Hungarian House of Photography
Earlier Exhibitions
André Kertész Hall

Krisztián Bócsi, Ildi Hermann, Dániel Kovalovszky, Gábor Arion Kudász, Ádám Magyar, Mária Pecsics, Artúr Rajcsányi, Gábor Ákos Varga


Pécsi József Scolarship Annual Exhibition  
Opening remarks by: András Bánkuti
Open to the public: 03. March - 08. April 2008.
Every weekdays: 14.00 – 19.00
Weekend: 11.00 – 19.00

Pécsi, before he became a scholarship
Bócsi Krisztián · Hermann Ildi · Kovalovszky Dániel · Kudász Gábor Arion
Magyar Ádám · Pecsics Mária · Rajcsányi Artúr · Varga Gábor Ákos


photo: Róbert Kassay

Pécsi, before he became a scholarship

If a statue is erected of someone, they put a memorial plaque on his house, name a street or perchance an art scholarship after him, I think he is in pretty bad shape. As soon as the above take place, this person loses all hope of remaining a human being in death. Someone worth talking about, whose work and thoughts in written form can be read here and there, thought about, God forbid, even criticized. No. A person with a statue who has had things named after him, has been crossed off, grateful future generations have fulfilled their obligations and who is interested after that? Give us the money and to hell with the talking. So who is interested? Well I am, for one. That’s why I thought that here in the catalogue introducing the winners of the Jozsef Pecsi Art Photography Scholarship, which encourages the best contemporary Hungarian photographers, I would write about the person it is named after, even if it is less trendy than praising fresh, snazzy talents to the skies. Because for me Pécsi is not a scholarship, a memorial plaque in Dorottya Street, not one of the names on a red marble tombstone in the Jewish cemetery in Kozma Street, not part of the curriculum at a college that has any self-respect at all, but an incredibly complex personality waiting to be discovered. A novel should be written about him, rather than a monograph, but that is a job for someone else.

If I start by saying that Pécsi was born in Budapest in 1889 and died here on October 7th, 1956, a potential reader would be justified in pushing the article aside with mild disgust. All articles start like this, all are shoved aside, that’s why in the end nothing is known about anyone, but hardly anyone notices this today. Should I perhaps start like this: He was not born in 1889 in Budapest and he did not die here in October 1956. He did not, as perhaps one of the most famous Hungarian art photographers, write a letter in his old age to a single ex-student of his in America, asking them to send a second-hand winter coat with a fur collar so he shouldn’t feel so cold. And he did not write this letter in one of the most tastefully furnished Renaissance salons on Tolbuchin Boulevard in Budapest. It was not he who was asked, despite being proclaimed an object of public hatred and despised as a self- employed person under communism, to come to the party headquarters to take a portrait of Rákosi, aged 60. It was not he who was saved in 1944-45 by the police chief of Nagyvárad, who happened to be his wife’s older brother, after rejecting the Portuguese passport that would have saved him from the Arrow Cross, saying that as a Hungarian, he belonged here. It is a pity that the fascist soldiers marching in the streets at the time did not know this at the time. I think members of the photography or art photography professions should stand to attention when they mention his name. But for that they would of course need to know who he was. I will try again for the umpteenth time to explain. Thus answering the question, who was Pécsi József and what did he do for the several years before he became a scholarship.

Pécsi’s oeuvre started with the painterly (‘pictorialist’) style at the Academy of Photography in Munich. Characteristic of these pictures, made for the most part with a photo-secession process, was classical composition, the use of Secessionist detail, a romantic, lyrical approach, a certain striving for stylization, the perfect use of light and shade. The golden age of his oeuvre started in the twenties. Not only did he photograph the young, avant-garde fine artists just starting out, but his art was similar to theirs. In many respects he surpassed the painterly style and besides the remnants of it, all the features of expressionism, the Bauhaus spirit, the new objectivity and constructivism can be seen in the works he made at that time. His willingness to experiment, his erudition in classical music, art history and literature did not allow him to tie himself down to one style for longer periods. Thus in the course of constant changes, increasingly József Pécsi’s individual, typical style, developed. To those who can and want to remember the values that created Hungarian photography, I say that he made memorable work in several photographic genres.

Typical of his nudes were clear composition, the frequent use of the silhouette effect, the dynamism of classically positioned movements and the striving for a decorativeness left over from his painterliness. Typical of every picture of his is the well- calculated balance between light and shade. He made studio and outdoor nudes. It is no accident that the publication of the first Hungarian portfolio of nudes is connected with his name. While he made excellent pictures in the spirit of modern style photography, he continued his masterly use of all the ‘pictorialist’ methods. He wrote an article about the technique of oil-printing (1928), photo-secession processes (1940). In 1952, under the name Pejo, he took out a patent for a combined duplex pigment process. He wrote: ‘Prints made with the Pejo duplex pigment printing method use a modern, patented, positive method which resolves tone, with duplex colour effect, which is based on the carbro method.’ In 1937 all six of his photographs shown at the Modern Hungarian Photographers Exhibition were made using this method. If he was expected to perform a task for which he did not have a suitable camera, he was capable of creating or adapting one.

He was hardly out of the Academy of Photography, when he won one of the most respected awards, the Dührkoop medal. He was just twenty years old. He was off to a good start. From then on more and more esteemed acknowledgements and prizes arrived regularly at his address. In 1911 he won gold medals from both Rome and Moscow. A year later he was handed a diploma in recognition of his work at the awards ceremony of the Vth Paris Congress of the International Professional Photographers Association. The following year he was elected an honorary member of the Salon of Photography in London. Things went on in this vein. He was given honours by countless cities for his pictures: Göteborg 1929, Vienna 1929 and 1934, Amsterdam 1932, Milan, organiser of the World Exhibition of Applied Arts, in 1934.

He opened his first studio in Budapest in 1911. “József Pécsi works in photography as a professional and is one of the few who regards his career not only as a way of earning a living, but puts himself at the service of higher aims and ideals. Each of his works is the successful and artistic solution of a difficult problem. He is not extravagant. He does not search out extremes and does not wish to excel with eccentricities, but with the originality of his compositions, the brilliance of his technique and his refined taste. He finished his artistic studies hardly a year ago and he is already a teacher himself.” Anyone who doesn’t believe me can read this in A Fény (The Light), 1911, issue 10, page 245. In 1916 he moved into the legendary studio flat under Dorottya Street 8, which had been designed by the most famous interior designer of the period, Lajos Kozma (1884-1948).

From the twenties he turned to still lifes and the advertising photography building on this tradition. Naturally he was the first in Hungary to immediately create traditions which defined the development of Hungarian advertising photography for decades. The striving for an artistic quality can be seen in his advertising pictures, the superior use of his perfect technical and professional knowledge and besides this the practical presentation of the advertised object to best advantage. Characteristic of his advertising pictures are tilted planes, modern positioning in space, frames, modern typography and the use of black, white and red. The pictures were better known abroad than at home. One of his best customers was the Czech Bata shoe factory, but Osram and Ovomaltine, Kodak, Dunlop, Contax, various shipping companies also used his work. Simultaneously with his first pictures, his theoretical writings were published on the relationship between photography and advertising. Photography in the service of the advertisement, The Photographic advertisement, New principles and directions for advertising photography, Photograph and Advertisement. His book of adverts Photo und Publizität appeared in 1930, the first book on this subject. Subsequent reprints of it are still sold all over the world. His wife, a student of Bortnyik, Győző Vásárhelyi or Victor Vasarely, as well as György Kepes, helped Pécsi with the design of the book. The aforementioned also turn up as models in advertising pictures. Kepes can be seen in the advert for colour pencils (picture III) and in the Gillette advert (picture IV); Vasarely in a beautifully tailored suit is the main character in the Remo men’s clothing advert (picture XXIV); Rozika on the perfume ad on page IX, in the Mimosa commercial XXI and on the following page, on one of the photos advertising Meinl coffee; Pécsi’s self-portrait appears on table XVI on the Remington typewriter ad. These advertising pictures appear not only in books and journals but also at exhibitions. At the Hungarian Book and Advertising Artists Association exhibition, (Applied Arts Museum, April 12-17, 1930). Besides students of the Bortnyik, Kaesz, Róbert Berény and Álmos Jaschik private schools, students of the Pécsi studio also showed their work. I would note here that the exhibition was of pioneering significance in the history of advertising art.

Apart from his creative work, he very soon started to concern himself with passing on his knowledge. Commissioned by the city of Budapest, he established a school of photography at the Budapest School of Industrial Drawing in 1913. He thus managed to solve a problem that had been outstanding for a long time: professional photographers at last had an opportunity for structured training. He was never rewarded for creating the first school of photography as he deserved, moreover in 1920 he was dismissed from his professorship for his left-wing views and was only rehabilitated in 1946. He did not, of course, stop teaching. There were always many students at his studio, among them the sons of aristocrats and upper middle class families and relatives of colleagues abroad, who paid the not insignificant fee. Of the photographers who later became well-known, the following were his students for shorter or longer periods: Márta Aczél, Éva Barta, Ilonka Berndorfer, Éva Besnyő, Éva Bíró, Margit Bohacsek, Zsófia Brenner, László Bruck, Anna Budai, Böske Forbát, René Füredi, Edith Gerő, Klára Heidelberg, Margit Kelen, Juci Laub, Éva Mikes, Zsuzsa Pintér, Miklós Redner, Maca Stark, Éva Szabó, Ibolya Székely, Lilian Triangi, Miklós, son of Ernő Vajda, Olga Walter, perhaps also Kati Deutsch, who is known as Kati Horna... We assume, though it has never been confirmed, that Gitta Carell, called Gitta Klein at the time, also studied at the Pécsi studio. Endre Friedmann, later Robert Capa, just past his teenage years, regularly dropped in at the studio.

He travelled to many places and collected 18th century French furniture, paintings, textiles, porcelain and objets d’art with real expertise. He became an acknowledged expert on these works of art abroad. Even forty years after his death, it was a delight to step into the drawing room where fragments of his remaining collection are preserved. His widow, Rozika Pécsi, told me that in 1955, a Russian professor called Bikov (?) wishing to enrol as a student, was taken up to the flat on Tolbuchin Boulevard which had been purchased to replace the bombed out studio in Dorottya Street and where two rooms were used as a studio. This meant at the time that ‘about 10 detectives stood around, all the entrances were blocked and two detectives stood in the studio. And since Bikov (?) had graduated from university in Berlin, they spoke German to each other and he told the detectives to please go out as they could not work like this. My husband could not send them out, but he could. Then he looked at everything here, he enjoyed the works of art very much, we still had the big flat. And later he called my husband from the airport and told him that he had had two delightful experiences in Budapest, the Fine Arts Museum and the Pécsi collection. This was a year before Pécsi’s death.’

He took portraits of famous people and artists. The following stood or sat for his lens: Béla Bartók, Lajos Kassák, Dezső Kosztolányi, József Egry, Pablo Casals, Anna Pavlova, Nizsinszkij, the Lehner quartet with all their instruments, Richter Szvjatoszlav, János Starker, Margit Anna, Imre Ámos, Lajos Gulácsy, Béni Ferenczy, Miklós Borsos, Aurél Bernáth, Ödön Márffy, Tibor Vilt, Ödön Palasovszky, László Passuth, Gyula Háy, Elek Koronghi-Lippich, Lajos Fülep... but it was also he who was summoned to photograph Rákosi aged 60 at the party headquarters. Rozika told me a few years ago: ‘I mention Mihályfi because he was the only one in the whole Rákosi era, who thought of my husband. He photographed Rákosi too. This is how it came about. One day two detectives came here and took him to party headquarters at midday and he only came home in the evening. When he came home, he said that he had to take pictures the next day at Rákosi’s 60th birthday. He was searched from head to toe, he was questioned about everything in the world beginning with his birth. The next day he had one assistant to help him take the cases, the lights and everything to Akadémia Street, I don’t know where that party place was, where he had to photograph Rákosi, but no one searched him there anymore, he could have taken a bomb. (…) When my husband came home, he said Rákosi was very kind, he had been photographed by someone else previously, he put a copy of Pravda in front of him and Rákosi said that he used to read Pravda in Moscow. And when my husband came home, he said that he should be hung all the same. He also said that he looked like a ‘travelling salesman for braces’, he had no neck, it was almost impossible to photograph him.’ Attila József used to go up to his studio, they often played chess and apart from those already mentioned, he also photographed József Egry, Lipót Fejér (who was his nephew). With Kosztolányi he visited a women’s mental institution near Venice, so that he could take pictures there, but the deranged women on seeing Kosztolányi, who was notoriously handsome, went into a frenzy, so they had to stop. He was on good terms with Lajos Gulácsy, the painter. When the latter was in a mental institution, Csike, Pécsi’s nickname to his close friends, visited him every week. Pál Pátzay made a beautiful sculpture of Pécsi and he in turn photographed the sculptor. Pátzay introduced him to Tibor Vilt. They knew and were friendly with Csinszka and her second husband Ödön Márffy, the painter. His portraits of scientists are in the photograph collection of the Academy of Sciences. ‘Here at Tolbuchin Boulevard, he photographed all the medical professors. They came up and first he talked to them, then he took their picture. He looked at their faces as they talked and Professor Nyíri said: “it really bothers me when you look at me.” He said: “Listen, Professor, I prefer to look at you than have you look at me.” He had a tremendous sense of humour,’ said his wife and I believe her.

He died aged 67, after a long illness. As I have already mentioned, his name is preserved on a memorial plaque at his onetime studio house under Dorottya Street 8. Fortunately his books are reprinted one after the other, exhibitions of his work are held, his place in Hungarian photography is apparently secure. Besides this scholarship, one of the prizes for advertising photography has been named after him. But my guilty conscience will not let me rest. Perhaps this is why I have written these things about him for the umpteenth time.

By way of summary we can say that poor Pécsi, who has a statue, a memorial plaque, a library named after him and in addition even this scholarship and about whom we still only know slightly more than nothing at all, was a photographer, a master of the profession with a golden touch. An art photographer, if you will. Besides this, he was a writer and teacher of the profession, newspaper editor, art collector, musician, chess player, a witty and cultured man about town. Naturally he was the best at each of these. In addition, all his activities were somehow, in some form or other, connected with the others. What he discovered in theory, he carried out in practice; what he carried out soon led to an article, an essay, a book; what he wrote became part of his activities in education, while whenever a picture of his turns up at auction, the photography trade counts it as a red letter day. The rest is only remembered by the oldest of us or the keenest observers. Without his personality and his oeuvre, the history of Hungarian art photography would be much reduced. Everything he touched turned to gold in his hands. His ‘pictorialist’ portraits, his landscapes, his advertising and fashion pictures that had absorbed the results of the new objectivity, his still lifes, avant-garde nudes, his modern portraits are valid works of art to this day; they have proved to be of lasting value and in many cases have created ‘schools’ of photography. We can say that his interesting face inspired many painters and sculptors. He is one of those who stayed at home, but despite this he is slowly becoming one of the few Hungarian photographers known and acknowledged in the world. Those who have won or will win the scholarship named after him, should know at least this much about him, beyond the fact that his name is on the cheque sent to their bank account.

Károly Kincses








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