Hungarian Rhapsodies; Images from Budapest Shift Modernism into a New Key

Article excerpt

Byline: Deborah K. Dietsch , THE WASHINGTON TIMES

If your idea of Hungarian culture is Franz Liszt's piano music, think again. Hungary spawned some of the most forward-looking artists of the 20th century, particularly in the developing medium of photography.

Among these pioneering photographers were Endre Friedmann (known as Robert Capa), Andre Kertesz and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy who emigrated to the West and earned international fame.

Left behind in Budapest were artists as equally talented. Complementary exhibitions at American University's Katzen Art Center and the National Museum of Women in the Arts reveal their little known accomplishments through painting and photography created between the two world wars.

The small but fascinating displays are part of Extremely Hungary, a yearlong festival showcasing Hungarian visual, performing and literary arts at cultural institutions in Washington and New York.

The more surprising of the two is Lajos Vajda at the Katzen. This short-lived collagist and painter - Vajda died at age 33 - synthesized strains of art from East and West in unexpected ways. We would like to bond the art and the cultures of these two poles ... wanting to become bridge builders, he wrote in 1936

Vajda's photo collages were briefly introduced in the National Gallery of Art's marvelous 2007 exhibition, Foto: Modernity in Central Europe, 1918-1945 and the Katzen shows more of them along with his eclectic drawings and paintings.

The fast-moving survey comes across as a laboratory of visual ideas, shifting between abstract and figurative imagery. Vajda spent his brief career experimenting with different styles and media, as if searching for the right expression to represent the turbulence of his times.

A testing ground for the different political movements of the 20th century, Hungary moved from a monarchy to a democratic republic, a communist dictatorship, a Nazi-supportive regime, and back to communism, all within a few decades.

The ascendancy of the radical right led many artists and intellectuals to leave Hungary, as underscored by the itinerant careers of the female photographers whose work is displayed at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Like many of those photographers, Vajda was Jewish and subject to anti-Semitic laws passed in Hungary during the 1920s and 1930s.

He trained at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest and joined a group of artists led by magazine publisher and art critic Lajos Kassak, an influential Hungarian figure during the modernist era.

After being expelled by the academy for showing his work in what was considered a scandalous, leftist exhibition, Vajda moved to Paris in 1930.

His early graphic drawings, influenced by Russian constructivism, gave way to hallucinatory photomontages influenced by French surrealism. Such fragmented images proved to be apt metaphors for a continent torn apart by war and economic depression.

Vajda returned to Hungary in 1934 and shifted his focus to a more nationalistic art. Scenes of townscapes inspired by peasant villages combine line drawings with the fractured technique of his collages and cubist still lifes. This interest in vernacular architecture reflects the influence of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok who researched native folk tunes and incorporated them into his music.

In the late 1930s, as fascism overtook Hungary, Vajda's imagery became increasingly dark and disturbing. In the exhibit, portraits resembling Byzantine icons are followed by intensely hatched charcoal drawings of swirling shapes, some resembling plants.

This last series, executed on large sheets of butcher paper, foreshadows the gestural abstract painting popular in Europe and the United States during the postwar years. Vajda had found his voice but it was too late: in 1941, he died of tuberculosis in a Jewish forced-labor camp. …