Hungarian Painting 1830–1920
Kogart Gallery Budapest
MI: You were the curator of a recent exhibition entitled In the Current of Impressionism, Hungarian Painting 1830–1920, held at the Kogart Gallery in Budapest, April-August 2009. How did this exhibition come about?
ASzM: The exhibition was the initiative of Péter Fertoszögi, the director of Kogart Art Foundation. He was familiar with an exhibition of the same name held in Cracow in 2000, and asked me to compile an even more comprehensive selection on this theme. I gladly accepted the task. It gave me the opportunity to present this truly attractive branch or current of our art in a considerably expanded format, following a string of successes in Western Europe. As I wanted to avoid any direct connection with Cracow, I initially suggested the “plein air” expression. In the end this simply became a subtitle for my studies within the catalogue: Endeavours of Plein Air in Hungarian Painting Between 1830 and 1920. István Kovács, the former Hungarian Consul in Cracow, who is also a prominent poet and writer, allowed me to borrow his striking title “in the Current of Impressionism.”
MI: You played an important role in establishing the permanent exhibition of nineteenth century Hungarian painters at the Hungarian National Gallery. Why not place this exhibition there?
ASzM: In 1990 I realized my old dream there of an exhibition entitled Pál Szinyei Merse and His Circle. That was followed by large scale monographic and thematic exhibitions curated by my colleagues, including the Nagybánya Centennial exhibit of 1996, but there were no further opportunities until my retirement in 2007. At the National Gallery I had long urged research and space for the art of Hungarians working at the 19th century Munich Academy. This unfortunately only came to fruition after my departure. On the other hand, I continued to recommend exhibitions abroad of realist and “plein air” paintings from the second half of the nineteenth century, because this is the area where we can demonstrate most conclusively, through our great masters, that Hungarian art came of age at that time. This was borne out by the acclaim of foreign critics for those exhibitions held between 1994 and 2002.
MI: Were there financial restraints in the selection of the paintings and in the production of the catalogue?
ASzM: It was the organizers’ intention to combine more paintings from private collections and less from public collections with the greater portion of the art found in the Hungarian
National Gallery; so they did not limit my ambitions in this respect. The shipping and insurance costs of Szinyei and Munkácsy paintings from the Salgó Collection in the United States represented the greatest share of the financial burden. Their Munkácsy picture was on public display a little earlier in Budapest at the National Gallery exhibition, Munkácsy in the World. But the Szinyei work had never been exhibited in Hungary. The plan for the catalogue was originally less ambitious, but finally the Kogart Gallery agreed to publish the complete material, even the reproductions printed in the text, since every one of these represented paintings that we had been unable to acquire. I also thought it important that the entire text be available in English.
MI: The expression “In the Current of Impressionism” covers an extremely wide range, virtually all nineteenth century landscapes from Barabás to Mészöly, through Mednyánszky to Koszta. You have exhibited art from the most varied Hungarian painters of those ninety years. What principles guided you when setting such a broad framework in style and period?
ASzM: It first occurred to me almost two decades ago, during the planning of an Italian-Hungarian exchange exhibition, that I could show the development of nature concepts in nineteenth and early twentieth century painting as parts of a single range. The Hungarian material would have included some of the work exhibited at the Kogart Gallery. The thematic arch of the Italian exhibition stretched from the Posillipo art school through the Tuscan patch painters to the North Italian divisionism. Even the Italians had never organized this type of exhibition before. My curator colleague in Rome immediately adopted my idea, and the complete plan was submitted for approval. This truly exploratory exhibition of the Italians was permanently cancelled, sadly, due to the death of the curator. Nonetheless in 2002, an exhibition I organized for the Hungarian National Gallery was realized in the Modern Art Gallery of the Pitti Palace in Florence, including a fine collection of paintings of the Markó family, and my plan aroused much interest. The Florence exhibition and catalogue entitled In the Wake of Colours and Lights – Hungarian Painters 1832–1914 was the true starting point for the Kogart exhibition. You can read in the catalogue about my research, following that of Edith Hoffmann, into the surprising modernity of the Italian water colours of the young Miklós Barabás (1810–1898), and the Rome students of Károly Markó the Elder. Listing the life-work of certain painters under the collective title “Outlook”, is perhaps a more difficult and debatable point of view. Examples of this in the current exhibition, on the top floor of the Gallery, indicate the many directions in which Impressionism developed (for example pointillism or expressionism). This was followed by the denial of Impressionism, and the questioning and rebellious attitude of the avant garde artists. But that is another story. At the end of the exhibition, I chose to include those masters who were gladly called impressionists by their peers toward the beginning of the twentieth century.
MI: For me, the main attraction of the exhibition lay in those paintings which are almost or entirely unknown. How hard was it to locate and borrow these from private collections, obscure regional museums, or from abroad? Which were genuine discoveries?
ASzM: Locating the material was sometimes accidental. It happened that I found a painting which represents a missing link in the home of an acquaintance. Or spotted it in a passing exhibition, where there was also an auction. Anyone who volunteers for something like this must definitely know the complete literature, including catalogues of the public and private collections, and follow the auctions. While I was preparing the catalogue under great time pressure, my colleagues at the Kogart gallery helped a great deal, searching through many regional collections; on other occasions I called less known works to their attention. Unfortunately, the location of works of art in private collections is constantly changing; it is difficult to track the change of ownership nowadays. It was rather painful to discover that almost half the paintings auctioned in the recent or more distant past that we wished to borrow were no longer available. The same was true even of items of known collections under legal protection. Other paintings have ended up abroad recently, instead of becoming a part of Hungarian public collections, due to the general shrinking of public budgets; this has made it impossible to borrow them. These are dangerous tendencies which indicate the country’s recent drift toward poverty. More encouraging is the fact that important private collections are becoming public property in their entirety. This made it possible for us to borrow more interesting, truly surprising work. The pieces from the collection of the Hanság Museum at Mosonmagyaróvar, which was once the Gyurkovits collection, for example. Many may already know these works, but the context of our exhibition shed new light on them.
MI: Which paintings do you value most highly?
ASzM: That is hard to answer because there are simply so many of them. Perhaps my favourites are the later landscapes of Károly Telepy who has a surprisingly fresh viewpoint, and the very early “plein air” paintings of Béla Pállik or Ottó Baditz. There are also a great many interesting pieces from the collection of the owner of the Kogart Gallery, Gábor Kovács, including the “boating” painting by Sándor Nyilasy, which we used on our poster and on the cover of our catalogue. I could mention many lesser-known names as examples. But the most famous masters were also represented by a number of less known pieces from smaller museums or collectors. We also received the loan of many fine items from the Szolnok and Nagybánya circles, which are better known by the audience and the profession. The large Szinyei painting, Mother and Children, shipped here from America for the first time, made a stunning complement to a later composition created by his schoolmate and friend from Munich, Gyula Benczúr, based on the same theme, which was lost in obscurity abroad for a long time. It was also interesting to see, side by side, the rare pointillist paintings of Ervin Plányi and Artúr Lakatos, which surfaced at an auction not long ago. Finally, I would like to mention two truly unique seashore paintings by József Koszta, one of which had not been exhibited since its auction many decades ago.
MI: How well-known is the life work of the individual painters in the exhibition?
ASzM: This is a truly sensitive question. With the exception of the monographs of certain significant masters, information is scanty. It is no accident that the production of
indispensable scholarly catalogues by the museums moves forward at such a slow pace; the same is true of the preliminary work on sufficiently detailed summaries of certain periods. The problem is that – talking about the Hungarian art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – the fundamental research needed for more general works is missing. For decades now, the basic research has consisted of iconographic, aesthetic, sociological, and philosophical explorations as well as research in various other directions; but without serious monographic scholarship we cannot get far in this field. To this day, the only usable scholarship material on many artists consists of the doctoral dissertations submitted between the two world wars! Why cannot students be assigned this type of research today? There are Hungarian painters, sculptors, and graphic designers by the hundreds that would deserve this kind of attention. The professional standards of art historians at the outset of their careers would be higher if they had to dig their way through the research of some lesser known oeuvres which present many difficult obstacles and pitfalls. I definitely feel the need to accelerate and supplement this type of professional work. Without it, we will not be able to catch up with the advanced approaches and work done in many regions of the world.
MI: Interest in exhibitions of nineteenth century Realism and Impressionism remains strong. You have personally organized many such exhibitions, and contributed to the Hungarian side of the current exhibition at the Villa Manin in Passariano, which sets out parallels in nineteenth century European painting. What is your impression of the assessment of Hungarian painting by art historians in Europe? And has this changed in the last twenty years?
ASzM: Ever since the international Impressionist landscape painting exhibition entitled Landschaft im Licht held first in Köln then in Zurich in 1990 – the first of its kind in this category – the awareness of the experts, and the more knowledgeable public has become more nuanced. As a researcher who has spent forty years dealing with the comparative analysis of the international art of the fifty years after 1860, I have closely followed the work of my French colleagues in particular. In their fashionable comparative exhibitions of twin cities, like for example Paris–Brussels, Paris–Rome, or Paris–Barcelona, they initially sought the proofs of French influence in the art of their partners. So it was hardly accidental that the exhibition entitled “Magyar Vadak” (Hungarian Fauves) held in the not so distant past in multiple French locations received such a favourable reception. The French established the approach, since adopted by others, of the paired concept of “centre and periphery”. They have gradually had to admit, however, that it was not only followers of French art who achieved important results elsewhere. Rippl-Rónai, considered as the “Hungarian Nabi”, has been highly valued especially since the Saint Germain-en-Laye exhibition which I organized on behalf of the Hungarian National Gallery in 1998. French experts still accept with difficulty, for example, the evolution of Mayfair by Pál Szinyei Merse as something entirely independent of their Déjeuner sur l’herbe paintings.
The names of Monet and his circle remain the number one attraction for audiences all over Europe, although the Italians appear less biased in this respect. Quality is the main factor for selection, although their international exhibitions, which grant the widest range of comparison, are also built around one name who is sure to draw an audience. In their catalogues they also highlight several international masters with their own autonomous painting style. The catalogue of my 2002 exhibition in Florence appeared to represent a breakthrough for Hungarian artists. In the exhibition entitled Impressionist and the Snow. France and Europe, which heralded the winter Olympics held in Turin, I was entrusted with the task of locating and presenting the snow paintings of six countries of our region. The paintings, unknown to the Italian and European public until then, caused such a stir that an entire exhibition has now been built around this material at the Villa Manin, with my participation, entitled The Era of Courbet and Monet, the Spread of Realism and Impressionism in Central and Eastern European Countries. An impressive selection of Hungarian paintings were borrowed for the exhibition. The catalogue emphasizes, in an explanation of the principles of selection, the conviction that the spread of the concept of nature representation was in the air all across Europe; but not every nation contributed as much talent to the movement as the Hungarians did. The Italians appear to have understood our efforts the best, but we cannot complain, for our selections of “plein air” art were received with serious admiration wherever we took these treasures. Experience teaches us that we have to be constantly present in many parts of Europe, with foreign language books that illustrate our culture as well as scholarly catalogues, in order not to be forgotten. We should also occasionally organise exhibitions of our own, if the maintenance of the good reputation of our country, independent the vagaries of politics, is important to us.
MI: How long did you work on the Kogart exhibition?
ASzM: Perhaps I should say thirty years, because we had only about half a year to gather the paintings and for me to write the catalogue. That was only possible thanks to the decades of work which preceded it.
MI: Are you satisfied with the reception?
ASzM: Many considered this exhibition the finest for years. The publicity was largely in the form of posters on the main boulevard and metro in Budapest, and unfortunately did not really reach the targeted audience. After it closed, I heard from many people, in professional circles as well, that they were not aware of the exhibition. The annual Night of Museums in Budapest did help publicise it, and the number of visitors did subsequently increase. It would have been good if the Turner exhibit running concurrently at the Museum of Fine Arts and our exhibition could have been advertised jointly. But this type of co-operation is virtually impossible between state run and privately owned establishments.