Margit Kovacs — The Life of a Hungarian Jewish Artist 1902-1977
Biographies of Hungarian Jewish artists seem to skip over what they were doing and where they were during World War II. In fact, they often skip over the fact that they were even Jewish at all. I found it remarkable that five of the seven art galleries in Szentendre dedicated to individual artists feature Jews: Amos Imre and Anna Margit (exhibiting in the same museum), Bela Czobel, Lajos Vajda, Karoly Ferenczy and Margit Kovacs.
The only artists that are clearly and consistently identified as Jewish is the married couple, Amos Imre and Anna Margit; Imre was sent to Jewish labour camps and just before the war ended, he died in a German concentration camp. While many Hungarian Jews intermarried (and still do), Imre’s wife was Jewish. Lajos Vajda is not always identified as Jewish and his death is often just recorded as being due to tuberculosis or pneumonia, with no mention of the fact that he contracted the deadly illness in a Jewish labour camp. Karoly Ferenczy and Bela Czobel are rarely referred to as Jewish. I purchased a small book talking about Kovacs’ life and development as an artist; nowhere does it mention that she was Jewish. The links in this paragraph are to the most complete biographies I could find online in English and I will provide you here with what I could find out about Kovacs.
When I was in Szentendre for a week this past autumn, the only museums open were the Czobel and the Kovacs galleries; apparently the others were undergoing preparations for new exhibits. I was immediately enchanted with Kovacs’ works and visited the gallery twice, wandering around for quite some time and chatting with one of the staff who shared with me what she knew of Kovacs’ life and helped me begin to try to understand why Jewish artists are not identified as such. The information to follow was provided by her, by my new Hungarian friend, Laslo Klein, and by a book written by Jozsef Vadas (2008, Margit Kovacs, A Life in Ceramics).
Kovacs was born in 1902 in Gyor, Hungary, at a time when Jewish life was thriving there. Until 1930-40, Jews made up about 10% of the population and there were Jewish institutions that sustained their cultural life. Kovacs’s parents were teachers, but we are never told what they taught. Her father died young and left her mother to raise two daughters alone. She was employed as the head of a boarding school; was it a Jewish boarding school? We are not told.
As a child, she showed an inclination for her future artistic interests. She would play with the cast-off clay left by a stone-setter who lived on her street, apparently not giving this hobby any particular significance. Her mother must have, however, for a big potter’s wheel was set up for her in the attic and the stone-setter’s nephew taught her how to use it. In 1924, three years after completing high school, Kovacs moved to Budapest and began studying art in earnest.
She was influenced by teachers who were open-minded and who explored the frontiers of changing art trends in Europe. In 1926, she went to Vienna, then to Germany, and back home to Budapest in 1929. In the meantime, pieces she had completed in Germany were exhibited in Hungary and she quickly established a name for herself. She seamlessly combined styles from several schools of art, from Romanesque to Art Deco.
She and her mother set up home together and her mother supported her in her artistic endeavours, however, due to the depression in Hungary at that time, public commissions were not forthcoming and, without financial means, she set of for Denmark in 1932 and worked as a designer for four months in a porcelain factory. There she met Jean Gauguin (son of Paul Gauguin), who advised her to seek work at the Sevres porcelain factory in Paris. She was there until 1934, when she returned to Budapest.
A year later, she organized her first exhibition and it was a critical success. By this time, Hungary was emerging from the depression and she was given a number of public commissions, something that allowed her to continue to develop her art and to live more comfortably. Below we can see the Ceramic panel at the Bécsi Gate of Buda Castle, Budapest:
and the more famous panel on the old post office building in Budapest:
In 1939, according to Vadas and 1935, according to the diary accounts of a friend of hers, she and her mother moved into a modern apartment building that served as her home and studio. Vadas’ book says that she lived there till the end of her life. That turns out to be not strictly true, as you will soon see. If readers are paying attention, they will notice the curious fact that his book jumps next to the year 1948; this raises the question: where was Kovacs during World War II?
Just as I noticed for all other Jewish artists, except for Amos Imre, biographers and museum curators skip over the war years as if they were an unimportant blip. I did not explore the lives of the non-Jewish artists so I do not know if their war-time experiences were ignored as well. Possibly, the male non-Jewish artists were conscripted into the Hungarian army — do the biographies say so? I will leave it to someone else to let us know about this.
Kovacs did produce a few pieces during the war years, such as this one that I photographed in her gallery:
I could only imagine how hard it must have been for her to continue to work on her art during the war. Then, a unique window suddenly opened a bit when Laslo Klein did some investigative work for me. Laslo is a librarian and he showed to what lengths he is willing to go when presented with a request for information. He sent me a quick message:
Margit Kovács lived in Budapest from 1935 until her death in the same building as the poet, Miklos Radnoti and his wife. Once they were together in the cellar when bombs were dropped on Budapest, and the “formerly Jewish” but converted poet read his new poem about patriotism. (He was killed by Hungarian Nazi soldiers some months later.) I will borrow the diary of his widow soon.
And here what Laslo sent me after having read the diary, giving us a sense of the person behind the pottery wheel:
Fanni Gyarmati and Margit Kovacs were friends from 1935 when Margit and her mother started to live in the same building as Fanni and her husband on 1 Pozsonyi Street in Budapest. Fanni left this block of flats in June 1944 and hid, so she only got information later about Margit’s life during this time. Margit and her mother had to move into one of the yellow-star houses in July and they were there until November 1944 and then in the ghetto until January 1945.
Earlier in the diary, there are many funny mentions in connection with Margit in Fanni’s diary; she wrote that Margit was always happy before 1944 and that she gave many fun parties in her flat. When Fanni was sad, she would run up to the 5th floor and Margit always made her happy. They became best friends.
Some interesting parts of the diary with my comments in [ ] :
(9-OCT-1942) Margit doesn’t have firewood, she can’t burn [her clay pieces] in her kiln, so she doesn’t have earnings. All of her commissioned works were cancelled. Nobody thinks about building construction or decorating their buildings since the bomb attacks. [Soviet bombers attacked Budapest on 4th and 9th September 1942. American bombers attacked Hungary in October 1943.] And Margit’s [Jewish] origin makes it a problem to deliver her ceramics to Germany. She is not allowed to send anything to many places. They live in humble circumstances, but Margit is healthy and nothing can shake her grand happiness, I envy her for it. Or is this a show put on for others only? It might be the face she presents to the world. She is 38, looks younger than me, a wonder of the world with her “dewy”, nice-as-a-child and fresh facial skin and her lively jumpings-around like a small squirrel. Why doesn’t such an excellent woman find a good date for herself? Her tiny bit of a limp couldn’t be the reason why.
(21-APR-1944) One of Margit’s uncles, a 60-year-old man, was invited to Rökk Szilárd Street by Jews [by the Jewish Council?] and he was delivered to Csepel. [Csepel is a district of Budapest where there were big factories so labour camps were also there.]
(29-MAY-1944) Margit’s elder sister, Bözsi, came here and told us that partisans are occupying the outskirts of Bor [there was a cruel labour camp in a coppermine in Serbia and Fanni’s husband was also there], it is impossible to go to there. Maybe they will be brought back. She told us that her son can be inducted any moment. She is afraid. He is 19 years old, and she would be alone, because she became a widow recently.
(FEB-1945) I found the poor Margit and her mother in bad condition, but all of them survived with the grandmother. Life in the ghetto was awful, they lived with 57 people together in two rooms, and in fatal dread. There is no time to tell the details. [Unfortunately that is all. She didn’t have time to write more in the days of the liberation.]
As we can see in this diary, Jews were reminded that they were Jews even if they did not consider themselves to be. When the anti-Jewish laws were enacted in Hungary in 1938, there were those who converted to Christianity, or just changed their names to not give away their Jewish origins (as if!). Later, during the Russian occupation of Hungary, many Jews considered themselves communist and, therefore, atheists and not Jewish. If they did not want to be identified as Jews, perhaps that is why their biographies do not identify them as such. On the other hand, perhaps the government or cultural bodies do not want to identify the Jews among their famous artists for some reason. Guilt? Envy? Shame? It would be interesting to track down their descendants and see what they know about their famous artist forebears. (Laslo, are you game for this?)
Before and during the war, Kovacs depicted saints and other Christian symbolism (partly because she was commissioned for pieces by the churches and partly because she was intrigued by them). After the war, she engaged more in depicting folk art and rural life. In his book, Vadas quotes an interview she gave in the early 1960s:
I can only be among country people as a guest and a visitor. Yet, it is they that I model the most often, as I have a close affinity and draw inspiration for my work from young country girls and old country women. (page 49)
I find it interesting that she does not depict middle aged women and that she considers herself a guest among them. Is this a reflection of some unconscious experience of self: a woman who never married or had children? The Jewish woman who is forever a foreigner regardless of how long her ancestors have lived in Hungary?
How I wish that I could have met Margit Kovacs and chatted with her. One gets an idea of how warm and friendly she is, both from Fanni’s diary and from the film running in her gallery. The film shows her working on a piece and talking with the viewer. It was amazing to watch her fashion the base for a figure using the pottery wheel, and then manipulate the figure into its final form. Here are photographs I took of some pieces in her gallery, dated between 1948 and 1970. I wish you could see all of them.