The Broken Avant-garde of Max Hermann Maxy
The exhibition currently displayed by the National Museum of Arts of Romania (MNAR) in honour of Max Hermann Maxy is both an artistic and a historical event. Despite its limitations and imperfections, “M. H. Maxy: From Avant-gardisme to Socialism” offers precious insight into one of the least known, but most noteworthy, avant-garde movements in interwar Europe: integralism. The chronological organisation offers the visitor, for the very first time, a panorama of the ambitious artist’s entire work, which includes the discredited propaganda works in the service of the Communist regime. Maxy, who not coincidentally is also the founder and first director of MNAR, is the first controversial Romanian avant-garde painter who receives this kind of official treatment, although some semi-private galleries cautiously started this effort to publicly rehabilitate and reassess notable artists associated with the communist regime, such as his friend the constructivist painter Hans or János Mattis-Teutsch, just a few years before.
Integralism is born in 1923, with M.H. Maxy’s Bucharest exhibition of his works conceived during his studies at the Berlin Academy, in the ambience of the left-wing Novembergruppe, significantly influenced by Vladimir Tatlin’s constructivism and Kasimir Malevitch’s suprematism brought by Russian refugees in the aftermath of the German revolution of 1918, where he benefited greatly from the friendship of Arthur Segal, a Romanian émigré in the German capital and like-minded painter. It becomes an artistic programme the following year, with the publication of his artistic creed in the magazine “Contimporanul” entitled “Pictorial Chronometer”. In 1925, with the launch of the magazine “Unul” (“One”), integralism becomes a movement, which gathers around it more or less the entire Romanian artistic and even literary avant-garde of the 1920s. Nevertheless, it is at once a highly European and highly Romanian artistic phenomenon. Integralism, also known as synthesism, draws its resources from the pre-World War One Romanian artistic avant-garde, overwhelmingly represented by symbolism, which during the war gives birth to Dadaism, but sets itself the uncompromising purpose to fundamentally renew it through the absorption of the most advanced and progressive artistic ideas and practices from all over the continent, whence in part its name (the other part refers to the mathematical, and more broadly scientific, rigour it purports to use in the treatment of line, colour and subject). The radical left-wing politics of the majority of the group’s members will involve the group in heated ideological as well as aesthetic debates that form the backbone of Romania’s cultural history to this day, while the minority origins of many of its members sometimes left integralism, or Romanian modernism in general, vulnerable to being slandered as “alien” to Romanian national culture, although even Maxy’s first works right after 1918 – unfortunately not shown in the exhibition – are actually inspired by the commitment of his Bucharest art professors, most notably the painters Camil Ressu and Ion Theodorescu-Sion, both co-founders of “Arta Română” society, to a neo-realist, even patriotic, art in opposition to the sentimental, even formalist, art of “Tinerimea artistică” (“Artistic Youth”), a 1901 Romanian artistic society which first challenged academism in the Romanian arts.
The thorny relationship between art and politics is also the exhibition’s main theme, explicitly as well as implicitly. Maxy embodies at the same the innovative, multifaceted, free and provocative artist of interwar Romania as well as, after 1947, the dull, conformist, party-enlisted and almost invisible, but powerful, Czar of the arts in the communist state he militated for. This antinomy between the artistic persona of the militant communist before and after the “communist revolution” has become such a fixture of post-communist historical and cultural analysis that, viewed only from this perspective, the exhibition might bore the visitor. The added value of the event consists in the glimpses it offers with regard to Maxy’s creativity oscillations within these two broad periods: one characterized by artistic freedom and – only relative – marginalisation, the other characterized by consented artistic repression and the authority of a recognized official status.
The 1920s are undoubtedly the most creative period in Maxy’s career as a painter as well as a designer, for he has always taught at the Bucharest School of Decorative Arts rather than the Beaux-Arts Academy. It is the period, particularly the first half of the 1920s, in which he succeds in attaining a personal, integralist, style. In it, he melts Kandinsky-like abstract geometrical forms, which populate the constructivist universe, with a violent use of colour, in the manner of Der Strum expressionist movement, so as to recompose the painted image as a new, dynamic, almost cinematographic, whole, generally celebrating the technological promise of the modern world. The end result – in Maxy’s best works such as “Veiled Nude”, “Meissen”, “Electric Madonna”, “Sawmill Workers” or the portraits of the poets Dominic, Ion Călugăru and Tristan Tzara – is neither the static decomposing cubism of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, nor the swirling futurist landscapes of points, lines and colour of Gino Severini and Umberto Baccioni, although these intense works are sometimes referred to as “constructo-cubist”. The 1930s, however, are marked by artistic stagnation or even regress, with most of Maxy’s paintings, often consisting of industrial workers and common folk in daily domestic activities, appearing as unfinished, as first sketches for “integralist” elaborations. What can explain this inequality in artistic output in the prime age of an artist who just found his own style and created a movement as well as a few disciples to propagate it?
The 1930s in Romania are no better than the 1920s, and one may say without error that they are not worse either. It is, as everywhere in the world, a turbulent period, marked by the economic depression, strikes, social unrest and the rise of fascist movements as well as heightened international tensions, but democracy and individual liberty are safeguarded, at least until 1938, while artistic liberty is generally respected even after the institution of the so-called Carlist regime. This means that the break in Maxy’s artistic development cannot have been caused by political oppression. Maybe he is unsure of his artistic path. Indeed, geometrical abstraction, even cubism, goes out of fashion in the 1930s all over Europe, supplanted by surrealism, with only a few faithful remaining and often taking refuge abroad, such as Piet Mondrian in New York, from where they returned in the late 1940s with New World converts and enthusiasm. But Maxy, despite the very cordial relations he has with surrealist painters such as Victor Brauner, who is featured in the integralist magazine “One” as early as the late 1920s, doesn’t show any doubt with regard to his artistic creed or any intention to move on, like Picasso, throughout this period. Consequently, the only logical explanation for the involution of Maxy’s art in the 1930s is self-censorship. In present-day Romania, Maxy is often celebrated as a Jewish painter, in fact even the MNAR exhibition was opened in the presence of the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania, but for the flesh and blood M.H. Maxy his commitment to the communist cause categorically trumpeted his Jewish identity, no matter how much commentators surmise that it is precisely the “outsider” identity (practically all but absent in his work) that explains the unshaken allegiance of secular Jewish intellectuals like him to the cause in the first place. The self-censorship one must infer from his dull 1930s artistic output, disproportionately featuring workers and peasants, is in actuality the voluntary internalization of the Communist International’s ideological guidelines for the worldwide communist movements, including those that had to operate underground, such as the 1924 banned Romanian Communist Party. Under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, the Comintern abandoned early anarchic modernism, from which constructivism sprung up and with which Dadaism, Bauhaus as well as a few other left-wing intellectual and artistic groups mingled and initially made a pact with, in favour of a more conservative and accessible visual culture known as socialist realism.
Compared to many of the avant-garde movements integralism interacted and at the same time competed with, the Romanian modernist movement, or the second avant-garde to be more precise, appears as an ambitious, promising but underachieving, even broken, artistic movement – and this observation holds true well before the emergence of a political environment hostile to the freedom to experiment and exchange of ideas necessary for such a movement to thrive. Unlike the surrealist movement, at the end of the 1940s, or the Bauhaus movement in the 1930s, the integralists never repudiated their political allegiance to dogmatic orthodox communism in favour of artistic autonomy or demanded a democratic, non-atrophied, form of socialism, as most of the 1968 left-wing generation will do later on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The pre-eminence of sectarian politics and blind revolutionary faith over aesthetic considerations constitute, despite some remarkable works along the way, the root cause of their weakness, their feeble influence, meagre contemporary recognition and posthumous legacy.
In the mid 1960s, during the so-called liberalization and destalinization phase of the Romanian communist regime, M.H. Maxy, now an influential party and state official, abandons the socialist realism style he adopted as well as imposed on painters all over the country since the overthrow of the old regime, but the mostly constructivist rather than integralist output he produced during this period, featuring portraits of old avant-garde comrades such as the poet and journalist Geo Bogza, the absurd writer Urmuz or the sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi, pales in originality compared to his early 1920s work that established his reputation. Only his framed abstract geometrical collages, in part reminiscent of the Dada influence on him and which will exert considerable influence through his decorative arts students on communist industrial logos, posters and mosaics, stand up as a breath of fresh air in a sort of parody of his own artistic development.
For the present-day Romanian public, M.H. Maxy is a sort of Janus-like relic of a traumatic past, not an icon of our liberated aesthetic modernity, as are many of his friends and contemporaries celebrated in the permanent exhibition of museums such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Cultural critics proudly point out his praiseworthy and almost singular ambition to come up with a new, original as well as encompassing, synthesis of the burgeoning modern European art scene from the crucial years immediately preceding and succeeding World War One, but they struggle to find continuity in his efforts, while cultural historians like to point out the compromising, almost suicidal artistically, nature of his career, his conformist personality and the ideologically tarnished quality of his production. The MNAR exhibition reveals for the first time to the broader public both of Maxy’s faces in the same space, the avant-garde artist as well as the committed communist ideologue, while previously an integral view of his personality required two separate buildings and perhaps even two sets of visitors. It is, however, an open question whether the show – which would have benefited greatly from the presence of his war time graphic, more designed pieces from his studio as well as the work of close collaborators and pupils – reveals something new about M.H. Maxy and his artistic legacy.