Artwork of the Month, March 2020: The New Adam / The New Eve by Sándor Bortnyik (1924)

In the 1920s new concepts became prominent across Europe that mingled technology with the idea of the human. The Czech novelist Karel Čapek (upon the suggestion by his brother Josef) was the first to use the word ‘robot’ for artificial lifeforms modelled after humans, in his famous play R.U.R. (1920).[1] Čapek was in fact referring to an old system of forced labour in Central Europe, where the peasantry had to provide the local lords with a certain amount of unpaid labour every year, the so-called robota (work).[2] The pivotal moment of Čapek’s play is the robots’ uprising against their creators, which leads to the extinction of mankind. In the epilogue, however, the robots Primus and Helena develop human feelings for each other, and the former engineer Alquist, one of the last humans alive, declares them the new Adam and Eve.

The New Adam by Sándor Bortnyik (1924)

Sándor Bortnyik: The New Adam, 1924, Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest – photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, 2020

The literature and art of the interwar period was full of hybrid creatures, whether it is Raoul Hausmann’s (1886-1971) Mechanical Head, Rudolf Belling’s (1886-1972) sculptures, or later Fritz Lang’s (1890-1976) film Metropolis. All these examples bring the representation of technological progress and the interplay between humans and machines to the fore. It seems as if technological progress is often measured by the place humans could still inhabit in these new worlds. What guides the reconfiguring of human identities after the First World War? To which extent were artists part of this process of self-evaluation, especially in the 1920s in Central Europe?

The New Eve by Sándor Bortnyik (1924)

Sándor Bortnyik: The New Eve, 1924, Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest – photo: © Museum of Fine Arts, 2020

Sándor Bortnyik’s paintings The New Adam and The New Eve, both created in 1924, deliver a unique and highly ironic comment to this question of inhabitation.[3] The utopian idea of the New Man and his potential for future societies is met with witty humour. The New Adam stands on a box with a wind-up handle, ready to be played. The once proud artist-engineer, his identity suggested by the floating architectural planes behind him, is now a laughable effeminate dandy. On the other hand, the New Woman has morphed into a display dummy, ready to be rotated around her waist. What motivated this symbolic representation of the altered human body in an abstracted, modernized world?

Bortnyik in-between worlds

Sándor Bortnyik was born in 1893 in the small Transylvanian town of Marosvásárhely (today Târgu Mureș, Romania). He soon left for Budapest and studied at the independent art school run by leading Hungarian modernist painters such as József Rippl-Rónai, Károly Kernstok, and János Vaszary. Political questions played a pivotal role. Before the First World War his fellow students put him in touch with the liberal Galilei Circle and members of the Social Democratic Party. There he met Lajos Kassák (1887-1967), a left-wing activist, writer and artist, and worked with him for about a decade, first in Hungary, then in Vienna, as both were forced to emigrate after the revolutions in 1918/19. Their work was mostly focused on Kassák’s radical journals, A Tett (Action) and MA (Today). Following Futurism and ideas from Russia, their circle tried to implement a new imagery that hinted towards the new society to come after the revolution. In Hungary, too, the New Man was a forerunner as the revolutionary, at least in communist circles. Later Bortnyik split from Kassák, primarily for political reasons and in disapproval of his colleague’s positive attitude towards Dada. Dada artists such as Raoul Hausmann also created many hybrid man-machine creatures, but their anarchistic demeneaour was hard to deal with for a devoted communist like Bortnyik. In 1922, the Hungarian architect Farkas Molnár (1893-1945) invited him to come to the Bauhaus in Weimar, were he arrived amidst major upheavals, eager to see what other options were available.

Founded to rebuild society after the war, the school’s launch in 1918 was initially fuelled by the rather old-fashioned ideal of reviving individual craft skills. This changed in 1923, when Walter Gropius (1883-1969), newly appointed director, mounted the first Bauhaus exhibition and the central piece Haus am Horn. His slogan was ‘Art and Technology: a New Unity’. Bortnyik saw Gropius’s technologically oriented worldview slowly unravel as the initial optimism began to fall away. The main conceptual framework for these undertakings was provided by Constructivism. Invented by the Russian artist Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953) as early as in 1913, it favoured art as a practice for social purposes. The term ‘Constructivism’ was later used by Naum Gabo (1890-1977) in his Realistic Manifesto (1920), and spread widely across Europe during the interwar period. It influenced movements like the Bauhaus, De Stijl, or critics like Karel Teige. It was the art of the machine age, but its proponents struggled with the implications of rationalization, and whether humans could hold on to their individual identities in mass society. In response, Oskar Schlemmer (1888–1943) tried to develop a new, holistic concept of humans in modern life – culminating in his seminar The Human Being [Der Mensch] in 1928. He was also in charge of the theatre costumes and stage designs, both mirroring the complex reconfiguring of human identities within the new social processes and reforms.

Cover of Josef Polák's Hungarian translation of Karel Čapek's R. U. R.

Cover of Josef Polák’s Hungarian translation of Karel Čapek’s R. U. R., designed by the Košice artist Eugen (Jenő) Krón

Bortnyik eventually left Weimar in 1924, as the conservative regime of Miklós Horthy offered amnesty for those who has supported the earlier Soviet regime of Béla Kun. Bortnyik did not go back immediately, however. He made a stop in Košice, a Hungarian city before the war, now part of Czechoslovakia, where he found the prosperous circle around Josef Polák (1886-1945), the progressive director of the Museum of Eastern Slovakia, who translated Čapek’s R.U.R. into Hungarian for a performance, and whose portrait Bortnyik painted in 1924. Bortnyik was probably still in Weimar, not in Košice, when he painted The New Adam and The New Eve. This cannot fully be proven, but after showing the paintings for the first time in I. B. Neumann’s Graphisches Kabinett (Berlin) in March 1924, the Museum of Eastern Slovakia in Košice hosted them in September and October of the same year. Both paintings were created in a transitional period in Bortnyik’s life, where he faced different concepts of the New Man in the German scene. Later, he would establish his own Bauhaus inspired centre, the Budapest Műhely (1928-1938), an art school that specialized in graphic arts.[4] The conflicting ideas of the New Man travelled with him.

The New Adam / The New Eve

Widely seen as a frank response to his stay at the Bauhaus in Weimar, the relatively small painting The New Adam shows a neatly dressed man in front of a futuristic architectural landscape. Held between two glass walls, the stylized dandy and bohemian, an effeminate flâneur and close successor to Oscar Wilde, is sporting an old-fashioned tailcoat to fit his distinguishable wasp waist.[5] He holds a cane in one hand and a straw boater in the other. His head is leaning slightly to the right, as if staring at something. Bortnyik’s New Man stands strangely on a small box with a wind-up handle, ready to be played. The wall behind has a drawing of a mechanical device slapped on to it, as if it were to explain the piston in the machine the man is standing on. He stands or floats in front of an abstracted cityscape, reminding the viewer of the Bauhaus, functionalism and its modern architectural forms.

The painting pokes fun at the New Man and the representation of an elitist culture that often comes down to merely fashionable posing. In other words, the lofty goals of the transformative futuristic landscapes behind him are rarely met in real life, at least not, when faced with practical goals such as providing affordable social housing. This harks back to Bortnyik’s two-year stint at the Bauhaus. The New Adam is a satirical depiction of the struggles the ‘brave new world’ of functionalism had in Weimar. In addition, the form of masculinity depicted shows a continuity to the pre-war period, to the fin de siècle and all of its dandies. He as a machine man shows no convergence with the mechanized world behind him but remains a puppet or a sample of olds in the world of the future. That is what the handle is for, to play once more the old songs of a lost world.

Carlo Carrà: The Girl from the West, 1919

Carlo Carrà: The Girl from the West, 1919, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf photo: europeana.eu CC BY-NC-SA

The New Eve on the other hand, Bortnyik’s complementary piece, is much less a relic of the old, but rather seems to synthesize every aspect of the brave new world shaped by functionalism, constructivism and geometrical forms. With a deep ironic undertone, the assemblage shows the New Eve as an abstraction of tube-like forms. Her dress indicates the possibility of rotating her, like a display dummy. The viewer is reminded of Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballett, figures Bortnyik had seen in Weimar’s Bauhaus plays. Another major influence are the puppets by Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) or Carlo Carrà (1881-1966), lifeless marionettes that carry an uncanny, magical feel. Puppets by artists such as Hans Bellmer also articulate these unwarranted, partly terrifying desires in an otherwise rationalized society. The interest in humans being replaced by non-human surrogates is strangely connected to fetishism and sexual attraction. This holds true for both The New Adam and The New Eve.

Bortnyik’s New Eve is complemented by another store mannequin in the back half of the floating rectangle. To complete the utopia of unified forms, four pillars reiterate her stance (as well as the skyscraper in the background) and counter the very sloping surface. Furthermore, Eve is holding an apple in her left hand, which reminds the viewer of her seduction of Adam that eventually led to the expulsion from paradise. The complementary painting The New Adam lacks those religious features. Additionally, the two fighters in the foreground, figures later seen in Bortnyik’s Boxers (1926) and his painting The Twentieth Century (1927), seem to battle for Eve. Or are these puppets just enjoying a sparring-match? Considering that the New Eve is holding an apple in her left hand, this is possibly hinting at the classical subject of the judgment of Paris. Besides the modern formal characteristics, the artwork contains several Renaissance tropes, represented in an abstracted training room with sandbags hanging from the ceiling, and the woman, although new, is still the prize money. Bortnyik indicates that, despite all the new technology and utopian ideas, old topics never fade away.

The place of man

Both paintings are the outcome of a longer process, which exemplified the integration of the human figure in constructivist spaces. Bortnyik produced a whole sequence of floating planes during the 1920s. They showcase his close interest in constructivist theories and architecture, and after a while he populated them with human figures. These floating planes (as cyphers for constructivism) are variations of Lajos Kassák’s visual architecture, called Képarchitektúra (‘picture-architecture’), a theory first published in 1921 in Vienna. Kassák transitioned from the futurist, energy-driven style of the revolution to a more orderly arranged system of organizing space.[6] The idea was to emulate architectural spaces and eventually bring together architecture and painting. Bortnyik’s friends Farkas Molnár and Alfréd (Fred) Forbát (1890-1972) discussed how to unite art and architecture at the Bauhaus.

Like Kassák, the Russian artist El Lissitzky (1890–1940) tried to integrate painting and architecture, which led to his so-called Proun pictures, constructivist artworks with a distinctly geometric character. The word ‘Proun’ possibly stands for the Russian words ‘PROyect Utverzhdenia Novogo’ (Project for the Affirmation of the New). Powerful geometrical compositions with striking spatial and architectural effects were created by the Russian artists, who spent the early 1920s in Germany. El Lissitzky followed Kazimir Malevich’s (1879–1935) idea of suprematism, and the overall constructivist tradition in Russia during the revolution. His series of Proun’s consequently became Sándor Bortnyik’s other main influence. His Proun 1c was directly copied by him and fills the left side of The New Adam. Again, it is the representation of the new society to come, what drives those images, and by directly citing one of the most prominent examples of his time, Bortnyik comments closely on these ideas.

The New Man of the 1920s might be an afterthought of Nietzsche’s superman [Übermensch]. Until his arrival, humankind is in desperate need for transitional figures, leaders and agitators, who guide them into the new future. Many artists of the time discussed the place of those men in the utopian worlds anticipated. Some architects integrated human beings into their designs, and often returned to traditional forms, realising the often abstracted nature of constructivist forms. Religious imagery was common amongst those tropes, and Bortnyik’s New Adam and New Eve are not only pose as false idols, but hold on to older tropes and traditions. This goes for the Renaissance influences, and remaining realism, as Bortnyik’s drawings of the countryside near Košice show, created in the same year as his The New Adam. There is not only a simultaneity of different styles, but also the desire for humanism, and a deeply felt connection to pre-modern lifestyles. Technological progress is almost always met with the return to the human figure. The hybrid forms of the robot gave the artists the opportunity to think about both options.

When Bortnyik returned to Budapest, graphic design became his new profession. Practical questions and pedagogy helped to cope with the representation of the new man in modern society. The future unravelled in clever poster designs and new typographies. It was easier to integrate the New Man into the technological world of advertisement and high-profile magazines than with the means of classic painting.[7] Consumer culture was the answer to utopian ideas. It was only later, in the late 1930s or early 1940s, when Bortnyik designed a larger than life robot for the International Fair in Budapest. The design for the robot included partly movable limbs and sensors, which allowed him to react to light and noises. Bortnyik now referred to the robot again to present the technological progress made in Hungary. Just before the Second World War began, it was also an attempt to pay homage to the old ideals of the 1920s. Society was already reformed under conservative auspices and the new man existed as a völkisch variant in Hitler’s Germany or as a collectivist one in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Christian Drobe

[1] Or as an abstraction of one of their extremities used for certain mechanical tasks.

[2] Pieter Judson, The Habsburg Empire: A New History (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2016), p. 82.

[3] Merse Pál Szeredi, ‘Az Új Ádám (Bortnyik Sándor szerint)’ [The New Adam (According to Sándor Bortnyik)], Helikon 63.1 (2017), p. 126-135.

[4] Éva Forgács, ‘The “Hungarian Bauhaus”, Sándor Bortnyik’s Bauhaus-Inspired Budapest School Műhely 1928-1938’, bauhaus imaginista http://www.bauhaus-imaginista.org/articles/1331/the-hungarian-bauhaus; Katalin Bakos, Bortnyik Sándor és a Műhely: Bortnyik Sándor tervezőgrafikai munkássága (1914-1947) és a ‘magyar Bauhaus’ (1928–1938) [Sándor Bortnyik and the Műhely: SB’s work as a graphic designer and the ‘Hungarian Bauhaus’] (Budapest: L’Harmattan, 2018).

[5] Samuel D. Albert, ‘Sándor Bortnyik and an Interwar Hungarian Children’s Book’, in Elina Druker, Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer, eds, Children’s Literature and the Avant-Garde (Amsterdam, 2015), p. 76.

[6] Edit Tóth, ‘Activating Visual Energy: The MA Circle and the Art of Sándor Bortnyik, in Acta Historiae Artium 54.1 (2013), pp. 95-110.

[7] Bakos, Bortnyik Sándor és a Műhely.

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/T3FUZ

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