István NAGY

(Misentea, 1873 – Baja, 1937)

            ”The contemporaneity of István Nagy lies in the fact that he created one of the possible styles of Central and Eastern Europe painting. This type of creation provides a framework and a form of expression for the heavy burdens resulting from the social backwardness of the geographical area and the historical heritage which pitted mutually dependent nations against each other. His solemn paintings are dark yet not pessimistic, rather tragically sublime…he embarked on creating a sociography of fine arts” (Jenő Murádin).

The paintings of István Nagy, a farmer’s son, who depicted his own solemn Szekler soul in the austere landscape, are profoundly serious and great in their fatality. His portraits represent the necessitous of his land. For this reason, his art bears no resemblance to anything. Though his creative self remained distant from the experimental nature of modern schools of painting, his stingy, sometimes superficial strokes and dark tones exceed the limits of academic art. His uniqueness is thrilling.  

His talent for drawing surfaced at the school in Cluj Napoca, which he enrolled in following his mother’s persistent will. “…I did have a patron. Only one, from the start till today. She stood by me during hard times and good times, close or far away, at times when I clung to her apron and at times when I wasted my money in the Parisian Grand Café. … I have never loved another woman, and almost all the female portraits I have depict her,” says István Nagy, who chose painting by virtue of the Budapest School of Arts and Bertalan Székely and became a real artist after graduating the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, the Academie Julian in Paris and taking part in a study trip to Italy in 1902. ”This painter roamed the cities in the West like a late eastern nomad. His soul most probably lit up and was filled with experiences gained there but he selfishly kept it all to himself, took it all home and this is how he preserved the memories entrusted to him for centuries and the new ones he gained abroad to condense all these in his illustrations” (István Dési Huber).

The artist protected the intimacy of his soul at all cost, which makes his life and body of work difficult to explore and take in though posterity and art history have deservedly rehabilitated the reserved painter. He was a polarizing person, you either immediately understand him or you exclude him for good. After returning home, the new discovery of the western academies kept to himself, trying to find himself and this made him difficult to be understood by his people. He wandered in the Bicaz area, in the company of his drawing tools, overwhelmed by the abundance of themes. He regained visibility after 1923 with a large monographic exhibition in Budapest, which put him in the limelight, and his talent was recognized in Transylvania, Hungary and Vojvodina.

Let Dezső Kosztolányi’s enthusiasm, expressed in the 1923 edition of the Nyugat magazine, serve as a background to István Nagy’s three creations which form part of our exhibition: “I am looking at his illustrations and I am amazed… the faces are intriguing, they capture my attention, I find them interesting. These haunting faces of peasants with dishevelled hair and moustache, with a purple nose, as if wearing props from an old chest. Sturdy lads wearing hats, their faces not sweetened for royal salons, neither defiantly marred to suit the arrogant naturalist, depicted just the way they live: lost and unambitiously… No sugar and no vinegar. No inclination to the right or the left. Only the promise of what is perceptible, only the vision of what is forever visible… in a terrifying simplicity of black and white, which makes you feel cold and frightened … brilliantly sketched with firm lines that almost slit the paper…” His self-portrait, painted in 1920 and the heavy lines and chromatic colouring of the girl wearing a headscarf confirm the accurate observations the writer made about István Nagy’s choice of theme. The portrait of Count György Bethlen emanates ‘weltschmerz’. The Transylvanian nobleman, lawyer-politician, dedicated his life to the preservation of the intellectual and material culture of the Hungarian minority in Transylvania and fought against the persecution of Jews. Yet he ended his earthly life as a humiliated ex-convict doing menial work.