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27 July 2018

Hungarian Art Deco Posters


 

INTRODUCTION

 

Art Deco is a relatively new term in Hungarian art history. Le Corbusier was the first to use the expression, but not as a definition of a style or an “-ism”. As part of art historical terminology, it was first used in 1966 by the curators of a ground-breaking Paris exhibition of the year (and art) of 1925. The first notable appearance of the term in Hungary was at a 1985 exhibition on applied arts in the Budapest Museum of Applied Arts that had “Art Deco” in its title. Since the political transition of the Nineties, interest in Art Deco design and Art Deco poster art has grown. In 2009, following an initiative by a Spanish museum (MuVim Valencia), the curator Katalin Bakos put together an exhibition – presented in Budapest in 2014 too – of modern Hungarian posters between 1924 and 1942. In 2012 the Museum of Applied Arts staged an exhibition titled “Art Deco and Modernism” that focused on interior design between 1920 and 1940. The creators had intended to also present posters, but finally only a study on Art Deco graphic design written by Bakos that focused on magazine illustrations, covers and posters was included in the catalogue.

Describing particular posters as Art Deco or not has long stirred rigorous debate, one which I will decline from entering into in this paper in favour of merely showing how Art Deco tastes and approaches can be detected in the visual culture and graphic design of interwar Hungary.

Art Deco cannot be defined as a style, or an “-ism” because it does not have a clear ideological background as most -isms do, and the boundaries of the category seem to be elastic. However, many phenomena of Art Deco visual culture (in terms of graphic design that incorporates magazine covers, illustrations, packaging, posters, etc.) can comfortably be described as such. In short, Art Deco is a matter of public taste that appears in everyday visual culture. It was a style appreciated by certain social groups, the middle class, the so-called gentry and the upwardly mobile lower classes, or more precisely, the “wannabe”-gentry.

A look at the social background to Hungarian Art Deco posters necessitates a consideration of the historical context in which they were produced. The interwar era in Hungary was overshadowed by the national traumas of the loss of hundreds of thousands of human lives during the First World War, and the Trianon Peace Treaty of 1920 that followed in its wake.

The Trianon Peace Treaty had severed two thirds of the country’s former territory. The remaining area required a smaller bureaucracy that meant fewer jobs for the middle-class and gentry. The first after-war period, between 1921 and 1931 is commonly called as the “Bethlen consolidation”, after Prime Minister István Bethlen. In 1924 he managed to head up an economic recovery, partly with the help of a League of Nations loan that brought a degree of stabilisation and prosperity, but at the cost of indebting the country. The relative prosperity brought an upswing in industrial and technological progress, and tourism, spearheaded by the success of companies like electrotechnical giants Tungsram and Orion, which commissioned a wealth of posters. The global economic crisis that reached Hungary between 1929 and 1933 was exacerbated by the country’s high debt level.

Periods of recession and depression often produce dream-like and glamorous art that enables people to look beyond their difficult circumstances. This was also a key feature of Hungarian Art Deco, and especially its posters, and is also why the period became a golden age of cinema: an art whose essence comprises desire, glamour and dreams. Lifestyles and living spaces of never-before seen luxury, stars of shimmering beauty and fairytale-like plots and stories were put on screens by the Hungarian film industry during the interwar period. While film posters were a key part of popular culture at the time, posters displaying fashion and commercial advertisements also emerged as art forms where everyday life met a public demand to look at luxury and beauty.

 

TRENDS IN HUNGARIAN POSTER ART

 

Hungarian poster art is usually considered as originating from the first large-scale coloured poster designed by the academic painter Gyula Benczúr for the General Exhibition of 1885. The turn of the century produced some highly artistic posters, by some of the greatest ever Hungarian painters (such as Rippl-Rónai, Vaszary, Ferenczy, etc.), their work being also influenced by post-Impressionism, Japonisme and Art Nouveau.

The first golden age of Hungarian poster art however arrived with Art Nouveau, also called the Hungarian Secession” around 1900–1910. Due to the nearby Austrian capital the cultural and artistic influence of Vienna prevailed until the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in 1918. But the Vienna Secession was not the sole influence in Hungarian Art Nouveau poster design. The early 1910s saw the appearance of the first Hungarian artist groups seen as avant-garde, namely the group called The Eight”. These painters were inspired by Cézanne and the newest modern trends, such as Fauvism, Cubism and Expressionism. The French influence was also evident in the work of Géza Faragó. He was a student and colleague of Mucha, and created a series of decorative posters for bars, clubs, revues, and also for commercial companies. Besides the French influence, a German line also appeared, for example in the work of Márton Tuszkay, who – after a study tour that included Berlin – became a Hungarian representative of the German “Sachplakat”. One of the most famous masters of this era was Mihály Bíró, known as the father of the political poster genre. Bíró had spent time in the Arts & Crafts workshop of Charles Robert Ashbee, which came through in the discernible English influence in his oeuvre.

 

MODERNISM

 

A second wave of avant-garde that began after the First World War had a profound impact on Hungarian graphic design. A special Hungarian version of Constructivism emerged as a dominant trend in Hungarian graphic design during the interwar period. The most important painters and designers of the time were involved in a mission to produce “new art”/“new graphics” which was a guarantee for high artistic standards. The “new design and the new typography” first appeared around 1925–1926, and flourished until the end of the 1940s, but its effect was felt long afterwards as well. While avant-garde art is usually considered as a parallel artistic phenomenon to Art Deco, the two strands sometimes seem interwoven.

In 1919, after the fall of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, many modernist artists had to emigrate. Most gravitated to Western Europe’s artistic centres of the time, such as Berlin, Weimar or Vienna, as nearly all of them had been at least in part inspired by the German Bauhaus design and/or Russian Constructivism. In 1925, as evidence of the political consolidation of the Horthy regime, an amnesty was proclaimed, and many of the émigré artists were able to return home. However, for artists who had fallen out of the art scene and the art market it was difficult to find buyers, which forced some to turn to commercial design to make a living.

Nonetheless, for Sándor Bortnyik and Róbert Berény, two major personalities who believed in the importance of design, creating posters was not just a way to earn money. Lajos Kassák, the major art theorist, artist, writer and organiser of the Hungarian avant-garde, and publisher of a famous article in his journal MA (Today), titled “The Poster and the New Painting”, was of a similar view. For the Constructivist artists the poster was a tool of communication, and its aesthetics were defined by this function; the good poster had to be concrete, functional, and clean and pure in its design this was something that the painter had to learn, according to Kassák’s theory. His journal embodied Modernist graphic design and the issues’ covers themselves should be seen as Constructivist artworks. MA appeared from 1916 with an Art Nouveau-Expressionist logo and design, but when it was published in Vienna during Kassák’s years of emigration (1919–1925), the outlook radically turned in a Constructivist direction.

Kassák himself designed the first modern poster for the newspaper Magyar Hírlap in 1924; then Bortnyik, who spent his years in exile in Weimar began to create modern posters for the famous Modiano rolling paper brand in 1926. The new graphic design style of Berény and Bortnyik soon became a successful trend, and dominated the years between 1926 and 1930. However, some of these works seem to have a decorative characteristic as well, such as Berény’s most famous work, the Modiano poster of 1929.

After 1930, the style of Berény and Bortnyik moved towards Art Deco and became more decorative and Bauhaus-inspired. However, the modernist trend was kept alive by younger artists such as Tihamér Csemiczky and István Irsai. Csemiczky was most likely Bortnyik’s student at his “Hungarian Bauhaus” art school called the “Workshop”. He followed Modernist principles more or less consistently, and was the major designer of the Tungsram electronics trademark (light bulbs, radio, etc.). Csemiczky himself was an amateur radio-fan; he even published an article about how to advertise a radio set.1

István Irsai, a Hungarian Jewish architect and interior designer, born and educated in Budapest, had returned from the Palestine Mandatory in 1930 to work as a commercial graphic designer. He became a renowned designer of typography, creating the first modern Hebrew font – called “Haim” – and decorative modern fonts that appeared in clear and stunning compositions. His posters (Nor-Coc swimsuit and cap, Bagarol shoe cream, Flora soap, etc.) combined clear functional design with highly decorative composition. As in the field of furniture design, the Constructivist-Modernist style is hard to distinguish from the Modernism-inspired Art Deco.

 

MODERNISM AND/OR ART DECO?

 

At that time Modernism, the parallel strand to Art Deco, limited itself to the field of commercial design. Big companies, such as the Italian tobacco paper brand Modiano, the electrotechnical concern Tungsram, and the detergent brand Flora needed new ideas for their campaigns which led them to approach the Constructivist artists. The need for novelty has always been a characteristic of commercial advertising, but at that time it was also a result of radical changes in everyday life: new lifestyles, in which modern household items (washing machine, electric light, radio, etc.), sportswear, new types of products (such as cigarettes even for ladies), and equipment for hobbies all required a fresh outlook. In tandem with this, Art Deco dominated the realms of desires and dreams, in particular in the cinema poster, as well as in anything connected with the beauty industry: cosmetics and fashion, then of course entertainment, travel, leisure, nightlife, revues, bars, etc.

To distinguish Art Deco from Modernism in the field of poster art John Barnicoat uses a slightly different terminology in his Posters, a Concise History: Two elements seem to have been at work: formal modern design and decorative modern. The first springs from the idea of function, which replaced the single word ‘ornament’ that had described the design of the nineteenth century. It represents that forward-looking design that links art with industry in the age of technology. The second element, decorative modern regarded as backward-looking by Le Corbusier and his supporters thrived in times of affluence, it represented the work of the individual and, as far as posters are concerned, was usually connected with painting.”2 He derived both of them from Cubism, as art’s first steps towards abstraction. He adds: “we have two distinct lines of development in poster design between 1910 and 1939, one stemming from Cubist abstraction (but even more precise), and the other, based on decorative angular patterns that also take in Cubist developments.”

The decorative modern” or Art Deco” treats modern or Cubist abstract style elements as decorative tools, as ornaments. Nevertheless the abstractions of Constructivism/Modernism seem to be only one source of inspiration, which is often mixed with others. Two desires defined the taste of the middle classes: one for Modernism, and another for luxury and elegance. The combination of the two resulted in a heterogeneous style. This heterogeneity is a key characteristic of Hungarian Art Deco posters. We can list some of the main influences:

1. Inspiration of the decorative elements of avant-garde movements (-isms);

2. Art Nouveau influence – reshaped & modernised;

3. Folk art;

4. Historicism and folk art – through Applied Art;

5. Orientalism or exoticism;

6. Western Modernist influences: monumental and luxurious elegance;

7. Classicism & decorative Modernism / on travel posters.

Three “highlights” of the Hungarian Art Deco poster art follow in the next section.

 

HIGHLIGHTS

 

The Metropolis poster by Bottlik is an outstanding Hungarian design. There is only one known original specimen of it (in the collection of the Hungarian National Library). Its high artistic value comes from the perfect combination of script and image, the harmony of colours, the balance of elegance and monumentality. There is no doubt that this is Art Deco: it is both monumental and decorative. It was created for the world-famous movie of German Expressionist cinema, directed by Fritz Lang.

Bottlik found a new symbol for the story that did not appear on German or American posters made for the film: the heroic figure of the working class who carries the splendid big city on his shoulders. For movie posters it is easy to make an international comparison, and the posters of Metropolis are world-renowned valuable pieces. There is the monumental city skyline by Boris Bilinsky, of landscape format and the vertical poster by Heinz Schulz-Neudamm, to mention the most noted ones: both are spectacular Art Deco works, showing the influences of Modernism and Expressionism – and still, I believe Bottlik’s piece measures up to both.

Bottlik started his career with a decorative popular Art Nouveau style; he gained fame with the “SZIT Lacika” advertisement figure in the early 1920s, but quickly turned away from what was a saccharine and retrograde style. He became the head designer of the famous electrotechnical company, Orion – his position was similar to Csemiczky’s at the rival firm Tungsram. The first posters Bottlik made for the firm date from around 1922–1923; in 1924 the company took the name Orion and in 1925 Bottlik designed a new logo which remained in use until the 1980s.

The Orion posters show his attraction towards monumentality that is a key element of the Metropolis poster’s composition as well. Monumentality and a decorative-attractive approach are prevalent in the poster art of the time: the robust, strong and modelled figures appear on Ludwig Hohlwein’s posters (often carrying political meaning: the strength of Nazi power). Without this political background, similar figures appeared on sport and movie posters.

The artistic approach of Bottlik is itself typical of the Art Deco style: he took over the idea of representing the working class as a muscular man from political posters; meanwhile he took inspirations from Art Nouveau, oriental art, the American shiny Art Deco style, and from Modernism as well. The poster tells about the main orientations of the age: the whole is a cosmic vision, yet tensions simmer below the shiny surface.

Before looking at another masterpiece of the era, Tibor Réz-Diamant’s Baker, let us say a few words about the “average” quality of the movie posters of the age. The 1920s and 30s are widely considered as the first golden age of cinema. However, beside the high artistic value of German Expressionist cinema and Chaplin’s movies in the US, etc., this period saw also the birth of Hollywood kitsch. With the invention of sound cinema in 1927, the film industry slowly started to change. Beside the first classic horror and sci-fi movies, the average Hollywood output consisted of stereotyped romantic stories, either in historical, oriental, or in big city scenes. This new industrial-style cinema production created superstars adored by millions worldwide, including women who appeared in new roles portraying independent, ruling or demonic attitudes, different from the “naïve girl” ideal prevalent until then. The cult of stars brought with it an impoverishment of movie poster quality. Posters now had to show the faces of stars in large format in often uninspired and stereotypical compositions. The portraits were often servile copies of photographs, with no original idea behind the design. Fortunately there were exceptions: usually the Art Deco works.

Such were the designs for posters of movies, revues, variety shows of Tibor Réz-Diamant. From 1925, he designed more than 20 posters in just a couple of years, before leaving the country in 1928 to work as a draughtsman at the Benz car factory in Germany. The key to his success lay in his empathy for contemporary tastes. This is evident on his Tiller Girls poster (1927), created for the premiere of the movie featuring the famous American dancers. The Girls appear as uniform patterns, creating a decorative rhythm.

His most daring work is the Josephine Baker poster. The world-famous dancer and singer performed shows in the Budapest Royal Orfeum for an entire month in 1928 and had enthusiastic fans in Hungary. The theatre director and composer Béla Zerkovitz composed a song about her in 1926 (titled Gyere Jozefin = “Come, Josephine”), a later French version of which she performed with some success. Josephine’s guest appearances in Budapest were huge successes that attracted international attention and audiences, even though the show was almost prohibited because of her appearance on stage in nothing but a banana skirt.

Réz also created posters for other performances and movies of Baker and her Hungarian “avatar” Nusi Somogyi. While these works are in general of a more lavish composition, his Baker poster is considered outstanding due to its simplicity. It only showed her trademark curly bangs and cat-like eyes, which created a powerful emblem for the show. The same idea appeared on a poster by Jean Chassaing from 1931, but was still more realistic than Réz’s almost abstract logo-like work.

Baker was not just a star; she was an emblem of the age. On the poster her face appears as a mask. As a recent book on the visual culture of the First World War shows, the Mask became an influential symbol of a period marked by post-war trauma. It was a time when war cripples came home with partly missing faces, prompting the development of an artificial face/mask industry. As a consequence, the cosmetics industry spread worldwide, while modern plastic surgery was born. The stars of the time also wore mask-like thick makeup, and the shiny white silhouette of Greta Garbo’s sad-eyed face expressed the new post-war type of beauty in a world built on appearances. Even if Josephine Baker was a symbol of “natural” or “wild” beauty, her face also appeared as a mask. Revues, cabaretsandentertainment cinema provided an area in which the Art Deco tastes of the middle class could flourish: these are themselves products of the dream factory. Finally, let us have a look at another field of desires: travel and leisure, the dreamlike travel poster art of the period.

As mentioned above, the interwar period saw radical changes in everyday life, which included a growing interest in and demand for tourism. The great theorist of the time, Sigfried Kracauer wrote about this phenomenon in his essay “Travel and Dance”.3 Behind the desire to travel he saw the “wish to be somewhere else”: his motto is from Baudelaire: “But only those who leave for leaving’s sake / are travellers; hearts tugging like balloons…”. In this sense, travel can be seen as a symptom of the age, similar to the mass production of dreamy movies, and the wish for entertainment in the form of erotic revues. This truly was an age of escapism; the hard reality caused a need for entertainment and globe-trotting.

Tourism became a mass hobby and an important industry for many countries after the Great War. Hungary, a small country that had lost immense territories and prestige in the war, woke up relatively late. The big Western countries by then already had established tourism industries as well as well-functioning propaganda machines to promote them; one has only to think of the works of Cassandre (Adolphe Jean-Marie Mouron) in France.

Great travel posters attract the eye in a range of ways: by highlighting points of interest, depicting the conveyance used to reach a location, or by featuring activities available at the destination. The golden age of travel posters worldwide started in the 1920s and ended with the expansion of photography in the field around the 1960s.

In 1932 a conference took place in Hungary, in which famous personalities, such as writers and experts expressed their views about the importance of tourism, and Hungary’s underdevelopment in this field. In 1933 the Hungarian National Railways organised a poster exhibition in which selected foreign posters were presented as exemplars. Poster competitions played an important role in the development of the travel poster genre: in 1932 the Gellért Spa announced a tender, and the submitted works served the general touristic idea of “Budapest the city of spas”, which was developed in the following decades. György Konecsni first appeared at this tender, by winning it with a splendid, classical design.4 His work was never printed, but it enabled him to make his name in the field. In 1935 the city of Budapest invited a tender for posters promoting the city,5 the results of which were published in the art magazine Hungarian Applied Art. By then Budapest had undoubtedly adopted the image of a modern metropolis. Besides the capital, the developing Hungarian tourism sector also began to focus on Lake Balaton. In the 1930s painters and poster designers created a colourful and appealing image by using high viewpoints and showing the lake’s vast expanse of water.

Hungarian travel posters mostly followed the international trend of the travel poster genre: offering a luring view, highlighting the local spectacles, while using elements of Modernism. Travel posters were often commissioned by the government, so inevitably reflected the prevailing political climate. This was also evident in a new Classicist style in painting at the time which had an impact on poster design as well, as can be seen in the work of Konecsni and others.



 

Notes:

2 Barnicoat, 73.

3 Siegfried Kracauer: The Mass Ornament. Weimar Essays. University Press London, 1963. https:// books.google.hu/books?id=yIWJASvV9uwC&pg=PA65&lpg=PA65&dq=kracauer+travel+ and+dance&source=bl&ots=o2SdYx7ppk&sig=IpvqieeCQzJMfAHEFeNEQrd8gqI&hl=en&s a=X&ved=0ahUKEwiRqcern7XRAhVIcRQKHfiRBxcQ6AEIHTAB#v=onepage&q=kracau er%20travel%20and%20dance&f=false.




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