Gifts and their Donors – New acquisitions of the Hungarian National Gallery – Pictures by János Vaszary

- 4 December 2013 - 2 February 2014


In 2013, the collection of the Hungarian National Gallery was enhanced by two separate donations of a large quantity of outstanding works by János Vaszary. These fifteen works of exceptional quality were completely unknown to the art world, and they are now on display to the general public, marking a special moment in art history.

The two collections from which the donations derive were both formed in the 1930s, through personal acquaintances of János Vaszary (1867-1939). A further feature the donations have in common is that they were both presented by the direct descendants – the daughters – of the collectors: Gyula Szilvay; and István Isseni Iszer and his wife, Lola Simkó.

The exhibition also includes a number of portraits – by János Vaszary, Frigyes Frank and Klára Rónai – of the collectors and the donors: this presentation is designed to show the museum’s deep gratitude, expressed in the undisguised hope that this noble and generous gesture on the part of the donors will encourage similar gifts in the future.

The Szilvay Family

Gyula Szilvay studied literature and art history at Péter Pázmány University of Sciences in Budapest, and served as a soldier in the First World War. In 1919 he married Irma Kezetszky, and they had two children: Dr Géza Szilvay and Mária Szilvay. After the war, Gyula Szilvay worked as an officer in the Budapest headquarters of the Salgótarján Coal Mining Company, but he always maintained his devotion to the arts. He was a patron of the Transylvanian Fine Arts Guild, and he enriched his library with countless books on art and literature. He purchased works of art from his savings, and thus helped a number of young artists in the 1920s and 1930s. The backbone of his collection was composed of works by János Vaszary, but it also included treasured paintings by Zoltán Klie, Róbert Berény, Rudolf Diener-Dénes, János Kmetty, Frigyes Frank, Géza Bene and Klára Róna, as well as sculptures by Fülöp Ö. Beck and Ferenc Medgyessy. The range of works collected by Gyula Szilvay extended to those by artists of the KUT (New Society of Artists), founded in 1924, and the UME (Association of New Artists), a splinter group which broke away from the KUT in 1927. His daughter, Mária Szilvay (Mrs Győző Balázsvári), worked as a ministry official after completing her studies to be a teacher.

To preserve the memory of her dear father’s patronage of the arts, in her last will and testament, she bequeathed the finest pieces of the former collection, six paintings by János Vaszary, to the Hungarian State. The bequest became a part of the collection of the Hungarian National Gallery in 2013. The family has preserved the letter, dated 30 November 1935, in which János Vaszary thanks Gyula Szilvay for his support.

The Isseni Iszer Family

Between the wars, in the 1930s, the industrialist István Isseni Iszer and his wife Lola Simkó met János Vaszary through István Révész, the artist’s best-known collector and patron. This meeting evolved into a close friendship, and the artist depicted Lola Simkó in several portraits, two of which are among the Vaszary works recently donated to the Hungarian National Gallery.

The couple bought a total of sixteen pictures from the artist, seven of which were sadly lost during the Second World War. Mrs István Isseni Iszer emigrated to Germany in 1956, taking the family’s remaining Vaszary works with her.

István Isseni Iszer and his wife had a daughter, Mariann Isseni Iszer. Her husband, Dr László Kulhavy, was the ear, nose and throat specialist of the Hannover State Opera. For decades, Mariann Isseni Iszer kept the paintings left to her by her parents in pride of place in her Hannover home. In 2013, fulfilling the wishes of her late mother, she donated nine magnificent works by János Vaszary to the Hungarian National Gallery.

The Theme of Golgotha

As a result of his upbringing and his worldview, biblical themes occupy a prominent position in the oeuvre of János Vaszary. His paternal uncle, Archbishop Kolos Vaszary, ensured that the painter received a number of commissions from the Church in the early years of his career, while the terrible experiences and lasting traumas of the First World War led to a reawakening of religious motifs in his art. The shocking events of the cataclysm, assisted by the iconography of Christianity, resulted in canvases bursting with expressive, Bible-inspired visions.

Between 1918 and 1930, he made many oil variants and study sketches on the themes of the Crucifixion, Golgotha and the Lamentation of Christ. He explored the story of the Passion in a number of works that ranged in size from the dimensions of a sketchpad to enormous canvases measuring several square metres. The recently donated version of Golgotha is a remarkable instance of the artist’s longest-maturing theme, a composition that combines the Crucifixion with the Lamentation.

Between 1933 and 1938, Vaszary painted his series titled Danube Promenade, in which the silhouette of distinctive landmarks of Buda and Pest tower over the heaving currents of the river. This compositional scheme was borrowed by the painter for his work The Calvary of Budapest (c. 1936), but here, in a bizarre contrast, the figure of Jesus bearing the Cross makes his way through the hustle and bustle of the streets. The Saviour, stooping beneath the weight of his burden, passes unnoticed by the alienated crowd of the pulsating city. The small pastel sketch for this oil work was one of the donations to the collection of the Hungarian National Gallery.

Parisian Nights, the World of Party-Goers and Cabarets, 1925-1927

The painter achieved financial stability in the mid-1920s, close to the age of sixty, and this allowed him finally to travel to Paris for a long sojourn. He yearned for refreshment, both physically and intellectually. He was open to everything, whether it be fashion, modern city transport or entertainment. He was equally enthralled by the shop window displays, the din of the taxis, the music echoing from deep inside the bars and the lights of advertising hoardings. On the streets of Paris, he incessantly made sketches, watercolours and ink drawings. He looked liberally around the city, putting on paper everything he found interesting, including fleeting gestures and movements. He would later incorporate his rapidly noted impressions into his oil paintings.

His most enduring experiences were given by the ever-changing scenes of nightlife. He visited all the bars and cabarets, using coloured pencils and watercolours to make snapshots of the guests and the stage players. His leisurely crafted compositions are peopled by audience members and popular stars of the Moulin Rouge, the Folies Bergere, the Casino de Paris, and La Cigale. He drew archetypes of the day with an immense sense of character: demi-mondaines sporting ‘shingle bob’ haircuts, boyish young ladies in Charleston dresses, flirtatiously smiling gigolettes who set the men’s pulses racing, couples dancing away to jazz music, and elegant dames who modelled their hair on the film idol Greta Garbo and pencilled their eyebrows á-la-Hollywood. Vaszary was also always excited by the spectacular stage shows, and enjoyed watching the performers moving in unison under the spotlights. He evoked the vivacity of the spectacle and the scintillating rhythm of the feverish music using minimal tools but a virtuoso handling of technique.

Brilliant Colours on a Black Background – Still-Lifes and Nudes János Vaszary’s Expressive Period in the 1920s

The disturbing events of the First World War and the collapse of society and morality shook Vaszary to his core. His heightened state of consciousness released the creative passion within him, which expressed itself in the form of works marked by dynamic painterly gestures, vibrant colours, and turbulent pictorial surfaces. We are not aware of any specific inspiration for Vaszary’s regeneration as a painter. This highly cultured and well-travelled artist delved deep into the wealth of experience he had acquired during his younger years: he recalled the lasting memories of his museum visits, the key works of the classic old masters. The finest works of the painting technique he evolved in the 1920s, known as black-based painting, are his expressive still-lifes with flowers and his theatrical nude compositions. Thickly applied patches of colour merge and disperse with hypnotic momentum across the dark surface. Layers of pigment condensing into a black mass exert an animated mutual effect on each other. The vases of polychromatic flowers in his still-lifes are often accompanied by figurines of Buddha or Buddhist monks, known as bonzes. These reflect the bourgeois public’s taste for oriental teachings and their fondness for all things exotic. In the series of nudes he painted in this period, the neutral, dark backgrounds are torn explosion-like by the emerging, undulating forms of his female nudes. The expressive power and the bold gestures render these pictures monumental. Besides the influence of the French Post-Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists, Vaszary’s black-based paintings were also inspired by the intensive painterly devices of the German Expressionists.

Parks, Gardens and Flowers – the 1930s

Bouquets of flowers on the living room table, garden blooms on the windowsill, and verdant trees in the park in front of the house. The colours, forms and scents of nature are brought into tangible proximity. Garden scenes and floral still-lifes are a constant presence in Vaszary’s career as a painter. The variety in his method of painting can be discerned here, as well as in his paintings of the seaside. His powerful compositions of velvety petals and full-bodied leaves, which are built up of energetic brushstrokes and “explode like a rocket”, were painted at almost the same time as his ornamental details of nature, presented with a calligraphic sensibility that echoes the simplicity of Japanese masters. His diverse park scenes were set in the garden in front of their house in Tata. The Vaszarys lived in their villa, designed by Ede Thoroczkai Wigand, from spring to late autumn, and frequently played host to friends. The tall terrace doors leading into the garden tended to be flung wide open, so the intimate atmosphere of the landscape could pervade the sunny rooms. In his later paintings, János Vaszary’s use of colour became more dissolved, and in contrast with the garishness of his earlier period, sun-drenched hues now seem to melt into the very canvas itself. His later still-lifes with flowers were softer, and the previous spatters of paint were replaced with the gentle warmth of mature tones blending into each other. The flowerpot in the window is no longer as heaving with energy as it once was; the stems of flowers lean left and right as they stretch languidly towards the light. They still smell as glorious, but they have been touched by the breath of mortality.

Journeys to Italy, Sun and Sea – 1928-1930s

Towards the end of the 1920s, János Vaszary painted in the bays of Venice and Trieste, in Pirano, Rimini and Pesaro, and he also visited the most beautiful parts of the Bay of Genoa, Nervi, Viareggio and the harbour of Portofino. Everywhere he went, he recorded the coastal view, the colourful cavalcade of fishing vessels and sailing boats, and scenes of holidaymakers on the beach. In the 1930s, the now elderly painter spent most of his summer vacations on the Italian Riviera, but he occasionally returned to the Adriatic coast, or journeyed south beyond the Bay of Naples, to Taormina on Sicily. He used a mixture of methods of painting during this period. At times, he would gather forms together using strident, staggered brush-lines, giving his patches of colour a determined plasticity. At others, the delicately applied, transparently diluted pigments of his watercolours would allow the drawn marker lines to show through. The positive life-view of the Mediterranean world inspired him to a more intensive painterly expression. In the 1930s, he continued to capture evanescent moments with virtuoso skill, yet he developed a taste for contrasting arrangements. Faces or figures shown in close-up were paired alongside overhead images with expansive horizons. He left enormous stretches of canvas almost empty, and evoked spatial dimensions through distant, scattered motifs. Alternatively he would portray figures on a crowded beach surrounded by a multi-coloured array of densely packed deckchairs, parasols and bathing tents. Vaszary’s compositions of this time share affinities with those by Raoul Dufy, documenter of the showy world of the French Riviera. Both artists were observant and contemplative, drawn to the spectacular and the ornamental, divining in everything a source of joy and beauty.

Curators of the Exhibition: Mariann Gergely and Edit Plesznivy art historians

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