Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 12, 2024
Alexandra Chiriac Performing Modernism: A Jewish Avant-Garde in Bucharest Berlin: De Gruyter, 2022. 232 pp.; 23 color ills. Paper $45.99 (9783110765588)

For historians of East European art, who have long labored to fill gaps in the historical record left by loss or disregard, the publication of compelling new information in Alexandra Chiriac’s recent book, Performing Modernism: A Jewish Avant-Garde in Bucharest, will be most welcome. Chiriac not only provides newly uncovered material on design and theater in interwar Romania that corrects long-held assumptions, but also enriches the chronicle of Jewish and women’s contributions to the avant-garde with fresh insights.

Chiriac establishes her position at the outset: bringing design and theater into the foreground enlarges the arena of avant-garde activity and challenges the avant-garde narrative that has kept these fields at the margins of European modernism. In response to previous critiques of the Romanian avant-garde as merely eclectic, Chiriac presents a counterargument that considers the diversity and innovative synthesis in avant-garde applied arts and performance within the specific historical circumstances of postwar Romania. This avant-garde was predominantly a Jewish vanguard, operating in a post-World War I environment where a burgeoning Romanian nationalism dismissed modern art in favor of looking back to folk art and Eastern Orthodox religious art as templates for a national style. This cultural context, Chiriac observes, created tensions and surprising successes for the Jewish avant-garde artists, and reinforced their embrace of the new, the transnational, and the performative. Yet, these Jewish contributions were not monolithic nor were the backgrounds of their creators.

Jewish painter and theater designer Max Herman Maxy plays a large role in this book, but other familiar Jewish figures of Romanian modernism—Tristan Tzara, Marcel Iancu (Janco), and Victor Brauner—are mostly off-stage. Instead, Chiriac highlights figures whose careers and artistic achievements have been overlooked, or in some instances, erased from the avant-garde narrative. The book chronicles pivotal events in both the applied arts and experimental theater, bridging the two segments through the ideas of performance and collaboration.

The Academy of Decorative Arts in Bucharest was central to the development of avant-garde design as a site of resistance to nationalist aesthetics, and Chiriac begins her account of the academy by reinstating its founder, designer Andrei Vespremie, to the historical record. Originally from a Jewish family in Transylvania, Vespremie had recently returned to Bucharest from Berlin, where he had trained in design and visual arts at the Schule Reimann. With funding from the Jewish philanthropist Heinrich Fischer-Galați, he founded the Academy of Decorative Arts in 1924, introducing seventeen fields of study during his tenure, and thus became central to modernist design in Bucharest. Chiriac determines that Vespremie’s role as founder and developer of the academy’s curriculum has been obscured over the years by the assumption that Maxy had been the original driving force behind the school and had modeled the curriculum after that of the Bauhaus. As she relates, this misconception was due in part to Maxy’s self-promotion after assuming the leadership of the academy following Vespremie’s sudden departure for Latvia in 1927, and to sparse documentation on either Vespremie or the academy in Romanian archives. Chiriac constructs a more comprehensive and accurate history of the institution with her discovery of academy-related documents in Vespremie’s file in the Latvian State Historical Archives, demonstrating in detail that the curriculum he established at the academy in 1924 was not modeled after the iconic Bauhaus but was much closer in content and purpose to that which he had experienced at the innovative but less well-known Schule Reimann.

In a chapter devoted to a close study of objects produced in the workshops of the academy, Chiriac gathers an array of archival images from museums, avant-garde journals, and private collections to follow the artistic paths of Vespremie and Maxy in four of the main workshops: metalwork, bookbinding, graphic arts, and textiles. Once again, she finds that she must bring Vespremie out from the shadow cast by Maxy, a shadow made large over the ensuing decades by his long career associated with the avant-garde and, later, his directorship of the Romanian National Art Museum for twenty-one years until his death in 1971. Chiriac’s careful scrutiny of these works connects Vespremie’s designs to his training at the Schule Reimann and leads her to conclude that Vespremie was likely Maxy’s instructor and also the stylistic source for several of Maxy’s early designs.

Ensuring that the objects created by the academy workshops served an instructive role for the public and circulated in the commercial sphere of Bucharest life, became the project of Maxy’s wife, Mela Brun-Maxy. She utilized her business acumen to establish the academy’s exhibition space for the sale of art objects in 1926. Her contributions had gone unacknowledged until now, but, according to documents viewed by Chiriac in a private collection, Brun-Maxy alone negotiated and signed an agreement with Vespremie and Fischer-Galați to undertake the role of administrator of the commercial section, as well as to finance the venture with a large sum of money. Only a month later, she organized the academy’s first selling exhibition, which appears in striking period photographs as completely orchestrated interiors that, for Chiriac, evoke a consumable Gesamtkunstwerk and give the public a model for living in a modern home. Chiriac deftly uncovers the gendering that surrounded the idea of “modern” in architecture, decoration, and the marketplace in this period, describing how Brun-Maxy’s work in the commercial section of the academy is subsumed under her husband’s name, and confirming that here, as in so many historical instances, “masculine creation appropriates and eclipses a woman’s work” (101).

For Chiriac, spaces like Brun-Maxy’s academy exhibitions were engaging in the spectacle that was the modern marketplace and thus, to quote her title, “performing modernism.” It is fitting, then, that the stage-set quality of the contemporary storefront becomes the unifying link between the commercial aspect of the design field and the second half of the book, which concentrates on avant-garde theater in Romania in the interwar period. Chiriac takes issue with the marginalization of avant-garde performance, blaming a critical aversion to the concept of spectacle as well as the transient nature of performance. Most of the productions presented here have not attracted scholarly attention, but Chiriac is able to bring many of these performances back to life through reviews, set designs, and photographs.

These include those of the Vilna Troupe, which organized as an itinerant Jewish theater company in Vilnius in 1915, moving first to Warsaw before settling into a four-year residency in Bucharest in 1923. Chiriac charts the development of several of the Vilna Troupe’s productions, paying special attention to the innovative contributions of Maxy, who pushed his experimental set designs into constructivism. The Vilna Troupe achieved surprising popular success in her account, filling seats for its Yiddish-language performances with a cross-section of Bucharest society, including royalty, and creating a period in which Jewish artistic culture attracted the support of ethnic Romanians.

Following the Vilna Troupe’s departure in 1927, The Caragiale Theater was created by Dida Solomon, an actor and writer with close ties to the avant-garde who continued the Vilna Troupe’s practice of enlisting avant-garde artists such as Maxy and Iancu as designers and Sandu Eliad and Iacob Sternberg as directors. Her company, however, had mixed results, and Chiriac finds that both Solomon and her productions are lacking in documentation. Although the Caragiale was short-lived, Sternberg took up the mantle of experimental theater with his Bukarester Idishe Theater Studio, known as BITS, organized in 1930. The fortunate discovery of detailed period photographs allows Chiriac to reconstruct its two important productions, A Night in the Old Marketplace and The Bewitched Tailor, both with Sternberg as director and Maxy as set designer. Chiriac vividly describes the radical staging of these productions, with their modular sets, emphasis on movement, and dramatic lighting as a scene “somewhere between the magical and the mechanical” (196).

By the time Maxy paused his theater activities in 1934, the Academy of Decorative Arts had been closed for five years, and economic and political circumstances were changing, especially for the Jewish artists of the avant-garde. Fortunately, Chiriac’s book restores the preceding period of design and theater in interwar Bucharest, allowing the avant-garde to stake its claim in the history of European modernism. Maxy’s work provides a narrative thread through the book, although his reputation dims in favor of revealing contributions by overlooked figures. Chiriac resists overstating issues involving the artists and their Jewish backgrounds, and so the concept of Jewish artistic identity in the avant-garde remains elusive, even as the breadth of its manifestations is apparent in these pages.

Performing Modernism: A Jewish Avant-garde in Bucharest is an engaging book that will be a valuable resource to scholars and students in design and theater studies, Jewish studies, and Eastern European art history. The book’s in-depth analysis, ample illustrations, and inclusion of helpful documents in English translation in the appendix point to myriad new directions for future research, which will build on Chiriac’s contribution to the expanding narrative of the avant-garde.

Mimi Ginsberg
Independent Art Historian