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Ivan Mátsa (born János Mácza)

Alsóhrabóc, Austro-Hungarian Empire (present-day Slovakia), 1893–Moscow, 1974

An art and architecture historian, writer, critic, theater director, and dramaturge, Ivan Mátsa authored groundbreaking books on modern art, literature, architecture, and Marxist aesthetics that served as a form of cultural exchange between the European and Soviet avant-gardes. He also translated to Hungarian numerous Russian literary works by Alexander Blok, Maxim Gorky, and Vladimir Mayakovsky, among others. As a committed Bolshevik, Mátsa occasionally published under the pseudonym Lajos János.

Born and raised in an area of the Austro-Hungarian empire that occupies present-day Slovakia, Mátsa graduated from a prestigious liberal Hungarian schoolin Munkács and began his career as a pharmacy assistant in Ungvár (both present-day Ukraine). Despite his training, he was most passionate about literature and theater and published his first theater reviews while working as a pharmacist. Upon moving to Budapest, he joined an anti-war circle of intellectuals, writers, and artists organized around the luminary writer and poet Lajos Kassák. He primarily published theater reviews, as well as some initial experimental literary works, in Kassák’s avant-garde journals Tett (Action) and Ma (Today).

Mátsa was an enthusiastic supporter of the 1919 Bolshevik Revolution in Hungary. In spring 1919 the Commissariat of Public Education named Mátsa assistant stage director of the National Theater in Budapest and commissioned him to deliver intermission lectures teaching audiences about the new culture of the revolution. Like most Communist Party members and sympathizers in Hungary, Mátsa went into exile following the fall of the Hungarian Bolshevik Republic in August 1919. In January 1920 he joined the exiled Hungarian Communist Party in Vienna and, on party assignment, moved to the Czechoslovak city of Košice (today in Slovakia) to work for the local Communist paper. The Kassai Munkás (The Košice Worker) published not only his articles on Soviet art, literature, and theater but also his various literary translations from Russian. Mátsa became an active member and organizer of the local Proletkul’t movement and assisted with both the translation and staging of works by Karel Čapek and Upton Sinclair. His own revolutionary mass play, Májusi kórus (May Choir), was performed in Košice in 1922 by approximately two hundred workers; it was translated into German and published as Arbeiterchor (Workers Choir) in 1924.

Mátsa and his family—his wife, Berta, and young son, Zoltán—moved to the Soviet Union in May 1923 with the help of the Communist International (Comintern)’s aid organization known as the International Red Aid or MOPR (Mezhdunarodnaia Organizatsiia Pomoshchi Bortsam Revoliutsii). Mátsa’s scholarly career quickly advanced in Moscow: highly respected as an expert in European revolutionary culture, he held several and often concurrent positions at Moscow’s leading research institutions, such as the Communist Academy (Komakademiia) and RANION (Russian Association of Research Institutes for Social Sciences). Mátsa also made an impact in the Soviet Union as a professor of art history and aesthetics: he taught seminars at the VKhUTEMAS (1926–28), the laboratory school of the Soviet avant-gardes; Moscow State University (from 1928); and the Institute of Red Professors (1931–33). In 1927 Mátsa joined Aleksei Gan, Alfréd Kurella, Pavel Novitskii, Viktor Toot, Béla Uitz, and the brothers Aleksandr and Viktor Vesnin, among others, as co-founder of the Soviet avant-garde group Oktiabr’ (October), which sought to synthesize architecture, photography, painting, and other artforms into a new kind of Soviet monumental art. That same year, he served as the local liaison for Käthe Kollwitz and Diego Rivera in Moscow when the latter visited for the tenth-anniversary celebrations of the October Revolution. In the early 1930s Mátsa acted as chief editor of Sovetskoe iskusstvo za 15 let. Materialy i dokumentatsiia (15 Years of Soviet Art. Materials and Documentation; 1933), a collection of key primary documents about the Soviet avant-garde. He continued to teach seminars until his retirement; the only major interruption in his Soviet academic life occurred from 1937 to 1938, when Mátsa was denounced as a formalist and temporarily dismissed both from his teaching positions and publishing opportunities.

Mátsa published his first book in Russian in 1926: Iskusstvo sovremennoi Evropy (The Art of Contemporary Europe), a pioneering Marxist analysis of contemporary European avant-garde trends in art, literature, theater, and music. In the chapter titled “Cubism and Its Bankruptcy,” Mátsa criticized contemporary manifestations of Cubism for their overtly scientific and geometric forms while also praising Cubism as a novel mode of visual representation that had the potential to advance Soviet art. The book was a success in Soviet Russia; among others, Anatoly Lunacharsky wrote a positive review of the book, welcoming Mátsa’s original reading of European art movements.

Mátsa filled his private library with rare avant-garde journals that he had collected in exile in Europe and the Soviet Union. He also acquired artworks by some of his close friends and comrades, such as the Hungarian artists Sándor Bortnyik, Béni Ferenczy, Lajos Kudlák, János Mattis-Teutsch, László Péri, Viktor Toot, and Béla Uitz. Several of these works were included in the landmark exhibitionRevoliutsionnoe iskusstvo Zapada (The Revolutionary Art of the West), organized by GAKhN (State Academy of Artistic Sciences) and VOKS (All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries) in Moscow in spring 1926; Mátsa was among the show’s consultants.

Although Mátsa lived most of his life as a Soviet citizen, he never removed the Hungarian accent from his family name.

For more information, see:

Benson, Timothy O., and Éva Forgács. Between Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910–1930. Exh. cat. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2002.

Botka, Ferenc. “Előszó” [Preface]. In János Mácza, A mai Európa művészete (1926). Budapest: Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum és Népművelési Propaganda Iroda, 1978, 321.

Dorontchenkov, Ilia, Charles Rougle, and N. A. Guri︠a︡nova. Russian and Soviet Views of Modern Western Art: 1890s to Mid-1930s. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

Mátsa, Ivan. Sovetskoe iskusstvo za 15 let. Materialy i dokumentatsiia [Fifteen Years of Soviet Art: Materials and Documentation]. Moscow, Leningrad: Ogiz-Izogiz, 1933.

Mátsa, Ivan. “Vospominaniia o godakh iunosti” [Recollections about the Years of Youth]. November 1972January 1973. Manuscript at the Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum, Budapest.

Szabó, Júlia, ed. Legendák és tények: tanulmányok a XX. század művészettörténetéhez [Legends and Facts: Studies for the Art History of the Twentieth Century]. Budapest: Corvina, 1972.

How to cite this entry:
Kácsor, Adrienn, "Ivan Mátsa (born János Mácza)," The Modern Art Index Project (November 2022), Leonard A. Lauder Research Center for Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.