Magyar Szecesszio: Art Nouveau in Budapest

Reading List

Art Nouveau A Hungarian Perspective, Gyorgy Rath Villa, Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest, 2018.

Art Nouveau A Hungarian Perspective, List of Exhibits, Gyorgy Rath Villa, Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest, 2018.

Bela Bede, 225 Highlights Hungarian Art Nouveau Architecture, Budapest: Corvina, 2012

Eri, Gyongyi and Zsuzsa Jobbagyi (ed) A Golden Age, Art and Society in Hungary 1896-1914, exhibition catalogue, London: Barbican Art gallery, 1989.

Fenyi, Tibor, The Glass Painting of Miksa Roth, from Historicism to Art Nouveau, Budapest: Roth Miska Memorial House, 2016.

Gerle, Janos, Art Nouveau in Hungarian Architecture, Budapest: 6Bt.Kiado, 2013.

Kieselbach, Tamás, Modern Hungarian Painting: 1892-1919, Volume 1, Budapest: Kieselbach, 2002.

Kovacs Daniel and Zsolt Batar, Budapest Art Nouveau, Budapest: Laszlo Kedves, 2018.

Taylor, Jeffrey, In Search of the Budapest Secession: The Artist Proletariat and  Modernism’s rise in the Hungarian Art Market, 1800-1914, Helena History Press, 2014.

Szabadi, Judit, Art Nouveau in Hungary: painting, sculpture, and the graphic arts, Budapest: Corvina, 1989.


There are two noticeably different architectural styles in Hungary at the fin-de-siècle:  Magyar Szecesszio and Historicism both of which incorporated traditional Hungarian styles.  Comparing Budapest to the Secession in Vienna, what distinguishes Hungarian Szecesszio is the use of medieval or earlier vernacular architecture forms and folk-art motifs.  Hungarian architects were responding to the nationalistic fervour created by the millennial celebrations; in 1896 the country celebrated 1000 years of the Hungarian nation.  This nationalism also led to different responses in the search for a distinctly modern Hungarian style.

Searching for the mythic origins of the Hungarian nation in the East, Ödön Lechner turned to what he claimed were native architectural forms based on Indian and Persian architecture combined with Hungarian folk-art motifs.  Training many of the next generation, he created his own highly idiosyncratic Szecesszio school.  

The Fiatlok or ‘Youngs’, Károly Kós, Dezső Zrumeczky, Ede Toroczkai Wigand, and Dénes Györgyi went in further back, to Attila the Hun (c. 406-53) and the vernacular architecture of Transylvania and the Carpathians, the traditional Hungarian homelands, creating a Hun-Hungarian or Folk-art Szecesszio.

In search of a modern, progressive, pan-European style, others looked West, to the Vienna Secession and German Jugendstil. The Gresham Palace (1905-06,József Vágó and Zsigmond Quittner) exemplifies this internationalism.

Szecesszio Architecture

Architect Ödön Lechner (1845–1914) is often referred to as the ‘Hungarian Gaudi’. Inspired by Indian and Persian architecture, which Lechner combined with traditional Hungarian motifs, his buildings are a unique and original synthesis of several architectural styles. Lechner’s version of Szecesszio is very specific to Hungary, an expression of National Romanticism. His buildings are richly decorated with terracotta tiles made by the famous Zsolnay factory. These tile patterns were inspired by old Magyar and Turkic folk art. Lechner’ s weird exotic shapes may have been inspired by carpet patterns. An important source was József Huszka’s Magyarische Ornamentik (1898).

Much that is odd about Lechner is explained by his background and training. After the Hungarian revolution of 1848 had been crushed by the Austrians and Russians, his father confined his activities to running the family brickworks. This also produced ceramics, which inspired Lechner’s love of coloured ceramic materials. His architectural training was undertaken in Berlin, at the Bauakademie. There he absorbed the theories of Karl Bötticher and Gottfried Semper, especially the latter’s ‘cladding theory’ that architecture had evolved from structures hung with decorated fabrics. He also worked in France for three years and, like many of his contemporaries, became interested in the English Arts and Crafts movement.

But more significant was what he saw on his second trip to England in 1889, when he visited the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) to study Indian and Persian art. For in that, he believed, lay the roots of Hungarian visual culture. Lechner was not the only one to subscribe to this engaging nationalist fantasy, but what is extraordinary is that he became interested in contemporary British colonial architecture designed in the so-called Indo-Saracenic style. As he later wrote, ‘The English, a highly cultured people, were not ashamed of researching into the relatively lower culture of a colony, adopting part of it and blending it with their own. Was it not at least as much the duty of us Hungarians to study the culture of our own people and weld it together with our general culture?’   

Lechner was criticised by the conservative Hungarian establishment, which tended to favour neo-baroque. In 1902, the minister of culture announced that ‘I do not like the secessionist style, and…it is not uncommon to meet the secessionist style under the name of the Hungarian style’ and made sure that Lechner received no more public commissions in the capital. Buildings in Budapest designed by Lechner include the Museum of Applied Arts (completed 1896), the Geological Museum (1896-99) and the Postal Savings Bank building (Postatakarékpénztár, 1900–01; with Sándor Baumgarten).

Béla Lajta and Aladár Árkay were initially inspired by Lechner’s secession style.

The other prominent architect was Károly Kós (1883-1977), a leading member of the‘Youngs’.  He was inspired by Hungarian folk culture, especially the Székelys, a Hungarian ethnic group in Transylvania. Buildings in Budapest designed by Kós include the Budapest Zoo and Wekerle Telep, a garden suburb based on the ideas of Ebenezer Howard.

Besides the two ‘homeland’ styles there are several buildings that reflect European trends, notably the Vienna Secession, German Jugendstil and French/Belgium Art Nouveau. Bedö-Ház (House of Hungarian Art Nouveau) houses a museum dedicated to the Hungarian Szecesszio movement. Built in 1903 by Emil Vidor in 1903 for the Bedő family, the house itself shows the influence of French Art Nouveau forms.


József Rippl-Rónai: the Hungarian Nabi

One of the most famous artists of the era was József Rippl-Rónai (1861-1927).  A painter and designer, he was a Secession artist to the core, from the clothes he wore to his art. He designed entire interiors, such as the dining room of the Andrássy palace and a stained-glass window for the Ernst Museum. In 1884 he travelled to Munich to study painting at the Academy. Two years later he obtained a grant which enabled him to move to Paris and study with Mihály Munkácsy (1844 – 1900) the most important Hungarian realist painter. In 1888 he met the members of Les Nabis (meaning prophet), a group of French painters associated with the Académie Julian: Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Paul Ranson, Jean-Édouard Vuillard and Félix Edouard Vallotton. Under their influence he painted his first important work, The Inn at Pont-Aven.  Through Les Nabi he became interested in the decorative arts, which led to designs for tapestries and ceramics.

Aladár Körösföi-Kriesch (1863-1920) and Sándor Nagy (1869-1950) founded the Gödöllő Art Colony, a centre for the visual and applied arts. Many talented young artists attended this arts and crafts school inspired by Ruskin, Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites.

The Gödöllő Artists Colony attempted to realise the artistic and social ideals put forward by Ruskin & Morris. Aladar Körösföi-Kriesch a leading member of the colony published On Ruskin and the English Pre-Raphaelites in which he outlined a reforming role for artists in society and the belief that by making and using handcrafted folk objects people’s lives could be transformed. By training local young people in weaving, pottery, woodwork, and leatherwork they hoped to give them the means to live the ‘good life’ in a rural community rather than emigrating to the cities or to America. They won international acclaim for their craft/design work based on traditional Hungarian and Transylvanian designs. The community played a key role in the development of indigenous Hungarian design and in fostering the myths and legends that would help forge a national identity for Hungary. They were responsible for an influential five-volume study –The Art of the Hungarian People– on vernacular furnishings and architecture.

The Hungarian Tiffany: Miksa Róth

Miksa Róth (1865-1944) is considered the finest stained glass artist of the Szecesszio. His work was repeatedly awarded at international exhibitions. Born in 1865, Miksa Róth was 19 years old when he took over his father Zsigmond’s workshop.   In Budapest, you can see examples of his beautiful work in the Gresham Palace (now the Four Seasons Hotel), Parliament, the Liszt Music Academy, and at his own house-museum. The plans for the stained glass windows of the Parliament building were prepared in 1890. Róth took into account both the light sources, especially on the grand entrance staircase and the building’s interior decoration. He decided to use the Grotesque style associated with the Renaissance era. 

Visiting the 1893 Chicago World Trade Fair, Róth was inspired by the opalescent and “favril” glass made by Louis Comfort Tiffany. The displays featured shimmering, iridescent colours and a marbling effect within the glass. Róth was also influenced by the work of the Pre-Raphaelite artists, particularly partnership between Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. In 1897, Miksa Róth purchased opalescent glass from the Hamburg glass painter Karl Engelbrecht, and began to regularly order glass from his factory. Róth won the silver medal at the Paris World Exhibition in 1900 with the Pax and Rising Sun mosaics made with opalescent glass. One of Róth’s most significant creations using opalescent glass was for the cupola of the Teatro Nacional in Mexico City, which he carried out according to designs by Géza Maróti.

By the opening years of the 20th century, Róth’s geometric designs show the influence of Jugendstil and the Viennese Secession, as seen in the windows for the Gresham Palace (1907 Zsigmond Quittner and József Vágó) and the Lizst Music Academy (1907 Flóris Korb and Kálmán Giergl). Róth worked with many of the best architects, builders, and designers of the time. Reflecting the varied character of Hungarian architecture at the turn of the century, Róth created windows in many styles: Historic, Hungarian Szecesszio, Art Nouveau, Jugendstil, Viennese Secession and even Mackintosh/Glasgow style.

Róth collaborated with artists from the Gödöllô artists settlement, Sándor Nagy, Ede Toroczkai Wigand and Aladár Körösfői-Kriesch. Together they created the Hungarian Szecesszio style windows and mosaics for the Palace of Culture, Marosvásárhely/ Târgu Mureș, present day Romania.

Zsolnay: architectural ceramics

Located in Pécs, SW Hungary,  Zsolnay, the famous manufacturer of fine porcelain, stoneware, and pottery, especially tiles, was founded in 1853. It was established by Miklós Zsolnay (1800–1880).  In 1863, his son Vilmos Zsolnay (1828–1900) became its director. He led the factory to worldwide recognition by displaying its innovative products at international exhibitions, including the 1873 World Fair in Vienna and the 1878 Universalle Exposition in Paris, where Zsolnay received a Grand Prix. By 1914, Zsolnay was the largest ceramics company in Austro-Hungary.

Early Zsolnay was not marked, but by 1878 the five towers trademark was used. It shows five towers, for the five medieval churches in Pécs. The German name for the city of Pécs is Fünfkirchen, meaning “five churches.” There are three main periods of Zsolnay porcelain production:
(FIRST) 1868 to 1897 – Folklorism, Historicism & Victorian Eclecticism
(SECOND) 1897 to 1920-Art Nouveau/ Szecesszio and Art Deco
(THIRD) 1920 to the present-Modernism.

Pyrogranite, which was practical and ornamental, was in production by 1886. Fired at high temperature, this durable material remains acid and frost-resistant making it suitable for use as roof tiles, indoor and outdoor decorative ceramics, and fireplaces.

Influenced by the iridescent glazes of Clement Massier, Zsolnay produced its own lustre glazes. The factory is noted for developing the eosin process, introduced in 1893. The process results in a light iridescence, hence the term eosin (Greek eos, “flush of dawn”). Different eosin colours and processes were developed over time. Typical colours include shades of green, red, blue, and purple. The eosin-based iridescence became a favourite with the Szecesszio artists, among them Sándor Apáti AbtLajos MackGéza Nikelszky, and József Rippl-Rónai.

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