21 September 2015


When the iron curtain was lifted, western businesses were quick to invest in eastern Europe, but almost a generation later many interesting eastern European artists are still unknown to us. We discovered Pál Molnár-C by chance when we were traveling on the Danube from Budapest to Szentendre. There was a heatwave and we were trying to find somewhere cool to sit. Out of the sun on the lower deck we saw about thirty framed drawings - including the one above - topical, witty, well observed, obviously old and not what you would expect to find on a river boat. The only clue was the signature MCP, which was not much to go on.

Google soon turned up Pál Molnár-C (1894-1981), not an obscure artist as the large number of images on the web witness, but new to me. His studio in Budapest, in a middle-class, tree-lined street on the Buda side, was kept by his family as a museum and couple of days later we visited it. We were told through the entryphone that it was closed for the summer, but as we were there we were allowed in, and Molnár-C's great granddaughter Maria kindly showed us round.

First, an explanation of his odd surname, Molnár-C. Molnár was very close to his mother, Jeanne Contat (whom he conflated with the Madonna in his paintings) and he added the C in tribute to her.

Maria told us that the drawings on the riverboat were put there on the initiative of her father, who had contacts in the company. These graphic works were originally published in the evening paper Est in the 1920s and were so popular that readers complained on days they didn't appear.

The title on the drawing at the top of this post, Főzőcske, isn’t easy to translate. (The rough English pronunciation is "furzurchkeh".) Kati said it’s “cooking”, like preparing a chicken for the pot. Beguiling? Leading him up the garden path? A book about the artist translates it as "Softening". The nicely characterised portraits are of actual people, the socialite Baby Becker (below left), who had worked in silent films with Alexander Korda, and the playwright  Ferenc Molnár (below right), whose play Liliom was adapted for the musical Carousel. The gossip columns avidly followed Baby Becker's affairs, and the readers of Est must have got the reference.
Below you can see three more of his drawings of Budapest life from Est.

 There is a full account of his life on the museum website. He was born in Battonya, a village in the far south east of Hungary, trained for three years at the Hungarian Royal Drawing School and then studied in Switzerland and Paris. His daily illustrations in Est started in 1924 and quickly brought him recognition.

At the same time as he was doing these little satirical drawings he was making religious paintings (above). He was awarded a scholarship to study at the Hungarian Academy in Rome, where he lived from 1928-31, still continuing his drawings for Est.

Tuscan Landscape
He loved Paris and Rome but he missed Hungary - a country he described as "horizontally small but vertically large." In 1931 he married Alice Gstettner and moved to the house in Ménesi street, where he lived and worked (below) until his death in 1981. “I wake up every morning as excited as the groom who is about to meet his love,” he said. “For me, reuniting with the palette, the paintbrush, the canvas, and the constant challenge that art represents, is a feeling of reviving happy excitement every single day.”
Pál Molnár-C in his studio
John the Baptist
He was both a colourist and an accomplished graphic artist in black and white. He painted landscapes, portraits, religious and allegorical works and church murals, and designed posters, made woodcut illustrations and drew in a highly original way. His portraits and landscapes of the 1920s and 1930s are in the neo-classical current of the time. The portraits of his daughters (which you can catch a glimpse of in this video of the studio) are warmly felt and beautifully executed. Molnár-C's subject matter and style made him unpopular with the regime after the Second World War: he was on the Communists’ banned list and struggled to make a living from private work and church commissions. (He's an interesting contrast with another Hungarian religious artist, Margit Kovács, who cleverly adapted her work to socialist themes in the 1950s and so secured her career.) After his death, his daughter was able to buy back many of his paintings at reduced prices; now he is so popular that his work is being forged.

Ménesi út 65, Budapest 1118, Hungary
Phone Number: +(36)302011073

Opening hours
Thursday: 10.00 - 18.00
Friday: 10.00 - 18.00
Saturday: 10.00 - 18.00

Ticket prices
Adults:1500 HUF (5 EUR)
Children/student/senior: 750 HUF (2.5 EUR)
With foreign language guiding.

Good surveys of his graphic works are available from the museum: The Good Old Days in Drawings by Pál Molnár-C; and Pál Molnár-C. Graphic Artist. _______________________________________________

9 September 2015


I'm a fan of The Good Soldier Schweik, but then everyone is, aren't they, because it's the most translated novel in the Czech language, and that sly idiot Schweik is known all over the world. Like all fans, I was a sucker for Schweik's pub in Prague, U Kalicha, The Chalice. In the book, The Chalice is haunted by Brettschneider, a police spy, who arrests the landlord and gets him ten years because flies soiled the Emperor's picture.

The pub is now a restaurant with a wooden floor and rough simple furniture, and it serves traditional Bohemian dishes with a lot of meat, potatoes, cabbage and dumplings. (The Bohemian Diet is one where you start thin and end up fat.) We looked in in the afternoon, when a few locals were having a drink, and imagined it was still, a hundred years after Schweik, a local dive. Not so: the evening clientele comprises tourists of every nationality except Czech, Schweik fans all, and the staff play up to them in a cheerful, bogus manner. That includes music in costume and loudly banging your glass of beer down on the table. The food is good and seems authentic, though it's not cheap. (That was goose giblet stew with dumplings, above left.) There are extracts from the book all over the wall, and, of course, a portrait of Franz Joseph spotted with fly shit.

1 September 2015


Life in Squares, the BBC TV adaptation of Amy Licence’s book, Living in Squares, Loving in Triangles, gave a - shall we say - one-side view of the Bloomsbury Group. By the end of it we knew who did which and to whom and with what, we saw Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant dabbing away at canvases and we understood that Virginia Woolf went mad, but we hadn’t learned much about the art and literature that they created. OK, I suppose the Clive Bell/Roger Fry theory of significant form doesn’t make prime time television; and the series has been a great fillip to Charleston, the Bloomsbury home in Sussex where much of it was filmed - visitor numbers are up, which is welcome because the Charleston Trust has a major improvement programme.

Charleston has been open to the public for almost thirty years and it's a window into the lives of the Bells, Grant, Woolf and their friends. It’s preserved pretty well as they left it, decorated in their idiosyncratic style and frozen in time from before the Second World War, after which they were getting old, were poor and liked things much as they were.

Virginia Woolf said that "on or about December, 1910, human character changed", referring to the Post-Impressionist exhibition organised by Fry. Artistically, the Post-Impressionists shaped the style of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and also to some extent that of Vanessa and Clive's son Quentin, who was a talented decorator of pottery. (The picture at the top of this post shows one of his tile decorations.) Bell and Grant were among the standard bearers of Post-Impressionism but they did not play a major role in the development of modernism in Britain. In literature and intellect Bloomsbury led. Woolf was central to modernist literature and in art theory Fry exercised an important influence through the The Burlington Magazine and his Slade professorship, though in  the practice of painting and design it might be said that in 1910 Bloomsbury discovered the Post-Impressionists and from that point on never looked forward. Grant said that the painting he would most like to be remembered by is "The Tub" (c.1913) (above), but by that date, even in traditional old England, he and Vanessa were being overtaken by the young rebels at the Slade, one of whom, David Bomberg, was only five years younger than Grant. Olivier Bell said of Vanessa, "She had the intelligence and self-awareness not to be seduced by the pioneering experimentalism of her brilliant post-impressionist period into a sterile extremism." Dorothy Parker was more acerbic: Bloomsbury lived in squares, loved in triangles and painted in circles.

Charleston became what the Germans call a Gesamptkunstwerke, a total work of art. Bell's and Grant's talent was recognized and they were commissioned to create interiors for their friends. They designed fabrics commercially. Stoke-on-Trent commissioned designs for plates, which worked well in production. At Charleston, beds, doors and cupboards were decorated with figures and natural motifs. They laboriously block-printed the walls instead of papering them. Quentin made pottery lampshades with holes in that projected pretty lights on to the ceiling. Their painting and pottery are everywhere. Colours are muted - grey, buff, mustard yellow, brown, faded pink, black - in an original and effective palette they developed in the 1920s. All this is set against old English furniture, Staffordshire figures, tin-glazed plates, chintz and worn oriental rugs. The style is anti-Victorian but romantic, 20th century but traditional, Bohemian but English, with a dash of the neo-Classical and redolent of upper-class taste. It embodied J. D. Sedding's ideal English house, which must have "sparkling fires, radiant ingle-nooks, cheerful company,  good fare, merry children, bright flowers, open windows, and vistas of well-polished furniture, mirrors, delft plates, and rows of shining pewter dishes, jugs, tankards, and braziers, to make it seem joyous." It is out of the mainstream of 20th century design, which came not from Bloomsbury but from Germany.

Charleston is charming in the summer and a good gardener has created wonderful views through the windows. But everything has to be packed and put in store in winter because the house is cold and damp. The reason was probably a combination of poverty and a horror of anything so bourgeois as comfort. Its physical isolation and indifference to contemporary movements in art and design makes Charleston unique – or should I say “unusual”, because Voysey's interiors from the time were comparable. It has a strong appeal to those who like its mix of the rural, the artistic, the quirky and the retrospective.  It has influenced English domestic taste in the last thirty years and the Charleston shop sells the work of modern designers whose work chimes in with Bloomsbury style.