While we always believe in the works we propose for addition to the MoMA collection, some works stand apart in extraordinarily strong ways. They speak to us because of their great historical significance, aesthetic power or, in my case with the above poster, because of true love. Even before I learned the purpose (much less the translation) of Sándor Bortnyik’s poster, its dynamic, powerful composition made it my favorite of a large group of posters we acquired last spring. Our own resident Hungarian modernism expert, Curator Juliet Kinchin, suggested some reading on the subject—and my fascination grew even further.
Bortnyik’s poster advertises a design and printed-arts exhibition for the group called MA (Hungarian for “today”), an organization of politically radical artists in Budapest, as well as a leading modernist journal, founded by the Hungarian poet-critic Lajos Kassák. The first MA issue, of November 1916, includes a treatise by Kassák titled “The Poster and the New Painting,” in which he describes both the power and the mission for posters in the modern world:
The good poster is always born in the spirit of radicalism—its creator wishes to make it break through a sluggish mass or a hostile current—and for this reason it leaps on to the stage as an absolute force on its own, and never as part of a mass simply to record something.
…and as posters jostle for position on the colorful hoardings with their stubborn, world-shattering zest, so let the pictures [paintings] vie with each other in today’s musty and soporific exhibitions!
Bortnyik’s poster certainly meets these criteria; the twisting, dancing figures, bold lettering, and elegant economy of form give the work the powerful “absolute force” Kassák demands. My love for this poster stems from my lifelong interest in comic books, the visual vernacular for which developed concurrently with the graphic explorations of the early modernists. In Bortnyik’s poster I see an exploration of form and movement kindred to the work of early comic artists like Winsor McCay and George Herriman. Kassák’s call for “world-shattering zest” in posters and paintings applies equally well to comic art, and Bortnyik’s graphic work for MA would have been as well-suited to the newspaper comics page as to a poster on the streets of Budapest. In either context, I would have stopped to look.