Their Safe Haven: Hungarian Artists in Britain from the 1930s contains a striking chapter on the graphic designer and illustrator Klara Biller (1910–1989). Pete Biller, the artist’s son, recalls the house he grew up in, enumerating its references to Hungarian culture. Living in a bungalow in Stanmore, Middlesex, Klara decorated the interiors with Hungarian folk textiles and pottery by Margit Kovács (1902–1977), a folk-art inspired ceramicist who was hugely popular in Hungary. Klara also owned a few Hungarian paintings, by Pál Molnár-C. (1894–1981) and János Kmetty (1889–1975), but – as her son explains – the art books she bought herself were all on international art, in particular, Paul Klee (1879–1940) or Frans Masereel (1889–1972). Bookshelves in the house were also heavily populated by books on Hungarian history, many discussing the Treaty of Trianon – but these books belonged not to Klara, but to her British husband, Victor Biller, who had developed an interest in Hungary years before he met his future wife in the 1930s. In fact, as Pete Biller’s sensitive account explains, his father nurtured a fascination with interwar ‘official’ Hungary, which must have been alienating to his mother, who was of Jewish descent and had to leave behind her country of birth precisely because of the increasing anti-Semitism that was part and parcel of that official culture and eventually led to genocide. Yet, this issue was never discussed in the family, and although Klara eventually told her sons about their Jewish heritage, she never informed Victor. Her relationship with the culture of her country of origin must have been highly conflicted, but it was a conflict she negotiated silently, within herself. And perhaps with her mother and sister, whose visits after their own emigration in the 1950s prompted Klara to turn towards Hungarian cooking and stock up her kitchen with paprika.
In the 1920s new concepts became prominent across Europe that mingled technology with the idea of the human. The Czech novelist Karel Čapek (upon the suggestion by his brother Josef) was the first to use the word ‘robot’ for artificial lifeforms modelled after humans, in his famous play R.U.R. (1920). Čapek was in fact referring to an old system of forced labour in Central Europe, where the peasantry had to provide the local lords with a certain amount of unpaid labour every year, the so-called robota (work). The pivotal moment of Čapek’s play is the robots’ uprising against their creators, which leads to the extinction of mankind. In the epilogue, however, the robots Primus and Helena develop human feelings for each other, and the former engineer Alquist, one of the last humans alive, declares them the new Adam and Eve.
In the autumn of 2018, the Museum of Art in Olomouc staged the exhibition Years of Disarray 1908-1928: Avant-Gardes in Central Europe. It was subsequently staged at the International Centre in Cracow, the Bratislava City Art Gallery and finally the Janus Pannonius Museum in Pécs. It was an ambitious and imaginative exhibition, but initially no catalogue was available, only a short inexpensive guide. Now, after some delay, the full exhibition catalogue has been published, in handsome Czech and English-language editions. In its scale and scope – nearly 700 pages in length and with hundreds of images – the volume is not merely meant as an aid to the exhibition, but as a standard work of reference on central European modernism. In fact, although ostensibly based on the exhibition, it is only loosely connected to it; one loses sight of the original exhibition themes and structure due to the many essays on entirely unrelated topics. It therefore is best treated as standalone publication.
Our December Artwork of the Month features a haunted castle: the castle of Hričov (Hricsó, Ricsó; today in Slovakia) as represented by the artist Ferdiš Duša (1888–1958). Born in Frýdlant nad Ostravicí in Moravia-Silesia, Duša undertook a number of study trips to Slovakia in the 1920s and 1930s, producing, amongst many other things, a series of wood engravings narrating a journey along the river Váh. In doing so, he drew on a pictorial and literary tradition that reached back to the early nineteenth century and encapsulated the multi-ethnic character of the region. His prints transferred the spectres of this past into the interwar period, a time defined by new national borders and the idea of modern, exclusive national identities.
Framed by soft hills and picturesque huts, November’s Artwork of the Month transports us to the countryside of eastern Czechoslovakia in a painting by Anna Lesznai (1885-1967). Born and raised as the daughter of an ennobled Hungarian-Jewish family in Körtvélyes, then Upper Hungary, Anna Lesznai was one of the core female members of the Hungarian pre-war avant-garde. In the context of the Arts and Crafts revival at the turn of the twentieth century, which found enthusiastic reception in late-Habsburg Hungary, her craftwork gained much attention, alongside her poetry and fairy-tales for children. However, Lesznai also produced graphic designs, painted, taught at Dezső Orbán’s Atelier art school in Budapest in the 1930s and successfully participated in a number of exhibitions. Forced to emigrate after the rise of the Horthy regime because of her involvement in the Hungarian Republic of Councils in 1919, Lesznai lived between Vienna and the family estate in Körtvélyes (from 1920 Hrušov, Czechoslovakia; part of Slovakia since 1993). Based on an interest in folk art and peasant culture from the region, which she had begun to study in the early 1900s, Lesznai produced numerous watercolours in the 1920s and 30s which focused on life in the villages surrounding her estate and received enthusiastic reception when exhibited in Vienna.