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.
Gustav Klimt remains undoubtedly the best known artist from Vienna and, along with Egon Schiele, Otto Wagner and Koloman Moser, largely defined the public image of Vienna as a centre of modern art, design and architecture. Yet his fame has also been a problem, completely overshadowing the many other artists active in the Austrian capital in the early twentieth century. Worse, still, his death in 1918, which coincided with those of Schiele, Wagner and Moser, seemed to symbolise the artistic and political demise of Vienna.