Hungarian Art & Scotland's Forgotten Folk Hero
Adam Clark is barely remembered in his native Scotland, but in Hungary he is considered a folk hero. Is it possible that due to his tenacity and cool-headedness during the Hungarian revolution of 1848, this Scottish engineer’s actions may have allowed for the growth of Budapest as a cultural centre with its own unique, and some might say, carefully constructed, heritage that we see today?
Due to his contributions to the Budapest cityscape, and his support for the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, the Scottish engineer Adam Clark (1811 – 1866) is considered a folk hero in Hungary, and yet in Scotland, he is virtually unknown. How is it that this man who, in 2011, was recognised by the Hungarian National Bank with the issue of a 5000 forint coin to commemorate the 200th anniversary of his birth, has disappeared from view here at home? It is not as though he received folk hero status for his engineering works alone – he also played a small but crucial part in the Hungarian Revolution of 1848: a war fought for independence from the Austrian Empire and the Habsburg dynasty, which, although it ended in defeat, nonetheless paved the way for Hungary's cultural revolution of 1896 and subsequent bids for a meaningful cultural identity all its own.
Hungary’s attempts to seek independence from Austria took many forms over time, and not least in the construction of a unique Hungarian identity in the fields of the arts, crafts, architecture, and engineering – all of which were viewed as central to defining Hungary as a distinct nation that owed little to the Austrian Habsburg dynasty. It was into this political maelstrom and a period of cultural upheaval that Adam Clark had first been sent from Scotland in 1834, his role being to supervise the construction of a dredger to work the River Danube that then separated the towns of Buda and Pest.
What Clark found there was a country struggling for independence through not just political manoeuvres but a programme of much wider modernisation, and in 1839, he returned to Hungary to begin the supervision of what would become the iconic Széchenyi Chain Bridge that, upon its completion in 1849, would link the two towns on either side of the river – finally establishing Budapest as a single metropolis of international importance.
Although in 1849, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was to complete London's Hungerford footbridge, with a central span of 675 feet (206 metres), the bridge that Clark was to supervise came in not far short of that – the number of his beast having a central span of 666 feet (203 m), and a total length of 1,262 feet (385 metres). The Chain Bridge was finally opened in November of 1849, although the final stages of its construction took place in the midst of the 1848 revolution. Indeed, it is somewhat ironic that, despite Clark’s support for the revolutionaries, during the early stages of his work he was confronted by a crowd of pro-revolution demonstrators demanding the expulsion of all foreign workers.
A man of great tenacity, Clark stood fast in the face of the mob: the police eventually dispersed the demonstrators, and his name was to eventually go down in history as a friend of the Hungarian people. Were he to have backed down, it is certain that he would not be viewed as a folk hero in Hungary today, celebrated for his outstanding courage and an ally of the revolutionaries; a man who worked tirelessly to unite the towns of Buda and Pest and give Hungary a capital city that it rightly deserved as a nation. Though destroyed during World War Two during the Siege of Budapest, the bridge was reconstructed and is today one of Europe's most iconic urban structures.
The extent of Hungary’s bid for cultural autonomy in the nineteenth-century was not just limited to ambitious engineering projects such as the Chain Bridge, however, and this is something that increasingly became a focus of attention during the late-1980s when, after years of communist rule, the break up of the Eastern bloc states resulted in the re-emergence of cultural artefacts that had been hidden away since long before the Soviet clampdown in 1956.
In the late-1980s I was reporting from central and eastern Europe, and watching the political situation unfold as Hungary, like Czechoslovakia and East Germany, managed to escape, for the most part, the violent upheavals that plagued other neighbouring states such as Romania. Indeed, one of my prevailing memories of that time was just how quickly reminders of Hungary's rich past began to reemerge once the Hungarian People's Republic disintegrated.
Hungary had waited patiently for its silent revolution of 1989 and, since the end of the Second World War, Hungarians everywhere, it seemed, had quietly protected what they could of their 'national heritage', mostly in the form small cultural treasures that they kept hidden away while the State went about its ugly business. By 1992, as a post-glasnost era Europe began to emerge, the auction house Sotheby’s (from its outpost in Vienna) began organising conferences and symposia intended to inform emerging Hungarian dealers about how to 'internationalise' their art.
Back then, I reported on this development from the heart of Eastern Europe, too, stating that:
It is clear, there is a new imperative about to be realised; one which the Czechs have already embraced. Hungary's history will soon be coming up for sale. But what is that history? Some would say that it was hard won, while others claim that it is merely a lie, a fabrication of turn-of-the-century ideologues intent on ridding Hungary of its Austrian shackles.
Although defeated in its 1849 revolution, surrendering to what were at the time Austria’s Russian allies, Hungary was to make a further bid to mark itself out as a unique cultural gem in the broader European sphere in 1896 – the year that marked the 1,000 anniversary of the arrival of the Magyar people in the region. 1896 would be a time of national celebration for the Magyars, a people that constituted Hungary's largest cultural group despite representing only half of the population, but as the art historian, Ivan Berend has stated, if one wasn’t excited by the Magyar anniversary, there was, something else for others to celebrate, too: ‘1896 marked also the seeming success of Austria’s Franz Joseph era’.
As it transpired, the complex backstory to Hungary's recent past was to involve many historical twists and cultural turns. Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, Franz Josef I (the last Monarch of the old school as he would come to describe himself) was also responsible for turning the Habsburg Dynasty into an institution, or as some would say, an immense bureaucratic machine.
As the Millennial celebrations approached, the task for the Magyars was immense, too. The anniversary was seized upon as an opportunity to make an unprecedented display of cultural prosperity across all of Hungary, embodying a new national identity. Culturally, Hungary wished to reveal itself as a potent force which owed nothing to Vienna, its sister city which until then had overshadowed Budapest.
Painters, sculptors, designers, and architects all joined forces in an attempt to identify their National History, but it was not an easy task. As the writer, Lajos Németh recalls, unlike Austria, Hungary, which had no easily definable Haute Bourgeoisie, had not only to shape the present and the future but also to create a comprehensible past, too’. Elsewhere it was the Haute Bourgeoisie that had employed artists to embellish their living spaces. Whether in the stylistic form of the then-fashionable Jugendstil, Art Nouveau or British Arts & Crafts Movement, it was usually the upper middle classes who put up the money. The emergence of modern Hungary, then, would be a painful and prolonged re-birth as, over a ten year period, artists were encouraged to use themes that helped the ideologues with ‘the ennobling of virtue’, establishing particular ethnic sensibilities in the hearts of a people that, as Németh has said ‘simply drank, played cards and meddled in politics in a slogan-saturated atmosphere’.
Slowly, very slowly, the Hungarian intelligentsia was taking shape, but Hungarian art of the nineteenth-century had to be officially approved to receive subsidy; and the subsidies tended to favour the ethnic, the folkloric, and the medieval in terms of subject matter. Anything resembling an international style was shunned, so imperative did the government see the national cause. What had been intended to ensure Hungary's prominence as a centre of artistic excellence, therefore, actually backfired quite quickly. Stylistically the art favoured by the government fell well behind that which was being celebrated in Paris, Munich, and Budapest's chief rival, Vienna.
As William Johnston, author of The Austrian Mind reminds us, the Millennial Exposition was not just an orgy of self-congratulation, but intended as a wilful slap in the face to Vienna.
The exposition displayed none but products manufactured in Hungary. When Citizens learned that the chandeliers in the newly opened parliament came from Vienna, these were at once replaced by chandeliers of native manufacture […] An American observer compared resurgent Hungary to a cuckoo that had grown fat in the nest of lethargic Austria.
Many of Hungary's best artists were, as stated, marginalised by the regime of government approval and financial subsidy, and they quickly became dispersed across the many of the Bohemian ghettos outside of the country, effectively placing themselves in cultural exile. It is somewhat ironic, then, that it was eventually these artists who came to represent what has been termed the Golden Age of Hungarian Art. The Hollósy group for example, who were more or less culturally disfranchised by the Hungarian Academic tradition, were some of the first to make concrete a new vision for Hungarian art, which owed much to Parisian Symbolism and their studies in Munich. Károly Ferenczy (see below) was one of many who offered a unique marriage of Symbolist style and vaguely Biedermeier subjects, while Simon Hollósy himself was more committed to Impressionistic advances which developed stylistically to incorporate motifs more common to artists such as Edvard Munch.
It is József Rippl-Rónai, however, who is owed the most significant debt for saving Hungarian art from the Academic revivalist scrap heap. Rippl-Rónai played a similar role in Hungarian painting to that of Manet in France, though his work differed greatly. Like his contemporaries in Munich, Rippl-Rónai had studied the Symbolists closely, making the all-important move to Paris in 1889. Born in 1861, he lived in Paris for over ten years and was a close associate of the Nabis; Bonnard, Vuillard and Denis who had moved away from the naturalism of Impressionism and embraced the philosophy of Gauguin, with his plea for an art of 'pure flat colour'.
It was in Budapest though, to which he eventually returned, that Rippl-Rónai committed himself to a project for which he is best remembered. In the year of the Magyar Millennial Exposition, Rippl-Rónai began work on one of the finest Art Nouveau interiors in Europe – the dining room of the Andrássy residence. Equalling the magnificence of many Charles Rennie Mackintosh interiors, Rippl-Rónai's interiors have been compared favourably to William Morris's Red House (1859) and Van de Velde's Bloemenwerf House (1895). It was for the Andrássy’s dining room that Rippl-Rónai began work on ceramics, produced at the Zsolnay factory by Zsolnay Porcelánmanufaktúra Zrt. Sadly, relatively few of these survive, apart from one wall carpet and a few glasses – the rest were destroyed during the Second World War.
Zsolnay ceramics were named after the family that owned the factory in Pecs, which lies some 150 kilometres south of Budapest. The factory was founded in the mid-nineteenth-century, and Vilmos Zsolnay directed the artistic production of the factory between 1872 and 1900 – it has been said that he was responsible for elevating the factory's Art Nouveau objects to European prominence. With a chemist, Zsolnay had discovered a red-glazed ceramic body that could hold stunning iridescent overglazes. He experimented with these lustrous metallic eosin glazes for which Zsolnay ceramics would soon become renowned.
Indeed, there is now sufficient interest in Zsolnay ceramics to warrant an ambitious study of Hungarian Art Nouveau generally, and exhibitions of Hungarian ceramics, including those produced by the Zsolnay factory, appear regularly today. As Phillipe Garner of Sotheby’s Applied Arts told me in 1992, however, ‘Zsolnay ceramics are the only regular items from Hungary that come up for sale.’ There is very little demand for anything else. Similarly, David Bennett of Sotheby's Jewellery Department was to tell me in the 1990s that this was because many objects produced during the Austro-Hungarian Empire bore a Viennese mark, though often they were made in Budapest. This is particularly true of the rather cheeky art nouveauish jewellery from Hungary that was frequently set with garnets and poor quality opals, which were most often mined in north Bohemia.
There would appear to be nothing one to could describe as 'ennobling' in the idiosyncratic design of Hungary's Museum of Applied Arts; a building that comprises a beano of so many different influences that one is hard pushed to place it historically – but for the fact that it could only ever have been built in turn of the century Budapest! Constructed by Gyula Pártos under the instruction of Ödön Lechner in 1896, the museum incorporates motifs from Europe, the Middle East and the Hungarian folk tradition, which still remains strong today. Somewhat ironically, the museum also houses one of the most important collections of glass, porcelain, and ceramics in Europe, including works by Rippl-Rónai, in a building the interior of which resembles a giant wedding cake.
Hungarian museums may hold a wealth of art that has at long last been hailed as an indication of the country’s international importance, but in the early-1990s, it was what lay hidden away in closets, attics and garden sheds that was exciting western dealers. I remember, in the early-1990s, the émigré Hungarian dealer Andras Kalman, who died in 2007, telling me somewhat excitedly, ‘Who knows what might turn up in the next few years! There may well be families that have hidden things away that we thought were gone for ever!' While small private collections were surely not going to rock the market, there was a steadily growing interest from international collectors.
Even so, Nicholas McClean of Christie's was finding at that time that people were regularly disappointed by the modest prices that Hungarian art then demanded, with a few rare exceptions. In 1984, a drawing entitled Procession in a Landscape by the prominent Hungarian painter, draughtsman and designer Sandór Nagy (1868-1950) sold for just £360 at auction. Today that would be unthinkable, and that has something to do with the fact that Sotheby’s, as one of many auction houses, worked hard to raise the consciousness of Hungarian dealers to the possibilities of marketing their heritage, in turn increasing the profile – and prices – of what was emerging back then.
What was not clear, however, was how the Hungarian market could sustain a commercial interest in what, when all is said and done, was – and some still claim is – a bogus cultural initiative promoted for political ends at the end of the nineteenth-century. So much of what was created that is of real worth by Budapest artists was actually realised outside of Hungary, and as a reaction to the situation at home. Rippl-Rónai produced some of his best work in Paris, for example. Budapest like Vienna may well boast a wealth of art in her museums which points to an inherent tradition, but such a view could be considered misleading. It was not an indigenous tradition realised from within, but a near-cynical and self-conscious attempt to simply rid Budapest of its downtrodden Cinderella image and portray Vienna as the ugly sister. The country's best artists contributed works of real worth from cities far away.
The question remains, however, could any of this happened without the thrust of revolutionary unrest during the period that Scottish engineer Clark was working on the bridge that gave Budapest its unique metropolitan identity just a few decades earlier? Though the revolutionary factions that he supported may have capitulated to the Austro-Russian alliance, Clark’s bridge did get built. Buda and Pest did become symbolically and practically one. Indeed, Clark’s involvement in the 1948 revolution was not merely one of idle support from the sidelines. In late 1848 he assisted the revolutionary army in their retreat across his bridge, which was still unfinished and (of most concern at the time) still untested. Approximately 70,000 revolutionary infantrymen and 300 pieces of artillery are said to have crossed the Danube in a single day, and on two other occasions, Clark saved the bridge from military destruction.
In early 1849, Clark was informed that the Austrian Imperial Army was planning to blow up the bridge, in order to prevent the revolutionaries crossing over from Pest to Buda, and he immediately took action to minimise any potential damage by flooding the bridge’s anchorage chambers, thus ensuring its stability. Although the Austrians placed four kegs of gunpowder on the bridge, the demolition failed. Then, again, in June 1849, Clark was informed that the Hungarian revolutionaries were going to demolish the bridge themselves to prevent the Austrians from crossing the river. Clark met with the Hungarian commander-in-chief, General Henryk Dembiński, and managed to convince Dembiński that it was not necessary to destroy the entire structure to make it impassable for troops. Instead, he suggested that they merely dismantled some of the platforms and set them adrift on barges, which showed keen acumen at that time, and was to later lead to construction easily resuming once the imminent threat had subsided.
Though the 1848 revolution failed militarily, and Hungary was required to wait for several decades for its next chance to mark itself out as a separate entity in the greater empire, it is doubtful that this could have been achieved without the completion of the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, which really put Budapest on the cultural map as a centre of burgeoning cultural excellence. Though its artists and designers may have had to reach out to a wider Europe to build a heritage that was free from Austrian influence, it is, some might say, down to the courage and quick thinking of a Scotsman abroad that Budapest was finally able to shine.
Whatever one might think of the varying attempts to construct a meaningful cultural history for Hungary, much of what emerged in fin-de-siècle Budapest lay hidden from view during the years of communist rule. What we do know, however, is that what we have today owes a partial debt to Adam Clark, for would Budapest really be the city it is today without the tenacity he showed in protecting its bridge? Over time Clark would be commissioned to work on several other ambitious engineering projects in Budapest too, including, in 1853, the tunnel under Buda castle (Budavári Palota) that squats defiantly above the city.
Having made Hungary his home, in 1855 Clark was to marry Mária Áldásy, a member of the Hungarian aristocracy, and in 1912, long after his death, the public square between the Chain Bridge and the Buda Tunnel was renamed Adam Clark Square (Clark Ádám tar) in his honour. In Scotland, meanwhile, this man who sympathised with Hungary's revolutionaries of 1848, assisted them where he could, and gave their capital one of its most iconic structures, is barely remembered, if remembered at all.