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MoMA

THE HUNGARIAN AVANT-GARDE, 1921–25

June 13, 2013  |  Collection & Exhibitions, Design
The Hungarian Avant-Garde, 1921–25

On any given day, The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Print Room may be full of studio art students viewing contemporary screenprints, art history students researching works for their term papers, or curators from other institutions planning exhibitions. Every now and then, though, it is visited by scholars whose primary interest is not art, but literature. This is often the case with our collection of Russian avant-garde books from the first half of the 20th century—a gift of the Judith Rothschild Foundation in 2001—which is often consulted by scholars of Slavic and Eastern European studies, in addition to art historians.

The Department of Prints and Illustrated Books has recently acquired five books written and designed by Hungarian authors and artists that complement and expand on our collection of Russian books. The books were published over a four-year span from 1921 to 1925 and are testaments to a tumultuous period in Hungarian history, during which ruling regimes rose and fell at a quick pace as the country’s government transformed from a monarchy to a socialist state. Russia was experiencing a similar period of ideological revolution and during these years Russian artists came to commingle with Hungarian expatriates, along with other proponents of avant-garde ideas, in various European capitals.

From left: Alexander (Sándor) Bortnyik.Világanyám: összes versei. Elso könyv 1915 (The world, my mother: poems. First book 1915) by Lajos Kassák. 1921; Alexander (Sándor) Bortnyik.Novelláskönyv. Válogatott novellák 1911–1919 (Short story book: selected short stories 1911–1919) by Lajos Kassák. 1921

From left: Alexander (Sándor) Bortnyik. Világanyám: összes versei. Elso könyv 1915 (The world, my mother: poems. First book 1915) by Lajos Kassák. 1921; Alexander (Sándor) Bortnyik. Novelláskönyv. Válogatott novellák 1911–1919 (Short story book: selected short stories 1911–1919) by Lajos Kassák. 1921

The first two books are by the author, poet, and art critic Lajos Kassák and were published in Vienna in 1921. Kassák had edited a variety of journals (political, literary, and artistic in nature) in Budapest since 1915. In 1920, after being imprisoned by the government for many months, Kassák escaped the country as did many of his compatriots. While other artists like László Moholy-Nagy fled to Berlin, Kassák established himself in Vienna.

Ödön Palasovsky and Iván Hevesy. Manifesztum, 1922, A milliók kultúráját, Új muvészetet , Le a penész virággal (Manifesto, 1922, Millions Culture!, New Art!, Brake the Mold!). 1922

Ödön Palasovsky and Iván Hevesy. Manifesztum, 1922, A milliók kultúráját, Új muvészetet , Le a penész virággal (Manifesto, 1922, Millions Culture!, New Art!, Brake the Mold!). 1922

Prior to this emigration, Hungarian artists had been rather insular, though aware of German Expressionism through journals like Der Sturm and of artwork by their Soviet counterparts. The expatriation of Hungary’s artists exposed them to other avant-garde movements and more contemporary developments from Western Europe. Although there are many formal similarities between Russian Constructivism, which upheld art as a vehicle for political ideology, and its Hungarian counterpart Activism, they were theoretically very different—at least according to Kassák, who believed art to be autonomous of political engagement and both eternal and universal in constitution.

The covers of these two books were designed by Sándor Bortnyik, an artist in Kassák’s circle. Both feature a combination of brightly colored backgrounds over which text and architectonic shapes are arranged in a dynamic fashion.

In the early 1920s, many authors and artists, including Moholy-Nagy, published manifestos connecting political thought and artistic activity. This recently acquired manifesto (at right) was written by Iván Hevesy, a photographer and film critic, along with artist Ödön Palasovsky. Hevesy wrote many articles for Kassák’s journal Ma. Unlike the others, he remained in Budapest, where the book was published in 1922.

From left: Alexander (Sándor) Bortnyik. A partok elindulnak (The shores heading out) by Aladár Tamás. 1925; Lajos Kassák. A partok elindulnak (The shores heading out) by Aladár Tamás. 1925

From left: Alexander (Sándor) Bortnyik. A partok elindulnak (The shores heading out) by Aladár Tamás. 1925; Lajos Kassák. A partok elindulnak (The shores heading out) by Aladár Tamás. 1925

The books illustrated above are the same text, one designed by Bortnyik and one by Kassák himself. After years as an art critic, Kassák began creating his own artwork around 1921. The author, Aladár Tamás, was a writer, poet, and editor who founded the short-lived journal 365, which folded after its first issue, but which also published this book. Subsequently, Bortnyik’s publishing house, Új Föld, took over the publication and released additional copies of the book under a separate cover. At the time these books were published in 1925 or very soon thereafter, Kassák, Bortnyik, and many other Hungarian members of the avant-garde had returned to Budapest.

We hope these new acquisitions will be of equal interest as their Russian counterparts!

For more information on the Russian Book Collection, check out the exhibition website for the Russian Avant-Garde Book, 1910–1934.

Comments

dear Moma,

As a hungarian art historian I was happy about your article, but I have a few comments:

Hungary was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy until 1918. In the fall of 1918 a revolution broke out, and the republic was declared. In the spring of 1919 the country was in great despair because of the bad outcomes of the starting peace-negotiations. In march the communist party took the power, and they changed Hungary to a societ state (following the Russian example). This regime collapsed in the beginning of august 1919. After that a rightist regime set up, under governor Horthy and with a rightist-nationalist ruling party. They stayed in the power basicly until the end of WW2.

So there were no important changes in the politics between 1920 and 1925. Except one thing: there was an amnesty law in 1925, after which the emmigrants who left the country because of political reasons, could return home.

Bortnyik, like all the modern Hungarian artists, was a leftist artist and he was active in the communist state in 1919 (again: like many others, such as Kassák). That is why he and Kassák also) had to leave the country in 1919. Kassák spent his time in Vienna until 1925, while Bortnyik moved to Weimar. This is important, since the German Bauhaus was working there! So, he came back from Germany in 1925 and started to work on commercial designs.

Maybe it is important, because Hungarian avant-garde art should be also compared to the works of Bauhaus and not only to Russian art!

Thank you for your attention, best wishes!
Anikó Katona

Thank you for your input, Aniko! The brevity of this space forced me to describe the political situation at that time in a very cursory fashion. I hope it has not had the unintended consequence of simplifying a complex political landscape. I’m happy you have helped to fill out the scene both politically and artistically to provide our readers with a more well-rounded picture of the time.

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