Ödön Lechner (1845–1914) is probably the best-known Hungarian architect among architectural historians outside Hungary. For more than a century, the complexity of Lechner’s experiment with a “Hungarian style” has generated fierce theoretical debates, often strongly influenced by contemporary politics. It is the sort of topic that inspires each new generation of scholars to explore anew the construction of nationalism in the fine arts.
The centenary of Lechner’s death provided the impetus for the Museum of Applied Arts in Budapest, together with the Institute of Art History of the Academy of Sciences, to stage this valuable and stimulating show. The last time an exhibition had been devoted to Lechner was in 1985, a generation ago, so although he features in most subsequent publications focusing on Hungarian architecture around 1900, it was high time for another comprehensive look at his oeuvre. There was also another urgent agenda that made this exhibition highly significant: Hungary had applied to UNESCO to list five of Lechner’s major buildings as World Heritage Sites: the City Hall of Kecskemét (1893–97), the Kőbánya Parish Church (1894–97), the Museum of Applied Arts in Budapest (1893–96), the Geological Institute in Budapest (1897–99), and the Postal Savings Bank (1900–1901), likewise in Budapest. The urgency stemmed from the fact that some of Lechner’s buildings, especially the Museum of Applied Arts, are in very bad condition and require expert restoration. There are now plans to carry out such work, which will be combined with the construction of a new rear wing at the Museum of Applied Arts.
Coordinated by Zsombor Jékely and curated by József Sisa (together with a scientific advisory board), the exhibition offered a well-balanced, highly informative survey. It was arranged on the ground-floor corridor of the museum that encircles the glass-domed central hall, one of Lechner’s finest creations. Despite the rather old-fashioned subtitle A Creative Genius, the curators staged something that was fresh and academically up-to-date, with no hint of mothballs or worn-out clichés.
It is always fortunate when a monographic exhibition can be displayed in one of the architect’s own buildings. In this case the results were especially rewarding. The installation by Nora Demeter and her associates in the Dobozda workshop provided a sensitive and elegant framework that was well suited both to the flowing space of the building and to the many intriguing objects on display. It is worth mentioning that the design team was made up entirely of women (Magdi Dobó, Ibolya Fehér, and Edina Simon), a comparative rarity in Central Europe. Their work was in all aspects (concepts, materials, colors, and the didactic text) a model of its kind.
In keeping with the building’s interiors, the installation’s display area was predominantly white (except for the occasional gray panel for photos) and combined occasional perspectives into the main hall with the flow of the exhibition space in a sophisticated way, the whole producing a light-enhanced background for the colorful Zsolnay ceramic ornaments (Figure 1). These ornaments functioned like colored sculptures; grouped together, they formed the center around which the different sections dedicated to individual buildings were arranged. Most of these ceramic details (e.g., stylized birds and flowers) were actually the surplus that remained from the buildings’ roof decorations, which one can normally never see close up. Thus visitors had a rare opportunity to relish the unique colors and playful forms that Lechner said he had designed “for the birds to enjoy.”
The sequence of these themed sections presented Lechner’s life and work in chronological order. Beginning with the architect’s youth, his family circumstances, and his formative years as related through personal objects and documents (some never previously exhibited), the following sections focused on his major buildings. Lechner’s search for a new style, modern but at the same time Magyar in its forms, was unraveled step-by-step from images of the less well-known experimental buildings he designed in the 1880s. These demonstrated the architect’s intellectual journey from historicism to an idiosyncratic style that continued to vary considerably from building to building. Apart from architectural plans, contemporary photographs and drawings were featured, as well as elaborate models (one, for example, of the Museum of Applied Arts itself) that effectively demonstrated the unique character of these buildings, rich and varied in colors and ornaments as they are. On the walls, well-chosen quotations illuminated the intentions of the architect, whose ongoing concern was to combine modern architecture with the visual heritage of the Hungarian (Magyar) people, the latter embodied in the ornamentation used by the Hungarian peasants of his time. But diverse other inspirations, such as the French Renaissance and Oriental motifs, were also mixed into Lechner’s highly individual style as it matured over the years. The show highlighted these changes and variations very well: as one meandered between the green, yellow, and blue Zsolnay ceramic ornaments and the plans dating to each new stage of his architectural progress, one perceived that Lechner was not simply a romantic and a patriot but also an experimental modern thinker, one who never stopped striving for new architectural solutions.
The texts, documents, plans, and photographs exhibited illuminated for the layperson and the specialist alike the rich complexity of Lechner’s unique achievement; they also showed that he succeeded in creating a synthesis that transcended the individual details of his style and cohered in a Gesamtkunstwerk that was sufficiently convincing to attract followers—and indeed became an ideal that inspired later generations of Hungarian architects.
Creating a “style for the nation” was not an exclusively Hungarian endeavor in the second half of the nineteenth century, but precisely because of his aesthetically compelling oeuvre, Lechner has often been regarded as the most appropriate case study for such an undertaking. We would nevertheless do well to bear in mind that the idea of a “national style” was by no means an obsession limited to the smaller states, or to Central Europe; rather, it was a widespread phenomenon in nineteenth-century Europe as a whole.
The exhibition was accompanied by a catalog, which, though excellent in many ways, has only one extended essay, a short monograph on Lechner written by cocurator József Sisa. He has based his text on the previous literature, but he also includes discussion of new discoveries relating to possible inspiration from French and English buildings, which Lechner could have seen during his stays in France and his study tours in England. The catalog is lavishly illustrated and is available in English in a very good translation from the original Hungarian. There is still no detailed scientific monograph devoted to Lechner, mainly because of the sparseness of the relevant sources. For a while, therefore, this catalog will be the most important and most up-to-date study on him.
A conference with international participants was organized for the opening of the exhibition. It featured twenty-nine lectures, including nine given by specialists from abroad. These not only analyzed Lechner’s oeuvre but also addressed related issues such as the architecture of his age, parallel architectural and artistic trends in other countries, and the activities of other industrial museums and museums of applied art. A study volume devoted to this conference will be published in English in due course.
József Sisa, ed., Lechner: A Creative Genius (Budapest: Museum of Applied Arts, 2014), 151 pp., 273 illus. ISBN 9786155217159