Lajos Vajda (1908–1941) is considered, by a very broad range of professionals, the most important Hungarian visual artist of the 1930s. His œuvre is usually described as lonely, original, unparalleled. And indeed: as one looks over Vajda’s different periods, the colourful image of an enigmatically philosophical, pioneering œuvre emerges, which was both constructive and elementally expressive, while being conceptual in many regards, and was alternating between reserved and deeply dramatic formal solutions. He may have been a lonely artist, but not without peers. While his insistence on autonomy and his talent made him intolerant of aesthetic, formal and social constraints, it was exactly the spirit of his age that provided the framework for his deliberate choice of the outsider’s position.
This exhibition at the Ferenczy Museum Center does not aspire to present the lonely artist who needs to be discovered again, but looks at internal and external motivators of the œuvre’s development, positioning the different sets of works in the broader context of their time and in the artist’s own personal narrative.
The exhibition gives a particular emphasis to the years when the artist was searching for his own direction, the period between 1922–1930. One reason is that the works he made at the time have been relatively little-known. The period is also of importance because the dichotomy of Vajda’s œuvre became evident from the start of his career: the intimate calm offered by family and the provincial surroundings was at variance with the thrill of discovering the world. The fellow artists he became friends with at the Academy of Fine Arts played an important part in the broadening of Vajda’s horizon: joining Lajos Kassák for a short time, they sought a way out of the conservative artistic milieu by exploring Constructivist and Surrealist endeavours elsewhere in Europe.
The time, however, when Vajda learned the most, was during his stay in Paris between 1930–1933, when he not only deepened his knowledge of art theory, but also made photomontages that were informed by Russian cinema. A photograph from 1934 shows a monumental “iconostasis” in which Vajda arranged works he made in Paris: socially conscious montages, and drawings of stirring sensuousness. In Paris he took an interest in the spirituality of Eastern, Orthodox religious communities and archaic ways of life, and his fascination grew after his return to Hungary. He carried out most of his research in Szentendre and the surrounding “untouched” villages, an activity in which he was briefly partnered by Dezső Korniss. His abandonment of the modern world of Szentendre-themed line drawings, however, was motivated not by nostalgia, but by the desire for concentrated observation and formal analysis, and at around 1937 the austere line structures to which visible reality had been stripped were supplanted by deconstruction and abstraction. As a subject, Szentendre disappeared, dissolved in the thicket of lines formed by the well-known motifs that were now projected one on top of the other (steeples, gravestones and willow branches). By 1938, Vajda’s masks and surrealistic landscapes had become dominated by the ancient formal order of archaic, primitive and tribal art, before his art and creative persona eventually left behind all visual and pictorial conventions and completely dissolved in the elemental expressivity and subjectivity of the line that was born for its own sake—which did make him peerless in the contemporary art of Hungary.
When he died in 1941, Lajos Vajda was aged 33. His work was a compromise-free answer to the general issues of the 1930s, a period marked by philosophical and historical crises. His response had its analogies and parallels in the contemporary art of not only Europe, but of North America as well.
With the help of some 150 artworks – almost thirty of which have come from foreign private collections – this exhibition identifies key turning points and questions in the work of Lajos Vajda, while the studies of the accompanying catalogue position his œuvre in a wider context.