The Mysteries of San Francisco – Interview with Gergely Barki
by Gábor Pataki
In 1915, nine years after the earthquake devastated San Francisco, a world’s fare was held in the city to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal (Panama-Pacific International Exhibition, abbreviated as PPIE). Just like at the other expos of the time, visual arts played a key role at the event. For the 100th anniversary of the fare the de Young Museum came up with a large-scale exhibition where, besides Monet, Rodin and the Futurists, special attention was paid to the works of Hungarian progressive artists as well. Gergely Barki, who was in charge of the Hungarian section, has been focusing on the artworks once exhibited at the fare which were subsequently either returned to Hungary or were lost and then found again, and he is in the process of making a movie about the latest developments of his research. This is the context in which the following interview was born.
The size of the arts section at the event was quite amazing. They gathered 11 thousand (!) pieces of art in a short time. What’s the explanation for this? America’s dynamism and greed?
Gergely Barki: Initially it seemed that, due to the outbreak of the war, they wouldn’t be able to present a representative material from Europe, so the organizers launched a campaign throughout the United States to collect works by local artists. In the end, the action went too well, as American painters sent pictures in such large numbers that they had to be crammed up in endless exhibition halls, with several rows of paintings on each wall. Meanwhile, they managed to secure a rather serious European collection too, and for that reason they had to raise a separate auxiliary building while the world’s fair was already in full swing. The material from Hungary was exhibited there.
It is just natural that such an enormous amount of material was necessarily eclectic, but can we say that this was the time when California met modern art for the first time?
G. B.: Yes, in those years art in the United States was well behind art in Europe, and while beginning in 1913 the East Coast started to catch-up in a certain way, the West Coast practically continued to lag behind modern trends for more decades to come. For the Californian audience, even impressionism appeared to be an ultra-modern effort, and thus the pictures exhibited in the auxiliary building literally shocked the audience.
The material may not be comparable to that of the Armory Show, but the Italian Futurists were exhibited for the first time in the U.S. What happened to the material exhibited and what was the feedback like?
G. B.: Indeed, this was the first time the Italian Futurists appeared at an American exhibition, and the effect was elementary. In the contemporary local newspapers you could mostly read negative reviews though, and only a few, more enlightened critics, who had been to Europe, were welcoming them. The reviews in the contemporary Hungarian press were also written in the usual vitriolic tone and failed to understand the works altogether – and, of course, comics mocking the paintings that were seen as daubs were also published. In addition to the titles in the catalog, a fortunately surviving archive photo also provides some information about the approx. 50 Italian Futurist paintings exhibited at the event. On this photo you can count 14 paintings and a sculpture, but we know only one of the paintings. Only 10 percent of the entire material has been credibly identified, which means that, at the moment, nearly 40 (!) Italian Futurist works are missing, that is, lurking and waiting for identification. As far as we know, the collection was sent back to Europe in 1916, after the world’s fair, but if so, then why don’t we know these works? The mystery is further enhanced by the fact that a few previously unknown works that were nevertheless certainly exhibited at the PPIE have popped up in the United States, including the one identified Giacomo Balla painting which can be seen on the photograph I’ve just mentioned and which has not been exhibited at any other event in the past 100 years. The documentary we are working on now looks at the fate of Italian Futurist works as well.
This was the first major US debut of Hungarian art. What’s the size of the material?
G. B.: One of the most significant and progressive (modern) sections at the PPIE was definitely the collection of paintings by Hungarian painters which were exhibited in 8 halls. 76 Hungarian painters, 44 graphic artists and 12 sculptors are listed in the catalog, and they were represented at the event by nearly 500 works of art.
One of the key figures in relation to the Hungarian collection was John Nilsen Laurvik. The Hungarian public knows almost nothing about him. Who was he anyway? An avid collector, a critic, an adventurer, a thief, a receiver of stolen goods? A little bit of each?
G. B.: It turned out during the preparations for the centenary exhibition that Laurvik has been almost totally forgotten in America too, even though he had played a key role in reviving museum life in San Francisco. The exhibition’s curator, Jim Ganz, learnt from me that the main culprit of making the Hungarian works disappear was Laurvik, and he began to search for the material in local archives. Since, as director of the San Francisco art museum, Laurvik worked on enriching the museum’s collection, viewed from America he could well be regarded as a positive figure. Having gotten to know both sides, Jim Ganz decided to write a book about this interesting individual, who had already recognized the significance of the most recent movements in European modernism (cubism, futurism, expressionism, etc.) even prior to the world’s fair. We also know that he already had a role in making the 1913 Armory Show a success, if by nothing else, than by his book titled Is it Art?, which orientated American readers in the area of new art trends. So his reputation is ambiguous. One thing is sure: as the PPIE curator to Europe he had an important role in that such a large number of Hungarian artworks were finally exhibited, and the fact that he married Hungarian Elma Pálos certainly had an influence on this decision. Before they got married, Emma Pálos was courted by Dr. Sándor Ferenczi, the closest colleague of famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, but on Freud’s advice Ferenczi rather married Elma’s mother. In any case, through this relationship Laurvik could easily get connected with Ferenczi’s circle of friends, including Róbert Berény, and through him, the rest of the Eight. He got to know the most important collectors of the time, including Marcell Nemes, Gyula Andrássy and Ferenc Hatvany, as well as leading artists, many of whom he also visited in their studio. This is how he could put together such a rich and valuable collection of Hungarian artworks which was both retrospective (presenting the art of the previous decades) and, through the Eight, also featured more modern trends. It is true and there is evidence that Laurvik simply appropriated at least 12 Hungarian artworks, but it is suspected that he had a hand in the disappearance of other pieces too.
How and when were the Hungarian paintings returned? What are the most important Hungarian artworks that have disappeared?
G. B.: Following the prolonged exhibition of the arts section of the Expo, the United States soon entered World War I, and thus as a hostile country Hungary could not reclaim the works trapped in America. The Americans seized the collection of Hungarian artworks and placed it under the custody of Alien Property Custodian, where they remained till 1924, when the two countries finally reached an agreement. The circumstances of the repatriation are unclear as the certificate of receipt and other documents were destroyed during the World War II, but it is certain that in 1924 the bulk of the material stranded abroad was returned to Budapest. However, in recent decades several paintings have been found in America, and there remain important works the whereabouts of which are still unknown. We continue searching for several works by the Eight, paintings and graphic works by Róbert Berény and about a dozen of his embroideries, a self-portrait by Lajos Tihanyi, a landscape by Károly Ferenczy which was reproduced in the exhibition catalog, some award-winning graphics by landscape of Béla Uitz, an award-winning composition by Béla Iványi-Grünwald which was also reproduced in the catalog, a larger cubistic landscape by Sándor Galimberti, a representative painting by Gyula Batthyány titled Longchamps, also reproduced in the catalog, etc. Most shockingly, the huge, 11-meter-wide panneau by Bertalan Pór titled People’s Opera was accessible even around 1980, and in a Hungarian museum, but today we cannot find it anywhere.
About Berény’s Bartók and Golgotha we already know that they stayed with Laurvik. What happened to them afterwards?
G. B.: Following Laurvik’s death, they were auctioned. After being sold several times, the Bartók portrait was finally sold to the composer’s son Peter who, unfortunately, refused to lend this key work in the history of Hungarian Modernism to even the greatest museums. All we know is that, in accordance with his will, the painting was taken to Basel, where a few years ago both of us were fortunate enough to view it in real life. The tribulations of Golgotha make an interesting story too. About eight years ago it popped up on eBay, but the bidding was terminated by the painter’s grandson living in San Francisco, who said that it belonged to the family, since Berény never got it back from Laurvik. The FBI investigated the case for a long time, and in the end the descendants of Berény bought it from its last owner, so the painting was returned to the family and was exhibited last year at the centenary exhibition in the de Young Museum.
It is noteworthy that on the exhibition’s floor plan the hall in which the paintings of the Eight were exhibited is referred to as the “Hall of Hungarian Cubists”. Does this only reflect the imprecise use of terminology that was typical at the time? And where is actual research on Hungarian cubism standing at?
G. B.: The contemporary terms often did not reflect reality, but it is worth noting that some of the works by the Eight exhibited and the fare indeed showed cubistic tendencies, so the local organizers didn’t make such a grave mistake. Nevertheless, a critic called Christian Brinton criticized the organizers of the exhibition for not having selected works by the most modern artists, that is, Hungarian cubists such as Réth, Csáky, Kóródy or Késmárky. And indeed, recently it has been raised on several occasions that the history of Hungarian Cubism should be dealt with more seriously, because it is a fairly unexplored area of our art history. Last year, I gave a lecture on this at the Charting Cubism conference at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and, as a result, I have gotten involved in a number of international projects on cubism. I have also written a longer article for Artmagazin which primarily focused on lurking artworks, but beside me my colleague Zoltán Rockenbauer has also published studies on this topic. We are planning to organize an exhibition of art pieces by Hungarian Cubists within a few years, and in the meantime several exhibitions, including a major international project, are awaiting us.