It is a great honour to introduce this film tonight. I say that not as a conventional courtesy; and I do not say it to please those who have organised this event, although I congratulate and praise them for having included this film in the programme. I say it because I had the privilege to have been a friend of its subject, and a critical champion of his art.
Paul Neagu, like so many of the great Romanian artists of the last century - I think of Brancusi, of Tristan Tzara, of Paul Celan among others - lived for much of his life in exile, creating work which was deeply expressive of his historical situation. Expressive, that is to say, of the actuality of an individual creative life animated by a profound consciousness of historical reality at a time of deep political, moral and spiritual crisis.
In the mid-‘90s I undertook with Paul the tape-recorded story of his life. (This was for the British Sound Archive Artists’ Lives project, and will become a key source for research into his life and work.) His memory of his childhood and of his early life as an artist was prodigious. His understanding of the roots of his own creativity and of the necessity of the specific forms of his art was quite extraordinary. And what was most impressive was his command of English, the subtlety and rich complexity of his utterance in what was a foreign language learned in adulthood. In working with him over many hours I became increasingly aware that I was in the presence of a commanding intellect and a great spirit. Paul knew French and German also: he was a truly European intellectual. For much of that life in exile, in London, he lived and worked in the austere conditions of an ascetic, almost like a monk, often beset by illness and at times by poverty, in a small apartment that became itself - like Brancusi’s studio in Paris - a generative microcosmos - a little world from which energy expanded.
Neagu remained until the end an outsider on the British art scene, although his impact as a teacher was considerable. (It is not hard to imagine the effect of his intellectuality and moral intensity in the studios of an English art school: admired by the strongest and most gifted students, incomprehensible to the majority of his teacher colleagues.) For his artistic project was of a kind alien to the native traditions of British art. British art - like British science - is, by and large, emphatically empirical, engaged with the tangible. It is characterised by its charm, by social irony, by natural analogy, by an un-intellectual play with the visible world, the world of appearances; above all by its avoidance of symbolism.
Neagu belongs in another tradition altogether - essentially Eastern European - which conceives of the artist as a spiritual voyager and experimental philosopher. The progenitors of this tradition in its modernist manifestation are Malevich and Brancusi. The artists in this tradition are consciously engaged in a continuous process of research, a project of discovery and revelation: ‘… the modern artist is a scientist’ said Malevich. It is a project that might involve actions and gesture - the performance so central to Neagu’s life-work; it entails discursive philosophical exposition - at which Paul could be a master; and, of course, it involves the making of symbolic works of art whose essential purpose is to act as the focus of philosophical and spiritual meditation. The art in this great tradition entailed the re-discovery, in the conditions of modernity, of the utility and necessity of the sacramental, and to do this through the re-invention of ritual. Neagu’s great summary sculpture, Nine Catalytic Stations, is a visible symbolic enactment of a necessary ritual.
In all this, Neagu’s art was shaped by his childhood, youth and young manhood in Romania. He told me, in his recordings, of the event - the epiphany - that set him finally on his path as an artist. It was his vision (he was 26 years old at the time) of the great annual market-fair at Tirgiul Gaina (Chicken Hill) in central Romania. On this hill peasants from North, South, East and West of Romania met in early summer for a three day festival which was also a marriage market. The young Neagu perceived this not only as a glorious human and social event, but as a complex symbolic and never-ending exchange of inter-connecting affections and energies, and as ultimately an event of cosmological significance. He envisioned it as an image of the dynamic universe in microcosm: organic, corporeal, human, social, geometric. It changed his life, and all his imagery from that time on - in performance, sculpture, drawings and paintings derives from this cosmic vision. Neagu understood perfectly the words of our own great visionary poet, William Blake:
‘To see the world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower
To hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.’
Towards the end of his life Paul was able to return to his native country, and now he is honoured there. And there came to Paul in London in those last years a number idealistic young Romanians, who in a manner of speaking brought his home back to him: among them, the dedicated makers of the film you are about to see. This brings us priceless footage of Paul in his last months, and the personal testimonies and critical commentaries of his art world friends in London. The time will come when Neagu will be properly honoured in the world at large as the world artist he most certainly is.
Above all else Paul was dedicated to his work, and to that he devoted his enormous physical and intellectual creative energies, even in his final illness. This brought him joy: I think of another lovely statement of William Blake’s: ‘Energy is eternal delight.’