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A detective story Hans Mattis Teutsch’s 1917-18 paintings of anthropomorphic trees.

A detective story

Hans Mattis Teutsch’s 1917-18 paintings of anthropomorphic trees.

It was towards the end of 1916 when the already 32 years old and shortly before with two small children widowed Hans Mattis Teutsch – who was then working as a teacher of drawing in Ujpest, in the vicinity of Budapest – got in touch with Lajos Kassák and his newly launched monthly periodical “MA” (meaning today) for “Literature and fine arts”. The preceding participations with his paintings at different exhibitions were not accompanied by any mentionable success. Kassák was however immediately impressed by his paintings and cuts and he has reproduced already on the front page of the fourth, 1917 February issue of his magazine one of his linocuts and on its pages two of his paintings and one of his woodcuts. In the following Mattis Teutsch became during the almost 3 years long existence of MA, preceding its emigration to Vienna – with 17 of his cuts and 6 of his paintings – its most frequently published artist. Besides Kassák organized in October 1917 in the newly opened exhibition locality of MA in Budapest also the first exhibition of MA of his works. Thereafter in September 1918 Mattis Teutsch participated with 4 of his paintings at the 3rd collective exhibition of MA and shortly thereafter in the scope of the 5th exhibition 62 of his works – 52 paintings and 10 cuts – were presented.

Regarding the 1917 exhibition we do not own any essential information, since the photography published on page 15 of Julia Szabo’s “Mattis Teutsch János” monography, published 1983 by Corvina in Budapest, turned out as erroneous, because it originated from a later, 1919 exhibition in Brasov, which becomes also obvious from the later than 1917 origin of the works which one can see therein.

The works – 42 oil paintings and 10 watercolors – shown in the 1918 exhibition and listed simultaneously in MA without individual titles, cannot be identified, except the 4 oil-paintings reproduced in the same issue. From those one can clearly conclude that they belong to a new series, created after the one with anthropomorphic trees and landscape like backgrounds and that they are substantially more abstract than those and that therefore the anthropomorphic treelike character of their figures is less obvious than of those of the one year earlier created paintings.

From this one can conclude with a probability close to certainty that the paintings shown here below as figures number 1. to 5. and similar – part of which were created already before the 1917 MA-exhibition – were not exhibited there because owing to the clearly recognizable landscape character of their backgrounds they didn’t obtain Kassák’s agreement. Anyway there exists nothing to indicate their participation at the 1918 MA exhibition either. Besides the fact of Mattis Teutsch’s so soon termination of that series and the creation of another new one, with a remote similarity to it, seems also to suggest its failing success. It seems that the paintings with anthropomorphic tree-figures and landscape like backgrounds came into the possession of some friends of Hans Mattis Teutsch from where, following their deaths around the 1970´s, they were sold by their heirs – at modest prices – to different Hungarian museums and a Transylvanian museum in Romania.

In this context is also remarkable that in the first monography following the 1960 death of Hans Mattis Teutsch – published by the Bukarest editor Kriterion in 1972 and written by Zoltán Banner in Hungarian language – none of the 1917 or 1918 oil paintings figured as illustrations – except an erroneously 1909-1910 dated water-color (as figure 20) – with anthropomorphic tree figures and landscape character background. The first publication of some of their examples was in Julia Szabo’s above already mentioned 1983 monography (figures 20, 21, 24, 25, 29 and 33). The systematic and adequate treatment and analysis of this category of paintings is despite of their eminent art-historical importance still missing. This short essay cannot be considered else in that context, as a modest initial attempt to fill the corresponding gap.

From the relevant category of paintings three clearly distinguishable varieties exist. On the one side the earlier created paintings with backgrounds of landscape character, representing mostly interpersonal relationships – like friendship, love and in one case even violence – and the similar style ones without backgrounds of landscape character representing historical, biblical or familiar events. With other words these two varieties can be characterized that they are symbolically depicting respectively expressing events or announcements. On the other side the somewhat later created paintings of the third variety having neither backgrounds of landscape character, nor clearly perceptible event description. Their common denominator with the paintings of the first two varieties consists in anthropomorphic treelike figures.

This to confirm appears Ivan Hevesy’s with the 1918 November exhibition simultaneous script in MA by its accentuated sentence: “from the real forms of nature he is creating abstract artistic forms, which aren’t thereby any more the symbols of objects, but expressions of sentiments.” Even if this is not calling by name that what in my sight is the fundamentally novel and inventive anthropomorphic representation of trees, at least it recognizes that by means of these works Mattis Teutsch is creating something to which one can attribute a superhuman, godlike feature, since otherwise the fine arts are only able to produce something. What we know in this context is on the one hand that Mattis Teutsch has created according to the evidence of the remaining examples in this style in the course of a short period only about one dozen paintings, from which one can conclude that those not only Kassák’s part but also from the critic’s and public’s side didn’t meet noteworthy success and understanding, assuming that those last mentioned had at all opportunities to get to know them. On the other hand that a substantial part of those paintings representing anthropomorphic trees about half a century later became part of the property of leading Hungarian museums, the Hungarian National Gallery, the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts, the Budapest Capital Gallery, the Budapest Kassák Museum, the Janus Pannonius Museum of Pécs, the Xantus Janos Museum of Györ and the Sepsiszentgyörgy Muzeul de Arta in Rumania, which seems to indicate that the experts, even if with delay, recognized their fundamental importance and novelty.

From the first two varieties of the painting series in question actually about a dozen versions are known, about 10 with landscape character and 5 biblical subjects. Besides Mattis Teutsch realized the majority of themes of the paintings also in the form of linocuts, whose reproductions are shown in the appendix below.

The question which of the works concerned figured at that time in exhibitions is impossible to answer due to the lack of titles and of contemporary photos and reproductions. The sole reference in this regard are the 4 paintings reproduced in the 1918 November issue of MA, from which one can assume that they were shown in the exposition as well. One of those is the several times reproduced and exhibited painting representing the death respectively the burial of the painter’s wife, known since under the title “White Cross”. It is however very questionable whether the here below as figures 1. to 5. reproduced paintings with backgrounds in landscape style figured at MA’s 1918 November exhibition. It is a fact that no contemporary reproductions of them are known.

From the short life-character of the painting series in question – one could also say instead from its lack of success – one may conclude to regard that as reason for its discontinuation. One can namely suppose with a substantial probability that Kassák’s reason for banning these paintings with landscape character backgrounds from the pages and exhibitions of MA consisted partly therein that he didn’t realize their basic novelty and symbolism and partly because he saw in them representatives of the traditional landscape painting, which in his opinion didn’t have place in MA’s progressive concept. This is a good example for the demonstration that the occasional errors or misjudgements of great and important individuals – like Kassák – may turn out also as great and important.

With regard to that one can regard it is very fortunate, that important examples of the paintings concerned nevertheless survived and that their substantial part became museum property.

I am restricting myself here below to the presentation of 5 examples of paintings showing anthropomorphic trees with landscape character backgrounds and 4 paintings of the varieties which are representing real events. Owing to the circumstance that Mattis Teutsch according to the then and there prevailing didn’t give titles to his paintings, their titles of interpretative character originate from myself. I well aware of it that presumably not all readers of my lines shall agree with them I believe however that they are with no doubt preferable to the condition without title. According to my view and judgement the paintings concerned can be regarded as clear proves of it that these works of Mattis Teutsch – by the anthropomorphic representation of their trees – are witnesses of a basic and significant invention, which would already by itself justify his place in the peak region of world art.

To Kassák’s rejecting and negative reaction Mattis Teutsch’s answer consisted in a new series of paintings which didn’t have recognizable backgrounds with landscape character and the anthropomorphic tree character of their represented figures was also less obvious. With other words th became more abstract in comparison to the earlier variety of paintings. Owing to the circumstance that the paintings of the earlier variety survived – in the scope of a fifty years long slumber – and became public thereafter we have the possibility to compare the two varieties. In the scope of that and according to my unavoidably subjective judgement the paintings of the earlier variety – products of the original inspiration of a great artist – appear to be more charismatic in comparison to those the later variety born presumably under the effect of a certain pressure.

1. A delightful encounter, 1916 – 17 (Oil / Cardboard, 40 x 49 cm)

2. Springtime – Man and juvenile greeting a group of dancing girls, 1917 -18 (Oil / Cardboard, 50 x 60 cm)

3. Female friends, 1917 – 18 (Oil / Cardboard, 40 x 49 cm)

4. Lovers, 1917 – 18 (Oil / Cardboard, 34 x 45 cm)

5. Embracement 1917-18 (Oil / Cardboard, 50 x 50 cm)  Hungarian  National Gallery

6. Violence, 1918 (Oil / Cardboard, 60 x 69 cm)

7. Nativity, 1918 (Oil / Cardboard, 50 x 50 cm)

8. Golgotha, 1918, (Oil / Cardboard, 40 x 50 cm)

9. Jona in storm, 1918 (Oil / Cardboard, 34 x 44 cm)

10. The white cross, 1918 (Oil / Canvas, 73 x 84 cm)

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11. Embracing couple with children, 1918 (Oil / Cardboard, 40 x 35 cm)

12. Figures, 1918 (Oil / Canvas, 60 x 70 cm)

13. Scene, 1918 (Paper / Pastel, 15 x 16 cm)

Already from the few above paintings representing anthropomorphic trees it becomes clear that love and friendship are the dominating subjects of these works of Mattis Teutsch. Considering the character of the trees, these are also practically the only ones which can in regarded to be in harmony with them. By the recognition and outstanding representation of this in many convincing forms and versions Mattis Teutsch has well deserved our admiration, appreciation and even gratitude. A special mentioning deserves in this context the ingenious however by the art-historians and -critics so far unrecognized circumstance, how did he express by means of various colors applied on the trunks of the trees the gender and age of the individuals symbolized by them. Within the scope of this the light violet is symbolizing the young and the darker one the older female individuals. The color characterizing the male gender is green which is also applied in a light and dark version. According to the signs there exist even exceptions of this – like in the case of the man in love of figure 4 – where he is symbolized by rose color as hint to his ecstatic state of mind. On the basis of that one can speak of a sort of twin symbolism, partly expressed by means of the gestures of the anthropomorphic tree figures and of their mutual positions and partly by the colors of the trunks, which might well evoke admiration.

Last but not least I intend also to express my explanations respectively assumptions regarding the question why remained so far in spite of their unique nature, ingenuity and outstanding art-historical importance the deserved due appreciation of Mattis Teutsch’s anthropomorphic tree representations missing? In my opinion at least mainly because of NATIONALISM.

The painter, graphic artist, sculptor, poet, art ideologist, known under the name of János Mattis Teutsch, was born 1884 as the son of a Hungarian tailor, János Matis, who died already prior of his birth, and of Josefin Schneider, a Transylvanian-German woman, in the then to Habsburg monarchy’s Hungarian kingdom belonging Transylvanian town Brasso – in German Kronstadt -which became following the peace-treaty of Trianon in 1919 part of Rumania. His widowed mother married soon, already prior of his birth, Károly Frigyes Teutsch, an employee at the local slaughter-house and part of the local Transylvanian-Saxon minority. As a consequence of this he became baptized as Mátis János Frigyes..

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At the Wood Industrial School in Brasov he was figuring until 1901 as János Teutsch. During his studies in Budapest between 1901 and 1902 he figured as Mátisz Teutsch János and in the following, in the course of his studies in Munich between 1902 and 1905, he was using the Johann Teutsch name. At his age of 20 he adopted officially the Máttis-Teutsch János Frigyes, name, which he didn’t use ever in this form. In this context the sudden origin of the double -”t” in the family name is unclear and not even his grandson Waldemar has the slightest idea about it. Finally – presumably around 1908 – he changed over to the use of the family name without accent. This means that during his youth he was figuring under some six different names what could hardly have had a strengthening effect to his self-confidence.

To this came that partly because of his familiar situation and thereafter – after 1919- due to the political situation – he couldn’t ever feel himself really to belong to any of the three possible nationalities – Hungarian, German or Rumanian – and wasn’t either considered as such and really supported by them.

The language of his childhood and of his schools, that is his mother tongue, was German. Correspondingly he wrote later his essays and poetry without exception in German.

According to my sight and judgement the paintings of Hans Mattis Teutsch which are the subject of this script may be considered owing to the anthropomorphic representation of their trees as witnesses of a fundamental and important innovation respectively invention, which would already by itself justify his place at the peak of world-art. In sense of a confirmation of it that he was obviously the owner of such an ability, respectively talent, I am mentioning here also another of his series of paintings, from 1921 – 22, which obtained from him later, in 1950, in the dedication of map presented to his newborn grandson the extremely well fitting title of “Spiritual Flowers”. Following the truly chaotic and extensive use of it in the literature about Mattis Teutsch I have established a clear and precise definition it according to which there are actually only about 20 examples which are satisfying it and from which – as a final accord – a bunch of four paintings is reproduced here below.

14. – 17. Spiritual Flowers, 1921 – 22 (Oil / Cardboard, 36 x 29 cm)

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Mattis Teutsch as a creative artist is characterized – besides his rare many-sidedness, since he wasn’t only active as painter but also as graphic artist, sculptor, poet and aesthete – above all his extraordinary spiritual sensitivity. That delivers the explanation of the sudden very strong and many sided creative energy, which towards the end of 1917 Kassák’s – on the basis of his previous experiences truly surprising – confidence released in him and was playing during about 10 years a decisive role in the formation of his many-sided art. In a similar way that is enabling also the understanding of his about 12 years long creative pause towards the early 1930’s and its end due to the emerging political and social hope at the end of the 2nd. world war.

The surprising circumstance that his works between 1945 and his death in 1960 did not have any similarity to the earlier, between 1917 and 1927 created ones is a further mystery and curiosity regarding this in every aspect extraordinary person and artist.

Nicolas Eber /

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Linocuts of Hans Mattis Teutsch with identical subjects as his paintings from 1917-18

18. Springtime greeting, 165 x 165 mm

19. Joyful encounter, 185 x 110 mm

20. Jona in the storm, 145 x 137 mm

21. Return of the lost son, 145 x 155 mm

22. Nativty, 165 x 158 mm

23. Golgotha, 140 x 162 mm

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