Slavic Review, vol. 74, no. 2 (Summer 2015)

Lee Congdon
James Madison University

In Search of the Budapest Secession

In addition to academic training, Jeffrey Taylor brought to his search for the “Budapest secession” years of experience in the art trade. In the course of his extensive research, he discovered not one but a series of secessions (and secessions of secessions) and concluded that they were driven primarily by economic rather than aesthetic motives, that is, that they were less struggles for stylistic supremacy than competitions for commercial success. Although he may overstate it—were Hungarian artists businessmen and -women first?—he presents a well-argued case.

In early nineteenth-century Hungary, artists began to paint without benefit of a patron, thus creating the need for a market in art. Such a market, pluralistic in nature, began to develop in the shops of Pest booksellers, only to be devastated by a flood in 1838. Two years later, the Pest Art Society introduced a salon-based monopolistic market. At a time of increasing ethnic consciousness, however, the society gained a reputation as a venue for foreign artists and by 1868 it had ceased to exist. In 1859, a group of painters had seceded from the society to form the National Hungarian Fine Arts Society (OMKT), whose aim was to improve the prospects of Magyar artists. The new society was able to do so, however, only for a small number of painters, members of what Taylor refers to as a “labor aristocracy” (33), as opposed to an “artist proletariat” (59) composed of lesser talents who were left to their own devices. Until the outbreak of the Great War, according to Taylor, each “secession”—each new commercial venture—was either egalitarian (attempting to include as many artists as possible) or elitist (attempting to restrict opportunities to those with established reputations).

The OMKT did achieve a measure of commercial success, primarily thanks to state purchases and raffles, but it made the mistake of aligning itself with academic painting, as epitomized by Gyula Benczúr’s historical canvases, thus setting itself on a path of opposition to the modernism on the rise. The National Salon, formed in revolt against the OMKT in the 1890s, was driven, Taylor insists again, “not by aesthetics but by economics” (59); it was less interested in advancing the modernist cause than in expanding the art market. That may be so, but the salon did stage two important exhibitions of modern French art in 1907: one devoted to Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne, and one to Édouard Manet and Claude Monet. Moreover, it hosted exhibitions by members of the two most important Hungarian modernist movements: the MIÉNK (Circle of Hungarian Impressionists and Naturalists), led by Pál Szinyei- Merse, József Rippl-Rónai, and Károly Ferenczy; and the Eight, composed largely of the MIÉNK’s younger members, who looked for inspiration to the postimpressionists, Cézanne above all.

Taylor does not deny that the revolt against the OMKT’s authority represented by the group gathered around Simon Hollósy was at least framed in aesthetic terms. Hollósy, who had been working in Munich, led his followers to Nagybánya in Transylvania in order to practice plein air painting, a style for which the OMKT evinced little sympathy. Hollósy might have formed his own salon had not János Hock—Catholic priest, author of Art Reform, and enemy of the OMKT—persuaded him to cast his lot with the National Salon.

In time, it is true, “traditionalists” led by painter and critic László Kézdi-Kovács consolidated control over the National Salon, but they proved incapable of providing sufficient outlets for what had become a vast overproduction of artworks. As a result, new secessions, new models of commerce, began to challenge the salon model: private galleries such as the Könyves K.lm.n, self-staged exhibitions similar to the profitable one organized by Rippl-Rónai in 1906, coffee houses, and studio exhibitions. One of the most promising ventures was that of the Artists’ House, founded in 1909 by Miklós Rózsa, who had formerly served as artistic director of the MIÉNK, but it, too, failed financially and was forced to close in 1914. “Despite the increasing diversity of [art market] models,” Taylor concludes, “none but those supported by state funding or alternate revenue streams could survive because of the fundamental reality that the sale of contemporary artworks could never cover the cost of Pest rents” (191)