Róbert Berény – Portrait of Bartók

A mystery of Hungarian art

MúzeumCafé 17.

“They just gripped each other’s hand, exchanging a few banal comments. Though Ady had no understanding of music, he instinctively held Bartók in high esteem and knew whom he was facing. They said little, rather just looked at each other.” The painter Ödön Márffy often used to relate this story, almost with the same words. But did it really happen like that? Márffy’s reminiscence is somewhat imprecise. It’s a minor matter that Bartók first composed music for Ady’s poems only in 1916, while the third (and final) exhibition of the group of artists known as The Eight opened in November 1912. What is a more serious problem is that in the upper left corner of Berény’s famous portrait of Bartók apart from the signature there is also a date, namely April 1913. The history of the picture involves numerous peculiarities, among which the dating is just one. Could Berény have post-dated the portrait? Theoretically, yes. Certainly Berény displayed his Bartók portrait at the April 1913 international post-impressionist exhibition – whether this was for the second time (possibly re-worked to some degree) we don’t know. Similarly mysterious is the meaning of the inscription ‘OP 3’ above the date, by the signature. Art historians debated the matter for about half a century, without reaching any clear conclusion. Whether the handshake took place in front of the Bartók portrait or in the vicinity of other paintings of The Eight is not so important. In 1935 István Genthon asserted that the portrait was in American private ownership, which itself is curious since Berény never sold it. After lying hidden for a long time, the picture appeared in 1953 at an auction in San Francisco. Berény’s Bartók portrait is currently locked away from the world in Homosassa, in the home of the composer’s only living son, Peter.