Minority Major Artists

The early-20th-century major Romanian art is not a block, but a very particular construction of intertwined cultural layers. One could not affirm that the most fertile and valuable Modern cultural period of this country was characterized by a certain, homogenous Romanian art, but rather by a juxtaposition (and less a mixture, indeed) of various sectional or parochial arts having in common their cohabitation in the same country. The reality is that, despite the extreme cultural richness of that time, the various constituencies of the arts developing in Romania turned into split monologues or monodies instead of a polyphonic, cohesive concerto. Thus, the widespread utopian belief of that time, focusing especially on a universal (finally European-centered) cultural matrix was contradicted in the case of some medium-sized nations like Romania, because of the divergent pressure exerted by the contradictory tasks they faced. The newly emerging, unified and democratic state called Romania was manifestly a favorable medium for the unhindered development of so many, distinct (if not actually opposed) cultural and artistic voices based on ethnic differences. Yet the new political entity was not able to federalize them, to make them coalesce into a unique cultural stream. Particularism, national, and even blatant ethnic commitment of the various cultural elements precluded the coagulation of a recognizable voice of Modern Romania. Instead of facilitating cohesion, reciprocal attachment and communication, the open cultural and social milieu boosted the proliferation of irreducible eccentricities. But precisely this apparent misgiving, the huge entropy of the cultural particles acting in the area constituted the proper circumstances of the tremendous propagation of so diverse cultural values. This because apparent eccentricity and restless deconstruction instead of sheer compliance to a given model is actually the very source of innovation in art, especially in modern times.As the center was not an authoritarian one, the various cultural entities composing the artistic landscape of the new state developed freely on their own. Thus it was possible that a relatively periphery culture like the Romanian produced some of the main actors of the most revolutionary artistic movement of the early 20th century, that is Dada. Tristan Tzara (or Samuel Rosenstock, by his real name), the founder father of the disruptive artistic practices propagated by Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, starting in 1916, was one of the many Jewish artists and writers from Romania that moved for studies to neutral countries, mainly during the First World War. This was the case of his friend and collaborator in founding Dada, Marcel Janco (or Iancu), but also of painters like Victor Brauner, and writers like Benjamin Fondane (or Fundoianu), among many others. Initially, they exhibited and published in Romania, and only afterwards did they settle in other cultures, in the French one, especially. However, all of them continued to be present, to publish and exhibit in Romania all along the 20s' and the 30s'. In their native country they were not taken as minority figures, but as major cultural players. Many times, they fed upon the Romanian traditional culture, inspired either by the active persistence of very old creative patterns, or conversely, by the enthusiastic experiments occurring during the general cultural striving to modernize Romania. For instance, Victor Brauner's re-interpretations of the apocalyptic monsters frequently depicted in the exterior, religious mural painting from Moldavian monasteries is seminal for his future Surrealist development. The thrilling, fascinating imagination of the usually anonymous painters of the 17th century mesmerized the mind of the young artist, notwithstanding the extremely different cultural and religious backgrounds. No obstacle hindered his aesthetic internalization of an alien but also somehow familiar creative experience. Although sacred and iconic for the Romanian majority, those images propelled another vision in the mind of Brauner, and the biblical monsters boosted the ulterior, subsequent configuration of some intimate, unconscious monsters of desire and pain particularizing his inner world. Therefore, the vision of one of the major figures of Surrealism was informed precisely by his minority-bound treatment of majority's imagery. Yet it is not the ethnic minority spirit that counted the most in this creative re-interpretation, but the eternal minority spirit inherent to powerful creators, always unable to accurately internalize any cultural model. The creative distortion and eccentricity was not determined essentially by Victor Brauner's being a Jewish subject, but rather by his being an authentic artist, searching for the unexpected morphologies built by the contorted inner self. He was not investigating or exploiting his minority ethnic and religious identity, but rather his unbounded, open and indeterminate, modern psyche whose ethnic belonging was less an important issue, decidedly surpassed by his permanently questioning mind. Consequently, his achievements were not counting for a better cultural definition of the Jewish minority living in Romania, but counted rather for an insight into the unsettling consciousness of the versatile, generic contemporary self. The cultural export of Romania or the emigration of artistic elite during the first half of the 20th century, was not a minority-based phenomenon. It was not determined by economic or cultural discrimination, but on the contrary, emigration always followed after a promising debut on the Romanian cultural scene, opening to the recognition on a higher level. This phenomenon was characteristic for major Romanian cultural and artistic figures as well, like Constantin Brancusi, George Enescu, Eugen Ionescu, Emil Cioran, and Mircea Eliade. Similarly to the artistic figures pertaining to the ethnic minorities, these cultural representatives of the national majority followed the same path, establishing themselves in different cultures. In fact, the narrowly Romanian-bound culture and art developing during the early 20th century in Romania was itself a minority culture. The regressive cultural and artistic myth of Romanianness was not able to attract the significant creators of the time, remaining a minoritarian expression altogether. It displayed the same pathos and rhetoric like any other minority-bound cultural expression whose faith is placed into an inherent, ethnic element instead of a dynamic, historical cultural development. If cultural export was not a minority-bound phenomenon, but a periphery-generated one, into which both various minorities and the Romanian majority found themselves on the same level, the local success on the national artistic scene was not a majority-related problem either. Thus, an exemplary and extremely significant case is the one of the enduring painting school developed at Baia-Mare, in the northern Romanian county of Maramures, that was a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire by that time. The Baia-Mare colony of painters was established in 1896, as a summer resort of the private school of painting lead in Munich by the Maramures-born Hungarian painter Simon Hollosy. He was not a deeply revolutionary artistic figure, yet he fought against the academic patterns dominating the German and Hungarian salon art of the time, opposing them a rhetorical, religious-naturalistic sentimentalism which was further boosted by his plein air experiments at Baia-Mare, in the late 1890s. Integrating realism and symbolism into a profoundly ideological framework, the work of Hollosy was tainted by an exacerbated, anxious individualism pre-figuring the future expressionistic developments, typical for so many German or German-linked artists by the end of the 19th century.Much more important than the personal achievements of Simon Hollosy as an artist was his teaching career of more than three decades, and especially his innovation: the painting colony in Baia-Mare, a local variant of the Barbizon circle in France. Through the work of Hollosy and his followers, the artists' colony in Baia-Mare became the proper cradle of Modernism in Hungarian art, disrupting the prevalent neo-classicism through naturalism and plein air painting. Karoly Ferenczy and Janos Thorma were the successors of Simon Hollosy as main leaders of the artistic colony in Baia-Mare. Together with other prominent figures of the Hungarian art of the time, they established, in 1902, the School of free art from Baia-Mare. A third period, and the most successful one of the art-colony in Baia-Mare, was starting in 1911, through the creation of the Baia-Mare Society of Painters, whose main event was the organization of the Jubilee Exhibition in 1912, a crucial moment for the development of Hungarian modern art.At that moment, the colony was not professing anymore the primordial naturalism propagated by Hollosy, but was following a more synthetic path, deeply marked by the influences of the neo- and post-impressionist experiences taking place especially in Paris. Unsurprisingly, Istvan Reti, the painter and theorist of the Baia-Mare school, observed that many artists of the time used to study in Paris during the winter, to paint in plein air in Baia-Mare during the summer, and to exhibit in Budapest during the autumn. Although initially there were artists coming from various countries such as Germany, Switzerland and Poland in the colony of Baia-Mare, later on the Hungarian element was so prevalent that the national issue was manifestly at stake. One may assume that the colony at Baia-Mare contributed to the establishing and propagation of a national consciousness of Modern Hungarian art. Romanian artists, although pertaining to the ethnic majority in the region, were less represented in the colony before 1920. Interestingly enough, the choice of the founding figures for the natural environment of Baia-Mare was not counting on its Hungarian specificity. On the contrary, the landscape around Baia-Mare was the opposite of the Hungarian one. Instead of the Hungarian puszta, the infinite, bare, clear horizon, at Baia-Mare dominated the wood-covered mountains and hills, a moving landscape characterized as "biblical" by Karoly Ferenczy himself, stamping the majority of the mainly landscape works elaborated there. This lost paradise was a real impetus for the practicing artists there, but generated also a sheer nostalgia after 1918, when Maramures, together with the rest of Transylvania, chose to unify with Romania and constitute the present-day country. Therefore, the most representative modern Hungarian art was not only developed in a Romanian territory, but it was morphologically imprinted by a very specific natural milieu. Moreover, some of the representatives of the Baia-Mare school, like Oszkar Glatz, were profoundly attracted to the local Romanian folklore, and the anthropological features and customs of the inhabitants.After 1920, the artists' colony in Baia-Mare (surviving until the late 30s) continued to be guided by local Hungarian artists, although the Romanian state was the one that assured the financial support. Consequently, many students coming from the art academies in Bucharest, Iasi and Chisinau, enjoyed stages of plein air work at Baia-Mare, although the earlier effervescence was never achieved again, precisely because the national, ethnic and tacitly militant element of the Hungarian founders was missing. At the same time, if the first Hungarian modernists were linked to symbolism, naturalism and impressionism and preferred an appropriate location like Baia-Mare for that matter, Romanian modernism was more radical. Dadaism and surrealism were in fact the pioneers of the avant-garde, and they had less to do with landscape and national feelings. When it came to traditional modernism, Romanian artists preferred the post-impressionist, synthetic variant based upon the investigations of Cézanne especially. Therefore, they selected another, much sunnier location for their explorations, that is the extreme southern part of the country, the region of Balcic, in the Cadrilater county (now in Bulgaria), so the stylistic interest of the Romanian artists was not favorable to the Baia-Mare pattern. Some of the representatives of ethnic minorities like the German Hans Mattis-Teutsch succeeded to dodge all the restrictions of the narrow minority model. Pertaining to the German element in Transylvania, he was not under the national pressure of medium-size cultures like the Hungarian and the Romanian ones, so mesmerized by the utopian, clear, indisputable national identity. In 1917-1919 he participated both in the avant-garde exhibitions with Der Sturm movement in Berlin, and with the MA group of Budapest. In 1920, he worked at Baia-Mare, in the artists' colony, and he held his first solo exhibition in Bucharest in the same year. Later on, he participated in various events with Bauhaus in Germany, but also contributed to the exhibitions of the Romanian avant-garde in Bucharest and Paris, collaborating with Benjamin Fondane till 1928. He was an epitome of the avant-garde artist, possessing a universalistic view on art deprived of any national particularities, his abstract painting mirroring a generic morphology with no confined ethnic support. The ideological framework of his creation, exposed in his treaty-manifesto Kunstideologie published in Romania in 1931, is a philosophical-aphoristic book aiming to disclose essential principles backing any artistic endeavor, but it is lacking any references to national particularities as founding elements in art.Other minorities living in Romania were also deeply interested in the changing occurring on the local art scene. The very particular feature of Armenians living in Romania was their strong involvement in art collecting. In fact, Krikor Zambaccian was the most insightful art collector of the time. Beside works by such famous Modern masters like Cézanne, he collected and, moreover, commissioned works of art from the foremost Romanian modern artists of his time, like Pallady and Tonitza, among many others. Alongside Zambaccian, the paragon of the local art collector, there was the significant collection built by the enthusiastic collectors Hrandt and Beatrice Avakian, who made their own museum-house, and acquired works by all the representative Romanian artists of their time. Nowadays even, the public collections Zambaccian and Avakian, located in the venues designed for them by their founders, continue to reflect the particular collector genius of the Armenian art-lovers living in Romania.Smaller minorities living in Romania, like the Serbian, Bulgarian or Ukrainian one were rather willfully absorbed into the mainstream of Romanian art and culture. Different from the internationalism backing Jewish endeavors, and the national stake of such establishments like the Hungarian-lead artistic colony from Baia-Mare, but also lacking the European breath or input of such artists like the German Mattis-Teutsch, the artists pertaining to the smaller minorities contributed in the kaleidoscope-like configuration of modern Romanian art but with their individualities rather than with their national particularities.

by Erwin Kessler