Transylvania’s Hidden Treasure

I love to visit Basel. It’s a town where you can encounter art everywhere around you. A simple walk through the town can morph into a moment of contemplation of architectural heritage and contemporary art in a public space. You can enjoy this mix for a long time.

Basel is a town which for some people is better known as the home of famous pharmaceutical companies. However, the same place in 1996 won the Wakkerpreis (Switzerland’s Wakker Award) for its contribution to the protection of the town’s original architecture and aesthetic. Old tenements and shuttered houses with arcades are mingled with modern office buildings and the campuses of large companies and corporations. In this mix we can find over 30 museums and a selection of art galleries, big and small.

I heard some time ago about the exhibition titled Transylvania’s Hidden Treasure and I really couldn’t wait to see it. This was mostly because the topic sounds rare for me (do not use “exotic” word). What do I know about Romania, folk, art, culture and especially about Transylvania? Excluding Dracula’s legend (and Nicolae Ceaușescu)… I guess nothing. This was surprising, as Romania is not so far from Poland, we are almost neighbours, but I realised that in Europe, this country was treated as something of a “rotten egg.” Perhaps because of the country’s history of a long time under another’s governance, dictatorship and communism, this makes Romania similar to Poland. Could this shared background maybe connect our countries and inspire friendship between our people? Maybe…

However, I decided to take advantage of an opportunity and catch a little bit of knowledge made available for free thanks to Kulturstiftung Basel H. Geiger (Hermann Geiger’s Basel Cultural Fundation, KBH.G). The amazing collection of ceramics was my magnet obviously, but maybe the second part of the exhibition made a great impression on me as well.

The collection is the private property of Mikolós von Bartha, whose interest in this region of Romania is closely tied to his and his family’s history; they lived in a small Transylvanian village for many years. The collection began thanks to an old plate being found in Mikolós’ grandparents house, luckily it had survived both world wars. For the last 50 years Mr. von Bartha’s collection has grown and was always focused on folk art, which seemed as if it had been marginalised and forgotten. Why? Well, the ceramic objects weren’t decorative objects in those days, but rather items of everyday use in farmhouses. He collected over 350 objects, including over 120 ceramic jugs and plates and over 60 textiles and these formed the exhibition. All of them came from one of seventeen big centres in Transylvania, and were classified and dated. They were grouped into seven following groups: Haban pottery, Saxon pottery from Saschiz, Hermannstadt, Draas, Bistritz, Burzenland, and the Hungarian pieces. However, as von Bartha concluded, almost all Transylvania’s folk pottery began under the influence of the Habans. These people were a reformed group of anabaptists, who emigrated into Upper Hungary (now Slovakia) in the XVI century. Many of them settled in Alvine (a small village in Transylvania) and there, thanks to religious freedom and good opportunities in society, they worked as carpenters and ceramists. Thanks to them, ceramics made in this time period as useful objects started to resemble decorative folk art in appearance. Light colours and a wide range of floral, animal and abstract motifs (also geometric decorations) are eye catching for anyone who sees them today. All the pieces were made by men on pottery wheels, women painted and decorated them.

The earliest object in the collection is a plate dated 1784 with a deep blue background and a white sgraffito decoration. This specific method was used in Saschiz workshops, again thanks to the Habans.

The collection shows and is proof that ceramists in that time period paid attention not only to utility but also to beauty. Their works were so beautiful that those discovered in von Bartha’s office that they inspired American-born designer and artist JJ Martin, to base works on elements, motifs and decorations, creating modern “Transylvania’s Treasures”, ceramics and textiles. The first shot sold-out so fast, that for the exhibition she needed to produce another one. All this was contained within the first room of KBH.G that JJ Martin projected and created herself. The second showroom was prepared by curators who worked for Foundation. Thanks to that the exhibition was a great journey from now back into Romanias’s past, and fused classy folk art with her modern version, resulting in projects which you want to take home straight away!

The main idea of the collection in general and of this exhibition is to recall this region of European culture, whose rich cultural landscape and eventful history are no longer part of our consciousness. I hope and I wish that I can change this situation a little with my project.”– von Bartha said.

Looking on today’s ceramics map of Europe, Romania doesn’t exist. Italian, French even Polish objects, decorations, motifs, are well-known, but not their Romanian counterparts. The biggest reason for this is likely WWII but also the Ceausescou dictatorship, under whose control all these beautiful, small Transylvanian villages were converted to industrial sites, undoubtedly destroying ceramics and pottery handcrafting in the process. Today all that we can find are small pieces in souvenir shops, but high-quality Transylvanian ceramics are not made any more.

The objects’ commercial value has never interested me. I bought these pieces due to my spiritual attachment to Transylvania. After the exhibition, I will put my favourite pieces back in my home and office and enjoy the every day.” – said Mikolós von Bartha.

It is hard to not agree with him. I hope that maybe one day this collection will be shown in one of the many Polish or British museums or galleries. It happened with collections as this one, that they make us impressed and sad all at once. How can such a beautiful piece of folk art be destroyed and forgotten? How we can leave the loss like this never to be fixed?

It is true that relative to the size of all the collections I have seen previously, I spent a lot of time viewing each plate and jug from every angle, taking a lot of photos. In the same way, I spent time admiring and contemplating the modern tableware and fashion created by JJ Martin (find also La DoubleJ brand). I regret that I could do it just the one time, but… KBH.G issued an amazing album to accompany this brilliant exhibition (in German and English language). They printed big and beautiful photos of each object and gave the history of pottery in each of the seven groups shown by von Bartha, as well as archival maps and an interview with the owner. All of this background shows the broader context of Transylvania’s Hidden Treasure – ceramics and textiles.

Yes, now I can say that I know a little bit about Romania, the region of Transylvania, and their history and art.

About the author

Redaktor naczelna at Szklo-Ceramika.ONLINE | Website

Absolwentka Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego. Zafascynowana szkłem i ceramiką w każdym aspekcie ich powstawania i wykorzystania, w tym historycznymi technikami i technologiami wytwarzania, zdobienia i łączenia z innymi materiałami. Do 2020 r. sekretarz redakcji czasopisma „Szkło i Ceramika” (ICiMB, SITPMB). Obecnie prowadzi własny portal Szklo-Ceramika.ONLINE i angażuje się w projekty tematyczne.
ORCID: 0000-0001-9574-7470

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