Archangels meet on a photographic glass sheet

Csilla E. Csorba, director of the Petőfi Museum of Literature

MúzeumCafé 18.

I wrote my degree theses about Dániel Irányi, who emigrated to Paris after the 1848–49 War of Independence, and his revolutionary ideas published in French papers. Then someone working in the Petőfi Museum of Literature all of a sudden suggested that I try the museum. So I applied. I was taken on for a trial period as an assistant in the art collection. A few months later I got a permanent job. I regarded it as an honour to be able to work there, and as part of my job I could take in my hand, for example, the original hand-written National Song, or Vörösmarty’s chess pieces, Babits’s typewriter, Aladár Székely’s glass plates and photographic enlargements. However strange it may sound, the latter were considered as part of no particular field. Although Székely’s genre photographs were as highly regarded as Rembrandt’s and Munkácsy’s masterpieces by contemporary critics, and he was highly successful in London, Munich and Vienna, later generations were lost in terms of what to do with photography as an art. Hardly anybody worked on the history of photography, which was at most considered as an auxiliary branch of science, since it could not be included either in general history or art history. At the exhibition held on the centenary of Endre Ady’s birth it was mostly Ady’s portraits and snapshots reflecting Ady’s and Székely’s deep friendship which were displayed. They met each other in the summer of 1907 when Ady and his lover Léda, who was pregnant, slipped in secret into Székely’s studio to have their joint happiness recorded. In the interest of making their joy entirely confidential, they asked the master to break the glass plate of the negative and the only enlargement remained with Léda. Later Ady became a frequent visitor, as many photographs with his wife Csinszka, his mother and Babits testify. Still, the most significant pictures are the Ady portraits with his mystical look, which bring the genius poet alive. Ady wore shoes ordered from Nice, suits tailor-made in Paris and Vienna, and a rabbit fur cap brought from Cluj. A mild scent of eau de cologne hovered about him. In a devilish manner Székely assisted Ady in creating legends. Ady’s photograph in the shop window of his Váci Street studio was the trademark of the shop and the successful photographer sent Ady the photos to different places in Europe without charge. Ady wrote on them and sent them as postcards, or rather as tokens to his female fans and friends. I had colleagues who asked when I intended to be involved with something serious. So I got into the world of photographs even more seriously. I browsed second-hand bookshops, bought historic rarities by the dozen, for example, Székely’s photographs which were not known even to the expert second-hand book dealers. On the initiative of Ágnes Somogyi, head of the art collection, we began research into photo iconography, collecting all the photos of writers that could be found and all the personal data with regard to each picture – when it was taken, who by, on what occasion, who might also be included in the photo, and so on. Research was conducted in archives and libraries, and we spoke to still living witnesses, family members and colleagues. I was allocated the writer Jókai and the poet Ady. As a result of the research, it turned out that on a photograph of Csinszka she is wearing a black silk dress she herself designed, or the reason why Ady’s hair was so short on a photo taken in 1899 was because his duel with reserve hussar officer Pál Geréby ended with a head injury for Ady, and thus the conflict led to the barber’s. There are no longer exhibitions of literature in a traditional sense. These days it is not possible to paper the walls with densely typed small letter biographies and quotations, and even the most determined visitors don’t want to see overcrowded glass cabinets and panels covered with black and white document copies. Museums have changed colour in every sense of the word. The Nyugat (Occident) bus, for example, reached the farthest corners of Hungary and more than 40,000 people saw it at 82 locations in about half a year. Since in 1929 the writer Zsigmond Móricz, who became the journal’s editor, organised readings in order to recruit new subscribers, the exhibition in the bus acquired 300 new ‘devotees’ daily. Exactly as many as the number of subscribers for the journal at that time. Moreover, wherever the bus stopped the world came to life. Besides literary evenings, quizzes and lectures, flavours and delicacies of old time coffee houses could also be tasted at several locations. The museum invented the Nyugat chocolate – a bar with a childhood photograph of an editor or a writer. In connection with intellectual flavours, a CD was released showing the most important locations, towns and villages, cafes and editorial offices which the journal and its writers and editors frequented. Included are contemporary photos, biographical details and manuscripts written in coffee houses. An 18-minute film of Nyugat figures shows Karinthy playing snowballs with his son, Móricz’s daughters playing table tennis at Leányfalu, then the whole family picking apples, and Babits joking with his wife and adopted daughter.