In 1923, the critic Iván Hevesy wrote about the first artistic productions of János Mattis Teutsch’s career, which were made in watercolour.1 Hevesy did not consider these early works of particular interest from the point of view of the unity and development of the artist’s oeuvre. He believed that they still represented a struggle for reproductive faithfulness to observable reality, and therefore represented an earlier, less interesting achievement than the ‘lyrical landscapes’ that gradually went beyond the naturalistic tradition. The artist himself, however, did not disown these products of his youthful sensitivity, and indeed was proud enough of them to allow them to be exhibited. Since these early works help us to understand his art, it behoves us to pay attention to them, even if we know them only from contemporary newspapers, photos and memoirs.
The early works were made in Brassó’s State Woodwork School. Apart from gaining proficiency in woodcarving, apprentices studied inter alia geometrical drawing, descriptive geometry, natural history, the mechanics and techniques of woodworking, drawing and architectural morphology.2 At the end of their studies, they were required to make a ‘graduation’ carving. Recently two decoratively carved wooden plates have been found, which (from their markings) are thought to be János Mattis Teutsch’s graduation offering, together with a rough version. That the artist was definitely influenced by the then prevailing fashion for art nouveau is shown by the face of the finished plate, with its rich plant ornamentation.3
Subsequently (1901) János Mattis Teutsch enrolled in the Royal Hungarian School of Design in Budapest. Almost all the students who completed the course at the State Woodwork School in Brassó went on to continue their studies in Budapest. Mattis Teutsch was admitted to the school’s small department specialising in sculpture. After one and a half years here, he went on to the Royal Bavarian Academy in Munich.
In Mattis Teutsch’s oeuvre, the years just after the turn of the century are represented by life-size sculptures made of plaster, but it is impossible to decide which of them were made in Budapest and which in Munich. In Budapest students of sculpture would certainly have made such works, since the curriculum contained requirements for exercises in ‘the modelling of heads, of parts of the body and of full figures, initially from plaster moulds, and then from photos.’4 However there is documentation to show that Mattis Teutsch also made such sculptures in Munich, and some of these are represented by photos that were found with the artist’s estate. The photos also display the date and location of the object’s creation, e.g. "Atelier Meyer", Munich, 1903.5 Similar sculptures were also found among the works left at Brassó after his death. A number of them are painted in silver, or sometimes other colours, and may thus be seen as the forerunners of the painted sculptures made in the 1910s.
The promising young sculptor, János Mattis Teutsch, first exhibited these works to the general public at an exhibition of the works of the teachers of the Brassó School of Woodwork in December 1910. (Fig. 1.) His two sculptures, reproduced in one of the German newspapers published in Brassó, indicate that he selected some of his earliest sculptures for the exhibition, perhaps in order to give an idea of the way his academic studies were progressing.6
The next destination in his career was Paris. His pupil, Irén Lukász, sums up her impressions of his Paris years as follows: "In Paris, the experience of museums, the many exhibitions and friendly discussions, the walks around the city and above all, the long hours of meditation and work, all this matured him as a man and as an artist. At the exhibitions, he would single out a picture for praise and was especially happy if it was also given an award by the panel of judges. At first he himself only produced drawings, for example expansive, life-size nudes. He was preoccupied with the complicated problem of the contours of the human body. What he saw in Paris, he summarised and transformed according to his ideas, and his Paris drafts anticipate his future development. He frequently alluded to the morning atmosphere of the city, with its mixtures of greys with bright colours that gave rise to Impressionism, a panorama which he used to admire from a café terrace."7 We also learn from Lukász that, in Paris, Mattis Teutsch made his personal discovery of the art of Rodin, Toulouse-Lautrec and Matisse, among others.8
Marked changes to his oeuvre may also be traced to his Paris stay, most probably because his financial circumstances made it impossible for him to make sculptures. The problem of how to store and transport works made of plaster, which were fragile and broke easily, may also have seemed insuperable at that time. Then again, since he actually had to earn his daily bread by making frames for pictures, he may well have had little time or energy left over for such serious effort as sculpture required. On the other hand, it is also likely that his artistic interests underwent a change which prompted him to give preference to drawing. Despite this, he did not consider the drawings made in Paris worth displaying at the Autumn Exhibition of the National Salon in Budapest in 1907, but selected his sculpture entitled Félvak (One eyed) instead.9
According to Zoltán Banner, the first paintings made by the artist when he returned to Brassó were realistic portraits and religious compositions. Banner was Mattis Teutsch’s first monographer and stumbled upon the titles of these early paintings in the studio diary (Mindennapi kenyerünk, Az élet, Az özvegy, Tavasz, Fiatalok, Barátok, Testvérek, Együtt, Piéta, Apai tanács, A sebesült, A virágok [Our Daily Bread, Life, The Widow, Spring, Youngsters, Friends, Brothers, Together, Pietà, Fatherly Advice, The Wounded Man, The Flowers]). According to Banner, these paintings were subsequently destroyed by the artist.10
In the earliest paintings that have survived, the Brassó motifs are clearly recognisable. They include the house of the painter’s birth (Cat. P 2), a nude figure, a woman who seems heavily swaddled in her clothes. One of the landscapes shows the town from above, displaying the red tiled roofs of the houses (Cat. P 8). Other subjects include the the fields surrounding the town and rows of houses. On the back of one of the paintings an unfinished colour study may be seen.11
Around the middle of the 1910s, Mattis Teutsch’s scenic painting gradually became less realistic. The landscapes of the artist, who now defined himself as a ‘painter of philosophy’, began instead to express feelings, moods and harmonies. Through their colours, these paintings express a pure, intimate lyricism, evoking joy or sorrow. Instead of direct depictions of the real world, feelings, ideas and meditative apprehension of the real are expressed by means of reduced motifs, in an attempt to evoke the things that are beyond verbal description. The artist never contented himself with merely reproducing what he saw, because he was convinced that this perceived phenomenon was only the surface appearance of a deeper truth, and he aimed to grasp the essence of that truth in his paintings. That such an essence was not to be discovered in external reality, but lay deeply buried, was the conviction at the heart of his intellectual and aesthetic credo.
Abstraction and exaggeration are of course very characteristic of Expressionism. Mattis Teutsch did not differ from his German predecessors in this respect, and often evoked a cosmic loneliness in his works. While in some of his paintings the graves and crosses of World War I can be recognised as motifs,12 this image of public mourning is counterpointed by, for example, weeping figures leaning against trees, which reveal and project a more private tragedy.13 In this way, the death in 1916 of the artists’s young wife, the mother of his two children, did not pass unrecorded in his oeuvre.
The watercolours, linocuts and oil paintings sometimes display figures such as a solitary man or woman; but they also feature little children, or scenes with multiple figures. Man and woman are depicted beyond the reach of each other, stretching out their arms in a gesture of hopelessness. In one case, it looks as if the woman has been swallowed up by a flood, while her silent scream seems to be streaming heavenwards from a mountain peak. Even when there are no figures in the paintings, this kind of atmosphere can often still be felt. We see empty gardens, solitary trees growing on mountain slopes, or roads and streams meandering towards the horizon, in compositions where green and yellow tend to predominate (Cat. P 9, Cat. P 10, Cat. P 11, Cat. P 12, Cat. P 13, Cat. P 14, Cat. P 15, Cat. P 16). On occasion, a brightly coloured flower is revealed lurking in the greenness of plants and foliage. Here and there a glimpse of pink, purple or blue is encountered, but so pale that the atmosphere determined by the primary colours is in no way modulated. Haystacks of a shining, golden yellow conjure up hot summer days (Cat. P 14). A group of yellow trees gives the impression of a quiet, peaceful world, even if it is clad in autumnal colours hinting at the decline towards death.
It is a difficult task to allocate the works of the 1910s to specific years as the young artist seldom bothered with dating his work precisely. In 1916 Mattis Teutsch did begin for a while to record the exact date of its creation on the back of each work, although unfortunately he later discontinued this practice.
After meeting Lajos Kassák, the leading figure of the Hungarian avantgarde, the artist became more and more well-known in Budapest. It was mainly as a result of the opportunities seized in 1917 that the young artist got into the mainstream of Hungarian art. Whether his exceptional creative activity at that time was due to the success in that year of his one-man show featuring an album of linocuts (Fig. 4), or whether it may be attributed to his desire to escape into art from the pain and suffering caused by the death of his wife, is a question that it now seems impossible to answer.
1916 had already brought a change in his attitude to landscape painting. The former mild lyricism was replaced by a harsher line, that was not restricted to the medium of linocuts. At the same time, he found that watercolour less and less met the demands of his art and increasingly painted in oils. The dimensions of his paintings also increased, while their content was marked by a tendency to give human attributes to motifs from nature.
By 1919 Mattis Teutsch’s art had reached a high level of abstraction (Fig. 5). Landscapes were replaced by paintings of "sensations", although occasionally the works also adopted already familiar figures as leitmotifs. Such figures were complemented by a new system of abstract motifs in the background, the background itself soon becoming, in most of his paintings, an independently composed area (Cat. P 46, Cat. P 47, Cat. P 48, Cat. P 49, Cat. P 50, Cat. P 51, Cat. P 52, Cat. P 53, Cat. P 54, Cat. P 55.).
These compositions, referred to as Érzetek (‘Sensations’), can be regarded as idiosyncratic evocations of silence, devotion, self-sacrifice, desire or eroticism.
If it is true of the previous landscapes that the death of the artist’s first wife had had a decisive influence on them, no less can the events of 1918-19 in the artist’s private life be ignored. Although the memory of his beloved Gizella Borsos still recurs in works painted at that time (for example, in a picture entitled Dream, and probably also emblematised as the wife and mother of two small children in the paintings entitled Család [‘Family’] [Cat. P 60, Cat. P 61]), the artist’s love for, and gratitude to, Marie Konrad now begins to find a place in his work. It was Marie, known to the children as their ‘Viennese Mummy’, who restored order and stability to the family, and this calmer atmosphere increasingly also resonates in the painting.
It is likely that Marie also played a role in changing the direction of János Mattis Teutsch’s art, and that his feelings for her gave rise to the idiosyncratic abstraction which characterised his art in 1919. Curving, swaying, and sometimes embracing lines appear as a fusion of feelings, which at the same time subsume those of the individual in the universal. The space is completely filled by arcs of colour, the latter dovetailing with each other in an approximately concentric arrangement.
In this whirl of colours there often appears a shape reminiscent of a bud, which the artist called the ‘line of germination’.14 This life-giving motif, which has its origin in images of childbirth, can now be found in most of his paintings. It was an image that occupied the place formerly held by the figure, and was most often placed at the centre of the composition, or in the section with the warmest colours. The artist took great care to vary warm with cold colours in these works, the cold tones usually being at the periphery.
Between 1920 and 1924, Mattis Teutsch exclusively painted abstract pictures. (Fig. 6). These compositions are sometimes also known as Lelki virágok [Soulflowers], although the artist himself only used the title Kompozíció [‘Compositions’] both on the backs of the paintings and in the lists of works that have survived [from Cat. P 63]. He also gave a number to each of the compositions, and indeed the name Lelki virág [Soulflower] was not applied until 1950. In May of that year, a grandchild was born and the artist chose this Hungarian expression as the title of the album compiled for the birthday.
The album contained a poem written by him in Hungarian which included the following lines: "légy a kifinomult lelki és / cselekvő világ virága." (be the flower of the world / of refined spirit and thoughtful action).15 Among numerous other items, the album featured twenty oil paintings, all made between 1920 and 1923. The compositions made at this time almost fit into a series, and indeed in 1923 Mattis Teutsch began giving attributes to some of his Kompozíció (Composition). He had, for example, a great liking for ‘blue’, the colour used by expressionists for conjuring up sky, water, vastness and the mystical element, but which also evoked coldness, silence and calmness. Throughout the years 1922 and 1923, he regularly wrote the dates on the backs of the compositions, so it is relatively easy to locate, for example Kék kompozíció (Blue composition), in the correct chronological and aethetic context.
In addition to the blue series, the artist also prepared green and red ones, thereby underlining the independent symbolic value of colours. While the title Lelki virág (Soulflower) is a tellingly descriptive name, that of Kompozíció (Composition) in a different way reveals a lot about his aesthetic stance. It is one of the most frequent titles used by the Expressionists, together with "Impression" and "Improvisation". The Compositions (Soulflowers) are partly linked to the earlier figurative paintings, and partly to the Érzetek (Sense). As in the case of figurative paintings, the artist constructed them with a leading motif at the centre. Now, however, the leading motif is no longer a figure but exactly that "line of germination" first appearing in the Érzetek (Sense). The image is no longer surrounded by harmonised shapes that fill out the picture plane, but by a concentrated, limited set of motifs against a uniform, homogeneous backround. A static form of painting now emerged, one that evoked a remarkable state of calm by comparison with the Érzetek (Sense). Seen in terms of emotional states, these are paintings that reflect the feelings of a man who has achieved a measure of tranquillity, and has escaped from the stress of the past. By the same token, they are works that evoke absolute and timeless qualities, representing an unalloyed and pure decorativeness.
János Mattis Teutsch’s correspondence testifies to the fact that he was very anxious not be cut off either from Berlin or Budapest. In the early 1920s opportunities to travel abroad were rare, so that he was obliged to inform his old friends about his new paintings by sending photos of them,16 and by trying to have them exhibited abroad as often as possible.17 Cases full of his paintings were transported by train, not only to Budapest, but also to Vienna, Rome and Berlin. A consignment of watercolours even got lost in Budapest. In his estate is preserved a large painting, whose thick, carton-like texture also served to protect the other works packed in the case. On the back of the painting a label refers to a Berlin transport company, the delivery note for Komposition XXXXIV being made out by Gustav Knauer.18
This painting was taken to Berlin in 1929, but had actually been made around 1923-24 and was one of the works which heralded the advent of a new phase in Mattis Teutsch’s artistic career (Cat. P 109). After 1923–24, Mattis Teutsch had turned to geometrical shapes; straight lines, approaching or departing from one another, increasingly appeared in the compositions, while at the same time, the leading motif, positioned at the centre, became more and more constructed. Sometimes thin black lines provide the structural frame, and distinctive, clearly separated, colour blocks fill up the picture plane. Although some extraordinarily decorative works came into being in this way, Mattis Teutsch himself did not feel he could make progress in this direction. Only one possibility seemed open to him: to find the way back to the human figure. So it was that the already familiar figures, contraposed men and women sitting, standing or kneeling, reappeared in his paintings. On the other hand, the pictures’ constituitive shapes, and the positioning of the latter within the picture plane, soon underwent a radical transformation.
The decisive impetus for this change was given by his trip to Paris in 1925, where he exhibited his paintings to the French public in the Visconti Gallery (Fig. 7). Although this gallery was not among the leading exhibition venues, its significance for the present discussion is that it was open to artists from East Central Europe, including Lajos Tihanyi and André Kertész. However this openness to artists from a different milieu did not of course guarantee cultural and financial success for the artists exhibiting there. For Mattis Teutsch, nonetheless, who kept the cover page of the 2nd of June issue of Les chroniques du jour displaying one of his works to show to those back home, the journey to Paris remained a pleasant memory.19 (Fig. 8)
In Paris he only painted figurative compositions and continued to do so after returning home. His sculptures developed parallel with his paintings, consisting of numerous figurative compositions, chiefly male and female nudes; he even made objects resembling human figures, as well as such everyday articles as boxes and lamps.20
The period lasting until 1933 can be divided into two significant parts. The first contains the paintings, whose content can be seen as paving the way for the artistic philosophy of Kunstideologie, or can indeed be regarded as illustrations of the ideas formulated by that aesthetic. (Cat. P 146, Cat. P 147, Cat. P 148, Cat. P 149) The figures depicted stepping out of a bath, meeting and greeting, playing golf or stretching out in an armchair, represent a particular train of thought in art philosophy. (Cat. P 143, Cat. P 144) Mattis Teutsch distances himself from individual problems and strives to grasp the generalised idea, shaping his artistic approach accordingly. The book he wrote explored these ideas more fully, summarising his views on the theory of art and illustrating the same with his own works.
In terms of content, the figures of Freskótervek (Fresco Designs), painted with a mixed oil and tempera technique, are no different from works of the kind mentioned above (Cat. P 150, Cat. P 151, Cat. P 152, Cat. P 153, Cat. P 154, Cat. P 155, Cat. P 156). Their significance lies in the fact that they represent the ‘man of the future’ as imagined by the artist ever more intensely (Fig. 9.). He now created a model for this ‘new man’ in his art; and since he believed that ‘the character’ of his optimistically conceived type was ‘most fully revealed in his movement’, he now painted figures as seen in varying states of motion. He saw it as vital to share the ideas behind these paintings with the general public; consequently the walls of his 1933 Brassó exhibition were filled exclusively with such compositions demonstrating ‘eccentric’ and ‘concentric’ movement, the notion of balanced rhythm, ‘the new concept of collective humanity’ as well as that of ‘collective human thinking’. Contemporary reviews refer to some of the pictures’ revealing titles: Futószalag, Munkára fel, Hívás, Emberek, Munka, Erő, Gépszerkesztők, Fent (Assembly Line, Getting Down to Work, The Call, People, Work, Strength, Makers of the Machine, Up There).21
After 1933 there was approximately a decade-long break in János Mattis Teutsch’s career. According to his young painter colleague, Lajos Boros, the death of his daughter and the menacing signs of World War II threw him into a deep depression and caused him to give up work for some time.22 His health also deteriorated, so much so, that he stopped making sculptures for good. However problems of art theory still troubled him, and he still needed the inspiration of a public to help him formulate and realise his ideas. In Brassó a new generation was growing up, many of whom came to visit a master who was known to have achieved success in many parts of the world in his youth. Anyone who entered the house in Hosszú utca came away contented, since all felt that they had learned something of value.
A good example of Mattis Teutsch’s role as a stimulating and thought-provoking interlocutor is provided by his views on turn of the century art, when (he claimed) "everybody wanted to be different from the others;" he contrasted this situation with the false expectations of the present, when "everybody is required to paint in the same way. This is because contemporary art has no suggestive power; principles should be prescribed, but the (artistic) solution must be up to the (individual) artist, who must be given absolute freedom in choosing it."23
His late work, consisting of idealised portraits, anatomically studied nude figures, and large-scale scenes of labour, were the typical products of the age. He believed that every era has its own forms to express the essential human being: the forms he used were the forms of the Socialist era and his models were Stakhanovites, the idealised workers. The bricklayer, a symbolic figure Socialism, was as frequent a figure in his art as was the miner (Cat. P 161), the political speaker, the sportsman hero, the doctor or the musician. Idyllic families, peasant Madonnas and the like also provided themes for his paintings at this time. Paintings that focus on the hands of a working individual are like hymns to manual labour, while the compositions featuring Három generáció (Three generations) eulogise the integrative power of the family unit.24
Like almost everyone else in the 1950s, János Mattis Teutsch was obliged to make statues of Stalin and also painted a portrait of Lenin; yet even here, he followed another path from that of his contemporaries in Brassó. It was not by chance that his works had such a strong influence on the new generation. The young, who probably only knew of the artist’s early works from hearsay, certainly discovered in his oeuvre that ‘elevating inspiration’ which Mattis Teutsch insisted was needed for a true work of art.25 At his death, the last large painting left on the easel was a scene with numerous figures, where the woman standing in the centre holds a dove in her hand.26 That white dove may be seen as a symbol of the reconciliation of the soul with the world, and perhaps also as the artist’s farewell to life.
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