ARTS AND ARTISTS IN WORLD WAR I – EXHIBITION AT THE VASZARY VILLA, BALATONFÜRED

Arts and Artists in World War I: the title alone of the exhibition, held at the Vaszary Villa in the town of Balatonfüred between October 2014 and January 2015, was intended to convey the scope and variety of the works on display in terms of genre, underlying motivation, and even of aesthetic standards. Paintings, scale models of memorials, memorial medals, tablets, works on paper, photographs and posters all shared space here, if not directly back to back, but scattered across a number of exhibition rooms loosely communicating with one another inside the same building.

The rather broad theme was constrained by just one single circumstance limiting the possibilities of a freely chosen, more specific selection: the exhibition was organised jointly by the largest national museum devoted to Hungarian art, the Hungarian National Gallery, and the city of Balatonfüred, a resort town of nationwide reputation on the northern shore of Lake Balaton that has recently re- embarked on a path of rapid development. Every one of the objects shown, with one notable exception, was borrowed from the National Gallery.

Not only did this arrangement allow the National Gallery to present works in its inventory that had been unknown even to average museum visitors, but it enabled the organisers to follow their own perspective and criteria in grouping and analysing war-related works of art from the 1915 to 1920 period, and to explain their specific guiding principles and interpretations in a set of essays contained in the catalogue – a volume of scholarly studies in its own right – with the ambition of providing an overarching framework for understanding the exclusively Hungarian material of the exhibition.

To what extent does their interpretation diverge from the European approach? Did the Great War elicit different artistic responses in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy than elsewhere on the continent? The past twenty years have seen an unprecedented flourish of interest in World War I in professional literature, with a frenzy of new research by art historians investigating the spiritual and artistic fallout of devastation on a hitherto unprecedented scale in human history. This turn was perhaps ultimately inevitable in light of the fact that the Great War had shaken the very foundations of human ideals and traditional notions of death, heroism and moral order, from Sarajevo to Isonzo, from Verdun to Limanowa.

Written by Eszter Balázs, the first study of the catalogue accompanying the exhibition (regrettably, published only in Hungarian) offers an informative overview of artistic attitudes and themes in connection with the conflagration, although in spite of its title it stops short of addressing the entirety of European visual culture during World War I. Balázs surveys how various cultural actors, including artists, popular artists, writers, editors and journalists perceived and processed the War, the impact of censorship, the gradual transformation of war propaganda into agitation against the War itself. She supports her findings with an extensive bibliography of relevant literature published in recent decades. No fewer than some fifty major studies, predominantly in French and English, have been devoted to the subject over the past thirty years or so. Also including the Hungarian art scene, this is the essay that gives an overall general view of the Great War as artistic subject.

The next three chapters, by György Szűcs, corresponding to three ensembles of exhibited works, begin by surveying documents of the age and press coverage in particular, as a way of getting a grip on “conventional” artistic representations of this “modern war”. The study entitled The Great War and the Fine Arts addresses aspects as diverse as the contemporaneous discourse of the War, the elaborate, almost artistic design of front-line trenches, the internment and prison camps, and the irredentism that emerged in a defeated and territorially mutilated Hungary. In The Metaphor of the World War in Contemporary Art, the author goes in search of the trail left in the arts of today by the cataclysm that claimed millions of lives. If we are to believe this study and its particular selection of examples, it is obvious that artists from the end of the 20th century onward have neither had first-hand poignant experiences nor drawn any historical consequences in their works – certainly not those featured here by the National Gallery. The third chapter, Heroic Monuments in Time and Space, discusses original photographs from the archive of the National Gallery, both of war monuments and ephemeral personal memories, as well as scale models of statues and commemorative plaques. The main squares of towns and larger villages throughout Hungary still boast grandiose groups of statues commemorating the Great War, but for the observer today, these conventional representations carry less emotional weight than the lists of names on marble plaques found on the wall of a city hall, a cemetery, or a church – the names of fallen war heroes and local children, snipped in the bud of life and long forgotten. For we all know that this War was masterminded by the old guard but fought by the young. These long lists make for a memento mori far more dramatic than any allegory of heroism cast in stone. The sketches and scale models of memorial statues on display at the exhibition are similar to these lists in that they succeed in conveying a sense of sincere anguish owing to their more intimate, and therefore more direct, impact.

The next study in the catalogue, by Enikő Róka, serves as the main pillar or backbone supporting the entire exhibition, not least by refuting the contention of the previous study that “even in hindsight, we will find precious few artists who had anything meaningful to say about the essence of the War and about man as both perpetrator and victim of momentous events of history, beyond simply documenting or illustrating visible phenomena of warfare” (p. 27). Indeed, the works of the exhibition convincingly prove just the opposite.

This is the piece that discusses the core of the exhibition inventory comprising paintings and drawings of higher aesthetic merit which best express the inevitable horrors awaiting troops deployed to the frontlines. More often than not, these works were created by people in a privileged position, working at a relatively safe remove from harm’s way, compared to regular conscripts. Few of the artists had bitter first-hand experience of the frontlines as soldiers on a draft call, or actually lost their lives in battle. More commonly, they acted as sheltered cogs in the propaganda machinery and created works that typically followed the conventions of the “landscape after the battle” genre. The rank and file of official frontline reporters included the popular writer Ferenc Molnár as well as distinguished painters such as László Mednyánszky or János Vaszary. The press unit, formed within the command headquarters of the Imperial and Royal Army as early as in August 1914, included photographers and artists assigned to the journalists as assistants, for the task of documenting and illustrating the events of the war by artistic means.


Later on, they had the opportunity to move more freely around, meet the soldiers, and witness military operations with their own eyes. Each artist dispatched to press headquarters had to deliver a work treating the war every two weeks. As other countries in Europe, regardless of which side that country happened to be on in the War, the Monarchy did have its artists who had at first hoped that the war would bring experiences capable of injecting fresh life into art in general. This soon proved to be an illusion, aided in no small part by the fact that “… censorship and propaganda in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy beyond the Leitha [a tributary of the Danube traditionally regarded as a natural boundary between Hungary and Austria proper] was overseen by military command … with massive censorship imposed on the hinterland” (p. 22).

This explains why – despite the several folders of informative sketches illustrating various scenes in the battlefield – some of the works go to great lengths to avoid a dramatic presentation, as is evident in The Hospital, an etching by Valér Ferenczy (1914), while others settle for poignant post-battle landscapes without a trace of pro-war agitation or propaganda.

Documentary works can hardly be expected to convey a visceral sense of the war; for that, we must look to genuine works of art by some of the prominent artists of the era. For instance, the painter János Vaszary, who had studied in Munich and Paris and was connected to the highest stylistic trends of the times, depicted his personal experiences on the Carpathian frontline. In his 1915 painting entitled Russian Prisoners in the Barracks, officers and privates of the Tsar’s army linger in captivity lethargically, in spite of apparently being treated much less harshly than prisoners of war in World War II would be. We see no sign of brutality or abuse, suffered or perpetrated; the principle of treating prisoners humanely still seems to apply. There is more intensity to Soldiers in the Snow, a work Vaszary painted just one year later, which uses the arsenal of German expressionism to depict man as he is laid bare to war and vicious natural elements.

The World War did not mark a stylistic boundary in the arts. The formal modernism of works produced by the Dadaists, Cubists or German expressionists some of those who fell in the war all predated the Great War itself. This modernism is very much in evidence in Béla Uitz’s brush drawing washed with Indian ink entitled Transportation of the Wounded, (but showing in fact the deposition of the dead in a mass-grave). in raw power it does not surpass the works of Mihály Biró, an artist with a more traditionalist bent. A splendid draftsman, Biró was steered toward applied drawing by an award he won at a poster competition sponsored by the British art magazine The Studio while he worked in England. His posters and commerical graphics earned him a solid reputation in the interbellum years, in Berlin and Paris as well as Budapest. However, his work as a painter has been largely unknown to the public at large, which endows his paintings featured here with something of a revelatory force. His Soldiers Marching through the Mountains (1916), Battle Scene (1916) and A Queue for Firewood (1917) owe their force in part to the artist’s superb compositional skill and handling of colour.

László Mednyánszky was among the few artists who documented the War in a thoroughly authentic way. An eccentric maverick of an artist always on the way to somewhere, Mednyánszky had an incurably restless predisposition and a compassion for the outcasts of society which drove him, well beyond the age of sixty, to seek the faces of suffering as a voluntary serviceman and frontline reporter in Galicia, Serbia and South Tirol. Before he was wounded, fell ill, and ultimately perished during the War, he developed hundreds of sketches he had made in the field and finished into paintings in his studio. Although representing only a fraction of his massive oeuvre, these paintings alone make him the most poignant and tragic Hungarian messenger of the War. His works on display at this specific exhibition are some of his best-known paintings, such as Soldiers at Rest (1916). The life of another important artist, József Egry, was defined by a disease contracted in the War. He borrowed his themes from hospitals – as in The Stretcher (1915) – and rendered them with a forcefulness characteristic of expressionism. István Nagy, who was born in Transylvania and chose to settle in Hungary proper in the wake of the Trianon Peace Treaty, painted his powerful portraits of soldiers on the Galician front (Soldier [1916]).

The last study published in the catalogue, Art and the Hinterland, again by Enikő Róka, invokes various drawings, particularly posters, and plaquettes commemorating war heroes and calling on the civilian population to make donations or inviting them to theatrical performances, in order to illustrate the ways in which war encroaches on the daily lives of people. The theme is astounding in its sheer breadth and variety, in which the portrayal of Franz Joseph in the famous poster The King at Prayer is presented in the neighbourhood of, and apparently on a par in artistic terms, with an advertisement of tick-repellent powder or the billboard of an exhibition for the benefit of veterans who lost an arm in the war. This is where we feel the truth of a sentence in the Introduction to the catalogue, which states that “… the principle of selection here was not based on aesthetic merit so much as on the overall theme, which claimed the last word”, and that “our aim was not to make the spectator relive history but to provide him with a situation report on the arts in those days”. This aim was certainly accomplished. On a final note, it is worth commending the catalogue for the high quality of the colour reproduction of each exhibited object.

*

The Vaszary Villa, which hosted the exhibition, is the most recent and perhaps most successful cultural establishment in the city of Balatonfüred. This is quite an achievement in a resort town that has been recorded in the annals of Hungarian cultural and political history since the early 1800s, and bequeathed to us several remarkable public buildings. The mansion itself used to serve as the recreational summer residence of Kolos Vaszary, Prince Primate of Esztergom at the end of the 19th century, and had been built in the historicist style in the early 1890s in what was already a flourishing bathing resort favoured by the intellectuals and political elite of the day. Following the death of the high priest in 1915, the villa and its beautifully sculpted grounds and gardens were rented out to aristocratic families for a period before being purchased by the Servicemen’s Welfare Fund in 1928, which used the adjacent plot to build a sanatorium for demobilised soldiers where they could take advantage of the therapeutic effects of this resort place. After World War II, when the villa became the property of the Russian Army, a third building, a reinforced concrete structure, was erected on the site of the former ornamental garden. The property remained off limits for the city and Hungarian citizens until the withdrawal of Soviet troops in the summer of 1991, when it was finally – albeit gradually – reclaimed by the locals. Needless to say, the work of reconstruction started with the demolition of the monstrous, multiple-storied concrete building – then continued with linking the two historical buildings and remodelling their interiors in an authentic style. As a result, by the dawn of the new millennium, Balatonfüred had gained a new, multi-purpose exhibition space refurbished in fittingly grand style, along with a finely landscaped park that now serves a variety of public functions.

Thanks to a persevering and visionary municipal leadership and a bold architectural concept, both the city and the Hungarian art scene in general can now benefit from yet another splendid, local exhibition venue. The staggered interiors, loggias, alcoves and balconies of the old mansion have been converted to a space eminently suitable for hosting a wide variety of exhibition material. Together with the younger sister building, which has been transformed into several larger spaces, the mansion now lends itself to displaying art objects of all descriptions, from small-scale drawings to photographs, video installations, paintings, and even reasonably sized sculptures.

One cannot help but wonder if the city will succeed in exploiting the fresh potential of the Vaszary Villa and establishing itself on the map of fine gallery exhibitions across the country and beyond. For the time being, the answer seems to be a resounding Yes. In its sixth year as we speak, the institution has already provided a home for more than twenty exhibitions of varying thematic and generic focus, but of consistently high standards. Most of these have been organised by the city in collaboration with one or more larger country or national museums, which contributed the works themselves as well as professional know- how. That said, these events with a few exceptions have not been of the “canned exhibition” type whereby a set of objects exhibited in other venues travel the country and is adopted as is, but rather monographic or thematic exhibitions tailored to the specific needs of the local audience of Balatonfüred. Of course, the preferred partners of the municipality remain the well-stocked museums of the country such as the National Gallery, the Museum of Fine Arts and, among the provincial museums, the Adorned Palace (“Cifra Palota”) of Kecskemét, which happens to hold a wonderful, definitive collection of paintings by the famous art collector of the last century Marcell Nemes; some of which were also shown here.

This whole auspicious arrangement has fostered exhibitions of drawings and watercolours by Hungarian artists travelling around Italy in the 19th century; paintings by István Csók and Ilona Keserü; photographs by André Kertész; Jean Cocteau’s photo portraits of Picasso; as well as thematic exhibitions zooming in on a particular aspect of an artist’s oeuvre that is relevant to the spirit or local indebtedness of the place. An example of the latter was a showing of paintings by János Vaszary, a relative of the building’s original owner, in conjunction with relics documenting the career of Prince Primate Kolos Vaszary. A selection of the oeuvre of Ödön Márffy, a prominent post-impressionist artist of the first half of the 20th century: his paintings related to Csinszka, the mysteriously enchanting widow of the poet-genius Endre Ady were also shown. A chamber exhibition in Balatonfüred showcasing works by Auguste Rodin served to highlight the uncompromising professional and artistic standards of the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts as it went about its acquisition programme a hundred years ago, evincing the intimate yet extensive connectedness of one of its founding Curators Gábor Térey with the international art scene of the age. In addition, the Vaszary Villa has in recent years hosted several multimedia events offering a unique political and sociological perspective. A case in point was the 2014 exhibition German Unification, which used a variety of contemporary photographs, postcards, relics and film footage to document meetings of families divided between East and West Germany, which by the 1960s had become routine get-togethers on the shores of Lake Balaton. The exhibition erected a moving memento to the former severance of Germany and paid tribute to the Lake in Hungary as an offbeat backdrop to German reunion ahead of its day.

The programme pursued by the Vaszary Villa is justified and warranted by the spectacular and uninterrupted progress and development of Balatonfüred over the past twenty years, and has been instrumental in honouring and resuscitating local cultural traditions rooted in the 19th century. The town has been impressively successful in exploiting and nourishing the potential inherent in the region’s fine vineyards, the recreational and athletic facilities afforded by Lake Balaton, and the sheer beauty of the surrounding landscape. In eyeing a target audience, it may well look beyond its own townsfolk and visiting tourists and set its sights on nearby settlements, large or small. For instance, Balatonfüred can bank on the interest of intellectuals from the university town of Veszprém, within easy reach to the north, who will be no doubt allured by the various fine cultural events on offer, including public lectures, book releases, theatre performances and concerts, held regularly concurrently with the exhibitions throughout the year, even outside the tourist season.

The city’s organic and well-thought-out concept of cultural development is exemplified by the fact that, even with its commitment to creating several new venues for community functions from scratch, it has found the resolve and resources to renovate the old resort quarter dating back to the mid-1800s in the heart of the town. Indeed, Balatonfüred has convincingly demonstrated its allegiance to the spirit and two guiding principles of Hungary’s great Reform Era in the 19th century: self-reliance and confidence in the future.

Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel

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