The prestigious Körmendi-Csak Collection at Timişoara


TIMIŞOARA. A few weeks ago, Mr. Marcel Tolcea, the director of The Art Museum in Timişoara, jokingly asked me with whom I’d like to drink a single-malt scotch whisky. My answer came without any hesitation: Csák Máté! In front of the museum, one of the biggest East-European art collections was being set down and even before the opening it was rumored that the famous Hungarian collector was going to cram some of the rooms in the museum with thousands of Hungarian contemporary works of art. To meet an art collector of his stature is a unique occasion.

The energy exchange you feel around a man who shapes history...
Almost two decades ago I had the chance to meet Leo Castelli at Chicago Art Expo. Until this day, I have been impressed by this encounter, not only because of the shocking revelation – I didn’t know at that time about his marriage with Ileana Schapira, in Bucharest, around the ‘30s – but also for the energy exchange you feel around someone who shapes history. The same thing happened in Timişoara. Useless to say, I was going to meet Csák Máté, a contingence that has opened my third’s eye sleepy lid, to a world that had taken hold of me, but of which I knew very little. Probably, this is the quality you recognize when you meet an extraordinary spirit: he brings up in you a dense and subtle energy, as of a magnetic field or chemical substance which once it reaches you, it transforms you. The discussion we’ve had in one of the rooms of the museum turned out to be an introduction to the spiritual joy one has before the artistic creation, and the empathy created between the artist's sensitive nature and the collector, his guardian angel.
In the whole history of art exhibitions at the Art Museum in Timişoara there haven't been driven with so much enthusiasm nails in the walls, to hold an exhibition.
Csák Máté is not an ordinary man. He's an architect, a constructor, a restorer, a painter, a writer, a publisher, a collector. A man who made of his family a construction as reliable as the scores of buildings he had made. Since elementary school, his colleagues acknowledged his talent and potential. Not even once during high school years had he missed a class, nor, while at the Budapest University of Technology. Being an overachiever Máté had been named in time the president of the fine arts and architecture department within the National Association of Hungarian Journalists, general advisor in the real estate department of the Ministry of Justice, chief manager during the restorations of the Buda Castle and chief engineer of the Monuments Inspectorate in Budapest. If we add the fact that all this hard work turned him into one of the richest and most powerful men in Hungary, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to us why, one day, together with his wife, the lawyer Anna Körmendi, he decided to lay the foundation of the most important contemporary art collection in Hungary. I believe that in the whole history of art exhibitions at the Art Museum in Timişoara, which underwent through a restoration that made of it one of the European architectural beauties, there haven't been driven so many nails in the walls, to hold an exhibition.
Why do people buy art? A common question, especially today when we are facing a global economic crisis. According to the expert estimates, the art market has reached in 2009 the amount of 41.9 billion dollars. By 2014, it is predicted that the internet alone is going to increase art sales from 6 percent this year to 11 percent, of the entire online market in the United States. If we think that these sales have reached today 8.1 billion dollars, out of the 235 billion dollars of the entire online market, we can say that, despite the recession, art sales are increasing.
There is nothing more privileged for a man than living in the proximity of an art work.
I have asked Csák Máté what exactly made him become an art collector. His answer revealed the thrilling story of one of the most important art acquisitions in the history of Hungary. It had been made by a friend of his, the architect Gerlóczy Gideon, who, by the 1919s has acquired through auction the monumental paintings of Csontváry Kosztka Tivadar (1853-1919) and is considered the savior of these works of art which otherwise, would have been used as a cover by a wagon fabricating company. Startled at Csontváry’s paintings, during his holiday visits at the Gerlóczy house, Máté said to himself that there is nothing more privileged for a man than living in the proximity of such spiritual treasures. A privilege that he turned into a mission. To do an international tour with a collection is not a task at hand, just to anyone. We’re not talking only about works of art, which need to be archived, folded, transported and insured, or about the logistics related to communication, public relations, contracts or pre and post exhibition surveys. Csák Máté, came to Timişoara like the real star in his league, with a convoy of artists, critiques, curators, advisors, journalists, translators, consular officials, experts in setting up the exhibits, and a rich schedule of meetings with the public, symposiums or round tables. Absolutely, everything has been made in a professional manner with attention to detail.
During the past years, the interest in art has reached amazing rates in Hungary. Giving its small population, compared to other European countries, Hungary, with its many galleries and exhibition rooms, seems to be the hottest stage for Eastern European art. Only two of the auction houses in Budapest, Kieselbach Gallery and Judit Virag Gallery had in 2009 a sales volume of more than 11 million dollars, a big amount if we consider the fact that the majority of the art works are from the internal market, and their prices do not equal those in Paris, London, Tokyo or New York. “The Madman and the Soldier," a painting by Lajos Gulacsy (1882-1932) was sold for 110 million HUF in 2009. A small price compared to the value of this great artist, but a performance, compared to the prices from the previous years.
At the Art Museum in Timişoara are represented 87 artists, with 267 works. If we were only to list all of them, let alone presenting them, this article would become an album, like those over 30 art albums and mongraphies dedicated by the Körmendi -Csak Gallery to its artists. With the exception of Gyarmathy Tihamér (1915-2005), the pièce de résistance of the collection, represented with 130 works exposed in a few dedicated rooms, the majority of the artists are presented by one, up to seven works of art. What has become a blessed modus-operandi for the collector-artist relationship is a mutual empathy through which the artist becomes part of a family to which are often addressed not only artistic problems but also existential ones.
In the collectors’ world, giving help selflessly is a rare thing.
There have been circumstances when Csak Máté had to get involved in the life problems of his artists, from paying their studio rent or help in case of illness or death. In the collectors’ world, giving help selflessly is a rare thing, and this is why Csak Máté's name had become for many artists a synonym of art done under the protection of a guardian angel. His relationship with Gyarmathy Tihamér was based on this kind of responsibility. Nothing could explain better the gallery’s commitment towards its artists than the presence in Timişoara of Ágnes Gyarmathy, the artist’s daughter, an artist as special as her father, an Oscar winner for Mephisto, a movie for which she worked together with the famous director István Szabó.
The collection has been created out of a profound sense of history and national identity...
Csák Máté’s dream, which he had a few decades ago in front of the cedar painted by Csontváry and displayed in Gerlóczy Gideon’s house, appears to take shape through his careful consideration towards the works of Gyarmathy Tihamér, a painter who had been part of the artistic scene since 1938, next to Piet Mondrian, István Beöthy, Jean Arp, Andre Breton and Max Bill.
The visitors of the Art Museum in Timişoara would definitely be shocked to discover that some of his works, exulting the freshness of a present day artistic experiment, have been made 65 years earlier.
The majority of the works in the collection are created by Hungarians, who have been contacted while still alive. This has been happening since the day the collection was born, almost thirty years ago, and I do not think that I am mistaken by saying that it has been created out of a profound sense of history and national identity. The history of Hungarian art collecting is strongly connected to the dramatic period of disintegration which hit Hungary during the First and Second World War. Starting with the 1920's until the end of the Second World War, the collectors have been meeting regularly with the Hungarian inteligentia of the time, from the avant-garde artists returned from Paris, as Róbert Berény, to descendants of the Baia Mare Art Colony , as István Szonyi or József Egry.
One of their favorite meeting locations was Gresham Cafe in Budapest, where has been created a new vision about collecting and accessibility, compared to the grandiose model created by the noble aristocracy who established the great museums in Hungary. These were the Ferenc Széchényi’s (1754-1820) collection, which founded in 1802 the Hungarian National Library and the National Museum in Budapest, and the Prince Nikolaus Esterházy (1765-1833) collection, which founded the National Gallery of Painting in 1871. Other famous collectors were Count Gyula Andrássy, Baron Ferenc Hatvany, or Baron Mor Lipot Herzog.
The model created by the Gersham Café continued even during communism, especially after the 1956 revolution when influential people, like doctors, artists and lawyers made up Hungarian art collections. Csák Máté was among them. His presence and direct contact in the artist’s society made possible for him to buy important works of art at reasonable prices. Being himself an artist, he knew exactly what an artist would need, his sensitivity, and most importantly, how to promote an art work. A very talented entrepreneur, from the very first signs of freedom by the end of the 1980s, together with his wife, Csák Máté set up a few art galleries in various locations, the most known being one in Şopron, at the Anne Artner Palace, and one in Budapest on the famous Falk Miksa Street. The collection benefited by the help of his son, the art historian Csák Ferenc and also by the support of the eminent art critic Wehner Tibor, the author of two important books about Hungarian sculpture, among which I want to mention, “Hungarian Modern Sculpture – 1945-2010” as well as a volume on the sculptures of the proletcult culture amassed in a sculpture park near Budapest.
The role of an art critic.
I had the chance to meet Tibor, who kindly gave me an interview under an umbrella in Piaţa Unirii, awakening in me the Hungarian language, which-after not having been used for ages-went through the natural process of erosion, leaving me in the position to use a kitchen language on a subject debated by many with aristocratic sophistication.
Even from the beginning of our discussion, Tibor made it clear that his counseling does not interfere with the buying policy of art work. Compared to collectors who see art only as an investment and who hire an art critic to decide what to buy, with the Körmendi-Csak Collection, these decisions were being made either by Anna Körmendi or by Csák Máté, who can reach a good compromise even when each has his own favourite artist.
The collection doesn’t contain only paintings, graphic art and sculptures or photographs, but also wood, china, glass or metal decorative objects, all in all, thousands of art works expressed in a high diversity of styles. Along with 19th and 20th century Hungarian artists, who had already entered the exposure circuit of museums, the collection includes works of art done by emergent artists. To make something fluent out of this diversity, asks for a critical exercise and experience which sometimes starts from the hanging of a painting on the wall with a hammer in hand and ends with the hard work of presentation to the media at openings or in art albums. The critic and counselor are imperative in these circumstances. I became aware of it, while I witnessed the laying out of the exhibit, and I realized that Tibor was in command not only to negotiate the critical millimeter involved in setting a painting in a show room, but also of the history and spirit harbored by the art work.
The Körmendi-Csak Collection was presented in Wiesbaden, Bonn, Hamburg (1992), Dublin, Schloss Farrach, Nice (1993), Hamburg, Hanover (1994), Geneva (2000), Tallinn (2001), Eisenstaedt (2005), Kosice (2006), Plzen (2006) and the exhibition have been introduced by famous personalities like ONU secretary-general Kofi Annan in Vienna, the President of Hungarian Republic, Arpad Goncz, in Geneva, or European Affairs Minister Etele Barath (Kosice).
The historical context of the Hungarian art.
For those who would like to understand the historical context of the Hungarian art, mentioning the groups formed under the European or American influence is mandatory. First of all, I am thinking of the avant-garde, with a very interesting history in Hungary, even since 1909, when “The Eight” group (Nyolcak) made out of Róbert Berény, Béla Czóbel, Dezső Czigány, Károly Kernstok, Ödön Márffy, Dezső (Desiderius) Orbán, Bertalan Pór and Lajos Tihanyi, have brought from Paris a style flavored with the fauvism of Mattise, Andre Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck or of Cezanne’s paintings.
The junction between the influence created by “The Eight” group and the avant-garde ideas of Lajos Kassak (1887-1967), together with the activist movement around Ma magazine (Sándor Bortnyik, János Máttis Teutsch, László Moholy-Nagy, Jószef Nemes Lampérth, Béla Uitz, Lajos Gulácsy, János Kmetty,) the European expressionism (Munch, Ensor, Nolde, Egon Schiele,) or American abstract expressionism (Pollok, De Kooning) and of geometric and abstract conceptualism (Robert Rauschenberg, Sol LeWitt), created an artistic scene in Hungary which can be followed until this day.
Among the artists introduced by the collection, remarkable for his emotionally intense figurative expression is Sváby Lajos (n.1935), an artist with surprising compositional combinations and powerful colours, used with firm lines that creates movement and dynamism. I have had the honor to meet him in person, as well as his friend Veress Sándor László (n. 1934), whom I met during a conference held in the Baroque Hall of the Art Museum in Timişoara. Veress is the narrator of some paradoxical situations, a real illustrator of the human comedy, expressed in a manner that has the look of some washed antiquated prints.
Kokas Ignác (1926-2009,) is a painter of the Körmendi-Csak collection who has the power seen only at the greatest painters of the abstract expressionism of the 20th century. He creates a true illusionism of the touch applied with large brushes, pictorial spaces that, on nonfigurative surfaces, are interfering with unconscious perceptions of figurative nature.
Frey Krisztián (1929-1997) was one of the artists directly influenced by Pollok and De Kooning's abstract expressionism. Krisztián was a self-taught artist who used in his paintings Pollok’s dripping techniques, combined with writings and grey surfaces, a trademark recognized also for incorporating mathematical and musical symbols that give a special lyricality to his works.
Another very important artist is Schéner Mihály (1923-2009), whom I would describe as being a symbolic expressionist who used many geometric motifs combined with figurations inspired by the Hungarian folk art. His prominent place in The Körmendi-Csak collection is honored by the inclusion of the painting “Two figures” on the catalogue cover of the Timişoara exhibit.
His working technique was very straightforward, most often Schéner used to work with the colour right from the tube, mixing combinations on the canvas with his fingers, in a pasty and magmatic mass with a remarkable tridimensionality.
A painter known among the students in art academies, Barcsay Jenő (1900-1988), the author of a compendium of artistic human anatomy is present in the collection with a painting done in a geometric style. In the same spirit we can find the works of Baska József (n. 1935), Kántor Lajos (n.1922) and Rác András (1926).
Among sculptors, Birkás István (n. 1947) is impossible to pass unnoticed. His work has the savor of found objects, similar to the enclosures made by the American sculptor Louise Nevelson. In Birkás’s work are juxtaposed elements made up of fragments from real objects, furniture, stone slabs or pottery.
A painter whom I really appreciate is the nonagenarian Gádor Magda (1924) who came from a family with pottery tradition and moved to concrete sculptures. Gádor Magda combines expressive elements from Neolithic pottery with powerful marks or symbols drawn on her sculptures, a style which reminds me of the techniques used by Jean Dubuffet. A very original sculptor who works with glass is Buczkó György (1950).
Those who pass through the solid gates of the Baroque Palace are welcomed by a painting that shows a group portrait, made by Gyémánt László (n. 1935,) a very successful painter in Hungary.The painting represents the heros of this exhibition, Sváby Lajos, Kokas Ignác, Schéner Mihály, Anna Körmendi, Ferenc Csák, Gyarmathy Tihamér, Máté Csák, Frey Krisztián and many others, and has the evocative setting of a baroque group portrait.
This unique collection offers to art lovers, artists and Romanian collectors, a highly inspiring model to be followed. During the few weeks that passed since the opening of the show, I have admired thousands of paintings belonging to Hungarian art history. I have visited Hungary’s most famous auction house websites and I have posted albums on Facebook, with works of these rare Hungarian artists who have been rewarded with spontaneous reactions of admiration from all around the world. Alternatively, for some people, this show is a real eye-opener towards an art and culture that deserves undivided attention.
The open and vital spirit of Anna Körmendi and Csák Máté has been recognized by the president of Hungarian Republic, Árpád Göncz, in 1999, who offered them a golden medal for the dissemination of Hungarian culture abroad , and by the prestigious Pro-Europe Award.
Their presence in Timişoara has also a sentimental value and does not come as a surprise. Among the basalt paving stones in Piaţa Unirii from Timisoara, there is a rock, which has been vibrating for hundreds of years with the intensity of a pillar, on which Csák Máté has layed, to our delight, a memorable cultural bridge.
You can’t slam a single-malt of wisky as you do with a shot of schnapps, nevertheless, the review of an exhibition this important.
– Thank you for the treat, Mr. Marcel Tolcea.
The exhibition of the Körmendi-Csak Collection is opened until the 30th of October 2011, and can be visited daily from 10.00 to 18.00 (Monday closed). The address of the Art Museum
– by Adrian Ionita, translated by Angelica Ţapoca