During my country’s history as an independent nation – and especially during the first half of the 20th century –, thousands of multifaceted and hard-working people emigrated to the long and narrow land, washed by the waters of the Pacific Ocean, that we call Chile. Among them, a small but talented group of Hungarian artists, bound to become extremely influential members of our national artistic scene and society.
They included dancers, architects, sculptors, but especially painters, who landed in South America at different times escaping from war or authoritarian regimes. They were searching for a second chance in life in a faraway land that welcomed them and where they finally left a long-lasting legacy as well as descendants that now form an integral part of Chilean society.
At the end of the 19th Century and beginning of the 20th, Hungary, and specifically Budapest, was already a dynamic and vivacious meeting point for artists and artisans motivated by an environment that favored their restless and creatives minds and souls. Such was the case of Ernest Wünsch, Pál Vidor, László Cseney, Rudolf Pintye, József Menich, Lajos Jánosa and the siblings Laura and Iván von Liftner. Most of them, former students of Budapest’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts.
Blending in perfectly
All of them left and invaluable heritage in Chile, were awarded numerous prizes and recognitions and were vital in the education of generations of Chilean artists who followed their footsteps. As soon as they arrived in Chile, they blended perfectly with the local artistic community, connecting with the postimpressionist collective called the Group of Montparnasse as well as Generation of 1913, a cluster of painters educated under the guidance of the Spanish Master Fernando Álvarez de Sotomayor.
The strong and lively colors of their work, done with spatulated and stern strokes, immortalizes scenes from the Chilean countryside, as well as the indigenous and creole culture – a style that merged perfectly with the emerging rupturist movement as opposed to the classic academicism of the early 20th Century.
Due to the constraints in the length of this article, I will only refer to the first three of the abovementioned painters, starting with Master Pál (Pablo) Vidor (1892-1991). Born in Budapest in 1892, he studied in the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts and served during the First World War, where he was wounded on the battlefront. Having studied under the guidance of Master Ede Balló, Vidor was already a stablished artist before migrating to Chile in 1924.
Owner of a modern style of painting, he blended perfectly well in the local scene and only four years after his arrival (1928), he was hired as a Professor at the Fine Arts Academy of Santiago. Two years later, he was named Director of National Museum of Fine Arts, a post he would occupy until 1933. Winner of several prizes, Vidor left a heritage of around 130 oil and watercolor painting as well as lithographies depicting landscapes, dead nature and portraits.
Another of the most renowned Hungarian artists that migrated to Chile, this time a sculptor, was Ernst (Ernesto) Wünsch (1885-1969). Also born in Budapest, he was the son of a German engineer called Robert Wünsch, who worked in the construction of the city’s subway line, the first in continental Europe. He arrived in Chile in 1920 and although little is known about his academic background, some biographers have stated that he had even studied under the guidance of Auguste Rodin in Paris.
Just like Vidor, he became well known within the artistic community soon after his arrival. As a result, he caught the eye of the Chilean aristocracy which would order from him several sculptures, mainly to be placed in family mausoleums. But unlike that of other artists whose work can only be appreciated in museums or private collections, the legacy of Wünsch lives in the streets of Santiago decorating the façade of famous buildings such as the Bank of Chile, the South American Insurance Company and, most famously, the huge Christ that decorates the Catholic University in the capital’s main avenue, the Alameda.
Finally, I should mention László Cseney (1905-1983) who later became known in Chile as Ladislao Cheney. Born in the town of Salgótarján from a family of Croatian origin, he was educated in the Academy of Fine Arts of Budapest and continuing his training as a painter within the famous artistic community of Nagybánya.
He arrived in Chile in 1930, with his wife, Rosa Cheh Kontha, and they settled in the city of Valparaiso where they wwould reside for the rest of their lives. He was welcomed by the small but well-established community of Hungarian artists including Pál Vidor and another alumnus of the Fine Arts Academy of Budapest, Rudolf Pintye.
Besides his notorious artistic skills, the work of Cseney is remembered as a graphic testimony of the essence of Chilean life during the 20th Century. The farmers in the countryside, the indigenous Mapuche people, fishermen of the vast Pacific coastline as well as portraits of several notorious characters of society, were often the themes of his paintings.
Hungarian art from Budapest to Chile
While walking the streets of the beautiful Hungarian capital, traversed by the winding and blue Danube, I come across numerous galleries, art dealers, antic shops and auction houses. They offer everything from pieces of attractive prices until those that can reach record prices in the international art market. It is a testimony of the impressive array of artistic capacity, sensitivity and skill of the Hungarian people. A talent so strong that it even left its mark on the other side of the world, a long narrow land called Chile.
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