Not long ago, this blog featured a review of Their Safe Haven, a book that explores the life and work of fourteen Hungarian artists who settled in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. One of them, George (György) Mayer-Marton (1897–1960), became a senior lecturer at Liverpool College of Art, and received several commissions to decorate churches in England with murals. The Crucifixion in the Church of the Holy Rosary in Oldham is now under severe threat. The church has been closed since 2017, and the artwork is at risk of being damaged by vandalism, water leaks, as well as by the eventual demolition or redevelopment of the building. The artist’s great-nephew, Nick Braithwaite, is leading a campaign to save the mural with the support of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, which has issued an appeal to restore the work and have it listed as a protected monument.
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.
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.