“Hungarian Fauvism” was a new term for me. Hungarian art, sure. Fauvism, ok. But a combination of the two?
"Fauvism," notes Hungary's Secretary of State for Culture, Géza Szocs, "has been considered a virtually Francophone phenomenon up until now". After all, the artistic style derives from the French word fauves, meaning "wild beasts" and was first used by a critic in 1905 about a Paris exhibition. It described the violent reactions of the exhibiting artists, which included Henri Matisse, Raoul Dufy and Maurice de Vlaminck, to prevailing painting styles.
In fact it is these artists who immediately spring to mind as you enter the Brussels exhibition Hungarian Fauvism, staged in Brussels Town Hall in co-ordination with Hungary's presidency of the European Union. You are struck by the bright reds, oranges, blues and greens of canals, boats and views from windows painted by Béla Czóbel, Vilmos Perlrott-Csaba and their contemporaries.
At the start of the last century, many Hungarian painters travelled to Paris for further training, often at the Académie Julian. They soaked up the latest trends in the small galleries and collectors' salons, and Matisse and his circle of Fauves were a big influence on them. In 1908, Matisse opened his own academy, and Perlrott-Csaba, Géza Bornemisza and, according to some sources, Valeria Denes were among his students.
Many of these art students also travelled to Belgium - and in particular Bruges - to paint during this first decade of the 20th century. Bruges was an "important setting in the evolution that led Hungarian painters towards Fauvism," according to exhibition curators, who use geography as a way to structure the show, with Belgium and Paris the focus of two separate sections in the ground floor room, while Hungary is the central theme of the downstairs space.
It is this Hungarian room where the show comes into its own, full of works painted towards the end of the 1904-14 period and combining styles and elements picked up in Paris with the artists' home settings. Take for example Bornemisza's "The Veresvíz Street in Nagybánya" (pictured), a scene from Central Europe's largest artist colony, Nagybánya. Painted in vivid colours, particularly greens and reddish- pink, the compelling work simply depicts a path lined with small houses in higgledy-piggledy fashion and leading into the distant hills.
The fauvists' strong colours have been transplanted to Hungary.
The works are far from uniform in style, however. Hanging in the same room is Sandor Ziffer's "The Baross Square". The work, depicting broad avenues and grand buildings in Budapest, is painted in muted blues and pinks and brings to mind works by neo-Impressionists such as Camille Pissarro or Georges Seurat.
As you walk around the exhibition, which contains some 50 works borrowed from Hungary's major museums and private collections, it is almost impossible not to find yourself comparing the Hungarian works with those of their better-known French contemporaries. Then again, by entitling the show Hungarian Fauvism, curators are almost asking us to make that comparison. Enjoy this Hungarian take on the artistic movement.