When we look at an artist’s work, we see it through a glass, darkly: whether we like it or not, we are influenced by its previous interpretations. After they die, some artists are turned into icons of artistic, social, or political movements and become entangled with them to such an extent that it profoundly affects the way their works are seen. The Hungarian artist Gyula Derkovits (1894–1934) is an especially complex case. Derkovits was the son of a cabinetmaker and began training in that profession before taking up painting; after finishing three years of primary school, he never gained a formal education. Despite making a name as an artist and finding a number of patrons, he struggled to make a living from his art and had dire money problems by the last years of his life. Furthermore, as a committed left-winger, he was involved with the Communist movement – illegal in the interwar period – and depicted the struggles of the working class in his paintings, while satirising the bourgeoisie. Thanks to all this, Derkovits was easily appropriated by the Communist regime from the 1960s onwards. His pictures were everywhere, and so was his name: among other things, a state-run art gallery, a housing estate in the town of Szombathely, as well as a grant for young artists were named after him.
When we think of history, we think of it as unfolding in time. The historical events we remember sit somewhere in a chronology, and we think of them as having causes and effects, laid out neatly in the timeline. History also has a spatial dimension: the locations where the events took place are integral to their memory; but, paradoxically, this often means that their geographical reality dissolves into an abstraction. Mohács, for instance, was the scene of a battle between Hungarians and the Ottoman Turks in 1526. In the nineteenth century, the disastrous defeat suffered by the Hungarian army came to be seen as a singular national tragedy, which led to the subsequent Turkish invasion of a large part of the Kingdom. ‘Mohács’ became a metaphor. Although the town had its own local commemorations, the battle was essentially remembered in the same way everywhere in Hungary. Its physical location played no role in its national remembrance; the main thing was that it was part of the great national timeline – the national narrative of history.
The standardisation and centralisation of historical memory was part of the nineteenth-century process of nation-building. After 1867, the now semi-autonomous Hungarian state promoted the ideas of continuous Hungarian statehood and the legitimacy of Magyar hegemony in the Carpathian Basin through paintings, murals, sculptures and public monuments across the Kingdom. Monuments were sometimes erected to mark important historical locations, but at other times their locations were not relevant to the historical events they commemorated. It did not matter: all of these places, whether historical or not, were part of the country. They were in a synecdochical relationship with what was seen as most important: the nation, its territory, and its history as one integral whole. But what happens to historical memory when that integrity is suddenly broken? Continue reading
István Farkas (1887–1944) was one of the most outstanding painters in interwar Hungary, yet his name rarely comes up in discussions of the period. The reason is probably that his art is hard to categorise. He was not an avant-gardist, but his employment of symbolism and the grotesque also distantiate his paintings from the Post-Impressionism of the Gresham Circle, with whose work they might share some superficial formal characteristics. Farkas never officially belonged to any artists’ group and spent a large part of his working life in Paris. His masterpiece, Madman of Syracuse, seems as isolated in Hungarian art history as its protagonist standing in a desolate, sweltering landscape. Nevertheless, the concepts of continuity and rupture provide us with useful tools that help us situate the painting in the art history of post-imperial Central Europe.
In 2016, the International Cultural Centre Kraków presented the exhibition Koszycka moderna / Košice Modernism in cooperation with the East Slovak Gallery in the town of Košice. Its catalogue, reviewed here, remains the most recent analysis of Košice Modernism: a term coined by curator Zsófia Kiss-Szemán, and referring to the cultural upsurge in the 1920s Košice, today in eastern Slovakia. Part of Hungary in the Habsburg Empire, the town was an important centre for commerce, located at the intersections of ‘East’ and ‘West’ in Carpathian Ruthenia. With the collapse of the empire, Košice became part of Czechoslovakia in 1918 as an approximately 50,000-strong border town with a mixed Slovak, Hungarian, Jewish, German and Czech population. As the exhibition argues, these socio-political and geographical particularities shaped Košice’s cultural development: while its strategic position on a trading route meant that Košice’s multi-ethnic community could flourish, its incorporation into Czechoslovakia introduced a democratic form of government, which allowed a degree of political freedom that was especially significant for leftist artists seeking refuge from the Horthy regime in Hungary in 1919.
At the Museum of Art in Olomouc there is currently an exhibition on central European modernism that anyone with an interest in the topic should attend. The Museum is not a major stop on the network of galleries in central Europe, but it should be, since it has built up a track record of imaginative and engaging exhibitions on twentieth-century art, with a particular emphasis on the exploration of international connections. This event is no exception. As the title suggests, the twenty years between 1908 and 1928 were a period of social and cultural tumult, when traditional ideas and values were either subject to massive revision or outright rejection. The title also indicates an important aspect of the exhibition: that while political events lead us to view 1918 as an artistic and cultural caesura, most of the major innovations in art after the First World War were prefigured by practices set in motion beforehand. It therefore explores the decades either side of the end of the War.