The Career of János Mattis Teutsch
Jenő Murádin

Mattis Teutsch was born in Brassó, in 1884, in the easternmost corner of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, and died there in 1960. In the course of his life, the upheavals and turmoil of war and the vicissitudes of twentieth century politics resulted not only in the redrawing of national borders but also in radical changes to the society that had nurtured him. Brassó, a significant intellectual and economic centre of Saxon Transylvania, was both arena and refuge for the artist, with all the attendant advantages and disadvantages of those two roles. Its positive side was that it provided the warmth of the family hearth and a meagre source of income; however, as time progressed, its negative aspects became more obvious, insofar as the artist’s isolation increasingly restricted his influence. Europe’s cultural centres were too remote from Transylvania, and specifically from its Saxon settlements of Brassó and Nagyszeben in this remote corner of the Carpathian Mountains. Budapest was 700 km away, Munich 1400 km and Berlin nearly 1600 km. (Fig. 1.) However there were other factors that prevented the avant-garde novelty of his art from gaining the recognition and appreciation it clearly deserved. One of the reasons lies in Mattis Teutsch’s own nature and his extraordinary spirituality. It is not precisely true that he never craved recognition and an opportunity to share his thoughts and ideas with others; but the attitude of other self-aggrandising artists was alien to him. Generally he preferred to evade publicity rather than court it.

If it is true that art is a mirror of its creators, this seems especially to be the case with Mattis Teutsch. His highly appreciated and diversely interpreted works, such as Érzetek and Lelki virágok, (Sense and Soulflowers) can be seen as artistic interpretations of the painter’s rhapsodic swings of mood, the loneliness that suddenly befell him, and his often-felt solitude. Perhaps it is also possible to interpret the solitary figures in his engravings and statues, the realisation of dream-like insights in wood and metal, quite independently of his artistic credo, and as the characteristic products of his meditative temperament. His Brassó-born friend, Gyula Halász (later better known as Brassai), recognised the duality of Mattis Teutsch’s spirituality. On the one hand he saw in him the creative artist, who always strove for the new, looked into the future and thought in universal terms. This was the man whom he viewed with admiration as the equal of, indeed even superior to, ‘the greatest German Expressionists’1; on the other hand, he felt the need to distance himself, insofar as Mattis Teutsch’s art was anyway inimitable and sui generis, and his melancholy temperament was scarcely stimulating for others. As he put it in one of his letters, "the whole of his miserable being gnawed away at my own energy".2

Mattis Teutsch sent his then shockingly novel works to the West, believing them to be manifestations of the future of art. They found a receptive environment in the circles of Kassák and later of Der Sturm — it was indeed in Potsdam that he published his synthesizing credo of ‘activist art’.3 Yet this art was produced in a remote corner of Europe, where only a narrow stratum of intelligentsia appreciated the novelty of his creations and the success of his exhibitions elsewhere hardly registered in his motherland. In his solitude in Brassó, not even a Cézanne-like compensation was granted him. The forested Cenk mountain, rising dramatically above the town, appears in all the pictures of his contemporaries, but never became his "Sainte-Victoire". His art was sustained by an intellectual interiorisation of, and reworking of, the visible world; also by intuition, and by other emotional sources that he tapped for the constructive organisation of his pictures.

Family, Studies, Early Career

The question remains as to how such an extraordinary talent could emerge from a family where there is no evidence of the tradition, or continuity, of artistic activity, since Mattis Teutsch was born into precisely such a family.

His forebears came from Barcaság, in the south-eastern corner of the Carpathians, the cradle of the Székely-Hungarian Háromszék and of the culture of the eastern Saxons, with Brassó at its centre. The complex history of Mattis Teutsch’s origins and birth has been related many times in the large amount of literature devoted to him. However, its various different versions gave rise to a number of debates and some misunderstandings, particularly in regard to the artist’s ethnicity and the correct version of his name. The publication of his birth certificate, which turned up recently,4 and the verbal accounts of the painter’s grandson, Waldemár Mattis Teutsch, together with that of his mother,5 have satisfactorily cleared up most of the contentious issues. These data slightly alter the biography that we have had hitherto.

The following brief sketch is offered by way of clarification of the doubtful parts of the family’s history. The Székely János Mátis of Hatolyka, Háromszék, a tailor by profession, married at the age of 29 the 20-year-old Josefin Schneider. The wife had been pregnant for three months when the husband died, probably of lung-disease. The widow soon married a Saxon from Brassó named Friedrich Teutsch, who was to become the caring and loving step-father of the child that was subsequently born, the future artist. This is the origin of the double surname that has many variations in the documents and the literature concerning him (Johann Teutsch, János Teutsch, Mátisz Teutsch, Máttis Teutsch, Mattis Teutsch, Hans Mattis Teutsch, spelled both with and without the hyphen).

The artist was living under the influence of two cultures, and two distinct ethnic groups, the Hungarian and the German, so we therefore have to reconsider whether his origins are purely Hungarian. The misunderstanding mostly stemmed from the first monograph on him by Zoltán Banner, according to which his mother’s birthplace is Csernát of the Háromszék region,6 the village next to Hatolyka. However, Germans never lived there. The birth register shows that Josefine Schneider was actually born in Csernátfalu, a few kilometers from Brassó, as the Hungarianised Roman Catholic daughter of a German hatter, Tragot Schneider. This demonstrates that neither the painter’s Hungarian-German ethnic origin is in doubt, nor the family’s dual cultural identity.

After Hungarian elementary school, Mattis Teutsch continued his studies in the famous Saxon Honterus Secondary School in Brassó, finishing them at the State Woodwork School in his hometown.(Fig. 2.) His study of art then followed. The register of the National Hungarian Royal School for Applied Arts shows his name among the apprentices between 1901 and 1903. He went on to study at the Bavarian Royal Academy of Fine Arts, where he spent at least two semesters as an apprentice of sculpture between 1903 and 1905. Subsequently he set off for Paris. (Fig. 3.)

Unless the research stimulated by the present retrospective exhibitions in Budapest and Munich reveals new facts, the formation of his creative persona in this early phase is likely to remain a matter of speculation and hypothesis. This is in keeping with the artist’s reserved nature, which has cast a veil over this period and indeed several other phases of his career. He never talked to anybody about what he did in his Munich years of training, nor about how he profited from his period of observation in Paris. Júlia Szabó’s conclusions provide a few clues. She finds analogies with the career of Kandinsky, whom Mattis Teutsch knew well, and who studied and worked in Munich contemporaneously with the artist. She thinks that it is typical of both men that, with great commitment, they ventured well beyond the artistic achievements of the turn of the century, while at the same time appropriating many aspects of these same achievements for their individual artistic visions. Szabó argues that Mattis Teutsch studied the art of Gauguin and Van Gogh. "[…] He learned from the art of Van Gogh that scenery conveys dramatic conflicts in colours, with its fiery and twisting contours."7 Later it can be shown how, in a series of works, the painter progressed from Art nouveau to Expressionism. It also becomes clear how Fauvism, Die Brücke, or the circle of Der Blaue Reiter, founded by Kandinsky and Franz Marc, affected his art.

Returning to his homeland, Mattis Teutsch of necessity sought employment within the confines of the bourgeois lifestyle of the provinces and found a position as a teacher at his former school. He was also a graduate of the leading State Woodwork School of the then Hungary, an institution which recognised his talents early on, even during his apprenticeship. In particular his supervisor, János Kupcsay (1840–1910), a renowned wood- and altar-carver, saw that he was especially talented and destined for higher things. As a result Mattis Teutsch, on his return from Paris, was employed in the school from the autumn of 1908 as an ‘academic sculptor,’ and ‘scholar master’ with tutorial duties. It seemed quite natural that, after 1910, he should replace Kupcsay, who died soon afterwards, and take over the practical classes for all four grades, giving twenty-eight lessons a week. A year-long experience, acquired in the carpentry school, is reflected in his sculptural works in a very distinctive way. All of _his smaller wooden statues are carved with the greatest professional care and are characterised by their perfect finish, often with multi-layered painting and fine varnish. (Fig. 4.)

After having established himself in a bourgeois life-style as a teacher, Mattis Teutsch married his old love Gisella Borsos in 1909, who had been engaged to somebody else during the artist’s long absence. According to family tradition, he won her back again on the very day appointed for the wedding. It was for this reason the Borsos family, which prided itself on its ancient lineage,8 disinherited her. (Fig. 5.)

Mattis Teutsch’s artistic career started in Budapest, where he exhibited one of his statues in a show at the National Salon in the autumn of 1907. The fine arts in Brassó, as in many other country towns, were slow to blossom, while the educational facilities of the town were mostly designed to satisfy the demands of the Saxon middle class at the turn of the century. Activity in the fine arts began somewhat later and not without initial difficulties; nevertheless the 1910s were not uneventful, although Mattis Teutsch was an observer of the scene, rather than an active participator.

His introductory show in his hometown was supported by the Sebastian-Hann-Verein. The association was named after Sebestyén Hann, the Transylvanian goldsmith of the Baroque age, and had been founded in Nagyszeben in 1904; it also operated in Brassó. Although it subsequently devoted more attention to ethnography, it did also organise exhibitions of the fine arts in its early years. The first exhibition opened in December 1910 with a cross-section of the artistic life of Brassó, Mattis Teutsch participating together with other German and Hungarian artists. Besides a few smaller works, the critics singled out for mention two near life-size "bronzes".9 These are very early works of Mattis Teutsch, and their material can hardly have been bronze; indeed only an inexperienced observer could have mistaken the coated gypsum for bronze. Be that as it may, the German press in Brassó was the first to publish reproductions of these early examples of his sculpture. One of the first pictures of Mattis Teutsch’s two sculptures appeared in the supplement of the 1911 issue (No. 11) of the bi-weekly, Die Karpathen, edited by Adolf Meschendörfer.

This early exhibition was followed by another joint show in 1914, actually one of the regular picture auctions which took place at that time. Gyula Vastagh, a Budapest art dealer, took a substantial collection of works to Brassó, where most of them went on display. Local painters also joined this show; besides Gusztáv Kollár, Gyula Tutschek and hundreds of other painters, János Mattis Teutsch was also represented. Both the German and the Hungarian local press gave extensive coverage of the event. The same sources also reveal that Mattis Teutsch had already exhibited paintings and landscapes, which the Brassói Lapok found "totally modern in realisation and approach."10 One can therefore assume that Mattis Teutsch exhibited his landscapes at the Vastagh show, these being still basically in the style of realism, but already bearing definite marks of Art nouveau and Postimpressionism.

This joint exhibition implies a regularity of contact between Mattis Teutsch and the local artists’ community, the majority of which was German. These connections were doubtless friendly enough, but casual and not all that close. However, an exception among the German artists of Brassó was Friedrich Miess (1854-1935), who taught Mattis Teutsch a great deal about art.11 The two men held each other in mutual respect and including formed good relations with the most important of their fellow-painters in Brassó, Hans Eder (1883–1955), whose work tended towards Expressionism. Another friend was the graphic artist Fritz Kimmel (1890–1979). Of the Hungarian artists, Mattis Teutsch formed a friendship early on with Gusztáv Kollár (1879–1970), the teacher at the Catholic grammar school, who often visited his studio and home; also with his fellow-teacher in the vocational school, Gyula Tutschek. Although he differed from them fundamentally in matters of art, Mattis Teutsch was tactful in distancing himself from his conservative fellows, and this despite his unconventional and shockingly new artistic creations. The differences were never allowed to affect mutual friendships, nor to undermine mutual respect, nor to sour the atmosphere of constructive debate.

"Only patches of colour and rhythms of form" (Iván Hevesy)

In the level of artistic abstraction he achieved, Mattis Teutsch had no predecessors in the region of the Carpathian Basin. He was indeed a pioneer, and this is the essence of the greatness of his works. There is no trace of nostalgia in his art, and the best of his works are contemporaneous with the most modern of Western European, Russian and Czech art of that era, and can certainly bear comparison with it.

It is more difficult to follow the gradual change in point of view and inner urge that made him progress within a few years from expressionist works to an abstraction that was reified by means of enhanced colours and objectless surfaces. It seemed that the artist broke out of his anonymity with the whole arsenal of his art already at his disposal. Writing about the preparation of the first exhibition of MA, Lajos Kassák recalls: "… As if sent by an invisible god, a young painter from Brassó, János Mattis Teutsch came to see me. He brought linocuts, which he wanted to have published in the journal. […] Mattis Teutsch seems to be enthusiastic and knowledgeable. He has been to Berlin and Paris, and his works can be classified in the circle of Expressionism. ‘I would like to see your paintings,’ I said. ‘Would you have enough material for an exhibition?’ The man was taken aback. He had not expected this question, and maybe not even expected that I would accept any of his engravings for publication.’12

When Kassák went over to the painter’s rented apartment in Pest, he saw with astonishment that there was enough material there for a whole exhibition. These works (more than fifty oil-paintings, watercolours and engravings) filled the showroom at 15 Visegrádi Street, which was part of the editorial rooms of MA, when Mattis Teutsch’s first show opened there on October 14, 1917. This was also the first show to be staged by the periodical. (Fig. 6.)

Lajos Kassák introduced his latest discovery in the Preface of the catalogue thus: "He [Mattis Teutsch] leads the field amongst the most talented of the new generation of painters, with his rich range of colours and a psychic arrangement of objects that interact with each other. His compositions, always motivated by feeling, and specifically by subjective empathy, are informed by the search for an essence that exists at a very profound level […] If we were looking to place Mattis Teutsch (who is of Saxon origin) among the dominant contemporary artistic approaches, we would find his niche among the expressionists, who represent the German psyche in its totality.’13 (Fig. 7.)

Mattis Teutsch’s discovery of the attractions of Budapest, later of Vienna and Berlin, was made possible by unforeseen accidents of the type that occur so often in artistic careers. He traveled to Pest in 1913 in the hope of finding a cure for his wife, who was suffering from lung-disease. This Pest journey broke his isolation in Brassó, and he gradually joined the artistic life of the Hungarian capital and participated in several exhibitions in the following years. His artistic reputation was founded on the exhibitions at the periodical MA in 1917 and 1918.

Krisztina Passuth has described the cultural importance of MA in Hungarian art history as follows: "Between 1914 and 1919 Hungary was very much isolated culturally. In spite of this, a dynamic and talented artistic group was concentrated around A Tett in 1915, and in 1916 around the periodical, MA. […] The publication had existed before the group, but it is this periodical that reflects and evokes the movement. _It was because of MA that the movement persisted in spite of every difficulty, and the periodical remained the true home of the Hungarian literary and artistic avant-garde for ten years …’14

Kassák, who endlessly advocated the art of the future, understood and had unshakable confidence in Mattis Teutsch’s extraordinary talent. That is why he sponsored his two one-man shows, published his graphics and paintings in his avant-garde journal, and underwrote his linocut album, which appeared as a MA publication. Under the auspices of MA, Mattis Teutsch took part in the joint ‘manifesto’ exhibition, together with such major artists as Béla Uitz, János Kmetty, József Lampérth and Lajos Gulácsy; he also participated in the journal’s exhibition of graphics, where Sándor Bortnyik, among others, exhibited. (Fig. 8.) This show received huge coverage, the result of which was that almost every major Budapest critic of the day offered an opinion on the art of Mattis Teutsch. György Bölöni, Artúr Elek, Aladár Bálint, József Lengyel, László Márkus, Iván Hevesy, Zoltán Felvinczi Takács and Károly Lyka all wrote about him. The road led from here to an exhibition in Vienna and thereafter Mattis Teutsch established a relationship with Herwarth Walden and the circle of Der Sturm in Berlin.

After the first exhibitions in Pest and Vienna, Iván Hevesy characterised Mattis Teutsch’s art thus: "There have been three stages in the formal development of this artist: his autumn exhibition in Pest, his linocut album, and his present exhibition in Vienna. First he sought out soft colours and forms (which explains his strong early preference for water-colours); but slowly he reduced the number of colours and began sharply to distinguish the forms from each other ... In the linocut, he found a technique to suit his style. What he had done previously with colours and tone-harmony, he now tried to express in black and white and the free rhythm of lines. The linocut has affected his painting: now he wants to achieve in many colours what the linocut medium achieved in just two. But watercolour is not sufficiently powerful for these contrasts and distinctions of form, so he has returned to oil; the latter was not expressive enough for his purposes in his first period, but has now become the best expressive means of his art. One could say of his latest pictures, that they are coloured linocuts painted in oil."15

The twists and turns in his private life that occurred in these years are important, since spiritual crises, grief, despair and new hope are all reflected in his works. This was observed by his friends, fellow-artists and critics. His wife succumbed to her illness, which neither the clinical cure sought in Pest, nor the ozone-rich air of the town below Cenk was able to cure. Gisella Borsos died on the 19th of June, 1916, in Brassó; after seven years of marriage the painter found himself alone with two small children.16 However Mattis Teutsch was able to recover from the resultant emotional crisis thanks to Marie Konrad, whom he had met during the 1918 exhibition in Vienna, and married a year later. His second wife, whom the children greatly liked and referred to as their ‘Viennese Mummy’, was well educated and had graduated from an academy of music. This marriage meant that the everyday language of the family switched from Hungarian to German.

Mattis Teutsch’s works also show the mood-swings of the artist. Iván Hevesy wrote of him in connection with the autumn exhibition of 1918: "The art of János Máttis Teutsch is a totally subjective art. He does not give us experiences of space and form, nor does he give us objects … What he does is purely lyrical, a pure suggestion of feelings […] he creates abstract artistic forms from the realistic ones of nature, thus making them expressions of feeling instead of symbols or objects. The art of Máttis Teutsch breaks away from nature and matter and turns to the spiritual in order to express the soul. And the soul is represented in all its turbulence, its dynamic turmoil, […] this rendering of feeling in painting is not some naďve allegorisation, but the direct expression of inner sensory conditions through absolute pictorial means. It has close relations to music, indeed both its content and form are analogous with it."17 (Fig. 9.)

A disputed biographical point concerns when and how Mattis Teutsch managed to return home from Budapest during the revolutions which engulfed the region after World War One. Assumptions have been made about his political commitment, and the literature about him has perpetuated these as fact. It is beyond any doubt whatsoever that he was an avid advocate of progress, both with regard to art and to aesthetics; and it is also clear that the European avant-garde at the beginning of the century coincided with leftism in politics. (Fig. 12.) The basic ideas of Mattis Teutsch had become widely known through the MA exhibitions, but it does not follow from this that he was an active participant in the revolutions. It seems much more likely that he returned, or fled, to Brassó from Budapest out of sheer necessity. His case is similar to that of the Ferenczy children, Noémi and Béni, who retreated to their home in Nagybánya and subsequent emigrated to Vienna after the fall of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. Mattis Teutsch, however, moved silently away from the storm, a decision in which his new marriage may have also have been a contributory factor.

There is no indication that he found his way into "the intellectual group of the revolution and the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919",18 as has been claimed. Even Gyula Halász the younger does not mention it in his extensive writings on the chaotic nine months of the rule of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in Budapest, written close to the action, and published in Das Neue Ziel.19 Mattis Teutsch’s progressive sentiments were expressed later in anti-war declarations and in the condemnation of extremism and Fascism. But the passion and drive needed for building barricades and inspiring deeds of heroism were rather remote from his true personality, and this was certainly true for the period of 1918–1919.

We do not know the exact date of his homecoming, but it is sure that he had two exhibitions in Transylvania in the hectic year of 1919. His works were on display in the bookshop of the Erdélyi Szemle in Kolozsvár in March, and in the Blue Room of the Vigadó in Brassó in July. (Fig. 10.) Brassó’s popular journal, Das Ziel, ever open to new artistic trends, ensured that plenty of space was given to Mattis Teutsch’s exhibitions and also played an important role in a substantial retrospective. This exhibition, presenting ninety-two works, paintings, engravings and wood-carvings, was Mattis Teutsch’s first and most famous collective exhibition in his homeland. More of his works were given the title "Érzet" (Empfindung, Feeling) at this time. (Fig. 11.)

Windows on the World and the Years of Solitude

Mattis Teutsch’s teaching position in Brassó was temporarily jeopardised as a result of changes to the state system at the beginning of the 1920s. This was when he considered moving with his family to Germany,20 not least because Berlin had become the most important centre at that time for artists of the Hungarian emigration. If this plan had been realised, his name would certainly be as familiar today as those of the well-known fellow-artists who gained access to the charmed circle of Der Sturm.

His career did not turn out like this, despite his mature work achieving significant success in the 1920s. The facts are generally known, the most important being that he had his first individual exhibition in Bucharest in 1920, that he exhibited with Paul Klee in the Der Sturm Gallery in Berlin in 1921, that he participated in the international exhibition of Contimporanul of Bucharest in 1924, that he had exhibitions in Paris in 1925 and in Berlin in 1928, and that he took part in the KUT exhibition in Budapest in 1929 and 1930. In 1929 he had a joint show with Gyula Hincz and László Mészáros at the Tamás Gallery. (Fig. 14.) As far as his foreign exhibitions are concerned, the 1920s are the most eventful years. From the introductory exhibition organised by Das Ziel in 1919, he participated in more than fifteen individual and joint exhibitions, their frequency dropping off only in the 1930s. He exhibited his paintings, engravings, statues and Art nouveau artefacts in other major cities in Transylvania, as well as in Bucharest.

Critics generally agree that the number of his admirers far exceeded those few who rejected his art. A significant circle of fellow intellectuals from Transylvania and Bucharest may be counted among the admirers, and the number of Hungarian-Romanian-Saxon contemporaries who knew the artist and wrote about him appreciatively is impressive. They include Alfred Witting, Ernö Ligeti, Sándor Körösi, Erwin Neustädter, Ferenc Szemlér, Sándor Benamy, Gyula and Kálmán Halász, Eugen Jebeleanu, Nicolae Tonitza, Eugen Ionescu, Lucian Blaga, Edith Herfurth, Károly Kós, Zoltán Bálint, József Méliusz and Irén Lukász. Mattis Teutsch’s career could be described only sketchily and far less vividly without the detailed knowledge supplied by their writings.

Although no individual monograph on his work was published at that time, Iván Hevesy evaluated his development and his latest efforts in a longer study of 1923: _"A straighter and clearer artistic evolution, more devoid of diversion and byway than his, can hardly be imagined. He progresses step by step with instinctive determination, […] one cannot imagine a further distance or a greater difference in the results and style of his artistic development than the difference between the naturalistic landscapes of ten years ago and the themeless ‘absolute pictures’ of today. […] The concentric form of composition necessarily appeared only slowly in Máttis’s art, together with the expression of emotional potential […] its development naturally ran parallel with the ripening of his more developed Expressionism. Concentricity and centrality do not pertain only to the arrangement of elements of form and movement, but also to the central stratification of colours.

Mattis’s mode of composition, emerging as his Expressionism matured in the middle of the year 1918, is focal and centripetal. […] When centrality fragments, diagonals emerge. This splitting of forms occurred in the year 1919. A period of transient importance followed where sharp dissonance can be found in place of the old harmonies, and anarchic chaos instead of balanced colours and forms. […] In this period Máttis himself felt that his forms were dissonant, and quickly changed course towards a new goal, encompassing different content in a new harmony. […]

Finding the absolute in pictorial quality was Mattis’s new program. He searched for it in two ways: in the first mode, the picture-plane of the canvas was given and he filled it out with attuned forms. The other provided him with more free solutions: the picture-plane supplied a homogenous base up to the edges; the picture proper developed a single main theme, the ‘main form,’ which was rounded out with co-ordinated secondary motifs. […] The absolute, perfect picture became independent and sovereign, existentially coherent, like a perfect musical composition or an intricate ornament. […] Máttis Teutsch’s ‘absolute and perfect’ picture, emerged from Expressionism; although its path of evolution is different, as is the end result, it is analogous to the work of the modern constructivists.

But the absolute picture, like constructivist creations, can only be a real achievement and a stepping-stone to further development if it can fill its formal structure with life, rather than cold and rigid abstractions. Then there will emerge objectively demonstrative and symbolic pictures, filled with an active impression of the new world-feeling. At this point, however, mere will and creative talent are not sufficient [for great art], and nor is theory. Greater issues are at stake, which concern man himself and his Weltanschauung. Everything depends on this, the fate of the absolute picture and that of the new art."21 (Fig. 13.)

In the second half of the 1920s a search for new forms brought about stylistic changes in Mattis Teutsch’s art. He turned towards constructive-geometric pictures, at the same time problematising three-dimensional figural representation. Stylised figures, that seem to be future-oriented, but retain obviously archaic connotations, now appear on a number of his wooden and metal sculptures. The fruits of his meditation and his artistic theories blend with all this, and their substance was summed up in his book, Kunstideologie. The contents were gathered from his theoretical writings and illustrations, and published in Potsdam in 1931. (Fig. 15.)

How committed he was to this ideological basis, a symbolic structure based on the counter-point of ‘verticals’ and ‘horizontals,’ is vividly shown by the pictures and sculptures produced during his summers in Nagybánya, where he worked at the colony of artists each year between 1928 and 1931. He displayed some of his works at the colony, but these are paintings and sculptures that could have been made in any mining area. The landscape at Nagybánya, which so much defined the choice of theme of the other members of the colony, with its beautiful natural and urban motifs (for example Kereszthegy, the bank of Zazar, the church at Híd utca, the Liget, etc.), cannot be found in his repertoire, nor even in sketches. He concentrated on quite other things: he was interested in the fate of the people of the mines, the fate of the man who descends day after day into the cavern of shafts and passages in order to earn his daily bread. (Fig. 16.) Perhaps it was only movement and gesture that was really important for him. If the complicated and wearisome processes of stylisation and simplification in the search for deeper meaning and perfection was not known from the history of art, it could be said that these works might just as well have been created in a hotel room. At that time only Csaba Vilmos Perlrott and János Kmetty painted such abstract works in the colony, which were devoid of anything relating to the life of Nagybánya as represented by the others.

These two painters are significant for our theme in another way, since they were equally pioneers of modernism and indeed organised a joint exhibition with Mattis Teutsch in Nagybánya in the summer of 1931.22 This exhibition, a spectacular showcase of modern impulses in art, was ecstatically received by the young generation of artists - the ‘rebels’ of the colony.23

Mattis Teutsch worked together with his son, the future painter, and with his contemporary from Brassó, Herman Morres (1885-1971), for four summers in all at the Nagybánya colony. While his son demonstrated the enthusiasm and natural impatience of youth, the father steadfastly pursued his great theme of revealing the unrevealed greatness of nature. On Morres at least the expressive force of Mattis Teutsch’s art made a deep impression.24

Hosszú utca, Brassó

From the middle of the 1930s, the artist lived tranquilly enough in the bosom of his family. He hardly travelled anywhere, and the number of his exhibitions decreased, for a while ceasing altogether. Between 1937 and 1945 his works were not even shown at joint exhibitions. Meanwhile he enjoyed the use of a tusculanum, the old house belonging to his mother in Hosszú utca, which was far from the noise of the town but close to the grand view of the wooded landscape. His plans for frescoes were ripening slowly in the light of his changing style, and his recomposed thoughts on the social role of art were refined in the process of their creation. However his appetite for work was diminished by the premature death of his daughter, a painful tragedy engendering a period first of despair, then resignation.25 The lethargy and depression brought on by this event were accentuated by the alarming news on the political front. He saw the National Socialist theories - which divided the Transylvanian Saxon community – as a threat to the very existence of the Saxons who had lived in the Carpathian Basin for 700 years. His prophecies of war were proved true, as also were his predictions regarding the coming calvary for ethnic minorities.

Intellectual conversation with friends did something to ease the artist’s solitude in the house in Hosszú utca. The place offered an extraordinary experience for visitors and provided a magical setting for Mattis Teutsch’s remarkable home exhibition. The creator of so many paintings, sculptures and engravings liked to have an ongoing display of his work all around him, so that he could direct attention, first to a few older works, as a point of reference, then to the glorious newly minted ones. He wanted to share the experience of discovery, or in other words his progression in pictorial invention, with anybody who was in the remotest degree attracted to his art. "There are two rooms in one; in the smaller one, all kinds of tools and chisels can be seen. It is, so to speak, the laboratory for his experiments", recorded the journalist and man of letters, Sándor Benamy; "In the other room, the bigger one, there is a small home exhibition. Carpets and wooden armchairs are scattered all around here too."26

On the fairly large walls pictures were hung from the floor to the ceiling. And, even if it was hardly an ideal solution, the artist reacted to the inevitable overcrowding by exercising some kind of organizing principle clearly embodying the principle of colour harmony. Irén Lukász, the painter’s disciple in Brassó remembered the resultant effect: "Mattis Teutsch decorated his studio himself, and painted a 10-15 cm wide streak of colour on the wall around the frame of each of the pictures, according to the harmony of colours in the painting. Perhaps this seemed no more than whimsical to the casual glance, but in fact it had a very interesting and curious effect.27

The ‘symposia’ were actually unstructured conversations in front of the pictures, and were remembered with pleasure by the friends of the artist. They took place regularly in this colourful milieu, with Mattis Teutsch listening as he smoked a pipe, or intervening, though never aggressively, and never ignoring the other’s opinion. "At these sessions," wrote the writer and poet Ferenc Szemlér in his memoirs, " he would present the long row of pictures leaning against the wall for hours on end. He did this, often with wordless tranquillity, or at least without any superfluous speech. We always went backwards in time, since the newer pictures constituted the outer layers of those all piled together, and so the ones that were painted earlier only emerged later in his exposition. Of course he then always tried to go back to the new ones, and attempted to convey to us what particular solutions to intellectual and artistic problems had excited him when creating these."28

Mattis Teutsch lived through the change of regime after World War Two, trying to maintain some equilibrium between hope and disillusion. He was sixty when the Russian front passed through the country and saw at first hand the terrible hardships that the German community of Brassó suffered after the arrival of the Russian troops. The charge of collective guilt was of course applied to these Germans too. It must also have been a horrifying experience to see the trains passing through from other parts of Transylvania, and even from Hungary itself, carrying tens of thousands of able-_bodied adults into Russian captivity and labour camps.

However the artist was one of those who hoped for the establishment of a new world order with greater social justice. The coalition period which lasted for a few years – as everywhere in Eastern Europe – seemed to offer some hope of this, with its apparently well-intended measures and their misleading veneer of democracy. Abandoning his passivity, Mattis Teutsch began to assist in organizing artistic activity. He really felt that his principles relating to the social purpose of art might at last be implemented. Only later did it become apparent how naive was this attitude. As early as October 1944 he initiated an art association in his hometown, and led it himself until 1949. All the more bitter for him was the disappointment engendered by the establishment of the new regime in Romania, which altered its line in 1948 and soon turned into the most brutal of dictatorships. This could hardly have been foreseen. The charge of "formalism" became a catch-all weapon of censorship, being even more rigorously applied from 1958, the period shortly before his death.

In 1947, just before the final clampdown, he managed to organise a one-man show in his hometown. Ferenc Szemlér, his faithful old friend, was forced to perform critical contortions to avoid separating the old and current productions of the artist in his critique. He tried to persuade the observer and reader of their intellectual continuity and only talked about the difference of the means applied. "After long years of solitary work, János Mattis Teutsch, the renowned expressionist painter of the Hungarian artistic revolution at the turn of the century, who worked with Kassák in the circle of MA, and whose ‘incomprehensible’ paintings were the butt of satire in the cabarets of Pest, has put himself forward again at an exhibition … The artist has returned to society and mankind with his new pictures. But from his past, he retains the intellectual rigour, which he has traditionally applied to everything that came within the painter’s creative compass’.29

After this show, he took part in the subsequent largely meritless exhibitions of Brassó’s art-community, but exhibited only with a few works. Meanwhile Brassó was renamed Stalin City, a name that lasted only for a few years. The exhibitions sank to a desperately provincial level, the works shown echoing the platitudes that pandered to current dogma. Mattis Teutsch was forced to realise with bitterness that the new regime completely rejected his works, works that had always sought to address the present. No matter what he did, at one point even trying to conform, public acknowledgement and a much-hoped-for breakthrough never occurred during his lifetime.

Nevertheless, he was prepared to make gestures of compromise. He managed to get closer to what was expected of artists in his themes, but he could not paint even these thematically "correct" works in a sufficiently primitive way that avoided stumbling over ideology. Although he maintained his Bucharest connections, and former colleagues were also aware that a significant artist still lived among them, all this was insufficient to bring about the breakthrough and appreciation he sought.

The moral of Mattis Teutsch’s career exhibits some fearsome parallels with the artistic theories of other dictatorships. While the works of the German Expressionists were branded as "degenerate art" (entartete Kunst) in the Nazi era, and their masterpieces were burned, the Communist regime indiscriminately branded outstanding artists with the charge of plotting against the regime, and sentenced them to enforced silence. A collection of the condemnatory and witless reviews of Mattis Teutsch written by lackeys of the regime could easily be assembled, but this would serve only to degrade the artist, even as it disgraces their authors, a few of whom later revised their opinions. One critic’s rejection is enough to quote as an example, written for the periodical of the Romanian Writers’ Association, Contemporanul. The essayist writes that the painter sees "things and people through tinted yellow glass, and nobody is advised to try wearing these glasses".30 This repulsive piece was published on March 4, 1960, almost exactly two weeks before the artist died.

At this time Mattis Teutsch was working on the compilation of his portfolio with the title Soulflowers and was already exhausted and withdrawn. His son, János Máttis, writes of his final days: "On Wednesday night he went to sleep, and mostly slept from that point on […] .... He said that now he was going to sleep for a hundred to a hundred and fifty years, and when his art was understood, he would return again. On Thursday evening, at 9.15, the end came with these words: ‘Good night everybody’".31


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