Petr Janáč

Changing Definitions of National(ist) Hungarian Art as Reflected in International Exhibitions – Report on SMArt Talks with Samuel Albert

Petr Janáč

Changing Definitions of National(ist) Hungarian Art as Reflected in International Exhibitions – Report on SMArt Talks with Samuel Albert

This autumn´s first SMArt Talks hosted two art historians who are currently working on the theme of the visual strategies of the Central European nations when presenting themselves abroad and at World’s fairs during the late 19th and the first half of the 20th century.

One of the speakers was Marta Filipová who is a research fellow of the CRAACE project and also head of the Centre for Modern Art & Theory, both here at Masaryk University in Brno. Her research interest lies in the question of different layers of identity in modern art. Currently, she examines the strategies for the presentation of the state of Czechoslovakia at World’s Fairs.

Our international guest, Samuel D. Albert, is an American art historian works as an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Art History at the Fashion Institute of Technology of the State University of New York. He is interested in the arts of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and the successor states, especially Hungary and Romania. His ongoing research is focused on Hungarian art exhibitions between 1890 and 1940, currently supported by a Fulbright Hungary award. With its support, he is conducting research in Budapest which he came to share with us. This gave me the opportunity to find out a bit more about his research and ask him a few questions.

Samuel Albert presenting at SMArt Talks, October 18, 2022.

Samuel’s presentation was called: ‚Changing Definitions of National(ist) Hungarian Art as Reflected in International Exhibitions‘. World exhibitions were important opportunities for self-presentation for every state, and this was no different for Hungary. Hungarians seldom missed these occasions, although they had different motivations for participation through time.

In the second half of the 19th century, as Hungary was part of the Austrian Empire, there was a great attempt to express a form of Hungarian national identity as a developing modern nation. This was no different than for other nations of the Austrian empire. Along with a focus on Hungarian history, vernacular motives drawn from the Hungarian countryside were exhibited, since these were considered by many to be the real source of the national culture. Many artworks from this period offered idyllic depictions of folk motives, and Samuel talked in particular about the painter József Koszta. The most important such events where Hungarian art was presented on the international were were the 1900 Paris Exposition, where Hungary had its own pavilion, and the following one in St. Louis in 1904, where the Hungarian exposition had separate premises apart from the Austrian pavilion.

In the following decades, the situation enormously changed, and art played an important part in promoting the newly independent Hungarian state. Soon after the communists took power in 1918, an exhibition was organised in Budapest of artworks that were confiscated from private collectors and nationalised by the state. It was a presentation of historic old master artworks, although it should be noted that the official government supported young avant-garde artists such as Bela Uitz or Robert Bereny. Following Admiral Horthy’s seizure of power in 1919 after the collapse of the communist regime, one of the first acts of the new regime was to organise the Hungarian Representative Exhibition, to be shown abroad in 1920. This show was to be staged in Western Europe countries in order to demonstrate the level of cultural advancement in Hungary. In the following years of the Horthy regime, during the 1920s and 1930s, the main purpose of international exhibitions of Hungarian art was to legitimise Hungary in the eyes of western audiences. The artworks selected, however, tended to be rather conservative, even though, ironically, the aim of the shows was to demonstrate the modernity of Hungarian culture.

Albert’s lecture highlighted the importance of the exhibition medium in Hungarian art of the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries, and its involvement in the ever changing political landscape of Central Europe.

See the lecture recording


Now, let me ask few questions to the speaker, Samuel D. Albert:

Q: When did you first encounter Central Europe’s modern art? What attracted you to do research about it? And especially to Hungarian?

S.A.: When I came to Hungary to study Hungarian, in 1989, I was in Pecs, which had at that time an Uitz Bela Museum, but also showed other Hungarian modernists.

Q: As you said during your lecture, you are currently doing research in Budapest. How different is the research environment from the U.S.?

S.A.: Surprisingly, I find that here there is much more digitization.  I do not know if it’s just a lesser volume or a greater sense of urgency.

Q: What do you consider the greatest quality of Hungarian art of the previous century and its potential for an international audience?

S.A.: The variety of styles and experimentation is one of the greatest features of all central European art, I think.

Q: Are there any distinctive features of Hungarian modern art which you would like to emphasize?

S.A.: I think the distinctiveness is, paradoxically, that it is like any other European modernism; that Hungary is part of the larger European modernist project.

Q: There are probably many local Hungarian art historians looking at the same topics as you. How different is your approach? What benefit do you bring to the discussion as an art historian from a different context?

S.A.: Actually, I do not know of anyone working on this topic exactly.  There are numerous scholars working on monographs on the artists in the show I am considering, and there have been several books about the movements to which many of these artists belong, but I feel (perhaps incorrectly) that I am alone in this work.

Q: While doing research, every art historian tends to choose artworks which he or she finds somehow more appealing or demonstrative than others. How do you deal with a selection of presented artworks?

S.A.: One of the great problems with my project is that so many of the works are really just shadows.  I know the name of the work, I know the name of the artist.  Some works are illustrated in exhibition catalogues, but usually mediocre black and white images.  (You may recall the Benczur I showed, which was completely different in color than the scratchy black and white catalogue image).  So I am limited in part to what I can find, whether that was the most successful image of the show (although usually, the really successful images wind up in the museum.)

Q: Is there any Hungarian artwork which do you personally like more than others? Why?

S.A.: My personal favorite piece from this time is actually an advertising poster.  I can not verbalize why I like it so much, but I do.

Modiano, ca. 1932, Róbert Berény