oeuvre exhibition


Budapest History Musem
March  4–May 9.
curated by  Péter Zs. Mattyasovszky, Katalin S. Nagy 

The Farkas Villa


Who would believe that there was a time in Hungary when István Farkas could only be mentioned in a whisper? Who would believe that there was a time in Hungary when people did not take pride in his paintings; on the contrary, they hid them, or ostracized them?

I was walking along the Szigliget shore, between the green water and the mother's lap-like mountain arc called Aranykagyló. Up there, in the most pleasant of the steeply-sloping small valleys, facing the water and the blue glimmer of the opposite shore, a well-built villa was dreaming its dreams in grape-ripening sunshine. There I went, having been referred to the Szigliget artists' colony, inthe fervent ho pe that, among those blues, greens and golden yellows, something would come to me for the novell was writing at the time. But it was always just that villa that Game into my mind, in this semi-dreamlike way: I am walking, at some point in the depths of time, along that same shore and in that same astonishing light, my face turned towards the still vacant hillside: my eyes fill with longing and wonderment, and sudden ly my arm moves, my finger pointing forward and upward, as the statues of great men: "There!" -1 tell my companions who, chattering, keep lagging behind - "that is where you should build! "

I later found aut that this was almost what happened. Someone - a wealthy man - was walking down there, and he decided he wanted that place. He must have wanted it so badly and so eagerly that his desire shone through the decades and alighted on myself. "The Trade Union Resort" is what they called it. I waved my hand to express my bad mood and my foreboding. The house was shrouded in mystery. There were so many mysteries in this country at that time; here nearly everything was a mystery.

"Are you looking at the house?" I was asked by a lanky, cloudy-eyed old farmer who may have been a vine-grower, wearing a checked shirt and a spray can dangling from his hand. And here he dropped his already dim, ton eless voice. "The Farkas Villa," he said. "At the end there was only the young gentleman here. They took him away. You see... Poor man... Took hím wherever they took the Jews in those days..,"

But I had a long time to wait - years - untill finally found his paintings, these amazing works, in an album.

Those decaying figures, in the brilliant light of landscapes, or in somber interiors, radiate a love of life. Yet within them there lurks knowledge and, secretly, the presentiment of danger.

On the dust jacket of one of my books glows an ecstatic portrait by István Farkas of another

person who was "persecuted by fate," Dezső Szomory. And that these two outstanding artists made an appointment to meet on the cover of my book - weil, there must be some constellation at work, some mystery, some sadness. Endre Ady's melancholic line Game to mind in connection with Szomory:

"Our every minute is a small Hungarian destiny."

But more about Szomory another time, perhaps.

Now it is time for us to rejoice in the paintings of István Farkas.

 Imre Kertész


István Farkas, who was a defining figure in Hungarian intellectual life between the two world wars and ranks as a painter of outstanding importance even by European standards, was born in Budapest in 1887. His mother, Anna Goldberger (Buda, 1850-1892), died when he was only five yeasr old. His father, József Wolfner (1856-1932), was the founder of a company and of a substantial family fortune, and a publisher of newspapers and books (primarily – with the New Times publication – of a kind suited to the tastes of middle-aged Christian readers). He was also an art collector, the principal supporter of László Mednyánszky (1852-1919) and a buyer of works by Adolf Fényes, István Csók, János Vaszary and other contemporary artists. Farkas began painting at an early age and was taken on by Mednyánszky as a pupil. The way his teacher delved into the hidden dimensions of the human soul and the mystery of nature, and the sensuality with which he dealt with the substance of painting remained a defining experience throughout Farkas’s life. It is enough to study the emblematic picture Mednyánszky as an Old Man (Self-portrait, c. 1914) – which also appeared on the cover of the catalogue of the 2003 exhibition in the Hungarian National Gallery – to see a painting which defines in every respect the life-work of Farkas as it evolved: autononous, resistant to categorization, showing the painter’s passionate research into human nature, and thoroughly unorthodox.

In 1904, at the age of seventeen, he made his first appearance in an exhibition, when two of his pictures were displayed in the National Salon: an early starter who, however, was late maturing.

            He spent the summers of 1906 and 1907 at Nagybánya, painting landscapes under the guidance of Károly Ferenczy (1862-1917). These were aquarelles, and here he studied the importance of sketches, notes and drawings in the preparation of a picture. Here, too, he got to know the young artists who were introducing new styles: Armand Schönberger, Sándor Galimberti, Béni Ferenczy and Béla Czóbel. Two of his oil paintings appeared in the retrospective exhibition which was organized at the Nagybánya artists’ colony in 1912: Nagybánya Landscape and Child’s Head. In 1908 he took part in the study tours to Italy of Alfred Réth (1884-1966), who was living in Paris at the time.


         After much pleading, his father finally agrees, at the end of 1911, for him to go and study in Paris. Meanwhile, in Munich in the winter of 1910 he sees one exhibition of cubist works and another presenting other modern artistic movements, the catalogue of the latter featuring the writings of Henri Le Fauconnier (1881-1915), whom Farkas selects to be his teacher. (Recognition of Le Fauconnier only came posthumously; his role in modern art was finally established by retrospective exhibitions in New York in 1948 and Amsterdam in 1959.) Teaching, studying and working in the Académie La Palette alongside Le Fauconnier are Metzinger, Segonzac, Marcoussis, Ozenfant, Léger, Chagall, Fresnaye, József Csáky, Imre Szobotka – and István Farkas; the list speaks for itself. He soon starts painting cubist pictures (of which two are known to us from photographs). His childhood friend Alfréd Réth introduces him to Montparnasse and to Rainer Marie Rilke, his neighbour. And he makes friends with his later monographer, André Salmon (1881-1969), a poet, writer and aesthete who is one of Apollinaire’s circle of friends.

            He begins preparing for a solo exhibition, for the hot summer of 1914, when the outbreak of war shatters his fertile illusions, the peoples of the Montparnasse and their international, non-prejudiced ideals with one blow. As a native of a non-friendly country, Farkas has to return home immediately (though there are some who prefer internment). As an intelligence officer and artillery lieutenant in the Austro-Hungarian army he fights on horseback and by plane, on foot and by balloon, by car and astride a donkey from North Carpathia to Albania, drawing along the whole front in his war journal and sketchbooks, recording the pock-marked landscapes of war and the everyday experiences of the common soldiers and officers. His drawings are expressive and aggressively realistic. Already it is the character and behaviour in unusual surroundings of the outsiders standing aloof and the people of different ethnic origin and religions which interest him. He is decorated before spending a year in Italy as a prisoner of war.

            When he returns home, Mednyánszky and Ferenczy are dead and Miklós Horthy marches into Budapest. It is a different Hungary that he has come back to. And not just because of Trianon. Victory has gone to conservatism and the numerus clausus. He cannot continue where he left off. Instead of aesthetic questions and problems of form it is the fundamental problem of existence, the extreme and fateful questions which take centre stage. “… [T]his was the beginning: the beginning of the awareness of life in the twentieth century. The unimaginable happened to that generation: first and foremost, war on a vast scale; the rapid progress of the techniques of slaughter; plus the rest: the loss of two-thirds of the country; two revolutions; counter-revolutions; political banditry. Whoever came through all that was no longer the same person. …They were the first generation of the new era – those who suffered the First World War, who underwent the shift from “peace” to “war”: the unprepared. We can scarce imagine their wounds: they were a surface which had no protection whatsoever, either in terms of politics, nationality, ways of thinking and behaviour; accompanied by promenade music and in the age-old knowledge that Hungary extends from Liptószentmiklós to Brassó, from the Carpathians to the Adriatic, that banks were solid institutions and public education was becoming widespread. They lived in a world of clear, precise notions.” This was how Ágnes Nemes Nagy described this generation (Poet of the Hills, Budapest, 1984).

Looking for supports, in 1919 Farkas paints portraits of members of his family and people from his own bourgeois environment which are dignified and at the same time ironic; in 1920 Ernő Kállai (1890-1954), the most influential art critic of the time, states that “we can see those condemned to death in their cells on death row”. In these there is just makeshift colouring (eg. a distinctive, trademark green) or a characteristic Farkas accessory (eg. a pair of gloves that live an independent, if not bestial, life); yet the aggressive depiction leaves us in absolutely no doubt that István Farkas is the artist. In their heaviness and lassitude the figures anticipate the atmosphere of his later works (Seated Woman, 1919; Elderly Man Reading a Newspaper, 1919; Models, 1920). In their structure, built on contrasts between light and dark, and the technique which makes use of the advantages of oil painting, these works remain close to Romantic-Realist traditions. They feature items which will be associated with his great works of a decade hence: gloves, hands, hats, fur collars. Browns and purples still dominate – yet already, those features which will become the spiritual essence of the great Farkas pictures are starting to be formulated: disgust, foreignness, the unendurableness of the heat, the temperature of the world, incorrodible solitude, the feeling of being threatened.

            With his discovery of Bordighera, the small Italian town famous for its flower carnival, his depression lifts and his pastels display gentle, relaxed colours. “There is no work of art which could give me so much joy as nature and the picture that I see (if indeed I see it)”, wrote István Farkas in the journal which he kept during his travels in Italy in autumn 1920. The nature which István Farkas captured on canvas was not the same as the “nature experience” which Hungarian artists where then translating aesthetically and sensually into the post-impressionist trend that was linked to Nagybánya. There was none of the idyllic scenery, bucolic atmosphere, or “the world arranged as fiction” (Husserl). Farkas breaks away from the almost idyllic Nagybánya way of looking at landscape and the colouristic naturalism of the teacher there, Károly Ferenc. Between 1921 and 1923 he paints the beauty and indifference of the Balaton uplands area. It is through preparation by means of sketches, graphics, aquarelles and pastels that locations – Nagybánya, Paris, the Balkans, small Mediterranean towns, the Balaton uplands, then Toledo, and again Paris, Barbizon, Brittany, Provence, the seashore and finally Szigliget – have a part to play in his oeuvre; the places depicted in his paintings are not connected to place or location. Details from nature, landscape sketches, trees, waves, dogs, crabs, birds, old ladies, the coffee house, as well as theatre-goers, washerwomen, plants, flowers: they all form a mixture of the realist, impressionist and expressive jottings and designs for compositions made in the course of his travels, the physiological effects of forms, lines and colours. Details from the large number of drawings later appear in elaborated form in the great pictures: spiritually transformed, alienated and alienating, transported into the cosmic.

Between 1921 and 1924 he paints the Vilmácska series (Female Prophet, 1921; Vilma Filadelfai, 1922; Young Lady in a Pink Hat, 1923) with their strident colours, expressive application of paint and grotesque distortions. Farkas, now thirty years old, might well have chosen the path of late Expressionism, as shown by his powerful charcoal drawings (the City Park series, the In the Lodge series, the In the Café series and the Dalmatia series). The forms are abstracted, in keeping with the atmosphere; and the plays of light and dark, together with the geometric and organic forms with their play of tones and powerful vertical and horizontal divisions, are capable of producing sensual evocations as they rhythmically answer each other.

In 1923 he meets Ida Kohner (1895-1944) in the studio of Adolf Fényes, and in 1925 he marries her. The daughter of the banker, landowner and art collector Baron Adolf Kohner, she is a very highly educated girl who reads in nine languages and is a sensitive painter (Kohner’s major collection does not include a single Farkas work). In 1924 he organises his first solo exhibition, comprising 117 pictures, at the Ernst Museum. In spite of the positive critical reaction, conditions in Hungary are not conducive to development in the arts. A number of the Hungarian avant-garde from before the war – the “Eight” and the activists – have already gone to live abroad. And Lajos Tihanyi, László Moholy-Nagy and many others will never return.

In November of 1925 Farkas and his wife arrive in the Paris of the “crazy years” of the early twenties, of jazz and Josephine Baker, American writers, and cafés and pubs frequented by collectors. He rents a studio at Montparnasse, goes to the artists’ cafés, plays the drums at the Select in the evenings, and collects African sculptures. Sándor Márai, his partner on skiing trips, sums up the period thus: “During this year and the animated years which came after, the two artists’ cafés on the Rive Gauche, on the corner of the Boulevard Raspail, were the open university of the European intellectual and artistic movements. I never felt comfortable here, yet I was not happy if a day passed and I had not chatted away for an hour on one of the crowded terraces – chatted hoarsely, that is, as the coarse French tobacco corroded my throat, and tipsily: these were places where everyone drank… They were the Dome and the Rotonde – dozens of nightspots and restaurants would later open close by – and that year they were seen as one of the world’s main laboratories, where everything was feverishly cooked up and developed: revolutions and personalities, politics and passion.” His works at once appear in the exhibitions at the Salon des Tuileries alongside Matisse, Béla Czóbel, Delaunay, Tihany and Giacometti. He continues his “café” and “lodge” series of charcoal drawings which now have less of a grounding in reality than their predecessors: he is experimenting to see how the composition is influenced by omissions; curved and right-angled lines; unfinished, empty spaces; shapes which are little more than just marks; fusions and abstractions. There are two ways of looking at things which he is trying to fit together: cubism, with its abstract geometry, and expressionism which, full of emotion, has by this time virtually taken on the grotesque character of caricature. “I worked a great deal and was mainly desperately dissatisfied. Then, in 1926 or thereabouts, it was as if I had found myself and the ways I could express myself. Painting finally became a pleasure and not just torture.” (Lajos Kassák: Let us Live in our Times, Budapest, 1978).

In 1926 he discovers still-life as an ideal field of research, and Art Déco (we know of most of his paintings from this time from the black-and-white photographs of Marc Vaux, the Montparnasse photographer and founder of the Montparnasse Museum). Art Déco is a fusion of various modern, Avant-Garde stylistic characteristics, and the variation in its formal characteristics, the organization of the layering of the colour patches, the stylized depiction of the planes of projection, the stylized plant ornamentation, and its arrangement of forms in exotic cultures are entirely suitable for the painter who, on his return to Paris, could not find his cubist paintings. “Of all the experimenters it was the cubists that we have the most to thank for”, declared Farkas to Lajos Kassák (Lajos Kassák: Confessions of Fifteen Artists, Budapest, 1942). In Paris in 1925 he is unable to continue with Cubism, which he had studied in 1912 at the Académie La Palette, transferring instead the lessons learnt and the procedures to Art Déco. With his experiments with materials and textures, Alfréd Réth – with whom Farkas has family connections and whose portrait he is also painting (which is reproduced in the Montparnasse) – has a stimulating effect on him. His life-style at the time and his experiments in technique are fitting for the Art Déco approach, springing as it did from Cubism. In still-life it is the surface appearance, the way colours are inserted, and the pieces of paper and other raw materials which are stuck on as in a collage, which assume importance. Ida Kohner regularly keeps the art historian Károly Lyka (1869-1965) informed of her husband’s efforts and successes. In a letter dated 27 January 1927, she writes: “This was how he got to to the stage of the cardboard or piece of board which he had primed in white. In these newest pictures the material combines with the depth of the tempera and the delicate quality of the pastel, and with the glaze and transparency of the carefully-handled oil, where necessary. His work over the first year was concerned with developing and trying out the new material, with endorsing and exploiting its nobility, and its materiality (how it feels with charcoal, or in a greasy, coarse or dry state). The motifs in these pictures were puritan and as few of them as possible were well-balanced and succinct. All of this meant that they could not avoid having a suggestive effect (monumentality, charm, gaiety, sadness).

These small pictures are mainly composed of still-life components which Farkas could see around him every day – yet the pear or cup, etc. (as a French friend of ours rightly remarked) is not just attractive by dint of the lovely material used or its materiality; “the pear” and “the cup” are depicted as individuals with a fate of their own.”

In another letter to Lyka, written later that same year, she happily reports on her husband’s latest achievements: “At the following exhibition at the Salon des Tuileries (in April 1927), to which he was again invited, Farkas showed 5 pictures which were placed in one of the best rooms. Some of these – compared with previous years – were freer, more direct, richer, with a more sovereign use of the various building blocks which had been crafted from the painstakingly conquered new material. Pista (Farkas István) often said that the essence of every good artistic creation is formed by something miraculous – miraculeux – whatever form, composition, colour, etc. it is given. In Pista’s newest pictures this “miraculeux” essence (to use his expression) is principally what captures the attention of the beholder.”

The base of white chalk, the fattura and the effect of relief make for a strange aesthetic experience. In 1928-29 Farkas begins to use colours which were not usual for him (turquoise, lilac-pink) and which also appear in his paintings of 1930-34 and 1941-43. With their decorative quality these help him to become an accepted and successful painter of works which are regarded as sensitive and of a high standard – a “French” painter, no less. He is regularly written about by celebrated experts of the day in the “Montparnasse” and other French and Belgian journals (more than three dozen articles about him appear in twenty-two publications between 1926 and 1929) and his works are reproduced. Farkas numbered among illustrious group of artists in Paris who were attracting attention at the end of the twenties and the beginning of the thirties and included: Braque, Csáky, Derain, Dufy, Pierre Flouquet (he becomes a close friend of Flouquet, who visits him several times in Budapest, and their correspondence lasts until the death of Farkas), Foujita, Gleizes, Gris, Le Fauconnier, Léger, Lhote, Marcouissis, Matisse, Picasso, and Vlaminck. The members of the École de Paris, the roots of which are in Cubism. The name “École de Paris” was coined in 1925 by the writer on art André Warnod (although it had existed for twenty years), and in the same year a book and numerous articles with the same name appear. The estimation of Farkas is reinforced by the Biennale of Venice in 1928, in which he takes part: indeed, the recognition is extended to all the foreign artists living and creating in Paris – the whole of Montparnasse.

Farkas would have been regarded as an artist of significance even if these had been the only pictures he painted, and they are sought after by his first serious collectors (the American Chester Dale, the Spanish Oliverez, the French architects Perret and Le Corbusier, and Marcell Nemes).

From the techniques of oil, which are easier to handle and provide a greater degree of freedom of expression, he moves to tempera, working on cardboard or board with a white base composed of his own mixture of plaster and glue. The essence of tempera is its binding material, the emulsion, which is made by mixing aqueous and oily substances. It dries quickly and therefore requires decisive application of the paint. True, the technique is complicated, but the result is clear, glowing colours with no greasy patches. The coarse, dry material suits Farkas’s puritan motifs. From the starting-point of the synthetic Cubism of the still-life series, he goes on to use geometrical grids and logical patterns. The rich tapestry of lines ensures movement and, in spite of the freeze-frame effect, liveliness. The role of the wallpaper design is similar to that in the still-lifes of Braque between 1924 and 1926. The broken, porous fatturas are replaced by large, clear surfaces (Still Life, 1926; Still Life with Pipe, 1926). The approach of the second part of the strict, grandiose, categorically simplified period is more artistic and the subjects are exotic (Madagascar, 1927; Sumatra, 1927; Red Cage, 1928).

He steps out into space and combines objects seen from close-to in the foreground with vistas and external scenes. He leaves the spontaneous tracing of lines, the hatching and stippling; the drawings show through the paintings done with a brush, and the lines still have a role to play – but the compositions are more complex. The virtual space is saturated with a calm which is impregnated with warmth, light and sensuality. In the floating, exotic atmosphere the space seems to be raised up out of the picture and not to become lost in it, as happens with traditional perspective. It is as if it moves closer to the viewer and does not get further away: thus we are drawn into the picture and become part of it. A number of Farkas’s contemporaries, from Matisse to Kandinszky, experiment with this way of depicting space so as to approach the viewer. In these pictures Farkas discovers the spiritual space which seems to rise up out of the painting, and this is to become a significant feature of his great pictures. He also finds a number of other basic motifs in these cheerful still-lifes and the compositions in which still-life gives over to exotic landscapes. In around 1925 Braque, Picasso and Matisse return to a more naturalistic conception of painting which results in virtuoso simplification in the work of all three of them. With colours, lines and light they create ornamental webs which are full of life; rather than turning away from an object, they surround it with sensitive luminousness. And this is in keeping with the idiom of the time. The advertisements, fashion drawings, fashion magazines and of course films are couched in this visual language which is linear, has an abstract-ornamental pureness and is founded on bright colours.

Starting from 1928, his work is regularly featured in the Marcelle Berr de Turique’s  Le Portique gallery, as is that of Matisse. This is how, in 1979, the gallery owner remembered their first meeting: “I sat there, without speaking, and waited for him to unpack them. (…) In no time at all I was won over. I was suddenly face-to-face with a new way of looking at reality, things and atmosphere which suffused everything with light. It was a strange, refined way of painting: half-way between the real and the unreal, with frequently-used matt colours which were suggestive of walking on the moon. There was every possible shade of grey, from black to brown, from the threatening darkness of the clouds to white, from silver-grey to mother-of-pearl. In a calm, broad scene there would suddenly be, for example, a garden chair, a strangely human, spiritual object, waiting, as it were, “for something to happen”, for somebody to come and sit in it. Where did a Hungarian get this nostalgia, so characteristic of the North? Then, suddenly, in the midst of this delicate, melancholic atmosphere I noticed a tubby, red-faced woman holding an apple-green sunshade… and I was thoroughly bewitched.

This, then, was how the adventure started: with somebody who was powerful, energetic, jealous, impatient, cruel and fascinating, and who could cause a surprise with a simple kiss of the hand.”

André Kertész (1894-1985) took photographs of the scrupulously clean studio with its laboratory-like austerity and of the artist inside it. Kertész also lives in Paris, from 1925 to 1934, and, like Farkas, also exhibits.

André Salmon, a friend of Farkas’s from his younger days, proposes to write poems to accompany the ten pictures forming a series of the artist’s new and inspirational works. Thus the Correspondance portfolio was born (the title is a reference to Baudelaire), out of the exotic landscapes and undersea landscapes series, and it was later published, in 1928, in the Éditions des Chroniques du Jour. The description in Hungarian states that “the 10 colour reproductions were made by the pochoir technique, under the supervision of the artist and corrected by his own hand. The poems are phototypes of Salmon’s handwritten work.” Pochoir, which was the popular stencil technique of the time, was the most suitable way of reproducing the tempera paintings of Farkas, and of representing the original colours, the fattura, and the way the surface was moulded. The prints correspond closely to the paintings they were based on. Lajos Kassák (1887-1967), referring to the print entitled In the Waters’ Depths states: “I feel that for the first time we can find in this picture the passionately sensitive and colourfully rich personality which is made up of the enigmatic elements of István Farkas.”

Ever since Gauguin it has often happened that painters (eg. Klee, Macke) seek out exotic landscapes for fresh inspiration. Even the level-headed, professorial Matisse travels to Tahiti in 1930 and spends months there, intoxicated and overcome by the spectacle. As if there were still a refuge from civilization, from a Europe which was once again rushing headlong to its ruin, from economic crisis and the ever more burdensome ordeals of reality. Yet original purity, innocence and oblivious joy do not exist anywhere else: only in art.

In the sea and the underwater scenes and his exotic still-life landscapes, Farkas finds the world of the fugitive and the locations where he longs to escape from the crises. It is the Mediterranean landscapes, Dalmatia, southern Spain, and then the coast of the South of France, which give him strength, broadening and inspiring his range of artistic expressions. It is no coincidence that these pictures pre-date the dramatic series of the great pictures. The characteristic and well-known period before Farkas’s pictures was one of praise for abstract beauty, luxuriating in the beauty of form and enjoyment of a creation which is inherently, and for its own sake, beautiful.

As well as his colours capturing the light of mother-of-pearl, his mallows, enigmatic pinks, velvety greys and icon blues, and the fact that these are composite parts of an independent system, Farkas makes us believe that the sea is the beginning, the germ of all life, and that the water from the mother’s lap is full of radiance, and that these parts are, in their dimmed state, in fact full of intensive colours. It is a scene with instrumentation which is well- or less-well known. The boundlessness of the depths of the ocean, which lightens with the effect of the light falling into it, reveals itself and we are able to penetrate this immense, moving universe. In the weak lighting it is the colour blue which our eyes are most sensitive to, and Farkas also uses this when selecting his chromatic method. His blues lend a crepuscular mysteriousness to the landscapes under the sea. And as a subtle touch he generally adds a plain, black, level surface to the picture, which encourages reflections.

This is perhaps the happiest, most balanced period of Farkas’s life. Three children, success in his profession, summers spent by the sea in the South: it may be that these few years represent complete security.

Neither does the Self-Portrait series offer any clue as to why Farkas does not continue to paint the characteristic École de Paris-style pictures which had already brought him success. His self-portaits show a graphically restless inner world with a self-deprecation which is grotesque and bitter. His nightmare visions are there behind the almost theatrically closed eyes: eyes which are closed in every self-portrait. At the same time there is a strong stress on his own sexuality, and he depicts the self as one which is sexually potent, manly and active. It is a creative, productive self, its abilities completely enclosed in their armour. He is between forty and forty-two years old, at the peak of manhood. The years which follow are fertile: his children are born and his most significant pictures are produced. Alongside the models with their large hands, the Last of the Mohicans for middle-class existence, and then everything which symbolically represents Paris in modernity and culture – in other words, following Farkas’s two great periods – the preservation of continuity, the motives which are maintained and the characteristic features of the painting style – alongside all these, something essential undergoes a palpable change.

He begins to paint terrifying and haunting pictures. These are not easy to live with, unlike the visions of the surreal, deep-sea still-lifes and the exotic compositions evocative of nostalgia. There has always been something of the anomalous in Farkas. He feels homeless in the habitable world. The series comprising Woman with Gloves (Countess Zay, Portrait of Countess Z.G, 1931), the old woman of On a Tram (1932), A Superstitious Afternoon (A Hanged Man, 1930), Beautiful View (1930), The Madman of Syracuse (1930), Twilight (Evening, 1931), Black Women (Women in Black, The Women in Black, 1931), The Red Table (Round the Red Table, 1931), Young Drunk Poet and His Mother (1932), Promenade (After the Storm, 1934) and Doom (Red Beard, 1934) is an unintentional series, a large-scale drama of fate with recurring scenes and in which the subjects somehow belong together.

Around two-dozen wooden boards and a few stretched canvases. And paintings, mainly tempera. Patches of colour which are related to every other patch of colour on the surface. Colour tones, lights, shadows, patches of colour, ochres, greens, blues, mauves, sometimes cold, sometimes warm: Farkas’s colours are instantly recognisable, his pictures readily identifiable from one single detail. The thin layers often do not cover the surface. Brush strokes of variable intensity. The lines and colours become married as motifs. Faces with eye sockets without eyeballs, blind buildings without panes of glass in them, gloves ready to slaughter, the knob of the walking-stick as a weapon, women’s headgear, the leafless, bare trees condemned to death, the disturbing shapes and figures moving into the distance. Goblin-figures designed to frighten, monsters, things, the functionally disharmonic chairs and tables, the old-fashioned, floor-length garments, the raised horizon – the motifs are charged with significance and are never made independent from the context of the picture and the means of depiction.

The dimensions are also important. Farkas’s pictures which are of the greatest significance are large: not meant for the shop-window or as decorations for an apartment. The ancient women, the ancient men, the stretched-out, disembodied shadow-figures, the broad faces, the gloved hands: in the paintings the things, the beings are unreal and cannot be grasped. If they are given the oversized dimensions they have in Farkas’s pictures, they will grow into something frightening, threatening and inaccessible in the viewer.

Alongside painting the frozen-image, theatrical scenes, the players in a strange human drama, between 1930 and 1932 Farkas paints pictures in which there are either no people or, if there are, they are just insignificant staffage figures in the distance, accessories in the space, in the grim, broad-scale landscape (The Bridge, 1930; The Wave, 1930; Grand Hotels and Lighthouse, 1930; Green and Black, 1930; Deserted Town, 1931). How endless is the space and how endlessly insignificant the human being; how significant the sea, the sky, the mountains, the roads and how lacking in significance the human being. Farkas is asking: what is the human being? Defenceless beings in the face of blind, indifferent external nature, and in the face of themselves and their malevolence and envy, their hatred which reaches frenzied heights, their malice, disgust, their indifference towards each other. The roads do not lead to peaceful places. The buildings are uninhabitable. The town is empty. The sea and the sky repulse. The people do not touch each other, and if they do, it is worse than if they did not touch each other at all. Farkas’s world is homeless, uninhabitable; it cannot be lived in. The empty space may be the bare stage, but it is difficult to believe that something might be coming into life somehow. It is nothingness: there is no material or transcendental power which might haul back the dead, silent world from its fall into irrationality.

In 1929 the economic crisis which is afflicting the whole world catches up with Ida Kohner’s family, and her father, Baron Adolf Kohner, an upper-middle-class landowner, is forced to sell his art collection which contains the cream of the French and Hungarian impressionists. Paris also changes and the opportunities for selling paintings are reduced. The shadow of falling into the power of the Nazis appears over a Germany struggling with six million unemployed. Fascist ideology slowly and slyly percolates in, drop by drop… The dovetailing between middle-class culture, democracy and liberalism creaks and cracks.

1930 sees the appearance of Mario and the Magician, Thomas Mann’s prophetic work. In March of 1930, Mihály Babits writes in the journal Nyugat: “Barbarian powers are stretching around us in the darkness.” In 1930 the Revolt of the Masses appears, the ominous  work by Ortega y Gassat. Farkas paints the most outstanding pieces of his entire oeuvre: The Madman of Syracuse, Beautiful View, A Superstitious Afternoon, and The Wave, the essence of which is the same as in Mann’s novella and Ortega’s philosophical work. Man’s dreadful isolation and defencelessness. The bleakness of existence. The fragility and frailty of the outcast soul. The work which is unfinishable. Finiteness in the midst of processes. The similarity is a given one, though Farkas’s language is one of pictures: in his creations the painter’s messages and means of depiction are a substitute for words.

Farkas is forty-three years old and an established, successful painter. As well as at the Le Portique Galérie, where his exhibition follows one by Matisse, he has two other solo exhibitions, in Brussels and Ostend, and he also appears in three group exhibitions, one of which is in America. He is reviewed in a number of articles and studies. He has no financial worries; Farkas pictures are being bought up by famous collectors. His three children are, as his drawings show, growing up well and steadily. The family spends the summers at Barbizon. “He arranged the summer house which he rented for a season at Barbizon in a way which showed great cultivation and a sureness of taste, including rare books, a concert piano and valuable furniture” (from the reminiscences of Marcelle Berr de Turique). He then spent the summer with his two elder children at the seaside at St. Maxime, in the Villa Lou Pantac.

How easy it would be to deal straight away with the middle-class awareness of the crisis and the crisis situation itself with a universally explaining principle, and to squeeze Farkas’s paintings into a moralising-psychologising model of crisis conception. But this would only leave the incomprehensible secret as the essence, which is what his pictures are about: the relationship linking “existence” with “existing”. He poses the same question as Heidegger: “how can it be possible to understand the disclosure of being according to Dasein?” Do people nowadays really ever encounter themselves, their own essence? This is Farkas’s question.

In the case of István Farkas the attitude of the interpretor – the understanding of “things” – is especially complex, since the aesthetic, psychological, socio-historical and ethical complexity have their origin in problems of values and threatened existence. In the case of Farkas’s “dual” portraits, showing personal dramas and “saying something about something” (two old ladies; old lady – old man; old lady – young man) and the impersonal landscapes with cosmic references in their breadth (and in which people are superfluous, no more than decorations), the similar visualisation of the experience of existence scarcely works without the use of the imagination. People prefer to try and forget, to brush aside what it is uncomfortable to take notice of, even minimally. The unbearable wretchedness of existence, the defencelessness in the face of too many things, the continuous presence of death – why should we like the figures in the Farkas panopticum? Should we bear in mind irrationalities? The idea of being dispossessed? Absurdities? Cheerlessness? The traps hidden in human relationships and, of course, in reality in the glorious nature of their indifference? The negative existence of the beings created by Farkas and their way of being is repulsive in nature; their superiority is imagined, the loathing which is spread over them and around them, the indifference and impotence all these are conveyed through the pictorial means, through the method of painting.

It must be stressed that we are not dealing here with philosophy, theory, ideologies or with works for the theatre or literature; no, we are concerned with pictures. With mediation beyond words, or rather outside words. When we speak of Farkas, we write: we form words; and though he used colours and shapes and composed, deciding what to place on the surface and what not to, the movement of his hand, the lumps of colour, the empty spaces and the filled spaces, the patches – these contain all that the interpreter attempts to express.

He makes use of the following possibility: he places a shape (a figure, an object, anything) in the picture, precisely and powerfully. We can see the determined movement with which it is placed on the surface. Then comes the uncertainty as he washes in, erasing from the contour lines and taking back from the paint. The no immediately next to the yes. He paints shapeless patches. Manly toughness and nightmarish sensitivity. Concreteness which can be physically grasped and wavering intangibility which just swims away. A vision of reality – an envisioned reality. But they are not entangled in an affected way, as with so many orthodox surrealists; they do not slide together as with so many lyrical, sentimental visionaries. There is a limit, even if it too wavers, as if between the normal and the abnormal, between life and death. Death smirks at us from too close-by in his paintings. The living corpses of his old ladies and his winding roads rushing down to Charon’s ferry. Most of the pictures from this period are visions of “being and nothingness”. These are not misconceptions or forced notions; it is sorcery or superstition (referred to by the titles) and demons forcing their way into the human nervous system which we are concerned with, and this is something anyone can go through without becoming insane. He remains within the bounds of what is tolerable, and perhaps this is why he uses earth colours, evoking the calming sense of nature.

The characterful works which originate between 1930 and 1934 derive perhaps from Edvard Munch (1863-1944) and James Ensor (1860-1949). Munch paints the despairing cry of the soul suffering in the grip of anguish, isolation and death. Farkas would have recognised his visions, the isolated figures excluded from the world, his hellish interiors and vortical scenic details. There is something of the panopticum in James Ensor’s pictures, which often feature masks. Farkas’s figures are mask-face images. “Man is nothing until he combines with his image” writes Yeats in one of his plays. The players on Farkas’s stage are mainly either massively challenging, repulsive, threatening, depraved, or uncomfortable, beings bearing danger and destiny, veritable monsters, or they are restless, intangible anti-beings gliding past, ghostly shapes, background figures which are scarcely identifiable. He either intimates drama with the sure stepping onto the stage of the dual portraits, or we see barely-existing, illusory figures and shadows, players in an intangible tragedy.

Farkas’s great pictures from the years 1930-1934 are existential paintings. And what did this era bear in its womb, where was Europe being mindlessly swept away to? The middle-class lifestyle was “disintegrating”. “The past was shattering”, “the iron world held sway” (Attila József).

In 1934, when Farkas paints two more outstanding, seminal works (Promenade, After the Storm; Doom, Red Beard); Attila József’s Dance of the Bear, Sándor Márai’s A Citizen’s Confession and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World appear in Hungarian, and many European artists escape to the United States. The “night of the long knives” takes place in Germany.

In 1932, Farkas exhibits his “great works” in the Ernst Museum. However, his father, who supported István Nagy, József Egry and other contemporaries, dies without knowing that his son has become a painter of significance. His works are bought by Hungarian collectors (Imre Oltványi-Ártinger, Lajos Fruchter, Mór Lipót Herczog, etc.). In 1936 he once again appears at the Ernst Museum, this time with 129 works. André Salmon’s book on István Farkas appears in Paris. In it he writes: “an ardent son of Hungary and a warrior patriot who stands above the vanity of nationalism”, stressing Farkas’s “ability to express dreams with the most complete symbols of Reality”.

He had to come home. He assumes the directorship of the Wolfner-Singer company, providing a livelihood for his family, relatives and needy fellow-artists. (In 1929 his father names him as the sole inheritor of his movable and immovable property.) Benedek Marcell remembers thus in his journal: “József Wolfner died and his place was taken by his son who had returned home from Paris: the highly-talented painter of thrillingly strange pictures, István Farkas. From the evidence of his pictures and his words he was much more distant from the spirit of the company than even I was. But for the moment he set to the task… Spiritually, everything remained as before. The patriarchal system continued: relatively low pay but complete security and tender care. Yet something had changed. István Farkas was said by many to be mad, and he too used to like to say this of himself. And indeed it is possible to recognise in his pictures that he sees the world as a suspicious adversary: people and landscapes alike. In the foreground of these pictures stands an iron chair painted white. It is the most evil, most frightening beast that I have ever seen in my life… Farkas was mistrustful of everone and everything. But in spite of this, he was able to appreciate and even like people, to help them and care for them. And he provided me with countless examples to prove it. But at the foundation of his whole life – and now as head of the company – lay suspicion and mistrust.”

He returns a number of times to his studio in Paris, which he has kept on, but only starts painting again in 1937, at Szigliget, after another gap of more than three years. Here he finds it difficult to form relationships, something which is made more difficult by his activities in supporting other artists. Alongside works by Mednyánszky, István Nagy and Gyula Rudnay, which he has inherited from his father, he regularly buys works by his contemporaries and young artists (József Egry, the Ferenczy brothers, János Kmetty, Jenő Gadányi, Gyula Hincz, etc.) and plans to set up a modern Hungarian museum. People see only the rich publisher in him and not the painter. Some rate his work very highly (Kassák, Egry, Barcsay, Tibor Vilt, Berény, Ernő Kállai, Lyka, Aurél Kárpáti, Márai, Tersánszky), but the others – most of the Gresham circle – become estranged from him (this will later be a reason for his difficulties in being accepted, in the sixties and seventies).

The years which follow are contradictory in character. In 1935 Hitler launches an attack on modern art. A book on Farkas by Jenő Nyilas Kolb appears in the Ars Hungarica series. In 1936 Horthy visits Hitler, Garcia Lorca is murdered in Spain, and Chaplin’s Modern Times is first shown; Farkas meanwhile organises his third major exhibition in the Ernst Museum. In 1937 an announcement is made in Hungary that there is a “Jewish question”, and three weeks later, Lajos Ernst, the owner of the Ernst Museum, commits suicide. Farkas’s wife, Ida Kohner, makes her debut with a solo exhibition of her works.

In 1938 the first Jewish law is passed. Farkas paints his great aquarelle series. From the very beginning he has regularly painted aquarelles: landscapes, still-lifes, the sea-shore, scenes in coffee-houses, his children. Aesthetic notes, scribblings, reminiscences, exercises. Yet it is only the aquarelles produced after 1938 which are on a par with his paintings. He paints on large-scale, thick cardboard, using lively colours and frequently imitating his oil painting technique. The aquarelles intended as paintings are not completed in such a spontaneous, delicate way as are the silken-toned, azure aquarelles painted as sketch studies. Farkas worked in a mixture of techniques on these large-scale works on cardboard, in the style of gouache-aquarelle, and this is the reason why sometimes the effect of oil painting is created, whilst sometimes the effect is of tempera-like dimness (Grief, Graveyard Entrance, 1938; The Márkus’s with Barcsay, 1938).


At this time he paints two pictures which are strange, expressive and beautiful: his pictures of reminiscence. These are Country Town and Memory of the Balaton. Elegaic paintings. Farkas’s relationship with death has changed: he accepts death like someone who “… knows that he gets life over and above death” (Attila József), and that “death is not such a big deal” (Mihály Babits). The strange atmosphere of sorrow in the pictures, full of sadness, make the viewer think rather of the long silences of Bergman films of the sixties (The End of the Day), with their shadows cast over the world. “Oh no, we have to die, we have to die” complains the poet Mihály Babits, his strangling cry resembling his words. These two pictures stand out from Farkas’s works which appeared in the second half of the thirties in their method of procedure as paintings and in their ethical intention and undertaking. Their gentler atmosphere and sensitive, lyrical method of painting do not repudiate Farkas’s world – rather, they re-interpret it in a different kind of quality. But the tragic voice breaks out in Night Scene and View, which were also painted in 1938.

Farkas’s works of between 1935 and 1940 distance themselves from the events taking place in international painting. He becomes locked away in the narrowness of life in Hungary. And then this artist whose spiritual horizon is Paris, and who kept pace with his contemporaries in cubism from 1911 to 1914 and from 1925 to 1929 with those in the École de Paris creates, between 1930 and 1934, an independent world in which the intellectuality, spirituality and middle-class culture of turn-of-the-century Central Europe is linked, in the foundered Austro-Hungarian Monarchy of Musil, Rilke, Kafka and Freud, with the attitude towards life represented by early existentialism; uncertain, modern human existence; a sense of being split apart; seed thrown into nothingness; emptiness; incompleteness. After three such periods of creativity it cannot be easy to confront the idea that existence here in Hungary, existence as a book and newspaper publisher and a patron of the arts, scarcely makes it possible to return to the mainstream international art world.

On 1 September 1939, the Second World War breaks out and the second Jewish law comes into effect. The Nazis burn 3,825 modern paintings in Berlin. Farkas looks around in London and stows away some of his pictures there, but he is unwilling to desert the company. His hope is that his decorations gained in the First World War will make him a privileged Jew. Most Jews have a similar hope. Together with Ida Kohner, he even buys a house in Diana Street. He paints Twilight, a work full of hope. He produces a series of drawings which are almost bucolic and which are similar in tone to the poems of his contemporary Miklós Radnóti on the subject of nature as the giver of hope. And he paints Woman at the Window and Man and Woman at the Window. The closed and the open and the conflict between them, are the source of a number of structural and colour tensions and thus represent a challenge for the painter. This is a subject which Farkas likes. It often reappears in his sketches for drawings and aquarelles – in the picture entitled Promenade Concert, for example, as a detail, and in the two pictures mentioned above as a main subject. He spends a large proportion of his last years in Szigliget, at the foot of the Kamonkő, and here he establishes his studio, to which only members of his closest circle of friends are invited. He and József Egry (1883-1951), a painter who lives in Badacsony, pay regular visits to each other. His state of health is poor and he is troubled by serious bowel complaints.

In 1941, Germany attacks the Soviet Union. The third Jewish law is passed. Farkas is compelled to dismiss some Jewish employees from the company. He paints Memory of War, which is based on his memories of the First World War. The volunteer officer of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy is now threatened by the nightmare of forced labour.

1941 is the last major year for Farkas’s painting. A sudden change takes place after the graphic works of 1935-1938 and then the calming, resigned paintings of 1938-1939. It is as if he suddenly wants to free himself from the responsibility of book publishing and start concentrating on painting again. He is fifty-four. There is more or less a repeat of the feat which was seen in 1930-1931 and in 1934. István Farkas is what he is because of what he produced in those years. 1941 sees a reappearance of the permanent figures of the Farkas panopticum: the accessories serving as the message; the astonishing, challenging colours; the characteristic broad, swift and dynamic brushwork, with the minute tinkering and virtually empty colour surfaces. Again these are, literally, existential paintings, possibly in answer to history, fate, the tragic challenge of individual existence, the questions which are unsettling and frighteningly threatening to essence and existence. Once again – and for the last time, as fate would have it – it is a harping on the fundamental problems of being-self-awareness, naturally expressed in the language of painting.

It is the end of a family saga. One final visit of the old lady, the mysterious letters, the men in their subordinate role, the grim, repulsive faces, pincher-like gloves: it is Farkas’s farewell.

The words of Hofmannstahl are appropriate for the world of his paintings: “We have to bid farewell to a world before it crumbles. Many people realise this… They go among us with a stout heart, untied from everything and yet chained deep down… That which is now has ceased to exist for them; but what is to come, their lips are unable to tell.” Farkas returns to his great pictures of the beginning of the thirties in terms of their painting method and colours; he returns to the intensive, artistic brushwork, although using more refined colours than a decade before. He works in oil on the wooden boards, but this time they are treated as if they were tempera, and the painting is executed directly, without any preliminary sketching. There are references to his previous pictures. Motifs reappear: the glove, the hand, the umbrella, the coat button. The landscape and the background are again simplified; there is no real perspective. The features which appear are the same. Only the painter has undergone a fundamental change: he has become more accepting and understanding of the horrifying nature of the world; he has realised that the irrational is the real.

What has man become, and what can man become: this is the essence of the series. And of the titles which Farkas gave to his paintings: He’s Gone (Dedicated to Sadistic Swineherd With Love, Thy Will Has Been Done), 1941; That’s What He Said (The Ancient Mariner and the Old Woman), 1941; It’s Over (Thy Will Has Been Done, The Blind Woman), 1941; The Letter (Reading a Letter), 1941. The anguish and fear which became elemental parts of the pictures in 1930 (and which are lurking in 1919 and 1921 as well, like accompanying shadows) here reach a crescendo of unbearable pressure. Existence is bleak, and the repulsive colours are stronger. There is no future, no place, no time, no surrounding world: there is just nothing, empty space, absence. What do these figures and beings that exist still exist on, in fact – and where?

Two paintings from 1941 – Something Happened? and Composition – are suggestive of a promising continuation. They are compositions which feature a more closed, more crowded space and substantially more elements than the great pictures which have appeared so far, and they have a kind of lyrically expressive subjectivity which is almost reminiscent of gesture painting, and a painting method which lays bare the painter’s self (see Something Happened? with its white chrysanthemums), something which Farkas had previously made use of only in his sketchbooks, small-scale landscapes and interior aquarelles.

In 1943 he organises a successful exhibition in the Tamás Gallery, the catalogue for which features an introduction by Ernő Kállai. Reviews appear in the Nyugat (Zoltán Farkas), the Híd (Lajos Kassák) and the Ünnep (Gábor Ö. Pogány), and articles and exhibition reviews appear in another fifteen magazines. Even now, many people in Hungary know that he is one of the most original and individual artists, one who deserves a distinguished place in Hungarian art history.

François Gachot – together with whom Farkas the book publisher has books written in the Art Hongrois series on Rippl-Rónai, Csontváry and Béni Ferenczy – urges him to travel abroad at once. “What am I, that I should abandon the sinking ship? For money!?”, is how he responds, in speech and in writing.

On 19 March 1944, when Hungary is occupied by the Germans, people warn him that he should go, but he does not abandon the sinking ship. On April 5th  he sews on the yellow star with his own hands. On April 15th the general secretary of the Chamber of Journalists hands over the names of fifty-four Jewish journalists to the Germans; that of István Farkas is the last, hand-written. The person who added his name had previously named director of the Singer-Wolfner company. The sculptor Pál Pátzay suggests that he go into hiding.

First the collection point in Rökk Szilárd Street, then the internment camp at Kistarcsa. Ferenc Herczeg later turns to the governing Miklós Horthy. On June 23rd, the last message, from Kecskemét: “when human dignity becomes so abased, it is not worth staying alive.” In Auschwitz the fifty-seven year-old Farkas is, according to some accounts, instructed to join the old people and the children, whilst others say that he voluntarily went and stood with them. “And nothing more. All that was left, all that was left was that he forgot to cry out before falling to the ground”. (János Pilinszky)

“Mednyánszky was an isolated figure in the ranks of our great masters”, writes Károly Lyka in 1942. The same might be said of his one-time pupil István Farkas. The mysterious note in Mednyánszky’s Parisian journal, quoted by Ernő Kállai in the book on Mednyánszky which Farkas urged to be written, could also be applied to István Farkas: “Everywhere and yet nowhere a foreigner, and yet everywhere homeless.”



Katalin S. Nagy