Szőnyi István Memorial Museum
You are welcome to the house where István Szőnyi, one of the most prominent Hungarian painters of the 20th century, lived in the great part of his life. This house is more than just a museum in the traditional sense of he word. The purpose of the founders was to preserve and to show as much as possible of both Szőnyi’ s works and the milieu where these works had been created. So besides seeing the collection of Szőnyi’s outstanding works, visitors can enter a world not existing any more and can get acquainted with the relics of the studio otherwise closed from the public. They can feel the spirit of the place. The pictures can be seen at the most authentic surroundings: where they were produced.
There is also a film to be seen taken by Ágoston Kollányi in 1957, which contributes to the accomplishment of the experience of the visit. The portrait film was shot three years before the master’s death. Though Szőnyi is not interviewed in the film, he demonstrates the viewers the whole process of drawing, etching and painting from the preparation of materials to the final touches. He reveals his secrets. He initiates those being interested. It is worth seeing the 20-minute film before entering the museum as it helps understand the exhibition.
Before entering the rooms of the museum let us say some words about Szőnyi’s life. He was born in 1894, in Újpest. After finishing the grammar school he was admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts in the autumn of 1913. His first master was Károly Ferenczy, who in the summer of 1914 took his students – among them István Szőnyi, as well - to the Artists’ Colony of Nagybánya. As a soldier on leave, Szőnyi also spent the summers of 1917 and 1918 there. The young painter could get direct impressions of the colony and the life of the free school before and during World War I. The summers spent in Nagybánya played an important role in the artistic inducement of Szőnyi. In 1918, after he had been discharged, he got back to the Academy, this time as István Réti’s pupil. (Károly Ferenczy died in 1917.) The school years proved to be short, as he had been expelled because of his participation in the reform movements at the Academy. Fortunately, this decision did not interrupt the young painter’s career.
In 1921, Szőnyi had his first one-man show at Ernst Museum, which met a great success. His contemporaries celebrated him as a great master creating a school. He transmitted, for instance, the influence of Béla Uitz through his special screen towards Vilmos Aba Novák, Jenő Pais Goebel, Erzsébet Korb, Dávid Jándi, Jenő Barcsay and Károly Patkó. He influenced their art for a shorter or longer period.
During his first trips to Europe (Vienna and Berlin) he got acquainted with the great classical masters. He learnt from them through their works what he missed because of his being expelled from the Academy. This explains his adoration to Rembrandt, his following Marée’s classicism and Brueghel’s influence on his art. In the whole course of his career was attracted to classical compositions but was able to avoid the traps of Neo-classicism.
After he had been forced to leave the Academy he visited the Artists’ Colony of Kecskemét a few times. It was at this time that he began to deal with graphics and etching intensively though he did not belong to Viktor Olgyai’s pupils like most of his contemporaries. In the first part of his career he etched more than two hundred plates. As a significant member of the “etching generation”, he contributed to the development of Hungarian graphic art at the beginning of the 1920s.
His marriage to Melinda Bartóky and his moving to Zebegény meant a decisive stage of his life and art. The landscape, the village life, and nature still undisturbed made a deep impression on the painter standing at the beginning of a promising career. At the end of his first period, a series of masterpieces were produced on Zebegény topics: “Burial at Zebegény”, ”An Evening at Zebegény”, “Motherhood” and “Village Covered with Snow” – regarded by István Genthon as the most beautiful Hungarian etching – all dating from 1928.
In 1929, he was one of the first bursaries of the Hungarian Academy of Rome to get to Italy but he returned home after a few months. Though he was deeply impressed by Roman art treasure and Italian landscape, he could only produce works at his chosen home place, in Zebegény at the Danube Bend.
Szőnyi’s palette was changing gradually; lighter, brighter and radiant colours broken with white appeared on it. He found a new technique suitable for the new view: the egg tempera, the recipe of which he worked out himself. Since his childhood he was much interested in chemistry. His technical experiences were published in 1941 in the book titled “The School of Fine Arts”, of which he was both co-author and editor. At the beginning of the 1930s, a new period of his started. In this decade were his most radiant pictures created: “Evening”, 1934; “Nude with Red Kerchief”, 1936; “People with Umbrellas”, 1939; and “The Garden Bench”, 1943. These are but a few examples, which cannot reflect the richness of a life work consisting of several thousand panel pictures and drawings. Most pieces of the great oeuvre are precious parts of private collections; only a few main works belong to public collections: Hungarian National Gallery or Szőnyi István Memorial Museum in Zebegény.
Szőnyi was appointed to a professor of the Academy of Fine Arts in 1937. He taught for more than two decades. Though he was the leading professor of the mural department he got but a few monumental commissions. That is why he was delighted to be commissioned to paint Saint Emery Church in Győr. He did his best to execute the program prepared by the church. The fresco of Győr can be said to be of much higher standard than contemporary works of ecclesiastic art.
His real genres, however, remained panel picture and drawing. It was Jenő Elekfy having visited Zebegény very often in the 1930s, under whose influence Szőnyi began to paint aquarelles and found the most suitable water-colour technique for himself: gouache. Gouache-paint with its velvety and dull surface is similar to tempera, so it was perfect for making sketches and studies. Several hundreds of small paintings of such kind were produced at that time, many of which are more than a mere sketch; they are perfect compositions.
If we want to evaluate István Szőnyi’s art, we have to speak about the complete world he found, about the harmony he was able to create both in his life and art. He gave a particular answer to the challenge of the age; he did not follow modernism but remained faithful to his inner inducement. Undertaking the intellectuality of the first generation of Nagybánya and making use of the results of the “Moderns”, Szőnyi brought about his own particular world not inaptly called the forth branch of post-impressionism by Dénes Pataky. His art deservedly belongs to the most important chapters of our painting art between the two world wars.
During his last years he was often ill. He spent almost all his time in Zebegény. In 1958-59, he took a pleasant trip to Italy on his daughter’s invitation. The old spasm had already relaxed and he could paint some important gouache and tempera pictures under the blue sky of Italy. The sea and the harbour of Fiumiccino especially inspired him. In 1960, he was just preparing for the exhibition of the pictures painted in Italy. This is what he wrote about it to Zsuzsa, his daughter, in his last letter of 21st August 1960: “…the exhibition causes me great anxiety again. Never have I been so worried like now before an exhibition … Aging has been badly invented. One is losing the mark of genius though it has not even developed completely yet. “ After 9 days, on 30th August, he died at his home in Zebegény.
His wife lived there for another 7 years. When she had died in 1967, the Hungarian state bought the estate from the inheritors, and the story of the museum started.
The permanent exhibition of the museum, which you can find in the first three rooms and the studio, provides a nice cross-section of the painterly part of the oeuvre. Although there are but a few panel pictures, we have tried to demonstrate the extensiveness of this rich oeuvre with some of the main works. Szőnyi’s each artistic period is represented with a significant art piece.
An old, rare and nicely shaped musical instrument, the so-called giraffe-piano determines the atmosphere of the corner-room. The portraits of Szőnyi’ s three children can also be seen here: one represents Jolán, the elder daughter, who was born in 1916. In the other one Zsuzsa Szőnyi as a teenager is depicted. The manner of painting shows Károly Ferenczy’s influence.
The third one is the portrait of Péter, who died young and tragically. “Morning”, 1946, hanging above the bed was painted in the mature characteristic “Szőnyi-style”.
The artist always placed female figures undressing, making the bed, or combing into a familiar setting. In spite of their intimate gestures and fine sensitive formation they are monumental and dignified.
The one-time milieu can be best experienced in the living room. The library as well as the furniture still keeps the Szőnyi family’s memory. One of Szőnyi’s main works, “Garden Bench” from 1943 seems to illuminate its setting. This painting has been analysed by many a people in many a ways but István Genthon’s evaluation appears to be the most proper, as it refers not only to the picture but also to Szőnyi’s whole art. “In the corner of the garden there is a white bench surrounded by trees in leaf in the sunshine. It looks like any other bench, the artist did not put any monsters or demons around it, and he did not mean to rival Hieronymus Bosch’s nightmares. However, the importance of this bench has grown to frightening measure. It is more than just a protagonist; it is the only thing present in the picture.“
All the other pictures in the room, “Girl Washing Herself”, “Herd Returning Home”, “Girl Feeling Cold” and “Making the Bed” show the deep understanding of reality when we can surpass the level of facts, and behind the view, the colours and the material we can find a truth of different kind, which can only be expressed by the language of painting.
The prevailing tone of the “Hungarian room” comes from the beautiful set of more than a hundred-year-old folk furniture from the Great Plain. The furnishing surprisingly well corresponds with the early oil paintings on the walls. “Wailers” follows the tone of “Burial at Zebegény”.
“Stray Dog” and “Detail of a Street of Zebegény” are interesting pieces of his transitional, “dry” period. The picture with pansies represents the genre of still life - so rare with Szőnyi.
Passing on in the house we can get to the halls for temporary exhibitions, built later. The rich graphic material - etchings, drawings, gouaches and aquarelles - of the museum is continually on display here.
Almost every year we exhibit various collections on loan from private art collectors. The museum regards it as its task to search and publish the whole Szőnyi-oeuvre. We have a few series of exhibitions with the help of which visitors can get acquainted with Szőnyi’s artist friends or pupils. Between 1928 and 1942, several painters visited Zebegény in the summers. There was a real colony of artists around Szőnyi. The most famous of them were: Vilmos Aba Novák, Róbert Berény, Aurél Bernáth, Jenő Elekfy and Elemér Vass.
The most interesting part of the museum is upstairs. You can see the small workshop, where the master produced his art pieces in the most part of his life. He had his etching, painting and drawing equipment, and the collections of his sketches and studies here. He had always longed for a nice, spacious studio. This desire of his came true a bit late.
The modern studio building, which was attached to the old peasant house later, was finished in the year of the artist’s death, 1960. Szőnyi could hardly use the large and light studio. His books on fine arts as well as his easel with a tempera study on it have been placed here. Szőnyi was painting his picture titled “Girl at the Well” while Ágoston Kollányi was shooting the film on him. The version on the easel shows the very first stage of the painting process. The large-size main works in the studio reflect the course of a rich career from the mid-1920s till the painter’s death. Clearly can the way be seen how he got from “Self-Portrait” of 1928 or “Evening” of a fascinating tone to the vision-like lyrical interpretation of Zebegény bathing in the autumn sunshine in one of his last pictures titled “Village In Autumn”.
The furniture of the studio, the objects, the palettes, the brushes, the paint, the tools and the easel all bear the master’s mark upon them. You can imagine that the master has just stepped out in his beloved garden for a few minutes and will be returning soon.
Though it is not easy to realise, the present owners of the house cherish his spirit. At the same time when the museum was founded, Kornél Dániel, the first director of the museum established the Free School of Fine Arts named after István Szőnyi, which has been working ever since.
“This kind of training unique in Hungary derives spiritually from the French free schools at the beginning of the century, but its conception is close to that of Nagybánya as well as to the other free schools led by prominent masters – among them by also Szőnyi – between the two world wars. The aim of the founders was to teach the students – no matter where they might come from – what the basic features of art are and to start the most talented ones on a way towards a higher level. “ (Ferenc Hann, The Szőnyi István Summer School of Fine Arts Is 25 Years Old) There are two-week and four-week courses in seven or eight different classes with the direction of excellent artists and art historians. From 1987 on, there has been a youth free school as well. Pupils between 9 and 15 can study the tricks of drawing, painting, ceramics and enamel making for two weeks.
The museum and the garden around it always offer new programs for visitors. It is worth visiting the museum even if one has already seen it, as there is always something new and interesting to discover here, or at least one can experience the unique milieu of the concurrence of art and nature.