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Baba studied briefly (1926) at the Şcoala Naţională de Arte Frumoase (national school of fine arts) in Bucharest, but did not receive a degree. His first public exhibition was in 1934 in the spa town of Baile Herculane; this led to his studying later that year under Nicolae Tonitza in Iaşi, finally receiving a diploma in Fine Arts from the faculty at Iaşi in 1938, where he was named assistant to the Chair of Painting in 1939 and a Professor of Painting in 1946.
Shortly after his 1948 official debut with a painting called The Chess Player at the Art Salon in Bucharest, he was arrested briefly imprisoned in Galata Prison in Iaşi. The following year he was suspended without explanation from his faculty post and moved from Iaşi to Bucharest.
Despite an initially uneasy relationship with communist authorities who denounced him as formalist, Baba soon established himself as an illustrator and artist. In 1955 he was allowed to travel to Russia, and won a Gold Medal in an international exhibition in Warsaw, Poland. In 1956, Baba accompanied The Chess Player and two other paintings showed to the Venice Bieniale, after which the paintings traveled on to exhibits in Moscow, Leningrad, and Prague.
In 1958 Baba was appointed Professor of Painting at the Nicolae Grigorescu Institute of Fine Arts in Bucharest and received the title of Emeritus Master of Art. By this time, his earlier problems with the communist authorities appear to have been smoothed over. In the next decade, both he and his paintings were to travel the world, participating in exhibitions in places as diverse as Cairo, Helsinki, Vienna, and New Delhi, culminating in a 1964 solo exhibition in Brussels, Belgium. In 1962, the Romanian government gave him the title of The People's Artist; in 1963 he was appointed a corresponding member of the Romanian Academy, and in 1964 was similarly honored by the East Berlin Academy of Fine Art.
Honors and exhibitions continued to accumulate, ranging from a 1970 solo exhibition in New York to the receipt of a Red Star decoration in 1971. While his name became a household word in Romania and to a lesser extent through out the Communist bloc, he never achieved comparable fame in the West.
In 1988, Baba was seriously injured by a fall in his studio and was immobilized for several months. His last years were not among the most productive of his career, although the calibre of his work remained high. Shortly before his death in 1997, Baba published his memoir, Notes by an Artist of East Europe. He was posthumously awarded the Prize for Excellence by the Romanian Cultural Foundation.
Nearly all of Corneliu Baba's work remains in Romania; hardly a major museum in that country is without some of his work. Among his most notable works are a series of portraits that have led critics to compare him to Francisco Goya. Notable among these are the 1952 portrait of Mihail Sadoveanu (which can found in Bucharest's National Art Museum) and the 1957 portrait of K. H. Zambaccian, (which can be found in the Zambaccian Museum, also in Bucharest). One of his few pieces on public display outside of Romania is a rather impressionistic 1977-79 group scene entitled Fear, in the Szepmuveszeti Museum in Budapest.
Throughout the Seventies and Eighties, Baba did an extensive series of paintings of Harlequins and Mad Kings, most of which remained in the artist's personal collection until his death. Again, the analogy to Goya's late period is irresistible.
Perhaps unfashionably for a twentieth-century painter, Baba consciously worked in the tradition of the Old Masters. This did not put him in good stead either with the official Socialist realism of the communist bloc or the Modernism favored in the West. Although some of his work shows a strong Impressionist influence, much of his best work is more evocative of the Spanish Masters, notably Francisco Goya.
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