June 18, 2018

A treasure of Hungarian avant-garde painting in Amsterdam, “From fauvism to surrealism” at the Jewish historical museum

H.E. Dr András Kocsis, Ambassador of Hungary, photography by John Dunkelgrün.

By John Dunkelgrün.

When I walked into this exposition, I was awed. Paintings in the avant-garde styles as good as any from France or Germany were all around me.

Why weren’t these artists known as well as the members of the Blaue Reiter, the Brücke or say Cézanne and Gaugin? After I left, I felt intense gratitude for having been able to see this and add another page to my memories of great art.

Béla Czóbel, Boys, 1907. Photo: István Füzi. Janus Pannonius Museum.

Few people today know that in the two decades before World War I Budapest was one of the most vibrant cities in the world, the queen of cities in “Mittel Europa”.

Population growth was spectacular, especially because of the many tens of thousands of Jews fleeing pogroms and violent anti-semitism in Russia, the Ukraine and Poland. Hungary is a very fertile country and the production of wheat, corn and sugar beets etc. was enormous. With advent of the new machinery powered by steam engines, the processing of the produce became very big business.

Hugó Scheiber, In de tram, 1925. Private collection, thanks to mediation by the Kieselbach Gallery – Budapest.

Also after the “Ausgleich” of 1861 (a deal with Austria about Hungary’s position within the Dual Monarchy) business conditions became far less restrictive.

These three trends made for a phenomenal growth in wealth. In Budapest, where the Jewish population grew to almost a quarter, quite a lot of Jews rbecame important in business as well as in government. Parallel with this economic growth came a blossoming of the arts.

Painters, writers, composers and musicians reached world levels. The arts were considered a truly national pride. When Mihály Munkácsy, Hungary’s most famous painter, died in 1900, he was given a state funeral on a par with that of Victor Hugo! A great many of these artists were Jewish. Unfortunately due to a number of circumstances only the composers are widely known today.

The Jewish Historical Museum is trying to rectify this with a magnificent exposition of 85 works by nineteen Jewish painters, who were very famous at the time and deserve to be so today.

The styles vary from fauvist through cubist to surrealist, predominantly on general, i.e. non-Jewish themes. The artists worked in a period of global turmoil, the first World War, the (Hungarian) revolution of 1919 and rapidly growing anti-semitism.

Some of them were even active in The Netherlands. Vilmos Huszár was one of the founders of the art movement “De Stijl”, of which the centennial is celebrated this year.

Armand Schönberger, Cafe de la Paix, ca. 1929. Türr István Museum– Baja.


The exposition, the largest ever of Hungarian art works in The Netherlands, shows that Hungarian art of the period was an important part of the international art scene. Hungarian artists traveled abroad and were influenced by the trends of the moment.

At the opening, the ambassador of Hungary, H.E. Dr András Kocsis, spoke of the important contributions Hungary’s Jews had made to the economy and the arts in his country. He did so in admirable Dutch! Jaap Scholten, a Dutch writer and historian who lives in Budapest, gave a fascinating exposé of the political history and artistic development of Hungary.

Róbert Berény, Lady in an armchair, 1912. Private collection, thanks to mediation by the Virág Judit Gallery – Budapest

There is a magnificent bilingual catalogue written by the Project Director of the exposition, Dr. Joël Cahen, the previous Director of the museum and for those who read Dutch some very good articles in the current JCK magazine.

The exposition runs through September 24.

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