Artwork of the Month, October 2020: Still Life with Liebknecht Print by István Dési Huber (c. 1930)

For centuries, the still life was considered as the least prestigious of artistic genres, dismissed by critics as undemanding because it only depicted lifeless objects. Yet, there was always more to still lifes than what immediately meets the eye. Allowing unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated objects, they lent themselves to symbolic compositions; they were well suited for referencing the work of other artists or for creating commemorative images. Rather than just ‘copying’ nature, artists often used the genre to intellectually reflect on the possibility of ‘lifelike’ representation. From the late nineteenth century onwards the still life became a preferred genre for the formal experimentations of avant-garde artists. This article will explore a still life by the Hungarian artist István Dési Huber as an expression of his artistic credo. Enclosing works by two contemporary artists, Käthe Kollwitz and László Mészáros, into its pictorial world, Still Life with Liebknecht Print reflects Dési Huber’s views on artistic tradition, the autonomy of art, as well as the artist’s social role.

István Dési Huber Still Life with Liebknecht Print

István Dési Huber: Still Life with Liebknecht Print, c. 1930, Savaria MHV Múzeum – Szombathelyi Képtár photo © Savaria MHV Múzeum

In Search of a System

István Dési Huber (originally István Huber) was born on 6 February 1895 in Nagyenyed, Hungary (now Aiud, Romania).[1] His father was a jeweller, and the family lived a comfortable middle-class life. Things changed, however, when Dési Huber’s mother died. His father neglected the business, which subsequently went bankrupt. The young István had to give up his studies at the prestigious college of Nagyenyed and started drifting, wandering around the country and living off odd jobs. In 1914 he enlisted in the army. He returned in 1918, ill with tuberculosis but determined to start a new life. His father had by then reopened his business in the town of Dés, and István trained there as a goldsmith while also learning to draw from a local teacher. In 1921 he moved to Budapest, living from his trade and studying at the private art school run by Artúr Podolini Volkmann (1891–1943). In 1923 he married Stefánia Sugár, sister of the artist Andor Sugár (1903–1944) with whom he often exhibited together. From 1924 to 1927 the couple lived in Milan, where Dési Huber learnt the technique of copper etching.

István Dési Huber, Self Portrait

István Dési Huber: Self-Portrait, 1926, etching, Dornyai Béla Múzeum, Salgótarján – photo: CC-BY-NC-SA

Returning to Budapest, Dési Huber struggled increasingly with his health and had to stay in hospital for lengthy periods of time. Nevertheless, he was active not only as an exhibiting artist, but also as the author of essays on art and its role in society. He was involved with left-wing intellectual movements in Hungary and became one of the few visual artists making substantial written contributions to political debates. His ruminations were reflected by the shifts in his artistic style. Around 1930 he was fascinated with Cubism. While, for many artists, Cubism provided an intermediate step towards abstraction, Dési Huber moved in the opposite direction. The results of his experiments with the Cubist analysis of forms and surfaces led him back to the materiality of objects. His most important subject became the human figure. Around 1937 he embraced a more expressive style, painting landscapes and cityscapes with loosening brushstrokes, besides his portraits and still lifes. By then, he was widely respected in the art world, having earned praise from critics such as Ernő Kállai (1890–1954), the most eloquent champion of the Hungarian avant-garde. The war years brought fear and desperation, but art exhibitions were still staged, and Dési Huber’s work was often shown. His health, however, was in decline. He died of complications from tuberculosis on 25 February 1944.

Still Life with Liebknecht Print was painted around 1930, when Dési Huber was experimenting with Cubism. It shows a few objects arranged as if on the artist’s workspace. To the upper left, an amorphous object depicting a female head can be seen. Below it, to to the right, two sheets of paper lie on top of each other. The one on the top is a known artwork: a print made in memory of the murdered German Communist leader Karl Liebknecht (1871–1919) by the German artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945) in 1920. It almost completely covers the sheet below it, which seems to be a drawing depicting one object – perhaps a jug. The composition is framed by a horizontally placed hammer at the bottom and a vertical ruler to the right. These two objects enclose the still life neatly in a square, emphasising its overall geometrical, grid-like structure.

Still Life with Liebknecht Print is not a Cubist composition. Its objects are not dissected and laid out flat in the manner of Cubist analysis. Nevertheless, in a more general sense, it still owes much to the Cubist aesthetic in the flatness of its composition, in its strict geometry, as well as in its inclusion of printed material in order to create a montage-like effect. To Dési Huber, Cubism was not merely a style or a formal language, but a way of conceptualising art. As he put it: ‘mandolins and guitars, pears and apples, bottles and pipes lived in a strange, novel unity in these pictures; one determined the other, the detail the whole, and the whole was not some system put into place from the outside, but came into being through the organised, coordinated functioning of pictorial elements.’[2] Cubism offered a sense of rational order, a solid system inherent to the image.

Finding such a system, which could help integrate the socialist artist’s preoccupation with the material realities of society into an autonomous artistic vision, was vital to Dési Huber’s art. In his writings, he critiqued both the formalism and individualism of ‘middle-class art’ and the propagandistic art promoted by some left-wing forums – the latter he considered as non-art. Seeing form and content as inseparable, he searched for a way to reference the problems of the outside world in his pictures without disrupting ‘the organised, coordinated functioning of pictorial elements’.

Art about art

The tightly structured, self-contained composition of Still Life with Liebknecht Print proclaims the autonomy of the image, but the objects it encloses in this pictorial space evoke very specific elements from the outside world, hence it emphasises connections that transcend the boundaries of the picture. Two of the objects in the still life are depictions of existing works by other artists. One is the print by Kollwitz, which will be discussed in more detail later. The other is the female head, which paraphrases a sculpture by László Mészáros (1905–1945). This bust was in Dési Huber’s possession at the time, as evidenced by a contemporary photograph of his living room.[3]

István Dési Huber's home in Ipar Street

Photograph of István Dési Huber’s living room in Ipar Street, Budapest, c. 1930, private collection

Mészáros was one of the young sculptors involved in the Association of New Artists (UME – Új Művészek Egyesülete) and the New Association of Fine Artists (KUT – Képzőművészek Új Társasága), two modernist groups founded in 1923 and 1924, respectively, which operated in close affiliation with each other. The sculptors of both groups were influenced by the ideas of the architect and philosopher Pál Ligeti (1885–1941), who conceived of the history of art as a succession of cycles of growth and decline.[4] Different art forms corresponded to different phases in the cycle: architecture corresponded with its emergence, sculpture with its peak, and painting with its decline. Putting an optimistic spin on Oswald Spengler’s ideas about the cyclical evolution of cultures, Ligeti saw in his own time the promise of rebirth, it would be a time when progress would lead through the period of architecture towards that of sculpture.[5] Enthused by this possibility, the young sculptors reached back to the periods identified by Ligeti as past golden ages: to ancient Greece and Egypt. The Egyptianesque female head by Mészáros was one of many similar heads and busts created by the sculptors of UME and KUT in the 1920s.

Dési Huber was a member of KUT and friends with some of the sculptors in question; hence, he too was preoccupied with these ideas. Still Life with Liebknecht Print offers visual evidence even if there is no record that it was ever displayed at a KUT exhibition.[6] Although Dési Huber respected Ligeti as an intellectual, he disagreed with him on one important point: while Ligeti believed that the resurgence of art would be driven by the middle class, in Dési Huber’s view only the working class could achieve true change and rebirth.[7] Furthermore, Dési Huber was a painter; a theory that privileged sculpture while associating painting with decline could hardly satisfy him. If Still Life with Liebknecht Print is the expression of an artistic credo, then the reference to an existing sculpture and through it to Ligeti’s ideas can be read as a comment on the relationship between the two art forms. The object in the painting is not a faithful representation of Mészáros’s sculpture: it is a piece of linoleum, wood or maybe a stone slab into which an image of the sculpture has been cut or etched, ready to be printed onto paper. The three dimensional sculptural object is transposed into two dimensions: printing and then painting. Hence, Dési Huber’s two preferred artistic techniques subsume sculpture into themselves. In the flatness, the geometrical rigidity of the composition, Dési Huber translated the primitivism of his sculptor friends into painting, demonstrating that painting can do it too – and maybe even better.

The theme of the rivalry of art forms recalls the ‘paragone’, the competition between painting and sculpture often elucidated in Renaissance writings on art. But this is not the only older art historical tradition Still Life with Liebknecht Print taps into. Prints were popular motifs in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century trompe l’oeil paintings, which aimed to trick the eye into believing that the assemblage of objects they depicted was in fact real, creating an illusion of three-dimensionality. By assembling objects reminiscent of the typical repertoire of trompe l’oeil painting – the print, the everyday tools, the flat board –, but painting them emphatically not as three-dimensional objects, Dési Huber was making a subtle art historical joke.

The gentle humour of these tongue-in-cheek references to the interplay of two- and three-dimensionality coexist in the painting with the more obviously pronounced theme of grief. Käthe Kollwitz’s woodcut commemorated Karl Liebknecht, a prominent German Communist and leader of the left-wing Spartacist uprising in January 1919, who had been brutally murdered by paramilitary units employed by the Social Democratic government to suppress the revolt. While the sculpted female head evoked contemporary debates in the Hungarian art world, the print expanded the external references of the still life further, drawing in political, historical events that happened in Berlin.

Art about life

Käthe Kollwitz created her Memorial Sheet for Karl Liebknecht in 1920. By that time, she was a widely acknowledged printmaker with an international reputation, who was also known for her left-wing views. Nevertheless, Kollwitz was not a Communist and – given her firmly held anti-militarist views – opposed the armed uprising led by Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg (1871–1919). She accepted the commission from Liebknecht’s family because she had respected Liebknecht regardless of their differences, and also because she was given the freedom to represent the pain of loss and mourning, rather than the Communist leader’s martyrdom.[8]  In this vein, she focused on the lamenting figures, their grieving faces, their arched backs, their working-class appearance. Building on art historical tradition, she emphatically based the composition on the Christian iconographic type of the Lamentation of Christ.

Käthe Kollwitz, Memorial Sheet for Karl Liebknecht

Käthe Kollwitz: Memorial Sheet for Karl Liebknecht, 1920 – photo: Wikimedia Commons

By the time Dési Huber started working on his still life, Liebknecht had entered the imaginary pantheon of left-wing heroes and was internationally remembered as a Communist martyr. By incorporating Kollwitz’s commemorative print, Dési Huber himself created a picture that could easily be read as commemorating Liebknecht. It is, however, unlikely that Kollwitz’s artistic gesture – moving the focus from the individual hero towards nameless members of the movement, and from radical political art towards artistic tradition – had escaped the Hungarian painter’s attention. This was, after all, the central issue of his own art: how to be political without becoming propagandistic and descending into ‘non-art’. In one of his essays grappling with this issue, he highlighted Kollwitz as one of the few great artists who had been able to reconcile an open political message with artistic form, creating a political art that was also ‘filled with truly human content’.[9]

Certainly, Still Life with Liebknecht Print can be read as a homage to Liebknecht. Equally, however, it can also be read as a homage to Kollwitz, the artist, who was an important point of reference not only for Dési Huber, but for his fellow Hungarian left-wing artists. Gyula Derkovits (1894–1934), for example, whom Dési Huber greatly admired, had gained inspiration from the Memorial Sheet for Karl Liebknecht for his own printed and painted versions of Mourning, works that were also a comment on the retaliations after the fall of the Hungarian Council Republic.[10]

Yet, if Still Life with Liebknecht Print is a homage to Kollwitz, it is a quiet, subdued one, and this characteristic, too, originates from Kollwitz’s work. After all, in her Memorial Sheet for Karl Liebknecht Kollwitz avoided feeding a cult of personality, focusing instead on the effect that person had had on the world. Similarly, in Dési Huber’s still life the focus shifts from Kollwitz herself to the art of printmaking, which is also symbolised by the etched image of the female head. In the dire years after the First World War, printmaking saw a new resurgence across central Europe, providing a possibility for artists to create affordable works as they strove to survive in a barely existent art market. Furthermore, prints also provided an excellent medium for spreading political messages on a transnational scale, making it particularly suitable for left-wing artists. The inclusion of printed matter from the outside world in paintings was a gesture Dési Huber borrowed from Cubism. He employed the Kollwitz print in a manner similar to the way painters such as Juan Gris (1887–1927) – an artist he often mentioned in his writings – employed newspapers. These objects not only opened up the composition towards outside reality, they also provided it with a decidedly contemporaneous, and consequently temporary air; they blurred the line between painting, a venerable form of ‘high art’, and printed paper, perceived as cheap and ephemeral. Within the painting’s overall theme of competing art forms, the inclusion of the print by Kollwitz can be seen as celebrating this often undervalued technique. Given the role of prints in disseminating artistic and political ideas, this also positions art as a crucial part of life, as essential to any kind of renewal.

Constructing a new world

The difference in opinion between Käthe Kollwitz and Karl Liebknecht – the question of whether one should work towards gradual, peaceful change or violently overthrow the status quo – was one that permeated interwar left-wing movements everywhere.

It caused insurmountable rifts not only between Social Democrats and Communists, for instance, but also within smaller, otherwise more like-minded groups. The Hungarian Communist movement, represented by the illegal Hungarian Party of Communists, was convulsed by such debates throughout the interwar period. Dési Huber was involved with the intellectual strand of the movement, publishing his articles in the Communist periodical 100%, but he kept a distance from artistic endeavours launched under the Party’s auspices, such as the Group of Socialist Artists (Szocialista Művészek Csoportja) founded in Budapest in 1934. In his essays he limited his scope to the visual arts and did not venture onto the terrain of political manifestoes. Nevertheless, even without saying so explicitly, his writings suggest that he preferred careful building to violent radicalism – a stance he shared with Kollwitz.

István Dési Huber, Silversmiths

István Dési Huber: Silversmiths, 1930, Savaria MHV Múzeum – Szombathelyi Képtár – photo © Savaria MHV Múzeum

No article on Dési Huber is complete without citing the poem his friend, the poet Miklós Radnóti (1909–1944) wrote upon his death. ‘They could not bear it’, the poem begins, referring to Dési Huber’s ‘shattered heart and lungs’. Here is the last verse, in Gabor Barabas’s translation:

Man beware, take a good look at your world:

this is your past, and this, your ferocious present, –

carry them both in your heart. Live this cursed moment,

and always know what you must do

to make it different.[11]

In Still Life with Liebknecht Print, Dési Huber depicted Kollwitz’s print among his work tools. All of these – the printing block, the ruler, the hammer – can be interpreted as tools of the artist, but with the exception of the first they can also be given a more general meaning. They are tools of labour, tools of measuring, designing, and constructing. Of assembling a new future using both physical and intellectual strength. The composition itself is such an assemblage: it unites centuries-old artistic traditions with the recent achievements of Cubism, Ligeti’s ideas on sculpture with a celebration of painting and printmaking, Kollwitz’s representation of grief over past losses with an optimistic vision of the future. Its individual elements come together in a coordinated, harmonious way within the autonomous image, in accordance with Dési Huber’s artistic ideals, but they also reach past the boundaries of the picture to connect with the outside world: to offer a model for change.

Nóra Veszprémi

[1] The most recent comprehensive works on Dési Huber are Dési Huber István (1895–1944) festőművész emlékkiállítása [IDH memorial exhibition], Haas Gallery, curated by János Haas, Anna Kopócsy and Ferenc Zsákovics, essay by Zoltán Gálig (Budapest, 2007); György Horváth, Dési Huber István (Budapest, 2015).

[2] István Dési Huber, ‘Tanulmány a szocialista festészetről’ [Essay on socialist painting], in Dési Huber, Művészeti írások [Writings on art], ed. Árpád Tímár (Budapest, 1975) p. 70.

[3] I am grateful to Anna Kopócsy for her help with identifying this object and for the photograph of Dési Huber’s home. The identification was originally made by György Horváth.

[4] Ildikó Nagy, ‘Pályakezdő szobrászok a KUT és az UME kiállításain (1925–1935)’ [Early career sculptors at the exhibitions of the KUT and UME], Művészettörténeti Értesítő 43.1–2 (1994) pp. 179–187.

[5] Pál Ligeti, Új Pantheon felé [Towards a new Pantheon] (Budapest, 1926); Pál Ligeti, Der Weg aus dem Chaos: Eine Deutung des Weltgeschehens aus dem Rhytmus der Kunstentwicklung (Munich, 1931).

[6] On Dési Huber, Ligeti and UME/KUT see Anna Kopócsy, A Képzőművészek Új Társasága, KUT (1924–1950) [The New Association of Artists, KUT], PhD Dissertation, ELTE Faculty of Humanities (Budapest, 2008) pp. 77–84. On Still Life with Liebknecht Print and KUT see p. 83.

[7] István Dési Huber, ‘A bajba jutott izmusok, az új középkor és a középosztály szerepe’, in Dési Huber, Művészeti írások, pp. 18–23.

[8] Shawn Roggenkamp, ‘Käthe Kollwitz, In Memoriam Karl Liebknecht’,; Ann Murray, ‘Käthe Kollwitz: Memorialization as Anti-Militarist Weapon’, Arts 9.1 (2020) 36

[9] Dési Huber István, ‘Tanulmány a negyedik rend művészetéről’ [Essay on the art of the fourth estate], in Dési Huber, Művészeti írások, p. 146.

[10] Éva Bajkay, ‘The Artist in Search of an Identity in Vienna’, in Derkovits: The Artist and His Times, eds Katalin Bakos and András Zwickl (Budapest: Hungarian National Gallery, 2014) pp. 68–69.

[11] Miklós Radnóti, ‘He Could No Longer Bear… (Nem bírta hát…)’, in Radnóti, The Complete Poetry in Hungarian and English, transl. Gabor Barabas, foreword by Győző Ferencz (Jefferson, NC, 2014) p. 161.

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/7JWGY

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