Hungarian Art: Confrontation and Revival in the Modern Movement

Hungarian Art: Confrontation and Revival in the Modern Movement

by Eva Forgacs


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Insightful essays and rarely-seen images tracing, from birth to maturation, several generations of Hungarian modernism, from the avant-garde to neo-avant-garde. This wide-ranging collection by Éva Forgács, a leading scholar of Modernism, corrects long-standing misconceptions about Hungarian art while examining the social milieu and work of dozens of important Hungarian artists, including László Moholy-Nagy and Lajos Kassák. This book paints a fascinating image of twentieth-century Budapest as a microcosm of the social and political turmoil raging across twentieth-century Europe.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780997003413
Publisher: DoppelHouse Press
Publication date: 01/24/2017
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Dr. Éva Forgács, formerly professor of art history at the Hungarian Academy of Crafts and design, has been teaching at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California since 1994. She has a Ph. D. in Art History from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. A former curator at the Hungarian Museum of Decorative Arts and professor at the László Moholy-Nagy University in Budapest, she has published a number of essays and monographs on various chapters of Modernism in edited volumes, textbooks, and journals. She has also been active as a curator and art critic, and has published several books both in her native Hungary and in English.

Forgács was co-curator (with Nancy Perloff) of “Monuments of the Future: Designs by El Lisssitzky” at the Getty Research Institute, in November 1998, and was consultant at LACMA's Central European Avant-Gardes exhibition in 2002. She serves as book review editor of Centropa, is Advisory Board member of EAM (European Network of Avant-Garde and Modernism Studies), member of the International Academic Committee of the Bauhaus Institute, China Academy of Art, and vice president of the Society of Historians of Russian and East European Art and Architecture.

Read an Excerpt

From Part I
The Hungarian Activists in Vienna 1919–1926

Among the many waves of exile throughout Hungarian history probably the
• ne following the defeat of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919 drained
Hungarian art and culture most. It was preceded by decades of peace, economic
growth, and cultural prosperity before World War I, and a multi-faceted
development of the arts, which also laid the foundations of Modernism. The
1919–20 exile and emigration of a great number of Hungarian artists, philosophers,
writers, emerging filmmakers, and intellectuals put an abrupt end to
the ongoing discourses and debates between the many different and often
conflicting views and tendencies. One of these was the budding avant-garde’s
conflict with the leading modernist forum, the journal Nyugat (1908–41). The
sharp exchange between the proletarian free-verse poet Lajos Kassák and the
erudite poet Mihály Babits in 1916 was an unusually articulate verbal duel
about just how much radicalism and destruction of the classical forms could
be accepted or tolerated in modern Hungarian poetry (see “Dada in
Hungary”). The continuation of this debate would have certainly
helped to hammer out opposing but equally relevant views on poetic forms
and modernity in Hungarian literature. The post-1919 decimation of Hungarian
Modernism put an end to all such debates, and the prospect of a multifaceted
and pluralist culture of political and stylistic diversity with ongoing
dialogues and debates between the many different groups and voices
faded away. By the time some of the exiles returned to Hungary after a 1926
general amnesty, they found that hardly any room was left for the kind of
avant-garde practices they had known prior to August 1919.

Shaken by World War I, the ensuing October 1918 revolution, the inadequacy
• f Count Mihály Károlyi’s coalition government that emerged out of
that revolution, and driven by a desire for social justice, almost the entire
Hungarian intelligentsia participated is some way in the Commune. Few of
them became communists by making a full ideological commitment like philosopher
György [Georg] Lukács who converted to Bolshevism at the end of
1918, and served as Vice Commissar of Public Education during the Commune, a position so that Lukács became de facto the Commissar. Many were self-conscious socialists like Lajos Kassák and most of his group; others were liberals as Oszkár Jászi and his circle around the periodical Huszadik Század (Twentieth Century), championing sociology; Jászi had reservations with regard to the communist dictatorship but felt that the time for
action to replace theorizing had come. Many young artists, poets,
and thinkers had not been committed to any political party or social organization,
but enthusiastically plunged in various educational activities in order to
be of use to the poor. In 1919 the word ‘Communist’ had no Stalinist connotations,
as it resonated positively with the young idealists and radicals in post-
World-War-I Budapest. Some of the artists exhibited their paintings during
the Commune and a few of them designed political posters. Such activities
stamped them as dangerous communists or fellow travelers in the eyes of the
retaliating regime of Admiral Horthy, and they had to leave the country for
fear of imprisonment or worse. In the wake of the Commune’s defeat, special
commandos were sent out to sift through villages and farms to find communists
in hiding. Some of those who emigrated did not have to fear punishment,
but simply did not wish to live under the new rule, which promised to
eradicate even the vestiges of socialist and communist ideas, and free thinking
in general. Many had to run for their lives in disguise (as poet Béla Balázs who
wore a fake mustache), or smuggle themselves out under the protection of
the night, as did Kassák.

Vienna was the first stop for all émigrés. Many traveled further West, to the
cosmopolitan cultural metropolis Berlin where a sizable Hungarian group of
artists and art critics settled, or went on later to London (as painter and sculptor
László Péri did, after his Berlin years), Amsterdam (where painter Dezso
Korniss spent several years), Moscow (where former Ma members Béla Uitz,
János Mácza, Sándor Barta, and Erzsi Újvári immigrated and a contingent of
Hungarian architects including István Sebok and Tibor Weiner), and the
United States (where, among others, former Bauhaus members Marcel
Breuer, Andor Weininger, and László Moholy-Nagy ended up). In the 1920s and
the early 30s about thirty Hungarian-language periodicals were published in
Vienna (some of them short-lived), reflecting the structure of the pre-1919
intellectual and political scene in Hungary.

Émigrés in Vienna did not feel completely safe. They feared the agents of
the Hungarian secret service and wondered whether the Austrian police protected
them or cooperated with the Hungarian authorities. Hence they tried
to keep a low profile. In December 1919 Balázs noted that his friend Lukács
“looked heart wrenching. His face sunken, he is pale, nervous and sad. He is
being watched and followed in the streets; he walks around with a gun in his pocket because he has good reason to fear that he might get kidnapped. In
Budapest he is accused of instigating murder, on nine counts.” Balázs himself moved to Schloss Waisnix, further into the countryside from Vienna.
He did not fear the kind of danger Lukács was in, but reflected on his new
situation in terms of having become an obvious outsider, as if making his previously
covered outsider position legitimate: “The question is this: have I
been exiled when I ran abroad, or have I arrived home? […] The 'aura of the
far-away', the feeling of foreignness gnawed at me already in my childhood
like some kind of reversed home-sickness. […] From the Hungarian foreignness
where I was not understood and was scorned as a stranger I have, by all
means, come home to be among people who understand and recognize me instantly.
Still, what hurts?”

Balázs’s musings point to one of the central issues of the post-1919 Hungarian
exile: most of the émigrés had ethnic, religious, or class backgrounds
that had set them apart of what had been considered mainstream Hungarian
culture for at least a decade or a decade and a half before they actually left
Hungary. But they were the emerging intellectuals. The group around Lukács
and Balázs included mostly upper class Jews who wanted to raise Hungarian
culture to a higher level, whereas the members of Kassák’s circle were mostly
working class or lower middle class poets and artists, some of them also of
Jewish background, who gave voice to a segment of the population that had
not appeared on the intellectual scene before. Their exodus deprived Hungary
• f most of the next generation progressive modernists.

In an age of nation-states, political views and views on a nation or nationalism
in general were hardly separable, particularly at the time of World War I,
when nations were pitted against nations and an internationalist attitude was
tantamount to disloyalty to everything the word fatherland entailed. The
emotional impact of patriotism was not only high – it was raised to an ethical
standard that was denied legitimacy to groups and individuals who were not
considered a genuine, historic part of the nation or who proved themselves
unpatriotic by showing pacifism and internationalism.

The artists and intellectuals who went into exile after the August 1919 defeat
• f the Hungarian Commune were also outsiders.
They were Jews or socialists and/or communists coming from the working class,
who sought to establish an international network of solidarity and a network with artists and thinkers who occupied similar outsider positions in their respective countries. The international republic of the avantgarde
was, with few exceptions like the Bauhaus in Germany, an extremely
thin network of outsiders that most of the insiders of the European national
cultures did not even notice, or dismissed as extravagant and insignificant. In 1915,
Lukács and his friends, mostly assimilated Budapest Jews, formed the Sunday Circle, a loose, by invitation-only group consisting of idealists seeking
to graft German idealism and philosophical thinking onto Hungarian culture.
Already their earliest publications were criticized for cultivating abstract
thinking in the German and Viennese tradition, which was considered alien to
Hungarian clarity and tenacity. They were also reproached for not using correct
Hungarian style and grammar.

Reviewing Lukács’s volume of essays A lélek és a formák (The Soul and the
Forms; 1910) Elemér Kutasi wrote in the Huszadik Század: “One would
never have thought that in our Hungarian language, a language made for concrete
tangibility, the unambiguous, crystal-clear language of János Arany, it
was possible to write a book so lost in obscure incomprehensibility, so inflated
with tortuous, bloodless abstractions as that of György Lukács.” The leading poet and essay writer Mihály Babits,
who was also the highest authority in literary criticism, remarked in his review
• f the book that Lukács wrote “with the sense of superiority of an
author who does not write for everyone but for the small group of the likeminded
• nly […] introducing writers who are completely unknown to the
Hungarian public.” He praised the author for the subtlety of his ideas, but pointed out that Lukács’s orientation and education was typically
German, or rather Viennese: “the writers he discusses are […] either
Viennese or presently fashionable in Vienna. […] And finally the style – as
subtle, as obscure, as abstract, and as German as the whole book.” As elsewhere in Hungarian art and literary criticism, “fashionable” has
a derogative sense here, meaning something superficial, cosmopolitan, and

This rejection touched sensitive chords, since Lukács and his friends were
good Bildungsbürger, dedicated to fostering a great Hungarian cultural Renaissance,
• f which they were intent to be not only part but founders and leaders.
Lukács responded to Babits by justifying the existence of a philosophical culture
that had had no tradition in Hungary; for its development, he said, efforts
had to be made not only by the authors, but also by the readers. In the subsequent
exchange, Babits accepted this but insisted that Lukács’s obscurity was more a matter of bad style than philosophical profundity.

In fact, Lukács and his friend Béla Balázs were not just bilingual: since their
mothers came from Vienna and Germany respectively, their mother tongue
was, strictly speaking, German. They read and wrote in German as fluently as
in Hungarian. Both of them attended the private seminar of the sociologist
Georg Simmel in Berlin in the early 1910s, and though they were rooted in
Budapest, expecting to contribute to a great new Hungarian culture, they cultivated
academic and other relationships in Austria and Germany, anticipating
an international career. Lukács spent a long time in Heidelberg and expected
to get a professorship at the University there. Though he lived in Budapest, he
was somewhat isolated from the most important forums of intellectual life in
his native city. He had a precarious relationship with the French-oriented Nyugat
(although he occasionally published in it) because of his preference for the
German cultural tradition. He also disagreed with the other important venue,
the Huszadik Század, because their positivism was opposed to German metaphysical

Lajos Kassák, the leading figure of the emerging Hungarian avant-garde,
also operated in isolation from the main forums of Hungarian cultural life, albeit
for different reasons. Kassák had come from a poor family in Érsekújvár
(now Nové Zámky, Slovakia). He had to work very hard from his earliest
childhood to support himself and to acquire every bit of his knowledge. He
never forgot what his underprivileged youth meant. In a 1954 letter to the
writer Tibor Déry (a rather belated response to Déry’s open letter to him in
1937) he still felt compelled to mention that he had always suffered for “not
having had at home an education ‘for free’.” He moved to Budapest at a young age, joined the Socialist
Party, and became an activist. He traveled on foot and penniless as far as Paris
and Brussels; he wrote poetry and befriended one of the editors of Nyugat, Erno Osvát. The independent and idiosyncratic Kassák did not fit into any existing category. He was a socialist who disagreed with the Socialist Party because of its support of the War, and he held jobs during the Hungarian Commune but strongly disagreed with the Muscovite communist leaders.

Table of Contents



Attempts at Constructing Modernism and National Identity through Visual Expression in Hungary

György Lukács, Lajos Fülep, Leo Popper and the Quest for Aesthetics, 1904–1912

Dada in Hungarian Art

Hungarian Concepts of Constructivism as a Political Act

The Hungarian Activists in Vienna

László Moholy-Nagy’s Synthesis of Reform Pedagogy and Utopian Modernism

Theory, politics and the practice of abstract art in Budapest 1945–1948

Strategies of the Hungarian Neo-Avant-garde from the Late-1960s through the 1970s

The “New Sensibility” or “New Subjectivism” in the Hungarian Post-Avant-garde of the 1980s

László Rajk and the Na-Ne Gallery

Redress of an Artist’s Suppressed Legacy


The Brittle Lines of Béla Kondor and Lajos Vajda

The Enigma of Being There

István Nádler, Margit Szilvitzky, and the Quest for the Transcendental

Péter Donáth, and the Price of Independence

A Radically Open Budapest Archive of Experimental Art






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