Creation | A selection from József Jakovits’ works painted in New York

József Jakovits left the Hungarian People’s Republic and emigrated to the United States of America in June 1965. He left everything behind: his wife, children, Rottenbiller Street and the entire artist community he belonged to, as well as his sculptures, drawings and his entire oeuvre completed up until then. Not least, he left behind the stifling atmosphere of the socialist regime, in which he was unable to flourish as an artist. However, he could not leave one thing behind by any means: the Hungarian language, as he had no command of English. In his new homeland – if he considered it a home at all – he relied on the help of his Hungarian friends living there, and he found it just as hard to get by as in Hungary. At the time of his emigration he was already 56 years old. To become a genuinely American artist without significant gallery backing proved to be hopeless; still, miraculously, he found a new artistic identity in New York. This exhibition pays tribute to József Jakovits, who reinvented himself as the painter of Creation.

Jakovits struggled throughout his career as a self-taught artist. His secret origins, the turmoil of his childhood, the orphanage and attending a trade school while working did not make life along his chosen path any easier, though he was an avid reader from the age of ten, carved and modelled as a teenager and already knew as a young factory hand that sculpture was his calling. He wanted to be Ferenc Medgyessy’s student but he was turned away; he attended a private drawing school, taught from Károly Koffán and even studied anatomy for artists at the Institute of Pathology, but he never received formal schooling in art. He survived World War II at the Moravcsik Clinic as he pleaded insanity to avoid being drafted to work at an armaments factory. He was not subjected to the threat of internment as at the time it was not publicly known that he was of Jewish descent on his paternal line.[1] He expected freedom from the Red Army but it was the so-called liberating Soviet troops that arrested him. He was imprisoned and sent to a labour camp, from where he luckily managed to escape, and this intermezzo did not sway his leftist political views. He joined the Communist Party in February 1945 and was entrusted by the newly formed Workers’ Cultural Association to  renovate the damaged house, built by Emil Vidor, at 17 Ady Endre Street in Budapest’s Rosehill district for a left-wing artists’ colony.[2] The renovation of the villa under Jakovits’ direction was completed by autumn: it provided housing for Tamás and Ibolya Lossonczy, Endre Bálint, Júlia Vajda (Richter), who was Lajos Vajda’s widow, Gyula Kandó, Erzsébet Gyarmathy, Pál Faragó as well as József and Bori Nádas, the latter being Jakovits’ half-sister, and Iván Bíró. Several of them became exhibiting artists of the European School, founded in October. Jakovits met Júlia Vajda in the Vidor villa. Their relationship not only turned into love and marriage but it was then that the young sculptor had a closer connection with the legacy of Lajos Vajda, whom he revered as his intellectual/spiritual guide even after his death. The members of the Vajda circle compensated him for the schooling he had missed, not only in the fine arts but, thanks to BélaTábor and Béla Hamvas, in regard to philosophy and ideology.

Jakovits gradually shifted away from realism in his works, which became increasingly simple and abstract, earning him praise from Júlia Vajda, Endre Bálint and others – including Ernő Kállai, an art theoretician. Kállai selected works by Jakovits for the exhibitions he organised, and in May 1946 he invited him to his “First Group Exhibition of Abstract Art” too. Jakovits soon found his own voice and virtually turned out one sculpture after the next. He also experimented extensively, making composition from wire, plaster and bronze, using cubistic and reticulated nudes, abstract natural forms and nonfigurative pieces. He mainly took part in the exhibitions of the Gallery to the 4 Cardinal Directions group but he was included in some of the shows organised by the European School. The debut of his collection – in which he displayed his works with his wife, Júlia Vajda – was held in August 1948 within the framework of the European School.

However, by then, grim clouds were gathering in the sky of the Hungarian free art scene. The artists’ house in Ady Endre Street was noticed by a police general, a certain Lajos Cséby, who was a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, and the artists living there were evicted. After some wrangling the Jakovits couple and their two children, Endre Bálint and his three family members were left no choice but to move to Cséby’s former home, flat 17 on the second floor of 1 Rottenbiller Street.[3] The two families were related through the two wives: Mrs Endre Bálint (Irena Richter) and Júlia Vajda were sisters. The co-tenancy was challenging in the 120-square-metre flat despite the family ties, primarily because of the cramped living space, which was occupied not only by the artists and their works but also a great part of Lajos Vajda’s legacy. However, far worse than the deterioration in their housing conditions was the gradual elimination of the European School and generally all modern art in Hungary after the year of the change. The exhibition opportunities ended, and the artists were forced to look for other work to make a living. Among the tenants Jakovitsnak was the only one with a regular income: he was the head of the State Puppet Theatre’s puppet workshop, while Endre Bálint tried to make ends meet from illustration work. “Despite their (only starting) social exclusion, the tenants in Rottenbiller Street firmly believed that they were the representatives of the great artistic and moral truth, which can only be measured on a historical scale, wrote Gyula Kozák.[4] And their belief became a certainty and was confirmed by life: they were not left alone as the flat was frequented more and more by the best of the contemporary Hungarian artist circles – and of course not only by artists.

Curator: Zoltán  Rockenbauer 


[1] On the descent of József Jakovits, see Gyula Kozák: A szabadság kicsiny szigete. Művészsorsok a 20. században: Bálint Endre, Jakovits József, Vajda Júlia [Tiny Island of Liberty. The Destinies of Some 20th-century Artists: Endre Bálint, József Jakovits, Júlia Vajda]. Budapest, Balassi, 2015. 55–57.

[2] See Gyula Kozák: Egy művészcsalád összetételének változásai, 1956–1982. Rottenbiller utca 1. II. emelet 17. [Changes in the Composition of a Family of Artists, 1956–1982. 17. 2nd floor, 1 Rottenbiller Street] In: Évkönyv 2008 – XV. Közelítések a Kádárizmushoz [Yearbook 2008–XV. Approaches to Kádárism]. Ed. Pál Germuska and János M. Rainer. Budapest, 2008, 1956 Institute, 202–241 (207–208).

[3] See the detailed description of the case in Kozák 2008. 210–213; Kozák 2015. 81–92.

[4] Kozák 2008. 214. – Later Gyula Kozák, as the brother-in-law of József Jakovits, became the chronicler of the artists’ circle in Rottenbiller Street.



Virtual tour

Creation | A selection from József Jakovits’ works painted in New York

Teremtés | Válogatás Jakovits József New Yorkban készült képeiből
2023. October 6. - November 12.

Kunsthalle Chamber Hall

2023. October 4. - 2024. January 28.
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2023. October 20. - 2024. January 28.
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Memory of Hand and Body – Péter Gémes’ Photo-painting