Derkovits – The artist and his times

- 3 April 2014 - 27 July 2014


As part of the ongoing series at the Hungarian National Gallery dealing with the life’s works of outstanding Hungarian artists, this exhibition presents the art of one of the major figures from the period between the wars, Gyula Derkovits (1894-1934). The significance of Derkovits was recognized even by the critics, collectors and museum experts of his own age. However, there was soon a split in the way his art was judged: he was either admired or reviled for his style and his qualities as a painter, or for his choice of subject matter, which usually reflected his social and political attitude. The 120th anniversary of his birth offers an ideal opportunity to reassess his ouvre. This exhibition, presenting around two hundred paintings, prints and drawings by Derkovits himself, also features works by his contemporaries in Hungarian painting, graphic art and photography, as well as German, Austrian, Polish, Czech and Slovakian artists, providing a clear understanding of the domestic and international context of Gyula Derkovits’s ground-breaking art.

The aim of our exhibition is to convey the originality of Derkovits’s art, which not only makes his work stand out from the painting of his age, but also makes it eternally inseparable from it. The exhibition is guided by an inherent feature of Derkovits’s works, which is that they address viewers directly and challenge them to form an opinion. With all the tools of modern art at his disposal, the artist strove to create harmony between his unique visual imagery, the expression of his thoughts and the emotional impact. To evoke the range of this persuasive, commanding voice, we have opted for phrases borrowed from literature. The five main sections of the exhibition place the rich output of his brief artistic career into groups titled elegy, drama, satire, essay and hymn, in accordance with the emotional or atmospheric effect that Derkovits intended to cast on the viewer. The atmosphere or content indicated by these literary terms can be felt without reference to the era or the historical backdrop, and are more durable elements of a work of art than any style or genre.

The tone of the elegy pervades Derkovits’s early works, which infallibly convey a melancholy feeling towards the passage of time. His nude compositions not only bear the elegiac atmosphere, but also conjure up a unique, idyllic world, populated with ploughmen, shepherds and people living cheek-by-jowl with nature. This section of the exhibition is characterized by the pictures titled Under the Big Tree, Concert and Shepherd Boy, but this group also contains compositions portraying the artist in the role of the prophet, such as Last Supper and Self-portrait with Mitre.

Drama is the art of extraordinary situations, typified by a heightened intensification of emotions. Derkovits’s two most seriously dramatic works are The Getaway and Mourning, both of which were based on personal experience. The idea of getting away was a common sentiment in the post-war years. The image of people and animals hemmed in against each other, and the depiction of crowds in general, is one of Derkovits’s signature themes in his Expressionist works.

One of the most emphatic aspects of Derkovits’s art is his satirical voice, the at times incendiary, at others acquiescent and sympathetic acknowledgment that irreconcilable contradictions exist between reality and ideals. The leading roles in this unit of the exhibition are taken by fat, rich city dwellers with their distorted faces, and by worry-worn proletarians and impoverished melon-eaters.

The artistic equivalent of the literary essay consists of complex compositions in which a refined spatial structure, combined with references and symbols taken from classical art history, builds up a system of imagery that leaves plenty of room for viewers to add their own imagination when they come to interpret the work. The most distinctive technical solution in Derkovits’s pictorial essays is montage, where even the texts and letters composed into the picture often form part of the work’s meaning.

At the centre of compositions with the pious tone of a hymn lies a higher order which determines the world and destiny of humans. Derkovits expressed this in works about the unswerving bond between the artist and his wife, about love, about the glory of labour, or about the aggressive oppression of man.

This exhibition abandons the stereotypes that have sprung up around Derkovits. We focus not on the solitary genius, the eccentric “natural talent”, who intentionally chose the path of poverty travelled by the proletariat, but on the creator who was keenly aware of the trends in visual art of his age, but who nevertheless delved consciously into tradition. Derkovits added a unique and distinctive flavour to his works by borrowing devices from the visual culture of his day and age: photography, film, caricature and posters. By way of illustration, the works by Derkovits are accompanied by prints and drawings, paintings and photographs by kindred spirits from his times. A separate section of the exhibition is set aside to show, as both parallel and counterpoint, a few key works from the Hungarian modern and official art of the age. By including paintings, prints and drawings by German, Austrian, Polish, Czech and Slovakian artists, we also provide a broader, central European context to Derkovits’s art.

The curators of the exhibition are the art historians Katalin Bakos and András Zwickl.

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