Artwork of the Month, August 2021: To Arms! To Arms! by Róbert Berény (1919)

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.[1]

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Artwork of the Month, June 2021: Spa Fountain by Zdeněk Pešánek (1936)

The Spa Fountain made its first appearance in the section on Tourism of the Czechoslovak pavilion at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in Paris in 1937. The Fountain was one of three works displayed in this space by the Czech artist Zdeněk Pešánek (1896–1965), the other two being a set of free standing sculptures celebrating Electricity and a neon advertisement for the Bohemian spa town of Jáchymov, entitled Radium. The Fountain, as well as the other works by Pešánek, were light-kinetic sculptures; they used light, sound and movement in combination with different, and often novel materials. As an artistic movement, kinetism was established in central Europe in the 1920s. Yet, for artists like Erika Giovanna Klien (1900–1957) or František Kupka (1871–1957) the primary medium of kinetism was painting, which allowed them to explore movement and rhythm through colour, shapes and compositions. It was the Russian constructivists Vladimir Tatlin (1885–1953) and Alexander Rodchenko (1891–1956) and the multimedia artists Alexander Calder (1898–1976) and László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946) who then translated these effects into sculpture, bringing either controlled or unpredictable movement to an otherwise static medium.

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Artwork of the Month, May 2021: The Church of St. Anthony of Padua by Gyula Rimanóczy (1931–34)

In the western suburbs of the 2nd district of Budapest, on Pasaréti Square, is one of the more striking examples of interwar modernist architecture in Hungary: the Franciscan Church of St. Anthony of Padua. The innovative nature of the design is apparent if we compare it with other churches built in Hungary shortly before, such as the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Győr of 1929, or the Church of St. Emeric in Balatonalmádi (1930). We can also gain a sense of the striking addition it made to the cityscape when we view it in its environs, a low-density neighbourhood of villas. It is commonly regarded as one of the most important churches built in interwar Hungary, and as evidence of the embrace by the Hungarian Catholic church of modernity. Consecrated in October 1934, it might have been the first example of functionalist church architecture in Hungary, had it not been for the tumultuous process of its approval that delayed its completion. As a result, the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus by Bertalan (1901–1971) and Aladár Árkay (1868–1932) is generally held to have that distinction.

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Artwork of the Month, April 2021: Family Portrait (The Keller Family) by Ernst Nepo (1929)

Ernst Nepo‘s Family Portrait (The Keller Family) is considered one of the most important social portraits in Austrian art between the wars. In it, the Innsbruck architect Wilhelm Keller (1886–1934) and his wife Anni stage their social self-image and idea of education through their daughters.[1] On first sight, the painting presents itself as a sharp photographic snapshot.[2] In contrast to previous interpretations, however, the aim here is not merely to observe this style and its pretended spontaneity, but to consider the way the work also indicates new ideas of childhood and youth in the interwar period. What image of the adolescent appears, with the girls Ditta and Dora larger than life in front of the viewer? What role do they have within their family? Moreover, what do the architectural toys indicate?

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Artwork of the Month, March 2021: The Gate of Heroes in Szeged (1936)

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).[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] Returning from Rome, Aba-Novák painted a number of frescoes, but these, I blurted out, are rather clumsy compared to his other work.

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