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The “Hungarian Bauhaus”

Sándor Bortnyik’s Bauhaus-inspired Budapest School Műhely 1928–1938

Sándor Bortnyik: Business card design with
the address of Műhely, 1930,
Budapest Poster Gallery – budapestposter.com

One of the many Hungarians associated with the Bauhaus, painter and graphic designer Sándor Bortnyik (1893-1976) opened his art and design school, Műhely, in Budapest in 1928 to bring the Bauhaus’s sprit and some of its teaching methods into Hungary. Even if Bortnyik’s school did not have the scope of the Bauhaus, it was an efficient experiment in an independent form of institutionalized education in the field of modern graphic design and typography. As a locally cultivated progressive trend, Műhely put the modernist spirit squarely on the map in Hungary.

Sándor Bortnyik, Page from his album Képarchitektúra (Picture-architecture) 1921, © Lempertz-Archiv.

Sándor Bortnyik, Page from his album Képarchitektúra (Picture-architecture) 1921, © Lempertz-Archiv.

Sándor Bortnyik spent about two and a half years in Weimar (from 1922 to 1924). Even if not formally enrolled at the Bauhaus, he was close to the school through his many personal and professional friendships and involvement in theoretical and artistic debates, thus witnessing firsthand the Bauhaus’ development in the early years of its existence. After his return to Hungary in 1925, he slowly developed a desire to graft its rich curriculum and teaching methods onto the graphic design culture of Budapest, inspired in part by the increasing prominence of advertising as a mode of communication in Hungary—one outcome of the country’s developing a relatively affluent middle class during the second half of the 1920s. In 1928 Bortnyik decided to open a private school of art and design, which he ran until 1938 (although not much was heard from or about it after 1933). Inspired by the Bauhaus, he called his school Műhely, or “Workshop.”

Bortnyik was born in Marosvásárhely, Transylvania (today Târgu Mureș, Romania) and moved to Budapest in 1910 to work as a graphic artist, designing wrapping material for a perfumery. Three years later, he enrolled in a free school of art at which leading artists such as József Rippl-Rónai, Károly Kernstok, and János Vaszary were teaching. Between them they represented many of the leading modernist trends: art nouveau, expressionism, and fauve-like colorism respectively. Fellow students at this progressive school put him in contact with the liberal Galilei Circle and members of the Social Democratic Party. He met avant-garde poet, writer, and editor Lajos Kassák in 1916, collaborating with him on his radically progressive journals, A Tett (Action) and Ma (Today), for about a decade—first in Budapest and then in Vienna. As early as 1918 Bortnyik was already working in a revolutionary communist spirit. He became even more committed to communism during the short-lived Hungarian Commune of March – August 1919. After the defeat of the Commune, Bortnyik was forced to emigrate for fear of retaliation, as were Kassák’s entire circle, as well as a number of other left-leaning Hungarians. He arrived in Vienna in 1920, resuming his collaboration with Kassák, who published his pioneering album of geometric abstract compositions, Képarchitektúra (picture-architecture), in 1921. While Kassák embraced Dada and was open to various forms of anarchism in 1921, Bortnyik remained solidly committed to the Hungarian and the Soviet communist parties’ left-wing politics and concepts of art. This divergence generated tension between them, and in 1922 Bortnyik chose to leave Vienna.

At the suggestion of his friend, the future architect Farkas Molnár, who was currently studying at the Bauhaus, Bortnyik travelled to Berlin and Weimar. By December he had already managed to exhibit his abstract paintings in the Der Sturm Gallery. Settling in Weimar, he participated in many Bauhaus events and debates, witnessing one of the school’s most turbulent periods. The Bauhaus was in the crosshairs of the Weimar conservatives, and Dutch avant-garde artist Theo van Doesburg also targeted it's as-yet conspicuous expressionist spirit in a series of anti-Bauhaus classes; a number of students, wary of these developments, decamped for Italy. The position of Walter Gropius, then head of the school, was visibly weakening. Bortnyik witnessed all of these conflicts, and was also present for Gropius’s stark decision to restore the Bauhaus’s steady work and community, as well as his preparations for the decisive 1923 Bauhaus exhibition and Bauhaus Week. He saw, too, Gropius’s new slogan, “Art and technology: a new unity,” enlisted as the foundation for a renewal of the school’s collective spirit and progressive ethos. Being close to some of the Hungarians at the school—such as Gropius’s colleague, the architect Alfred Forbat, the musician and jack-of-all-trades Andor Weininger, aspiring architect Farkas Molnár, as well as Werner Graeff and Peter Röhl from van Doesburg’s circle—Bortnyik witnessed both the success and the shortcomings of these 1923 events. It was not lost on him that the international and nationwide (if not local) success of the Haus am Horn exhibition stemmed from the program laid out in the 1919 Bauhaus Manifesto, that appeal to artists to return to the workshop. Bortnyik’s paintings from those years reintroduced figurative representation in a rigid, geometricized style informed by the Neue Sachlichkeit movement. In a portrait of his wife painted in 1926, he represented the Dessau Bauhaus building, although he may have known it from photographs alone.

Bortnyik left Weimar late in 1924, returning to Hungary the following year. The right-wing nationalist Hungarian political regime was in the process of consolidating power—although it offered a general amnesty for the participants and sympathizers of the 1919 Commune only in 1926. The artistic avant-gardes were not banned outright, but were closely monitored and censored, and had fewer adherents than before 1920. Modernism and the visual language of the avant-gardes were rejected both by a right-wing officialdom that supported neo-Catholic Neoclassicism, and by the communists and many on the political left, who championed socialist realism. Several left-leaning modernists made attempts to push these new political boundaries and revive the progressive spirit. There was a rather narrow path open for this task. For example, Kassák, who returned from his Vienna exile in 1926, understood that there was no longer room for the avant-garde in the 1915-1919 sense of the word. For his new journal Munka (Work), he opted to employ the more broadly comprehensible genre of photography, keeping his social critique within strictly circumscribed limits.

What Bortnyik confronted in Hungary is revealed in an article by architecture critic Pál Rihmer, which includes a pithy description of the dominant Hungarian aesthetic proclivities and politics of the era, pointing out the influence of German modernity. Rihmer’s essay refers to architecture, but is relevant to art, design, and the entire social and cultural scene:

It cannot be denied that in our [post-1919] society that favors neo-baroque social and architectural forms in the spirit of counter-revolution, it was those intellectuals who had contacts with Weimar Germany that imported the principles, forms, and social objectives of the new architecture. This might be the reason why the presently rising lower middle classes, which have [a] narrower outlook and an outspoken counter-revolutionary conservatism, have occupied the positions of the Hungarian middle classes, and respond to the new architecture with such loud antipathy and resentment. This petite bourgeoisie may feel that the new forms and principles are threatening their recently achieved social and economic positions. Therefore, they express their anxiety and subjective suspicion that originate from outside the strictly defined field of architecture in conservative aesthetic judgments coining such terms as “box houses,” “communist style,” and the like. They, along with the entire society, ridicule what they call the bleakness and ugliness of the new forms, and build their houses in baroque style, following the example offered to them by the state.1

This was the context in which Bortnyik decided to open his Bauhaus-inspired school in Budapest in the fall 1928. As has happened several times throughout Hungarian history, the representative genres of grand art—painting and sculpture—were the most closely controlled, while little attention was paid to applied arts. Therefore, it was not surprising that not only did Bortnyik suspend his own activities as a painter, he also organized his school around the applied art of graphic design. Graphic design was seen as a practical profession rather than an art: government censors did not scrutinize its visual language with the same vigilance as applied to the grand arts. Bortnyik envisioned a rich curriculum providing a wide scale of knowledge to prepare students to work efficiently in a modern culture/economy. In a programmatic article entitled “New Ways of Education in the ‘Applied’ Arts,”2 he outlined a pedagogical concept that to a great extent followed Gropius’s original 1919 Bauhaus program in that it focused on designing and producing forward-looking, affordable objects and prototypes for industrial production, in lively dialogue with civil society. Besides painting, print techniques, typography, and advertising, he intended to include in the curriculum various technologies and mediums, such as ceramics, product design, and art—as well as courses on cultural history, film, stagecraft, and architecture.3

Bortnyik certainly found a niche that had not yet been filled in the Hungarian cultural and business milieus of the late 1920s. Although Műhely was not the only private school of its kind in Hungary, it was the most modern in style and concept. As Katalin Bakos has written, the government’s economic stabilization program of 1924 – 1926 stimulated trade and commerce: advertising design was the principal field where the formal language of modernity was accepted.4 Thus, Bortnyik’s emphasis on practical work such as advertising and book design (both of which had obvious commercial applications), meant his school was allowed to proceed with teaching graphic design. However, the other courses in his original curriculum had to be dropped, reduced to occasional talks by visiting lecturers.

Sándor Bortnyik, Page from his album Képarchitektúra (Picture-architecture) 1921, © Lempertz-Archiv.

Sándor Bortnyik, Page from his album Képarchitektúra (Picture-architecture) 1921, © Lempertz-Archiv.

Another circumstance to make young people choose a private school like the Műhely was the Numerus Clausus law, which in its first iteration—legislated in 1920—capped the number of minority students (i.e., Jewish) who could enroll in public institutions of higher education. Although this was explicitly implemented in the various Hungarian university faculties of sciences and engineering, this law—amended in 1928 without changing its basic impetus—prompted many young people to bypass the educational system altogether. Many enrolled in the Bauhaus in Dessau, where the Hungarian contingent constituted the largest student sector of any country outside Germany. The Budapest Műhely, often referred to as the “Hungarian Bauhaus” or “Little Bauhaus,” was, being located in Buapest, more accessible than the Bauhaus, and was refreshingly modern, professional, and pragmatic in its approach: a school intended specifically for the training of design professionals. Naturally, Bortnyik did not keep records about the religious or ethnic background of his students, but it is safe to surmise that the Műhely was a welcome addition to the art academies and universities, which required proof of applicants’ religious background, tacitly preferring non-Jewish students.

Sándor Bortnyik: Typographic design for Iván Hevesy: Primitív művészet (Primitive art), 1929, Budapest: Alfa publisher. Budapest Poster Gallery – budapestposter.com

Despite its popularity, from its opening onwards, the Műhely was continually in a precarious political and financial position. Its possibilities were not even close to the Bauhaus, which received support first from the state of Thüringen and then from the city of Dessau. (It is also important to note that before the latter’s closure, Bortnyik relied upon the Bauhaus’s Hungarian contingent to develop further contacts with the school, and otherwise leaned on its international reputation.) Bortnyik was well connected in advertising and publishing circles, but he could never count on government or official support of any kind, nor could he win over private investors. While the International Style (by and large regarded as foreign in Hungary), gained some ground among the Budapest upper middle class, becoming en vogue in that demographic from the late 1920s until the early 1940s—as a number of Bauhaus-style buildings in the city demonstrate—the modernist style resonated positively only within the capital’s small progressive circles. The success of the Műhely, and the many commissions its students received during and after their studies, demonstrate that modernist graphic design became the visual language of business and its preferred means of targeting urban audiences.

Attributed to László Moholy-Nagy, 1923, Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin.

As Bortnyik did not have the financial means to operate a school of art and design at the scale he had originally envisioned, he started the school in his own apartment, the address of which—32 Damjanich Street—figures on its first advertising poster. A few months later, however, he moved the school to a more spacious address, a studio apartment on the seventh floor of a building on 3 Nagymező Street, a centrally located tree-lined boulevard in Budapest. Students could enroll full-time, part-time, or take evening classes, and were accordingly charged different tuition fees. After all, it was Bortnyik himself who acted as sole proprietor and faculty member; the precariousness of the school’s finances made such a flexible enrollment scheme an operational necessity. Occasionally architect Farkas Molnár or art critic and theorist Iván Hevesy—whose book on primitive art Bortnyik designed in the Bauhaus style — were invited to give a talk to widen the scope of the education.5 It is probable that László Moholy-Nagy also gave a talk at the school during his brief 1930 visit to Budapest. In a somewhat restrained account given to German graphic designer and design historian Eckhard Neumann,6 Bortnyik wrote that the Bauhaus impressed him first of all as an experiment in bringing together all the visual arts save architecture and painting, the interconnection of which—namely murals—he missed. He says that he intended his own Budapest school to be like the Bauhaus, “but naturally, on smaller scale,”7 with a focus on a number of genres: “free painting, mural painting, prints, and graphic design. But it was impossible to realize this because … officialdom took no interest in it and was hostile to progressive art. … So I had to narrow down my plans to graphic design according to the trend of constructivism.”8

As Bortnyik’s main focus was on advertising design, mainly posters, his instruction was predicated on the aesthetics of “less is more,” a design approach recommending that students focus on the main item, reduce the number of motives to the minimum, use catchy color blocks, simple, modern typography, and a minimal, efficient use of language. According to the memory of one of Műhely’s students, the animated filmmaker later known in Britain as John Halas (Halász János, 1912-1995),9 analyses of geometric forms in posters in order to instill awareness of the psychological and visceral effect of forms and colors played a central role in Bortynik’s pedagogy. Lucidity, strong character, clarity of message were all prerequisites for poster aesthetics. The starting point was the square: students had to sub-divide the square, then do exercises in proportion and rhythm where various forms would be inserted into a square. In Halas’s description: “As with the Bauhaus, the primary introduction to all courses was the study of basic geometry and the understanding of relationships between such basic forms as the triangle and circle. Exercises with tetrahedral and octahedral shapes followed, and gradually led to some practice in three-dimensional design and textures which widened the use of color.”10 Bortnyik admitted to have learned this strict geometrical approach from Theo van Doesburg while in Weimar, who thought of geometry as the objective basis for creating a balanced use of forms and colors rather than relying on impressions.

Throughout the existence of the Műhely, Bortnyik claimed to have about 120 students enrolled at any given time. Besides Halas, another artist who later became famous, Victor Vasarely (then called Vásárhelyi Győző [1906-1997]), began his studies there. (Figs. 7, 8.) He met his wife Klára Spinner (later Claire Vasarely, 1909-1991) (Fig.9.) at the school, following advice proffered by the avant-garde photographer József Pécsi (1889-1956) that he enroll. Vasarely had fond memories of the Műhely and made a point of mentioning the school frequently in interviews and in his autobiographical writings. “We particularly liked the studies in abstract forms as we held them [as] art on the highest level. In form, color, and material we had to visualize such qualities as sharp, blunt, soft, smooth… In our discussions we analyzed works by Kandinsky, Le Corbusier, Malevich, Lissitzky, and, perhaps strangely, Chagall. We worshipped them. By the time I left Hungary in 1930 I had understood everything that abstract art had accomplished.”11 He also mentioned Bortnyik’s school in his conversation with Jean-Louis Ferrier, pointing out that Bortnyik had personally known Klee, Kandinsky, and Gropius, as well as Mondrian, but that he wanted his students to accomplish something more pragmatic and constructive “so they can find their place in a society that [will] inevitably [be] dominated by science and technology. … Bortnyik’s teaching was very valuable to me. Upon arriving in Paris I had a solid profession, and impeccable drawing skills. … I could make posters and illustrations … and lived decently instead of being one of the starving artists of Montparnasse.”12

Another artist who studied with Bortnyik in the “Budapest Bauhaus” and later became known internationally was the photographer Ata Kandó (Görög Ata, 1913-2017), as well as her husband, the painter Gyula Kandó (1908-1968). Some of the other students who became outstanding in their fields within Hungary were the book designer Tibor Szántó (1912-2001) and the film animator Gyula Macskássy (1912-1971). In fact, Bortnyik, together with his wife B. Klára Zoltán (1902-1971), made animated films after World War II. This interest was already present during Műhely’s existence: as Halas remembered, “His interest expanded over animated films, and, especially in this medium, I was lucky to be able to assist him.”13 Encouraged by such activities in the Műhely, Halas, along with Macskássy and graphic artist Félix Kassowitz (1907-1983) founded the first Hungarian animation studio, Coloriton in 1932, which remained in business until the former’s emigration to England in 1936.

Walter Gropius made a visit to Budapest in 1934,14 organized, to a great extent, by Farkas Molnár. Correspondence before and after Gropius’s visit does not relate to Bortnyik’s school, but the visit stirred up heated debates among design professionals and in the Hungarian press concerning modern architecture, the International Style, and the Bauhaus’s influence. Gropius gave a talk in Budapest on February 5, 1934 in the headquarters of the Association of Hungarian Engineers and Architects,15 later published in Hungary’s leading forum on modern architecture, Tér és Forma (Space and form).16 Following his lecture, a passionate debate for and against modern architecture and modernity in general broke out among the attendees. By this date, the Bauhaus had been closed, Hitler come to power, and Hungary had developed a close political and cultural relations with Mussolini’s Italy. Taking the side of modern architecture and the modern style was, for these reasons, brave, but the issue also reflects a certain ambiguity in authoritarian regimes’ respective attitudes towards an aesthetic modernism that had proved enormously useful economically. The fact that in Hungary both modern architecture and graphic design were connected to a thriving business environment mitigated, to some extent, the original social implications of modernism as a style, and being that there existed a particular style of modernist architecture in fascist Italy as well, the concept of “modernism” tended to appear as a blanket term for all its iterations.17

Kurt Schmidt, Bauhaus exhibition 1923, Weimar, Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin.

Bortnyik, a lifelong communist, was in opposition during the interwar era, and remained loyal to his views during the Hungarian communist regime, when he became a state-supported artist, serving from 1949 to 1956 as rector of the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts.

The Bauhaus, its history, and its broader resonance across Europe was not publicly discussed in Hungary until the late 1960s. At this time, Bortnyik was contacted both by Hungarian scholars and international Bauhaus researchers about his experience as someone who, having once been a guest in Weimar, possessed first-hand knowledge of the period. He was also asked about Műhely, but more as an afterthought than out of genuine interest. As a rule, he was careful in choosing his words while talking about the Bauhaus, which remained a nearly taboo topic in socialist Hungary, being still considered a sort of bourgeois design experiment. In an attempt to appear unbiased rather than in any way a proponent, Bortnyik chose the Marxist argument of placing the Bauhaus within a social and historical perspective, telling Eckhard Neumann, among others, that at the time of the Bauhaus’s opening, “the whole of Europe was in turmoil, and in the Bauhaus one could discern the still not yet solid outlines of the beginnings of a new order in the arts. But a healthy social basis would have been necessary for realizing the Bauhaus idea.”18 He had experienced himself how due to the lack of such a social basis in Hungary, his Műhely had been both underfunded and short-lived. But despite all the limitations he had faced, Bortnyik had managed to create a lively and important professional center of modern graphic design, launching the careers of a number of significant talents, and contributing to significantly raising the standards of progressive graphic design in Hungary.

●Footnotes
  • 1 Pál Rihmer: “A magyar népi építészeti mozgalom” (The Hungarian movement of popular architecture) Az Ország útja, pp. 149-155, March 1938, quoted by Mezei, “Gropius’s 1934 visit to Budapest…,” pp.141, Note 27. Author’s translation.
  • 2 Sándor Bortnyik “Az ‘iparművészeti’ oktatás új útjai” (New ways of education in the ‘applied’ arts), Magyar Grafika, pp. 255-258,1928, No. 9-10.
  • 3 See Katalin Bakos: Bortnyik Sándor tervezőgrafikai tevékenysége és pedagógiai munkássága 1914-1938 (Sándor Bortnyik’s graphic design and pedagogic activities 1914-1938), Ph.D. Dissertation, Budapest 1999, p. 101.
  • 4 Ibid., p. 94.
  • 5 Ibid. p. 97, quoting a letter of Bortnyik to Wulf Herzogenrath, dated January 7, 1968.
  • 6 Eckhard Neumann, ed.: Bauhaus und Bauhäusler. Erinnerungen und Bekenntnisse, Köln, DuMont Verlag, 1985, pp. 148.
  • 7 Ibid., p.149.
  • 8 Ibid.
  • 9 John Halas: “No Frontiers,” pp.108-109 in: Studio International, Sept. 1968.
  • 10 Ibid., p. 108.
  • 11 Victor Vasarely to painter Jean Dewasne, quoted in Gaston Diehl: Vasarely, Corvina, Budapest 1973, pp. 12. Author’s translation.
  • 12 Jean-Louis Ferrier: Entretiens avec Victor Vasarely, Editions Pierre Belfond, Paris 1969. pp. 24-25. Author’s translation.
  • 13 Halas, “No Frontiers,” pp. 108. For more details, please see Orosz, Márton: Vissza a szülőföldre! / Back to the Homeland!. 10th Kecskeméti Animáció Film Fesztivál (KAFF) 2011, n.p.: “According to Halász/Halas, Bortnyik asked for his assistance in making animations after regular school hours; in return, he was excused the school tuition of 20 pengős.”
  • 14 For more details, please see Ottó Mezei: “Gropius 1934-es budapesti látogatása és levelezése Molnár Farkassal” (Gropius’s 1934 visit to Budapest and his correspondence with Farkas Molnár), Ars Hungarica, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 133-144.
  • 15 Ibid. p.134.
  • 16 Walter Gropius: Tér és Forma, Hungary 1934, pp. 69-82.
  • 17 This bleeding of modernism across ideological orientations is the subject matter of Farkas Molnár’s article “Fogalomzavar az építészet és politika körül” (Confusion of concepts regarding architecture and politics), Nyugat, 1934, No. 20, http://epa.oszk.hu/00000/00022/nyugat.htm, accessed June 25, 2018. Molnár is especially keen to reject the notion that modern architecture has politically left-wing connotations—which, no doubt, it did have—pointing out, among other things, that while Mussolini proffered assistance and commissions to modernist architects, the Soviets rejected them en masse.
  • 18 Neumann: Bauhaus und Bauhäusler, p. 148.
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