Saturday, August 13, 2011

Romania and the Avant-Garde

Valery Oisteanu

Art lovers in Bucharest and Amsterdam have recently found themselves challenged by two shows reclaiming the roots and sources of the European Avant-garde.

“From Dada to Surrealism: Jewish Avant-Garde Artists in Romania, 1910-1938” is a scholarly exhibit that presents the merits of some great artists and their masterpieces. The viewer is confronted with a Jewish sensibility used to capture and translate influences from Romanian folklore, Modernist sculpture, and early Dada literature. This revolution in art started among the cosmopolitan, sophisticated, sometimes self-doubting Romanian Jewish literary and theatrical community in Bucharest.

As curators, art historian and rabbi Edward van Voolen and learned art collector Dr. Radu Stern trace a large cluster of artsy Semites—pre-Dada, proto-surrealist, and avant-avant-gardes—to Romania. In the well-installed exhibit and multimedia presentation at the rotunda of Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, they give us a fascinating look at an innocent moment in the development of Romanian art called “Integralism,” when revolutionary optimism and innovation flourished.

Facts reveal that Dada is universal. It appeared in New York City, Zurich, and Berlin almost at the same time. Dada was not suddenly blown over from the East, but was rather a series of tornados created by a collision of old and new civilizations, a collision that was not provincial, but international, not ethnic, but arising from the epic scope of a “man of the world.”

The show opens with two of Marcel Janco’s pivotal dada-theater props, which later blossomed into important objets d’art from the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. In the 1920s, Janco (1895-1984) and, later, Victor Brauner (1903-1966), affirmed experimentalism: surrealism, abstract, expressionistic works, picto-poetry, Constructivism—nothing was too radical.

Of course, Eastern European influences were crucial for Global Dada. But Tristan Tzara and his cabaret were trying to catch up with the antics by Marinetti and Alfred Jarry. The big influence of Jewish anti-philosophical and anti-religious discourse was soon over taken by the German and French surrealists with more political posture, and Dada/Surrealism became truly international.

Arthur Segal’s works (1875-1944) represent an earlier generation of inventors of contemporary art. The works reveal early pointillism, cubism, and abstraction. His student, Max Herman Maxy (1895-1971), one of the great painters and teachers for avant-garde artists, was also breaking away from bourgeois tastes with his cubist nudes voluptuous and sexy. The works of Segal, Maxy, Victor Brauner, Jules Perahim, and Paul Paun are iconic masterpieces of the 20th century; these Romanians predate more widely known Italian Futurists, Russian Constructivists, and German Expressionists.

Surrealism and post-surrealism marked the ongoing revolt of the international spirit. Dada’s forefathers in Bucharest are bundled together here for the strengthening of national pride. Such subdivisions may only be good for the popular culture of “turnstile” museums, but go against the grain of avant-garde’s underground spirit of cosmopolitanism. The dadaists would have said: That is insufficient Dada! The sources of such confusion about this infusion of Jews in the avant-garde—and we must also factor in educated Jews from Transylvania and Moldavia arriving in Bucharest in the early 20th Century— has little to do with ethnic and religious Jewishness and more to do with the advancement of secular Jewish thought exemplified by Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, and Albert Einstein. The idea of an open, non-religious spirituality in artistic practice seemed more inspiring and attractive, although “that good old Jewish-radical quarrelsomeness” was a big part of it. Eventually they all saddle up for nothing. Dada is Nada!

The curators’ conclusion is that Bucharest was an important epicenter of the avant-garde. Even Marinetti came to Romania (Craiova) in 1909 to launch international Futurism and enact his manifesto; indeed, a great number of literary and avant-garde magazines and books flourished in Bucharest. Ironically, however, most of the artists quickly escaped the “Dada nursery” and affirmed themselves elsewhere, in cities such as Paris, Zurich, London, and Tel Aviv. The Romanian avant-garde “brain drain” and diasporisation continued five decades after the war: Eugene Ionesco, Stefan Baciu, Sesto Pals, Paul Paun, Oscar Pastior, Jules Perahim were among some1000 artists and literati who moved out of Bucharest, not so much because of anti-Semitism, but to pursue a more free way of life in non-dictatorial societies.

What’s most striking is how contemporary and fresh the works in this exhibit still look today. There is a common undercurrent of a need for experimentation by most of these extraordinary artists. One caveat: Jacques Herold—considered by R. Stern to be “more French avant-garde” than Romanian—and Gherasim Luca, poet and inventor of Cubomania (collages of squares), both surrealist artists and Romanian Jews, are conspicuously absent from this show.

The second exhibit, in Bucharest, is “The Roots and Echoes of the Avant-garde,” from the permanent collection at the Library of the Romanian Academy under the guidance of Catalina Macovei, who introduces and displays the paintings and the illustrated books. These graphic contributions of Romanian artists, a treasure trove of 72 artworks, 40 vintage books, and “micrographie” (images created from text by Tristan Tzara) is an academically laid-out exhibit, probably the first of its kind after the fall of Communism.

Here, the inclusion of several Romanian women artists such as Milita Petrascu, Margareta Sterian, and Nina Arbore, and some forgotten names like Lazar Zin, Iosif Ross, Corneliu Mihailescu, and Jean David, have created an important show of largely unknown works. One rarity, not to be missed, is 40 Chansons et Dechansons by Tzara, as illustrated by Jacques Herold.

The catalogue opens with an essay by Magda Cirneci, “The Jews of the Romanian Avant Garde,” which balances regional with ethnic pride and presents valid observations about the disproportionate number of Jews involved, introducing the idea of a “high standard” in art as well.

These kindred exhibits in two European countries with, joined by the common thread of Dada, might seem improbable but are clearly not impossible. Amsterdam and Bucharest are still fully in the avant-garde mode.

From Dada to Surrealism: Jewish Avant-Garde Artists in Romania, 1910-1938 Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam June 1 - October 2, 2011

The Roots and Echoes of the Avant-garde Graphic Collection of The Library of Romanian Academy, Bucharest Spring, 2011

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