When the iron curtain was lifted, western businesses were quick to invest in eastern Europe, but almost a generation later many interesting eastern European artists are still unknown to us. We discovered Pál Molnár-C by chance when we were traveling on the Danube from Budapest to Szentendre. There was a heatwave and we were trying to find somewhere cool to sit. Out of the sun on the lower deck we saw about thirty framed drawings – including the one above – topical, witty, well observed, obviously old and not what you would expect to find on a river boat. The only clue was the signature MCP, which was not much to go on.
Google soon turned up Pál Molnár-C (1894-1981), not an obscure artist as the large number of images on the web witness, but new to me. His studio in Budapest, in a middle-class, tree-lined street on the Buda side, was kept by his family as a museum and couple of days later we visited it. We were told through the entryphone that it was closed for the summer, but as we were there we were allowed in, and Molnár-C’s great granddaughter Maria kindly showed us round.
First, an explanation of his odd surname, Molnár-C. Molnár was very close to his mother, Jeanne Contat (whom he conflated with the Madonna in his paintings) and he added the C in tribute to her.
Maria told us that the drawings on the riverboat were put there on the initiative of her father, who had contacts in the company. These graphic works were originally published in the evening paper Est in the 1920s and were so popular that readers complained on days they didn’t appear.
The title on the drawing at the top of this post, Főzőcske, isn’t easy to translate. (The rough English pronunciation is “furzurchkeh”.) Kati said it’s “cooking”, like preparing a chicken for the pot. Beguiling? Leading him up the garden path? A book about the artist translates it as “Softening”. The nicely characterised portraits are of actual people, the socialite Baby Becker (below left), who had worked in silent films with Alexander Korda, and the playwright Ferenc Molnár (below right), whose play Liliom was adapted for the musical Carousel. The gossip columns avidly followed Baby Becker’s affairs, and the readers of Est must have got the reference.
Below you can see three more of his drawings of Budapest life from Est.
There is a full account of his life on the museum website. He was born in Battonya, a village in the far south east of Hungary, trained for three years at the Hungarian Royal Drawing School and then studied in Switzerland and Paris. His daily illustrations in Est started in 1924 and quickly brought him recognition.
At the same time as he was doing these little satirical drawings he was making religious paintings (above). He was awarded a scholarship to study at the Hungarian Academy in Rome, where he lived from 1928-31, still continuing his drawings for Est.
He loved Paris and Rome but he missed Hungary – a country he described as “horizontally small but vertically large.” In 1931 he married Alice Gstettner and moved to the house in Ménesi street, where he lived and worked (below) until his death in 1981. “I wake up every morning as excited as the groom who is about to meet his love,” he said. “For me, reuniting with the palette, the paintbrush, the canvas, and the constant challenge that art represents, is a feeling of reviving happy excitement every single day.”
|Pál Molnár-C in his studio|
|John the Baptist|
He was both a colourist and an accomplished graphic artist in black and white. He painted landscapes, portraits, religious and allegorical works and church murals, and designed posters, made woodcut illustrations and drew in a highly original way. His portraits and landscapes of the 1920s and 1930s are in the neo-classical current of the time. The portraits of his daughters (which you can catch a glimpse of in this video of the studio) are warmly felt and beautifully executed. Molnár-C’s subject matter and style made him unpopular with the regime after the Second World War: he was on the Communists’ banned list and struggled to make a living from private work and church commissions. (He’s an interesting contrast with another Hungarian religious artist, Margit Kovács, who cleverly adapted her work to socialist themes in the 1950s and so secured her career.) After his death, his daughter was able to buy back many of his paintings at reduced prices; now he is so popular that his work is being forged.
MOLNÁR-C PÁL STUDIO MUSEUM
Ménesi út 65, Budapest 1118, Hungary
Phone Number: +(36)302011073
Thursday: 10.00 – 18.00
Friday: 10.00 – 18.00
Saturday: 10.00 – 18.00
Adults:1500 HUF (5 EUR)
Children/student/senior: 750 HUF (2.5 EUR)
With foreign language guiding.
Good surveys of his graphic works are available from the museum: The Good Old Days in Drawings by Pál Molnár-C; and Pál Molnár-C. Graphic Artist._______________________________________________
CLICK HERE FOR NEWS OF UPCOMING EVENTS