Born in Hungary, achieving international fame in Germany, and concluding his tragically short life in the USA, László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946) was an artist from interwar central Europe who is still recognised as one of the most significant innovators of modernism worldwide. Working across different media – painting, graphic design, photography, film, sculpture – he produced a multifaceted oeuvre that was, nevertheless, centred firmly on his key concerns: light and movement in modern art, the new artistic avenues opened up by modern technology, and the complex tensions of modern life. The artwork examined in this article, Dynamic of the Metropolis, was a seminal work that summed up the early years of his career. It combined his avant-garde inspirations, his interest in Constructivism and typography, with his attraction to modern technologies such as photography and film. It also elucidated issues that preoccupied him from the early 1920s: the tensions between modern humanity and the natural environment, between technology and the biological limitations of humans.
1938 was an important year in the history of Hungary’s authoritarian interwar regime. The nine hundredth anniversary of the death of King Stephen I (Saint Stephen, c. 975–1038), Hungary’s first king, was declared a Jubilee Year, and a long series of celebrations and commemorations were organised on the occasion. One of the most significant projects was the Ruin Garden in Székesfehérvár: a new memorial site set up to preserve and make accessible the ruins of the basilica Stephen had founded in the town in the early eleventh century. The garden was flanked by a mausoleum built to house a sarcophagus believed to have been the king’s. Behind the sarcophagus, elevating the sacral aura of the space, the wall was divided by a tall and imposing stained-glass window. Its maker, Lili Sztehlo (1897–1959), was the most prominent artist working in this technique in interwar Hungary.
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.
This is the first time a work by Lajos Kassák (1887–1967) features as our Artwork of the Month, but many of our previous articles have mentioned the artist’s name. This is due to Kassák’s uniquely central position in early-twentieth-century Hungarian avant-garde culture. He was not just a visual artist, but also a writer, poet, editor, organiser and thinker. Artists as important and diverse as Sándor Bortnyik (1893–1976), János Mattis-Teutsch (1884–1960), or Lajos Vajda (1908–1941) all belonged to Kassák’s circle before continuing on their separate paths. The significance of Kassák’s periodicals and collaborative projects is so great that they can easily steal the limelight from his individual artistic output. This is how Kassák became a recurring background figure on this blog, and it is high time for him to come into focus.
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.