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New Europe

Day Fifty: Chisinau to the Danube

Glebus Sainciuc 
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One of Moldova's favourite sons, Glebus Sainciuc (in the middle) with his son Lika in the studio where he makes faces.
Michael Palin - New EuropeGlebus Sainciuc (pronounced 'Sign-chook') is eighty-seven. He wears scarlet lipstick, a mass of blonde hair, a long dress and high heels. He's caressing a microphone and miming to a torchy Russian song. When the song reaches its climax he bows low and whips off a mask to reveal angular, almost cadaverous cheekbones, a long, straight nose, big ears and a well-trimmed silver-grey moustache.

We all applaud.

We're in a high-ceilinged, single-roomed studio in a concrete block of identical studios built in the Soviet years especially for artists. Glebus, its owner, is a Moldovan mask-maker and perhaps the most famous artist in the country. Hung all over the walls and piled up on the floor, his masks are bold and irreverent caricatures of the rich and famous. Politicians, musicians, entertainers: all are given a larger-than-life glow.

When we picked Glebus up from his house in a leafy street of modest but attractive stone cottages earlier this morning, I was aware only of his physical fragility and delicate state of health. Now, in the studio, surrounded by his work and an audience, he is transformed. His eyes sparkle, he's reaching for his scrapbooks, making sketches of the crew, cajoling, questioning, demanding.

He is anxious that we shouldn't leave without drawing a cow.

'I ask everyone who comes here to leave a cow.'

He has an album in which he's kept them all. It's headed 'Cows of the World Unite'.

As Glebus entertains I talk with Lika, his son, a tall, thin middle-aged man with well grooved features and a ponytail protruding from a New York Yankees baseball cap.

I comment on the remarkable energy of his father's antics with the masks.

Lika nods. 'He doesn't like too many people, doesn't like being crowded, He calls it the theatre of one spectator.'

I ask Lika how much freedom artists had in the Soviet times.

'You were free to paint anything, but you were not free to exhibit it, until it was not dangerous. Everything was politicised. Even now it's politicised, you see. We were so used to the system we cannot quickly get out of it.'

His father, who's trying to draw me, shouts at him from across the room to move me round a bit.

'In Soviet times, everything was allowed, except you couldn't find it. Anything could be read, but nothing was available. Communism was all predicated on hopes. This will happen, if not tomorrow, then in a hundred years' time.'

He pauses.

'Now we have become real.'
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Fifty: Chisinau to the Danube
  • Country/sea: Moldova
  • Place: Chişinău
  • Book page no: 127

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  • Sightseeing
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