My grandmother, painter

Daniel Helft

My grandmother painted on everything. She painted with watercolors on an easel; painted with temperas and oils; painted on canvases, wood and paper. She painted with brushes, charcoal, pastels, crayons, coloring pencils, and even with some small Sylvapen* felt-tip pens that were used in the classrooms of my childhood.

 

Margit made big paintings and small ones, painted in ruled or unruled notebooks. And she painted on her house’s façade too. She painted on the flowerpots in her balcony. She painted on furniture and on her friend Klári’s ceramic pieces. She painted at her atelier, painted while traveling, painted in her living-room, in her garden and in her patio.

Oddly enough, all that production found its place on the walls of the big house in San Isidro. Defying all caution, Margit hung dozens of paintings all packed together on the same wall, from the floor to the ceiling, over door and window frames, stuck to light switches. It was a chaotic arrangement. Inevitably, some paintings got crooked, thus furthering chaos. However, each of those landscapes, those travel memories and those freehand drawings became adjusted and lived together without fighting for prominence. They gave way to each other and got strengthened from such union. There was always room for one more.

 

Margit had no doubts when faced with the canvas. Her strong and gnarly hands performed. Intuition and craft took charge and produced the vertigo of artistic creation in real time. Her human shapes, her faces and landscapes came up naturally and there was always some truth in them. There was no affectation. Nor bad taste either.

After Margit’s death, her paintings were gradually finding their own way on my relatives’ home walls. All of us, without exception, enjoyed her art. On every visit to some brother, cousin or uncle, I meet her canvases, her landscapes, her portraits, her daydreams, her oneiric images, her stronger or more ochre colors.

I have lived with Margit’s paintings since her death in 1989. And, as with fine wine that you cannot help but drinking, looking at her work has never become a tiring experience to me. I always find lively, compassionate images there. I find her love for people when I see those black women who may be South African, Brazilian or Caribbean, but unescapably portrayed with affection and empathy. Ethnic dances, pagan rituals, musicians, fishermen, houses, roads, sunsets and storms –all portrayed with a free, fresh and lively stroke. I am surprised at her modernity.

I think about the ideology contained in her canvases, in that explicit universalism under which we are all equal, all different, all beautiful, all humans. And I feel that my grandmother told us that this is how we human beings should live –as her paintings do, all packed together in a chaos of pure beauty.

 

Paradoxically, she lived in a world that had always taught her otherwise. The world of the Hungary of the first half of the 20th century, marked by antisemitism and the defeat that the country suffered in the First World War, leaving it subdued and humiliated. A world subsequently marked by the Holocaust that, in Hungary, wiped out more than ninety percent of the Jewish community.

In that context, Margit’s luminous and optimistic, compassionate and human look, both intrigues and dazzles me. She is no longer here to be asked.

………………………………

In October 1944, war was lost to Germany and its Axis allies. Russian troops had taken Eastern Hungary, and it was only a matter of time until they liberated Budapest.

 

The Germans, who had already exterminated 424,000 Hungarian Jews in the Auschwitz concentration camp, left the country and placed the government in the hands of the Hungarian Nazi Arrow Cross Party, led by Ferenc Szálasi. Without any chances to revert the outcome of the war by then, Szálasi and his lieutenants directed their hate against the country’s most helpless group: the already decimated Jewish community in Budapest.

Wild brigades set out to search people who lived in miserable conditions in the so-called “yellow-star houses” or in the ghetto, dragged them away to the banks of the Danube, where they were tied together with chains, and, after shooting them in their heads, threw them into the river from bridges and embankments.

My family survived those massacres by hiding in Slovakia, in the house of a Christian family that put their own lives and their children’s at risk to save them.

 

When the Russians liberated Budapest, Szálasi and his key men were brought to trial and sentenced to death by hanging. Margit applied for being an illustrator of the trials, and was appointed to do that job. From a privileged position near the witness stand, taking a close look at Szálasi and his accomplices, she did what she knew best: sketching, drawing, taking out human essence with firm strokes. Goyesque shapes, the beauty of horror.

 

Her charcoal drawings, loaned by the Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives to the OSDE Foundation Art Center for this exhibition, gave bodies and faces to those disgraced Nazi leaders.

Margit did not need to resort to gimmicky devices. Just charcoal on a yellowish piece of paper and her magic stroke sufficed to strip those human caricatures that would be hanged some days later.

Those are historical documents –powerful and irreplaceable.

Strangely enough, Margit never talked to me about those drawings. I don’t think she ever had to any of my relatives.

 

My mother had some photographic evidence of their existence, and so we went to search for them when we started up the project of this exhibition.

 

Margit was not inclined to talk about a war and a period of her life during which she carried cyanide pills hidden inside a ring, just in case she or her family fell in Nazi hands.

When bitter memories came to her mind, Margit frowned and swept them away with a wave of her hand. Her element of expression was painting, not words, or at least not in Spanish, a language which she became acquainted with as an adult and never mastered completely.

 

Troubled by afflictions but always lively, I remember her sitting in her living room, holding a glass of whisky, smoking cigarettes with a mouthpiece, wearing a headscarf, walking along with life. She occasionally reflected on the issues of our time, but her senses were more attentive to the displays of beauty she was able to capture around –a hydrangea, the sound of an oboe– than to the analysis of our world’s dysfunctions.

 

This exhibition brings together three different creative periods of Margit’s. The pre-war period, from which very little remains, as her house and artwork succumbed under the bombing of the allied forces. However, the little that could be saved is in itself imposing. Those canvases are big, ambitious. They make me think that, at that time, Margit was still certain that she would become a major artist, recognized in her world. Those canvases are bound for emblematic walls.

The second period consists of paintings performed when she returned to Budapest in 1945, after miraculously having survived war. There Margit came back to her world of paintings and painters. In the colony of artists of Szentendre, located near Budapest, on the Danube, she worked along with the artists of her own generation. Béla Czóbel, Mária Modok, Jenő Barcsay, János Kmetty –her peers and friends, with whom she collaborated and staged exhibitions. All of them were figurative artists that, such as she did, called on Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, where they received influences from the leading exponents of French Impressionism and Cubism. During that period, not only did Margit paint but also took in her colleagues, such as French artist Jacques Doucet and Dutch artist Corneille.

A video included in the exhibition, with images of the Szentendre painters, shows that moment –which was Margit’s own– when she had not yet set off the path of uprooting.

The final period is that of her life in Argentina. During her early years on this side of the Atlantic, mainly in the 1950s, Margit used her talent for fashion design and so she earned an income for her family. She had gained experience during his youth in Paris and Berlin, where she had worked for Vogue magazine.

I just witnessed that final stage. That of an elderly woman who lived in Argentina and, after being able to rebuild her life –which absorbed a great deal of her energy–, kept dimmed expectations. She was surrounded by greens, flowers and her family, and devoted herself to trips and painting.

Except for an exhibition held in Buenos Aires together with Alfredo Garzón, an artist born in the Province of Salta, Margit did not find any artistic group of reference in Argentina. Her friends were mainly European immigrants that, just like her, had suffered the heartbreaking experience of war and emigration.

This did not stop her from recreating a body of work that included dozens of oil, tempera and charcoal paintings which are now hanging on walls at both sides of the Atlantic.

Her artwork was beautiful, familiar and reassuring. Perhaps that was what prevented us from placing Margit in a larger context; from looking at her not just as a grandmother who did nice paintings that made us feel good, but also as an artist of her time, endowed with exceptional talent.

Today, the OSDE Foundation helps us to reposition her within that context. I would like to thank María Teresa Constantin, director of the OSDE Foundation Art Center, for this exhibition. I also thank Cecilia Rabossi, curator of the exhibition, and Eugenia Viña, artist and critic. Your trained and sensitive eyes –approving but, above all, enjoying Margit’s paintings– have meant a lot to me.

Margit dreamed of becoming a recognized artist. The greatest tragedy of the 20th century stood in her way. My appreciation to Marion, my mother, for her huge work, as well as all those who contributed to rebuilding this story of talent and survival, painting and work, courage and creativity.

 

 

Daniel Helft

Buenos Aires, April 2019

** Translator’s note: A very well-known Argentinian pen brand created in 1959.

©2019 by Margit Eppinger Weisz.