,,The bohemian myth won’t die.” (1)
There are numerous synthesis studies about art in the main Transylvanian centers of the first half of the XXth century, due to researchers from different generations (Mircea Țoca, Alexandra Rus, Negoiță Lăptoiu, Zoltán Banner, Vasile Drăguț, Ileana Pintilie, Gheorghe Vida, Mariana Vida, Iulia Mesea, Tiberiu Alexa, Jenő Murádin, Raoul Șorban among others) who delineated the large directions of artistic development and how they intersected with the changing historical contexts, followed the transfers and cultural relations with the important centers of the West - Munich, Paris, Rome, highlighted artists and works. Many artists have had monographs; museums have organized retrospective exhibitions with catalogs, researches which today allow us to have a significant corpus of information and documented interpretations. How regional identities were formed in a multicultural space was and continues to be another concern for the historiography of art in this geographical space.
However, detailed investigations and different perspectives can always reveal ignored or insufficiently capitalized artistic realities, some of them perhaps too close in time to us to be given the necessary attention. This category also includes the research that a group of art historians trained by Sebestyén Székely in a passionate project carried out in 2010-2011, resulting in the exhibition entitled Boema.The young interwar art of Cluj. (2) This title did not happen by chance. The concept of bohemia has long been studied both in its many manifestations in the literary and artistic world, as well as in the theoretical aspect. A colloquium in Rome, for example, in 2010 was dedicated to the bohemia without borders. On this occasion, specialists from different fields such as sociology, anthropology, and literary and art history proposed a series of clarifications. One renowned specialist is the French socio-philosopher Natalie Heinich, who has dedicated numerous works to the status of the artist in a long period that stretches from the French Revolution onwards. As a phenomenon specific to modernity, bohemia has established itself as a research tool of this period in which the artist's status has fundamentally changed. Simplifying very much, Heinich delineates two bohemians, the real bohemian and the imaginary bohemian. The literary representations of the artist, for example, Honore de Balzac’s Unknown Masterpiece, 1831, seen as the founding myth of the modern artist, then Henri Murger’s even more famous book, Scenes of Bohemian Life, are literary representations that have imprinted the collective imaginary until very late. Bohemia is reality and myth, carrier of a collective imaginary and that’s why it is, in the words of Heinich, a founding myth of status, builder of vocations, creator of reality (3).
Bohemia has a double facet; it is real, it is the condition of marginality to which the assumption of vocation can lead, but it is also an option that makes it possible to transform a painful reality into virtue.
This is also the case of the artistic phenomenon in Cluj in the 1930s that was the basis of our research. In the midst of the economic crisis, the generation of artists who started at the beginning of the fourth decade were the students and recent graduates of the School of Fine Arts. Founded in the atmosphere of enthusiasm after The Union and disbanded after only eight years of operation (the generosity of the authorities in Timișoara enabled the school to continue in Timișoara in another form). This school where most of the teachers – Catul Bogdan, Romul Ladea, Aurel Ciupe, Anastase Demian – were only a few years older than their students and had returned to the country after several years spent studying in France or Italy, created a climate of effervescence and awakened vocations, supporting the older initiatives to stimulate artistic activity. Many of these very young artists were of rural ancestry, from modest families or war orphans, with expectations and illusions that the school and education maintained. In the climate of discouragement and political and social instability, dilemmas about the role of the artist were a daily affair.
What is an artist? What is art good for?
How to reconcile the vocation with the demands of survival in everyday life were questions to which many of the young artists at that time did not find many answers. It is symptomatic in this respect, the dialogue narrated by Ion Vlasiu in his autobiographical book in which he struggles to explain, without success, to an old and grumpy old peasant who accepted a single book – The Bible, incidentally his grandfather, what it means to be a sculptor.
What was the bohemia in Cluj or, better yet, the Boema Society, which was how they were calling themselves with benign irony and, at the same time, discretely subversive like any other bohemia?
'The madmen from 17', as they were called in the outskirts of Cluj, were students at the art school but also at other faculties as well. They formed a fraternity dictated by the condition of precariousness but also by a mixture of aspirations, impulses, and shared illusions, which was installed with rent (rather unpaid) in the very modest house on the Piezișă Street nr.17. Bohemian people were declared “official”, even designing their own numbered membership cards. In this very gesture there is a mix of farse, laughing at problems, a way to positively invest marginality, to make virtue out of necessity, to shape the precariousness of existence through humor. Thanks to Ion Găvrilă, an art student and photographer employed at the Museum of Ethnography, the few photographs that survived reveal this state of mind. It is not by chance that in one of the photographs which depicts an ad hoc exhibition, a painting depicting a clown appears. The figure of the clown is emblematic of the psychology of despair very transparently disguised in joy. The grimace of laughter/cry stretches like a scar on his face. Iconic is Ștefan Gomboșiu's still life, in which next to a pair of old boots, a direct reference to Van Gogh, stands the Hunger novel from Knut Hamsun, Nobel laureate, published in the 1920s in Bucharest, with a tragically expressionist cover of Tonitza, which in the economy of painting makes every figure a manifest. The myth of bohemianism that appeared in the 19th century along with Henri Murger's book, translated in various languages, and the opera Bohemian by Giacomo Puccini was inspired by it. Then, the lives of tutelary figures of modernity such as Van Gogh or Gauguin only reinforced the myth and strongly imprint the imaginary of the young artists of Cluj.
The organizational spirit of this community seems to have been Ștefan Gomboșiu, a painter and sculptor. The article The joyful and sad history of Boema from 1938 (4) tries to perpetuate the memory of that shared moment lived in common, already haloed by the passage of time and the mechanisms of memory. Along with the memories of Eugen Gâscă, published only in 2007 are, at least so far, among the few documents, which together with the epoch's photographs, also few but extremely revealing, published in the catalogue of the Bohemian exhibition, somewhat revive the social and artistic context of that time. From Gâscă's memories (5), in the four little rooms from the Piezișă street, between 1929-1930, the Eremia brothers, Eugen Profeta, Ion P. Gavrilă, Ștefan Gomboșiu, Tasso Marchini, Jenő Szervátiusz, the med student Filip Sever, Romul Șerban, Ghiță Naghi and himself were crowded, to which the occasional guests without a roof over their heads were added. Sometimes the guests were even the young professors Catul Bogdan and Romul Ladea, who invited themselves to the table bearing all the expenses, offering out of solidarity for the guild a discreet help to future fellows in art. In one of the photos, the “bohemians” make mural art, that is, they draw on the turbot of the neighboring house, without anything better to do, nude compositions. Tasso Marchini seems less involved in the artistic improvisations which take place before his eyes. With a nomadic childhood in the very complicated years of war for him, with ethnic identity and mozaic cultural identity – Italian father, Serbian mother, educated in a Hungarian family in Romania. He died prematurely of tuberculosis that was wreaking havoc; he became the legendary figure of the generation, leaving behind a fullfilled work with the short life he was given.
Marchini's audience among the artistic youth of Cluj can be compared with that of Sabin Popp in the artistic ambiance of Bucharest. Another photography is like a 'masked ball' held in a snowy yard, which offers you an idea about the leisure moments of bohemians. Gâscă is costumed as a Chinese man, another one in a sailor, all with improvised clothes made of who knows what. But of course, the most sensational photography remains the one that presents an ad hoc exposition, highly debated by Sebestyén Székely in the Boema catalogue. The authors of some of the works could be identified, but the vast majority remain anonymous, and the paintings lost until perhaps future research reveals new surprises. But even so, what amazes is the quality of factions and formal solutions in some cases, the thematic and stylistic diversity, from post-impressionism to expressionism and the New Objectivity, the last current here is very present. In short, the belongings of these works were in the spirit of that time.
« La vie de bohème » was fully lived by Ștefan Gomboșiu, Eugen Gâscă and Ion Vlasiu in Timișoara's empty bar during the Visual Arts summer school, when the three artists dedicated themselves to art with fanaticism. Some photographs from the archives of the artists, whose author has since been identified, Virgil Birou, engineer, photographer and writer, admirer, and guardian angel of the young artists, document this moment of artistic communion. Gomboșiu sculpted and wrote, Gâscă drew frantically while lighting one cigarette after another and painted scenes with donkeys and yellow women. Vlasiu was sculpting golden calves and bold horses. A photograph reveals among the paintings on the walls a Japanese stamp, which could explain the discreetly Asian physiognomy in Gâscă's paintings and Vlasiu's pastels in that period. The Japanese style, also spread in Romania even before 1900, correlated in this case with the interest for a figurative thinking of maximum simplicity and concision. In this sense, the icons on glass, which the artists admired in the Ethnography Museum in Cluj, offered the opportunity for meditation like the ideographic drawings of the children, which, for example, Vlasiu researched in the collection of phsychiatrist Miklós Elekes, a very interesting figure of the era, preoccupied with art as a repository of the human psyche.
Another theme without which the understanding of the ambiance in which the artists evolved would be difficult, and that is far from being sufficiently researched, is that of collecting and collectors. Arthur Wagner, Miklós Elekes, Victor Papilian, Nicolae Mărgineanu are just a few names of those who instilled in the artists courage and a social legitimacy of their work. The commentators of the art exhibitions in the numerous cultural newspapers and magazines of the time had the same role. Without being art critics in today's sense, they were perhaps something more - they were enthusiastic about art, they had a wide cultural horizon, although they were preparing for professions that had nothing to do with art, accompanying artists with deep interest and admiration.
Among them - Olga Caba, Eduard Pamfil, Eduard Mezincescu, Vilhelm Beneș, Miron Radu Paraschivescu, Ion Chinezu, Ion Breazu, but also the young artists who supported their colleagues - Aurel Ciupe, Tasso Marchini, Emil Vásárhelyi Z., Ion Vlasiu.
(1) Bohème sans frontière. Sous la direction de Pascal Brissette et Anthony Glinoer, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2010, p. 10.
(2) Ioana Vlasiu, Székely Sebestyén György: Boema. Tânăra artă clujeană interbelică. Fiatal kolozsvári művészet a két világháború közōtt. Junge Klausenburger Zwieschenkriegskunst. Cluj, Kolozsvár, 2011.
(3) Natalie Heinich: La bohème en trois dimensions: artiste réel, artiste imaginaire, artiste symbolique, în: Bohème sans frontière, pp. 23-38.
(4) In Fruncea (Timișoara), 23 January 1938.
(5) Published by Mariana Vida in Donația de grafică Eugen Gâscă. Catalogue by Mariana Vida, Elena Olaru. National Museum of Art, Bucharest, 2007.