The Weed Talk

I have never met Ştefan Bertalan. A founder of the sigma group in Timishoara, the most influential hub of constructivist experimentalism in Romanian art, Bertalan has always seemed to me somehow ill-timed, included in the canon, and confined therein. I came once into contact with his project for a great collective exhibition. It was a real palimpsest, a mixture of technical, philosophical and lyrical notes, accurate sketches and graphic divagations that annihilated one another. It was the "Holderlin effect", terror and darkness brought about by hyper-lucidity, the implosion of signification under the pressure of the countless forms of the meaning, intuited, but not controlled, put together until they turn into a black critical mass which will not allow the significance to escape any more. There is no specific trait of orthodox constructivism in Bertalan's works: his plants are not reduced to structures, and the compositions evince a soft cubism, melted into symbolism, as in Braque's late period. To take into consideration, from a "realistic" perspective, his social research in urbanism and pedagogy, to bring back to meaning, to convention, the numerous gestures, notes, and forms that represent nothing but a consistent breaking apart of the intelligible, is just cowardice in the face of a rough truth: the irrational is the heart of his work, not its dead end. His works are non-mediated, almost clinical notes about his own self: a diary-drawing dated 22 May 1977 bears in the upper part the (self-)therapeutic recommendation: "each morning a drawing". No doubt, Bertalan "did" all kinds of real things too. He used to have students, he used to have artist colleagues together with whom he undertook various comprehensible experiments. The diary-drawings, however, belong in a permanent de-centralization of his own quests, which have nothing technical about them any more, but seem mere inner refuges, still vaguely active resignations in front of a world that becomes more and more impenetrable as it is being understood. A drawing dated "May 1977", with an obscure note, "To an anniversary", contains both a (false) technicist clue, in the relatively confusing and precious formula "extension of successive pyramids in vital progression" (self-protective, gratifying in the certitude and terminological emphasis that suggest intellectual performance which gives emotional stability), and an explicit outburst that begins "never before has this people been more dependent – than in the last three decades – on hating its neighbor", and ends with notes on "spiritual slavery". Bertalan was – and still is – a cry, not a construction. He characterizes himself in another drawing, a kind of symbolic echogram of a tree, next to which he writes: "from another point of view, man finds in nature, landscape, the vegetal world, a practical activity – a visual aliment for the disappearances of the soul." The hallucinating apparitions in his drawings are not instrumentalist studies of the world structures, but status graphs of these "disappearances of the soul". It seems strange for an artist, and a constructivist one at that, who was supposed to disregard the details of the world in order to extract the essences, to be so shaken by each gentle breeze of life. Bertalan did not disregard anything. To him, as written in a drawing dated "März 980", "any encounter irrupts shyly – and one looks for a fulcrum to support life." Bertalan becomes the interpreter of plants with lethal saps and incantatory names, of echinna vulgare, malva neglecta or onobrychis espersata (if I managed to decipher the artist's writing), these "organs that live, but can't speak", as he defines them in a drawing of "8 Juni 984". He opposes his contemporaries, both his colleagues in sigma and the heteroclite and noisy "macho" experimentalism of Paul Neagu and Horia Bernea. Even if the notes in Latin, Romanian and German are often illegible, while those in Hungarian are totally unintelligible to me, it is less likely for anyone to find in Bertalan's written-drawn works statements such as Bernea's from a page reproduced on the cover of his most important album, edited by the Romanian National Museum of Art on the occasion of his last retrospective, i.e.: "Fuck the ideal." It is hard to say if Bertalan has an ideal but, although his art borders on insanity, its cleanliness and responsibility command respect. This happens not only when he writes "Mother and fruit" on a beautiful drawing with gestational forms, but also when he recounts, elliptically and feverishly, about "children, school youngsters with notebooks marked '9th C grade' with poetry and math lessons inside, have destroyed the cherry tree, leveled it to the ground. So I caught them and killed three of them." Of course, the artist is not a murderer, but a self-repressed, hyper-sensitive person who suffers for the entire universe, whose cruel laws he accepts for, as he jots down on the same page, "so much dry-vapid rain that people grow stupider with each generation, and weeds keep multiplying all the time." Unbearable, his balancing act on the edge of the precipice remains exemplary: a monument of moral integrity obtained at the expense of mental integrity. Ştefan Bertalan, Road Crossing, ArTei Gallery, Hanul cu Tei, Bucharest, February-April 2005published in 22, 787/8-15 April 2005Ştefan Bertalan was born in 1930 and educated at the Academy of Art in Cluj. He taught art at the ArtHigh School in Timisoara and the Constructions and Architecture Faculty of the Polytechnic Institute of Timisoara until he emigrated to Germany in 1984. With Constantin Flondor and Roman Cotoşman he founded the first experimental group in Romania, Grupul 111 (1966-1969), and later Sigma, with Flondor and Doru Tulcan (1970-1981). In the 1960s he experimented with abstractionism, constructivism and op-art, and since the 1970s he turned his attention to the complexity of interaction in nature, expressed in drawing, painting, photography, and land-art.

by Erwin Kessler