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.
In 2018 the Kassák Museum in Budapest staged Everything Is Ours!, an installation by artist Ádám Albert (*1975) that pondered on the visual propaganda of the 1919 Hungarian Soviet Republic. The small, meditative show was suddenly thrown into the limelight when it was ferociously denounced in the right-wing press for supposedly promoting Communist ideas and violence. The controversy is seen to have led to the resignation of the director of the Petőfi Museum of Literature (the mother institution of the Kassák Museum) not much later.
These events suggest that the Soviet Republic constitutes a highly sensitive and prominent memory site in Hungarian culture, but the ‘scandal’ was in fact something of a surprise. Although the short-lived 1919 Communist regime remains controversial, its memory is much less pivotal today than it was in the first seventy years after its collapse, when it was undoubtedly a cornerstone of political self-identification. In the interwar period, the right-wing Horthy regime held it up as the manifestation of all evil, while under state Socialism it was celebrated as a venerable antecedent. Today, by contrast, right-wing anti-communism has a more immediate counterconcept in the post-1948 regime, while for left-wingers the Soviet Republic’s excess and violence precludes it as an object of identification. Indeed, the most uncomfortable, and at the same time most intriguing aspect of the Soviet Republic is how progressive ideas and a genuine will to bring about positive change, which drew in some of the best – not necessarily Communist – minds of the time, coexisted with unrestrained brutality and diehard dogmatism. The latest study of the events emphasises their chaotic, sometimes accidental nature, and the widely varied ideologies, aims, desires and ambitions of the individuals who made them happen.
One sweltering Budapest summer, many years ago, I was a university student taking an exam in twentieth-century Hungarian art. The friendly visiting lecturer smiled encouragingly as I summarised the career of the painter Vilmos Aba-Novák (1894–1941). Soon after starting to train as an artist, Aba-Novák was drafted into the army. After the war, he resumed his studies in printmaking, while also practising painting. Around this time he belonged to the circle of István Szőnyi (1894–1960), a group known for their idyllic compositions of nudes outdoors. Also interested in rural subjects, he frequented artists’ colonies such as the one in Nagybánya (Baia Mare) and – more importantly – in Szolnok. For 1928–30 he received a scholarship from the Hungarian state to study in Rome. The purpose of the Rome scholarships introduced by Minister of Religion and Education Kuno Klebelsberg (1875–1932) was to encourage artists to develop a new monumental style fusing tradition and modernity, so they would be well equipped to fulfil state and ecclesiastical commissions. Returning from Rome, Aba-Novák painted a number of frescoes, but these, I blurted out, are rather clumsy compared to his other work.