Lost Masterpiece, Forgotten Artist and Hollywood: Rediscovering Eastern Europe’s Avant-Garde Art

The scene in the film "Stuart Little," with the Róbert Berény painting in the background. (Photo: Courtesy of Columbia Pictures)
The scene in the film “Stuart Little,” with the Róbert Berény painting in the background. (Photo: Courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

In December of 2008, Gergely Barki was at home in Budapest watching Stuart Little with his daughter when he spotted a familiar painting in the background of one of the scenes. Thinking his eyes were playing tricks on him, he leapt off the couch and brought his face close to the television, wiping the screen with his hand so he could get a better look at the painting. “It can’t be real!” he thought.

Intrigued, Barki, an art historian at the National Gallery in Budapest, called Sony Pictures and  tracked down the film’s set designer, who was living in the Washington D.C. area. She told him had originally purchased the piece for about $500 from an antiques store in Pasadena. She got an inkling that the painting might be worth more when a friend visited the National Gallery in Budapest and spotted a painting whose style was eerily reminiscent. The friend brought a catalogue home to compare.

Within weeks, based on this information, Barki flew to D.C. so he could see the painting in person. There, he found himself standing on the grass of the National Mall, inches away from a canvas by one of Hungary’s most important modernist artists. Barki was able to identify it as “Sleeping Lady with a Black Vase,” a long lost piece by Robert Bereny, the father of Hungarian cubism.

Had it not been for two World Wars and nearly half a century of Soviet rule, Bereny might be as revered as some of his contemporaries, who included Giorgio di Chirico, Georges Braques, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. But Hungary’s turbulent history is written in its art, which was looted, lost and scattered with each new wave of political violence. Bereny’s legacy was just one of many casualties.

Róbert Berény. (Photo: Courtesy of Gergely Barki)
Róbert Berény. (Photo: Courtesy of Gergely Barki)

Relatively obscure outside of Hungary, he is known for founding an artistic collective called The Eight, a group of wildly talented, radically-minded painters that developed their own unique style, a kind of cross between Fauvism and Cubism. Bereny was also a master of Soviet poster art, a friend of Gertrude Stein and the composer Bela Bartok, and Marlene Dietrich’s lover.

Barki, who studies The Eight and seems haunted by their lack of recognition, thinks the painting disappeared shortly before the stock market crash of 1929, “because that was when it was last exhibited,” and then vanished from the country during World War II, since most of the buyers were Jewish.

His discovery made headlines around the world, thrusting Hungarian art into the spotlight for a rare and fleeting moment. Yet most of the coverage focused on the seemingly unbelievable fact that such an obscure, sophisticated painting could appear in a blockbuster Hollywood film about a mouse.

What most stories didn’t address was that this wasn’t the first time that Barki had located a missing Hungarian masterpiece–that in fact, he had been tracking them down around the globe, finding them under beds in San Francisco; on the backs of other paintings, concealed beneath layers of gesso primer; and in private collections in London and Sydney. Or that with each new discovery, Barki seemed to be getting closer to restoring an entire oeuvre of modernist art, a slice of European cultural history that had been missing since 1915.

A postcard for the Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915. (Photo: Library of Congress)
A postcard for the Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915. (Photo: Library of Congress)

That was the year that 500 paintings by The Eight and other prominent Hungarian artists were loaned to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a world’s fair in San Francisco. Afterwards, they were meant to tour America on a traveling exhibition, but with the outbreak of World War I, they became stranded in San FranciscoSince Hungary (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) was allied with Germany, the paintings were branded as enemy property. Many have been “missing” ever since.

“If you were a German citizen in France when the war broke out, you were likely sent to an internment camp. Well, similar things happen to investments and objects of art,” says Gergely Romsics, director of the Hungarian Cultural Center in New York City.

Even though general principles of international law dictate that such objects be returned, the post-war reality is messier. “These paintings were privately owned, but they were lent by the Hungarian government, so who has the right to claim them? At the end of the war it became very hard to codify every situation, especially a conflict as huge and long as the First World War.”

Béla Kun, leader of the 1919 Hungarian Revolution. (Photo: Public Domain/Wiki Commons)
Béla Kun, leader of the 1919 Hungarian Revolution. (Photo: Public Domain/Wiki Commons)

In the years that followed, the situation worsened for art in Hungary. There was the upheaval of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1919, followed by World War II, which saw the collections of Jewish families plundered by the country’s Fascist regime and Nazis. With the Soviet Liberation of 1945 came another round of looting, as Russian soldiers claimed their spoils of war. And then came 44 years of Communist rule–and another revolution, this one in 1956–that put a deep freeze over the art market.

“The museums controlled everything, so whenever a private individual had a painting, he wanted to hide it because the museum could take it, or just control it,” Barki says. With the borders closed and prices down, savvy dealers from Milan and Germany swooped in throughout the 1970s and purchased this art for a song.

“The history of Hungary is quite bloody,” Barki adds. “It was not good for the collections because many times the owners of the collections had to leave, or hide the collection, or simply left and collections disappeared or were stolen. There are many different stories, many of them hidden.”

Portrait of György Bölöni by Lajos Tihanyi in 1912, one of "The Eight". (Photo: Public Domain/WikiCommons)
Portrait of György Bölöni by Lajos Tihanyi in 1912, one of “The Eight”. (Photo: Public Domain/WikiCommons)

A century after they disappeared at the 1915 fair, these stories and the attendant works of art are beginning to resurface. Some of this has to do with demand. In Hungary’s case, a painting by Bereny now commands top dollar in Budapest, which turns out to be a powerful incentive for sellers who have been keeping his paintings hidden under their beds. The set designer that Barki met in D.C. paid just a few hundred dollars for the striking painting she found in Pasadena. When it went up for auction last year in Budapest, the starting price was 110,000 euros.

Barki’s efforts, done on behalf of museums and important private collections in Hungary, seem to be paying off. In his regular column called “Wanted,” written in Hungarian, he publishes photographs of paintings he’s hoping to find. And when something comes up, he curates an exhibit–some as high profile as this one at the Musee D’Orsay in Paris–to generate interest and new leads.

At a recent exhibit in Budapest, Barki hung a photograph of a missing painting on the wall, a 1909 work by Béla Czóbel entitled “Red Nude Sculpture II.” On opening night, a lady who had seen the announcement walked in with a painting that matched it. Barki’s latest discovery was a stash of letters and correspondence from the early 20th century, some of it written by Bereny himself.

This 1909 painting, Béla Czóbel's "Red Nude Sculpture II," was recently turned in to a gallery in Budapest.  (Photo: Courtesy of Gergely Barki)
This 1909 painting, Béla Czóbel’s “Red Nude Sculpture II,” was recently turned in to a gallery in Budapest. (Photo: Courtesy of Gergely Barki)

Barki isn’t the only one interested in restoring this art to its rightful place–wherever that might be. Some of the heirs of the paintings that were confiscated after the exposition have been embroiled in lawsuits for years to get them back, raising thorny questions about ownership, cultural heritage, and legacy.

“Everyone has their own interest and claim, a reason why these works are rightfully theirs,” Romsics says, adding that there may be several conflicting claims for any one object.

One of Bereny’s heirs, his grandson Thomas Sos, a doctor in New York City, emailed to say that he has recovered one of the paintings, titled “Golgotha,” and says he knows the whereabouts of another, titled “Portrait of Bela Bartok.” He declined to comment any further.

On a national level, The Hungarian National Bank has set aside a fund of 30 billion Hungarian forints ($106 million) to repatriate art that was once Hungarian owned, or purchase works that are currently owned by Hungarian collectors. Recent acquisitions include a portrait of a Madonna and child by Titian, bought for $16 million from an undisclosed Hungarian collector, and a large nude by another member of The Eight, which Barki had tracked down in Sydney.

At a moment when the Hungarian government has been sharply criticized for its nationalistic rhetoric and corruption, the Bank has been accused by Transparency International for what it sees as financial malfeasance and a lack of transparency about which art it buys and why.

'Sziluettes kompozicio' by Bereny, 1911. (Photo: Courtesy of Gergely Barki)
‘Sziluettes kompozicio’ by Bereny, 1911. (Photo: Courtesy of Gergely Barki)

Meanwhile, the long-lost art is finally getting the global respect it deserves, in the very city where so much of it originally disappeared. The De Young museum in San Francisco is putting together an exhibit called Jewel City that will showcase more than 200 works of European and American art, most of which were on display in 1915. According to Barki, one of these works belongs to Lidia Szajko, a San Francisco filmmaker and granddaughter of Bereny and his wife Eta. It was Eta, famously drowsy, who appeared in “Sleeping Lady with a Black Vase.”

As for Barki, his efforts seem to be genuinely scholarly, if a little obsessive. “There were 100 paintings shown in Budapest in 1911,” he says. “Bereny exhibited 49 paintings in 1911 and I know only 23 or 24 pieces. The others are lost, untitled, and we have very few photographs.”

Barki estimates that there may be hundreds of more paintings in Russia, where “they can’t be researched,” since scholars of Hungarian art are rarely given access to collections there. The Russian government has never officially confirmed that the Red Army looted art from Hungary. As for the painting that turned up in “Stuart Little,” its history essentially begins in the 1990s. Before that the trail runs cold–at least for now.

“Most of our colleagues in western countries are lucky,” Barki says. “The oeuvres of their painters are quite whole, there are very few paintings in hiding. For example, Matisse, almost all of his paintings are in private collections or museums and we know everything about him. Here in Hungary we have the opposite. We’re restoring the oeuvres here.”

by Damaris Colhoun

source: Atlas Obscura

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