At Kunstforum: Eight Hungarians Who Re-invented Modernism

‘The artist cannot simply be a mirror of nature... His art will reflect his intellect... an ­indication of the intellectual level of his age.’ -K. Kernstock

Top Stories | Nicholas T. Parsons | October 2012

Márffy’s Mädchen aus Nyerges (1908) is exemplary of Hungarian Modernism (Photo: VBK)

The first two rooms of the Kunstforum’s magnificent exhibition of neglected Hungarian painters explode on the visual consciousness like the first few bars of Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra. This blaze of colour, which characterises both landscapes and dramatically conceived portraiture, documents the Fauvist beginnings of the eight painters in a game-changing and eye-opening show. Their names may be unknown to many readers, but the exhibition crystallises a growing awareness that Hungarian Modernism in painting blazed its own trail with the works of Robert Berény (1887-1953), Dezsö Czigány (1883-1937), Béla Czóbel (1883-1976), Károly Kernstock (1873-1940), Ödön Márffy (1878-1959), Dezsö Orbán (1884-1986), Bertalan Pór (1880-1964) and Lajos Tihanyi (1885-1938).

What united "The Eight" was a sense of mission rather than homogeneity of style, or even subject matter, as the curators – Hungarians Gergely Barki and Zoltán Rockenbauer and Austrian Evelyn Benesch – make clear. In the annex, Kernstock’s and Por’s large-scale canvasses of the Sermon on the Mount, and Rider at Dusk are forerunners of modern classicism, sharply distinguished from their fellow members’ work. Still, as the de facto theoretician of the group, Kernstock voiced their collective determination to move from decorative painting imbued with sentiment to an altogether different type of art based on the intellect. They needed to shock the sensibilities of contemporary art lovers and critics alike, and The Nyolcak certainly succeeded. Today’s gallery goers are unfazed by landscapes smeared with violent reds and yellows, strangely contorted nude figures, or portraits with facial features subordinated to an expressive idea. But their pre- and inter-war public was used to exquisitely render figures and landscapes, while still assimilating the lush sensuality of Jugendstil.

Three genres form the keel of this show: portraiture, landscape (or cityscape) and still life. The last-named shows a strong influence of Cézanne and is of a quality that rivals the French masters, while the landscapes, developing from their Fauvist origins, feature vivid colours splashed across the canvases and blurred or sketchy rendering of figurative elements.

But it is surely the portraits and nudes that are the most arresting – and often disturbing. An example that could stand for several is Márffy’s Girl from Nyerges, where the distrust, distress even, of the subject is emphasised not only by her roughly rendered blonde locks, alarmingly blank eyes and defensive hand gesture, but also by colours that do not, in fact, represent a human face.

The expressionistic power of Nyolcak portraiture invites comparison with painters like Oppenheimer and Kokoschka, although the most Kokoschka-like portrait of all (Berény’s Béla Bartók, 1912) is only reproduced in the catalogue. This world has already left the romantic idyll of academic genre-painting, or sun-drenched Nagybánya landscapes, and seems to anticipate the sorrows and psychoses of modern life. One truly remarkable nude by Lajos Tihanyi, in its unforgiving rendering of the fat thighs, spreading black bush and bulbous, darkly aureoled breasts of its dozing sitter, could almost have been painted by Lucien Freud.

The disturbing melancholy, the menacing and sometimes sinister elements (emphasised in the graphics in the show’s central corridor) do indeed speak of a world where the old certainties or illusions have dissolved under the pressure of political struggle and a fractured identity. In his masterly overview of the social, political and aesthetic context of the Nyolcak (the catalogue is worth purchasing for this alone), Peter Vergo points to the precarious position of Hungary vis à vis Austria in the Dual Monarchy at the time when the Nyolcak were formed. He might equally well have stressed the feelings of vulnerability amongst the Magyars as an ethnic minority in their own "historic Hungary," feelings that led to the ultimately disastrous policy of "Magyarisation". At any rate suicide, Vergo notes, had become a Magyar specialty and so remained until well into the 20th century.

Thus many Hungarians looked to the past for consolation, notably in the great 1896 millennial celebrations marking a thousand years of the Magyar nation. The alternative was to embrace the future, a modernising tendency that was particularly pronounced amongst Hungarian Jews, as were most of the Nyolcak. In literature, the great moderniser was Endre Ady, in music Béla Bartók and in philosophy György Lukács, later the Marxist éminence grise. Including even Bartók, fusing folk tradition with modern harmonies, all these figures delivered a nationwide culture shock, described by Kernstock as a "violent cleansing process, which, in the same way that fever frees the body from infection, seeks to liberate painting from all those decorative elements that still dominate." (One thinks of Adolf Loos’ famous denunciation of "ornament" as "crime.")

Nobody, whether art specialist or interested layman, is likely to doubt the quality of the work displayed here, as Vergo makes clear. Yet, like most of their Czech or Polish counterparts, the Nyolcak are marginalised in the international artistic canon. Vergo speaks of the "carousel" of the greats – the Raphaels, Titians, Van Goghs, Cezannes and so forth – who are paraded year after year in blockbuster shows. Occasionally, very occasionally, a new name is added (Klimt did not even appear in the early editions of Gombrich’s canonically authoritative Story of Art).

The result is the same, however. Those few Central European artists who are well-known have been admitted to the canon precisely because they made a career beyond their homelands, either in Western Europe or America (Mucha, Munkácsy, Moholy-Nagy and a few others). Ambitious scholars generally stick to the canonised artists and churn out endless monographs that add another lick of paint here or there to the already top-heavy monuments. Curators, whose careers depend on the exhibition attendance, discover yet another obscure private collection of mostly second-rate Impressionists to promote.

Exhibitions like this one are therefore both courageous and necessary. They show that the commercialised world of museums and academe’s obsession with a closely guarded canon can indeed be challenged. Things could be different, and as a matter of fact, they should be.

Die Acht / A Nyolcak:

Ungarns Highway in die Moderne

Through 12 Dec.

Bank Austria Kunstforum on the Freyung

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