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.
The history of modern art has its share of icons, and the Bauhaus in particular is considered a reliable supplier of great achievements between the wars. Undoubtedly one of them was the design for a single-family house by Farkas Molnár (1897–1945), famously titled the Red Cube, which was planned for the first Bauhaus exhibition in 1923 but then remained in the design stage. The focus of most commentators has rarely been on how the building can be analysed and situated in detail, however, since it is its iconic look that has draw most of the attention. The colour and forms of the designs are reminiscent of the latest creations in painting in the early 1920s, which circulated across Europe, especially in the Soviet Union and the Netherlands. This entails the discussion of Constructivism, which also had an impact on architecture. In the first years of the Bauhaus, the utopian and rational character of art in the machine age was thus negotiated, but at the same time, for many artists, including Farkas Molnár, the human being remained the measure of all things.
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.
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.
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.’ 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.