Ilona Sármány–Parsons
The  summer  of our  content

Mária Bernáth–Ildikó Nagy, eds.:
Rippl-Rónai József gyûjteményes kiállítása
(József Rippl-Rónai’s Collected Works. Catalogue)
Budapest: Magyar Nemzeti Galéria,
Pannon GSM, 1998, 537 pp.


The exhibition of the collected works of one of the best-loved of Hungarian painters, József Rippl-Rónai, at the Hungarian National Gallery was a feast for both the eye and the soul. It was also something of a revelation both to the general public and to the art world, especially because the last time that so many of Rippl-Rónai’s paintings were shown together in Budapest was in 1961, the centenary of his birth.
József Rippl-Rónai (1861–1927) studied in Munich, and from 1887 in Paris, in the studio of the fashionable Hungarian realist painter Mihály Munkácsy. From 1889 on he was engaged in creating a new and individual modern style. He was able to absorb the stylistic influences of Carrière, Whistler, Odilon Redon and Albert Besnard in such a way that his own experimental style became a unique version of atmospheric symbolism, radiating a gentle, meditative melancholy. His reduced dark colors and compositions with dreamy female figures became moderately popular in the Paris of the early 1890s.
The young Hungarian scored a professional success in the Salon de Champs-de-Mars in 1894 and gained friends and artist-allies such as the Nabis (Vuillard, Bonnard, Maurice Denis), and even Maillol. He was briefly integrated into the Parisian avant-garde of the 1890s through the circle of the Revue Blanche, but he could not repeat his early success and began to feel more and more frustrated in the French capital.
A creative crisis at the end of the 1890s and growing homesickness brought about the decision in 1900 to move back to his hometown of Kaposvár in provincial Hungary. His exhibitions in Budapest were total failures and it was only in 1906 that he finally achieved success. However from that time on he became extremely poular. His style—which went through different metamorphoses after he resettled in Hungary—became a kind of decorative Post-Impressionism with Fauve features. In his last years he practised a lyrical, pastel portraiture featuring sensitive characterizations of the human soul.
Rippl-Rónai is an example of the belated acknowledgement of experimental modernity in early 20th-century Hungary, but at the same time also of the fate of a great talent ahead of time. He lost his international avant-garde role as a result of moving back to his homeland, and of trying to re-establish himself in its conservative cultural-intellectual milieu, which was so different from Paris.
The oeuvre lends itself easily to periodization: there are five stylistically quite distinct periods, in terms of his use of color and form. The first is his so-called “black”, Parisian period, followed by his landscape paintings in Banyuls-sur-Mer; the third period is dominated by his Kaposvár interiors; the fourth is the so-called “maize-like” or “dotted” period and, lastly, there are his postwar pastels. They show the internal development of a highly sensitive and loyal person, who does not, in fact, change a great deal in essence; he employs different artistic devices, but the image he has of the world remains the same; at most he narrows or broadens his perspective. Domestic life, and the role of the woman, the mother, and wife in it is something which Rippl-Rónai took for granted.
The material selected and the manner in which it was displayed by the exhibition’s curators, Mária Bernáth, Mária Földes, and Edit Plesznyivy, was appropriate to great masterpieces. The fine catalogue too stands up to international comparison. The 237 works shown are presented together with extensive reference material, while the twelve articles the catalogue contains are supplemented by picture analyses, documents, and a wealth of reference material, facts and figures.
Of the eleven authors, the primus inter pares is Mária Bernáth, author of the introductory article, a comprehensive study of the artist’s whole life and work, and of another dealing with his memoirs. As well as being responsible for the design and content of the catalogue, she was also one of the exhibition’s curators. Earlier studies by her, including a small volume on Rippl-Rónai published in 1976, have made the artist’s personality and his work familiar not only to those in the field but also to the wider public.1
Just how much new research and original thought is distilled into this catalogue introduction is made apparent even to the specialist only after a thorough reading. It fell to Bernáth to undertake the most difficult task, that of condensing into a few pages the essence of the artist’s oeuvre; each significant phase in his work, the underlying, hidden spiritual and intellectual motivation and the inner logic of the stylistic changes. At the same time all this had to be set in its appropriate context, that of the contemporary artistic climate and the trends in international art around 1900. Bernáth’s elegant and insightful portrait is at the same time a persuasive defence of an artist who was not only denigrated by conservative critics but also frequently belittled by those cultural dogmatists who force individual talents to fit the Procrustean bed of avant-garde theories that happen to be fashionable at the time.
 Each of the contributions examines the works of Rippl-Rónai in a different and distinct context. Some of the studies (e.g. Edit Plesznyivy, János Horváth, József Pandúr) reconstruct or examine for the first time in published form events in the artist’s life which have not hitherto been adequately explored from a scholarly point of view. Others (e.g. Anna Szinyei Merse, Mariann Gergely, Katalin Keserû) reopen the debate on the “perennial” issues so far unresolved, at least among Hungarian art historians, such as the question of defining genres, his “dotted” period or his relationship with the Nabis. Virtually every one of the studies puts forward original ideas, or casts new light on the existing information. Szinyei, for example, makes some brand-new comparisons and connections and presents some little-known facts in her paper, a scholarly piece of work, painstakingly researched and documented, while at the same time wide-ranging, and also containing some hitherto unknown details.2 Finally, the volume also contains papers which discuss one or another aspect of Rippl-Rónai’s oeuvre from a new angle. One such is Judit Szabadi’s piece, packed with psychological insights, a study which at last goes beyond the comparisons with the work of Cézanne which were repeated ad nauseam over the past decades in connection with Rippl-Rónai’s portrait of Aristide Maillol. Rather, the comparison she makes highlights features in Rippl-Rónai’s creative approach and technique which are quite distinct from those of the great master from Aix-en-Provence, illustrating just how different the Hungarian painter’s personality and approach in fact was.
Csilla Csorba discusses the complex, multi-layered relationship between Rippl-Rónai and photography. Her text is illustrated with numerous facts, figures and examples which underline to what extent the use of photography was common practice internationally at that time, and to what extent it influenced the work of painters. She also shows how important photography was for Rippl-Rónai in creating an artistic persona for himself.
Erzsébet Király examines Rippl-Rónai’s “interior” period in a new light, putting this oft-maligned style in a literary/poetical context. Quoting what the artist himself had said to underpin her arguments, she cleverly weaves into her analysis the titles Rippl-Rónai gave his pictures, exploring as she does so the Hungarian literary precedents and parallels to Rippl-Rónai’s desire to achieve a feeling of intimacy in his work. The immediate world in which Rippl-Rónai lived and moved is set out with great psychological sensitivity in Király’s excellent analysis of the closely-knit, patriarchal family, typical of rural Hungary,  for which the artist always felt a deep yearning, even when he was in Paris. Its domestic structure and measured pace of living, its moral rigour and emotional bonds were unquestioningly accepted by him as the “normal” way of things, without any need for inducements or pressure.
The catalogue is in some respects a milestone in the understanding of turn-of-the-century Hungarian art demonstrating as it were a gradual change in attitudes as regards both the individual artists and the context.
We have always known that there are few Hungarian painters of that period (and indeed in Hungarian art in general) whose work is comparable in quality to that of Rippl-Rónai. Nevertheless, the renewed interest in Hungarian Art Nouveau (Secession) in recent decades somewhat eclipsed what Rippl-Rónai represented, at least as far as art historians were concerned. In Judit Szabadi’s book on the Hungarian Art Nouveau, published twenty years ago, the chapter entitled “Art Nouveau as Fate” contains sixteen pages on Rippl-Rónai’s work.3 It was around that time that Art Nouveau began to become fashionable in the Hungarian art world, and “Art Nouveau feeling”, or “Art Nouveau vision” became the gauge of fin-de-siècle modern style. Soon the term “Secessionist fate” appeared as no more than yet another piece of empty rhetoric. The 1986 exhibition “Lélek és formák” (“Soul and Forms”), which subsequently went on tour to London, Miami, and San Diego under the title “A Golden Age”, was intended to show the whole gamut of Hungarian Art Nouveau design, but quality was unfortunately not one of the selection criteria for the material included in that exhibition, and thus the few Rippl-Rónai pictures included were not shown either to their best advantage or as befitted their calibre.4
Every artist who was influenced even to the slightest degree by the Secessionist school was included emphatically under the umbrella of Art Nouveau, which had been promoted to the rank of the defining artistic style and Weltanschauung of the period. Anybody who was doing anything else was regarded as somehow deviant, as was any approach to the modern style which was not Paris-centerd. Although the Hungarian usage adopted the Vienna-oriented term “Secession” rathen than “Art Nouveau”, Vienna itself, as an artistic center, was regarded as second-rate, and either avoided altogether in the specialist literature or discussed in very negative (or downright disparaging) terms. The same applied to Munich, regarded as home to nothing but Historicism and derivative, sentimental, genre painting.5 Rippl-Rónai fitted perfectly into this Paris-centerd set of values (in which the artistic achievements of Central Europe were always held in low regard, stifled precisely by its own, Central European inferiority complex); not only was he the most French in orientation of all Hungarian painters, his Parisian period was a perfect example of a modernist style. Some of his contemporary critics, however, already regarded the fact that he returned to settle in Hungary in 1900 as a crucial problem; the fact, that he modified his “Parisian” style and even eventually became popular made him even more suspect! His real path was thus very different from the romanticized vision of the artistic genius, ahead of his time but misunderstood, and even more so from the avant-garde-centered and very deliberate “classical modern” style which leads in a direct line to the abstract painting of the 20th century. Instead, he painted from about 1902 radiating joyous harmony, affirming life itself. All this, however, did not fit in with the principle which held that the only credible role for art was a prophetic one; nor did it fit the system of values resulting from this principle, according to which representations of the physical world were to be avoided altogether or art should at the very least be “ceaselessly critical of reality”.
From 1900, contemporary critics of the Paris-oriented school (e.g. Lajos Fülep), and later theoreticians of the avant-garde (Ernô Kállai was among the first) began to write in negative terms about Rippl-Rónai’s work. According to the logic of these two approaches, his work had acquired a local—in other words Central European and therefore provincial—feel. He even came close to being accused of conservatism because his work was admired by some conservative critics and patrons of the arts who dismissed the often poor quality experiments (albeit founded on the noblest intentions) of the avant-garde.
In the seventies, when Art Nouveau became fashionable again in Hungary too, the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk became its key term, with the consequence that all Hungarian artistic endeavors of the turn of the century were viewed from that perspective. The emphasis was on design studios, on the arts and crafts and, for a long time, the importance of other art forms was obscured by the “rediscovery” of the forgotten and previously underrated works of the Gödöllô artists’ colony. Art critics at the time attached particular significance to the fact that this artistic group was looking in “the right direction”, i.e. not  to Vienna or to Germany, but to England.6 Every piece of work by these relatively minor artists and designers was received with wonder bordering on reverence, and their cult status was further enhanced by the fact that, because of their role in the revival of folk art, parallels were drawn between them and certain manifestations of the early Hungarian avant-garde’s exploration of its roots which, both in architecture and in music (though in completely different ways) succeeded in producing a genuine synthesis of the old, national peasant traditions and the most modern experimental forms. Supporters of the phalanx advancing in the name of the modern style emblazoned on their banner the name of Bartók; from there it was a short step to applying this brand to the artistic endeavors of just about any visual artist exploring Hungarian form and style, including architects, designers, craftsmen and painters who also designed for the industrial arts. Differences of quality and of intellectual content were blurred in the interests of saving even the more mediocre works from oblivion, since they were regarded as depositors of Hungary’s former artistic heritage, a heritage of which very little genuinely ancient was left.
Rippl-Rónai’s role in this respect too was ambivalent. Although he was the first to design an Art Nouveau “Gesamtkunstwerk” interior in Hungary, he did not fit either into the group of those experimenting with the traditional Hungarian style, nor into that of utopian social reformers. His dining-room design, an exclusive, private commission for the aristocratic Andrássy family, renowned for their exquisite taste, remained a one-off; moreover, only fragments of it survive, and it was very poorly documented at the time.7 Although Rippl-Rónai knew the idiom of French Art Nouveau inside out, he paid no attention to the properties of the materials and his work was received with critical hostility.
Rippl-Rónai abandoned designing interiors but, rather unexpectedly, took up painting them instead; these were not modern interiors, however, but traditional provincial homes, which could have come straight out of the Biedermeier. This change in style was only conservative in appearance, however, not in reality, and only seemingly a concession to popular taste.8
When Rippl-Rónai lived in the midst of the Nabis, he hardly ever painted interiors. Clearly, he did not want to resemble Vuillard or Bonnard, even in his choice of subject, much as he admired their work. In Hungary, the interior style and furnishings of people’s homes were so different that he was able to tackle this theme, always close to his heart, since the world of color and form typical of the Hungarian style in interiors was so distinct from the French that a new and individual style was guaranteed to come out of his inspiration.
Rippl-Rónai was open to contemporary trends from the outset, but he was acutely aware of their inherent dangers for a receptive artist. Even early on in his years in Paris, in 1889 (i.e., preceding his first attempts at developing his own individual style), he wrote: “Nowadays only those whose talent manifests itself in a direction and approach which resembles noone else’s can even hope to aspire to the title of great artist. In other words, to be original is what everyone must achieve. This is extremely difficult; even artists of great genius generally only achieve this when they are 40–50 years old.”9  These few lines, addressed to his mother, shed light on just how sharp his perception of the artist’s situation was, as well as indicating that he probably quite deliberately set about constructing his own individual style and strategy for forging his own artistic personality. He certainly did not want to resemble anyone else even then, in 1889. There is thus little sense in seeking direct parallels or looking for influences in his paintings, or calling him to account for not being as decorative or as abstract as Vuillard or Bonnard. From the very beginning he wanted to be different, to be original, not to be comparable to anyone else, and he did indeed succeed in this.10
An artist like this is unlikely to become a member of a group; at best one may detect a loose connection in terms of taste, or on a very theoretical, indirect plane, to one or other tendency in art. While his art was wholly in keeping with his time, it is impossible to label him as belonging to one specific stylistic category; as soon as he assimilated an influence or impulse, be it stylistic, intellectual or emotional, he immediately turned it around and transformed into something quite his own. He was well informed, and his judgement when deciding what to draw on from his contemporaries was unerring; he always took great pains, however, to ensure that it nevertheless remained something absolutely different. In this respect, but only in this, he may be compared to Klimt, who also possessed that rare artistic and intellectual gift of being able to draw on the work of others, even elements strongly or exclusively associated with the unique style of their artistic originator, and immediately make the “assimilated” and adapted element, be it painting technique, stylistic approach or subject matter, completely and undeniably “Klimtian”. Whether this came easily and instinctively to Rippl-Rónai, or whether it was a laborious struggle, we have no way of knowing, although we may guess that it was his taste, his sophisticated sense of color and form which enabled him to keep “inventing” new Rippl-Rónai styles from time to time and turn them into “classics” in their own right in a remarkably short time.
It was hardly the attitude one might expect of impassioned youth, this awareness on the part of the twenty-eight year old Rippl-Rónai that a long time should be allowed for artistic genius to prove itself beyond doubt. Therefore when success arrived in 1906, at the age of 45, he must have felt as if his dream had come true, since he had at last not only achieved his long sought-after originality, but even the Hungarian critics and the public had to acknowledge it.
The key to Rippl-Rónai’s extraordinary artistic career lies precisely in the peculiar blend of his emotional and intellectual make-up.11
He was not a man of abstract concepts, of theories; he was more interested in the real world and the place of real human beings in it. Such a deep attachment to the world’s visible phenomena—call it realism, if you will—does not of course prevent one from being sensitive to the delicate vibrations of the soul; so Rippl-Rónai was able to convey every nuance of atmosphere available in the symbolist panoply in the poetical female form of his earliest period, his “black period”. The realms of the mystical and the ecstatic, on the other hand, always remained alien, perhaps even repulsive, to him. The fact that Rippl-Rónai later—when he had to describe his ars poetica in writing—spoke of himself as an Impressionist, was perhaps not so much due to stylistic similarities as to a deep-rooted psychological affinity.12
During his Paris years Rippl-Rónai must have seen a great many Impressionist paintings including several retrospective exhibitions of Monet’s work. (Monet, in the 1890s, had assimilated the Symbolist sense of nature at least as deeply as had the pantheists among the young symbolists.) A few years later Rippl-Rónai would demonstrate a similar attitude and feeling for the humanized landscape of the Villa Roma in Kaposvár as Monet had for the garden at Giverny. Although their style, use of color and brush technique are completely different, the same blissful idyll of nature rendered feminine radiates from the garden paintings of both.
During his time in Paris, when he was lost in wonder at the world, this kinship of spirit had not yet come into being; in his late twenties, sensitive and open, still in search of his own, individual artistic voice, he would not instinctively have sought contact with the older generation of Impressionists but rather—probably due to the influence of his friend, the Scottish artist J.P. Knowles—that of the younger, more modern artistic experimenters, the Symbolists. He was ready to learn something from just about everybody, with a view to being unlike anybody else. In the early 1890s the artistic direction he was most drawn to was that epitomized by Carrière and Whistler, with its high emotional tension and yet at the same time its restraint, hinting at the highs and lows of the soul rather than explicitly revealing them.13 His character, (protected against violent emotional outbursts by rigorous—one could even say obdurate—discipline and by a kind of prudishness which in Hungary at that time was regarded as a manly virtue), prevented him from succumbing to the more extreme, unbalanced and irrational manifestations of Symbolism.
There are two fundamental, related strands running through Rippl-Rónai’s oeuvre: women, and the aesthetically humanized—in other words feminized—world: the family home and its extension, the garden. In this respect he is quite different from his Hungarian contemporaries, with whom he shares at most a love of nature. Interestingly, his feel for nature in his painting does not derive from some primal experience of the wonder of nature such as one has in childhood or in youth. (Such existentially determined spiritual symbiosis is the privilege of nature’s mystics, of the likes of Caspar David Friedrich or the Hungarian László Mednyánszky). Rippl-Rónai, already in the prime of his life and in the midst of a great personal and artistic crisis, discovered the “redemptive”, or at least healing, power of landscape, painting in the coastal Pyrennean region, which was home to Aristide Maillol.14
Hungarian painting at the turn of the century tended to be nature-centered; its principal theme was the symbiosis between human beings and nature, in all its aspects. (The paintings of Mednyánszky, Ferenczy, Vaszary, Iványi-Grünwald, most of the Nagybánya artists, Fényes, Koszta, even the obsessive Csontváry and, to a certain extent Gulácsy too, all fall into this category.) Inextricably linked with this theme is the way in which women appeared in Hungarian painting. The iconography of the female image at the turn of the century was neither rich nor varied, and it was rare to see a woman demonized; women are most frequently shown as a part of the natural environment, as an integral, organic part of the landscape or the home.15 (In Károly Ferenczy’s Birdsong or Artist and Model in the Woods, for example, the two are completely and totally fused. This idyllic concept of woman, almost totally free of underlying emotional problems, has one curious feature; the image of the woman (with the exception of portraits) is only very rarely individualized. Women are almost never shown as individuals, with their own personalities fully in evidence. In this respect Rippl-Rónai is quite distinct; his female models, both in his paintings from the 1890s and in those of his home life, retain their individuality and character even in profile, even when turning away from the viewer. They have an individual presence, their mood makes itself felt. It has often been said of Rippl-Rónai that he was a woman’s painter, though this was generally attributed to the Secessionist cult of the female form. Why then was his approach to painting women so different from that of his contemporaries?
Rippl-Rónai’s view of women—in my opinion—was principally influenced by two factors, one being his home life, and the other his experiences in Paris. He gained his fundamental spiritual disposition in his parental home: mutual, unconditional trust, sincere and deeply-felt affection and loving devotion towards his mother. His relationship with his unusually intimate and loving family provided a spiritual gold-reserve enabling him—and this can be seen not only in the finest works of his “black period”, but also later when his painting became more ascetic and succinct, with minimal recourse to stylistic devices—to capture some trait of his subject, his female model, in such a way that the whole picture is transfigured by it. His capacity for emotional empathy enabled him to perceive his sitter’s passing mood or state of mind and he tried to capture this fragile, evanescent emotion with the minimum possible formal means, beyond the limits of verbal communication. His women are always full-blooded characters; even when they do not give away much about the multifaceted nature of their being, they have presence. He too was drawn to particular types of women, to particular types of beauty rather than others, and he was especially drawn to those who possessed a lyrical, tender, tremulously radiant beauty. The range of female types he painted is of course much richer, and includes the vulgar, the jaded, the coquettish, the defiant, the ageing and the broken-spirited woman. Many of his pastel paintings of the 1920s, on the other hand, appear to be dashed-off, simply depicting his model in the fashion of the time, mask-like and empty, like a painted doll. In his best moments, however, he was masterful at giving the most extraordinary glimpses into the soul of his sitter. (E.g., the pastel portrait of Countess Tivadar Andrássy, and  My Grandmother.)
Rippl-Rónai immortalized the sensual magic of ornamentation with true virtuosity, but this aspect of his work only represents the outer surface; there is a deeper, more essential layer, which is the relationship of one human being with another, and their rootedness in the world and in their domestic environment. This Weltanschauung, so centered in domestic life, shaped his perception both of people and of the world. For him the question of whether to paint spirit or matter was not one of choice; they were both manifestations, or states, of the same essence.
He met Lazarine Boudrion in 1888 and in 1890 they set up home together in a rented house in Neuilly; he then brought her with him to Hungary and finally, in May 1906, a few months after the hugely successful exhibition which ensured his financial security once and for all, he married his loyal companion, or “better half”, as he called her. He saw in Lazarine the companion with whom he would set up home, and was especially receptive to the idea that she should become part of his creative life too, a notion which was virtually unheard of in Hungary amongst artists until then. In Paris in the 1890s, when Art Nouveau came into being, the theorists and organizers of arts and crafts in France gave a special place to women in developing the new style. They drew heavily on the feminine rococo as the example of French art par excellence. The cult of natural, organic forms enhanced the notion of a symbiosis between woman and nature; at the same time, however, the most important female role was regarded as that of home-maker, and thus women were allowed not only to play an important role in aesthetic education, but to develop their own artistic talents, at least in the sphere of the arts and crafts. The Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs organized two exhibitions of work by craftswomen and women designers, one in 1892 and the other in 1895, both of which were well received by the press and public alike. The Art Nouveau circles which Rippl-Rónai also frequented (Bing’s gallery, the Revue Blanche, the exhibitions of the Salon de Champs-de-Mars) showed much craftwork, wall hangings and embroidery executed principally by women, usually family members of the artists who designed them. Lazarine spent months, even years at the painstaking task of embroidering the wall hangings designed by Rippl-Rónai, though unfortunately only few of them survive. The wives of many Nabis were also actively involved in executing their husbands’ designs.17 The models’ situation too began to change among these young avant-garde artists. Rippli Rónai’s friend Pierre Bonnard, who came from a well-to-do middle-class background, also lived together with his model, Martha, and later married her, just as Rippl-Rónai himself had done with Lazarine Boudrion.18 The marriage of Maurice Denis was famously harmonious and happy, and in general the Nabis were characterized from the start by the way in which they cultivated domestic life and depicted scenes of intimate, family life, featuring primarily the female members of the household, their mothers, sisters, wives or mistresses. One of the epithets used to describe the work of the group, “Intimisme”, refers precisely to this choice of subject.
Rippl-Rónai, who was able to come and go as he pleased in his friends’ studios, was certainly familiar with the decorative, “domestic” pictures painted by Vuillard and Bonnard in the 1890s, which were almost exclusively paintings of indoor or garden settings. Although he himself painted few such compositions during his years in Paris,19 as soon as he had managed to realise his dream and set up his “intimate home” in Kaposvár, he too tried his hand at this subject in order to recharge his emotional batteries and find a new form of stylistic expression. Similarly intimate vignettes of bourgeois life depicted not as anecdote but as a state of mind, as an ambience, which typified his third, “interior” period, were already to be found in the work of Manet and the impressionists, but there are also wonderful examples in German painting, e.g., in the work of Menzel. The Scandinavian artists who spent time in Paris in the 1880s also liked to paint scenes of this kind (e.g. the Norwegian painter Harriet Backer and the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammarsho/i), although for these “northerners” home often meant a place of suffering, alienation or interminable loneliness. (Munch)
Outside the Nabis (and here I am referring mainly to Vuillard, Bonnard and Félix Valloton), few turn-of-the-century artists espoused this style. Perhaps at that time the most popular, and certainly the best known exponent in Europe of the type of domestic scenes which give the family almost reverential treatment was the Swedish painter Karl Larsson (1835–1919), who made drawings of his numerous offspring as they grew up, decipting them in every conceivable situation, humorous, intimate, and sometimes sweetly sentimental. Similarly, the German artist Uhde often used his own daughters, and the nursery in general, as his subjects.
Among the different nations of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, images of domestic interiors are rare; there is only one Viennese contemporary of Rippl-Rónai, Carl Moll (1861–1945), who devoted many paintings to his own domestic life. A student of Schindler’s and one of the Vienna Secession’s most important figures and leading lights besides Klimt, Moll had come via Stimmungsmalerei (“mood painting”) to decorative domestic scenes immortalizing his recently acquired home, one of the houses in the Hohe Warte artists’ colony designed by Josef Hoffmann. Moll’s house was one of the finest examples of the early, elite style of the Wiener Werkstätte. This artist, patron of the arts, and painter, clearly wanted to preserve as faithfully as possible the stylistic and aesthetic ethos of modern spatial design (e.g. the play of light from a window on the set dinner-table), the ingeniously simple elegance of the rooms and the harmony of life centered around and suffused by aesthetic principles. In his compositions it is rare to find members of his family shown with their individual characters in full evidence. It is as if the culture of materialism in this case really dominated over the people. (Cf. Adolf Loos’ vitriolic criticism of the Secession and the Wiener Werkstätte for their obsession with style to the exclusion of all else, turning those who commissioned their designs into museum curators in their own homes.) This is why these images are often lacking in the immediacy, intimacy, and informal homeliness which gives Rippl-Rónai’s interior paintings of the same period their heart-warming atmosphere. Rippl-Rónai’s images of his family home in Kaposvár, his “mood-interiors”, are full of human warmth and feeling, and of women going about their domestic duties.
The seven years of plenty, which began in 1906, brought with them a comfortable living and the bliss of happiness and contentment; they also lent a new impetus to Rippl-Rónai’s painting, and marked the beginning of his “maize-like” period. Sorrow vanished, and with it the poetic evocations of sadness; there was no more room for melancholy. His goal now was to convey vibrant, palpable life in its entirety. His home and its extension, the garden, still had a key role, but it was no longer a humble two-roomed house, but the Villa Roma manor, with its joyful Mediterranean ambience. The inner movement of his brushstrokes, which seem to take on a life of their own, fuses into a unified field of color on the canvas. The colors glow from within, while the use of form, color and light all proclaim the glorious harmony between human beings and nature in one joyous symbiosis.
For all its southern feel, it is nevertheless a Hungarian landscape and, looking at the paintings of his “maize-like” period with Hungarian eyes, the red, white, and green of the Hungarian tricolor seem always to be present. One gets the feeling that the turn-of-the-century Hungarian “golden age”, in which so few were really able to participate, was perhaps not just a dream after all.
The last major period in Rippl-Rónai’s work came after the First World War, when he mainly painted portraits using pastels, and these convey quite a different feeling about life. Even Rippl-Rónai, whom life had favored with good fortune, could not escape the traumas which inevitably affected every member of the Hungarian intelligentsia: war, an end to financial security, the Treaty of Trianon. His artistic response to the great losses and failures heaped one upon the other was a beautiful profession of faith in true alliances: to paint the portraits of those who were the guardians of values, that is the writers. His pastel portraits of poets, and writers like Mihály Babits, Zsigmond Móricz, associated with the journal Nyugat, including its legendary editor, Ernô Osváth, capture the essence of their creative character better than any photograph could, and they represent the pinnacle of twentieth-century Hungarian portraiture.
“A woman can become beautiful—fantastically beautiful—very quickly, but how terrifyingly quickly the tender, blooming colors are lost, as is the charm of everything, of our lives, of our zest for work, of the things which give us joy.” These words, written in 1923, convey the artist’s sadness and aching sense of resignation. In his younger days Rippl-Rónai was capable of great compassion and tenderness when he portrayed elderly women whose faces no longer bore any trace of their former beauty, but now he preferred to paint the glory of transient beauty, even where there was no sensitive spirit within. Here however we have an ageing master eternally youthful in his love of beauty, as represented by women. Ultimately, Rippl-Rónai’s oeuvre is a poetic profession of life’s sweetness, but there is always a half-hidden grain of sadness, which steals into our hearts because we know that everything is transitory.
The diversity of styles and his virtuosity in expression are only the surface of his art, which always turned toward the bustle and intimacy of life around him, albeit occasionally somewhat idealized, even just a little stage-managed. There is no other artist whose brush has rendered Hungarian provincial life at the turn of the century in such a sun-drenched, sensual, rich, and tranquil manner.
It is to some extent irrelevant in which corner of Europe a great artist chooses to base his infusing of the ephemeral with poetic significance. If the artist is able faithfully to portray life in all its melancholy-tinged sweetness, then he will be loved and understood everywhere. This is the secret of the Vermeers, the Bonnards, and the Rippl-Rónais of this world.


*Taken from Budapesti Könyvszemle—BUKSZ, Winter 1998, pp. 382–389.
1 Mária Bernáth, Rippl-Rónai, Szemtôl szemben Series, Budapest: Gondolat Kiadó, 1976. In recent decades many books on Rippl-Rónai have been published besides this one, mainly volumes of pictures accompanied by an introductory essay, some by highly competent art historians; but even with all their belletristic virtuosity they fail to match up to the originality and academic rigour of Bernáth’s synthesis. (See, e.g., István Genthon, Rippl-Rónai József, Budapest, 1958, 1977; Katalin Keserü, Rippl-Rónai, A mûvészet világa Series, Corvina, 1982; Judit Szabadi, Így élt Rippl-Rónai (How Rippl-Rónai Lived), Móra Ferenc Kiadó, 1990.
2 Anna Szinyei Merse, “Rippl-Rónai in France and his Relationship with the Nabis Group.” Catalogue, pp. 49–69.
3 Judit Szabadi, A magyar szecesszió  mûvészete  (The Hungarian Art Nouveau), Budapest: Corvina, 1979, pp. 41–56.
4 Lélek és formák, (Soul and Forms) Budapest: Exhibition Catalogue, MNG (Hungarian National Gallery), 1986; A Golden Age, Exhibition Catalogue, London: Barbican Art Gallery, 1989; Miami, 1990; San Diego, 1991.
5 The anti-Viennese attitude of the Hungarian art world at the time was due not only to a tradition of political opposition to the Habsburgs but also to a tendency on the part of Hungarian art critics at the turn of the century to overcompensate, born of a fear of Viennese cultural and artistic domination, which led to the outright rejection of any initiative emanating from Vienna. (See, e.g., Károly Lyka, Lajos Fülep). The eventual international recognition of the Viennese Secession and the fact that Vienna is nowadays acknowledged to have been an independent center of art and culture in its own right at the turn of the century, ranking alongside Paris as a cradle of the modern style, is at least in part due to the fact that British and American cultural and art historians “discovered” it in the seventies. It  is also partly due to a series of exhibitions launched in Venice in 1984, and shown in Paris, and then in New York, Tokyo, Madrid, etc., in 1985 under the title Traum und Wirklichkeit (Dream and Reality), drawing huge crowds and prompting art historians to undertake proper and thorough research to reassess the cultural and artistic life of the Imperial City at the turn of the century. International “reappraisal” of Munich’s status came even later, in the specialist literature in the eighties, when several studies were published which employed an altogether new approach, revealing a dynamic artistic life in that city at the turn of the century, and this in turn meant adjusting the old image of Munich which had emphasised its conservative tendencies and the supposedly negative influence of the Munich Academy of Art. See, e.g., Maria Makela, The Munich Secession, Princeton, 1987; Friedrich Prinz and Marita Kraus, eds., München–Musenstadt und Hinterhöfen. Die Prinzregentenzeit 1886 bis 1912, Munich, 1988; Die Prinzregentenzeit. Catalogue of the Exhibition in the Munich City Museum, Munich, 1988; Peter-Klaus Schuster, ed.: München leuchtete, Munich 1984.
6 Katalin Gellér and Katalin Keserü: A gödöllôi müvésztelep (The Gödöllô Artists’ Colony), Corvina, Budapest, 1987. A “catching-up complex” (Nachholkomplex) seems to be an inevitable concomitant of belonging to a small Central European nation, i.e. to be forever frantically trying to emulate those European countries which are situated on the Atlantic coast. In terms of the visual arts, this has affected both artists and interpreters of art; but while it has inspired some artists to spellbinding results and has brought into being many a fine example of synthesis of regional and global thinking, among art critics and in the scholarly literature it has resulted primarily in the misinterpretation of works of art or in their being unjustly over- or underrated. The aesthetic appraisal of an artist’s oeuvre has constantly been modified by the current political climate and the precepts of emotionally-charged ideologies, with the result that artists have almost inevitably been categorised over and over again in a dogmatic and narrow-minded manner. Class-centered or national ideologies have also influenced preferences in art and colored their appraisal. It has taken until now for a more tolerant, more pluralistic view to take root, forcing even those who think in terms of categories to acknowledge and recognise the value of Rippl-Rónai’s idiosyncratic, yet sensual and material-centered painting as an alternative of modern style and appreciate those who strike out on less well-trodden paths.
7 The study on the artist’s design work, notably the Andrássy dining-room, whose planned rescontruction is sure to bring a few surprises, is one of the richest in new information and previously unknown facts of all the studies in the catalogue. (See Ágnes Prékopa, "The Design Work of József Rippl-Rónai", pp. 91–111.)
8 It is interesting that this shift is one of the subjects most discussed in the exhibition catalogue; many of the contributors feel that Rippl-Rónai’s change in style needs defending even now, as if it were not the sovereign right of any artist at any time to adopt an old tradition, genre or theme, even if the majority of his/her contemporaries or the preceding generation have done it to death. Artistic freedom comes into conflict with the pressure, amounting almost to compulsion, to comply with the demands of “modernity”.
9 István Genthon, “The Unpublished Letters of Rippl-Rónai”, in Almanach of the Fine Arts, I, Budapest, 1969, p.139.
10 The fact that it was his objective, and stylistic ideal, to be individual and truly original, and just how important it was to him that his work should not be comparable to anyone else’s is vividly illustrated by his later efforts to ensure that those discussing his work should not be able to detect any influence by other artists.
11 In the history of modern art it is rare indeed for the lack of recognition over a period of decades not to cause trauma or bitterness, or leave the artist damaged in some way. Rippl-Rónai somehow survived the increasingly oppressive burden that his lack of success represented, and remained unbroken even by the depression brought on as a result of the failure of his exhibitions in Paris and Budapest. The mirage of fame and of a possible breakthrough which appeared briefly but brightly before him with the success of his painting My Grandmother, evaporated again in the second half of the 1890s. The love which surrounded him at home with his family, in Kaposvár, and the faith demonstrated by those loved ones that his talent would be recognised some day, prevented him from going under, from losing confidence and giving up the struggle. This also played a part in his decision to move back to Hungary.
12 Early this century the concept of Impressionism had not yet crystallised into a consistent form. Any innovative artist endeavoring to present real phenomena in a manner which was optically faithful and yet at the same time fresh and new, and who considered himself modern and in tune with his times, could consider himself an impressionist.
13 Bernáth, highly perceptively, senses that they had a significant influence but is unable to provide adequate evidence in support of her theory. See Catalogue, p.16.
14 After the rather lukewarm reception given to his exhibition in Paris in 1899, he spent a considerable time as Maillol’s guest in Banyuls-sur-Mer, where in a very short space of time he painted numerous land- and seascapes. Of the very few landscapes which date from earlier than this, his Alföld Cemetery is the most notable. Its unusual subject makes it much more than simply a decorative landscape painting; with its line upon line of black crosses in the snow, it conveys a sense of foreboding; the words of the poet Mihály Vörösmarty come to mind: “most tél van, csönd , és hó és halál” (It's winter now, and death and snow and stillness”). Transl. by Peter Zolmann. In: In Quest of the Miracle Stag: The Poetry of Hungary. Ed. by Adam Makkai, Chicago–Budapest, 1996, p. 234.
15 Ilona Sármány-Parsons, The Image of ‘Woman’ in the Painting of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the Turn of the Century, USA, forthcoming.
16 For further discussion of this topic, see Deborah L. Silvermann, Art Nouveau in Fin-de-Siècle France, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989, pp.172–207.
17 For example, the wives of Aristide Maillol, Kerr-Xavier Roussel and Paul-Elie Ranson all embroidered.
18 Bonnard Catalogue, Tate Gallery, London, 1998, p. 26–27.
19 E.g., Two Women in Mourning, 1892 (Cat. No.16); Women at their Embroidery, circa 1894 (Cat. No.29).

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