Artwork of the Month, July 2019: Family by Gyula Derkovits (1932)

When we look at an artist’s work, we see it through a glass, darkly: whether we like it or not, we are influenced by its previous interpretations. After they die, some artists are turned into icons of artistic, social, or political movements and become entangled with them to such an extent that it profoundly affects the way their works are seen. The Hungarian artist Gyula Derkovits (1894–1934) is an especially complex case. Derkovits was the son of a cabinetmaker and began training in that profession before taking up painting; after finishing three years of primary school, he never gained a formal education. Despite making a name as an artist and finding a number of patrons, he struggled to make a living from his art and had dire money problems by the last years of his life. Furthermore, as a committed left-winger, he was involved with the Communist movement – illegal in the interwar period – and depicted the struggles of the working class in his paintings, while satirising the bourgeoisie. Thanks to all this, Derkovits was easily appropriated by the Communist regime from the 1960s onwards. His pictures were everywhere, and so was his name: among other things, a state-run art gallery, a housing estate in the town of Szombathely, as well as a grant for young artists were named after him.[1]

Derkovits Család KM. 63.7

Gyula Derkovits: Family (Proletarian Family), 1932, BHM Kiscell Museum – Municipal Gallery , Budapest – photo: Ágnes Bakos and Bence Tihanyi

While seriously engaging with social issues, Derkovits was a modernist who believed in the autonomy of the image. As he himself put it: ‘To paint a picture means to work strictly on a plane surface, i. e., two dimensions, using purely painterly elements: lines and coloured planes, respecting the plane as the only monumental pictorial form. I want to rid my painting of all illusionistic elements, because in my view strong painting can only emerge if we work with pure painterly forms, painting phenomena of life from all areas, in order to express ourselves as intensely as possible.’[2] It was precisely for this reason that his works were rejected by official ideologues in the 1950s, in the hardline, Stalinist period of Hungarian Communism. In their view, Derkovits had the right ideas, but expressed them in the wrong way: instead of discovering true Socialist Realism he remained stuck in a decadent, bourgeois formalism. In the somewhat softened climate of the 1960s and 1970s, Derkovits offered a perfect reference point for art historians aiming to expand the narrow horizons of Hungarian culture and cultural politics (Lajos Fülep, Éva Körner – author of an excellent monograph on Derkovits[3] – and Lajos Németh), precisely because the painter’s work proved that it was indeed possible to combine a relentless modernism with a genuine Socialist message.

To Derkovits himself, form and message were inseparable. As he continued in the piece quoted above: ‘Art has to be connected with a message, because one will surely have something to say. As a painter and as a human living today, I feel that it is my duty to express the phenomena of our lives and our society in a precise manner. I believe I am fulfilling this task by acknowledging the issues of our time.’[4] After 1989, those interested in Derkovits faced the opposite problem as the art historians of the 1960s: instead of proving that a modernist formal language does not stifle the message, it was now necessary to argue that the presence of the message does not negate the modernism. The Derkovits retrospective organised at the Hungarian National Gallery in 2014 aimed to achieve this by employing the theory of rhetorical ‘modes’ in order to interpret Derkovits’s pictures in a way that sees content and form as one inseparable whole.[5] In this framework, Family was categorised as one of Derkovits’s montage-like pictorial essays, which combine flat shapes depicted from different viewpoints and perspectives in order to force the viewer to read and reread the composition until its intellectual message is recognised.

The way spatial relations are conceived of in Family is characteristic of this approach. The kitchen seen in the image is crowded with people and objects, and there is no linear perspective to help us judge its size. There is no depth to the picture, and even though the position of the individual objects and people in relation to each other is more or less indicated by their overlaps, this does not make the pictorial space as a whole completely clear. Nevertheless, after carefully examining the details, what we see is this: a pregnant woman is sitting peacefully, with her eyes closed, on the right-hand side. Behind her, seated at the table, an older woman – her mother? – is tending to a little boy who seems to be handing her a bunch of grapes. On the left side of the composition, a smaller child is busy eating. The shelf on the back wall holds a jug, a clock and a nice big loaf of bread. On the right-hand side, a half-closed green door separates the viewer from the family, making us feel like intruders.

The interplay of inside and outside is typical of Derkovits’s pictures around 1930.[6] It often has a strong political meaning: in Hungry People in Winter, we see a group of urban poor through the glass window of a bakery. We are inside, enjoying the warmth and the smell of fresh bread while they suffer – the picture is meant to make us uncomfortable. In Winter Storm (1931), the partly opened door reveals a scene of gendarmes arresting someone, while the rest of the family are huddled together inside a raided home that is no longer safe. In the light of these parallels, it seems self-evident to interpret the Family’s situation as precarious, but there is nothing in the picture to suggest so. The kitchen is simply furnished and rather crowded, but it does not give an impression of misery. Unlike the figures in the other two paintings, whose colours are dominated by cold greys and whiteish hues, this family, painted in orange, pink and green, seems to be comfortable, cozy and warm.

Derkovits_Gyula_-_1930_-_Éhesek_télen_(Péküzlet_előtt)

Gyula Derkovits: Hungry People in Winter (In Front of a Bakery), 1930, Gallery of Szombathely, Szombathely – photo: Wikimedia Commons

In depicting a grandmother, mother and children, Family is reminiscent of one of Derkovits’s best-known paintings: Three Generations (1932). In the latter picture, the father is reading a book, while the mirror behind him reflects the scene playing out in front of him: his wife is feeding their baby while a portrait of Karl Marx – taking the place of the grandfather – hangs protectively above them. Three Generations is clearly a representation of the workers’ movement, where the father, an educated worker, draws on the ideas of the previous generation to improve society for the benefit of those who come after him. The picture promotes traditional gender roles, with the father pursuing the intellectual side of the movement, while the nurturing mother tends to the child’s material needs. Family can be seen as a female version of Three Generations: the grandmother has taken on the role of both educator and nurturer, and the mother is deeply absorbed in her thoughts while growing a baby inside her body. The father figures are absent, and so is the direct reference to the workers’ movement.

Where is the father? We have no way of knowing, and there are many further details we do not know about this family, even after ‘reading’ all the details in the pictorial essay. Indeed, much of what we have said above relies on guesswork, on our knowledge of other paintings by Derkovits. The doors and windows in these pictures separate inside and outside, but they have a further function: they remind us that we are never in possession of the whole truth. In Hungry People in Winter, we see the people in the street, quite literally, through a glass darkly: we know they are hungry and cold, but we are unable to perceive, unable to comprehend, the full extent of their misery. In Family, the green door blocks part of our view, reminding us that we are outsiders. It is not an illusionistic detail – that would go against Derkovits’s principles –, it is not meant to make the image more realistic by suggesting that the door could open any minute and reveal the full picture. Instead, it serves to underscore that the painting is not a reflection of reality, but an image, constructed by the painter in two dimensions, in order to tell us something, but not everything about a working-class family in interwar Hungary.

The political message of Derkovits’s works is not the simplified slogan of a political campaign. It is a spirited call to us to stop and think; a reminder that to get to know our world, our society, our fellow humans, we have to look many, many, many times, and even then, our knowledge might lead us closer, but our understanding might still not be complete. In these works, content and form are one. The purpose of the modernist formal language is not simply to transmit, but indeed to create the message in all its complexity.

Nóra Veszprémi

[1] On Derkovits’s reception under Communism see Éva Standeisky, ‘Kisajátítások: Derkovits változó időben’ [Appropriations: Derkovits in changing times] and Barbara Büki, ‘Máig élő tegnapok: Egy festő a közélet színterén’ [Yesterdays surviving into today: A painter in the public eye], in Katalin Bakos and András Zwickl, eds., Derkovits: A művész és kora [The artist and his times] (Budapest: Hungarian National Gallery, 2014), pp. 122–135, 136–149. An English version of the catalogue has also been published (Derkovits: The Artist and His Times [Budapest: Hungarian National Gallery, 2014]); this article refers to the Hungarian version.

[2] Quoted in Katalin Bakos, ‘Egy megszólító életmű’ [An oeuvre that speaks to us], in Bakos and Zwickl, eds., Derkovits: A művész és kora, p. 26. My translation.

[3] Éva Körner, Derkovits Gyula (Budapest: Corvina, 1968; 2nd ed. 1971; 3rd ed. 1974)

[4] Quoted in Bakos, ‘Egy megszólító életmű’, op. cit., p. 26.

[5] Bakos and Zwickl eds., Derkovits: A művész és kora / Derkovits: The Artist and His Times, op. cit.

[6] On this aspect further see György Várkonyi, ‘A proletárok világa’ [The world of the proletariat], in Bakos and Zwickl eds., Derkovits: A művész és kora, pp. 226–228.

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