In the Eye of the Storm
A new exhibition at Glasgow’s Collins Gallery focuses on a hitherto marginalised period in Hungarian architecture and design, as Leon McDermott discovers
The first half of the last century was a period of uproar and turmoil for nearly all of Europe, but few nations went through as much tumult as Hungary. Devastated by the first world war, a Bolshevik revolution, a subsequent right wing backlash, partition, subdivision, another war, and, come 1956, the iron hand of post-Stalinist Russia rolling tanks through the capital, Budapest, to assert a communist authority which would last until 1989, Hungary’s culture was beaten down, its brightest talents forced to flee to the West.
Google Lili Màrkus, a ceramicist and designer, her husband Viktor (a structural engineer), or their collaborator, architect and designer Lajos Kosma and you won’t find much; sift through dusty tomes on central European art and mid-20th century modernism, and you’ll be left similarly wanting. So, In the Eye of the Storm, a new show in Glasgow’s Collins Gallery which shines a light on Hungarian modernist design, arts and crafts, is a much needed corrective to half a century of ignorance.
For co-curator Juliet Kinchin – recently appointed curator of design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and formerly part of Glasgow University’s Art History department – In the Eye of the Storm is the culmination of years of work in a field which is unknown outside of a select group of experts. Focusing on the years 1930 to 1960, the exhibition, says Kinchin, showcases ‘a really vibrant period of Hungarian architecture and design we’re only just beginning to rediscover; even in Hungary itself, once you got into the communist era, this [area] was not looked at.’ Many artists and designers who remained in the country after the 1956 revolution saw their work purged by officialdom, according to Kinchin, ‘so there’s now this process of readjustment and it’s beginning to reshape our sense of the development of the modern movement internationally.’
The Màrkuses, for example, ‘were incredibly well-known in their day; they weren’t just local, provincial artists. Lili, who is at the core of the exhibition, was winning awards in Milan, Paris and New York.’ However, Lili Màrkus left Hungary in 1939, settling in Britain, where the strong links between crafts, art and architecture – so important to William Morris at the turn of the century – had been severed. Marginalised in Britain, and cut off from the gestalt ideas about design, art, manufacture, graphics and photography she was used to, her work scattered to the winds; it was not until 2002 that any of her ceramics were seen again even in her home country.
Now, though, this is changing; according to Kinchin, the hotbed of modernism that was Budapest is forcing a realignment of thinking about the movement itself. Central Europe was in fact modernism’s home. Hungarian modernism, says Kinchin, ‘is not just a pale imitation of Western European models; in fact you might suggest the inverse: it’s really the central European development that is absolutely core to the way it developed in the West and in America.’
In the Eye of the Storm, Collins Gallery, Glasgow, Sat 4 Oct–Sat 22 Nov.