Committee: Jennifer Cash (chair), Marina Cap-Bun and Chris Davis
The winner for the 10th Annual SRS Graduate Essay Prize is Alexandra Chiriac a doctoral candidate in the History of Art at the University of St. Andrews, with a thesis entitled, “Oriental Constructivism”? The Search for Modernity in Decorative & Applied Arts in Interwar Bucharest.
Alexandra Chiriac’s winning essay, “Romanian Modernism and the Perils of the Peripheral,” re-examines the artistic contributions of Max Hermann Maxy, particularly his set and costume designs for the Vilna Troupe, during the mid-1920s. Chiriac places her research in the context of the debate in art history over the relationship between margins and peripheries in artistic production, movements, and creativity. Max Hermann Maxy (1895-1971) is known for promoting what he called “Integralism”; Maxy’s writings about his approach drew on Futurism and the earlier Dadaism. Previous art historians have disagreed about whether his work should be assessed negatively, as derivative and pick-and-mix of these and other movements from West European artistic “centers,” or else positively, as an example of the fecundity of hybridity. As Chiriac presents the matter, the latter assessment tends to be in the minority —as are most attempts across art history to assess the uniqueness of art created in “peripheries,” whether they have been outside Europe or only in “Eastern” Europe. Chiriac’s sentiments clearly lie in favor of a positive assessment of “peripheral” art, from both a geographic and a generic standpoint (i.e. design and decorative art), and the body of work that she examines in this essay supports such an assessment. At the center of her analysis are the set and costume designs that Maxy made for four productions of the Vilna Troupe in Bucharest: Saul; Man, Beast, and Virtue; The Sentimental Mannequin; and Shabbsai Tsvi. She skillfully navigated the trails of earlier researchers, using collections at Romania’s National Museum of Art (including the materials from a retrospective of Maxy’s work in 1965) and period press searches; she also made use of the Joseph Buloff Jewish Theater archive in the Judaica Division of Harvard’s Widener Library.
Among the many good and very good submissions to this year’s essay competition, Chiriac’s essay stood out on several points. Two are important to mention: First was the sense we had of truly new research: a new perspective, new archives, and vividly new images that stand to change how people think about art and creativity in Romania. Second was Chiriac’s successful effort to bring several disciplines into communication with each other. If she can get historians of Romanian art talking with those of East European, Indian, and other “peripheral” arts, and if these discussions catch the attention of broader disciplines, like area studies and art history, then we are really looking forward to the new conversation that emerges.