“Ars longa … there’s no end to it.”

Jenő Murádin, cluj-napoca on hungarian museology in romania

MúzeumCafé 35.

The interview with art historian Jenő Murádin who lives in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, was to present his life and career, yet it has rather turned into an overview of art, art history and museums in Transylvania. Still, it hopefully manages to show what problems and obstacles he has had to face in researching Hungarian art history, publish his writings in Romania and Hungary from the 1960s, and how he has succeeded in introducing entirely unknown artists from the eastern Carpathian Basin to professionals and collectors in Hungary. It also turns out that museum storerooms in Transylvania still have secret treasures waiting to be discovered, despite Jenő Murádin’s enduring work and incredible perseverance.

– You have written a lot about art, yet your biographical details are not so well known.

I was born in 1937 in a village called Harasztos (Călăraşi). My father ensured his three children’s education from his salary as a village teacher and farming. As one of the last to attend the Bolyai University, I enrolled to study Hungarian and history at the then still fully Hungarian university in Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca), which not much later continued to function under the name Babeş-Bolyai. After consolidation of the university, I continued studying history and philosophy, and later also read art history, which was taught by Professor Virgil Vătăşianu. He was an excellent Italian scholar and an inspiring lecturer.

– Who attended the university then and what was the language of teaching?

The composition of both students and lecturers became mixed, you learnt Romanian as much as was needed. However, only universal rather than Hungarian art history was taught. Vătăşianu always used a projector and at the exams students had to select a picture at random and talk about it. It was not easy for Sekler students, who had lived only among Hungarians, to speak Romanian. The professor said to them in Romanian: “Tell me in Hungarian. I understand it.” He understood Hungarian but didn’t want to use it because the university authorities may have been displeased. Many Romanians professionals sometimes spoke Hungarian at home, since their domestic servants were mostly Hungarian girls. Bilingualism was natural in those families. After graduating, I worked in an editorial office from 1963 and later taught art history at the Ion Andreescu College of Fine Arts in Kolozsvár.

– Your research field is Hungarian art. What did involvement in this mean at the time? How helpful were museums and archives?

Museums have always helped research into art history, after all no serious work can be done without knowledge of the collections. In addition, half my life was spent in libraries and archives. My writings about art related to Hungarian themes started to be published from the mid 1960s. The contribution of Hungarians when researching art in Transylvania was unavoidable. I have been mainly interested in the art connections between the seceded areas and the home country. I strongly believe that Hungarian art is indivisible, independently of disruptions in history. For example, would it be possible to write about Mednyánszky, Fadrusz or Hollósy if you don’t know the periods in their lives they spent outside today’s Hungary? Or in connection with the recently ended Ferenczy exhibition in Budapest, could parts of the artist’s biography that pointed over the borders be missed, given that Ferenczy was born in Vienna, the family had estates in the Banat and he lived in Nagybánya (Baia Mare) for a long time. If I separate these biographical elements, there is no Ferenczy. With respect to the Hungarian-Hungarian themes, a several hundred page volume Függőhidak (Suspension Bridges) of my selected writings is being published. I have tried to overview the connections which link the art life of today’s Hungary with the territories across the border. Here’s another example. Aladár Körösfői-Kriesch is noted as the founder of the Gödöllő School. Yet, several areas of his oeuvre are connected to Transylvania, the Kalotaszeg (Ţara Călatei) region and the Banat. His wife was from Kolozsvár, where they got married, and I discovered three studios that the painter rented there. A fresco of his survives in one. He is known to have taken on eight commissions in Kolozsvár, the intellectual centre of Transylvania – not to mention the important works he created with Sándor Nagy and Miksa Róth in Marosvásárhely (Târgu Mureş) and Temesvár (Timişoara). In the storeroom of the Art Gallery in Kolozsvár I managed to discover his large-scale painting in tempera Going to Church in Kalotaszeg, which was believed lost. So, the career of Körösfői, who is known for his Gödöllő period, cannot be described without knowledge of his activity in the eastern parts of the Carpathian Basin.

– You’ve mentioned that you worked in an editorial office. What did you have published in Romania and Hungary?

From the beginning my writings were published in both countries. In Romania they primarily appeared in Korunk (Our Age) founded in 1926, then they were frequently printed in the journal Utunk (Our Way) which had a double page art section, and they also appeared in the re-established Erdélyi Múzeum (Transylvanian Museum). In Hungary my studies came out in Művészet (Art), thanks to deputy editor-in-chief István Solymár, who visited Transylvania a lot. They also appeared in Művészettörténeti Értesítő (History of Art Bulletin), Ars Hungarica and Új Művészet (New Art).

– Did you come to Hungary or were you present in Hungary’s art history research only via your writings?

I barely had an opportunity to do so for some time. Once when I came, I went to see my friend György Sümegi in the Ministry of Education. There was an elderly woman who heard my name when the secretary announced me. “Gosh, you are a living person!” she exclaimed. She was Magdolna Supka and had read my writings but had never before seen me. From the end of the 1970s I was able to come over several times and do research. Before that each trip abroad was difficult. You could apply for an exist visa only once every two years. I travelled to Austria and Germany already in 1980. I stayed with Béla Bíró in Vienna. He had earlier worked for the Museum of Fine Arts and his works include the still used volume The Bibliography of Hungarian Art History Literature. He had some personal problems due to his Sekler roots and was not on too good terms with Nóra Aradi and her circle. During the 1956 revolution he assumed authority in the Fine Arts Museum, then he left Hungary on 4 November and lived in Vienna for some time. He left two unpublished manuscripts about Biedermeier art in Transylvania. Later he lived and taught in California. In the 1990s I continued my research into the Nagybánya artists’ colony that I had begun much earlier. I have had several volumes published about it. There were monographs I wrote together with Éva Bajkay, György Szücs and Zsolt Kishonthy. I was also able to travel to see collections in the west. I had study scholarships twice to Rome … and I’ve been to Vienna and Berlin. In 2001 I was awarded the Lajos Németh Prize.

– Let’s talk about the conditions in Romania. What was the situation of private and public collections after 1945? How different was it from Hungary?

Between the two world wars it was mainly well-to-do Jewish private collectors, physicians, lawyers and manufacturers who purchased paintings and sculpture in Transylvania. The case of factory founder Izsó Diamant is characteristic. He had the most prominent collection in Kolozsvár. He came from Upper Hungary [today Slovakia – trans.] and he founded one of the largest Romanian metallurgical plants in Aranyosgyéres (Câmpia Turzii) on behalf of Romanian capitalists using the First World War reparations received from the Hungarians. He was wealth. His mansion in Kolozsvár, which still exists, was designed by the Viennese architect Josef Hoffmann. There he established an incredibly rich collection of works bought mainly in western Europe. He and his family became victims of the Holocaust and that wealth, just like that of other Jews, was dispersed. Nagyvárad (Oradea) and Nagybánya suffered the greatest loss. The collections of Hungarian aristocrats, such as the Bánffys, Bethlens, Telekis and Ugrons were also considerable. The devastation had two other phases. First the passing front in 1944 saw collections and libraries being burnt, and then in 1949 the resettlement of the so-called exploiters involving their forced removal to other parts or to the Danube Canal. The local population plundered the castles and mansions that were left by them and the buildings were nationalised. What could be gathered went into public collections, a large number of paintings first to the Archives of the Academy in Kolozsvár. The number of works there rose to 450 together with family portraits already held in the archives. Then they got to the storeroom of the Kolozsvár Art Gallery, which was in the Bánffy Mansion. A picture gallery of the whole Transylvanian aristocracy and nobility could be compiled from those, but no one has touched them for 70 years. Many of the pictures are in a very bad condition, paint is coming off, and not only are they not identified but no inventory has been made up to today.

– How many works of art remained in private ownership? Were there collections that survived the war?

From the end of the 1960s I had the opportunity to survey the works which did not get into public collections. Some have fully survived, although not in their original location. Artúr Wagner was a great patron of artists at the time. He worked in Kolozsvár between 1920 and 1940 and his son holds his collection in Budapest today. Although collecting art is not characteristic of the Seklers, there was a teacher, Ferenc Gál, whose wife Julianna Sántha revived Csík painted carpet weaving. Buyers often came from Hungary, for instance Vilmos Aba Novák who took a lorry load of carpets for his villa in Buda. He paid with four paintings. That was how Ferenc Gál’s collection came about. Several of the artists from Sekler Land who received Hungarian scholarships between 1941 and 1943 and worked around there stayed with Gál and Imre Nagy in Csíkzsögöd (Jigodin). Many paintings by those artists also got into his collection, which as a whole still exists. I saw and partly took photos of the collection of János Germán of Szatmár, the paintings owned by István Dászkál in Nagyvárad, as well as the collections of Dr. János Szántay and the painter Aurel Ciupe in Kolozsvár. The collections of professionals who emigrated to Israel were bought by galleries in Transylvania and those of German émigrés were purchased by the Brukenthal Museum in Nagyszeben (Sibiu). The well-to-do Germans returned to buy art after 1989, thus the next exodus of works began. They bought what they could for German marks. Huge collections appeared in Germany, for example those of József Böhm, Lőrinc Czell and Miklós Bay. The third generation of Nagybánya artists, who worked between 1920 and 1944 and were entirely unknown until then, was discovered at the centenary exhibition held in the Hungarian National Gallery in 1996. Many people realized that you could buy those works for peanuts and sell them in Hungary at a much higher price. That meant the next outpouring of the still existing collections. Many were in need since after the Marosvásárhely pogrom masses of people moved to Hungary, and elderly people who were left on their own were able to make both ends meet from those resources, or helped their children to study and settle in Hungary.

– This gave you much work. You had to process oeuvres unknown until then.

In addition to those mentioned above, Éva Bajkay and I wrote about the lives and oeuvres of Gizella Dömötör and Hugó Mund. They emigrated to South America and most of their works that had remained in Transylvania got over to Hungary. Their daughter sent the documents and photos from Argentina with the idea that a monograph be written about her parents, and an exhibition in Budapest was held. I wrote a study about Olivér Pittner with György Szűcs and about Géza Kádár with György Vida from Bucharest.

– To what extent did museums present Hungarian artists? What opportunities did Transylvanian Hungarian artists have to exhibit their works?

The Exhibition Hall in Kolozsvár was designed by Károly Kós and built in 1943. The best of classic Hungarian painting was exhibited there until 1944. Exhibitions were not restricted for a long time since until the end of the 1950s Kolozsvár was a very Hungarian town. The situation changed from the 1960s, ratios shifted. There was an annual county exhibition where the works of both Hungarian and Romanian artists were displayed. Hungarians were forced back gradually. When the College of Art was founded in Kolozsvár it first had separate Hungarian and Romanian faculties. It operated like that for two years, then it was replaced by the bilingual Ion Andreescu College of Fine Arts where teaching in Hungarian ceased from the middle of the 1980s. Until the 70s the majority of the students and lecturers were Hungarian, including for eight years the rector. Romanians studied rather in Bucharest or Iaşi. Things got worse towards the end of the Ceauşescu era. I was fired because I wanted to teach only in Hungarian. I was rehired only after 1989.

– The museum structure in Transylvania is rich. The museum foundation fever that began in Hungary in the 60s started there far earlier. How did it all work after 1945 and what has remained today?

The situation was varied, the fate of museums greatly depended on the circumstances of their foundation. There were institutions founded by the church, social groups, individuals and the state. A large part of the ecclesiastical collection in Nagyvárad was taken to Esztergom in 1916 and formed the basis of the Christian Museum there. The Picture Gallery of Kolozsvár was based on the collection of the Transylvanian Museum Association founded in 1859 and Hungarian state deposits were added. The Sekler National Museum in Sepsiszentgyörgy (Sfântu Gheorghe) came about since Emília Zathureczky Jánosné Cserey bequeathed her estate to the town. Then the wonderful museum was built to the design of Károly Kós. Collector Zsigmond Ormós initiated the foundation of the Temesvár Museum. All these institutions have magnificent paintings, yet only a few can be seen in permanent exhibitions. An up-to-date inventory is rare and that hinders research. Concerning Kolozsvár, I was lucky for I found the Transylvanian Museum Association’s inventory books that were recorded from 1859. Based on those I prepared a comprehensive study about the history of the picture gallery in Kolozsvár for which the Hungarian Academy of Sciences awarded me the János Arany Medal in 2009. The Brukenthal Museum in Nagyszeben, founded in 1790, is Transylvania’s oldest museum and is based on the collection of chief governor Sámuel Brukenthal, who bequeathed it to the Saxon community. The wealth of his collection is shown by the fact that he himself purchased 1090 paintings in western Europe and he also added to the museum’s works of art by going round his Saxon fellow countrymen’s houses and when he did not think paintings were properly kept and protected he asked for them to be given as deposits. He even issued receipts. A fantastic collection came about including works by Memling, Van Eyck and Pieter Brueghel. A notorious theft occurred at the Brukenthal in the 70s. It was immediately clear that the original owners, Saxons who had emigrated, must have commissioned the thieves. In the end the paintings were returned. However, no charges were made, since those who arranged the theft could prove with documents signed by Brukenthal that they were the rightful owners.

– So are there restitution cases?

So far for the Saxons, but not yet for Hungarians; but the latter is not excluded. There are several paintings in the Bánffy Mansion in Kolozsvár which were taken by aristocratic families scared of the bombings to the safer museum building, but only as deposits. No one has asked for them to be returned yet. It is different with the Germans. The Saxon community, more precisely the Lutheran Church, got the Brukenthal Mansion back after the political changes. The agreement with the German state was that the collection would be divided – what was bought after 1944 went to the Romanian state and the Lutheran Church received the older part. We could also come to an agreement, but it is the Hungarian and not the German state that is behind us and that’s a great difference. Now we are trying to get back at least the archival fonds of the Transylvanian Museum Association, which was re-established in 1991. By the same right, the return of half the collection in the Bánffy Mansion could be requested. But where would it be held and who would handle it?

– The bibliography of your works is truly large. Are there artists, fields or periods you would still like to write about?

So few remain in this profession that I have been engaged in fields not always of my own choice. For instance, I didn’t really want to become immersed in Historicism, but I was obliged to in view of the scandals, restoration and then re-inauguration of the Matthias Monument in Kolozsvár and the Statue of Liberty in Arad. A lavishly illustrated volume of several hundred pages, in which I wrote about the 19th and 20th century art history of Kolozsvár, has recently been published. It is an extensive overview. But ars longa… there’s no end to it.