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Determination of a Holocaust survivor and his grandson…

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Modem Gallery.

Determination of a Holocaust survivor and his grandson laid the foundations for a major collection at Hungarian modern art centre Modem

By James Brewer

A 21st century three-storey glass-fronted building stands out, but not incongruously, in the centre of the east Hungarian city of Debrecen. Most of the neighbouring salient buildings bear testimony to the city’s religious and political role from the 17th century onwards. What the new and old have in common is that they are all cultural beacons.

To spend time (it takes a good three hours to take in the wealth of artworks) in Modem, the Centre for Modern and Contemporary Art, is to become acquainted with one of central Europe’s great museums of this kind.

Modem shows its many faces.

Modem shows its many faces.

The development of 20th century Hungarian fine art is traced through the museum’s enormous Antal-Lusztig Collection. For Modem’s current exhibition entitled The Face, the portrait section of the Antal-Lusztig Collection is pressed into service to highlight significant milestones of Hungarian portrait painting.

A moving story lies behind the creation of the Antal-Lusztig Collection, which contains more than 3, 500 artworks.

The story has something of the remarkable spirit of the phoenix which is prominent in the coat of arms of Debrecen.

It starts in the 1920s when Sámuel Lusztig, a merchant of the small town of Derecske, which is 20 km south of Debrecen , began buying works of his contemporaries. Lusztig and his art collection suffered grievously under the wartime persecution of the Jews. Although his wife and four children perished in the extermination camps, Sámuel did survive and began to rebuild his collection. His only surviving daughter was a great support to him, and slowly pictures again began to cover the walls of his home.

Sámuel ’s grandson Péter Antal built up the collection, although at the age of 17 he already branched out into searching for representative works of more progressive Hungarian art.

Modem’s welcoming interior.

While studying law, Péter Antal  got to know two of the top artists of the time, Margit Anna and Lili Ország, and was familiar with the artists’ colony of Szentendre, near Budapest.

Mr Antal bought from studios and was donated paintings and bequests. He developed friendly relationships with Debrecen and deposited a significant part of the collection with the city, which entrusted its care to Modem. When it opened its doors to the public in 2006, Modem became the second largest art gallery in Hungry. There is plenty of space: the building, with a floor area of 4, 650 sq m, has 3, 000 sq m for exhibitions.

Modem prefaces its temporary exhibition The Face with a quote from science fiction writer and graphic artist Kurt Vonnegut: “Those of us who had imagination circuits built can look in someone’s face and see stories there; for the rest, a face is just a face.”

Another interior view.

The displays begin with 16th and 17th century Venetian majolica urns, and bronze and stone Roman heads.

Among modern works in the show is a selection from one-time railway station master József Rippl-Rónai (1861-1927) who studied in Paris with Mihály Munkácsy (1844-1900), the most important Hungarian realist painter.

Rippl-Rónai believed that for an artist, not only is his body of work significant, but also his modus vivendi, including the clothes he wears. He thus was interested in design, which led to commissions such as the dining room and the entire furnishings of the Andrássy palace in Budapest, and a stained-glass window in the Ernst Museum, also in the capital. Between 1911 and 1913 he had highly successful exhibitions in Frankfurt, Munich and Vienna.

It seems that Rippl-Rónai used almost any scrap of paper and materials he could lay his hands on as his canvases, witness Nicolovius, a fellow prisoner, walnut stain on paper (1915); and Ödön is angry, pencil and watercolour on paper (1921). Ödön was his brother, financial supporter, first chronicler and collector of his works. In 1906 József had drawn in pastel on paper The Art Collector Ödön Ronai. He favoured that medium in his early years, as shown by Woman with Black Hat from the 1890s.

Sunday Afternoon, by József Ripple-Rónai.

Sunday Afternoon, by József Ripple-Rónai.

A 1914 work in charcoal on paper is Madame Ricard, but Rippl-Rónai showed his mettle with oils on canvas in 1902 for Lady in Veil.

Adolf Fényes (1867-1945) met a grim fate after an early career studying in Budapest and Weimar andhelping to found the Szolnok artist colony. He and many other Jews faced increasingly harsh restrictions imposed by the anti-Semitic Horthy government, making it difficult for him to work. Interned in a labour camp in the 1930s, Fényes died of starvation at the end of World War II. A representative example at Modem of his output is Worker, oil on canvas, of 1900 or after.

An especially intriguing artist featured at Modem is Margit Anna (1913-91), one of Péter Antal’s friends. She shares her world view and sense of humour through several self-portraits,  small figures and heads, often done in chalk on tempera. Her 1983 work Gypsy Bride manifests her interest in folk art.  Her pictures speak of suppressed tragedy and the shadows over her personal life.

While in Paris with her painter husband, Imre Ámos, in 1937, they met Chagall and his influence can be seen in her early work. Both partners indulged in lyric presentation with grotesque, albeit unthreatening, elements.

Following the death of Ámos in a Nazi concentration camp in Germany in 1944 or 1945, Anna’s style is described as becoming harsher and more elemental, and from 1945 to 1948, a new motif of puppets appeared in her pictures, symbolising man exposed to history. After 1949, she withdrew from artistic activity and began to paint again only in the mid-1960s.

Puppet in Blue, by Margit Ana.

Ámos, who was born in 1907, was initially influenced by József Rippl-Rónai and Róbert Berény. His output is dominated by Biblical themes and mystical Jewish traditions, and he managed to produce some rather dark work during his imprisonment. Modem has some of his female portraits of 1940 to 1942, and Girl with Ribbon, watercolour on paper from 1939.

Surrealist Lili Ország (1926-78) was engrossed in architecture and archeology, which resulted in a distinctive style for works including in 1969 Never Existed Calendar, and Myths of Mankind.

Lajos Vajda (1908-41) followed the example of composers Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály to collect folk art motifs. His last abstract, surreal drawings foreshadow the horrors of World War II. Vajda, who died of tuberculosis, is considered the most distinctive figure of the Hungarian avant-garde movement, influencing generations of artists. Modem has on display Vajda self-portraits from 1925 to 1930.

From Dezső Korniss (1908-1984), a member of the Szentendre school, we see works dating from the late 1940s to 1972 reminiscent of abstract symbolist Joan Miró. His early oeuvre echoed Russian constructivism, Mondrian, and French surrealism. Later he too was influenced by Bartók’s exploration of folklore, but from 1968 he returned to constructive forms and geometric shapes.

Lest it be thought that the Modem team is parochial in its selections, one should note that alongside the Hungarian artistic galaxy they show international acquisitions and loans – which currently includePoppies (2000) by New York artist Jeff Koons. This is a print poster on paper, with felt-tip pen.

Modem presents 10 to 15 temporary exhibitions each year, together with concerts and theatre performances, workshops, conferences, and educational classes. Its website says that it “is not a museum in the traditional sense – it is much more of an institution where artists and art lovers can get together, a place where anyone can get a taste of the sovereign world of art.”

Website: http://www.modemart.hu/?nyelv=en

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