Szentendre Houses with Crucifix - tempera montage by Lajos Vajda, 1937

Artwork of the Month, May 2020: Szentendre Houses with Crucifix by Lajos Vajda (1937)

In August 1936 the young Hungarian artist Lajos Vajda (1908–1941) was intensely excited about the new artistic programme he was devising with his friend, the painter Dezső Korniss (1908–1984). The two of them had spent the last two years roaming the picturesque small town of Szentendre and its vicinity, exploring the diversity of local vernacular culture and drawing everything they found interesting. It was now time for a synthesis: time to define their artistic goals based on this research. As Vajda explained in a letter to his future wife, the artist Júlia Richter (1913–1982, from 1938 Júlia Vajda): ‘Our starting point is that it is impossible to create without tradition, and in our Hungarian circumstances that tradition can only be Hungarian folk art. … What we want is more or less the same as what Bartók and Kodály have achieved in music.’[1] This meant delving deep into vernacular culture to find its essence, its core elements, in order to revitalise modern art by reconnecting it to an organic tradition.

Szentendre Houses with Crucifix - tempera montage by Lajos Vajda, 1937

Lajos Vajda: Szentendre Houses with Crucifix, 1937, Ferenczy Museum Centre, Szentendre – photo: hu.museum-digital.org CC BY-NC-SA

Szentendre Houses with Crucifix is a characteristic example of the art that emerged from this artistic programme. A tempera montage that depicts a surrealist combination of gable-roofed houses, a horizontally positioned crucifix, a plant-like ornamental motif and a pair of crossed bones, it demonstrates that Vajda’s understanding of ‘Hungarian folk art’ was rather broad, and corresponded more with what could be better translated into English as the vernacular. His studies encompassed all the cultures he encountered around multi-ethnic Szentendre; they extended to small town culture, as well as to the culture of the peasantry. Szentendre had a large Serbian Orthodox population, whose religious objects Vajda fervently studied, but he also explored the material culture of Hungarian Roman Catholics, of nearby Slovak villages, and of Jewish communities. He approached these sources armed with the lessons he had drawn from modernist movements such as Constructivism and Surrealism, combining all of these inspirations into his own, unmistakeable artistic vision.

Lajos Vajda was born into a Jewish family in Zalaegerszeg, Western Hungary, in 1908.[2] From 1917 to 1922 the family lived in Serbia, where Vajda’s father had moved them in the hope of a better living. Upon returning to Hungary, the family moved to Szentendre. From 1923 to 1927 Vajda studied in the art school of the OMIKE, the Hungarian Jewish Cultural Association. In 1928 he enrolled at the College of Fine Art in Budapest, where he was taught by János Vaszary (1867–1939) and István Csók (1865–1961). At the College, he founded the group of Young Progressives with Korniss and five other students. Having developed an interest in the Russian avant-garde, they collectively joined Lajos Kassák’s (1887–1967) Munka Circle and started experimenting with Constructivism. These ‘subversive’ activities prompted the Ministry of Culture to conduct an investigation at the College in 1930, and the seven Young Progressives all left the school and moved abroad. (Vaszary and Csók, who had been supportive of these students, were forced into retirement two years later.) From 1930 to 1934 Vajda lived in Paris. Supporting himself from odd jobs, he devoured exhibitions and art magazines, familiarising himself with Surrealism. He also took an interest in African art.

Having returned home, Vajda spent a lot of time in Szentendre, which was becoming increasingly popular with artists due to its scenic location by the Danube, as well as its picturesque old houses and narrow medieval streets. In 1935 Vajda met Júlia Richter in the canteen of the OMIKE. He also associated with artists such as Imre Ámos (1907–1944), Endre Bálint (1914–1986) and Piroska Szántó (1913–1998), who were similarly drawn to Szentendre. Gaining respect in these artistic circles, Vajda was nevertheless cut off from the wider art world. Some of his drawings were published in the Jewish cultural magazine Múlt és Jövő (Past and Future), but whenever he sent his works to the exhibitions of the KUT (New Association of Fine Artists), an influential artists’ society that represented a moderate form of modernism, they were rejected. His special brand of Surrealism stood more or less alone in the contemporary Hungarian art world, and it was far removed from the figurative, decorative modernism favoured by the KUT.

How to describe that special brand? In a letter to Júlia, Vajda himself called it ‘constructive surrealist thematics’, a phrase that brought together his different inspirations.[3] Although he worked with Kassák for a while and created constructivist compositions, Vajda was never a fully committed constructivist. While working on those abstract pictures, he also produced realistic depictions of his Szentendre surroundings. Then, in Paris, he had two important intellectual encounters: he became familiar with Surrealism and with African art, which he observed through the lens of the ‘primitivism’ of the French avant-garde.[4] He now knew what he wanted: a constructivist Surrealism, or surreal Constructivism, which reached back to the pure essence of human culture like primitivism aimed to do, but through Vajda’s local culture, rather than African objects. As he further explained, he was experimenting with the effect of ‘different objects lifted from different contexts, assembled in one pictorial plane’.[5] This method was surrealist, because it brought together ‘different objects’ based on the artist’s free association alone, but it was also constructive, because it then ‘assembled’ them according to a new, strict internal logic (in Hungarian Vajda used the word ‘összeszerel’ – a word that explicitly refers to engineering). Rejecting the instinctive, dreamlike, emotional nature of Surrealism, Vajda described himself as belonging among the artists who ‘also think about what they do’.[6]

Church steeples with harbour motifs by Lajos Vajda (1936)

Lajos Vajda: Church Steeples with Harbour Motifs, 1936, private collection – photo: Stefánia Mándy, Lajos Vajda, Fig. 137

From 1934 to 1936 Vajda mainly explored Szentendre motifs using only a pencil, in line drawings that reveal his systematic thinking. Some of these were simple renderings of individual motifs, which examined how an object such as a house can be abstracted to its most basic forms, in two dimensions. In other drawings, Vajda projected different motifs onto each other. His method was to trace and retrace them, preserving their basic shapes while letting their contours intersect to create new combinations. It was here that his approach differed from that of his friend Korniss: while Korniss transformed the motifs he collected in order to create a self-contained pictorial world into which they were all subsumed, Vajda preserved all individual objects in their objecthood, even when stripping them down to a few bare lines, their most basic essence.[7] By reiterating them in different combinations, it was possible to observe how they affected each other, both in their pure form and in their symbolism.

Tendrilled ornament on a well

Tendrilled ornament on a well – photo: István Szalkai, from Stefánia Mándy, Vajda Lajos, Fig. 142

In 1937, Vajda produced a series of tempera montages, which reproduced the same motifs in soft colours, in the form of translucent planes, stripping them from even the small amount of realistic detail preserved in the drawings. Szentendre Houses with Crucifix is a characteristic example: the houses with gabled roofs and simple rectangular windows, the bones, the plant-like motif with four tendrils, as well as the crucifix had all been recurrent in his earlier work. His method is clearly observable here. The four-tendrilled motif originates from an ornament Vajda saw on a well.[8] In the light of the photograph it is clearly recognisable, and its evolution can be observed when set beside some drawings Vajda produced a year or two earlier (see above). A similar process can be traced in the case of the crucifix. Vajda had originally drawn one of the ‘tin Christs’ often seen in rural streets in Hungary – examples of naive, vernacular devotional objects, which were, at the same time, not folk art in a strict sense, as they were often mass produced. In the earlier drawings Vajda recorded Christ’s features and the cloth around his waist in a few simple lines, but in the tempera montage the crucifix becomes a dark shape, floating in from the right-hand side horizontally, rather than vertically, which makes it almost unrecognisable as a crucifix.

Given that Vajda tended to represent objects with a strong, often religious symbolism, the question arises whether his compositions can be interpreted as symbolic. It is undeniable that in many of his works the artist was drawing on the symbolic potential of his motifs. In a series of paintings, he used the simplified forms of Orthodox icons to create what we might call spiritual self-portraits: abstract human figures that stand in for the artist, while not bearing an outside resemblance. The romantic idea of the divine artist-creator certainly haunts these compositions. In drawings such as his double portrait with Endre Bálint, Double Portrait with Houses (1937), he uses this icon-like face to represent himself, while in another version, Friends (1937), his own face is less icon-like, but both of the superimposed heads are encompassed in a larger circle – an icon-face simplified to the point of full abstraction.[9]

Friends by Lajos Vajda, 1937

Lajos Vajda: Friends, 1937, private collection – photo: Wikimedia Commons

The latter drawing is interesting here because, placed inside the heads of the two artists, it contains the tendrilled organic motif and the pair of crossed bones, projected onto each other in a similar way as in Szentendre Houses with Crucifix. This is a juxtaposition of life and death, and – as Stefánia Mándy has argued – together with the crucifix these motifs signal an eternal cycle of life, death and rebirth, of suffering and redemption. Even the composition itself suggests circular movement: the tempera montage would have to be turned by 90 degrees for the crucifix to stand vertically, as it ‘normally’ would.[10]

At the same time, one of the central characteristics of Vajda’s art is how he captures his objects in their pure objecthood. As Krisztina Passuth has observed, Vajda did not represent Christ – he represented a simple, naive tin crucifix he saw in the street.[11] Copied into new compositions again and again, and becoming more and more abstract, the crucifix never undergoes a metaphysical transformation to become Christ. For those raised even in distant familiarity with Christian culture, it is impossible to see a crucifix as bare form, with no symbolic meaning, but its objectification in Vajda’s compositions means that we are still forced to at least consider the possibility. This creates an uncertainty that permeats Vajda’s compositions. It is the effect of ‘different objects lifted from different contexts, assembled in one pictorial plane’, the result of Vajda’s ‘experiment’.

A few days after Vajda wrote to Júlia Richter about folk art, he sent her another enthusiastic letter. He was ready to turn his new ideas into international collaboration: ‘we need to connect with artists in Slovensko, in Transylvania and in Yugoslavia, and not just painters, but also architects, writers, musicians, with whom we could build a little East-Central-European working group.’[12] Although there were plenty of artists in the surrounding countries with similar interests in vernacular culture, the network never materialised: the plans were undermined by the dire political circumstances and the imminent war, as well as by Vajda’s fragile health.[13] By the late 1930s, the bone tuberculosis he had been struggling with since 1926 was becoming overwhelming. In September 1940 he was enlisted into a labour batallion – a form of military forced labour compulsory for Jewish men –, but was discharged after three weeks due to his poor health. He died in the tuberculosis sanatorium in Budakeszi on 7 September 1941. In the next years, his entire family, as well as some of his artist friends were murdered in the Holocaust. The only close family member to survive was his wife, Júlia, who took it upon herself to preserve Vajda’s artistic legacy.

Lajos Vajda: Icon Self-Portrait Pointing Upwards, 1936

Lajos Vajda: Icon Self-Portrait Pointing Upwards, 1936, KOGART, Budapest – photo: Wikimedia Commons

The magnitude of this tragedy makes it hard to assess what could have been, and counterfactuals in history are mostly pointless anyway. It is, however, relevant to point out the discrepancy between Vajda’s ambition to become the central figure of an international working group and his generally reticent personality, his reputation as a loner. It is not just that he was not accepted into the wider Hungarian art world during his lifetime – this was a consequence of the general conservatism of the Hungarian art establishment, not of Vajda’s artistic personality. But, as his letters show, Vajda himself was overly critical of his fellow artists: not just the decorative modernists of the KUT, but also those he could have counted on as allies, like Ámos, or even – eventually – Korniss.[14] He was not one to easily merge his artistic aims with those of other artists.

There is, however, another side to this coin. Collecting motifs in Szentendre was a joint project with Korniss, even if the two of them drew markedly different conclusions from the material – as one would, indeed, expect from two strong and autonomous artistic personalities. And later on, in the eyes of those who came after him, Vajda’s art proved to be open as a source of inspiration, as a body of work that invited new interpretations. In the years after the war, he was held up as a great example by the artists’s group European School (Európai Iskola), which included Korniss, Bálint, Szántó and Júlia Vajda, until the group was banned by Communist authorities. Júlia Vajda tended carefully to her husband’s legacy, while creating her own impressive oeuvre. In the 1960s and 70s she inspired and gained new inspiration from the young artists of the neo-avantgarde, who were eager to connect with the previous generation of abstract artists: those silenced by the Stalinist cultural policies of the 1950s. Another one of these was Korniss, who had carried on painting his folk-art-inspired abstract paintings even when he had no hope of exhibiting them. A characteristically reticent man, he nevertheless fruitfully collaborated with his young admirers in the 1970s. In 1972 young Szentendre avant-gardists founded their own association, naming it the Lajos Vajda Studio. Vajda’s artistic vision lived on not only through the artworks themselves, but also through the little group of people he had inspired during his short life. This, perhaps, is the best proof of the openness of an oeuvre that might appear as a self-contained, closed bubble in the context of the interwar Hungarian art world, whose rules it refused to play by.

Nóra Veszprémi

[1] Lajos Vajda to Júlia Richter, Szentendre, 11 August 1936, in Stefánia Mándy, Vajda Lajos (Budapest, 1983) pp. 181–182.

[2] This biography is based on ‘Vajda Lajos életrajza’ [Biography of Lajos Vajda], in György Petőcz and Noémi Szabó, eds, Vajda Lajos: Világok között [Between Worlds]  (Szentendre, 2018) pp. 284–287.

[3] Lajos Vajda to Júlia Richter, Szentendre, 3 September 1936, in Mándy, Vajda Lajos, p. 186. In Hungarian: ‘konstruktív szürrealista tematika’. Stefánia Mándy, Vajda’s first monographer, read the last word as ‘sematika’ – ‘constructive surrealist schematics’ (see Mándy, Lajos Vajda, p. 44), but today’s consensus is that the correct reading is thematics.

[4] See Krisztina Passuth, ‘Vajda Lajos és a primitivizmus: Miért éppen törzsi művészet?’ [LV and primitivism? Why tribal art?], in Petőcz and Szabó eds, Vajda Lajos: Világok között, pp. 216–225.

[5] Lajos Vajda to Júlia Richter, Szentendre, 3 September 1936, in Mándy, Vajda Lajos, p. 186.

[6] Ibid.

[7] See András Rényi, ‘Szegénység és tapasztalat: Vajda Lajos szentendrei rajzmontázsai és a képsík archeológiája’ [Poverty and experience: LV’s Szentendre pencil montages and the archaeology of the pictorial plane], in Petőcz and Szabó eds, Vajda Lajos: Világok között, pp. 175–189, esp. 185–186.

[8] Mándy, Vajda Lajos, p. 62.

[9] For this interpretation see Mándy, Vajda Lajos, p. 83.

[10] Mándy, Vajda Lajos, p. 74.

[11] Krisztina Passuth, in Vajda Lajos emlékkönyv [In memoriam LV], ed. Mária Zsámboki (Budapest, 1972), quoted in Rényi, ‘Szegénység és tapasztalat’, p. 186.

[12] Lajos Vajda to Júlia Richter, Szentendre, 18 August 1936, in Mándy, Vajda Lajos, p.184.

[13] On Vajda’s possible collaborators see Gábor Pataki, ‘A virtuális mozgalomtól a katasztrofizmusig: Vajda és a közép-európai művészet 1936–1941’ [From a virtual movement to catastrophism: Vajda and Central European art], in Petőcz and Szabó eds, Vajda Lajos: Világok között, pp. 234–240.

[14] On Vajda’s place within the community of contemporary Hungarian modernists see György Várkonyi, ‘“Sem rokona, sem ismerőse”: Vajda Lajos és a korabeli magyar modernizmus’ [‘Neither a relative, nor an acquaintance’: LV and contemporary Hungarian modernism], in Petőcz and Szabó eds, Vajda Lajos: Világok között, pp. 190–199.

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/F57NY

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