Awakening, gobelin by Noémi Ferenczy, 1926-27

Noémi Ferenczy: An Artist in Changing Times

If we organised a poll in Hungary to find the best-known twentieth-century Hungarian woman artist, Noémi Ferenczy (1890–1957) would probably be the strongest contender. She is arguably also the best-known applied artist; one of the few positioned in the mainstream canon as autonomous artistic personalities. Ferenczy was, indeed, an outstanding practitioner of her craft. Credited with introducing the art of gobelins to Hungary, she employed the technique to create a unique, self-contained pictorial world. Her artistic creativity has been highlighted by numerous studies and exhibitions, most recently by the retrospective organised at the Ferenczy Museum Centre in Szentendre and the accompanying extensive, bilingual catalogue-monograph authored by Emőke Bodonyi.[1] This article will focus on how Ferenczy made her way in the turbulent political conditions of early- and mid-twentieth century Hungary. She was a woman, daughter of a well-known artist, a committed Communist, a strong personality who wished to work alone and make a living from her craft. Her career and reputation were shaped – sometimes helped, sometimes hindered – by these aspects, as well as by the radical political and cultural shifts that marked Hungary’s twentieth-century history.

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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.

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George Mayer-Marton and His Mural in Oldham: Heritage under Threat

Not long ago, this blog featured a review of Their Safe Haven, a book that explores the life and work of fourteen Hungarian artists who settled in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. One of them, George (György) Mayer-Marton (1897–1960), became a senior lecturer at Liverpool College of Art, and received several commissions to decorate churches in England with murals. The Crucifixion in the Church of the Holy Rosary in Oldham is now under severe threat. The church has been closed since 2017, and the artwork is at risk of being damaged by vandalism, water leaks, as well as by the eventual demolition or redevelopment of the building. The artist’s great-nephew, Nick Braithwaite, is leading a campaign to save the mural with the support of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, which has issued an appeal to restore the work and have it listed as a protected monument.

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Szentendre Houses with Crucifix - tempera montage by Lajos Vajda, 1937

Artwork of the Month, May 2020: Szentendre Houses with Crucifix by Lajos Vajda (1937)

In August 1936 the young Hungarian artist Lajos Vajda (1908–1941) was intensely excited about the new artistic programme he was devising with his friend, the painter Dezső Korniss (1908–1984). The two of them had spent the last two years roaming the picturesque small town of Szentendre and its vicinity, exploring the diversity of local vernacular culture and drawing everything they found interesting. It was now time for a synthesis: time to define their artistic goals based on this research. As Vajda explained in a letter to his future wife, the artist Júlia Richter (1913–1982, from 1938 Júlia Vajda): ‘Our starting point is that it is impossible to create without tradition, and in our Hungarian circumstances that tradition can only be Hungarian folk art. … What we want is more or less the same as what Bartók and Kodály have achieved in music.’[1] This meant delving deep into vernacular culture to find its essence, its core elements, in order to revitalise modern art by reconnecting it to an organic tradition.

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Their Safe Haven: Hungarian Artists in Britain from the 1930s: Book review

Their Safe Haven: Hungarian Artists in Britain from the 1930s contains a striking chapter on the graphic designer and illustrator Klara Biller (1910–1989). Pete Biller, the artist’s son, recalls the house he grew up in, enumerating its references to Hungarian culture. Living in a bungalow in Stanmore, Middlesex, Klara decorated the interiors with Hungarian folk textiles and pottery by Margit Kovács (1902–1977), a folk-art inspired ceramicist who was hugely popular in Hungary. Klara also owned a few Hungarian paintings, by Pál Molnár-C. (1894–1981) and János Kmetty (1889–1975), but – as her son explains – the art books she bought herself were all on international art, in particular, Paul Klee (1879–1940) or Frans Masereel (1889–1972). Bookshelves in the house were also heavily populated by books on Hungarian history, many discussing the Treaty of Trianon – but these books belonged not to Klara, but to her British husband, Victor Biller, who had developed an interest in Hungary years before he met his future wife in the 1930s. In fact, as Pete Biller’s sensitive account explains, his father nurtured a fascination with interwar ‘official’ Hungary, which must have been alienating to his mother, who was of Jewish descent and had to leave behind her country of birth precisely because of the increasing anti-Semitism that was part and parcel of that official culture and eventually led to genocide. Yet, this issue was never discussed in the family, and although Klara eventually told her sons about their Jewish heritage, she never informed Victor. Her relationship with the culture of her country of origin must have been highly conflicted, but it was a conflict she negotiated silently, within herself. And perhaps with her mother and sister, whose visits after their own emigration in the 1950s prompted Klara to turn towards Hungarian cooking and stock up her kitchen with paprika.

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