The Art and Relics collection

The rich art object collection in the Art Collection of the Museum of Literature Petőfi includes paintings, drawings, small graphics, sculptures, coins and photographs.

We inherited the spine of our 19th-century collection from the Petőfi House: pictures of Petőfi and some of his famous contemporaries, and Mór Jókai’s vast bequest, primarily the graphics collection prepared for the author’s anniversary. Through the Jókai-related works of fine art, our Museum came into possession of works by artists such as the Russian Verescsagin, as well as Miklós Barabás, Mihály Munkácsy, Mihály Zichy and Gyula Benczúr. The pieces most frequently on loan to exhibitions include Mihály Zichy’s allegoric depiction, A magyar nép [The Hungarian People], or Artúr Ferraris’s Történelmi tarokkparti [Historical Tarot Party] and Viktor Madarász’s large-scale painting, Hazám [My Country] (1875). In 1951, the collection was enriched with paintings depicting Attila József, and paintings, graphics, photographs and relics that had been in the poet’s possession. Since 1954, the collection interest of the Museum has officially embraced Hungarian literature in its entirety. The wealth of the Ady legacy purchased from the Ady family in 1965 also shows that this unusual, specialised literary and art collection can hold its own against other art collections. Today, the works of art by Lajos Tihanyi, Dezső Czigány, Károly Kernstok and József Rippl-Rónai are considered priceless, and not simply  because of who their former owners were. The Art Collection also boasts several pastels from the portrait series which Rippl-Rónai began in 1923, in which he painted Hungarian writers.

In addition to portraits, we collect works of art inspired by writers and poets, and illustrations made for literary works. We document representations and photographs relating to scenes from the writers’ lives and endeavour to collect the paintings and drawings that decorated the walls in their homes. The writers’ paintings, drawings and sketches in the Art Collection confirm the penetrability of the borderlands of the fine arts and the art of words. Some of our authors owned renowned art collections; for example, Milán Füst, Lajos Kassák and Tibor Déry.

In the middle of the 1980s, the Art Collection also began to act as purchaser, conducting fine arts competitions on important anniversaries of the births of writers and poets. The result is a series of works testifying to the decades-long friendships between artists and writers. In every case the competitions were followed by an exhibition and then the purchasing of the quality pieces from among the works received. This means that our collection also represents several generations of contemporary Hungarian artists, primarily graphic artists. Important interpretations in paintings and graphics, and partly in plastic art, were created about the following authors or their works: Sándor Petőfi, Endre Ady, Attila József, Gyula Krúdy, Miklós Radnóti, Dezső Kosztolányi, József Katona and Kálmán Mikszáth. The completed works are hall-marked with the names of painters, graphic artists and sculptors, such as Viola Berki, Lajos Sváby, István ef Zámbó, Gábor Záborszky, Ildikó Várnagy, István Orosz, Róbert Swierkiweicz, András Böröcz, László Révész, János Szirtes, El Kazovszkij, Líviusz Gyulai, Frigyes Kőnig, Tamás Vígh, Ákos Muzsnay, Richard Török and Imre Szemethy.

The strength of our Art Collection lies in graphic art; it is in this form that the conscious iconographical acquisition and orders for illustrations chiefly realise their purpose. Nearly every famous Hungarian artist is represented with at least one page in the 10,000 items, which contain originals and reproductions. In a quite exceptional way Béla Kondor’s drawings and paintings synthesise what artistic representations of literary subjects may show and mean. The most widely known pieces in the collection, which numbers hundreds of items, are Dante és Vergilius [Dante and Vergilius], Jókai’s Óceánia [Oceania], and illustrations for works by Thomas Mann, Tolstoy, Imre Madách and Attila József. The reflections on illustration articulated by Mihály Babits summarise the graphic artist’s never-changing ars poetica: ‘It is possible to translate a poem after all, but to illustrate it – what an artist and interpreter it takes! (…) Because he who draws a picture for a poem does not simply aspire to saying what the poet has already said: to say in pictures what the poet has said in words. (…) A picture not only expresses the message in a different way, it is also able to express something different from the words about the world. A poet speaks of inner things invisible to the eye. The realm of pictures is that of sight. (…) There must be a chance for an illustrator or illuminator to fuse into a loftier unit what he has received and what he gives. (…) Thus a good illustrator complements the complete and organic work of art received from the poet in such a way that through his contribution of pictures his creation will be another complete and organic work.’ (Foreword to Benedek Baja’s Vér és arany [Blood and Gold], a portfolio of 12 lithographs produced as illustrations for Ady’s poems, 1924) Our graphics collection is completed by picture poems, ex libris, cover designs and unique book designs. The oldest piece in the sculpture, small sculpture and coin collection of more than 2,000 items is Ferenc Kazinczy’s life mask (1816) in a death-mask collection of nearly thirty items. The richest line in our sculpture assemblage is that of the portrait (works by Miklós Izsó, György Zala, Fülöp Ö. Beck, Amerigo Tot, Miklós Melocco), but it also includes several tomb plans as well.

Approaching 30,000 items, the photograph collection is of exceptional value from a Hungarian literary and photograph-historical point of view. It is the media and publishing houses which capitalise on this wealth. One of the oldest Hungarian proto-photographs – the pride of our photograph collection – is a daguerreotype of Sándor Petőfi. The only authentic Petőfi portrait on the shining silver plate was the only genuine prototype for all later works of art: paintings, sculptors, coins and graphics of the poet. Two other daguerreotypes in the collection depict Lajos Kossuth. The seven ferrotype photographs – individual positive pictures produced on iron-sheets – also count among the rarities. One of our ferrotype photographs represents the young Ferenc Molnár. The photo series created by André Kertész, a Hungarian-born photographer who later became world-famous, is also a real curio: the series taken at the end of the twenties shows places from Ady’s life.

In addition to the Hungarian National Museum, our Relics Collection preserves the relics of renowned authors from the Hungarian past. The information content of these personal belongings is invaluable, as they are not only material documents but once also shared the author’s living space. An object as a message conveys meaning and can help to reconstruct the author’s environment, tastes, wardrobe and pleasures.

The inheritance of the objects and the story of how they came to be in the Museum speak volumes about meeting-points in the course of the writers’ lives and the turns in the fate of these objects. The collecting process therefore also affects family members and relatives. The Collection keeps a record of approximately 3,000 objects including furniture, clothing, ornaments and personal belongings to do with writing (e.g. pens, spectacles and typewriters). The focus of the Collection is pieces formerly owned by classical Hungarian writers from the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. We have Sándor Petőfi’s and Mór Jókai’s fascinating relics from the earlier Petőfi House, which are also significant with respect to the writers’ cult that had developed by the turn of the century (e.g. Petőfi’s wedding ring or the furnishings from Jókai’s study), and we also have objects that guide us through almost the whole lives and all the family relationships of Gyula Krúdy, Endre Ady, Zsigmond Móricz and Mihály Babits. Over the decades, newer and newer types of objects come into the dynamically growing collection (e.g. swimsuits, musical instruments, toys, medical or kitchen equipment). The relics are obligatory pieces in our exhibitions, as they create the atmosphere of a writer’s personality and uniqueness, and thus play an important role in reconstructing the writer’s surroundings.