Artist to Know: Șerban Savu

Liz Catalano
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John Moran Auctioneers Will Offer Two Works by Contemporary Romanian Painter

Nicolae Ceaușescu’s communist government fell in Romania when Șerban Savu was just 11 years old. The young artist grew into adulthood alongside a democratic system of governance and rapid social changes. Savu later joined a rising wave of painters interrogating these changes through their work. Now an internationally-known contemporary artist, Savu captures a modern Romania equally split between nostalgia, optimism, and dissatisfaction. 

John Moran Auctioneers will present two paintings by Șerban Savu in its upcoming Summer Modern & Contemporary sale. Bidding will begin at 3:00 PM EDT on September 14th, 2021. Learn more about Savu’s life and work before the auction begins.

Șerban Savu in his studio. Image by Vakarcs Loránd for Scena9.
Șerban Savu in his studio. Image by Vakarcs Loránd for Scena9.

Șerban Savu expressed an interest in painting as early as five years old. His family supported this choice and allowed him to pursue art while attending school in Cluj. Savu came of age while Romania underwent a gradual shift away from communism. Free market policies and privatization were on the rise even as traces of the old world remained in architecture, art, and popular culture. 

Savu graduated from his university’s art program with a sense of aimlessness. The Romanian art scene was still quiet, and Savu lacked the capital to make a name for himself. Around this time, he received a research grant to study painting in Venice. This time spent abroad was instrumental in Savu’s artistic development. He returned to Cluj with new ideas about painting. Savu applied careful Italian light to Socialist Realism, the idealistic and state-approved painting style that had previously dominated Romania. He began painting quiet views into contemporary life. Savu placed blurred figures in light-soaked scenes of work and pleasure. Overshadowing many of his paintings are austere buildings in various states of disrepair, a nod to the lingering presence of communism. 

Finding artistic agency and exposure became a central aim for Savu, both in the studio and beyond. “For so long, while we were growing up, there was this sense of frustration, a longing to get outside and taste freedom and to emulate the West,” Savu told Modern Painters. “It wasn’t as if we didn’t have strong and interesting artists in Romania; the problem was how to become visible on a global scale.” 

Savu joined other young adult artists to address this issue. Many of them studied and got a taste of commercial success in other European countries before returning to Romania. Savu did the same before building a major presence in galleries in the early 2000s. He joined Plan B, an artist-run gallery in Cluj, to further promote contemporary Romanian art in international contexts.

Șerban Savu, Enlightenment, 2010. Image from John Moran Auctioneers.
Șerban Savu, Enlightenment, 2010. Image from John Moran Auctioneers.

While Savu’s paintings often catch subjects in various states of rest, happiness does not accompany their leisure. Instead, a sense of listlessness is present in many compositions. Savu paints moments in time with a cool, subdued palette that reveals no coherent narrative. The artist’s Romania is one with too much time and too little change. His works are not overtly political, though critics are quick to point out the subtext. Holland Cotter wrote in a review for The New York Times that Savu’s work is “the opposite of cutting edge,” instead capturing “emblems of past promises for a utopian future and scenes of a present still poisoned by those promises.”

John Moran Auctioneers will present two paintings by Șerban Savu this September. In one available piece, titled Enlightenment, a man appears to nap peacefully along the side of a road. He rests just beyond the reach of a cool shadow, and his galoshes easily blend into the nearby brush. The other available Savu painting shows a bather balancing on a concrete divider. He stands with hunched shoulders and holds a thin blue garment in his hands. Below the bather is a still pool of blue-black water. Both paintings have a presale estimate of USD 4,000 to $6,000.

Șerban Savu, The Owner, His Right Hand and the Workers, 2012. Image from Bonhams.
Șerban Savu, The Owner, His Right Hand and the Workers, 2012. Image from Bonhams.

Since joining Plan B and other artist-led galleries, Savu has seen increasing international exposure. He has exhibited in Seoul, Warsaw, Los Angeles, and Prague. In the auction world, Savu is also gaining ground. Collectors have shown increased interest in his work over the last several years. He now enjoys a growing auction history that extends beyond Romania’s borders. Bonhams offered Savu’s 2012 painting, titled The Owner, His Right Hand and the Workers, in a 2020 sale. It reached $10,700 and set a new auction record for the artist. More recently, John Moran Auctioneers sold a painting by Savu for $10,000 in June of 2021. 

The growing wave of success and recognition has not changed Savu’s trajectory. He remains careful in his preparatory work and often spends days at a time gathering reference material to arrange in Photoshop. This process reflects the artist’s self-assigned role of documentarian. By focusing on the mundane aspects of everyday life, Savu does not concern himself with the future. Much like the figures in his paintings, he prefers to only dwell in the present. 

Two Șerban Savu paintings, Enlightenment and The Bather, will come to auction with John Moran Auctioneers on September 14th, 2021. Bidding starts at 3:00 PM EDT. Visit LiveAuctioneers for the complete catalog and more information.

Auction Daily regularly profiles notable modern and contemporary artists whose work appears in the art market. Check out our coverage of Chinese literati painter Huang Binhong.

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James Ardis
James Ardis
Senior Writer and Editor

James Ardis is a writer, editor, and content strategist focused on the auction industry. His company, James Ardis Writing, has partnered with auction houses, galleries, and many clients outside the art world.

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