1938 was an important year in the history of Hungary’s authoritarian interwar regime. The nine hundredth anniversary of the death of King Stephen I (Saint Stephen, c. 975–1038), Hungary’s first king, was declared a Jubilee Year, and a long series of celebrations and commemorations were organised on the occasion. One of the most significant projects was the Ruin Garden in Székesfehérvár: a new memorial site set up to preserve and make accessible the ruins of the basilica Stephen had founded in the town in the early eleventh century. The garden was flanked by a mausoleum built to house a sarcophagus believed to have been the king’s. Behind the sarcophagus, elevating the sacral aura of the space, the wall was divided by a tall and imposing stained-glass window. Its maker, Lili Sztehlo (1897–1959), was the most prominent artist working in this technique in interwar Hungary.
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.