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Hungarian Visual Culture in the First World War

Author(s): Paul Stirton


Source: Austrian Studies, Vol. 21, Cultures at War: Austria-Hungary 19141918 (2013), pp.
182-200
Published by: Modern Humanities Research Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5699/austrianstudies.21.2013.0182 .
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Hungarian Visual Culture


in the First World War
PAUL STIRTON
Bard Graduate Center, New York

In the latter stages of the First World War, Max Dvok began his revision of
the central tenets of the Wiener Schule der Kunstgeschichte [Vienna School
of Art History]. Instead of the evolutionary model of stylistic change that
had been developed by Alois Riegl in the 1890s, Dvok proposed a different
approach focusing on periods of crisis and rupture, which he saw as producing
radical new forms in the visual arts. Looking to artists like Tintoretto, El
Greco and Goya, Dvok identified new types of aesthetic expression that were
the product of deep and often sudden changes in cultural experience.1 These
artists, Dvok argued, revealed a break with conventional modes of depiction,
opening up entirely new lines of development and producing original types of
aesthetic experience that had not been possible under the previous conceptual
model. As was clear, not least to the author himself, Dvoks new approach
was partly inspired by the immediate experience of the war. The proximity of
death, destruction and catastrophic defeat allowed him to recognize certain
critical moments in the art of the past with greater clarity. Dvok was thinking
of the long span of art history, over several centuries, rather than contemporary
developments. But his theoretical model could be applied equally well to the
revolution in Hungarian culture that was enacted between 1916 and 1919. The
relatively stable development and conventional modes in Hungarian visual arts
in the period between the 1890s and the early war years point to the gradual
way that Hungary acquired an independent tradition of modern art. There were
plenty of thoughtful contemporary painters, sculptors and graphic designers
but they tended to work within well-established patterns and styles that were
duplicated in similar groups throughout Europe.2 However, the war years
1
The key texts are Max Dvok, Idealismus und Naturalismus in der gotischen
Skulptur und Malerei, Historische Zeitschrift, 119 (1918), 162 and Max Dvok, ber
Greco und den Manierismus, Wiener Jahrbuch fr Kunstgeschichte, 1/xv (1921/22), 2242.
The latter was republished in Max Dvok, Kunstgeschichte als Geistesgeschichte. Studien
zur abendlndischen Kunstentwicklung, ed. by Karl M. Swoboda and Johannes Wilde
(Munich, 1924), pp. 26176. See Matthew Rampley, Max Dvok: art history and the crisis
of modernity, Art History, 26 (2003), 21437.
2
For example, at the Nagybnya art colony in northern Transylvania, established in 1896,
the dominant stylistic tendency was the French-inspired naturalism associated with many

Austrian Studies 21 (2013), 182200


Modern Humanities Research Association 2013

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Hungarian Visual Culture in the First World War

183

produced a quickening and radicalization of the avant-garde in Budapest to the


extent that by the end of the war, and particularly in the wake of the revolutions
of 1919, Hungarian visual artists and designers were at the forefront of European
aesthetic innovation.
Since the Ausgleich [Compromise] in 1867 Hungary had enjoyed steady
expansion in the field of the visual arts, with the establishment of various
official institutions such as the Magyar Kirlyi Mintarajztanoda [Hungarian
Royal Drawing School, founded 1871], the Magyar Iparmvszeti Mzeum
[Hungarian Museum of Applied Arts, established 1872], the Szpmvszeti
Mzeum [Museum of Fine Arts, established in a separate building in 1906] and
well-appointed exhibition spaces like the Mcsarnok [Palace of Art, 1895], all
giving rise to a thriving art market and a range of artistic production from the
academic to several shades of international modern art. Despite the interest in
this spectrum of work and the claims made for it by some art historians, there
is a case to be made that, until the First World War, Hungarian visual art was
essentially dependent on foreign models and somewhat slow in recognizing
new movements and international trends in art. As is typical of many
countries with an under-developed infrastructure, and little sophisticated
critical discourse to bring the visual arts into the mainstream of intellectual
debate, Hungarians tended to be largely dependent upon French models of
modern and contemporary art, particularly as this affinity was seen as a means
of resisting the perceived Germanization of their culture. Hungary was not at
all unusual in this. Since the eighteenth century, Paris had been recognized as
the European capital of art, and this position was confirmed throughout the
nineteenth century with the provision of various types of visual art training,
the scale and variety of which were unparalleled in any other capital city.3 By
1917, however, progressive Hungarian artists were not only working with the
most recent trends in the international avant-garde, they were also interpreting
this new visual vocabulary in ways that reveal a confidence and immediacy that
had been lacking in previous years.
This pattern is found not only in the realm of fine art. The huge expansion
in the advertising industry and the various forms of mass-produced printed
images posters, magazines, newspapers, books and handbills meant that
there were many opportunities for the new class of illustrators and pictorial
advertising artists (what would become known as graphic designers) to
develop distinctive styles and techniques that would project both their own
identity and that of the product or service they were advertising. In attempting
to investigate the full spectrum of visual images in the period, from high to
art colonies throughout Europe. See Ildiko Nagy et al., Nagybnya mvszete. killts a
nagybnyai mvsztelep alaptsnak 100 (Budapest, 1996) and Michael Jacobs, The Good
and Simple Life. Artist Colonies in Europe and America (Oxford, 1985).
3
See John Milner, The Studios of Paris. The Capital of Art in the Late Nineteenth Century
(New Haven, CT, 1990).

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Hungarian Visual Culture in the First World War

low, from the unique to the ubiquitous, this article aims to undertake a form
of visual culture analysis. Since its appearance in the 1990s, the sub-discipline
of Visual Culture has been highly theorized but it can not yet match the
philosophical underpinning that art history has developed over the last
hundred and fifty years.4 Nevertheless, a visual culture approach can open the
door to considerations of images from the highest and most elite forms of fine
art to the most mundane and ephemeral products of cheap printing houses,
and seek to interpret them as part of a continuum, rather than as products of
fundamentally different categories in taste and experience.
One of the first problems the student of visual culture must address is the
sheer volume of material that presents itself for consideration. By the turn
of the twentieth century every European city generated amounts of printed
images at all levels of society that would have been inconceivable even thirty
years previously. Due to the immense expansion in the market for cheap
goods and advertising, and the corresponding innovations in print technology,
papermaking and distribution throughout the nineteenth century, there was
an explosion in printed images. By the 1890s, there was no city in the western
world that was not festooned with pictorial posters and other forms of graphic
advertising. In many respects, Budapest is an especially interesting case because
its expansion in the later nineteenth century, like that of Chicago, is often
taken to be one of the demonstrations of spectacular growth, urbanization
and concentration of wealth.5 Budapest, therefore, becomes a particularly good
example of sudden and dramatic modernization, with a corresponding increase
in printed matter. Navigating through this amount of material is a formidable
task. In attempting an uncritical or horizontal (as opposed to a hierarchical)
approach, it becomes almost impossible to select which examples are somehow
significant or meaningful. Like a test survey that undertakes several bore-holes
into the terrain, this article will concentrate on a few case-studies drawn from
different groups and socio-economic circles, so as to indicate something of the
meanings and activities across a spectrum. The full range cannot be addressed
here but it is hoped that the samples will give some insight into the broader field
and provide a starting point for future studies.
The First World War had a huge impact on the culture and history of all the
combatant countries, as well as many of the non-combatants. But its effects
in, and on, the Kingdom of Hungary were both momentous and catastrophic.
The experience undoubtedly galvanized the Hungarian intelligentsia and
4
For an introduction to this field, see The Visual Culture Reader, ed. by Nicholas Mirzoeff,
2nd edn (London, 2002) and W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory. Essays on Verbal and Visual
Representation (Chicago, 1994). For an approach that expands the range of art history,
see David Freedberg, The Power of Images. Studies in the History and Theory of Response
(Chicago, 1989).
5
At the first census in 1870, the population of greater Budapest (incorporating Pest, Buda
and Obuda, which were formally unified in 1873) was 302,085. In 1910, it was 1,110,453.
Statistics taken from Budapest statisztikai vknyve 19441946 (Budapest, 1947), p. 12.

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185

avant-garde and, in terms of the visual arts, it emancipated Hungarian painters


and printmakers to engage with the great international movements as full
participants with their own distinctive readings of Expressionism, Futurism,
Dada and, above all, Constructivism.6 But before addressing the fine arts and
elite culture, we should first consider the mainstream images that dominated
Hungarian everyday visual culture in the war years the government
propaganda and advertising that was such a feature of street life in Budapest
between 1914 and 1919. The concluding section of the article will highlight the
work of one Hungarian artist and book illustrator, Gyula Tichy (18791920),
whose work during the First World War confounds many of the received
opinions on the art of the period and presents us with some idiosyncratic
readings of contemporary events around 1916. It is intended that these varied
responses to the war will suggest something of the diversity and particularity of
Hungarian visual culture, and indicate aspects of the representation of war as
witnessed by spectators in Budapest and in other Hungarian towns and cities.
The topic of war propaganda as demonstrated in the popular visual culture
of the period would require a book-length study to cover the range and diversity
of poster production alone. Perhaps not surprisingly the best documented
part of this field is the government propaganda. In many respects Hungarian
official propaganda was similar in aim and content to that of Austria: many
of the same themes and occasionally the same poster images were used across
the territory of the Empire, with the text of the main slogans over-printed in
different languages. In common with all the Central Powers, the bulk of poster
and newspaper propaganda was devoted to raising funds through a series of
War Loan schemes.7 In this, the Hungarians and their allies were unlike the
British, whose propaganda in the first two years of the war was largely devoted
to recruitment.8 There were, nevertheless, many distinctive strategies adopted
to motivate the population. One of the most common tropes in the Hungarian
posters was the representation of gigantic gold coins serving as literal and
symbolic protection behind which the imperial soldiers fight off the enemy. The
image of a coin used as a shield embodied the message that the money raised
6
It is significant that the war years witnessed a corresponding intensification in the
intellectual life of the Hungarian capital. The Sonntagskreis [Sunday Circle] was formed
in Budapest in 1916, bringing together many of the leading writers, artists, thinkers and
musicians, including Gyrgy Lukcs, Bla Balzs, Karoly Mannheim, Anna Lesznai, Bla
Bartk and Frigyes Antal. See A Vasrnapi Kr. Dokumentumok, ed. by va Kardi and
Erzsbet Vezr (Budapest, 1980) and Mary Gluck, Georg Lukcs and his Generation, 1900
1918 (Cambridge, MA, 1985).
7
There were a total of eight war loan or bond schemes between 1914 and 1918, each launched
with an extensive advertising campaign. Essential for the financing of the war, they were
largely a failure for the subscribers since inflation wiped out any dividends. See Aniko
S. Nagy, Mindentt Hdt. Reklm a Nagy Hborban, 19141918 (Budapest, 2009), p. 8.
8
The British did not introduce conscription until 1916, relying on volunteers to supplement
a relatively small standing army. See Jim Aulich and John Hewitt, Seduction or Instruction?
First World War Posters in Britain and Europe (Manchester, 2007).

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Hungarian Visual Culture in the First World War

by war loans would help to defend the nation. There are at least nine separate
versions of this theme, the most famous being that by Mihly Bir with the text:
Fegyverrel s Pnzzel Vdjk a hazt. Jegyezznk Hadiklcsnt [Protect the
homeland with money and weapons. Subscribe to the War Loan, 1917].9
There were also many representations of soldiers in uniform bidding farewell
to their families and loved ones in village or rural settings as they set off for
their regiments. This was particularly popular in cheap postcards and magazine
illustrations, indicating the need to recruit and maintain morale across the
urbanrural divide in Hungary. Another aspect to this was the powerful
symbolic role of village life in Hungarian National Romanticism, the dominant
design movement in the period between the 1890s and the outbreak of war.10
Propaganda posters and popular advertisements gave prominence to familiar
motifs of Hungarian peasant culture, especially that of Transylvania, such as
the traditional wooden Szkely Gate and the embroidered shepherds coat or
szr, emphasizing the relevance of the Szkely region to what were considered
the core values of Hungarian national identity. An example of this can be
seen in the poster by Jen Haranghy, A Hadseregnek Pnz Kell [The Army
Needs Money, 1917], depicting an aged Transylvanian peasant wearing a szr;
alongside his grand-daughter, also in traditional costume, he is removing gold
coins from a chest painted in a vernacular tulip style. The secondary text states
Az Orszgos Kzponti Hitelszvetkezet kebelbe tartoz szvetkezeteknl
[Subscribe to the War Loan at co-operatives belonging to the National Central
Credit Co-operative].11
Medieval knights in armour, a popular theme in both German and Austrian
war propaganda, are relatively rare in Hungarian posters, which suggests that
they drew on a different set of familiar and potent symbols. There are, however,
several more specific representations of Matthias Corvinus (14431490), the
Hungarian Renaissance king who was already well established as a symbol of
9

Museum fr angewandte Kunst (MAK), Vienna, Inv. No. Pl 1667. Other examples by
Alfred Offner [Art.IWM PST 4823] Bla Moldovn [Art.IWM PST 10577] and two unknown
designers [Art.IWM PST 10656 and Art.IWM PST 6704] can be found in the Posters of
Conflict collection at the Imperial War Museum, London, available online at <http://www.
vads.ac.uk/collections/IWMPC.html>.
10
See the literature on the Gdll arts and crafts colony, and on architecture, design and
crafts more broadly in the prewar period. Katalin Gellr, A gdlli mvsztelep (19011920)
(Gdll, 2001) and Katalin Keser, The Workshops of Gdll: transformations of a
Morrisian Theme, Journal of Design History, 1 (1988), 123; Andrzej Szczerski, The Arts
and Crafts Movement in Central Europe, in Internationalism and the Arts in Britain and
Europe at the Fin de Sicle, ed. by Grace Brockington (London, 2009), pp. 10731. On the
role of village life and the folk arts in metropolitan culture, see David Crowley, The Uses of
Peasant Design in Austria-Hungary in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,
Studies in the Decorative Arts, 2/ii (Spring 1995), 228.
11
Imperial War Museum [Art.IWM PST 0226]. For a representation of a Szkely Gate in
this context, see the 1916 poster by G. Wagner, Az Erdlyi Menekltek Javra [Concert for
the Benefit of Transylvanian Refugees] Imperial War Museum [Art.IWM PST 5922].

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187

Fig. 1. rpd Basch and Ern Barta, A Nemzeti ldozatkszsg Szobra [The Statue of
National Sacrifice, 1915]. Reproduced courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, London.

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Hungarian Visual Culture in the First World War

modern Hungarian statehood and authority in Central Europe.12 One example,


A Nemzeti ldozatkszsg Szobra [The Statue of National Sacrifice], by
rpd Basch and Ern Barta (Figure 1), will serve to indicate the complexity
of meanings and deeper cultural references that Matthias could engender.
This poster depicts the monarch on horseback in full armour, and in doing so
makes reference to an ingenious scheme to raise both money and public morale
during the war.13 In 1915 the A Gyorssegly Auguszta Alap [Augusta Emergency
Fund], the leading charitable organization named after Archduchess Augusta,
commissioned a monumental equestrian sculpture of Matthias in wood
from Ferenc Sidl (18821953), a sculptor associated with the Gdll arts
and crafts colony. This was unveiled on Dek tr in the centre of Budapest
on 12 September 1915 by a distinguished party including the Archduke and
Archduchess, and the Prime Minister, Istvn Tisza. Inspired by the example of
the Wehrmann in Eisen [Iron Man] which was set up in Vienna earlier in the
same year, the Budapest public was encouraged to purchase small metal tokens,
each costing two koruna, or larger plates with symbolic crests costing up to
fifty koruna, which were then nailed to this statue of national sacrifice.14 On
the opening day, some 10,000 bronze plates were attached to the monument.
As more subscriptions were gathered the public could observe the gradual
increase in funds and the progressive armouring of the equestrian statue of
Matthias, as the figure and horse were covered with what appeared to be a suit
of metal scales.
Hungarian official war propaganda was not based entirely on sentimental
references to the rural and the historical, although these were certainly
familiar and popular themes. Some campaigns celebrated the power of
modern mechanized warfare, such as the expressive representation of modern
weaponry or aerial combat. In 1916, the military authorities launched a
scheme encouraging soldiers serving at the front to take photographs of
military engagements in order to publicize the conduct of the war. The finest
photographs of action were to be sent to the central war office for display in
travelling exhibitions. These exhibitions also inspired some striking posters
in which soldiers were depicted taking photographs of various (generally
victorious) actions such as the shooting down of enemy planes or the shock
waves of powerful artillery pieces.15 Clearly, this project was not intended to
12

See Paul Stirton, Public Sculpture in Cluj/Kolozsvr, in Heritage, Ideology and Identity
in Central and Eastern Europe, ed. by Matthew Rampley (Woodbridge, 2012), pp. 4166.
13
rpd Basch and Ern Barta, A Nemzeti ldozatkszsg Szobra, Imperial War Museum
[IWM PST 6726].
14
On the Wehrmann in Eisen, see Dietlinde Munzel-Everling, Kriegsnagelungen.
Wehrmann in Eisen, Nagel-Roland, Eisernes Kreuz (Wiesbaden, 2008).
15
A good example of this is Bla Moldovns poster Hadifnykp killts [Military
Photography Exhibition] for an exhibition of military photographs to be held at the Nemzeti
Szalon [National Salon] in October and November 1916. Orszgos Szchnyi Knyvtr
[National Szchnyi Library, Budapest], small prints and posters department, Inv. No.
PKG.1916/VH/16.

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reveal the actual experience of many soldiers suffering on various fronts, often
in terrible conditions, but to celebrate the bravery and successes of the troops.
In the same vein, Bla Moldovns 1917 poster celebrating the display of captured
enemy equipment in the Vrosliget [City Park] in Budapest features a soldier
photographer in the foreground. Photography was a popular pastime in which
Hungarians proved to be particularly gifted in the immediate pre- and postwar
period. Many Hungarians were involved in the launch of photographic news
magazines throughout Central Europe, as evidenced in the high standard of
documentary photographs of the war taken by both professional and amateur
photographers.16 This was also promoted by the authorities, which produced
folios of war photographs printed in high-quality photolithography and heliogravure to be sold or distributed to the public at large.
Turning aside from these narrative themes or iconographic types, the war
offers us the opportunity to study the early development of an individual
designer, Mihly Bir, whose work would have a major impact on graphic
design, particularly posters, throughout Central Europe in the postwar period.17
Trained in the Orszgos Magyar Kirlyi Iparmvszti Iskola [Royal Hungarian
School of Applied Arts] Bir had already made a name for himself as a designer
of both commercial and political posters. As early as 1912 he had produced for
the Hungarian Social Democratic Party a powerful anti-war poster, A Hbor
Borzalmai ellen [Against the Horrors of War], in which a uniformed figure
of death is shown shovelling a multitude of tiny people into the breach of a
large cannon. Also in 1912, Bir produced the first version of his Red Man for
the cover of Npszava [The Peoples Voice], a left-wing trade union newspaper.
This monumental male nude wielding a hammer was one of the earliest
departures from the nineteenth-century Arts and Crafts tradition of left-wing
political symbolism exemplified in the work of Walter Crane.18 For much of
the war Bir produced propaganda posters in support of the governments
war effort, which allowed him to develop and refine his technique as a poster
artist and designer. By 1918, when the polarization of the political situation
in Budapest was descending into a class war, Bir returned to designing leftwing agitational propaganda and revived the Red Man, which became one of
the most widespread images of the Revolution of 1919, frequently printed over
broadsheet copies of Npszava (Figure 2). The Red Man would continue as a
symbol of Socialist power throughout the interwar period, by which time Bir
had become the leading commercial poster designer in Vienna.19
16

On The War Album see Mihly Simon, sszehasonlit magyar fottrtnet (Budapest,
2000), Chapter 3. Andr Kertsz was one of the early prizewinners in the war photography
competition. The most active of the Hungarian photo-journalists was Stefan Lorant, editor
of the Mnchner Illustrierte Presse and later the founding editor of Picture Post in London.
17
Emil Horn, Mihly Bir (Hannover, 1996) and Mihly Bir. Pathos in Rot, ed. by Peter
Noever, MAK Studies 19 (Vienna, 2010).
18
A major retrospective exhibition of Walter Cranes work was held at the Iparmvszeti
Mzeum in Budapest in 1900.
19
According to Noever, Bir created a new, style-forming genre in Europe before and

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Hungarian Visual Culture in the First World War

Fig. 2. Mihly Bir, Npszava [The Peoples Voice, 1918].


Reproduced courtesy of a private collector.

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191

Apart from government propaganda, another area of popular visual culture


in which the war was made explicit to the general public was via product
advertising which sought to exploit the patriotic associations of the war effort
by placing specific products in the hands of soldiers or even suggesting that they
were being used by soldiers at the front. Only two or three branded goods can
be discussed here, but it is interesting that the classes of product that seemed
most effective at presenting an association with the military in Hungary were
those related to shoes (especially rubber soles and heels), tonic wines, and
disinfectants for use both on the domestic market and at the front. Lysoform
was the most assertive of the cleaning and disinfectant brands that aligned their
advertising not only with the military itself, but also with the conduct of the
war. Time and again Lysoform advertisements carried photographs of soldiers
at rest, or occasionally in action, with the companys bold logo placed across the
bottom. The tonic wine brand Diana had a similar policy. These were extensive
and diverse advertising campaigns appearing in magazines and newspapers and
on posters as well as restaurant and caf bills this last form (Szmolcdula,
or Addition Notes) was a particularly widespread form of cheap advertising.
Beer, with its strong associations of masculinity, was another product that,
if not endorsed by the military, was often depicted in advertisements being
consumed by men in uniform. This is not unusual across the spectrum of First
World War propaganda, but it gave rise to some unusual examples in Hungary.
In some cases, such as the calendars produced for Anton Drehers Kbnya
brewery, it was enough to show soldiers drinking the beer before embarking
on a train with no apparent slogan.20 Other examples, however, adopted a
less direct method of engaging their audience. In Imre Fldes 1915 poster for
Tavaszi Rszvny sr [Rszvny Spring beer ration] a cross-section of enemy
troops, including a French poilu, an English tommy, a kilted Scotsman, a
Russian and an Indian in a turban are depicted running towards a relaxed
group of beer-drinking Hungarians and attempting to surrender in order to
sample the beverage.21
Alongside the expansion in propaganda and product advertising during
the war, there was a less predictable boost to Hungarian avant-garde activity
in the fine arts. In previous decades, the more refined art world would rarely
have been closely associated with the fast-expanding world of commercial
advertising, but it is a feature of the emerging avant-garde in Budapest that
a close association developed between artists, poets, illustrators and poster
designers. Much of this was due to the politicization of the younger Hungarian
artists who gathered around Lajos Kassk, a poet, journalist and visual artist
whose career spans many of the Central European avant-garde movements of
between the wars, the artistic political poster. He was the first in his trade to create
unequivocally political posters. Mihly Bir, ed. by Noever, p. 7.
20
Imperial War Museum, PST 7186.
21
Orszgos Szchnyi Knyvtr, small prints and posters department, Inv. No. PKG.1914/
VH/5.

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Hungarian Visual Culture in the First World War

the early twentieth century.22 Kassks first journal, A Tett [The Act], was closed
down in 1916 because of his critical stance towards the war but he immediately
launched another journal, Ma [Today], which became the main focus for the
younger generation of poets, writers and artists (Figure 3).23 Ma was conceived
in more ambitious terms than A Tett in that it promoted literary and musical
performances while also maintaining a gallery and a publishing arm that
produced editions of artists prints.24 Its first edition of original prints, a folio
of linocuts by the Transylvanian artist Jnos Mttis-Teutsch,25 marks a decisive
break with the earlier obsession with Cezanne that characterized the work of
the leading prewar modern art group A Nyolcak [The Eight] or Keresk [The
Seekers].26 Mttis-Teutschs linocuts reveal a distinct Expressionist sensibility, in
terms of both their stylization of natural forms and their emphasis on resonant,
almost sonic effects through the echoing lines emanating out from each
contour of the motif. It is also significant that Mttis-Teutsch should choose to
work in linocut, still a relatively new medium and one that had already been
exploited to great effect by the artists of Die Brcke and Der Blaue Reiter in
the decade before the war. Mttis-Teutsch would remain within this distinctive
aesthetic and continue to work in a somewhat isolated and individual manner.
By contrast, Kassk sought a larger collective ideal in which art and literature
would be the harbingers of a social and political revolution. His countercultural stance in 1916 encouraged a rejection of all earlier art forms, even the
progressive tendencies, in favour of a radical and spontaneous approach to
contemporary experience that had some affinity with Expressionism but was
actually becoming closer to the as yet unformed values of Dada.27
22
On Kassk, see Magam trvnye szerint. Tanulmnyok s dokumentumok Kassk Lajos
szletsnek szzadik vforduljra, ed. by Ferenc Csaplr (Budapest, 1987) and Central
European Avant-Gardes. Exchange and Transformation 19101930, ed. by Timothy Benson
(Cambridge, MA, 2002), pp. 14264. On the common ground between commercial graphics
and avant-garde art, see articles by Kassk entitled Propaganda and A plakt s az j
festszet [The Poster and the New Painting], Ma, 1/i (November 1916), both republished in
translation in Between Worlds. A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes, 19101930,
ed. by Timothy O. Benson and va Forgcs (Cambridge, MA, 2002), pp. 16266.
23
A Tett was inspired by the left-wing journal Die Aktion. Wochenschrift fr Politik,
Literatur und Kunst, produced in Berlin by Franz Pfemfert.
24
Breaking the Rules. The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 19001937, ed. by
Stephen Bury (London, 2007).
25
The Linoleum-Albuma of 1917 was a portfolio of 12 linocuts in an edition of 100. See
Konrad Oberhuber et al., Mattis Teutsch and Der Blaue Reiter (Budapest, 2001).
26
This group also had affinities with the Fauves in Paris. See Magyar vadak Prizstl
Nagybnyig 19041914, ed. by Krisztina Passuth and Gyrgy Szcs (Budapest, 2006).
Despite this, it was Czanne, above all, who captivated Hungarian artists and intellectuals
in the period leading up to and during the First World War.
27
The first Dada Manifesto was read out by Hugo Ball in Zurich in July 1916. News of the
groups activities and their publications only began to appear outside Switzerland in late
1916 and 1917, especially through the journal DADA founded by Tristan Tzara in July 1917.
See Dawn Ades, The Dada reader. A critical anthology (London, 2006).

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Hungarian Visual Culture in the First World War

Fig. 3. Ma [Today], 2/iv (1917), with image of a linocut by Jnos Mttis-Teutsch.


Reproduced from the collection of the author.

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193

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Hungarian Visual Culture in the First World War

This defection from French Post-Impressionist models to more recent


sources in German art could be interpreted as simply a cultural re-alignment,
corresponding to the compelling political alliances of wartime. But that would
be an overly simplistic reading of the new cultural landscape. Kassk and the
younger artists who gathered around him were already taking an interest in
recent art from beyond France before the outbreak of war.28 Furthermore,
Kassk had published articles in A Tett on subjects across the political divide,
a policy that contributed to the disfavour of the authorities and the closure of
the journal. Rather than following any distinct political or national allegiances,
Kassk and his circle were pursuing a new internationalism which opened up
the Hungarian avant-garde to some of the most radical forms of recent visual
art from Germany, and subsequently from Russia and the Netherlands, thus
helping to overcome the uneasy relationship the Hungarians had with their
neighbours and allies. Hungarian prewar dependence on French and British
sources in art and design has been attributed to a restless and somewhat prickly
rejection of Austrian hegemony in cultural as well as political matters.29 The
significance of wartime alliances, as well as the ease of communication within
the Central Powers, certainly opened the door to influences that had previously
been excluded from much of the critical discourse, but that was not the driving
force behind the major shifts among the Hungarian visual art community.
Like its predecessor A Tett, Ma took up a more cosmopolitan attitude to
contemporary art than had been apparent in the more established Budapest
cultural press, exemplified by journals like Nyugat [West], and Huszadik Szzad
[Twentieth Century]. Early issues of Ma between 1916 and 1918 featured recent
art and literature from Italy, Germany, France, Russia and the Netherlands
clearly, much of this material drawn from countries then at war with Hungary.
Furthermore, the exhibitions and events that Ma promoted in the last two years
of the war reflected its commitment to a type of avant-garde that had no real
precedent in Hungary.
28

In January 1913 A Futuristk s Expressionistk Killtsnak [the exhibition of Futurists


and Expressionists] was held at the Nemzeti Szalon in Budapest, the success of which led
to Herwarth Waldens exhibition of International Post-Impressionist Art, held in the
same venue four months later. These exhibitions introduced work by Wassily Kandinsky,
Franz Marc and Gabriele Munter, among many others, and are recognized as landmarks in
Hungarian exposure to recent trends in art from across Europe.
29
An example of Hungarian resistance to Austrian cultural values around 1900 can be
found in the Tulipn movement which sought to promote the folk arts as a representation
of Hungarianness. The inspiration for this and for the Gdll colony was the writings of
John Ruskin, and the English Arts and Crafts Movement. See Gbor Bellk, A historizmus
s a szecesszi npmvszetfelfogsa, in Llek s Forma. Magyar mvszet, 18961914
(Budapest, 1986), pp. 2126 (pp. 2324), and Keser, The Workshops of Gdll, pp. 23.
This same issue was taken up by the English architect-designer Charles Robert Ashbee in
a letter to The Times (24 August 1905, p. 5), where he remarked, The Magyars will not be
pan-Germanized.

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195

Kassks essay on the A Ma demonstrativ killitshoz [Ma Demonstrative


Exhibition, 1918] gives a sense of both his revolutionary outlook and the tone of
sweeping rejection of all earlier forms of modern art practised in Hungary:
Ujat: nem az ujrt ujat, hogy a minden eddigitl ms nnket
valahogyan eladhassuk s mennl kevesebb maradkkal fellhessk.
Mvszet: nhnyunk letnek szubstancis formja. Mvszet: nem
elefntcsonttoronyba cl, hanem a legmindennapibb ertelemben eszkz
is az ltalnos mindenhez, ami az let. Mvszet: vrnkkel mozdul
agitativ let, neknk mg ez vagy nlunk neknk mr ez. Hol vannak
az 56 v eltti rajvezetk s hol van maga az ugynevezett modernsggel
hangoskod egsz raj. Mintha a fldet rntottk volna ki a lbuk all:
eldltek nmaguk szegnysgben Uristen, hacsak a reprodukcis
knyveket is kitttk volna a kezkbl. Uj generci jtt utnuk s ennek a
sarjadsnak kegyetlenl komoly erprbja, a vilghboru. [...] Ugy hisszk
els egszsges gykeret ereszt genercija annak a minden ujat divatt
gyesked s mindig epigonokat babusgat flddarabnak, amit haznknak
neveznk. Hogy mi trtnik kint a klasszikusan belgazolt s mindig ujra
hes metropoliszokban, nem tudjuk de hisszk, hogy a fiatalsg nem
csuklott vissza Baudelairehz s nem csodlkoztak r Manetra s mg
kevsb Ingresre s Renoirra. Politikban vilgltalnosan hangosodik a
progresszi, kell hogy ugyanez ljen a mvszetben is.30
[We insist on the new, not for the sake of novelty, but in order to present our
unique individuality in all forms, and also in order to consume it without
leaving any waste. Art, for some of us, is the very substance of our lives.
Art, for us, is not some ivory tower, but a means, in the most everyday
sense, to the universal performance of life. For us art is active, agitative life
itself that surges in our blood. We have left far behind us the leaders of the
pack of five or six years ago, and their entire swarm abuzz with so-called
modernism. They have collapsed due to their own vacuity, as if the ground
had been torn away from under their feet. Good God, if only the illustrated
art books could have been knocked out of their hands as well! A new
generation has arisen after them and now face a cruelly severe test of their
nascent strength, the World War. [...] We believe this is the first generation
to sink healthy roots into the land we call our home. What happens outside
of the classically organized city that always hungers after novelty, we do not
know but we believe that the younger generation is not breathless with
admiration for Baudelaire and even less impressed by Manet and Ingres
or Renoir. Progress is generally more pronounced in politics, but progress
must also thrive in art.]

The Manifesto exhibition and the Demonstrative Exhibition held in the Ma


gallery in 191718 brought together such figures as Bla Uitz, Sndor Bortnyik
and Jzsef Nemes-Lamprth, while the magazine itself published texts by
leading international and Hungarian critics alongside illustrations of recent art.
Exposed to this intensely polemical environment at the height of the war, this
group (dubbed Activists by Kassk) quickly became radicalized in aesthetic
30

Lajos Kassk, A Ma demonstrativ killitshoz, Ma, 3/viiiix (15 September 1918), 90.

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terms, while also developing an equally radical position regarding political


engagement. Almost all the main artists in the Ma circle participated in the
Republic of Councils in 1919 and joined the Communist Party when it was set
up in the same year.31 It was also this group that attracted the youngest, still
unformed artists in the latter stages of the war, notably Lszl Moholy-Nagy
and Lszl Peri, who would go on to establish international reputations at the
forefront of European art in the postwar period.
Although not in any direct sense depicting the conflict, the Ma group can
be seen as a product of the peculiar conditions that prevailed in Hungary
during the First World War. Only as a result of the abrupt realignment of
cultural relations prompted by wartime alliances were Hungarian artists able
to overcome definitively their dependence on French Post-Impressionism and
engage with more recent developments in German, French, Dutch and Italian
art. The creation of an avant-garde circle with its own outlets (a journal, a gallery
and an art publishing house) gave the new generation a platform to show and
disseminate their work outside the established venues of the prewar Budapest
art world. It also brought the Hungarians into collaboration with equivalent
groups such as Der Sturm [The Storm] and Die Aktion [The Action] in Berlin.
Such networks, coupled with the intense political and cultural ferment of the
war, created an environment in which radical and individual voices could come
to the forefront very quickly. Lszl Moholy-Nagy is a prime example. In April
1918, when he first met Lajos Kassk, the young law student with no art training
was still producing small pencil sketches on postcards. Within a year, he was
a full signatory to the Activist manifesto, Forradalmrok [Revolutionaries!]
alongside the leading artists of the Ma group.32
This brief examination of the forces and individuals that shaped the
Hungarian avant-garde during the war sits firmly within a Modernist approach
to art history, favouring innovation and internationalism over other traditional
or conventional modes of visual expression. In that sense, the Ma group were
only catching up, becoming emancipated within the pan-European avant-garde
like their contemporaries in Prague or Vienna. But that is not the whole story
of visual art production during the war. Clearly, both the mainstream artists
and the prewar progressive groups, such as A Nyolcak, continued to work and
to respond to the effects of war. The full spectrum of art production cannot
be covered here but it is worth highlighting the work of one artist who came
to prominence in the early years of the century and represents the surviving
Symbolist generation working up to and throughout the war. Gyula Tichy was
31
Their attempts to participate in the cultural programme of the revolution were
fruitless since Kassk refused to make Ma subservient to the demands of the Communist
government. The magazine was closed down in the summer of 1919 but continued to publish
in exile in Vienna after the Counter-Revolution.
32
On Moholy-Nagys early development, see Oliver Botar, Technical Detours. The Early
Moholy-Nagy Reconsidered (New York, 2006), pp. 2154.

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197

one of the many Central European artist-illustrators who were influenced by


Aubrey Beardsley and chose to develop the English artists exotic and literary
style in response to new demands.33 Tichy was associated with the group A
Kve [The Stirring] for which he produced a famous poster advertising their
1911 exhibition. Tichy belonged to the anglophile tradition in Hungarian
culture, stretching back to the Reform Generation of Count Szchenyi in the
1840s, which looked to Britain for leadership in liberal democracy, industrial
innovation and literary narrative. The popularity of the Pre-Raphaelites, John
Ruskin, and the Arts and Crafts Movement served to extend this influence into
the twentieth century and to give certain English values popular currency in
modern Hungarian society. Tichy was particularly drawn to the English tradition
of visionary art and literature, looking back beyond Beardsley to figures such
as William Blake and the English caricaturists of the Romantic period. By 1914,
however, Tichys anglophilia and his dependence on a Symbolist aesthetic and
formal vocabulary must have seemed somewhat dated, especially in view of the
admiration for Cezanne and French art among modern Hungarian painters.
Nevertheless, Tichy turned these older preoccupations into an original art form
that was a direct response to the conduct of the war.
In 1916, worried by the reports from the eastern front, Tichy began a cycle of
coloured drawings in which he mobilized a collection of great Hungarians from
history as a superhuman or quasi-mythical force to come to the countrys aid in
this time of danger. Recalling Blakes use of mythical figures who acted out the
great political struggles in his prophetic books America (1793) and Europe (1794),
Tichys Prophecy invoked Sndor Petfi, Max Hell, Mric Benyovsky, Istvn
Szchenyi, Jnos Bolyai, Sndor Krsi-Csoma, Mr Jkai and Imre Madch as
a force with supernatural powers to overcome the combined military of Britain,
France and Russia. Tichy was already fascinated by physics and astronomy,
having studied mechanical engineering before taking up the visual arts. This
background furnished him with a repertoire of fantastic weapons that his
historical figures could turn on their enemies. In one drawing, the astronomer
Max Hell constructs a refrigerating machine that pulverizes Russian rails and
disables the Tsarist fleet by attaching the ships to icebergs. In another, the
explorer Benyovsky constructs a radium gun that wrecks the Suez Canal while
his wife launches a series of tiny planes carrying supplies of food, medications
and ammunition to the Hungarian troops. The scientist Jnos Bolyai develops
a steel-eating solution that is fired from a gun. Thereupon, like a form of acid,
it corrodes (or consumes) the ships of the British navy. Bolyai also participates
in a submarine battle, during which he descends to the ocean bed and discovers
the corpse of Lord Kitchener.34 Imre Madch, author of the epic drama Az
33

On Tichy, see Magyar mvszet 18901919, ed. by Lajos Nmeth (Budapest, 1981), pp. 445
53, and Katalin Gellr, A szecesszis knyvillusztrci Magyarorszgon (18951925) (Miskolc,
1997), pp. 5456.
34
As Secretary of State for War, Kitcheners image had graced British recruitment posters;

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Fig. 4. Gyula Tichy, Madch sows giant mushrooms in London, 1916.


Reproduced courtesy of a private collector.

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199

ember tragdija [The Tragedy of Man, 1861], introduces the metal-eating


solution to the gold reserves of the Bank of England, thereby wiping out the
countrys wealth at a stroke, before going on to sow giant mushrooms around
London, as a result of which the British are forced to sue for peace (Figure
4). This sequence of fantastic designs would be little more than the obsessive
imaginings of an isolated artist, were it not for the fact that Tichy worked these
images up to a high state of finish, clearly with the intention of publishing the
drawings in a set. They were never published and have been analysed by only a
handful of scholars.35
The historiography of First World War art can be grouped under two broad
tendencies. The first and more popular suggests that the trauma of modern
warfare forced artists and writers to develop a new form-language in order
to represent the rebarbative reality of the war.36 The other tendency draws
out the conclusion that by the time of the First World War [...] the common
soldier has not only become the central figure in images of war, increasingly
the images are drawn or painted from perspectives that seek to be his.37 In the
context of this article, and of the great range of artworks produced in response
to the First World War, Tichys drawings offer an interesting alternative to
the dominant view of First World War art. Far from expressing a shocking
confrontation with the harsh realities of trench warfare and mechanized
weaponry, Tichy has looked back to a Romantic visual and literary model to
produce a mythical vision of the war in which his deeper fears were confronted
through a re-enactment of the conflict on a super-human level. The forms he
adopts to describe this epic struggle are definitely pre-Modern but they point
to a mode of conceiving and representing the war that has been overlooked by
most historians of wartime visual culture.
There is no simple conclusion to be drawn from this overview of Hungarian
visual culture during the First World War, beyond the obvious that Hungary
shared many visual conventions with its partner and ally Austria while
also developing many motifs that were unique, or had a special meaning to
Hungarians. In one sense, however, the Hungarian experience of the war was
different from that of its allies and enemies. The results of the peace destroyed
the prewar state and reduced Hungary to a third of its earlier size. The chaos
and successive revolutions of 191819 created an environment that was hardly
conducive to the production of modern art in any sense. When a stable regime
was installed in 1921, it was that of Admiral Horthy, a dictatorship hostile to the
he was killed in 1916 when the warship taking him to negotiations in Russia was sunk by a
German mine.
35
Laszl Szikora, A Mzsa Cskja: Tichy Gyula grafiki, Klasszikus Otthonok Romantikja,
3/iii (2002), 1417.
36
Richard Cork, A Bitter Truth. Avant-Garde Art and the Great War (New Haven, CT,
1994), p. 8.
37
Peter Paret, Imagined Battles. Reflections on War in European Art (Chapel Hill, NC and
London, 1997), p. 114.

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avant-garde and to the internationalist spirit that was emerging in all the arts.
If the war can be said to have acted as a stimulus to artists in Hungary, helping
to create a vibrant and creative environment for innovation across the full
spectrum from commercial graphics to the avant-garde, the postwar regime
was its opposite. At the very moment when Hungarian artists seemed ready
to participate on the European stage, these opportunities were closed down
at home. Most of the figures mentioned in this article sought refuge outside
Hungary, where they continued to develop within an international network
of galleries, journals, exhibitions and colleges. Bir went to Vienna, as did the
Ma circle before moving on individually to centres such as Berlin, Moscow,
Weimar, Dessau and eventually London. Postwar Hungarian art that sprang
from the experience of the war can be viewed as having split into two camps
those who returned to a somewhat provincial Hungary after an amnesty in
192526, and those like Moholy-Nagy who settled into the cosmopolitan centres
of Modernism throughout the continent.

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