The Roma in the visual arts

Obviously there are Roma in the art world. But it is perhaps less obvious or less plausible that they are also in the world of the visual arts. The representation of Roma throughout different historical periods (here we mean from the 15th century onwards, by when the Roma were already living across most of Europe) has had varying degrees of impact depending on the size of the Romani presence in each geographical area.

In the early modern period (the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th centuries) the artistic image of the Roma was in the minority and stereotypical. There are no known Romani painters, except for Antonio Solari “lo Zingaro”. Many of the images representing the Roma, generally Romani women, were associated with the depiction of virgins with female Romani physical traits. The main theme is the iconographic theme of fortune telling by Roma who at the same time steal or cheat. There is no known sculpture representing the Roma in this period, but we do have some very interesting prints and tapestries. In the 17th century we see paintings of nomadic groups or families on the road. In all this variety of depiction the Roma are seen as exotic or foreign people who have their own ways of dressing and living. Caravaggio’s paintings, Callot’s prints and the tapestries at Gaasbeek Castle can be highlighted in this period.

The 19th century saw the emergence of the Romani motif in the visual arts, painting, engraving and sculpture. Many foreign artists came to Spain to capture the Roma and their way of life. The Roma are the protagonists and no longer a mere detail of the composition. The Roma are seen as an original, unchanged people representing authenticity and this will be the most attractive thing for Romantic and costumbrismo artists. Most artists depicted the folkloric traits of Roma and endlessly enhanced them. It was also at this time when male and female Romani models were identified and we even have eyewitnesses. Lots of prints of Roma were used to illustrate anthropological publications and specifically samples of dresses. Significant in this century were paintings by Fortuny and Sorolla, along with prints by Gustav Doré and Benlliure’s sculptures.

The Roma were used as artistic justification by a number of Spanish painters who featured them in much of their work. They painted the Roma with a modern vision and accordingly with the artistic movements of the time (the late 19th and early 20th centuries). Examples of these artists are Nonell, Anglada-Camarasa, Zuloaga and Romero de Torres.

20th century art and the Roma continued to be related. The Roma were depicted in ways that were different to previously known ones. The avant-garde also featured Roma and used them to experiment with new techniques and new artistic concepts. After the Second World War and throughout the 20th century the representation of the Roma as victims of Nazi persecution and genocide gained in strength. Painters of the importance of Picasso, Dalí, Matisse and many others played a role here.

Nowadays the most significant and remarkable thing about the Roma and the visual arts is that it is the Roma who are the artists. Obviously there are still non-Roma artists who very commendably use Roma as a theme. There are Romani artists in all the countries where there are Roma, i.e. worldwide. These Roma are quality artists who want to provide and add their artistic vision which has been kept silent for so many centuries. Leading Romani artists include Antonio Maya Cortés, Gabi Jiménez, Damian Lebas and Janos Balázs.

Written by Mercedes Porras.