Talented, hard-working, and beautiful, these women artists from Romania have been unjustly forgotten. Born around the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, with successful careers in dance, theatre and cinema, most of them found fame (read also support and recognition) outside Romania, mostly France, but also Brazil and USA. Today, it is a joy and privilege to bring them to your attention.
Born in Bucharest, Lizica (1901-1993) graduated the Belle Arte Academy and worked as a dancer in the Romanian capital until 1919, when she moved to Paris, following Serge Diaghilev’s company. Through her sister Irina, a sculptor, she met Constantin Brâncuși, getting increasingly in touch with the avant-garde groups of the era. Brâncuși, Sonia Delauney, and other artists created special outfits for her modernist performances, which were always original and ahead of their times. In 1926, she made her debut in film, with the character of Pierot Lightning in Le P’tit Parigot, directed by René le Somptier, in an outfit created by Delauney.
While her dancing career was quite brief, after her marriage in 1928 and an eight year stay in Shanghai, she returned to France and in 1938 opened the first Hatha Yoga studio in Paris, developing her own therapy by combining elements of yoga, Chinese acupuncture, Swedish gymnastics, and modern dance.
Pictured above, Lizica Codreanu photographed by Constantin Brâncuși in his studio, in an outfit created by the artist himself, while dancing on Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies, 1922.
Aurora Fúlgida (Aurora Cocăneanu)
Born in 1880 in Bucharest, Aurora left her hometown at a very early age to join a travelling theatre troupe, and at 19 she was already in Milan, cabaret dancing by night, training in classical ballet and theatre by day. After touring Europe and South America, she settled in Rio de Janeiro, where in 1916 she made her debut in cinema, starring in Lucíola, Franco Magliani’s adaptation of the homonymous novel by José de Alencar. The film was a success, not only thanks to its quite scandalous subject, but also thanks to Aurora’s exotic beauty and sensual acting, which turned her into the first star of the Latin cinema almost overnight. During the ’10s and the ’20s of the last century, she basically came to dominate the Brazilian silent movies.
After WWII and after retiring from acting, Aurora founded Casa Romena in Rio de Janeiro, becoming a well-known host for the Brazilian high-class and Romanian exiles, such as the former king Carol II of Romania and his new wife Elena Lupescu, as well as other high-profile Romanian diplomats and artists.
Born at the turn of the twentieth century, in 1900, in Bitola, North Macedonia, then part of the Ottoman Empire, Floria Capsali moved at an early age to Bucharest, with her family. She studied music at the conservatory in Bucharest and later went to Paris to pursue classical ballet training, but also showed interest in rhythmic and acrobatic dancing, while also reading art history at the Sorbonne and studying theatre with Charles Dullin. During her nine Paris years she acquired practical and theoretical knowledge of the most important european ballet schools of the time—French, Russian, Italian—on which she later developed her own techniques and ballet teaching methods.
Back in Romania, Floria Capsali opened her own studio and was successful both as a dancer, but mostly as a choreographer and teacher. One of her most important artistic achievements was taking part in a series of ethnographic research, collecting invaluable folk material related to traditional dances across the country, which she subsequently integrated into classical dancing.
Known professionally as Elvire Popesco, Elvira Popescu (1894-1993) was a theatre and film actress and theatre director. She studied drama in Bucharest and was one of the first actresses to star in a Romanian film, in 1911. While still very young, at only 16, she made her stage debut at the National Theatre, and at 25 she became the artistic director for the Excelsior Theatre. Moreover, she established another theatre, Teatrul Mic, a year later, in 1921, which she managed alongside Excelsior. This experience turned out to be hugely beneficial later in her life.
In 1924, while already having an established theatre career in Romania, Elvira is convinced by the French playwright and screenwriter Louis Verneuil to move to Paris, where for the following decades she had a very prolific career. While also working in cinema, she was stellar as a stage actress, lovingly called Notre-Dame du Théâtre by the French people, being a two time winner of the French Legion of Honour as well as the Molière Award. For about two decades, between 1956-1978, she was also a successful theatre manager.
Apparently, together with Elena Văcărescu, Anna de Noailles, and Martha Bibescu—all famous for their artistic salons in Paris—Elvira Popescu is considered to be the inspiration for Henri Matisse’s painting, La Blouse Roumaine (1940).
Eugenia Tănase (Genica Athanasiou)
While today she is mostly remembered as a muse for avant-garde artists such as Man Ray and Jean Cocteau or Antonin Artaud’s lover, Genica had an artistic career on stage and in cinema that spanned almost 4 decades and she cannot miss from this list of women artists from Romania.
Born Eugenia Tănase in 1897, in Bucharest, Genica moved to Paris at 22 to study drama with renowned actor and director Charles Dullin. Two years later, in 1921 she becomes a full member of l’Atelier, Dullin’s new theatre troupe, an experimental type of laboratory theatre, organised as a commune, where he wanted to instill a different approach towards theatre through a common sharing of life and work. It was then and there that she met Antonin Artaud, and the two became a couple on and off stage for several years, sharing a love story that is best remembered through Artaud’s book Lettres à Génica Athanasiou, comprising letters he wrote to Genica between 1921-1940.
Although she experimented with cinema—probably best remembered for her role in the surrealist film La Coquille et le Clergyman, based on Artaud’s screenplay—she devoted her life to theatre and Dullin’s troupe, to which she remained faithful all her life. Pictured below, in a mix of artistic geniuses, Genica Athanasiou in Jean Cocteau’s Antigone, sporting an outfit created by Gabrielle Chanel, and photographed by Man Ray.
While her father was from Russia and her mother from Bessarabia, Nadia Kujnir-Herescu (1923-1994) was born in Bucharest where she made her debut on stage at only 15. In the late ’40s she left Romania for Paris with Constantin Cantacuzino, her husband at the time, in order to escape communism, making her cinema debut with L’Inconnu d’un soir in 1949.
Over the next two decades she went on to make many films in France, Italy and later United States, where she also had a career as a singer, appearing in clubs and on television and radio shows. While she played in productions alongside Peter Sellers, Frank Sinatra or Audrey Hepburn, her most memorable role remains Nadia in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.
Featured image: Diego Ruiz / Unsplash