Artwork of the Month, April 2022: The Manual Workers and the Intellectuals by János Mattis-Teutsch (1927)

Few artists moved between worlds as much as the painter and sculptor János Mattis-Teutsch (1884–1960), who was born in Brașov (Hung.: Brassó, Ger.: Kronstadt), but spent considerable time in Budapest, Bucharest, Munich, Paris and Berlin. This demonstrates the mobility of artists in Central Europe before and after the First World War, but it especially showcases the variety of artistic developments that ran throughout Europe since the early twentieth century. No matter which influence he followed, Mattis-Teutsch aimed at expressing the inner spirit of the human soul. He was close to Expressionist, spiritual and, later, Constructivist tendencies, on which he always put his own stamp, with a desire to unite ethical and aesthetic values. Reconciliation is also the theme of the painting presented here, The Manual Workers and the Intellectuals (1927), which marks a seldom-noted phase of his work towards the end of the 1920s, when the social aspirations of his art came into their own particularly strongly. Following artists such as Sándor Bortnyik (1893–1976), he sought to add a human touch to Constructivism. His ethereal figures represent generally human principles for a ‘New Man’ who was to move in the idealised space of a new society. The term ‘New Man’ gathered a wide variety of utopian ideas for the transformation of the human being in the interwar period, and found frequent expression in art.[1]

János Mattis-Teutsch: The Manual Workers and the Intellectuals, 1927, Muzeul de Artă, Brașov

The way in which Mattis-Teutsch amalgamated elements of the preceding art movements and returned to traditional forms is the subject of this analysis of his work. The unification of opposing tendencies came to the fore, of abstraction and figuration or newer and older tendencies, which constitutes the artist’s oeuvre at the end of the 1920s.

János Mattis-Teutsch

Brașov, where Mattis-Teutsch was born, is now in Romania, but in 1884 it was part of Austria-Hungary. His father was Hungarian, his mother Saxon-German. He received his initial artistic training in his hometown at the State Technical School for Wood and Stone Industry as a woodcarver, and then went to the School of Applied Arts in Budapest from 1901 to 1903. He then pursued a career as a sculptor and soon decided to continue his training in Munich, where, between 1903 and 1905, he was enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts. He attended the classes of Wilhelm von Rümann (1850–1906) and Balthasar Schmitt (1858–1942), two traditional German sculptors. Following a well-trodden path, he then moved to Paris, where he slowly orientated himself towards painting and graphic art, probably for financial reasons, because the material for sculptures was expensive. To earn a living, he made painting frames. He produced his first landscape paintings, which illustrate his interest in lyrical forms and colours. After the First World War, he returned to Brașov, where he worked as a teacher for the rest of his life, but continued to visit the art centres of Europe for a long time and also exhibited there.

Mattis-Teutsch was influenced by Expressionism, especially by the Blue Rider group in Munich, to which Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), Gabriele Münter (1877–1962) and Franz Marc (1880–1916) belonged. He initially produced broadly curved, rhythmic watercolours that became increasingly abstract and finally culminated in his famous series of Soul Flowers in 1920.[2] As early as 1917, Lajos Kassák (1887–1967) exhibited Mattis-Teutsch’s works in Budapest and printed them in his avant-garde magazine MA. After the First World War, Mattis-Teutsch also came into the circle of Herwarth Walden (1878–1941) who ran the Sturm gallery in Berlin, and he exhibited there alongside, for example, Paul Klee (1879-1940). Further exhibitions within Walden’s network in Berlin, Chicago and Rome followed, but they did not lead to an established position in Germany or elsewhere.

As was the case for many artists who came together in Berlin, and not only those from Central and Eastern Europe, working conditions and sales opportunities were often precarious. For left-wing artists in particular, this often led to a radicalisation and reformulation of socialist or utopian ideas, despite the many artists’ organisations that existed to support them.[3] Mattis-Teutsch joined the November Group of radical Expressionist artists, but like the Hungarian sculptor László Péri (1889–1967), who was also a member, there was often a lack of orientation in the Berlin environment, as people often did not want to toe the Communist party line. Many were therefore involved in several artists’ groups at the same time. Even Mattis-Teutsch’s temporary orientation towards Bucharest, which, since 1920 and the Treaty of Trianon, had become the most important contact point for the now Romanian city of Brașov, only helped to a limited extent. Although he quickly established contacts with the circle there around the painter Max Hermann Maxy (1895–1971) – his works appeared frequently in the journal Integral – this did not result in a stronger bond between the two. Edited by Maxy until 1928, Integral was one of the major avant-garde magazines in interwar Romania and work by prominent artists such as Tristan Tzara (1896–1963) and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876–1944) was published here. Reflecting the character of the Romanian art scene and its devotion to the latest trends across Europe, Integral showcased a diverse range of work, including Constructivism.[4] From 1928 onwards, Mattis-Teutsch withdrew completely to Brașov, partly because, after the Treaty of Trianon, international travel was much more difficult. He was, however, able to exhibit his works there regularly and, from 1928, also travelled more frequently to the artists’ colony in Baia Mare (before 1918: Nagybánya in Hungary). After 1945, he oriented himself in part to the emerging practice of Socialist Realism. He died in 1960.

A New Society?

The painting The Manual Workers and the Intellectuals (1927), now in the Art Museum in Brașov, marks a later phase in the artist’s development in the interwar period. This was to culminate in designs for large murals, none of which he ever executed. Only the tempera and oil sketches have survived, but they are monumental works in their own right and the artist exhibited them as a distinct series in 1933 in Brașov. The painting shows two groups of people in three vertically arranged lanes, on the inside, the group of reds, the workers, are striving downwards towards the earth, on the outside, the blues, the intellectuals, are orienting themselves towards the sky. Their bodies seem to merge into each other in a rudimentary way. A wedge-shaped form in the middle supports the downward movement; broad rhombic forms in the background carry the elongated, ethereal-looking figures, which also sit on pedestals. The painting seems to be about the formal arrangement of two opposing principles, without the contradictions between them being completely resolved. The intellectuals appear larger and embrace the centre of the picture, thus seeming to express their claim to leadership in society. The red workers appear more dynamic, but are also grounded. With its linear composition, the work is reminiscent of traditional figurative painting, but at the same time clearly shows the influences of Constructivism. The geometric structure with the three long rectangular panels, the simplified choice of colours and the floating pedestals indicate the affinity to this style.

Mattis-Teutsch leaves open whether a reconciliation between the two spheres is taking place. The answer seems obvious though, as the image presents a sense of rhythmic movement, as if the figures would dance with each other. With this work, the artist addresses an ideal unification, a landmark of Communist theory, since, as is well known, party doctrine stipulated that the revolution should be brought about by a well-educated leadership class of revolutionaries, who should then be followed by the masses of workers.[5] This concept indirectly refers to the fate of artists in relation to the working class. Can they, as privileged members of society, follow the masses, or are they doomed by their art practice to remain confined to the bourgeois sphere. As Steven Mansbach has pointed out, The Manual Workers and the Intellectuals attests not only Mattis-Teutsch’s interest in formal experimentation, but also the openness of the Romanian avant-garde towards ideas from beyond the nation’s borders.[6] For a long time after, Hungarian, Romanian or Saxon-German scholars tried to lay claim to the artist for themselves, but newer research points to the international character of Constructivist ideas.[7] They were a toolset for a socially engaged art across Europe, drawn from several sources. Mattis-Teutsch sought to amalgamate different influences through his travels, but never saw the necessity of binding his works to the confines of a specific nationality.

In this respect, Constructivism, which came from the Soviet Union in the early 1920s, aimed to produce an orderly ideal society by means of analogous images. It also sought to depict the shaping of time by technology in easy to understand and transferable pictures. Artists such as El Lissitzky (1890–1941) or Kazimir Malevich (1879–1935), who exhibited at the Van Diemen Gallery in Berlin in 1922, were important representatives of this movement. The movement soon spread to the whole of Europe, and was taken up by, for example, the Hungarian artists Lajos Kassák and Sándor Bortnyik, who can be regarded as important inventors and mediators of the style. Kassák, who repeatedly presented himself as the impresario of the Hungarian avant-garde, not least with magazines such as MA, was already discussing the political orientation of art during the First World War – and how socialist or independent it should be. After the collapse of Béla Kun’s (1886–1938) short-lived Soviet Republic in Hungary in 1919, he emigrated to Vienna, where he coined the term ‘space architecture’ to describe his Constructivist paintings. They consisted mostly of utopian spatial plans and floating surfaces, abstract surfaces which were, for him, a signpost out of the constraints of the time, a formula that soon became fashionable. Yet they also eventually spawned criticism for their abstractness, coldness and emptiness, for example, from Sándor Bortnyik, who also immigrated and spent time at the Bauhaus in Weimar. As already discussed on this blog, the latter’s pair of works The New Adam / The New Eve (1927), ironically posed the question of what role humans can play in the cold abstract machine world of Constructivism. The male becomes a mannequin, i.e. a machine himself, or just a playful dandy.

János Mattis-Teutsch: Composition, c. 1930

János Mattis-Teutsch: Composition, c. 1930, Muzeul de Artă, Brașov

Mattis-Teutsch’s Composition (c. 1930), in which the figures hold up a mirror to themselves, is also reminiscent of this self-reflection of the avant-garde. As in Bortnyik’s work, floating rectangular surfaces are the organising principle of the composition. In this case, Mattis-Teutsch contrasts the red with the blue figures. This intense preoccupation with colour pervaded his entire oeuvre, and drew heavily on Kandinsky’s idea of the spiritual quality of colours, itself informed by the spiritual and occult movements popular in Europe from the beginning of the twentieth century. However, the utopian Constructive thought became more important. Mattis-Teutsch organised his ephemeral human types vertically in space and thus tried to symbolise their ideal arrangement in society.

A sum of Modernism

Mattis-Teutsch summarised his aesthetic conception at the same time in his monograph Kunstideologie (Art Ideology, 1931), which he illustrated with images from the same group of mural designs to which the painting discussed here also belongs. He underlined the fact that his figurative and socially engaged art originates in elementary geometric forms and basic principles such as verticality.[8] The publication can be seen as an exhibition of artistic self-assurance and reorientation at the end of the Berlin period or after the final retreat to Brașov. It was published by the German publisher Kiepenheuer on the advice of the left-wing Cologne artists’ association Von a bis z (From a to z).[9] The Cologne artists had a strong interest in Constructivism and showed many similarities in the schematic-symbolic pictorial structure of their work. This visual language could be found in several left-wing artist groups of the time. Mattis-Teutsch’s book appears as a loose album, assembled from 73 of his drawings. Its structure is derived from very basic pictorial principles, the concepts of surface, line, plastic and image. Abstract geometric forms appear, paired with an aphorism that explores their formal meaning. From these principles he slowly moved back to figuration.

Book cover: János Mattis-Teutsch, Kunstideologie

Book cover: János Mattis-Teutsch, Kunstideologie, Stabilität und Aktivität im Kunstwerk, 1931

The greatest influence for Mattis-Teutsch may have been Kandinsky’s Bauhaus book Point and Line to Surface, published shortly before.[10] There, in a similar way, starting from the elementary forms of point and line, the Russian artist wanted to create a new discipline of art science that was to sound out optical phenomena on the border to natural science. This context can be understood as the scientific underpinning of Constructivism, which wanted to escape the political pitfalls of Communism and stay independent. With his book, Mattis-Teutsch did not want to deliver an extended art-analytical treatise. He placed the practical realisation of the elementary figures in the foreground and concentrated on the perception of the vertical in all its varieties, as the basis of the human shape. His book also presented the notion that figurative art is not the result of reactionary tendencies, but of optical principles that are part of the basic stock of human perception. The ‘New Man’ was a practical issue tied to a right kind of sensitivity.

The problem of the contemporary image of man had become increasingly important to the artist during the period after 1928, which saw continued visits to the artists’ colony of Nagybánya.[11]

János Mattis-Teutsch: Conveyer Belt, c. 1930

János Mattis-Teutsch: Assembly Line, c. 1930, Muzeul de Artă, Brașov

Coming back to the group of mural designs, it becomes apparent that they usually show bathers, young people and sportsmen, but also miners from the region. In this respect, the work Assembly Line can be understood as an ideal arrangement of a collective work process. Blue and red workers perform their duties on two work belts, again in unity. The vertical structure unites parts of a machine and illustrates the interaction of forces. The picture anticipates design elements of Socialist Realism without, however, becoming a mere affirmation of work. One could well have imagined the work as a wall relief. Mattis-Teutsch began to work more intensively as a sculptor again in the 1920s, and in the course of time, he increasingly created slender, towering figures in addition to his older expressionist and abstract forms. The Hungarian László Péri also switched from abstract Constructivist wall reliefs to figurative depictions of the working world at the end of the 1920s. In contrast, in Mattis-Teutsch’s oeuvre the combination of two-dimensional abstract forms and slender human figures reveals a desire for some kind of synthesis. As his Bauhaus contemporary the German artist Oskar Schlemmer (1888–1943), he is always concerned with the mediation of abstract and figurative forms without lapsing into sheer traditionalism.

For Mattis-Teusch, images were practical acts that were to have an effect on life, as idealised versions of man and society. In this sense, the artist’s series of works amalgamates several currents of the early twentieth century, which, from Expressionism to Constructivism, were always in tension with social impact. The mural designs articulated a grand programme, a synthesis and utopia that did not appear again afterwards. There have been repeated attempts to refer to his work after 1945, which bears the stamp of Socialist Realism. It would be fruitful to analyse this transition in the future, and maybe highlight the fact that the artist acted as a clever innovator between styles and art centres in the interwar period. He deserves more attention, as an artist who united intellectual tendencies of the time with the workers movement, without favouring one side or one particular style.

Christian Drobe

[1] Jean Clair and Pierre Théberge, eds, The 1930s: The making of the ‘New Man’ (Ottawa, 2008).

[2] Éva R. Bajkay and Hubertus Gaßner, eds, Mattis-Teutsch und der Blaue Reiter (Munich, 2001).

[3] Nikos Pegioudis, ‘Criticizing the Crisis. Intellectual Labour and Artistic Radicalism in Late Weimar Germany,’ Object,15 (2013) pp. 27–51.

[4] Roland Prügel, Im Zeichen der Stadt: Avantgarde in Rumänien 1920–1938 (Vienna and Cologne, 2008) p. 76.

[5] This concept is mostly referred to as vanguardism, which is then again sometimes called the fraternal twin of the avant-garde for its idea of intellectual leadership and forwardness. See John W. Maerhofer, Rethinking the Vanguard: Aesthetic and Political Positions in the Modernist Debate 1917–1962 (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2009).

[6] Steven Mansbach, ‘The “Foreignness” of Classical Romanian Art,’ The Art Bulletin 80.3 (1998) p. 542.

[7] Prügel, Im Zeichen der Stadt, p. 122.

[8] János Mattis-Teutsch, Kunstideologie: Stabilität und Aktivität im Kunstwerk (Potsdam, 1931).

[9] Éva Bajkay, ‘Der Berliner Sturm,‘ in Mattis-Teutsch und der Blaue Reiter, eds Bajkay and Gaßner, p. 78.

[10] Wassily Kandinsky, Punkt und Linie zu Fläche: ein Beitrag zur Analyse der malerischen Elemente (Munich, 1928).

[11] Monika Wucher, ‘Ein monumentales Programm: Mattis-Teutsch und die Werkgruppe der Wandbildentwürfe,‘ in Bajkay and Gaßner, eds, Mattis-Teutsch und der Blaue Reiter, p. 114.

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/N7JCS

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