Mattis Teutsch, some reflections
Konrad Oberhuber

Mattis Teutsch in 1928In the last twenty or thirty years our conception of the development of twentieth century art has slowly changed. While Paris, Cubism and the legacy of Cezanne dominated the views of art historians for a long time and with it a thinking that gave major importance to structure and line, it is now more and more the element of color, the Fauvism and Expressionism and besides Paris other places located in central or Eastern Europe which arouse attention. Munich, Dresden, and Berlin have already long been seen as major capitals of innovation, and Moscow has been well acknowledged, Vienna and Prague are receiving new attention and now Budapest slowly emerges as a major focal point of artistic development. It is, therefore, that one begins to look also at smaller cities and regions like Brassó and Transylvania. János Mattis Teutsch, who lived there, begins to appear as an important and powerful artist of this colorful Eastern avant-garde.

Even though trained at first in Budapest he received his major impulses in Munich and Paris, where he lived and studied for several years before he returned to his home town and became an important art teacher. While he later joined other members of Hungarian and Romanian progressive art groups in creating highly elegant and refined sculptures, paintings and works on paper in which linear beauty is essential and which at times directly relate to the social and political problem of the time, his early work is dedicated to religious and nature motifs in a deeply idealist spirit and strongly determined by a love for expressive color. In this search for a highly abstracted idiom in which the inner experience of nature or of states of soul are translated into luminous and animated tones interacting in rythmically arranged patterns Mattis Teutsch is very close to the equally idealistic and spiritual striving of the Munich group of Der Blaue Reiter in Munich. Mattis Teutsch had met Gabriele Muenter there, when he was in the Bavarian capital between 1903 and 1905, and met Kandinsky later in Paris, where he lived from 1905 till 1908. Even then his striving must have gone in a similar direction to those of these older artists with a much different schooling from his, but who, like him, were searching to find the right means to depict the inner meaning of the world. In 1911, though, when the group of Der Blaue Reiter left the Neue Kunstlervereinigung Munchen, Mattis Teutsch was in Brassó as a teacher. It is only in 1913 when he showed his work with the Berlin group of Der Sturm in Budapest, that he again has contact with European art of the time.

Yet in this time of relative isolation Mattis Teutsch produces a group of watercolors and oil paintings mostly of landscapes all built up of color-planes in rounded and rythmically arranged shapes and bands with strongly gesturing trees acting almost like figures and totally embedded into the absolutely flat composition. He also produces linocuts in pure black and white, with the same respect for the picture plane and the ornamental unity of the work without any attempt to evoke depth of space plasticity except through the interaction of the color-values. In all this Mattis Teutsch is extremely successful and more radical than most other artists of his time. Two factors are coming to his aid in this attempt. One was surely his training in Budapest in the Academy of Applied Arts and his teaching at Brassó in a State Woodwork School; he naturally learned and taught principles of ornamental design stressing planarity. This wonderful design sense will later dominate his art, when he relates to his great Russian contemporary, Alexander Archipenko and other great sculptors of this time. The second element is his innate Eastern European sense of material, for the substance of color, for surface and synthetic unity.

Yet Mattis Teutsch had also sought out a most avant-garde training in Munich and in Paris he managed to come into contact with the artists striving for innovation. Even in the time when he was in Munich between 1903 and 1905 both Kandinsky and Münter, were searching for the unity of the picture plane and for glowing colors in their work. There was also Alexander Jawlensky and Marianne Werefkin, who traveled back and forth between Paris and Munich.

It is out of this combination of the Nabis ideals with their spiritual and symbolistic mood and the new glowing color of Matisse that the art of Jawlensky and Werefkin around 1910 can best be explained, but also that of Jan Mattis Teutsch, who must, in fact, in Budapest have admired the art of József Rippl-Ronai, who embodied around 1900 all the Nabis ideals. While Mattis Teutsch is not documented to have known the couple, the possibility that he met them in either Paris or Munich is very likely. In any case his art is based on a very closely comparable artistic experience. Thus the similarity between Werefkin’s landscapes and those of Mattis Teutsch can be explained. The latter, however, always has a stronger sense of the plane and for ornamental integration than the works of the somewhat older couple. Jawlensky and Werefkin moreover, have a more iconic stability in their work, while Mattis Teutsch with his sensibility typical of Eastern Central Europe loves mobility and surface movement.

It seems that the artist’s development in the second half of the 1910s is relatively stable along the line which we set out, only that the landscapes get more dynamic and denser and more powerful in color as he progresses. It is not until the second half, more precisely after 1916, when he meets members of the Budapest progressive group MA and has an important exhibition in Budapest in 1917. He seems to have received a new outside stimulus and transformed his style. Most decisive must have been the participation in a Sturm exhibition and publication. It is then that Mattis Teutsch, seems to have become aware of cubist elements which had via Delaunay influenced the artist of the Blaue Reiter and also had a temporary impact on Jawlensky, who around 1917 worked with much more open patches of color in abstract freedom. Kandinsky, whom Mattis Teutsch admired so much as a person, too, had undergone a move towards abstraction and towards a greater dynamism in his compositions. But Mattis Teutsch never searched for the same concentrated density of his work, built up of relatively small particles of form and color, but even now strove for more extended shapes and simpler, more monumental compositions closer to those of Jawlensky, who shared with him a similar vibrant brush work. There is no doubt that Mattis Teutsch in this time between ca. 1918–19 and 1926, attempted to continue the principles of Der Blaue Reiter as they were established before the First World War, when the artists were either dispersed or died as soldiers, but the extended Blaue Reiter with Werefkin and Jawlensky, who in 1911 had stayed with the Neue Kuenstlervereinigung and only exhibited with Kandinsky, Münter, Marc, Klee and Kubin in 1912. Again, however, the artist went his own solitary way and his Soulflowers, the series of abstract paintings imaging states of soul, are unique and in many ways extraordinary contributions to abstract painting. These floating, circling color-forms have aroused much attention and interpretations and are survivors of the early, powerful idealism of the second decade into the more rational twenties created at a time, when the artist had already become politically engaged and must have had hopes to create a more positive future on a spiritual basis. He found companions with similar political ideals in the Hungarian MA group, amongst them Kassák and Béla Uitz, also striving towards abstraction, but along constructivism or cubism. With Marc and Macke dead and Kandinsky and Klee changing their style and all the other artists holding on to figuration Mattis Teutsch seems to have walked for a while alone on this path of a color-determined abstraction following the ideals of Der Blaue Reiter.

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