Locked down in our homes, let’s imagine a short journey…The year is 2012, you are in Budapest, riding the No.1 tram north along the western bank of the Danube River. Some of your fellow passengers chat and some snooze. Some stare at you a bit, you offer a smile but there is no return. This is one of the vestiges of a former Soviet-ruled population, the lack of casual interaction with strangers. Everyone is slightly suspect, especially you, an obvious traveler.
Getting off in the Óbuda district at the Szentlélek tér stop, you step out into a brilliantly sunny early autumn afternoon, working your way through the throngs of young teens waiting for their ride home after school. They crowd the nearby kiosks, buying afternoon snacks and filling the air with their laughter and taunts.
Once into the small square, you take out your map and search for your destination. It is a bit frustrating, the signs are all in Hungarian and there is little connection between what you see on the map and what you see on the street. Finally, after a few wrong turns, you see a small sign indicating your destination, The Kassák Museum. The big bold exclamation point in the logo will be explained in time. *
You pass through the entrance into a lawn in front of a colorfully painted palace which was built by the noble Zichy family in the 17th C…but it still isn’t clear where to find the museum. Finally, after some careful searching behind vines and overgrown bushes you find the entrance. Success!
Enter the building and climb the staircase, all the time eyed with suspicion by the guard. (Even though you are the only two visitors he will relentlessly shadow you throughout your visit, even waiting outside of the door when you use the ladies’ room). He has a job to do!
The irascible woman behind the ticket desk is not in a hurry. You wait as she shuffles around, grumbling and making side remarks to the guard before you are finally handed your entry passes. Once inside, you forget about the Soviet style greeting—this is a really well-designed exhibit, light, colorful and in the flavor of Kassák’s work. A treat for fans of the Russian Constructivist style and the European avant-garde.
You wonder, “Who was this guy and why haven’t I heard more about him?” Lajos Kassák (1887-1967) was an activist, poet, publisher, painter, arts critic, editor and theoretician. He was a Hungarian artist who was trapped behind the Iron Curtain and whose work was suppressed by his government. Therefore, his name is not as recognizable as his fellow countrymen, such as László Maholy-Nagy or Frank Cappa who, because they were Jewish, wisely headed West.
Educated originally as a locksmith assistant in Slovokia, Kassák moved to Budapest in 1904. He worked as a factory laborer, quickly joining the trade union political movement and helping to organize strikes. (Activities for which he was fired several times.)
In 1909 he walked to Paris where he explored its art museums and bohemian community before being expelled back to Hungary. Kassák grew into an inveterate networker who constantly forged international contacts with artist and writers.
He wrote poetry and published a collection of his short stories, both influenced by Walt Whitman and the role of the working class. He also produced the first of many magazines in his career, A TETT (The Action or The Deed) in 1915. This anti-militarist journal discussed socialist theories and avant-garde ideas. It was in A TETT that Guillaume Apollinaire and Marinetti were first published in Hungary.
The second issue of A TETT in 1915 (above). The journal was heavily censored and after 17 issues finally banned on the grounds that it undermined the war effort. Shortly after, Kassák launched another new magazine, MA (Theoretically the title translated to Today but the initials MA also stand for Magyar Aktivizmus or Hungarian Activism). This time the emphasis was on art and literature and therefore less controversial.
As Hungary transformed from a monarchy to a socialist state Kassák was briefly involved in the short lived Hungarian Soviet Republic. Unlike the Russian Soviets, who used art as a conduit for political ideals, Kassák believed that art should remain independent of politics, and broke away. However, when the Hungarian Soviet Republic failed, he was swept into prison due to his prior association. After some months he and his compatriots were released (some say escaped) and emigrated: he to Vienna, Moholy-Nagy to Berlin.
In 1920 Kassák relaunched publication of MA from Vienna, now reflecting Dadaist and Constructivist influences. However he had an uneasy relationship with the Russian Constructivists as he wrote, “No other art school has produced as much naive, pompous and futile trash as the Constructivist.” Kassák started creating his own version of constructivist art, starting with “image poems” which he published in his journal.
MA became “the international organ of art and literature, publishing articles and reproductions covering the gamut of European avant-garde, architecture, poetry and literature.  Over its years of publication many artists participated, Fernand Lèger, Hans Richter, Theo van Doesburg, El Lissitzky, Piet Mondrian, Man Ray, Oskar Schlemmer. Writers included names such as modernists Blaise Cendrars and Jean Cocteau.
His theoretical work developed during his years in Vienna. He wrote the theory of his “Image Architecture,” and was an active participant in the international discourse of contemporary art. He was in contact with El Litizsky and the artists of the Bauhaus. MA ultimately survived for 10 years, making it the longest-lasting modern journal in the period.
In 1926 Kassák returned to Hungary, and again started another new journal, Dokumentum (Document) which, lacking public interest, lasted just one year.
In 1928 yet another, left–wing journal, MUNKA (Work) was launched also inspiring an associated movement of like-minded students and workers. To encourage an international readership, MUNKA was published in three languages: Hungarian, German, and French. “Kassák wanted to make up for the deficit of information on contemporary European art by publishing foreign writers. He extended his interest to modern architecture, music and dance, and particularly to film.”
Kassák was a founding member of the Association of Hungarian Book and Advertising Artists (1930) . He designed his advertisements using all of the geometric elements of Constructivism.
In 1939 new laws restricting freedom of the press shut down Munka. He continued to published several novels and books of verse in the early 1940s until an anti-war poem landed him in prison for two months.
After the war Kassák held several positions in the cultural affairs office, even serving as a member of Parliament for the Social Democratic Party. In 1956 Hungary staged an unsuccessful revolution that was crushed by the Soviets. Thousands were killed and arrested. After that defeat Kássak’s career came to a halt. All his journals were closed, he was not able to exhibit his art and more censorship rules imposed in 1957 totally silenced his voice.
There was an exhibition of his work in Paris in the 1960s but he remained persona non grata in Hungary until his death in 1967. In 1989 Hungary regained its independence and has remained so over the past two decades. This museum was founded in 1976 by Kássk’s widow, Mrs. Lajos Kassák Klára Kárpáti who contributed many of the artifacts. It is amazing how these ephemeral pieces, printed on cheap paper, could last through wars and revolutions to make it to this museum.
On the way out you try to buy one of the catalogs displayed at the desk but are told that, for reasons unknown, that none are available for purchase. Not even the ones in the showcase. This bureaucratic obfuscation somehow seems like the appropriate end to the visit.
*The exclamation mark in the logo, often used by Kássak himself, represents the watchfulness of man highly attuned to his surroundings. The arrow, the other component of the ‘K’, points to the validity of the Kassakian message.
1. Levinger, Esther. The Theory of Hungarian Constructivism, The Art Bulletin, vol. 69. No 3, 1987, p455-466.
2. Kassak on line museum, http://www.kassakmuzeum.hu/en/index.php?p=lajos_kassak
2 thoughts on “Lajos Kassák, Art and Politics”
Nancy, how interesting! It was 2012 you were in Budapest? Yes, the logo is particularly interesting. I also like the collage and of course his general graphic design. Nice job, Designtraveler! T.
yes 8 years ago and I never had time to write it before. Thanks for checking it out, my loyal reader!