One sweltering Budapest summer, many years ago, I was a university student taking an exam in twentieth-century Hungarian art. The friendly visiting lecturer smiled encouragingly as I summarised the career of the painter Vilmos Aba-Novák (1894–1941). Soon after starting to train as an artist, Aba-Novák was drafted into the army. After the war, he resumed his studies in printmaking, while also practising painting. Around this time he belonged to the circle of István Szőnyi (1894–1960), a group known for their idyllic compositions of nudes outdoors. Also interested in rural subjects, he frequented artists’ colonies such as the one in Nagybánya (Baia Mare) and – more importantly – in Szolnok. For 1928–30 he received a scholarship from the Hungarian state to study in Rome. The purpose of the Rome scholarships introduced by Minister of Religion and Education Kuno Klebelsberg (1875–1932) was to encourage artists to develop a new monumental style fusing tradition and modernity, so they would be well equipped to fulfil state and ecclesiastical commissions. Returning from Rome, Aba-Novák painted a number of frescoes, but these, I blurted out, are rather clumsy compared to his other work.
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.
For centuries, the still life was considered as the least prestigious of artistic genres, dismissed by critics as undemanding because it only depicted lifeless objects. Yet, there was always more to still lifes than what immediately meets the eye. Allowing unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated objects, they lent themselves to symbolic compositions; they were well suited for referencing the work of other artists or for creating commemorative images. Rather than just ‘copying’ nature, artists often used the genre to intellectually reflect on the possibility of ‘lifelike’ representation. From the late nineteenth century onwards the still life became a preferred genre for the formal experimentations of avant-garde artists. This article will explore a still life by the Hungarian artist István Dési Huber as an expression of his artistic credo. Enclosing works by two contemporary artists, Käthe Kollwitz and László Mészáros, into its pictorial world, Still Life with Liebknecht Print reflects Dési Huber’s views on artistic tradition, the autonomy of art, as well as the artist’s social role.
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.