Artwork of the Month, October 2019: Nudes by Erzsébet Korb (1921)

Artistic concepts tend to travel quickly, but they also change during travel. Moreover, they scatter in different directions when affected by certain historical, societal or cultural conditions. The turmoil after the First World War left the newly founded nation states in Central Europe reeling, especially Hungary, which lost a huge part of its territory after the Treaty of Trianon (1920). At the end of the First World War, a part of the Hungarian art scene moved forward from its post-impressionist traditions and followed a neo-classicist upswing that happened in France, Italy, and all around Europe.[1] Often considered a direct reaction to the chaos in post-war societies, the new classicism in Europe evolved differently in every region and is still not fully explored today.

Erzsébet Korb (1899–1925) started her career in the years of the war. She was born in 1899, as the oldest daughter of the well-known Hungarian architect Flóris Korb (1860–1930). He raised his daughters in an artistic environment and later enabled them to follow their careers as painters or dancers. Erzsébet’s talents in drawing and painting were noticed early. Already in 1916, at the age of 17, she exhibited three works at the National Salon in Budapest. Her paintings were heavily influenced by the new classicism. As a young female painter, she altered those tropes and gave them slight nuances. Therefore, most of her female figures show shorter hair and a rather strong body, while men often appear androgynous. Not meant as a direct critique of societal change, but rather driven by formal developments within Hungarian art, her depiction of naked women express deep, heartfelt mourning over a troubled world.


Erzsébet Korb: Nudes, c. 1921, Hungarian National Gallery – photo: Wikimedia Commons

Korb’s Nudes presents two people, a man and a woman. While the woman is standing fully erect, with her right arm twisted round to her left shoulder, the man lies huddled on the floor with his legs bent and relegated to a minor position. The lighting supports this scheme as well; the naked woman is surrounded by a glowing aura, which leaves the man against the darker background. Its blue and white colour, as well as the shimmering, illuminated bodies of both figures provide the main visual appeal. The figures are idealized nudes, both manifestly muscular and firm, but they still appear introverted – as if absorbed in grief. Smaller illuminated areas highlight portions of the woman’s body, which further distinguishes muscle parts on the stomach, hips and legs. Besides their bodily features, which exemplify the new classicist style, the overall tone is full of melancholy. The nudes are set in a schematic, symbolic and timeless landscape. Both have closed their eyes, maybe in awe of the things to come, but still resilient. Remarkably, the man’s posture leaves out his primary genitals, which supports the more androgynous aesthetics often employed by Korb. The Nudes seem to be suffering from the world, left in an empty wilderness, with the standing, glowing woman adumbrating a way out of the misery.

Most of the early developments towards this post-war classicism in Hungary came from within a group of artists that was eventually named the Szőnyi circle, after István Szőnyi (1894–1960), the painter who was at its centre.[2] A highly complex field of different Secessions, local artist colonies and splinter groups defined the Hungarian art scene in that period, where many had to leave the country after the collapse of the short-lived Republic of Councils led by Béla Kun in 1919. After the First World War, they searched desperately for a tradition to build upon. The artists’ colony in Nagybánya (Baia Mare, from 1920 in Romania) remained the major influence; its artists had mostly pursued a post-impressionism in the early 1910s, but also had a rich history in classical Cézannesque compositions of bathers and nudes. The new classicism visible in Korb originated before the First World War. She studied painting with Oszkár Glatz (1872–1958), who was part of the Nagybánya colony before the war. Through her contacts, she came close to the circle surrounding Szőnyi, who was the first to adopt the new style. Never being close as a group, Korb and the two frontrunners of new Hungarian classicism, Károly Patkó (1895–1941) and Vilmos Aba-Novák (1894–1941), later shared a studio. Additionally, the symbolist painter Aladár Körösfői Kriesch (1863–1920) and the artists’ colony he formed in Gödöllő remained a major influence for Korb, linking her classicist style to pre-war symbolism. Both influences led Korb to depictions of a lost arcadia, filled with nude mythical or biblical figures, which she surrounded with shiny and gloomy light.


Károly Patkó: Adam and Eve, 1920, private collection – photo: Wikimedia Commons

Her painting Nudes closely resembles Károly Patkó’s painting Adam and Eve, which adopts a classical composition known since the Renaissance, where both figures are shown side by side under the apple tree. Patkó further nuances this with a colour pattern: the whitened Eve opposes Adam’s warmer side. The dark clouds behind her strengthen the contrast. A coldness surrounds Eve’s white body, as she reaches out to Adam, who has dismissed her offer with his right arm. A metallic look covers the whole scene. Patkó did not include the faces of both protagonists, leaving the characterization to the strongly defined muscular parts of their backs. Again, spots of light accentuate these body parts, and they become visually striking to the viewer. Depictions of strong, muscularly defined women would become the main feature of the new Hungarian classicism after the war. In forming those bodies, continuity and ongoing engagement with pre-war cubism or cubo-expressionism was also apparent. Patkó’s exhibited his Adam and Eve in 1920 at the Ernst Museum in Budapest, where members of the Szőnyi circle frequently displayed their works, and as the main piece of the show it became influential in and outside the group.

These mythical or biblical figures appeared all around Europe, as if the return to stability many craved after the war would only be possible by showing bodies armoured with muscles. This was especially true for France and Italy but it is evident here, too. These close connections between interwar classicisms in Europe still deserve more attention, especially when we take into account artists from Central and Eastern Europe. In 1925 the art critic Ernő Kállai (1890–1954) tried to popularize the new classicism in Hungarian art in the last chapter of his book Neuere Malerei in Ungarn (Newer painting in Hungary).[3] The Szőnyi circle was the precursor to a generation of Hungarian artists who received official residency grants for Italy from 1928 on, and later were known as the School of Rome.[4] Under the regime of Miklós Horthy, Hungary was to a certain degree aligned with the Fascist state of Benito Mussolini, who was liberal concerning the visual arts, yet clearly favoured neo-classical tendencies. Likewise, the School of Rome followed the neo-classicism of Italian painters such as Giorgio de Chirico, Carlo Carrà, Felice Casorati or Mario Sironi. This affinity and the questions it raises about the relation between art and politics cannot be elaborated further here, for painters from both the left and right were connected to the neo-classicist style. Nevertheless, these paradoxical configurations between ideology and style in Central Europe need to be explored further.

In a sense, the monumentality of their neo-classicist figures fits authoritarian stereotypes, but the Szőnyi circle always preferred to depict women. Conversely, there is mostly no glorification of the soldierly male in those paintings; Patkó, Aba-Novák and Szőnyi seemingly followed the long continuity of academic female nudes in Europe.[5] Some of their self-portraits of the 1920s broach that issue by showing them together with their models in the atelier our in nature. Yet they don’t seem to curry favour of a distinct ideology or state agenda – only a backwardness might be in them. What caused the shift in style after the war then?

As several authors have shown, Friedrich Nietzsche’s influence was especially prominent in Hungary, for example with the bathers and horseback riders in Károly Kernstok’s (1873-1940) oeuvre. Influenced by Nietzsche’s writings, the artist shaped the masculine body in the same way as the superman but stuck with more serene body types, which appear motionless and in harmony with nature. One is reminded of artists such as Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824–1898), Ferdinand Hodler (1853–1918) or Hans von Marées (1837–1887). Again, these tendencies helped preparing the new classicism after the First World War. The stylized, muscular torso in János Kmetty’s (1889–1975) Still Life with Sculpture from 1913 foreshadows this development in Hungarian art. Another aspect turned out to be influential as well. The French artist Maurice Denis (1870–1943) combined his classicism with a spiritual and Utopian imaginary of Catholicism. Erzsébet Korb converted from the Lutheran to the Roman Catholic denomination in 1920. Was there a way for the spreading Catholic belief to be modern? The Hungarian philosopher and avant-garde dancer Valéria Dienes (1879–1978) absorbed many contemporary influences, and later staged Christian mystery plays in her Orchestra School. Aspects of a new catholic spiritualism and mysticism differentiate the classicism in Hungarian art from the formally related style in Italy.

Korb’s life was short and eventful: the fact that her husband János Tímár left her for her younger sister Flóra, and then especially her early death in 1925 encouraged us to develop the image of a genius artist hit by melancholy and Weltschmerz.[6] Works such as Revelation (1923) usually show androgynous young men acting as saints, leaving the woman in awe, which could lead to such assumptions. Here, the man bathes the young woman in a divine light. Often, the condition between man and woman is depicted as a sacred choice or dialogue, which means those scenes often resemble biblical scenes such as Annunciations or Epiphanies. The women depicted often come close to statues of the Virgin Mary, showing them as reverent believers. Already in Promised Land from 1922, she brings variation and movement in the otherwise serene classical composition of nude women, which would repeat itself in her late major work Danaidae. This was a popular mythological subject within the group, since in the Greek myth, after killing their husbands the group of 50 women was condemned to spend eternity carrying water in a perforated bucket. István Szőnyi’s version originates from 1923. And in 1917, Valéria Dienes composed a dance composition for the poem The Danaids by Mihály Babits (1883–1941).


Erzsébet Korb: Danaidae, 1925, Ottó Hermann Museum, Miskolc – photo: Wikimedia Commons

This spirituality was not in conflict with modern influences. Flóra Korb was a famous avant-garde dancer in Hungary. She studied classical ballet at the Emilia Nirschy Dance Academy in Budapest and then with Olga Westphal in Munich.[7] Her career took off in 1928, and later she founded her own dance ensemble. Photos by József Pécsi (1889–1956) depict the young dancer in dynamic poses but staged on a pedestal reminiscent of a plinth. Even in modern expressive dance, classical moments are still preserved. Unfortunately, Erzsébet was not able to develop these influences any further. After an auspicious trip to Italy in 1924, whose artistic results she exhibited a year later, she died suddenly of unknown reasons. Her legacy in modern Hungarian painting remains alive as a classicist female painter who further expanded nuances between the monumental and partly symbolist imagery of women in idealized nudity. Rhythm and a sense for colour patterns played a huge role in awakening the otherwise often tranquil compositions of neo-classicist paintings back to life. Her works remain prime examples of the changes in the spiritualized imagery of interwar new classicism, and of how the visual representation of men and women was differentiated.

Christian Drobe

[1] Kenneth Silver, Esprit de Corps, The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War, 1914-1925 (Princeton University Press, 1989); András Zwickl, ed, Árkádia tájain: Szőnyi István és köre 1918–1928 [In the land of Arcadia: István Szőnyi and his circle] (Budapest, 2001).

[2] Zwickl, ed, Árkádia tájain.

[3] Ernő Kállai, Neuere Malerei in Ungarn (Leipzig: Klinkhardt & Biermann, 1925).

[4] Julianna P. Szűcs, A római iskola (Budapest: Corvina, 1987).

[5] Marie Rakušanová, Bytosti odnikud. Metamorfózy akademických principů v malbě první poloviny 20. století v Čechách (Praha: Academia, 2008).

[6] István Genthon, Erzsébet Korb (Budapest, 1928).



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