Jules Perahim, a multifaceted character, has experimented throughout his career with varied means of expression, simultaneously taking on graphics, painting, mosaics, ceramics, scenography and furniture design. He occasionally published art criticism and made the selection of Romania’s representatives at the Venice Biennale.
His biography is at least as controversial as the art he created. He linked himself to the world and existence through a surreal humour, original and atypical: “Destiny has a strong smell of parsley”, the artist declared around 1982. During the Communist age, Perahim rewrote his biography a series of times, probably trying to hide the bourgeoisie origins of his family.
Jules Perahim, born Iuliș Blumenfeld, was the next-to-last of the five children of the pharmacist Jacob Blumenfeld. His family, originally from Vienna, came to Romania following the invitation of King Carol I of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen. Young Jules spent his childhood in a familiar surrounding which encouraged his artistic skills. For several months between 1928 and 1929 he took drawing lessons in the workshops of some Post-Impressionist artists, followers of a bucolic formalism: Costin Petrescu (1872-1954) and Nicolae Vermont (1866-1932). The vision of the two professors was very different to the creative personality of Perahim, fact which made him give up the formal lessons in favour of an autodidact path, in the spirit of the avant-garde experiments.
At the age of 16, Jules Perahim comes closer to the group of avant-garde artists and becomes a constant collaborator of the unu magazine (En. one), as of 1930. The magazine, launched in 1928, is the longest surviving surrealist publication in Romania, comprising in her pages elite names of the national avant-garde, such as: Sașa Pană (director, founder and financer), Ștefan Roll, Benjamin Fondane, Tristan Tzara, Claude Sernet and the plastic artists Victor Brauner and Jaques Hérold. These organized an improvised literary circle in the dairy house “At Enache Dinu”, dubbed “The Century” by Brauner. Although still very young, Jules Perahim swiftly blended into “The Century” scene, becoming a constant presence of the group and a permanent collaborator of the magazine. “Two teenagers came to the dairy house in Bărăției, with notebooks in which they carried their first drawings. One was a child of 14-15 years old, shy and cute. But his drawings revealed the hand of a talented and personal graphic artist. I remember one of the drawings – some monkey-people chatting – which appeared in the August edition of the magazine. It was the debut of the one who would never again separate himself from the friendship and acknowledgement of the unists. His name was Perahim – Puiu, as his close friends called him”1, Sașa Pană recalls the beginning of their collaboration. Jules Perahim stood out immediately through an “unusual talent”2. The drawings he published in unu are typical to the dynamics of surrealism, following common subjects to those which literature also chooses. The unfettering of the imagination and the total freedom of plastic expression plays a central part in the creation of Perahim from this first period, much alike to those of many other unists. “Thus, on the Saturday before the publishing of unu, automated writing was experimented, because the magazine HAD TO come out on the first Sunday of every month (and it did for five whole years) and there was no time to review the last minute texts on that sleepless night in the printing house.”3
At the suggestion of the poet Ștefan Roll, Jules Perahim – together with Aureliu Baranga, Gherasim Luca, Sesto Pals and Paul Păun – launch the magazine Alge (En.: Seaweed) in September 1930. The magazine and the actions of the group are based on the dictum launched in the manifest Strigăt (En. Yell) from the second issue of the magazine: “Make crumble the roots of your past, which rotting within you, will make you rot”4. The group acts against conformism, confronting the reader with a new type of aesthetics, freed from the mark of academism or of any other kind of traditionalism. Each issue had an unusual type of script, being constructed as an artistic object per se. The magazine stood out through an impeccable stylistic unity. The radical modernity, the absolute freedom of the text, which was mostly transcribed through the procedure of the automatic surrealist dictation (surrealist automatism), make of Alge the starting point of the surrealist revolution in Bucharest. The drawings and engravings created by Perahim for the magazine are free games of imagination, apparently intelligible forms which illustrate critical situations, sometimes absurd, sometimes vulgar, and sometimes grotesque, in what concerns the accepted perspective of the time. Perahim permanently configures a transgression of the plastic values of the moment, ignoring the limits of the academic drawing in favour of surrealist deformations and reconstructions. The chosen themes are inspired by the life and problems of urban society, the great themes of the avant-garde artists everywhere.
The Algists took the adventurous spirit and the wish to “attempt at the safety of decent bourgeoisie morals” from the Parisian nucleus of the group. The series of pranks with the character of a performance was inaugurated by the publishing on 1st October 1931 of the magazine Pulă. Revistă de pulă modernă. Organ universal. (En.: Cock. Magazine of Modern Cock. Universal Organ.). Gherasim Luca, Paul Păun, Jules Perahim and Aureliu Baranga print 13 copies of the magazine, which they send out to a few cultural personalities of the era. Perahim had made sketches for the “story of a virgin which acts crazy”, in a simple, sexual way, freed from the prejudice of the times. As the literary historian Dan Gulea5 noticed, the magazine can be recorded in the foreground of a sexual revolution, which the vanguard and especially the algist discourse support consistently. The historian Nicolae Iorga, after having received one of the copies of the magazine, dedicated to him, submitted a complaint at the Prefecture of the Capital’s Police Force, as he was offended by the “indecency” of the publication. Following Iorga’s complaint, the four creators were sent to the Văcărești prison for a few days, although they were underage at the time. The national press covered the story as being a “scandalous attempt to morals”. The surrealist gesture which managed to scandalize the national elite of intellectuals and brought the “pranksters” a few days in jail was the first performance in Romanian modern art.
The situation was reenacted on 7th February 1932 through the publication of the magazine Muci (En. Snot). Sesto Pals, Gherasim Luca, Aureliu Baranga, Fredy Goldstein, S. Perahim and Mielu Miziș provoke a new scandal, in the aftermath of which, five of them spend 10 days in the Văcărești prison, being then tried in freedom. Goldstein and Mizis escaped prison, and were declared to be “children with disorders”.
Snot magazine was printed on the occasion of the first personal exhibition of the painter Jules Perahim, an event which was announced as follows: “the opening of the painting and drawing exhibition by our friend S. Perahim will take place next month, in the waiting halls of madam Frosa at the Stone Cross”. The poster of the exhibition contains a surrealist joke: the Stone Cross is the brothel neighbourhood in Bucharest, the most infamous place from the point of view of the local elite. Again, the publication of the magazine is violently criticized by the local press, the self-entitled defender of morals.
The presence amongst the initiators of the group which had formed around the Alge magazine places Perahim in the first line of radical surrealism, which proposes an enforced fight against the stereotypes of bourgeoisie conformism. The gestures meant to unsettle the social order ushered in the debate of the new interface which was delineating itself inside the surrealist movement: the political discourse. Through the permanent transgression of society’s limits, the surrealists push the barriers of the generally accepted social conventions and start progressively sneaking in taboo subjects into art. Art is transformed – from contemplative it becomes critical, anchored to the immediate reality, and it receives the power to destroy mental barriers of social conventionalism. The wish to provoke and bother the bourgeoisie materialized in the success of drawing the attention of a society which is predominantly traditionalist and direct this attention towards the self-imposed limits.
The surrealist artists are the first to start, in the fourth decade of the 20th century, a form of activism through artistic means. In the context of the ascension of the Iron Guard Movement, the critique of the fundamentalism and of the discrimination which it promoted becomes imperative in the national space. From the middle of the ‘30s, the drawings published by Perahim in several magazines and newspapers of the left become ever more political and impregnated with a strong message, inspired by the social problems of the workers.
After finishing his military service, Perahim travels to Prague, where he comes in contact with the local avant-garde groups. The discourse of the Czech surrealists had a coherently articulated political component, concentrated on the critique of the Nazi policy. Perahim gets closer to Emil František, Mikuláš Bakoš, Ladislav Guderna and John Heartfield (Helmut Herzfeld), who are all promoters of a discourse based on Marxism. In 1938, when Perahim exhibits in the foyer of the D38 theatre (the name changed every year), the Czechs were being threatened by Nazi occupation. Under these circumstances, Perahim tries to flee to France. However, not successful in obtaining a visa, he is forced to return to Romania. Since the end of 1937, Romania had been ruled by the nationalist government of Goga and Cuza. The wave of anti-Semitic laws which were enforced by this government marginalized a growing number of Jews within Romanian society. Chased by the Security, at the outbreak of the war, Perahim fled to Chişinău, where he created settings for the Opera, and so managed to escape the traumatic experience of the Holocaust. “In 1944, due to the new political and military circumstances, he receives an order and is convoked to Moscow so as to manage the graphic part of the war journal Graiul Nou (En.: New Voice), destined for the popularization of the Communist ideology in Romania.”6
From his return to the country until his emigration to France, the activity of Jules Perahim remains in the sphere of socialist realism. After emigrating and until his death in 2008, he comes back to surrealism, being preoccupied by the oneiric, the fantastic and the dream. Perahim evolved from political surrealism to militant art to surrealism, depending on the conditions imposed by the era in which he lived. The influence of state politics is reflected in his artistic discourse, forcing him to take a critical, militant or passive stand.
1 Sașa Pană Născut în 02, ed. Minerva, București 1973.
2 Lucian Boz „Facla”, an IX, nr. 383, 10 noiembrie 1930
3 Sașa Pană Sadismul adevărului, ed. Dacia 2009, p. 146
4 „Alge: revistă de artă modernă”, nr. 2, 13-21 octombrie 1930
5 Dan Gulea Domni, tovarăși, camarazi. O evoluție a avangardei române. Editura Paralela 45, 2007
6 Monica Enache Artişti evrei în România Modernă. Destine marcate de antisemitism şi Holocaust, ed. Noi Media Print, Bucureşti 2013, p. 103