Mattis Teutsch and the Romanian Avant-garde
Mariana Vida and Gheorghe Vida

Part 1 Part 2
Part 3 Notes

Before analysing Mattis Teutsch’s relationship to the Romanian avant-garde in the 1920s and 30s, it may be useful to highlight some important features of Romanian Modernism before World War I.

Until the 1924 exhibition of Contimporanul, these endeavours were characterised by theoretical eclecticism. Painters and men of letters sometimes tried to compensate for a lack of abstract, conceptual reasoning with startling insights or unconventional reflections. The majority of reviewers and publicists writing about the fine arts, however, restricted themselves to a superficial overview of artistic phenomena. Theodor Cornel (1873–1911) was the first art reviewer who thoroughly studied the phenomena of modern art. In spite of an apparent provincialism and the prevalence of reactionary attitudes, there still developed a kind of synchronicity between artistic experimentation in the West and in Central Europe.

As has been pointed out in a richly documented study of the topic,1 there certainly were turning-points in the history of Romanian art, when those with a strong artistic consciousness co-operated to support the new art. Such a moment of ’prise de conscience’ occurred in the year 1910, when Brancusi presented his mysterious, rustic and primitive sculpture, ‘Wisdom of the Earth2 and Cecilia Cutescu-Storck created symbolist compositions displaying the influence of Gauguin’s cloisonnage in the exhibition of the Tinerimea Artistica [Young Artists’ Society]. These works stirred up heated debates.This same year saw the opening of Arthur Segal’s exhibition in Bucharest at the Arta society, where twenty paintings were on display, almost all of them pointillistic.3

One year earlier, in 1909, Josif Iser, the mentor of the young Iancu and Maxy,4 brought the works of his French friends, Galanis, Forain and Derain to Bucharest with the aim of introducing the Bucharest public to new art forms (for example, Fauvism). Iser’s approach shows similarities to that of Lascâr Vorel. Vorel (1879–1918) was a Romanian artist who settled in Munich, was a friend of Franz Marc and Albert Bloch, and sent back to Romania works of a special type of Expressionism (examples include the gouache paintings made in grisaille between 1915 and 1918). Nicolae Darascu and Samuel Mützner, on the other hand, recruited followers of postimpressionist divisionism.They also published the Futurist manifesto in Romania, on 20 February, 1909, the same year as it was circulated in Paris.5

In Central Europe a new artistic approach and attitude were emerging at that time, often characterised by cosmopolitanism linked to political internationalism, a creed which was mainly preached by the radical wings of Futurism and Expressionism.6 However, such Romanian phenomena as roughly corresponded to the European avant-garde movement were few and far between, and moreover lacked a theoretical foundation. They testified to the bravery of their protagonists, but were overshadowed by the conservatism, provincialism and generally low level of Romanian art. The generation of artists returning in 1905–1906 from their studies abroad in Munich and Paris (Ion Theodorescu–Sion, Jean Al. Steriadi, Marius Bunescu, Samuel Mützner, Camil Ressu) all appreciated the pioneering work of Stefan Luchian. It was they who re-evaluated light and colour from the perspectives of an already classical Impressionism, of Symbolism influenced by the Byzantine tradition and of Expressionism bearing the premonitory signs of war. They did so, however, without making a clean break with late Impressionism and a rather cloying, academic Naturalism.

The Fine Arts in Brassó

The periodical entitled Das Ziel (Fig. 1.) was first published in Brassó in 1919.7 The painter Irén Lukasz, one of the best experts on the oeuvre of Mattis Teutsch, recalls the atmosphere of the age in the following way: "Brassó had a sophisticated cultural life. In 1919, the art periodical entitled Das Ziel was launched and maintained a very high standard. Writers, painters and musicians contributed to it, writing about their own works and reviewing those of their contemporaries. The editors made considerable efforts to popularise the ideas proclaimed in the periodical by staging art exhibitions organised under the auspices of the editorial board in the ‘blue room’ of the Redut. These publications and exhibitions represented a major cultural advance […]. From among the 1919 exhibitions, that of Mattis Teutsch was the most impressive and significant, but also the most controversial."8

Scanning the contents of the eleven issues of the periodical Das Ziel, in the fourth issue we find the programme of the various exhibitions held under its auspices. Between the 29th of May and the 15th of June Hans Eder was featured; between the 20th of June and the 5th of July, Ernst Honigberger; between the 10th and 25th of July, Mattis Teutsch; between the 1st and 15th of August, Eduard Morres and Fritz Kimm; between the 20th of August and 5th of September, Fritz Miess; finally, between the 10th and the 25th of September, there was an exhibition of applied art.9 As can be seen from this list, the most outstanding Saxon artists of Brassó all exhibited. Mattis Teutsch had begun his career in this circle and returned here in 1919 after having come into contact with the circles of MA in Budapest and Der Sturm in Berlin.

Indeed Mattis Teutsch’s artistic development can be followed quite precisely in the columns of Das Ziel. For example, it published the German version of Iván Hevesy’s paper – the original came out in the November 1918 issue of the periodical MA – by way of an introduction to the Mattis Teutsch exhibition, a paper which gave a very good characterisation of his work: "From the real forms of nature he creates abstract artistic forms which are much more than symbols of objects, having the capacity to express emotions instead."10 In Number 7, we can read Mattis Teutsch’s review of the exhibition of his colleague, Ernst Honigbert. In his closing remarks he states: "Art is the personal recreation of personal experiences. The only thing that constrains the artist, while at the same time providing him with support, is the medium of art itself."11 The same issue published reproductions of Mattis Teutsch’s two linocuts (Tájkép fával [Landscape with a Tree], 1917 and Kompozíció két alakkal [Composition with Two Figures], 1919). (Fig. 3.)

According to the catalogue,12 Mattis Teutsch’s exhibition in the room of the Redut displayed 48 oil paintings, 18 water-colours, 4 crayons, 12 linocuts and 10 wooden sculptures. (Fig. 2.) The great variety of the techniques used is impressive, even at first glance, and the titles of the works indicate the recurrence of certain motifs (Érzet/Sense, Tavasz/Spring, Család/Family, Tájkép hegyekkel/Landscape with Mountains, Virágzó fák/Blossoming Trees, etc.) These works well document Mattis Teutsch’s artistic development, a process lasting approximately a decade, and leading from a disciplined recreation of the facts of perceived reality to a more and more liberated approach of lyrical Expressionism, or actually a form of musical abstraction.

The next issue of the periodical published a review of Mattis Teutsch’s exhibition in July. The reviewer traced his continuing development remarkably well: "The ambitions of the Expressionists, a category in which Mattis Teutsch also belongs, can best be explained with a simile: just as musicians work with sounds, painters work with lines and colours. As with sounds, all the colours have their own expressive value. Red evokes a feeling in us totally different from yellow or blue. Cold colours (blue, violet, green, etc.) have a different atmosphere from warm colours (red, brown, orange, etc.); and in the same way, major and minor chords sound differently. The line is equivalent to the tune and the harmony of colours to the chord. […] In fact, it is quite natural that, in these endeavours, the painter does away with everything objective, because a concrete object would only prevent him from manipulating lines and colours freely, that is, at his own discretion."13

The article proves that the reviewer was familiar with Kandinsky’s theory, and his work entitled ‘On the Spiritual in Art’, as well as being well versed in contemporary artistic debates. Mattis Teutsch was only rarely to receive such comprehensive commentary; that he did so in this case is presumably attributable to the writer’s direct personal contact with him and his way of thinking in the aftermath of his Bucharest exhibitions; these had generally been praised, although his works were seldom given an appropriate interpretative context.

The same issue of Das Ziel published Mattis Teutsch’s brief review of the exhibition of his friend,14 the engineer Gyula Tutsek, who exhibited drawings, inter alia some recalling his captivity in Siberia. The following (August 15) issue of Das Ziel published a linocut by Mattis Teutsch from among those exhibited in July.15 This linocut is closely related to his well-known oil composition entitled Család/Family, now in the possession of the artist’s descendants in Brassó. The same issue published Herman Roth’s long and thorough analysis of Mattis Teutsch’s exhibition under the title ‘The Appearance and Defeat of Reality with the Phenomena of Art.’ Roth makes an attempt to unravel the intellectual significance of particular works: "Looking at the picture entitled Érzet/Sense, I perceived the incongruence between a spiritual problem and the artistic expression of it. For me, there is no associative clarity in the artist’s formulation and no creative abandonment […] I can thank this explanation not to myself, nor indeed to the pictures but to a personal conversation."16.

According to Roth, vague sensations can be given a clear visual expression. The decorative traits also pointed out by several subsequent reviewers show influences of the art of the East and Far East – something that may be noticed in the work of a number of other European artists, notably Matisse.17 Photographs were also taken of the arrangement of the exhibition in the Redut. Mattis Teutsch’s name is also mentioned in Edith Herfurth Sachsenheim’s article in Das Neue Ziel, in connection with the exhibition held at Christmas in 1919: "Mattis Teutsch’s strangely one-dimensional and atmospheric pictures make a splendidly decorative impression."18 The intellectually stimulating effect of the periodical Das Ziel needs to be underlined, since it reflects the energy and creative power Mattis Teutsch revealed in the varied Bucharest environment after 1920.

Exhibitions in Bucharest

Mattis Teutsch’s first individual exhibition in Bucharest, which displayed paintings, sculptures and linocuts, was opened in the room of the Maison d’Art at 3 Corăbiei Street on the 5th of November, 1920.19 The reviewers appreciated the surprising boldness in the presentation of abstract Expressionist works to the Bucharest public. For example, the painter Nicolae Tonitza (1886–1940), who was at the same time a distinguished art critic, wrote enthusiastically about the show.20 According to him, it was Baudelaire who ‘in his outstanding essays on art’ had defined the ideal of the painted canvas about half a century earlier: "Baudelaire was convinced that a good painting can dominate us by arousing distinct states of emotion, which are not due to the painted ‘motifs’, but solely to the harmony arising from the juxtaposition ... of differently coloured surfaces. Since then Baudelaire’s idea has been tested and put into practice many times, from Delacroix to the Impressionists. […] Some years ago a few painters who wanted to free themselves from the tyranny of stereotyped solutions resumed this very delicate experimentation. In Paris I saw some canvases painted in this way, in the spirit of pure decorativeness."

The painted canvas becomes a medium, a "new appearance and [a] new voice" mediating between the artist’s emotions and the empathic audience. The latter were bound to be in a minority, the circle of the visually sophisticated, those who were endowed with extreme sensitivity and a deeply imaginative response to colour, representing indeed a minority even in the profession. The success of such an enterprise is also dependent on "the artist’s skill with colour, the power, clarity and honesty of his palette…" Tonitza also asserts that the wooden sculptures are "imbued with synthetic primitivism, often attaining the level of symbol." On the other hand, he criticises the graphics, even if he finds them not without interest: "Mr Mattisteutsch’s (sic) cuts give an impression of incoherence".21

Sigmund Maur (1894–1965), the painter and graphic designer, who became an excellent reviewer for the periodical Rampa from 1920 following his return from studying in Berlin and Zürich, and was a firm supporter of the new trends in art, also wrote about Mattis Teutsch’s exhibition. He admired his boldness in presenting the Bucharest public with works in the ‘Expressionist style’. "Mattis Teutsch either does not know our public at all, or else he is so courageous that, with the reckless enthusiasm of one who firmly believes in the success of his own ideas, he is quite prepared to face the criticism of an immature public which is strongly biased in its judgements." He follows this with a brief characterisation of Expressionism: "Expressionism only believes in the spirit and in the world of the spirit; [it] applies the raw material of impressions coming from the external world to the creation of this [spiritual] world ... It strives to express itself in a condensed form, concentrating the interaction of every technical and intellectual device in the pregnant image. Its world is governed by the abstract law created by the spirit, not by the law linked to nature. Imagination becomes law. It is an attempt to express the abstract in a concrete way. The artist is obliged to keep pace with time. Expressionism mirrors, and finds its explanation in, the neurasthenic pursuit of new impressions by contemporary man. This pursuit is an integral part of the psychosis of European Man since the Great War."

The reception of such works was much more difficult than had been the case hitherto, requiring education and a concentration of empathy identical with those of the artist himself; yet Mattis Teutsch’s ‘madness’ seemed restrained enough for Maur to follow: "He sweeps away the obstacles of banality. He undertakes to be our guide on the winding road marked out by emotions and intellectualised impressions. A strange, peculiar harmony [lies] in the unknown, the unsuspected, the secret, as also in the upheaval and uproar, that are the themes of his works. […] In his paintings, which are emotions, he leads us to the world of dreams, to the paradise of his imagination which swims in harmonic waves of light like an exotic, exciting scent causing sensory delusion. [There are] undefined ideas [and] clear emotions. He transgresses all the laws of nature. He gets lost in infinitely varied shades of colour and expression.

The rhythm and harmony of ‘fascinating simplicity’ in the wooden sculptures underline ‘the strongly expressive capacities and prophetic mysticism of this sophisticated spirit’, while such ideas as do become clear make an even more vivid impression on Maur. He is anxious that the artist should not fall victim to a heightened sensitivity and the neurosis of the century, nor to the ‘anarchic’ reasoning of ‘Cubists and Dadaists’, "who started from the same principles as Mattis Teutsch, only to arrive at their present follies […]".22

In Chemarea an occasional reviewer, I. Brodier, writing about Mattis Teutsch’s works,remarks that we cannot here speak about painting as the artist "tries to materialise his inner feelings in lines and colour"; however he appreciates "the interesting series of wooden sculptures where intentional naïveté endows several of the works with the charm of primitive idols."23 To illustrate the superficial judgements that were also expressed, let us quote as an example Nikita Macedonski’s statement about Mattis Teutsch: "About this kind of painting I can only say that, since it is not even Cubist, it is not in the least entertaining."24

The exhibition took place in a new and extraordinary emotional climate. On the one hand, World War I had broken the continuity with tradition, which in turn had forced a transformation of value systems and a radicalisation of artistic consciousness. On the other hand, after the Trianon peace treaty, state cultural policy promoted the integration of the artists of the minorities into Romanian cultural life. Of numerous such events in 1920, mention may be made of the exhibition opened by M.H. Maxy in the hall of the Unirea Circle on the 7th of November, almost at the same time therefore as that of Mattis Teutsch.25

It seems likely that the two artists became acquainted at this time and their relationship was perhaps deepened through a common exhibition organised in the Der Sturm Gallery, and centred on Maxy’s works,26 which paved the way for more than a decade of intensive Cooperation in the Romanian avant-garde movement.27 There was also an international exhibition in June 1922 in Düsseldorf, where Mattis Teutsch exhibited together with Marcel Iancu and Arthur Segal among others.28 It can be assumed that the circle of Segal-Iancu-Maxy-Mattis Teutsch came into being in the period 1922–1923, as the modernist ‘revolution’ of December 1924 was taking shape.


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