Hungarian Art: Confrontation and Revival in the Modern Movement (Book Review)

Éva Forgács, Hungarian Art: Confrontation and Revival in the Modern Movement (Los Angeles, CA: Doppelhouse Press, 2016), 303 pp.

Hungarian art historian and modernist scholar Éva Forgács has been teaching at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, since 1994. A former curator at the Hungarian Museum of Decorative Arts and visiting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, she has also been active as a curator and art critic. She has published several books in her native Hungarian and in English, including The Bauhaus Idea and Bauhaus Politics (Central European University Press 1995; Jelenkor 2010), and co-edited the textbook Between Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930 (The MIT Press and LACMA, 2002). Now Forgács has produced Hungarian Art: Confrontation and Revival in the Modern Movement, a collection of her essays that were originally published in various places in English. The book is comprised of twenty-one texts, ten of which were published between 1998 and 2015, which Forgács has reworked, expanded upon and placed in chronological order for this publication.

Written for an English-speaking audience, Hungarian Art draws on Forgács’ experiences as an art historian in Hungary during the 1970s and ‘80s. The essays offer an overview of the artists, directions, and important works of Hungarian modern, avant-garde and neo-avant-garde art from the beginning of the twentieth century through the end of the 1980s, along with some lesser-known personalities, although significant in their own right, such as Péter Donáth and László Rajk. The subtitle Confrontation and Revival infers that innovative art in Hungary made every dictatorship or authoritarian regime uncomfortable, with the exception of two short periods: 1900-1914, in the last years of peacetime in the Austro-Hungarian Empire; and 1945-1948, before the Soviet-style dictatorship. Although Hungarian art was censored and forbidden by every administration, it always managed to rise.

The book is divided into two parts, the Second World War being the dividing line. After 1945, Hungary, together with other Central and East European countries, was for many decades unable to participate in international cultural developments. Unable to avoid the clichés of the Hungarian history of ideas, Forgács describes the uniquely productive backwardness of Hungarian culture within its “own categories,” rather than through international comparisons, and within a Central European field of connections. The art historical and chronological discussion is significantly enriched by the historical-political background, and social and economic analysis. One of the practical advantages of the book is that it not only lists artists and movements, but also provides biographical information and descriptions, with a list of works cited, and an outstanding index.

1900 – 1945

Most innovations in early twentieth-century Continental-European art were instigated by nonconformist, eccentric young people from well-situated families – like most leaders of the modernist movement, e.g., György Lukács. For a variety of reasons, these young artists and writers kept company mainly with impoverished urban “bohemians” who generally had nothing to lose, no matter how famous some of them became later on. The situation was different in Hungary, as avant-garde artists were mainly uneducated, poor, young working-class men (and women, like Erzsi Ujvári, discussed by Forgács in the chapter “Constructive Faith in Deconstruction”) who opposed the First World War. The first resoundingly successful modernist journal, Nyugat (The West), was launched in 1908 with support from the National Association of Manufacturers, while seven years later, the editors of the first Budapest avant-garde journa,l A Tett (The Action, 1915-1916), had to scrape together every penny needed to commence publication. Nevertheless, Nyugat’s literary and artistic position met at first with uniform rejection. Its writers were charged with being antireligious and amoral, for mocking national feeling and for spreading obscene language. In spite of the magazine’s growing reputation between 1908 and 1918, several of the better-known writers, including György Lukács and Béla Balázs, were forced to emigrate following revolutions after World War I. Despite the fact that these communist authors had to emigrate, the magazine continued until 1941. According to public opinion, Hungarian Futurism was a cover for ultra-left agitation; therefore with only a few exceptions nearly all avant-garde artists and writers were also forced to emigrate between 1919 and 1920. (Their publications were also unavailable in Hungary.)

Following an amnesty, many avant-garde artists and writers returned to Hungary in 1926, but due to the forced interruption of their activities, they never could catch up with public acceptance again. Consequentially, Hungarian history of twentieth-century fine arts and literature considered modernism (Nyugat, Lukács) more important than the avant-garde movements (A Tett, Kassák). As a result of this special course, Hungarian modernism, on the one hand, and avant-garde art, on the other, were identified (until recently) as two fundamentally different entities.

As suggested by the book’s opening essays, Forgács suspends this conventional view, perceiving little difference between modernism and the avant-garde, and viewing the latter as a continuation of the former. This is a fundamentally new perception and the strongest point of this book covering Hungarian art and literature of the first half of the twentieth century.

The first essay, “Enlightenment Versus the ‘National Genius,’” is noteworthy from the standpoint of literature as well as art. The characteristic features of “national genius” as ancestral, strong, pure – the same themes visual artists of the modern period used in their work – are found not only in Hungarian art and literature, but also throughout Central and Eastern European culture. In Hungarian literature, however, authentic folklore was not used to form a national identity. Instead writers strove for artistic breakthroughs by incorporating ancient, simple, pure elements (or those perceived as such) into their work. For example, classical composers Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály incorporated folk music into some of their compositions. Forgács cites autodidact and naïve painter Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka (1853-1919) as an example of a Hungarian artist who created his own folklore-based mythology, and uses Miklós Izsó’s sculpture Dancing Peasant (1865-1870) to illustrate that folkloristic themes were already present in Hungarian art and literature before 1900, the beginning of Hungarian modernism. Folklore montages of the avant-garde differ from those of modernism in that both object and expression are on equal terms. The Buch neuer Künstler (Book of New Artists), edited by Lajos Kassák and László Moholy-Nagy in Vienna in 1922, included along with contemporary machines and works of art a photograph of a roughly carved thirteenth-century peasant crucifix, the size of a person’s hand. According to Kassák, the crucifix did not depict but embodied Christ on a cross; when believers of the time held it in their hands, they thought they were actually holding the Corpus Christi. In his opinion, a good avant-garde work of art had to be like this too. The origin of the material worked into the piece didn’t matter, if it was only genuine. One can agree with Forgács’ conclusion that “The dualism of appealing to international modernism on the one hand and cultivating the myth of the ‘national genius’ on the other […] was complicated.” (p. 27)

In the next chapters – “Constructive Faith in Deconstruction: Dada in Hungarian Art,” “Between Cultures: Hungarian Concepts of Constructivism as a Political Act,” and “In the Vacuum of Exile: The Hungarian Activists in Vienna” – Forgács gives excellent descriptions and interpretations of avant-garde works of art and avant-garde techniques, paying ample attention to ideologies that accompanied the origins of Hungarian Activism, Dada and Constructivism. She cites Tibor Déry’s long poem Az ámokfutó / Der Amokläufer (The Amok Runner) written in Vienna in 1922, as a Dadaist indication of the self-destruction of mankind, which can only be avoided by inventing new ethical standards. The common feature of the Hungarian avant-garde ideologies (both in Hungary and in exile in Vienna) was that it prescribed the creation of a large, unified, ethical style, which had to be applied and shown not only in literature and works of art, but also in architecture, interior design, Expressionist dance, and film.

Forgács quotes however already in the second chapter, “The Safe Haven of a New Classicism,” a 1905 statement by poet Béla Balázs in support of the argument that the enunciation of such “secular religions” was also common to representatives of modernism. Here Balázs speaks, for example, of the great Hungarian Culture that he and his fellow poets have to create and of the spiritual rebirth they have to initialize in order to make place for a new art, a new science, and a great new culture. For the post-idealist Lukács, communist ideology was the driving force behind his work. Kassák aimed his puritan, prophetical ideas at the young workers, and presented them his own Walt Whitman-like autodidactic artistic and literary education as an ethical way for their self-realization. Similar world-changing ideas were discussed all over continental Europe and the East Coast of the United States. Despite their utopic beliefs, Hungarian inventors developed – for example at The Bauhaus – countless practical ideas, such as the tubular-steel furniture designs of Marcel Breuer, the houses of Farkas Molnár, or Moholy-Nagy’s Telephone Pictures (Construction in Enamel 1-3, now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York), three enamel plates in decreasing scale ordered by the artist by telephone. Before showing them at the Berlin gallery of the magazine Der Sturm in 1924, Moholy-Nagy stated the circumstances of their genesis in the February issue of the magazine: “I had the factory’s color chart before me and I sketched my paintings on graph paper. At the other end of the telephone the factory supervisor had the same kind of paper, divided into squares. He took down the dictated shapes in the correct position. It was like playing chess by correspondence.” (Der Sturm, February 1924. English translation by Stephanie D’Alessandro). In her book, Forgács asserts the importance of Moholy-Nagy’s Telephone Pictures: “[H]e demonstrated that pure concept and technical prowess would, or might, in the future, replace manual skills and shift emphasis to visionary thinking in artistic creation.” (p. 135) But his visionary thinking, discussed in the chapter “Everyone is Talented: László Moholy-Nagy’s Synthesis of Reform Pedagogy and Utopian Modernism,” was neither mythological nor semi-religious. His visionary thinking could be as exactly communicated as his formulas by phone. Forgács continues: “Moholy-Nagy ultimately believed that the world of artistic creation would not remain restricted, and as a natural course of development, every imaginative individual in the future would own it.” (p. 135)

In the first six chapters of Hungarian Art, Forgács provides a clearly arranged outline history of the main characteristics, most important persons, schools and works of modernism and avant-garde art in this Central-European country (which was until 1918 part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). Although of different origin and time of publication, these essays represent a coherent narrative, which makes an astonishing overall impression. One cannot deny that despite World War I, revolutions, exile, and an autocratic interwar regime, the development of Hungarian modernism and avant-garde art seemed to be organic. Might they be banned or prohibited sooner or later, schools, movements, journals could be founded, almost all protagonists had the right to travel freely, outgoing and incoming postal exchange was also free for a long time. These qualities vanished in the second half of the century, between 1948, the beginning of Communist dictatorship, and 1988, its end.


The end of the Second World War marked the beginning of a new period in Hungary, especially with regards to both modernism and avant-garde art. It is common knowledge that the Iron Curtain separated Hungary from Western Europe, which explains why the names of relevant Hungarian artists and intellectuals from this period are hardly known internationally, as opposed to Kassák, Moholy-Nagy, Lukács, and Balázs, who are known mainly for their activities outside of Hungary. The activities of those not known internationally – for example, Béla Kondor, Miklós Erdély or László Fehér, discussed by Forgács in the second part of her book as central figures of the art of the period – are at least as important for an understanding of the local developments as the activities of Kassák and Lukács. It is worth mentioning that both Lukács and Kassák were active until the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the ‘70s, which means they were part of the cultural scene after 1945 as well, exemplifying the significant continuities and fractures in the development of Hungarian art and art theory.

As is well known, the period after 1945 in Hungarian art was also determined by Socialist Party policy. The era can be divided politically as well as artistically into various periods that Forgács discusses in chronological order and through examples of certain artists. The years between the 1945 Soviet occupation and the 1948 introduction of Stalinist doctrine were especially important in Hungary; there existed a feeling of relative freedom, despite the impending threat of state communism. Artists and critics must have felt there was a chance for cultural processes not prescribed by the state. The works created then served as examples of autonomous Hungarian non-Stalinist art all the way up to the beginning of the 1990s and the first few years after the end of communist party domination.

The most important group of the period of 1945-1948 was the European School, signifying a fresh start and cooperation between fellow artists, theoreticians, and writers. The attempts of this group to join the current international movements like surrealism in art by building on local traditions and by departing from those traditions, are also characteristic for other Central and Eastern European countries. Thus began the Documenta exhibitions in West Germany in 1955. Here, Forgács concentrates on a group of abstract artists known as Galéria a négy világtájhoz (Gallery to the Four Directions; among the members Forgács highlights is Tihamér Gyarmathy), who split from the European School, emphasizing the diversity of styles typical of the period. This text also proves that the book speaks not only to English-speaking readers, but to Hungarian readers as well, since there are no Hungarian language publications on the Gallery to Four Directions group.

Throughout the book, Forgács makes a marked effort to describe fine art not only in terms of aesthetic categories, but also on the basis of its political significance. The chapter “Does Democracy Grow Under Pressure?” explores the phenomenon of counterculture in Hungary, and the artists’ role within it. This role differed significantly from possible artists’ roles in the counterculture of English-speaking countries, where naturally the political perspective, for example explicit Marxism, was able to play an important role. But in the West, it was mainly socio-political themes, such as feminism or civil rights, that were decisive and in this respect they differed from the political issues typical of Central and Eastern Europe. During the Cold War, the word “counterculture” had a different meaning in the Eastern Bloc than it did in the West. What appeared in the West in hippie culture, or in the radical forms of English punk, was present in Hungary in a completely different order of magnitude. In Hungary at the time, a large party held in a private home could well trigger a series of serious police injunctions. It is important to emphasize that everyday normalcy could only be present abnormally. This was true for each and every layer of society: communist and apolitical; religious and secular; city and country; intellectual, worker and peasant. In other words, it was absolutely not possible to escape and there was no place free of coercion. This is especially relevant for the cultural history under discussion here. According to Forgács (quoting Tamás Szentjóby), almost every cultural activity opposed by the state authorities was “counterculture.” (p. 166) Every intellectual gesture held a different weight and importance. For instance, Szentjóby’s brick wrapped in a newspaper, entitled Czechoslovak Radio (1969) – a protest action against the confiscation of all portable radios after the Warsaw Pact occupation of the country – could be considered, in Hungary, an attempt to disrupt the social order while in the West it was hardly perceived.

In Forgács’ narrative, the decisive event of the period between 1945 and 1990 is the Iparterv Exhibition, which took place in the Architecture Bureau Industrial Design in Budapest in 1968, and was the first attempt by the Hungarian followers of the new international contemporary art to assert themselves. The book includes an essay devoted to this exhibition, which also receives plenty of attention throughout, as do many of the artists who participated, such as the sculptor György Jovánovics and the painter Ilona Keserű. (A photograph from the exhibition is on the book’s cover.) Since the exhibition is often seen in Hungarian art history as completely independent of state cultural politics, namely as a manifestation of neo-avant-garde endeavors, the nature of the connection between Iparterv and the avant-garde is noteworthy. The Iparterv exhibition was not the first appearance of the neo-avant-garde, but rather a 1963 happening in a Budapest cellar, entitled Dinner in Memory of Batu Khan, which was in fact observed by secret police agents. Other similar activities of Hungarian artists took place outside of Hungary, in Novi Sad or in Paris. Indeed the most significant neo-avant-garde artists did not take part in the first Iparterv Exhibition – for example, no works by Miklós Erdély, Tibor Hajas or Szentjóby were included. The significance of that exhibition undoubtedly lies in the fact that after 1948, it seemed for a moment that something new might be possible. Something that afterwards can be referred to as a story that could become a legend. And as Forgács’ book demonstrates, it can be taken as reference, as the author references the exhibition repeatedly.

Forgács correctly sees the Hungarian neo-avant-garde as the continuation of the Dada movements of the 1910s and 1920s, although the neo-avant-garde, as defined by its aesthetic quality, originality, and local specificity, does not receive much attention in Forgács’ narrative. The book devotes attention only to two series of photographs by Erdély, and to Artpool, an archival collection that documented, amongst other things, a segment of the neo-avant-garde. Erdély’s Time Traveler depicts members of the artist’s family who perished in the Holocaust with the mounted image of the artist, while Metaphor contains two images of an idyllic garden interior with an extreme identical setting, although in one of them the artist is not present. (p. 226)

Forgács places great significance on the Hungarian version of the well-known European art movement New Sensibility, and on postmodern art of the 1980s. From the distance of today, the period of the 1980s and the New Sensibility can be seen as a movement determined as much by art historian Loránt Hegyi as by the artists involved, since New Sensibility was the joint enterprise of a theoretician and a number of artists. This fact shaped the aesthetic features of the movement as well as the contemporary interpretation of it by the critics, the audience and the artists as well. New Sensibility is also interesting because of its connections to the international Neue Malerei (new painting) of the time, and for how insensitive it was to the social, political and, as became clear only later on, the historical tensions of the time. Here it seems also quite obvious that every apolitical art is also political, when, for example, it spectacularly declares itself to be apolitical.

One important issue regarding the period around 1989 (the approximate end of Forgács’ narrative) concerns the question: which art movement is indicative of the period? Here, Forgács highlights László Rajk’s neo-constructivist architecture, Péter Donáth’s collages processing the visual culture of the period, and Fehér’s depictions of his private history. While Rajk and Donáth are more memorable as members of the so-called democratic movement than for their art, Fehér, and Ákos Birkás (whom Forgács highlights as a leading personality of the New Sensibility movement) are currently recognized as representatives of Hungarian art for the consistency of their work in painting over decades.

Hungarian Art: Confrontation and Revival in the Modern Movement provides one possible, and coherent, history of Hungarian art of the twentieth century. An unquestionably positive aspect of the book is the fact that Forgács aims to provide a complete picture. She also takes important thematic areas, such as art theory, into consideration. Here she identifies a few key periods: the classical avant-garde period of the 1910s and ‘20s; the gradual political shift to the right during the 1930s; the transition years after 1945; and attempts to receive, or catch up with, contemporary Western art in the 1960s and 1970s, corresponding to the waves of repression and permission that characterized the Kádár era. This division into historical periods makes the special features of Hungary’s cultural development more visible, including its faultlines and attempts at continuation.

Forgács’ book can be heartily recommended to anyone curious about the history of modernism and avant-garde art in Hungary. It is an informative, readable overview enhanced with a variety of viewpoints and excellent examples. Most importantly, it takes on the task of familiarizing an English-speaking audience with Hungarian art. Forgács’ critical intervention is a first step in redrafting the history of Central European modern art, within which national art histories can show their own inner dynamic.

Note: Pál Deréky reviewed the sections of Forgács’ book that deal with modernism and the avant-garde. Károly Kókai reviewed those sections focused on the neo-avant-garde and contemporary art.