A series of sombre paintings from the later eighties by Corneliu Baba (Romanian, 1906-1997) recently caught my eye, depicting insane rulers of the ragged, already-gone King Lear sort.
Perhaps the natural attraction I felt sprang from my lifelong affinity for things “Ye Olde Englishe-y” — medieval bestiaries, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Yorks, Plantagenets and Tudors, The Canterbury Tales, Thomas Cromwell, Merlin the Magician, the Bard’s iambic pentameter and even Beowulf… embarrassingly not excluding trips to Renaissance Faires and every word George R.R. Martin has penned as yet about Westerosi lords’ game of thrones.
For Baba’s ghoulish figures fit the bill for those like me who self-professedly nerd out over eras more feudal than our own. His Mad Kings are straight out of the Middle Ages, garbed in long robes, sashes and bands of hammered, bejewelled yellow gold, with cropped beards, bald heads and hulking hounds at their sides.
Though upon a lingering examination I realised these portraits spoke to more than just my inner history freak, kept clawing at my memory for more perturbing reasons. I do still live in the here and now, after all.
One king has held on to his peerless pride and gestures haughtily for his will to be done, trailing a decree limply in his other hand. Most are vacuous shells of noble ideals, gaunt and staggering with dead pale eyes that bulge in terror nonetheless, haunted by heads full of shadows.
With mouths creaking open and bony hands grasping fearfully at one another, these men appear mutilated by power and bereft in isolating paranoia. One is completely naked, striding away from a torn-away crimson cloak in nothing but his shining pointed diadem.
All have bare feet, their great state set to topple at the stepping upon a thorn or stubbing of a toe. They are vulnerable, crazed, alone, laughable but poisonous. Each has wound his own spiderly path to misery, yet Baba’s treatment of them is strikingly the same.
The mad kings take form through a mix of defined and highlighted details that emphasise their inner furies, cold shading and wider, unsteadier swaths of fleshy pigment that blend their dark anxieties into the jaggedly sparse background — always either a steely brown-blue or a crusted shade of old blood.
Deranged and dangerous, possibly inbred, unattended and weak… though still enthroned. At some point the viewer wonders whether or not His Majesty is a corroded, well-kept diplomatic secret, what monstrosities are plaguing his realm, which little princes he just offed in the tower and what his next heinous act might be.
Baba captures the rotting illusions of authority starkly and gruesomely. He makes plain the gnawing corruption of sovereignty, obsession with control, the risk of giving command to fools with birthrights instead of motley. His mad kings present a dreadful, tragic archetype that’s fit for the cover of historical fiction novels, ready to bluster across a Shakespearean stage, yet remains awfully poignant and pertinent to keep afloat in our collective conscious today.