was fondly called by her students, would comment that the second-graders were her favorite. "This age is about the best. They are not perfectionists, they can do anything."

Like her late fiance, Angarola, Baranceanu had become an inspiring instructor. Her successful career in teaching ended in 1969 with her retirement. Despite a lifetime of artistic achievement, Belle Baranceanu continued to pursue her passion, painting well into her later years. With her passing in 1988, Belle Baranceanu left behind a legacy that continues to make its impression on both aspiring artists and admirers.


Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy a biography of Belle Baranceanu posted on the San Diego Historical Society website from an article published in the Journal of San Diego History, written by Bruce Kamerling.

Available from the San Diego Historical Society is a 64-page soft-cover catalogue which accompanied the exhibition. (right: image of cover of exhibition catalogue Belle Baranceanu: The Artist at Work, published by the San Diego Historical Society. Courtesy of San Diego Historical Society)

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