5 August 2014

MARGIT KOVÁCS: VERSATILE HUNGARIAN CERAMIST WHO COMBINED FOLK AND MODERNIST ELEMENTS IN HER WORK

Margit Kovács (1902-77) (pictured) was a ceramic artist who made narrative and sculptural pieces depicting religion, Hungarian national history and family life. Her work is rooted in her country's folk art.

There are collections in Győr, her birthplace, but the biggest is at Szentendre, the pretty artists' town just outside Budapest, where her work is displayed in a light, airy museum in Vastagh Street. We went there on St Stephen's day, the big Hungarian national holiday; Sezntendre was buzzing with holidaymakers but we had the museum almost to ourselves.

She won international awards in Milan, Paris, Berlin, Brussels and Rome. Gordon Forsyth in his survey of Twentieth Century Ceramics (London: The Studio, 1936) showed some of her work. She was once very popular in Hungary and the Communist regime gave her the Distinguished Artist Award in 1959, but since her death her reputation has declined because her work is thought to be politically tainted and not intellectual enough.
Detail from the portal of St. Emeric Church, Győr

Plaque at the Margit Kovács 
museum, Szentendre
Nevertheless, I find it appealing. When I first encountered it, it was unlike anything I'd seen before. Although she seems ingenuous to us today, she was serious about her subjects. Although she was folksy, her work is is quite different from traditional Hungarian pottery, which is mainly slip-trailed earthenware. It has something in common with figurative ceramics of Hungarian Art Deco, e.g., the work of Hajnalka Zilzer and Lilli Márkus, though she stands alongside István Gádor as one of Hungary's major 20th century ceramists. Her themes are comfortable but she had a subtle modernist sensibility.

She said of herself, "I strive to express what is beautiful or the response I feel. I always want to be candid in my work. I live between two contrary poles.  One is fear of extinction: I want to keep pace with the age. The other is fear lest I should let myself be driven into an insincere trend: lest I should fall behind in time and life.  But what is new in life I wish to assimilate and formulate in my own idiom."

She had total mastery of her medium and her method. Her work is stylised, strongly-conceived and well-executed. She worked in earthenware, sometimes with coloured tin glaze. Her later ceramics are unglazed and made of chamotte, a gritty pink clay.  "The Big Family" (1962) (below) is typical. It's a deep relief, 110 x 120 cm, depicting an idealised family, an unfeasibly young father and mother at the top and eight children in pairs all around. She has not tried to hide the sections from which the relief is constructed and the absence of glaze over the rough clay shows her increasing interest in form and texture over colour.

"The Big Family", Margit Kovács museum, Szentendre
Not much has been written about her, but Ilona Pataky-Brestyánszky's well-illustrated monograph, with a catalogue raisonné, is readily available in English and is good. Ágoston Kollányi made a short film about her in Hungarian, Poet of Clay, in 1958. You can see her at work in the clips I've linked - the narrative is uninteresting but the record of her carving a large relief is informative.

Kovács studied graphic art and then china painting in the School of Applied Arts in Budapest, then ceramics with Herta Bücher in Vienna (1926-28) (where she was associated with the Wiener Werkstätte) and at the Staatschule für Angewandte Kunst in Munich. In 1932 she studied functional pottery in Denmark and in 1933 figure modelling in chamotte and porcelain at Sevres. It was in the 1950s that she developed her interest in traditional Hungarian themes, drawing on myths and folk tales for her narrative pieces and tableaux vivants.  It was then that she changed her preferred material from terracotta to chamotte and did more expressive modelling.  One of her most significant works of religious art is the portal of the Saint Emeric Church, Győr (1939–1940) (detail above), flat painted tile work, different from her sculpture and demonstrating her versatility.

She received many public commissions and her ceramic murals are still visible in Budapest and other cities. In the 1930s she was asked by the modernist architect István Hamor to decorate his buildings in Budapest ("The Fisher Boy" and "Saint Florian", below).


After the war many of her commissions came from the Communist state. The value of these public works is not fully recognised. Julius Palacinka found that local people had no idea who these reliefs were by, and some, unfortunately, were obscured and neglected. Pataky-Brestyánszky lists her murals - in the table below I show all the public Budapest murals extant at the time of her death and their locations.

Fisher Boy, 1932 Ponty utca 14
St. Florian, 1935 Fürst Sándor utca 16
The Peacock Alighted, c.1935 Vármegy utca 15
Signs of the Zodiac, c.1936 Foyer of Kosciuszkó Tádé utca 14
To the Old Post House, 1937 Régiposta utca 13
Budapest, Queen of the Danube, 1937 IBUSZ, Roosevelt tér 5 (fragment)
Adam and Eve c.1939-40 Vámegy utca 15
Fishing, Hunting, 1942 Lobby of Bimbó út 11
The First of May, 1946 Ministry of Education
Map of Lake Balaton, 1950 Hall of the Déli railway station
Fountain Pool, c.1950 Pioneer Store (demolished)
Folk Dance Group Rehearsing, 1952 Ministry of Foreign Affairs
The Seasons, 1953 Budapest Museum of History
The Matyó Family, 1955 Museum of Applied Arts
Wine Harvest, 1955 Museum of Applied Arts
Games, 1959 Ministry of Education
The Meteorologist, 1960 National Meteorological Institute
Two Girls Went to Pick Flowers, 1961 Museum of Applied Arts
In Remembrance of Things Past, 1961 Blood Donor HQ
Into the Woods, 1965 Home for Handicapped Children

Several of the institutions mentioned here may have changed their names since 1989 and some of the works have perished, but the the table might still form the basis of a Budapest Kovács trail.


Many older Hungarians remember her world map, c.1950, (above) in the Pioneer Department Store, the Úttörő Áruház, even if they didn't know the artist. It was in the foyer, at the bottom of a fountain pool (below left) in which, to the delight of children, goldfish swam. The Pioneer store was demolished several years ago but the world map has been preserved in a courtyard of the Hotel Budapest Center, Kossuth Lajos utca 7-9.

 

No-one who visits the Hotel Budapest Centre seems to have an interest in it, and I imagine that technical problems, money and politics explain why it hasn't been removed to the Margit Kovács museum. As it is, it's under a glass tent (above right) which makes it difficult to see and impossible to photograph.

At the Kovács museum, the room devoted to her religious ceramics contain nothing after 1950 and the museum captions explain why. After the war Kovács joined the Communist Party, and her depictions of village life, of weddings and apple harvests, were a type of socialist realism that satisfied the Communists' cultural expectations.

A close view of the world map reveals a different Margit Kovács from the Kovács of family tableaux or the figures of saints. The first thing you notice is that the Americas are omitted, the second is that more than half the world is red. The map centres on the Soviet Union and the only city depicted is Moscow, attended by a Young Pioneer. Even Hungary is not delineated. Western Europe is squashed into a corner. Another Young Pioneer strides across the world with a red flag. From Korea a figure comes bearing a message for him. Africa, India and Australia are populated by poor people with primitive technology waiting to be liberated by the Soviets. Around the edge are pretty sea creatures and over it all shines a red star. The children throwing coins into the fountain pool, after getting their hair cut and being fitted for shoes, were being given a great big dose of Communist indoctrination. No wonder she was given the Distinguished Artist Award.

 
Ilona Pataky-Brestyánszky, Margit Kovács (Budapest: Corvina, 1978)
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