Top: Billiard players; Bathing girl; Cyrano de Bergerac. Bottom: St. Francis Preaching to the Birds; The Flight into Egypt; The Conductor
Erika Papp Faber
Molnár Pál was born in Battonya in 1894, the first of seven children. His father was an estate manager who married the governess (named Jeanne Contant) brought from Switzerland by the estate owner.
The landowner supported Pál’s studies in Arad, where his artistic talent was discovered. When a newspaper advertised a national competition to illustrate a short story, the winner was the eleventh grader Molnár Pál. This started him on his artistic path.
He went to study at the Budapest School of Design (then called Mintarajziskola és Rajztanárképző főiskola), the Director of which was Szinyei Merse Pál, master of Hungarian Impressionism. Szinyei asked him to tutor his grandchildren during vacation time. Molnár also began to work then for the ”Est” newspaper conglomerate, a group of three daily newspapers with a combined circulation of 400,000. (Their influence in the 1920s has been compared to the power of TV today.) For them, and for the newspaper ”Pesti napló”, he created India ink drawings daily, depicting scenes of bourgeois city life, which made Molnár Pál famous.
As a tutor to the Szinyei family, he traveled with them to Switzerland, where he visited his mother’s relatives and had the first three exhibitions of his landscapes in Geneva and Lausanne, in 1920. While there, he began using stronger colors in his plein air pictures. He also fell under the influence of perhaps the best-known Swiss painter of the time, an influence which he wanted to shake off. So he withdrew into the mountains for half a year, living like a hermit. It is surmised that he may have had a profound spiritual experience there, since his painting of religious art began after that period.
A wealthy Swiss woman then offered to finance a year’s stay in Paris – the dream of every painter! – if he would copy a section of a well-known Tizian Madonna for her. He did. Being half French, he felt very much at home in Paris. There he continued to teach himself by copying paintings in the Louvre. He became acquainted with various painting styles, and experimented with cubism, dadaism and surrealism, while still retaining representational elements. The abstract held no attraction for him.
Although he fell in love with an American ”Miss Barbara” (whose portrait he also painted), homesickness proved stronger than love and he returned to Hungary. On his return, he began to exhibit in the Belvedere Salon, and started to add the ”C” from his mother’s surname to his own.
In 1925, the Képzőművészek Új Társasága (The New Society of Fine Arts), better known by its initials as KÚT, accepted him as a member, which gave him new impetus.
His painting ”St. Francis Preaching to the Birds” earned him a three-year scholarship to Rome in 1928. There, at the newly created Collegium Hungaricum (Hungarian Academy), he rubbed shoulders with established painters Aba-Novák and Szőnyi. Classical and Renaissance art influenced them all, together with modern ways of looking at things. In Rome, Molnár-C. used a box that he could hang around his neck, which he could transform into an easel, and used prepared wooden panels to sketch what he saw – for example, freshly unearthed Roman ruins.
At this time he began to paint in the surrealistic style, for as he said, ”Actually, every form of art is more or less surrealistic. The reality of everyday life is different from artistic surreal reality.”
Returning home, he received commissions from around the country – from Kőszeg to Battonya to Szombathely – for large scale religious art, including altar triptychs and frescoes. (Among these is the ceiling fresco of Szent Anna church on Batthyány tér and the triptych of Belvárosi főplébánia church in Budapest.) He became a pioneer in modern ecclesiatical art. His painting of the Annunciation won for him the Zichy Mihály Prize, considered at the time to be the highest form of artistic recognition.
He began to illustrate literary works by famous contemporary authors, such as Kosztolányi Dezső, Molnár Ferenc, Szabó Lőrinc. (One illustration from Kosztolányi’s Alakok was ”Kalauz” – Conductor – which may be seen in the collage). He created woodcuts, again for book illustrations. In 1930, he won an international competition with his Fioretti woodcut illustrations. Those for Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac won him several awards at the 1937 World Exhibit in Paris, including the Grand Prix and a gold medal. It became that year’s ”Most Beautiful Book”.
The exhibits he had and the awards and prizes Molnár-C. won are too numerous to list. Suffice it to mention the grand prize he received from the Szinyei Society in 1931; the gold medals he won at the Warsaw International Woodcut Biennale (1934) and at the International Ecclesiatical Art Exhibit at Padua; and the gold medal awarded him by Budapest Székesfőváros in 1936.
At one point, the American Bibliophile Society called upon one artist from different countries to illustrate a work of Shakespeare. Molnár-C. Pál was chosen from Hungary, and he illustrated Coriolanus.
While the majority of his paintings have biblical themes, he also painted female beauty in numerous nudes, considering woman to be the depository of the secret of life. When asked how a church painter could paint so many nudes, he replied that when an artist paints, he glorifies the Creator for the beauty of form.
His landscapes are mostly improvisations, although there are some Italian scenes as well as historic themes among his works.
Hope, harmony, peace and interior cheerfulness characterize the art of Molnár-C. Pál. Only illness in his later years produced a dark period, when he painted Az atomháború árnyékában élünk (We live in the shadow of an atomic war), showing New York with its vibrant life, and its companion piece which seems almost prophetic of 9/11, showing destroyed skyscrapers with the Statue of Liberty lying on the ruins of the city. But even there he added a ray of light, a glimmer of hope.
Molnár-C. Pál was a playful person who tried every novelty, and changed styles and themes, which kept him forever young, and is the reason his life’s work is so varied. He painted easily and much.
He designed the first Hungarian tourist poster, one of Lake Balaton. The poster for the Eucharistic Congress held in Budapest in 1938 was also his work. But perhaps his most famous poster was the one advertising Modiano cigarette paper, at a time when many people still rolled their own cigarettes.
After 1945, the new political direction shut him out of the art scene because he was ”a church painter”. Nevertheless he continued to work hard. Later, when the political atmosphere eased somewhat, he was granted an award by the government (Munka Érdemrend arany fokozata) in 1974.
He shared his technical knowledge in specialized textbooks, and wrote his autobiography, but that was published only posthumously in 1994. He died on July 11th, 1981, at age 87, having stopped painting only a few weeks previously.
His daughter established the family-owned private museum in 1984 in Molnár-C.’s studio, later adding an adjoining apartment. The museum is small (40 square meters) and intimate, with original furniture, family photos and mementos enhancing the paintings and graphic art. A member of the family – these days, Molnár’s grandson and/or the grandson’s wife – provide the narrative.
Some 20 years ago, the M.-C.P. Circle of Friends (Baráti Kör), a legally registered art society (the first in the country having a professional goal), was established. It handled the publication of the autobiography, and continues to meet monthly at the Museum.
Periodically, the work of other artists is shown, and lectures are given in the Museum. A lecture series entitled Múzeumegyetem (Museum University) was initiated, with popular scientists holding forth, and a young artist offers training in an art workshop.
The Museum remains a private, family undertaking. The works of Molnár-C. Pál are still being researched by his daughter, since her father was lavish in selling and giving away his works.
During his long career, Molnár-C.’s works were exhibited not only in Hungary but also abroad – in Berlin, Stuttgart, München, Vienna and Graz. Today, his paintings may be found in museums, including of course the Hungarian National Gallery, as well as the New York Museum of Modern Art, and in Rome, Venice, Nürnberg and München. In 1994, over 100,000 visitors admired his works at an exhibit in Tihany.
Molnár-C. Pál summed up his career this way: ”I am a happy man, because all my life I could do what I love the most – I played my whole life long.”
Erika Papp Faber is Editor of Magyar News Online.