Ways Of Seeing

Minority ethnic groups have usually developed some separate cultures within the larger framework of the majority. Their particular language and specific customs generally single out such societies. From the cultural point of view, the main characteristics of a minority society are constituted by the deeper, willingly preserved strata of older formulas and data, of stylistic and technical givens, of traditional behaviors, values, and beliefs. This is why ethnic (and sometimes even religious) minorities are mainly particularized by their sharing and adhering to ancient patterns of speaking, clothing, singing, dancing, crafting, thinking, and behaving.Because their ethnic identity is basically a preserved one, that is resisting the assimilation inside a bigger cultural pool, the value ascribed to ethnic tradition plays a major role in defining the way in which a certain individual pertains to a certain minority. Minorities and tradition seem to constitute almost a necessary anthropological connection. Tradition can now be defined as a series of integrated and coherent cultural features which determine the social profile of a definite human community consciously facing the non-traditional context of its living, that is the modern, global culture of today. On the background of the global, international culture, every majority local culture is somehow a minority culture, a particular one with its own tradition. Therefore, a proper minority culture inside a majority cultural milieu has, from a certain point of view, the characteristics of a double minority pattern: firstly facing the local majority culture, and secondly facing the global culture.But sometimes there could be something misleading in such a conceptual scheme. It is true that a large majority of minorities do keep their basically ethnographic profile facing both the majority culture they are living among, and the global culture. Yet, some minorities are not essentially conservative. It is precisely their contribution to the visual arts that could constitute an argument, especially in the case of Romania and, perhaps, in the case of South-Eastern Europe as a whole.The visual arts, in the cultured sense of the commonly accepted "fine arts" formula, are not an old cultural matter in Romania. Contrariwise, it is a rather recent field, appearing by the middle of the 19th century, under the influence of an entire trend of modernizing the national civilization. Icons and religious paintings, frescos and panel or glass painting, that is the traditional practices linked to the older, constituted concept of image-making or popular "visual arts", gave way, step by step, to the occidental, imported model of the fine arts. It is the art produced by artists educated in formally established academies, in official institutions of higher education, instead of following the traditional curriculum of apprenticeship in the workshop of an acknowledged artist. Instead of merely furnishing objets d'art positioned in the conceptual and social framework of traditional craftsmanship, the modern artistic production became consciously cultured and cultural, sometimes even argumentative and militant. Art became a matter of serious instruction characterizing cultivated persons. Art became also a preferred cultural pastime produced by educated persons, and it was designed to be enjoyed by similarly educated persons. As an important part of the new system of the modern civilization, art became a favorite window where the national or ethnic cultural advancements were exhibited. Thus, it happens that the most significant Hungarian modernist artistic school was founded at the beginning of the 20th century in Baia Mare (Nagybanya, in Hungarian), in northern Romania. There, many artists, connected to, or attracted by, the personality of Istvan Hollosy, the School's founder, developed a post-impressionist idiom with expressionist nuances (because many of the participants were connected to Munich, the cradle of Der Blaue Reiter, and to the German artistic milieu in general). That idiom eventually characterized much of the Hungarian art during the first decades of the 20th century. Most significantly, it characterized profoundly the Hungarian art made in Transylvania after the First World War, that is after Transylvania united with Romania, and subsequently the Hungarian culture there became a minority one. Despite its lack of further evolution, the particularly "Arcadian" feature of the mainly landscape painting so typical to the Baia-Mare School, continued to draw a modernist profile for the visual culture specific to the Hungarian minority throughout the inter-war period. The nature they exalted, the rural and urban areas around Baia-Mare, developed into a somehow mythologically-invested landscape painting, defining a kind of "locus amoenus" imbued with nostalgic and escapist tones. Frequently, it was the motif of a mountainous woodland permeated by aesthetic and quasi-religious fascination, as one can see in the works of, among many others, Istvan Nagy, Sandor Szolnay, Andras Mikola or Sandor Ziffer. Nevertheless, the (by now already academized) modernism of the School became and remained the credited tradition of the Hungarian art school on the territory of Romania, and it was never replaced by a literally "traditional", that is popular, traditionalism. From that moment on, the specific feature of the minority Hungarian visual culture in Romania, its primary "forma mentis" became its being always modernizing, up to date, even when it left aside the mythologized landscapes and chose the contemporary alternative artistic means. The German minority from Transylvania, in its turn, has experienced a similar trend of polarization on a certain modernist current that is the expressionist one, so typical to German populations all over the European area. In a perfect coherence with the artistic developments in their distant motherland culture, German painters from Transylvania, such as Josef Klein, Hans Eder or Fritz Kimm among many others, inclined to the use of violent but also cold colors. They depicted mainly urban scenes, characteristic for a vaguely anxious bourgeois society, dominated by an acute sense of industrial and capitalist becoming of the society and a solitary, distant positioning of the estranged individual. Significantly, one of the major ideological elements of the original German expressionism, the social protest and the individual exasperation facing a dystopian, mechanical society, so visible in the works of Beckmann or Gross, is almost lacking in the Transylvanian German expressionism. Contrariwise, they were much more attracted by religious, Christian issues, as it is visible in the case of one of the leading representatives, Hans Eder. Unsurprisingly, the most prominent artistic figure pertaining to the German culture in Transylvania, Hans Mattis-Teutsch, who was linked to all major German artistic movements, from Der Blaue Reiter to Bauhaus, was also pondering, in his early work, on religious issues connected to theosophy.If the art specific to the Hungarian minority was focusing on nostalgic and mythological rural landscapes depicted in a post-impressionist fashion, and the art specific to the German minority was mainly dealing with urban situations and bourgeois figures presented in a cool, expressionist manner, sometimes opened abruptly or softly to religious insights, the art specific to the third consistent minority in Romania, the Jewish one, is completely different. It actually counted for less before the turn of the century, and especially before World War I, when the Jewish minority started a complementary process of emancipation and assimilation in the Romanian civilization. This made it possible that a highly traditional society, the iconoclast Jewish community, to discover, through the mediation of its cultural representatives, a whole visual universe, a brand new one that exerted a significant influence not only on the Romanian culture of the time, but also on the European one. This, because Jewish artists inclined from their first appearance to the most provocative and innovative definition of modernism, to the avant-garde. Although maybe the first publicly acknowledged and esteemed Jewish artist was Iosif Iser, whose mainly expressionist output constituted one of the landmarks of classical modernism in Romanian art, the subsequent generation of Jewish artists made their breakthrough onto the Romanian art scene in a Dadaist-surrealist-constructivist block that shattered the local and the European artistic establishment. As it is well known, Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco and Victor Brauner, that is a bunch of Romanian Jewish artists, were seminal in the appearance and the development of the Zurich Dada phenomenon in 1916, and the subsequent surrealist trend in French art. Back in Romania from time to time, for longer or shorter periods, the mainly Jewish avant-garde group founded art magazines and publications, organized exhibitions and events, and was involved in architecture, design, theatre and poetry too, marking the highest peak of Romanian contribution to the European culture, after the work of Constantin Brancusi. The proper inclination of the Jewish avant-garde artists in Romania was, from the iconographical point of view, a playful-critical investigation of reality, fancifully re-assembled in a cubist-surrealist fashion in usually masterly crafted pictures. The (sub)urban life lies at the core of their interest, mesmerized by the frequently decaying city and its tentacles, so powerfully depicted by Marcel Janco and Maxy, by Victor Brauner, Arthur Segal or Jules Perahim. In their works abound the aberrant, falsely rational surroundings inhabited by exhausted (when not subservient) workers and ruined whores, finally some picturesque figures of a kaleidoscopic reality losing its social relevance during the process of transposition onto the carefully painted canvas surfaces. Except for the three culturally significant minorities, the Hungarian, the German and the Jewish ones, who propelled, developed and preserved specific and recognizable artistic patterns, the artistic representatives of the other minorities have eventually integrated into the larger matrix of the Romanian visual culture, marking no significantly ethnic difference.

by Erwin Kessler