István Farkas (1887–1944) was one of the most outstanding painters in interwar Hungary, yet his name rarely comes up in discussions of the period. The reason is probably that his art is hard to categorise. He was not an avant-gardist, but his employment of symbolism and the grotesque also distantiate his paintings from the Post-Impressionism of the Gresham Circle, with whose work they might share some superficial formal characteristics. Farkas never officially belonged to any artists’ group and spent a large part of his working life in Paris. His masterpiece, Madman of Syracuse, seems as isolated in Hungarian art history as its protagonist standing in a desolate, sweltering landscape. Nevertheless, the concepts of continuity and rupture provide us with useful tools that help us situate the painting in the art history of post-imperial Central Europe.
István Farkas was born on 20 October 1887 into a middle-class Jewish family in Budapest. His father, József Wolfner (1856–1932) co-owned and directed a prolific publishing house (Singer and Wolfner), which also published Új Idők (New Times, 1894–1948), one of the most influential cultural periodicals of the time, a forum of conservative modernism. Farkas began studying painting with László Mednyánszky, followed by summer stints at the Nagybánya artists’ colony under the tuition of Károly Ferenczy. His father – himself an art collector – requested him to acquire a “proper” artistic education, so he enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich in 1910. The end of 1911, however, found him in Paris, where he studied at the Académie La Palette under the Cubist painter Henri Le Fauconnier, coming into contact with artists such as Marc Chagall and Fernand Léger. Having set up his own studio, Farkas was becoming acquainted with the Paris art scene, but the war forced him to return to Hungary in 1914. Against his father’s wishes, he voluntarily enlisted into the army. This was when he Hungarianised his name: “farkas” means “wolf” in Hungarian.
Upon his return from the war, Farkas took up portrait painting, but these undemanding compositions were soon replaced by the unsettling images for which he is now known. Whether coffeehouses, seemingly respectable couples, landscapes or everyday still-lifes, all of his subjects are suffused with a sense of impending doom. The colours are solemn, the sky is threatening, poses are unstable, faces are mask-like. In 1925, Farkas married the painter Ida Kohner (1895–1944) and moved to Paris, where he became part of the artistic melting pot now known as the École de Paris and exhibited and sold his works with considerable success.
The years between 1930 and 1934 were the most productive in Farkas’s career, and Madman of Syracuse was painted at the very beginning of this period. The painting shows a barren landscape, rendered in a murky orange that suggests a sweltering heat. In the background, to the left, Mount Etna is shown, emitting a plume of smoke. To the right, the sea appears as an amorphous patch of black; the disproportionately small, white lighthouse on the shore is barely noticeable. The madman stands in the middle, in the foreground, holding a white stick in one hand and pointing up towards the sky with the other. His ginger beard almost blends into the background. He is standing on a road that cuts the composition into two halves. To the right, behind him, a small house is visible. A pathway starts at the door of the house, but abruptly ends. At the end of the path, a black dog, reminiscent of the Egyptian god Anubis, lies with its front legs stretched out, its neck and ears erect.
Although painted decades after the heyday of Symbolism, Madman of Syracuse can be described as a symbolist composition. Its atmosphere is heavy and suggestive, but – although it is filled with meaningful details – as a whole its interpretation is impossible to conclusively pin down. Without suggesting any kind of direct relationship between the paintings, it might be fruitful to compare Farkas’s picture to an example of Central European Symbolism par excellence: The Black Lake (1904) by the Czech artist Jan Preisler (1872–1918). Painted in several different versions, The Black Lake shows a nude boy and horse by the edge of a black lake, eerily similar to the sea in Farkas’s composition. In some versions, the boy is gazing at a female figure depicted either in the water or on the shore, which implies that the lake is a symbol of sexual desire. The way the details of the landscape are ommitted to focus only on the most important, meaningful elements of the composition also resembles Farkas’s painting. Hence, in some respects, Farkas’s painting continues the practices of Symbolism – but a closer look at the differences between the pictures also confirms the irreversible rupture between the fin-de-siècle and Farkas’s time.
Both Preisler’s and Farkas’s paintings project a sense of foreboding – the swelling black body of water feels unpredictable and threatening, just like the volcano. In Preisler’s picture, however, the threat is identified as sexual lust, which is, in turn, aestheticised. The details have a captivating beauty: the elongated body of the boy, the graceful shape of the horse, the decorative, blossoming tree in the background. There are several phallic details in Farkas’s painting: the stick, the lighthouse, even the smoke, but beauty is completely absent. If there is an erotic component to the painting, it is grotesque, rather than alluring, and it is weighed down by the oppressive atmosphere that permeats the composition as a whole. This is a Symbolism that has been stripped down to its bare essence and redressed in the decidedly non-beautiful forms of Expressionism. In Preisler’s picture, human sexuality is one of the vigorous forces of nature. In Farkas’s, the madman attempts in vain to communicate with a nature that is hostile, desolate, and infertile.
In 1932, Farkas’s father died, and he had to return to Hungary to become head of the publishing house. After 1934, he painted much less, being caught up in the day to day affairs of his business. The vague sense of foreboding visualised in his paintings was taking a more concrete shape in the outside world. In Germany, Adolf Hitler and his national socialists were seizing power. In Hungary, the anti-Jewish laws enacted in 1938, 1939 and 1941 excluded Jews from an increasing number of professions and areas of public life. From 5 April 1944, Jews in Hungary were required to wear a visible yellow star. By that time, greedy eyes had been set on Farkas’s publishing house. On 15 April, German forces were provided with a list of 54 Jewish journalists by Hungarian officials. Farkas’s name was added by the person who would go on to take over Singer and Wolfner after the artist was deported. First taken to the town of Kecskemét, Farkas was forced to board the train to Auschwitz in June 1944. His last communication was a postcard sent from Kecskemét to the writer Ferenc Herczeg (1863– 1954), with the words: “When human dignity suffers such humiliation, survival loses its point.”
S. Nagy, Katalin, Farkas István (Budapest, 1994)
English version: S. Nagy, Katalin, István Farkas (Budapest, 1999)