The history of modern art has its share of icons, and the Bauhaus in particular is considered a reliable supplier of great achievements between the wars. Undoubtedly one of them was the design for a single-family house by Farkas Molnár (1897–1945), famously titled the Red Cube, which was planned for the first Bauhaus exhibition in 1923 but then remained in the design stage. The focus of most commentators has rarely been on how the building can be analysed and situated in detail, however, since it is its iconic look that has draw most of the attention. The colour and forms of the designs are reminiscent of the latest creations in painting in the early 1920s, which circulated across Europe, especially in the Soviet Union and the Netherlands. This entails the discussion of Constructivism, which also had an impact on architecture. In the first years of the Bauhaus, the utopian and rational character of art in the machine age was thus negotiated, but at the same time, for many artists, including Farkas Molnár, the human being remained the measure of all things.
The following article is not so much about Molnár’s further development as an architect, which was recently demonstrated in our blog on the basis of the model settlement Napraforgó utca (Sunflower Street) in Budapest (in which there is a house by Molnár). Rather, the human figure will be the focal point of this article, as the group of Hungarian artists has made a significant contribution to this question, especially in the case of Molnár, who began his work as a painter and continued to paint during his first years at the Bauhaus.
Molnár was born in 1897 in Pécs in what was then Austria-Hungary. He first studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest, then at the Technical University, until he had to leave the school because of his left-wing beliefs. It has not been proven, historically, that he was directly associated with the Soviet Republic, the short-lived communist regime by Béla Kun in 1919. Nevertheless, the situation at the Technical University at that time was turbulent, and due to hostility towards him, he went back to Pécs. The city had a special status during that time because it was under Serbian occupation until 1921 and ties with Kun’s regime or any other left-wing activities were not suppressed there. For a few days the local inhabitants even proclaimed a Baranya-Baja Hungarian-Serbian Republic, a short-lived and Soviet-oriented state, where many communist dissidents from Budapest found a refuge. From 1921, at the suggestion of the Hungarian architect Alfréd (Fred) Forbát (1897–1972), Molnár began studying at the Bauhaus in Weimar, first under Johannes Itten (1888–1967), then under Walter Gropius (1883–1969), and later also under Georg Muche (1895–1987) and Marcel Breuer (1902–1981). Also, through Forbát’s efforts, he worked in Gropius’s architecture studio. During this period, Molnár was strongly influenced by Theo van Doesburg (1883–1931) and De Stijl, the Dutch group of painters, architects and designers who founded an artists’ association and an art magazine of the same name in Leiden in 1917. With his iconic colour fields, Piet Mondrian (1872–1944) is perhaps the most famous painter of this group. In 1923, together with Marcel Breuer, Sándor Bortnyik (1893–1976) and Andor Weininger (1899–1986), Molnár published a manifesto of Constructivism, which followed the ideals of this group and generally reflected their visual style. In 1925 Molnár moved back to Budapest and continued his studies with the traditional architects Dezső Hültl (1870–1945) and Iván Kotsis (1889–1980).
Molnár pursued many interests and was considered an extremely prolific artist, besides painting he produced city plans, architectural designs, models, etchings, drawings, studies, and reviews. He also worked for the important Hungarian avant-garde newspaper MA (Today), which Lajos Kassák (1887–1967) edited in Vienna after the First World War. Molnár later continued the Bauhaus tradition in Hungary when he returned there. The Red Cube was a precursor for concrete houses he later cast. In 1929, at the invitation of Gropius, he contributed to the second conference of the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) on ‘The Small Apartment’, after which he and others formed a Hungarian branch of CIAM. Between 1931 and 1936 he worked as an independent architect. He chose to stay in Hungary, denying offers from former colleagues to go abroad. The final stage of his career is perceived very critically, as he became increasingly involved with right-wing politics in the late 1930s, a sharp turnaround from his left-wing beginnings. Molnár died during the Soviet siege of Budapest in 1945.
Hungarians in the Bauhaus
Molnar exemplifies the two-way exchange between Hungarians and the Bauhaus in the early years of the school. In addition to Gyula Pap (1899–1983) and Margit Téry-Adler (1892–1977), who worked with Itten, numerous artists from Pécs shaped the school in the early 1920s. The southern Hungarian region had a rich cultural scene, and in addition, there were many Serbian influences, represented, for example, by the painter Péter Dobrovits (1890–1942), who is hardly known today, and who promoted the group around Molnár, which also included Marcel Breuer, Andor Weininger and the lesser-known painters Hugó Johan (1890–1951) and Henrik Stefán (1896–1971). Dobrovits briefly became president of the short-lived Serbian-Hungarian Baranya-Baja Republic of 1921 mentioned above. The painter-president paid attention not only to communist dissidents, but also to developing the arts. The artists from Pécs eventually sought out the Bauhaus on the advice of Forbát, who worked in Gropius’ architecture company. Molnár and his peers were extremely active students, still strongly influenced by Expressionism and traditional Hungarian art, but keenly interested in the latest currents of the avant-garde, e.g. the newer movements of Futurism or Constructivism.
The Red Cube
Molnár’s design for the Red Cube was shown at the first exhibition of the Bauhaus School of Art and Design held in 1923 in Weimar, for which he also designed the poster. Molnár designed a cubic single-family house, which he covered with a striking red coat of paint. The unique colourful design counters the popular view of modernist design as being only in black and white. The building was likely planned for a new model settlement on the outskirts of Weimar, in the area known as ‘Am Horn’, where there were several villas for the upper class from the Wilhelminian era. In contrast, the new Bauhaus houses were intended to benefit lower-class families. The two-storey residential house, conceived as a prototype of standardised building, rises in the middle of a rectangular plot. Molnár avoided traditional building elements in his house and defined the architecture as a simple geometric form. This already indicates the ideal character of the design. An extensive pergola starts at the house, changes direction several times and encloses the entire garden area behind the building. In between are kitchen gardens and flower gardens. However, the so-called Haus am Horn (house at the neighbourhood ‘Am Horn’) was built according to the design of the German painter and graphic artist Georg Muche. Molnár depicts the architect and his wife El as an idealized naked couple in front of a small depiction of their winning contribution, again highlighting the importance of the human figure for functionalist architecture.
For Molnár’s design, a wooden model was on display at the Bauhaus exhibition in 1923, and Gropius published the project prominently in the accompanying catalogue. The architectural drawing was a popular medium for discussing the new approach to design. Many Bauhaus projects remained at the design stage. At the same time, the designs themselves took on artistic value and were published in important venues, as can also be observed in the work of Marcel Breuer or Fred Forbát, for example. For the first Bauhaus exhibition, which was to present the school’s products to the public for the first time in 1923, several architects contributed ideas that were then evaluated by the collective.
Gropius himself also provided a project, but it was not selected for first place. The director of the Bauhaus accepted the decision and subsequently supported the realisation of the Haus am Horn with his architectural office. Site plans suggest that Molnár’s Red Cube was originally to be built to the north of the Haus am Horn. Despite the cancellation of these building plans, Molnár made an important contribution to the architectural debate of the time. He absorbed all kinds of influences at the Bauhaus at great speed and also worked for Gropius’ architecture studio. There he designed perspective views of the Bauhaus housing estate on the Horn, where Georg Muche’s house was situated, and also of Gropius’ Monument to the March Dead (Denkmal der Märzgefallenen). Later, he made architectural models for Gropius, such as the model of the Chicago Tribune skyscraper. All this work made him familiar with the state of architectural development, as shown by designs of the time with which he slowly matured into an architect. In the Red Cube, with its exemplary spatial plans and the ideal of the square, which was also continued in the floor plans, he delivered one of the most famous architectural designs of the early Bauhaus.
It may be confusing to explain the Red Cube in retrospect with Molnar’s beginnings in painting. But the painterly interest strongly influenced the architectural design, and simultaneously informed the engagement with Constructivism. A key moment happened, when Molnár, Stefán and Johan went on a trip to Italy in April 1921, at Dobrovits’ suggestion. This marked the transition between the Pécs and Weimar periods. Molnár’s first project at the Bauhaus was then the resulting graphics collection Italia 921, which had emerged from the trip and whose results were then printed in Lyonel Feininger’s print workshop at the Bauhaus. It was the first self-contained work completed by students at the Bauhaus. The 6 sheets each by Stefán and Molnár show the Italian landscapes in an expressionist style with cubist elements, which they also used for related paintings.
The landscape in Italy reminded the Hungarian painters of the Mecsek Mountains north of Pécs, yet also gave them new inspiration. The classical Mediterranean world also suggested a more traditional style, which Molnár also continued to use in his early paintings and which he was not to abandon even as an architect. Many of the young students were influenced by the Hungarian Post-impressionism and Neoclassicism of the group A Nyolcak (The Eight), and that included a great affinity with the culture of Italy. Molnár populated many of his later designs at the Bauhaus between 1921 and 1925 with human figures, as if concerned that rationalist architecture had lost its human scale. Bauhaus modernism was and is often criticised as too mechanical and cold, and one could argue that Molnár was aware of that and consciously challenged this idea. Despite technological progress, the image of the human was to be preserved, an important belief that I will come back to later. The Hungarian artists also met the German artist Werner Gilles (1894–1961) in Fiesole, who had studied at the Bauhaus and reported on the situation there, which was the deciding factor that led them to settle there. Having received influences from Hungarian Post-impressionism and Neoclassicism, it seemed logical to move to Weimar, the city of Goethe and German classicism, where the Bauhaus, too, settled in its first few years and where conceptions of art seemed to change rapidly.
This change was instilled in the city by many guests from all over Europe. One of the most famous ones was the Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg, who became an important propagator of Constructivism at the beginning of the 1920s. Constructivism was initiated in Russia in 1915 by Vladimir Tatlin (1885–1953) and Alexander Rodchenko (1891–1956) and was influenced by many other artists. For some it was just a style, which rejected decorative forms in favour of an abstract, industrial assemblage of materials, for some it entailed larger, utopian ideas. Tatlin, for instance, developed a materialist understanding of space, accompanying his famous reliefs and installations. The rational arrangement of objects in space, the geometric order, was supposed to symbolise the formation of an ideal society, in the spirit of left-wing, socialist ideas, a notion that was likely present with Molnár and his Hungarian peers. Van Doesburg followed similar ideas and had a great influence on the students at his courses in Weimar. His theory of art seemed much more suited to the philosophy of rational building and works of the Bauhaus than, for example, the ideas of Johannes Itten, whose mysticism defined the early years of the school. Doesburg, who stayed in Weimar from March to July 1922, also provided a refuge for all students who were frustrated with the Bauhaus and did not feel they were in Gropius’ good graces.
Theo van Doesburg’s enthusiastic supporters included many Hungarians, such as Molnár and Weininger. They were passionately interested in Constructivism. Many of them had worked in Pécs on the progressive magazine Krónika, which also had connections to Lajos Kassák and his magazine MA. Constructivism was very widespread there, at least since the presentation of Russian artists in Vienna in 1920 by Kassák. The first issue of Krónika appeared in October 1920, when the seventh issue of MA had just come out, so it could build on its practice. The editor-in-chief of Krónika, László Kondor (1895–1972?), regularly published former authors from the MA circle who did not follow Kassák to Vienna. Molnár had started working as an art writer and typographer in Pécs and exhibited his expressionist paintings at a large exhibition of Pécs artists in 1920. At that time, he was almost exclusively active as a painter, not as an architect. He also contributed the cover picture for Krónika in 1921, an Arcadian youth reading. Even though Krónika largely followed expressionist art and was not as progressive as Kassák’s MA, researchers have described these activities of the Pécs circle as an indirect ‘preliminary course’ (Vorkurs) for the Bauhaus, referring to the new educational methods employed at the school. With these activities in Pécs, the Hungarian artists brought a practice to Weimar that significantly strengthened the school.
These aspirations continued in the wake of van Doesburg, when Molnar and his peers, many of whom came from the Pécs group, founded the so-called KURI group, a loose association that propagated Constructivism. The acronym KURI stood for constructive, utilitarian, rational, and international, as a poster created by Molnár revealed. Central to this was the publication of the manifesto by Sándor Bortnyik, Marcel Breuer, Molnár and Andor Weininger in the Hungarian journal ÚT (Road), an unofficial successor to Krónika edited by Zoltán Csuka (1901–1984), which was constructivist in style. Alongside rationality, geometry and mathematics, the manifesto ‘On the New Art’ propagates colour as the primary element of painting, and architecture as the mother of painting and sculpture, in which all activities converge. In this respect, it can stand as an ideal reference for the Red Cube. It also advocates the integration of the human individual into architecture. After many activities in 1922–24, the KURI group slowly disbanded.
However, what does this influence mean for the design of the Red Cube? First, the bright red colour could indicate a political intention. But red was also the colour of the square and a colour that was often used at the Bauhaus to design rooms. Nonetheless, in the design, it mainly appears as a painterly ground for the rectangular shapes of the window, which are used as in a painting by Mondrian. The influences of De Stijl can be seen in the pictorial elements and asymmetrical façades, and in the fields of the front garden. The effect appears in the flower beds below the house, a composition of rectangular and square fields rotated 180 degrees against each other along an axis – a design principle on which van Doesburg’s glass paintings in particular are based. The overall aim was to represent space with colour. Molnár adapted the principles of Constructivism for architecture, as other designs in the context of the Red Cube highlight. In the painting Man with a Building, created in 1925, the artist responds to his iconic building. In the foreground stands a man in a red shirt, as if rolling up his sleeves and calling for work, perhaps for a new society. On the geometric surfaces behind, on the left, as a contrast, is a scaled-down red cube, as if it is now reduced in meaning. The question here is again how colour and shapes are arranged in space, and also how people function in abstract space and what political significance these utopian visions have.
The persistence of the human figure
Remarkably, many architectural plans of the Bauhaus seemed somewhat sterile and technical, yet Molnár was never uncritical of the utopian visions of the school. Parallel to the Red Cube and the Man with a building, he produced more paintings and lithographs in which he populated architectural designs with human figures.
The sheet with the two figures presumably shows a woman and her son in colourful striped clothes in front of a work of Bauhaus architecture, as if they were breathing life into the pale building. Again, the colour seems to complement the architecture, or even contradicting popular perceptions of modernist design as being only in black and white. Those works by Molnár are often only read as historical documents. However, he uses the sheets to describe the development at the Bauhaus, the intertwining of past and present and the influence of the human figure. Molnár’s images mostly show naked young men, but also mechanical figures and robots that describe the changes in the world view. The nude has different roles, it stands for an era viewed with nostalgia, but more importantly, it is a moderator of the contradictions of spatial thinking. Many held that Constructivism led to a cold, depopulated, inhumane utopia, as has already been shown in the discussion of Sándor Bortnyik’s pair of paintings the New Adam and the New Eve in an earlier article here. In Molnár’s work, however, they are not merely accompanying figures of architecture, or cyphers of criticism, but the human figures seem to bring it to life. When this impulse fizzled out, Molnár left painting behind for good and turned to practical architecture. By 1925 he was already on his way back to Hungary, where he continued the legacy of the Bauhaus.
 Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (New York, 1960).
 Hubertus Gaßner, ed., Wechselwirkungen: Ungarische Avantgarde in der Weimarer Republik (Marburg, 1986); Éva Bajkay, ed., Von Kunst zu Leben: Die Ungarn am Bauhaus (Berlin and Pécs, 2010); Beate Störtkuhl and Rafał Makala, eds, Nicht nur Bauhaus: Netzwerke der Moderne in Mitteleuropa (Oldenbourg, 2019); Ralf Burmeister and András Zwickl, eds, Magyar Modern: Hungarian Art in Berlin (Berlin and Budapest, 2023).
 András Ferkai, Molnár Farkas (Budapest, 2011), no page numbers, see chapter 1.1.
 Merse Pál Szeredi, Kassákism – MA in Vienna (1920–1925), in Eszter Balázs, Edit Sasvári and Merse Pál Szeredi, eds, Art in Action – Lajos Kassák’s Avant-Garde Journals from A Tett to Dokumentum (Budapest, 2017) pp. 107–142.
 Eva Bajkay, Von Kunst zu Leben: Die Ungarn am Bauhaus, pp. 138–144.
 Gergely Barki, Evelyn Benesch und Zoltán Rockenbauer, eds, The Eight. Hungary’s Highway in the Modern (Vienna, 2012).
 Eva Bajkay, Von Kunst zu Leben: Die Ungarn am Bauhaus, p. 66.
 Eva Bajkay, Von Kunst zu Leben: Die Ungarn am Bauhaus, pp. 194–195.
 Morgan Ridler: Paint it Red: The Squares, Cubes and Doors of the Bauhaus, in Source: Notes in the History of Art, 38.3 (2019) pp. 168–178.
 Eva Bajkay, Von Kunst zu Leben: Die Ungarn am Bauhaus, p. 106.