We Belong Together. Hungary before Trianon in drawings

Hungarian National Gallery, Cabinet of Prints and Drawings - The exhibition is temporarily closed

Marking the Year of National Cohesion, the exhibition of the Hungarian National Gallery presents close to 60 works selected from the illustrations of one of the largest-scale undertakings in Hungarian book publishing: a 21-volume series titled The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Word and Picture, published between 1886 and 1901. The drawings included in the volumes were mostly landscapes, historical scenes as well as depictions of local customs and traditional costumes by the most noted painters and outstanding graphic artists. Up to now, the illustrations – largely executed in ink, pencil and tempera – have only played a sporadic role in exhibitions.

This special chamber exhibition titled We Belong Together showcases a selection of the most beautiful drawings produced by Hungarian illustrators arranged according to themes and regions. The displayed works include Róbert Nádler’s drawing Promenade in Buda with the Buildings of the Castle Garden with a contemporaneous illustration of the Castle Garden Bazaar, Gyula Háry’s drawings of the streets and the dome of Kassa (Kosice) and Rozsnyó, and László Mednyánszky’s work of Kiskunfélegyháza and its surroundings.  

The monumental publication was realised upon the initiative of Archduke Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria with the aim of providing a comprehensive introduction to the peoples of the Monarchy. In accordance with Rudolf’s wishes, the publication came out in two languages, with one editorial office in Vienna and one in Budapest, where the work was directed by Mór Jókai. In the same way, two separate printers were set up to produce the illustrations.

The booklets, which are also known as the “crown prince’s work” (Kronprinzenwerk) were published biweekly between 1885 and 1902. They were later organised into volumes by regions, which is how posterity came to know them. The last three volumes, which were published in Vienna, did not have Hungarian counterparts.

In the nineteenth century encyclopaedic publications with an ethnographic theme were popular. Rudolf sought to model his series on this kind of content, while the concept also reflected his political views: he wanted to have each of the nationalities that made up the huge conglomerate of the Monarchy to be regarded as of equal rank through their comprehensive historical, economic, ethnographic and cultural presentation. To facilitate this, he involved the most well-known scholars of the period in writing the texts and invited almost every artist of Austrian, Hungarian and other nationalities of the period to participate in making the illustrations.

The commissioning of the illustrations as well as selecting and evaluating them were dealt with by a separate editorial committee in both Vienna and Budapest. The president of the Hungarian committee was painter Gusztáv Keleti. A great many prominent artists of the period participated in producing the drawings, numbering in excess of 1,600 on the Hungarian side, including Miklós Barabás, Mihály Zichy, Gyula Benczúr, Lajos Deák-Ébner, Árpád Feszty, Jenő Gyárfás, Bertalan Székely, Béla Spányi and Sándor Wagner, to name just a few. The commissions were not distributed evenly, which can be attributed to the effort to contract as many big names as possible, even if it meant just a few drawings from each artist. In addition to this, it was not only the most well-known artists of the last two decades of the nineteenth century who were invited to contribute but also reliable masters as well as those with outstanding skills of draughtsmanship who were not counted among the foremost artists of the period as painters but were nonetheless regarded as professional illustrators working for the prestigious representative albums of the period, such as Gyula Háry, Tivadar Dörre, Lajos Rauscher and Róbert Nádler. In line with the original concept, the illustrations in The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Word and Picture, which were bereft of romantic sentiments, complemented the texts at equal rank to them. The drawings include reproductive copies of sculptural works, archaeological finds and portraits of rulers, although the majority of them were landscapes, genre-like compositions of folk customs and portraits depicting folk costumes, whose quality is on a par with art drawings. In their capacity as drawings these works provide a representative and comprehensive overview of the art of drawing in the last two decades or so of the nineteenth century. Despite the fact that the artists of these drawings were limited to an extremely narrow scope of techniques – drawing in black and white, in ink, pen or at best in sepia – their works demonstrate the greatest diversity of the drawing of the period in regard to their themes, stylistic tendencies and compositional patterns.

After lengthy consideration, the woodcutting method known as xylography was selected for the reproduction of the 4,500 or so illustrations instead of photography, which at the time was extremely expensive and technically not yet suitable for achieving the appropriate standards. In 1902 the illustrations and the blocks used for the prints in The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Word and Picture came into the possession of the Viennese imperial and royal and the Hungarian royal state printing presses since Rudolf conferred the proprietary rights of the entire publication i.e., “both the intellectual content and the prints” to the printers. The drawings in the volumes that were not produced in the Hungarian editorial office can be found in the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Bildarchiv und Grafiksammlung, although nothing is known about the printing blocks. Action was taken in 1902 in regard to the drawings that appeared in the Hungarian volumes: the printers handed over the drawings, numbering over 1,600, to the Museum of Fine Arts, where they were placed in the collection of the Department of Prints and Drawings and that of the Historical Portrait Gallery. The drawings are now with the legal successors of these collections, while the Hungarian printing blocks can be found in the Hungarian National Museum.

Curator of the exhibition: Orsolya Hessky

Highlights, curiosities

László Mednyánszky: Windmills in Kiskunfélegyháza, around 1890, detail

One of the foremost figures in Hungarian art history, László Mednyánszky, who assigned a central role to the depiction and interpretation of landscapes in his continually developing oeuvre, had a passion for drawing too. This is attested not only by the huge quantity of his works on paper as well as his sketchbooks and notes that have survived but also by the great many landscape drawings he made for the volumes of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Word and Picture. His pictures are not linked to a particular region, as travelling all over the Carpathian basin he drew landscapes that were precise and at the same time exuded an extraordinarily powerful ambience, including this wet and misty composition with a wealth of atmospheric oscillation and spectacular motifs.

Gyula Háry: Rozsnyó Castle, around 1900, detail

Gyula Háry was the most employed Hungarian graphic artist for the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Word and Picture, and one of the most outstanding virtuoso draughtsmen of his time. Some four hundred of his drawings are included in the seven volumes presenting Hungary. His splendid small-scale topographical watercolour depictions of the details of towns and landscapes are characterised by extraordinary light brushwork and distinguished by his brilliant draughtsmanship. His drawing of Rozsnyó Castle in Upper Hungary is also spectacular from a compositional perspective: the panoramic view from the castle, which is squeezed into the top right of the picture, appears in the picture like the castle itself.

Ignác Roskovics: Šokci Woman, around 1890, detail

The illustrations in the volumes of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Word and Picture were produced with the woodcut technique called xylography. Before the series launched, the selection of a reproduction technique presented a major challenge. In the end, xylography, which functioned as press photography in the early 1880s, was chosen over photography. Some years later, artists almost exclusively used photographs as models for certain types of illustrations, primarily for portrait compositions, since the straightforward style of photography, free from superfluous genre elements made it ideal for ethnographic depictions primarily serving scientific purposes.

Béla Spányi: The Road to Lake Csorba, around 1895, detail

Béla Spányi, who was primarily known as a landscape painter, contributed some landscape illustrations of Upper Hungary and Transylvania to the volumes presenting Hungary. The elevated horizon of this composition and the muddy road with its marks occupying the greater part of the picture evoke the trend concentrating on the foreground, which characterised landscape painting from the 1880s. This small work on paper proves that the compositional pattern of monumental landscapes could be transplanted into the meticulous and intimate genre of drawing. He presented this theme in one of his paintings too, which is now only known from a contemporary photograph.

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