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.
Artwork of the Month, April 2022: The Manual Workers and the Intellectuals by János Mattis-Teutsch (1927)
Few artists moved between worlds as much as the painter and sculptor János Mattis-Teutsch (1884–1960), who was born in Brașov (Hung.: Brassó, Ger.: Kronstadt), but spent considerable time in Budapest, Bucharest, Munich, Paris and Berlin. This demonstrates the mobility of artists in Central Europe before and after the First World War, but it especially showcases the variety of artistic developments that ran throughout Europe since the early twentieth century. No matter which influence he followed, Mattis-Teutsch aimed at expressing the inner spirit of the human soul. He was close to Expressionist, spiritual and, later, Constructivist tendencies, on which he always put his own stamp, with a desire to unite ethical and aesthetic values. Reconciliation is also the theme of the painting presented here, The Manual Workers and the Intellectuals (1927), which marks a seldom-noted phase of his work towards the end of the 1920s, when the social aspirations of his art came into their own particularly strongly. Following artists such as Sándor Bortnyik (1893–1976), he sought to add a human touch to Constructivism. His ethereal figures represent generally human principles for a ‘New Man’ who was to move in the idealised space of a new society. The term ‘New Man’ gathered a wide variety of utopian ideas for the transformation of the human being in the interwar period, and found frequent expression in art.
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.
Artwork of the Month, February 2021: Experiment with Two Negatives at the Bauhaus by Irena Blühová (1932)
A portrait of a man and a woman, overlapping in one image through the merging of two negatives. She, looking pensive and serious, he, excited and happy. Dissecting the images, thin white lines add an additional layer to the composition, splitting it into six uneven parts.
With all these different elements, which overlap and interrupt each other, and create a lively impression of two portraits, February’s Artwork of the Month is quite a playful image – despite its rather prescriptive title: Experiment with Two Negatives at the Bauhaus. Indeed, the photograph is one of the most experimental works by its author, the Slovak photographer Irena Blühová (1904–1991). It not only gives us a glimpse into student photography at the Bauhaus but also relates to less explored aspects of the school’s history – social photography and student activism – and the role in it of one of Slovakia’s best-known interwar photographers.
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. 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.