The Art Nouveau in Szabadka

The building of the City Museum of Szabadka/Subotica, hosting the exhibition of the Art Nouveu in Szabadka is itself one of the finest examples of Art Nouveau architecture in Szabadka, the work of the Budapest architects József and László Vágó from 1906, the great decade of the city’s Art Nouveau architecture. Its commissioner, Miksa Dömötör (1868-1944), the chief physician of the city’s Insurace Company, built it as a block of flats for rent, but he equipped the five-room luxury apartment to the left from the main entrance for himself and his family. This is the flat which is now filled – until next April – by the exhibition recalling the Art Nouveau in Szabadka with the objects of a former civic world, the objects which once filled these homes. This is the very context which gives a real significance to the exhibition. We can often encounter one or another of these objects that belonged to the everyday life of the turn of the century, but only so, put in their places in a home can they really revive the world for which they were made, and document the glorious marching in of the new style into a provincial Hungarian town.

“In the first primary class I only collected sacred images. I often looked at them, caressed them, rearranged them. After that I always collected something… Not only sacred images, but also reckoner papers. I got them mainly from Antal and Pista. We were sitting in the attic with Kató, arranging and watching our treasures…”
Sarolta Damjanovné Zimmer: Így éltünk Szabadkán (So we lived in Szabadka), Budapest-Zagreb, 2003, 19.
Quoted by Olga K. Ninkov, Director of the City Museum in her detailed
presentation of the exhibition: Bácsország, 62 (2012/3), 5-10.

Beside the works of arts and crafts and the everyday objects incorporated into art by the new style, the high art, the paintings decorating the salons are mainly represented by the works of Henrik Aczél (1876-1946), born in Nagyvárad/Oradea, whose portraits had been already praised by the great poet Endre Ady in the Nagyváradi Napló in 1902. He settled three years later in Szabadka, where, in addition to portraiture, he was also heavily involved in cultural life, giving lectures and art classes, restoring the paintings of the Town Hall’s gallery, and in 1910 founding the local Female Industrial and Applied Arts High School. He designed the cover of the popular family journal Bácsország – today, published again, the excellent journal of the Homeland Study Society of Vojvodina. His graceful, mysterious and inspired impressionist paintings were very sought for in the period, and won numerous international awards. Due to our predilection for Persian culture, we especially mention among them, as a curiosity, the Lion and Sun Order of the Shah of Persia.

A design from the sketchbook of the great local novelist Géza Csáth, 11 September 1907

Szabadka as an international rail hub and as the third largest city in contemporary Hungary, boasted a widespread postcard publishing, whose history was summed up in this year by the local collector József Horváth in his richly illustrated Szabadkai és palicsi képes levelezőlapok története (History of the postcards of Szabadka and Palics). The exhibition presents only a few of them on a postcards wall, but it selects with a good sense those which are the most rare, represent a special event, or are interesting because of the message of the sender.

The “Japanese fever” of the turn of the century, as we have already written, reached its climax around 1905, during the Russo-Japanese war, and it immediately appeared also in Subotica, which kept pace with the fashion. “The Japanese fashion has also invaded our carnival, and General Kuroki’s spirit has also conquered here – but without any destruction” – wrote the Bácsország on 12 March 1905, following the “Japanese night” organized in the National Casino. The journal also presented the photo of the daughter of the city’s chief architect Titus Mačković, dressed in kimono, which is also shown enlarged in the exposition. They started to collect Japanese engravings and carved souvenirs – the exhibition presents a number of okimonos made of ivory from the contemporary Szabadka collections –, and the Lifka Bioscope, the city’s famous movie projecting short films, put Japanese movies on his program.

“Teophil was about eight years old. On the fast-paced, flashing images he saw one of the scenes of the Russo-Japanese War. The chunchuzs attack the train – and the audience, which, together with all Lemberg, backed the Japanese, after the first presentation shouted: Banzai! It lasted only a quarter of an hour, and costed twenty cents; he kept dreaming about it in the night, but it was not repeated for a long time.”
Jan Parandowski: Decaying heavens

And the Lifka Bioscope – to which the museum has recently dedicated a separate presentation – is also enlivened here. A small room of the house has been equipped at the model of the original movie, and on the canvas – as if Henrik Aczél’s Dance of fairies came to life from the next room – continuously runs the short film of 1896 by the Lumière Brothers, also presented in Szabadka in 1905, Loïe Fuller’ Serpentine dance.

As the exhibition’s apropos was the solemn inauguration of the Art Nouveau Town Hall exactly a year ago, on 15 September 1912 – about which we will write more –, thus through the walls of th rooms, as if through windows, we can glance at the masterpieces of the great decade of the Art Nouveau in Szabadka: the town hall, the most beautiful Hungarian synagogue, the City Coffee House which worked on the ground floor of the town hall, at the site of the current “Art Nouveau McDonald’s”, from which some original furnishing has been also preserved and presented now.

As we arrive at the museum, rain starts to fall soon. While we are visiting the exhibition, it’s incessantly pouring out. An hour later we want to go on, but there is no way. The water has flooded the streets, the cars wade in it up to the door, it already covered the baseboard of the synagogue on the other side of the street, is pouring into the courtyards laying one step below the street level, flowing into the staircase of the museum undre the gate. Just like that other unexpected downpour, almost a hundred years ago, washed away the whole Art Nouveau and Szabadka. We have to flee through the courtyard and a back entrance, before it would be also closed off by water. Szabadka would not be Szabadka, were it not waiting for us with such unexpected surprises.