Artwork of the Month, January 2022: Morphine Addict by János Vaszary (1930)

When it comes to continuity and rupture, the long career of János Vaszary (1867–1939) is certainly emblematic. He was born in 1867, the year of the Austro-Hungarian Compromise, and died in 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War. He lived through the 1896 Millennium celebrations, when the self-confident Hungarian state marked its 1000-year existence, the First World War, the collapse of Austria-Hungary, two revolutions and a counterrevolution, the political shifts of the Horthy regime. Meanwhile, he went from being the talented nephew of an archbishop and an indisputable member of the establishment to being attacked and pushed out of his professorship for his liberal and modernist views. The evolution of his art, too, can be characterised as a series of ruptures: he started under the influence of Symbolism and Naturalism, developed a colourful post-impressionist style by the early 1900s, then abandoned it around 1910 for a new style based on anti-impressionist principles and an interest in the avant-garde. His wartime experiences turned him into an expressionist painter of misery; then, in the 1920s, he transferred his agitated Expressionism to peaceful, mundane subject matter as his palette brightened up. Influenced by his stays in Paris, he took on the light touch and urban themes of the École de Paris, and finally developed a characteristic method of colourful small brushstrokes, which he mostly used to depict pleasant beachside and garden scenes.

János Vaszary, 1930 (Morphine Addict), 1930

János Vaszary: Morphine Addict / 1930 (Morphine Addict), 1930, Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest – photo © Museum of Fine Arts, 2021

Amidst all this change, where was the continuity? Vaszary painted his Morphine Addict at a crucial point in his career. Depicting a rather scandalous subject – a sexual encounter fuelled by drug use – against the backdrop of an ultramodern metropolis, the painting encapsulated the artist’s thinking about modernity and the aims of modern art. Through this key work, this article will first explore Vaszary’s artistic principles around 1930, and then attempt to define the driving force behind his highly diverse oeuvre.

A colourful career

János Vaszary was born in 1867 into a middle-class family in Kaposvár, western Hungary.[1] His father was a high school teacher and his mother the daughter of a vineyard owner. Following his studies at the Hungarian Royal Drawing School in Budapest, in 1887–1888 he continued at the Munich Academy of Fine Art. With the support of his uncle, Kolos Vaszary (1832–1915), then Archabbot of Pannonhalma, he subsequently enrolled at the Académie Julian in Paris. In 1891 uncle and nephew travelled to Italy together. In the same year, Kolos Vaszary was appointed Archbishop of Esztergom, Prince-Primate of Hungary.

This family connection helped János Vaszary substantially in the early years of his career. In 1890 he was commissioned to portray the two teenage sons of Archduke Joseph Habsburg. In 1892, his first exhibited work was a similar large-scale portrait of the Archbishop. Nevertheless, Vaszary showed no further inclination to become a society portraitist. He soon earned much praise on his own accord, most notably with his symbolist masterpiece The Golden Age (1898), which was a favourite with critics and the audience, won the grand prize of the National Hungarian Art Association, and was purchased by the government for the soon-to-be-opened Museum of Fine Arts. In the following years, Vaszary’s brushstrokes gradually became looser, and he soon abandoned mysterious, ambiguous meanings for rich textures and colours. In the first decade of the new century, he painted nudes in interiors, outdoor scenes with impressionistic light effects, naturalist pictures of rural people, decorative Art Nouveau compositions, and Italian cityscapes in cheerful colours.

János Vaszary, Golden Age, 1898

János Vaszary: Golden Age, 1898, Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest – photo: Museum Digital CC-BY-NC-SA

Around 1910 a radical change occurred in Vaszary’s art. In his preface to the catalogue of his exhibition organised that year, he spoke out forcefully against Impressionism, reiterating a stance taken by the Hungarian avant-garde of the time.[2] He abandoned his loose brushstrokes for fine, orderly lines, and his bright colours for subdued shades of blue, grey and brown, and developed a style partly inspired by the Italian early Renaissance and partly by the avant-garde of his time.

In 1914, Vaszary signed up at the Kriegspressequartier (War Press Headquarters)  to become a war painter. Like many of his contemporaries, he initially saw the war as an exciting adventure but soon became disillusioned on experiencing its horrors. In his war paintings, he captured the agony and despair of soldiers on the front. The theme of suffering continued to preoccupy him for a few years, as he painted several studies and versions of the Crucifixion. This sombre Expressionism, however, only constituted a short period in his oeuvre. His paintings in the 1920s can still be characterised as expressionist, but they depict less upsetting subject matter, such as theatre scenes, and they also bear witness to Vaszary’s return the broader, looser brushstrokes and lush textures of his paintings in the early 1900s.

In 1920 Vaszary was appointed as professor at the College of Fine Arts. In 1925 he initiated the founding of the Association of New Artists (UME – Új Művészek Egyesülete), a group uniting modernists. In the following years he visited Paris and Italy multiple times. He received official commissions, such as decorative panneaux depicting underwater life for the Biology Research Institute in Tihany in 1928. In the same year, he served as curator of the Hungarian pavilion at the Venice Biennial. His selection featured a number of artists from the UME and from among his pupils, as well as some of his own works. Although it received favourable reviews from international commentators, the modernist display was fiercely attacked by the right-wing Hungarian press as ‘extreme.’[3] Accused of nurturing subversive tendencies in young artists, in 1932 Vaszary and his colleague István Csók (1865–1961) were forced to retire from the College of Fine Arts. Despite their own moderate approach, both professors had been sympathetic to the avant-garde experimentations of their students, and had mentored, with much goodwill, students such as Lajos Vajda (1908–1941).

Following his dismissal, Vaszary founded an independent art school (formally run by Klára Rázsó). He continued to practice his liberal methods and welcomed students marginalised in the official system: left-wingers, avant-gardists, women. His own art now privileged the pleasant themes of gardens and beaches. He died in 1939.

1930 (Morphine Addict)

Vaszary first displayed Morphine Addict at his exhibition organised at the Ernst Museum (a privately owned art gallery) in 1930, right in the middle of the ferocious attacks that would lead to his forced retirement. The painting shows a reclining, nude woman, smoking and looking at the viewer with drowsy eyes. She is only wearing a necklace made of colourful beads and a cap. Her lips are bright red. To the left, a large Buddha statue can be seen. To the right, the black figure of a man in a top hat looms over the woman. In the background the silhouette of a metropolis with high-rise buildings is visible, while at the top of the composition colourful bubbles float, representing the morphine addict’s state of mind.

Known today simply as Morphine Addict, in 1930 the painting was exhibited under the title 1930 (Morphine Addict).[4] The importance of this becomes evident in the light of Vaszary’s introduction to the exhibition catalogue. The first paragraph lists various trappings of modernity: antennae on rooftops, radio, advertising lights, charleston, crowds, the dizzying speed of technological progress; while the second only consists of one line: ‘Nineteen thirty.’[5] The theme of the exhibition was the contemporary moment, and their titles identified two paintings as encapsulating its essence. One was 1930 (Morphine Addict), the other 1930 (Advertising Lights in the Street), which showed a nocturnal cityscape with colourful lights displaying mostly illegible lettering.

János Vaszary, Advertising Lights in the Street, 1930

János Vaszary: Advertising Lights in the Street, 1930, Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest – photo © Museum of Fine Arts, 2021

Unlike its counterpart, 1930 (Morphine Addict) does not feature advertising lights, nor text. The pictorial space is flattened, and due to this it is hard to discern how the cityscape in the background relates to the human figures. A comparison with another, similar painting from the exhibition, City Lights – a painting where the details are less abstract – suggests that the woman is lying in front of a window, but the composition provides us with few other solid clues. What shall we make of the rather incongruous sailboat next to the woman’s head? Is it an ornament placed on the windowsill, or is it part of the vision that unfolds in the upper part of the composition, a metaphor for a floating state of mind? In City Lights, we see advertising lights and colourful inscriptions; in Morphine Addict these are replaced by the surreal bubbles of a drug-induced vision.

János Vaszary 1930 exhibition catalogue

1930 (Morphine Addict) and City Lights in the 1930 exhibition catalogue – photo from Vaszary János képei az Ernst-Múzeum kiállitásán, pp. 20–21

Apart from the advertising lights, other elements of Vaszary’s concept of modernity are also missing from this keystone painting. Despite being listed in the text, there is no radio, no charleston, no cutting-edge technology. Instead, a prominent motif is the Buddha head, which can be related to another aspect emphasised by Vaszary: the possibility of encountering cultures from all over the world while ‘sitting in a comfortable armchair,’ which leads to ‘the incredible expansion and enlightenment of the philistine mindset’. In the midst of ‘the stifling rush of science and technology, the oxygen tubes of culture raise age limits and make you younger, if you like.’ It is, however, not just ready access to culture that energises the modern human. Morphine and cocaine are also accessories of modern life. Vaszary does not moralise; instead, he lists the drugs in a matter-of-fact way after the banjo and charleston, stating that ‘today they belong to a contented disposition’ just like tobacco did before.

The metropolis is somewhere else

In the 1920s Vaszary travelled to Paris multiple times. In some of his paintings of big city life, the metropolis is unmistakably Paris. In other pictures, this is less clear: Morphine Addict, for instance, depicts a dense ensemble of high-rise blocks more reminiscent of New York than Paris. It has been pointed out that in choosing the modernity of the metropolis as a theme Vaszary stood rather alone among painters in Hungary.[6] Indeed, pictures of similar subject matter are scarce in early-twentieth-century Hungarian art. Although Budapest was a metropolis in its own right, it was seldom depicted in such a way in the visual arts. Paintings of Budapest depicted crowds on trams – but the tram rattled past small houses with red roofs –, or cityscapes, or urban poverty, but they rarely showed the city as the epitome of technological progress and uninhibited modern life. That kind of metropolis was associated with foreignness.

This association is a central feature in Vaszary’s painting. Even though Morphine Addict does not contain explicit references to Paris, nor English words like its counterpart Advertising Lights, the cityscape itself still identifies the scene as taking place somewhere else, in some distant place, and definitely not in Budapest. The theme of the morphine addict, and especially the female morphine addict who is also sexually licentious, looked back on a long history in French art. Indeed, the theme of a sexually available woman welcoming her moneyed lover in a comfortable room had been oft explored by French caricaturists of modern life since the mid-nineteenth century. By drawing on this imagery, Vaszary yet again suggested that the scene is foreign.

The consumption of opiates such as opium and morphine was, of course, far from unknown in Hungary. Vaszary’s painting was not the first time it appeared in culture. The most magnificent example is Lajos Gulácsy’s (1882–1932) painting The Dream of the Opium Smoker (1913–18), which notably represents the vision in the form of bubbles, similarly to Vaszary’s picture. The writer Géza Csáth (1887–1919) explicitly drew inspiration from his morphine addiction in his short stories and eventually died of an overdose after murdering his wife in a bout of drug-induced paranoia. Like many morphine addicts, Csáth was a doctor and was able to acquire the substance through his profession. Often obtained as a prescription drug, morphine had spread considerably in Hungarian society by the First World War and its consumption increased yet again after the war.[7] As the MP Sándor Szabó put it in a parliamentary speech in the year of Vaszary’s painting: ‘following a period of great suffering and want, people sought release in various indulgences for the deranged states of the nervous system’.[8] In 1925 the Hungarian pharmacist János Kabay (1896–1936) developed a new method for isolating morphine from green poppy pods at an industrial scale. Thanks to his patent, Hungary became a leading producer of medical-use morphine.

Due to Kabay’s internationally recognised work and Hungary’s increasing production of morphine, it would certainly have been impossible to claim that the substance had nothing to do with Hungary. Nevertheless, while morphine was and still is indispensable in medicine, and hence its production could easily be justified, its abuse and the use of other drugs for recreational purposes was a more sensitive subject. Opium was consistently identified in the interwar press as a foreign import and associated with ‘oriental’ influence. In 1926 it was claimed that around the fin-de-siècle opium had been mostly consumed by Chinese immigrants, who had tried to make profit by selling it to Hungarians. Another article published in the same year blamed the ‘spahi officers’ – soldiers of the French army recruited from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco – stationed in Hungary in 1919 during the Soviet Republic.[9] Despite the widespread use of opiates in the respectable middle class, drug abuse was associated with the criminal underworld and prostitution in popular consciousness. In 1935 109 people were registered as drug users, among them 70 women, almost all of whom were sex workers. Yet, as the historian Ákos Erdős notes, this does not reflect the actual number and social composition of drug users, especially of women drug users – the reason behind the numbers was simply that women in prostitution were subject to strict policing, while middle-class men and women had more privacy to entertain their drug habits.[10] Statistics such as these were shaped by and also shaped the mental association between female sexual licentiousness and drug use, which is also the central theme of Vaszary’s painting.

By placing the scene into a foreign city, exploiting imagery associated with Frenchness, and adding the motif of the Buddha, Vaszary depicted morphine addiction and its sexual connotations as something far removed from contemporary Budapest. He allowed his viewers to get a glimpse of the metropolis as ‘sin city,’ as fascinating and alluring Other, without having to confront their own part in it. Yet, in the light of the catalogue preface, this artistic gesture becomes ambivalent. If modernity means gaining instant knowledge of far-away cultures and merging them with our own, then this kind of distantiation is meaningless. By being complicit in modernity, the painting’s viewers are also complicit in its dark, delicious and dangerous sins.

The dark side of modernity

The idea elucidated in Vaszary’s introduction – that modern life requires an art that draws on the present – had been repeated in modernist manifestoes many times. Still, self-proclaimed modernists interpreted this requirement in different ways. The artists Vaszary himself lists as modern – Le Corbusier, Gropius, Stravinsky, Picasso, Meyerhold – certainly did not hold uniform views on the issue. The first two in the list are architects, and their names recall the characteristics most often associated with modern architecture: simple, unadorned forms, functionality, white walls, bright spaces. Vaszary himself describes modern architecture in this way: ‘Dwellings are kept simple: the walls are bright – with large, studio-like windows, so a lot of light and air can pervade the apartments; few, transparent curtains; furniture is constructed out of wood, metal and glass in the possibly most simple way. It is sanatoriumlike? Yes, sanatoriumlike. Why shouldn’t the homes of European people be sanatoriumlike? Hygiene and simplicity are beautiful in themselves.’[11]

Yet, for all the lip service he pays to the white, bright and hygienic spaces of modern architecture, it is not this side of modernity that Vaszary is really interested in. Instead, his painting is about sex, drugs and mysticism. The inclusion of the Buddha’s head evokes the spiritual movements of the early twentieth century, which combined a mishmash of ideas drawn from eastern philosophies with Judeo-Christian traditions and esotericism. The most influential of these was Helena Blavatsky’s Theosophy, which Vaszary explicitly mentions in the first paragraph. Although these ideas were anything but simple and transparent, they were embraced by many ‘rational’ and ‘hygenic’ modernists. Members of Gropius’s Bauhaus were deeply preoccupied with the occult, with sexual transgressions, with altered states of mind.[12] Indeed, the modernity represented by Vaszary’s list of heroes was hardly rational, polite and sterile. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is a frenzied dance that culminates in human sacrifice. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon depicts a brothel scene.

Instead of modernist form – geometry, abstraction, simplicity – Vaszary’s focus is on expression. His preface explains that, in the rush of modern life, the viewer has no time and patience to scrutinise the details of a painting in order to ‘gather the hidden effects and beauties one by one’.[13] Instead, 1930 requires ‘the immediate action of urgent, well-balanced, concisely formulated effects; their heightened force, their organic synthesis in form, idea and formulation. It does not matter whether this means decorative formulation, expression or abstraction.’ In modern paintings, he continues, the individual behind the painting is supremely important. The main aim is to express the artist’s feelings: ‘if heightened excitement, individual intention and their felicitous expression cannot be found [in the painting], then there is no art, just artificiality, business – boredom.’

In seeming contrast to these requirements, 1930 (Morphine Addict) is made up of separate motifs that the viewer takes in one by one: the Buddha, the nude woman, the shadow-like man, the bubbles, the sailboat, the high-rise buildings. Nevertheless, by flattening the space and pushing all the motifs into a plane, while also giving them a degree of transparency that subsumes them into the morphine-induced vision, the composition still merges eastern philosophy, intoxication, the modern city, the imminent sexual act, into a simultaneous, urgent expression of feelings: feelings of fascination and anxiety evoked by the metropolis.[14]

In light of this, a question emerges: who is the eponymous morphine addict? The cultural trope of the sexually available female morphinist would suggest that it is the woman. Nevertheless, it could also be the man, serious looking in his top hat, yet about to give in to his carnal desires. However, if the painting is an expression of the artist’s feelings, then the morphine addict surely has to be the artist who dreamt up the hedonistic scene. There is, finally, one more candidate, the one taking in the vision and trying to make sense of its disjointed parts: the viewer of the painting, intoxicated by the decadent flavours of modernity.

Be like everything, you nothing

The way Vaszary’s 1930 exhibition celebrated modernity through themes such as that of morphine addiction provided ample ammunition for those who wished to attack modern art, and Vaszary specifically, as depraved. One review that used expressions such as ‘heightened vibration of a sickly excitement’ to characterise the pictures bore the title ‘Morphinist Art’.[15] Despite becoming a target of attacks due to the Venice Biennial, Vaszary chose to continue along the same route, and paintings such as Morphine Addict signalled that he was not afraid to scandalise those who were waiting to be scandalised.

Besides these arch-conservative and politically motivated criticisms, however, the exhibition was favourably received by many critics, who praised Vaszary as an older painter who is nevertheless always capable of renewal; as an expressionist who draws on real life for inspiration and filters his artistic influences through the intensity of experience.[16] Vaszary had a masterly grasp of painterly technique, which allowed him to adopt many different styles throughout his career, in keeping with changing times and fashions. Somewhat contradicting his own praise of simplicity in architecture and hence yet again proving the manifold nature of the modern, Vaszary identified himself as a painter of decorativity, which his catalogue introduction described as a salient feature of modern art: ‘[due to the requirement of strong, immediate effect] the modern picture always has a decorative effect and is heightened in light and colour.’ His friendly critics acknowledged this, as well as his virtuoso skills, but in their eyes this did not make his art any less profound.

In the Garden by János Vaszary, 1933

János Vaszary: In the Park, 1933, Rippl Rónai Museum, Kaposvár – photo: Museum Digital CC-BY-NC-SA

Vaszary’s art went through many transformations in the course of his career, but one feature was constant. From the Golden Age to his late beach scenes, the painter asked whether painted surfaces are able to create deeper meanings. In the former case, the meanings are mysteriously elusive; in the latter, the cheerful banality of the scenes absolves us from searching further. In this regard, Vaszary stands closest to a Hungarian contemporary active in another medium: Dezső Kosztolányi (1885–1936), one of the greatest authors of interwar Hungary and leading contributor of the modernist periodical Nyugat (West). In 1933 Kosztolányi wrote a poem entitled Esti Kornél éneke (Kornél Esti’s Song). Kornél Esti was the author’s alter ego who appeared in several of his short stories, and the poem was an ars poetica. In lines ending in cleverly crafted rhymes – displaying masterly skills akin to Vaszary’s in painting ­– Kosztolányi instructed his poetry to ‘say neither falsehoods nor truths,’ to ‘run with the wind,’ to immerse itself in life, but never seek the depths that only yield ‘sad mud.’[17] A playful, delicate song, dancing on the surface, observing life here and there, would amount to much more. ‘Be like everything, you nothing,’ says the poem in the beginning – but later the surface, the pretence, becomes the meaning itself. ‘Be like nothing, you everything,’ the poem ends. Decorative composition, titillating image, expression of human desires and anxieties, and commentary on the modern condition, 1930 (Morphine Addict) is everything and nothing – a work that dissolves our search for meaning into a burst of colourful bubbles.

Nóra Veszprémi

[1] The most comprehensive volume on Vaszary is Vaszary János (1867–1939) gyűjteményes kiállítása [Retrospective exhibition of JV], curated by Edit Plesznivy and Mariann Gergely, ed. Nóra Veszprémi (Budapest: Hungarian National Gallery, 2007), which contains detailed essays on each of the artist’s periods. Other recent works include Attila Rum, Vaszary (Budapest, 2007); Edit Plesznivy, Vaszary János (Budapest, 2010).

[2] Orsolya Danyi, ‘Újreneszánsz és avantgárd: Vaszary János művészete 1910–1914 között’ [Neo-Renaissance and avant-garde: The art of VJ between 1910 and 1914], in Vaszary János, pp. 57–67.

[3] On the exhibition and its critics see Kinga Bódi, ‘Looking Forwards or Back? Shifting Perspectives in the Venice Biennale’s Hungarian Exhibition: 1928 and 1948,’ in Beáta Hock, Klara Kemp-Welch and Jonathan Owen, eds, A Reader in East-Central-European Modernism 1918–1956 (London, 2019) online publication

[4] Vaszary János képei az Ernst-Múzeum kiállitásán [JV’s pictures at the EM’s exhibition] (Budapest, 1930), p.  15, Cat. No 138. See Rum, Vaszary, p. 20.

[5] János Vaszary, [untitled introduction], in Vaszary János képei az Ernst-Múzeum kiállitásán, p. 5. Translations my own.

[6] Márta Kovalovszky, ‘A stíluskereső’ [The style seeker], in Vaszary János, p. 18.

[7] Ákos Erdős, ‘Kábítószer-élvezet és -függőség Magyarországon a 19. század végétől a második világháború kirobbanásáig,’ Magyar Rendészet 18.3 (2018) pp. 75–91.

[8] Quoted in Erdős, ‘Kábítószer-élvezet,’ p. 80.

[9] Both quoted in Erdős, ‘Kábítószer-élvezet,’ p. 78.

[10] Erdős, ‘Kábítószer-élvezet,’ p. 86.

[11] Vaszary, [untitled introduction], p. 7.

[12] Elisabeth Otto, Haunted Bauhaus: Occult Spirituality, Gender Fluidity, Queer Identities, and Radical Politics (Cambridge, MA, 2019).

[13] Vaszary, [untitled introduction], p. 6.

[14] Edit Plesznivy relates this effect to the influence of avant-garde films, see P. E., ‘1930 (Morfinista)’, in Vaszary János gyűjteményes kiállítása, p. 254, Cat. No 148.

[15] Nándor Gyöngyösi, ‘Morfinista művészet’ [Morphinist art], Képzőművészet, 1930, No 28, pp. 59–62.

[16] –r., ‘Vaszary János új képei,’ Pesti Napló, 16 February 1930, p. 8; K. M., ‘Vaszary János kiállitása az Ernst-Muzeumban,’ Nemzeti Ujság, 16 February 1930, p. 22.

[17] Translations my own.

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/EF4ZY

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One thought on “Artwork of the Month, January 2022: Morphine Addict by János Vaszary (1930)

  1. Mariana Levytska says:

    Brilliant essay that encourages rethinking modernism and gives many interesting facts.

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