The Hungarian town of Szentendre is known for its small museums dedicated to individual artists, but the Margit Kovács Museum stood out in popularity after it first opened in 1973. Looking at the ceramicist’s Bundt-Cake Madonna, it is not hard to understand why. As the title indicates, the conical shape of the Madonna’s body is designed to recall a cake; the white glazing on the surface, then, makes us think of the cake’s icing. The baby Jesus wears the same, cake-shaped garment, but a tiny one, and his mother holds him lovingly, gently bending her neck to touch her face to the baby’s crown. It is a sweet composition, and it is also a very well-formed one, which unites simple, pure form with intricate surface decoration, so that the ceramic sculpture as a whole appears robust and solid, rather than finicky. It represents a cake that is not only sweet, but also filling; a dessert of considerable substance.
Margit Kovács (1902–1977) started her career in Hungary in the late 1920s, exhibiting her ceramic works with much success and gaining commissions from official, as well as private patrons. Her work often featured in displays of Hungarian decorative art at international exhibitions. After 1945, her reputation rose to new heights; her popularity bolstered by the support of the Communist authorities. Consequently, in the minds of dissenting intellectuals her art came to be inseparably associated with Communist officialdom and mainstream taste. The philosopher Ágnes Heller (1929–2019) for instance stated that, although Kovács was her relative, she regarded her as ʻa great master of kitsch.’ Although this critical perspective on Kovács’s work was boosted by the regime change of 1989, her ceramic works and the museum remain popular with the public. Hence, the reception of her works is both depoliticised and overpoliticised: for some they are attractive objects not to be tainted by scrutinising the political context that produced them, while to others their one-time function as harmless, ʻsafe’ works in an otherwise culturally repressive regime overwrites their aesthetic qualities. This article will attempt to find a middle ground by examining both the object and its controversial political background.
The Road to Success
Margit Kovács was born in 1902 in the western Hungarian city of Győr. The list of successive schools she attended is evidence of her keen and conscious effort to develop her skills to an international standard. After studying at the independent art school of Álmos Jaschik (1885–1950) and at the School of Applied Art in Budapest, where she learnt porcelain painting, she spent two years in Vienna working in the studio of Hertha Bucher (1898–1960), an artist affiliated with the Wiener Werkstätte. She subsequently enrolled at the School of Applied Art in Munich to study ceramics, while also taking courses in sculpture. In 1932 she went to Copenhagen in order to train with Jean René Gauguin (1881–1961), son of Paul Gauguin and acclaimed sculptor and ceramicist, whose work she had seen displayed in Munich. Gauguin did not take on pupils, but Kovács stayed in Denmark for a few months to gain experience working in different studios. In 1933 she travelled on to the Sèvres Porcelain Factory, where she perfected her skills in shaping small figurines.
In 1928, the year she finished her training with Bucher, Kovács showed a selection of her works at the Tamás Gallery, a well-respected commercial art gallery in Budapest. Her work, which combined inspiration from folk art with religious imagery, garnered attention from critics and the public alike. By the late thirties she was one of the most celebrated applied artists in Hungary, earning much acclaim at the 1937 National Exhibition of the Society of Applied Artists and at the 1938 First National Applied Art Exhibition, where she won a gold medal. A tile stove with scenes from Hungarian history displayed at the latter show was especially showered with praise. In addition, Kovács regularly showed her work at the triennials in Milan, and her ceramics were also included in the Hungarian pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair of 1937.
She fulfilled a range of larger-scale public, ecclesiastical and private commissions in Hungary, including a relief showing ʻancient professions’ for the Vienna Tourist Office of the Municipality of Budapest (1931) and the floor of the Baptistery of the newly built modernist Városmajor parish church (1938). At the same time, she continued making figurines for clients with more modest means. The right-wing newspaper Nemzeti Ujság (National News) praised her treatment of religious subject matter, adding that her sculptures not only excelled through their beauty, but also their affordability, and hence made worthy Christmas presents.
As an artist benefiting from public commissions in the 1930s, who often employed religious imagery, Kovács could have been sidelined by the Communist regime after 1948, but this was not the case. In the Stalinist 1950s she benefited from an array of public commissions, including a decorative map of Hungary for the new customs office at the Hungarian-Austrian border at Hegyeshalom, and she befriended Feodora Kornilova (1903–1980), the Yakut wife of the Communist leader Mátyás Rákosi (1892–1971) who was a ceramic artist herself. It was, however, during the thawing of the 1960s that Kovács’s reputation truly soared. Aiming to consolidate Hungarian cultural life in the wake of the 1956 Revolution, György Aczél (1917–1991), the omnipotent deputy minister of culture, promoted a synthetic humanism that encompassed a much broader range of cultural practices than the Socialist Realism of the fifties, but tamed them so that they posed no visible threat to the Socialist order. In combining Christian imagery with various other cultural inspirations, and aestheticising it while downplaying its ritual significance, Kovács’s work embodied these aims perfectly. Although she received fewer large commissions in the 1960s, she maintained a continuous presence in public and private spaces through her small-scale ceramic figures, which she now produced en masse. These sculptures were constantly available for purchase at the state-owned art galleries of the time; Aczél himself owned a large number of them. Furthermore, due to its perceived universal humanism, her work also became a tool of cultural diplomacy. When her museum opened in 1973, it became the primary destination for western guests chaperoned by Communist officials. Based on the works the artist had donated to the Directorate of Museums of Pest County in 1972, the display was also extremely popular with the wider public and undeniably the most visited of the small museums of Szentendre.
Commentators today tend to point out how little Kovács was touched by changing artistic currents in the course of her career. When she started out in the late 1920s, her combination of folk imagery with modern forms, her interest in colourful, floral patterns and in figurines, fitted well into contemporary developments at the Wiener Werkstätte, even though she differed from artists such as Bucher in her prominent use of unglazed, bare surfaces onto which she applied decorative details in glaze. In her later years, she continued along this path, undeterred. The cheerful peasants she sculpted in the 1950s certainly courted Socialist Realist taste, but in terms of formal language they did not constitute a great leap from her earlier work. The geometricism of the 1960s passed her by without eliciting a response. This was certainly related to the deluge of commissions she received which would have been impossible to complete without sliding into routine. Not reacting to external trends does not mean, however, that Kovács’s art never changed. In the last decades, an expressive streak became more and more noticeable; her figures became more elongated, their gestures more dramatic. The subject matter of old age, with wrinkles cut into the clay like deep wounds, surfaced in this oeuvre; one that ultimately chose to look inwards, rather than towards the tensions and complexities of society.
Madonna of the Cake
The Bundt-Cake Madonna is an excellent example of how Kovács combined different sources in her early work. As a Christian image, the work draws on one of the best-known devotional images of central Europe: the Madonna of Mariazell, an early medieval statue supposedly endowed with miraculous powers that forms the focus of a popular pilgrimage site in Austria. Kovács retained many features of the original image: the prominent round cloak, the position of the two figures, the golden crowns. However, she replaced the oval, medieval faces with rounded ones, more reminiscent of figures in Hungarian folk art, and gave both the Madonna and her child almond-shaped, glowing light blue eyes. Instead of looking straight ahead, the Virgin touches the side of her face to her baby. Most importantly, while the original Mariazell statue is dressed up in a textile cloak, Kovács fashioned the garment our of clay.
Margit Kovács is often described as inspired by folk culture, but – as already pointed out by critics in the 1930s – she combined this with medieval and Byzantine imagery instead of aiming for the meticulous ʻHungarianness’ of some of her more folksy contemporaries. Unlike artists such as Anna Lesznai (1885–1967), Kovács never studied rural crafts close up; she was a city dweller who worked with second-hand impressions of vernacular culture. The Bundt-Cake Madonna is typical of her approach: although it does not employ specific motifs from folk art, it still recalls popular religiosity. This was already ingrained in its model, the Mariazell Madonna, but it was also an effect created by Kovács’s artistic method. The way Kovács applied the decorative glaze to the brown clay surface recalled the decoration of gingerbread, a delicious craft that was popular throughout central Europe, but had grown, by the early twentieth century, into one of the icons of Hungarian folk culture. Decorative gingerbread – especially the gingerbread heart – belongs among the most ubiquitous motifs associated with the Hungarian countryside. However, as the work’s original title (Kuglófmadonna) shows, Kovács played with this trope by adding the gingerbread decoration to a kuglóf (a cake similarly shaped to a bundt cake, the Hungarian word derived from the German Gugelhupf). Given that Kovács donated works from her studio to the museum and oversaw their original display, it is safe to assume that the title originates from her and preserves the artist’s own interpretation. Unlike gingerbread, kuglóf was a delicacy commonly found in middle-class homes and urban cafeterias, rather than in villages. In this way, the sculpture blurred lines of class. In a similar way, it also blurred the lines between between high medieval art and the vernacular, between art and food, and hence between object of devout religious faith and of cultural-historical interest. It is this holistic approach that made Kovács’s ceramics so attractive to the consolidatory cultural politics of the 1970s.
Religious imagery, folk art, and the depiction of a dessert may seem like an idiosyncratic combination, but Kovács was not the first artist in Hungary to unite art, religion and cake. Three decades earlier, the painter Adolf Fényes (1867–1945) had created a number of still lifes showing cakes and pastries on a table along with devotional objects. One of the compositions includes a gingerbread heart, another depicts a slice of poppy-seed cake, with a picture of the Crucifixion on the wall in the background. Like Kovács’s sculptures, Fényes’s interiors are ambiguous in terms of class: they might be the homes of peasants, but the often lavish desserts are more suggestive of small-town middle-class homes. Because some of the pictures include motifs associated with Hungarian folk culture, such as decorative plates or the gingerbread heart, it is possible to read them as representations of national identity. If so, their conception of ʻHungarianness’ is private and cozy, rather than lofty and militant. Sacralised by the religious details but also made sensual by the mouth-watering desserts, it invited identification by evoking an emotional connection seemingly separate from the political sphere. Kovács’s Bundt-Cake Madonna worked in a similar way. At 36 cm tall, it could easily have found its place on one of Fényes’s tables.
The idea of the Bundt-Cake Madonna as table decoration recalls another link between sweets and ceramics of which Kovács, who had trained in Sèvres, may well have been aware. When porcelain figurines became popular in the eighteenth century, they served as reusable replacements for the fashionable and expensive sugar sculptures that decorated the tables at aristocratic banquets. Hence, when the Sèvres factory began to produce smooth and dazzlingly white biscuit porcelain figurines in the 1750s, these were valued for their similarity to sugar and formed part of dinner services designed at the factory. In imitating a decorative cake, Kovács was referencing the history of her craft. The Bundt-Cake Madonna can be interpreted as a statement of her artistic skills: while the formal inspiration was provided by a religious statue wearing a textile cloak and by a similarly shaped cake, the ceramic sculpture showed how well this rounded shape was suited to the pottery wheel, and how well the embroidered – or iced, depending on perspective – details could be added using hole cutters and brushes. In seeing the cake in the devotional statue, and then the ceramic sculpture in the cake, and giving this transformation between three different mediums material shape on her pottery wheel, Kovács displayed her vision and creativity, as well as her skill in her craft.
Not above politics
Made in 1938, the Madonna was produced at the height of Kovács’s early career, at the same time as her successes at the 1937 World’s Fair and the National Applied Art Exhibition. 1938 was, however, also an eventful year in Hungarian politics and public life, and the cultural endeavours Kovács participated in have to be understood in this context. The interwar regime headed by Miklós Horthy had been hallmarked by the slogan of ʻChristian Hungary,’ a form of political religion in which Christianity was employed as a bulwark of right-wing nationalism and ʻChristian’ was primarily understood as meaning ʻnot Jewish’. In 1938 this ideology was asserted even more forcefully in public life through two main, interrelated events: the Saint Stephen Jubilee Year (the thousandth anniversary of the death of King Stephen I) and the 34th World Eucharistic Congress held in Budapest in May. Both events involved displays of religion intertwined with politics, and the Saint Stephen Jubilee provided the occasion for a host of artistic commissions proclaiming the regime’s ideology. By the late thirties, the Hungarian government had allied itself with Nazi Germany. In late 1938 this seemed to pay off: on 2 November parts of Slovakia were reannexed to Hungary as a result of the First Vienna Award orchestrated by Germany after the dismantling of Czechoslovakia. In the same year, the Parliament enacted the First Anti-Jewish Law curtailing the rights of Hungary’s Jewish citizens.
A year before, at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair, the state aimed to project a friendlier, more light-hearted image. The Hungarian pavilion was strongly focused on promoting the country as a tourist destination. Hungary was to be presented as a modern country that at the same time preserved its traditions, and the selection of artworks underscored this by combining folk inspiration with urban modernity. Kovács’s contribution was a large-scale terracotta relief, The Queen of the Danube. Arranged around a Budapest cityscape by Aladár Rimaszéki Richter (1898–1950) in a room dedicated to the Hungarian capital and its rich spa culture, the relief was made up of ten panels that told the history of the city in colourful scenes that evoked the atmosphere of folk tales and medieval illuminated manuscripts.
As a woman artist of Jewish descent, Margit Kovács was not well placed to represent the chauvinistic Hungarian state. It has to be said, however, that when it came to representation abroad, state officials were more concerned with projecting a unified style and an image of cultural prowess than with the backgrounds and political views of individual artists. As an earlier post on this blog has pointed out, the gobelin artist Noémi Ferenczy (1890–1957) was a committed Communist, but her work also featured in 1937 in Paris. In the 1930s the majority of larger state and ecclesiastical commissions went to artists of the so-called School of Rome; that is, artists who had been awarded a fellowship to Rome as part of a programme of cultural rapprochement with Mussolini’s Italy that aimed at training a new generation capable of creating modern monumental art. Although some Rome fellows identified with the political direction of the government, others kept their distance; yet, when they collaborated on Gesamtkunstwerk-like commissions, the result was stylistically harmonious and fitted into the general, obviously politically charged aim of developing a conservative version of artistic modernity.
Although she never held a Rome fellowship, Kovács was one of several artists belonging to the wider circle of the School of Rome who were often included in group projects, including an exhibition in 1937 of Monumental Art curated by Tibor Gerevich (1882–1954), the art historian behind the School of Rome, at the National Salon in Budapest, or, indeed, the Paris exhibition of the same year. The cheerful decorative qualities of the Bundt-Cake Madonna are at odds with some of the religious art produced by the School of Rome, such as the monumental, decidedly unpretty murals painted by Vilmos Aba-Novák (1894–1941) in the 1930s, but it does stand closer to the more sentimental, decorative approach – although not the formal language – of another former Rome fellow, Pál Molnár-C. (1894–1981). Even if individual artists emphasised different aspects, this art as a whole was meant to promote the state ideology of Christian Hungary. The way Kovács baked it all into a cake can be interpreted as playful subversion: an evocation of private, earthly pleasures that are decidedly non-monumental. Yet, it can also be read in the opposite way: as a gesture that made it all the easier to swallow.
Was this the recurring purpose of Margit Kovács’s sweet art? To make authoritarianism more palatable? It is notable that, despite her long-standing popularity, we know very little about how the artist saw her own role in society. In an interview in 1938, she talked about gaining inspiration from inside: waiting for enough joy to gather inside her for it to well up and push her to model a sculpture. It was a long wait, she said. In another interview in the 1970s, she talked about feeling forced to create hordes of pretty ʻdolls’ that gave her no enjoyment, but were demanded by galerists. Her oeuvre addresses issues we consider ʻuniversally human:’ love, motherhood, creativity, myth, old age. These, and their beauty and sweetness, will no doubt continue to resonate. Their controversial political nature is more elusive because it forms part of the legacy of authoritarianisms that is still difficult to face, in Hungary as well as elsewhere. It is a reminder of the complexity and diversity of the survival and career strategies that can unfold along roads paved with good intentions, in landscapes decorated with apolitical art.
 Ágnes Heller and János Kőbányai, Bicikliző majom [Monkey on a bicycle] (Budapest: Múlt és Jövő, 1999) p. 355.
 For biographical details see Ilona P. Brestyánszky, Kovács Margit (Budapest: Képzőművészeti Alap and Corvina, 1977).
 Lili Rendy, ʻHa az embernek új mondanivalója van, lekuporodik a földre és formálja az agyagot…’ [When one has something new to say, one crouches on the ground and shapes the clay; interview with Margit Kovács], Magyarország, 15 November 1938, p. 11.
 B. P. L., ʻKovács Margit…,’ Nemzeti Ujság, 24 November 1935, p. 27.
 Marianne Gách, ʻEgy óra Kovács Margittal’ [An hour with MK], Béke és Szabadság, 8 July 1953, p. 14; ʻKegyetlen Margit, akit nem lehetett kizökkenteni’ [Ruthless Margit, who could not be fazed], Múzeumcafé blog, 12 April 2019, URL: https://muzeumcafe.reblog.hu/kegyetlen-margit-akit-nem-lehetett-kizokkenteni
 József Mélyi, ʻKovács Margit élete és utókora’ [The life and aftermath of MK], Artmagazin Online, 19 April 2013 URL: https://www.artmagazin.hu/articles/nyomtatott/abf5bb295d75e7bc4e9fdd2d3abe7623
 Heller and Kőbányai, Bicikliző majom, p. 355.
 ʻKovács Margit kerámiái’ [The ceramics of MK], Budapesti Hirlap, 28 November 1935, p. 13.
 Kuglóf and Gugelhupf differ from the similarly shaped English bundt cake in that they contain baker’s yeast and refer to a specific type of cake, rather than a family of cakes united by their shape. Nevertheless, in this article for the sake of simplicity I have opted to translate the title of the artwork as Bundt-Cake Madonna.
 Enikő Róka, ʻA népi élet modern poézise’ [The modern poetry of folk life], in XIX. Nemzet és művészet – Kép és önkép [XIX. Nation and art – Image and self-image], eds Erzsébet Király, Enikó Róka and Nóra Veszprémi (Budapest: Hungarian National Gallery, 2010), pp. 378–79.
 Susan M. Wager, ʻBoucher’s Spirit: Authorship, Invention, and the Force of Porcelain,’ The Art Bulletin 104.3 (2022) pp. 60–67.
 Mélyi, ʻKovács Margit élete és utókora.’
 Rendy, ʻHa az embernek új mondanivalója van,’ p. 11.
 Mélyi, ʻKovács Margit élete és utókora.’