By Professor Francesco Carelli, Univerity of Milan
Hugó Scheiber ( Budapest 1873 – Budapest 1950 ), at fifteen old, in Budapest, he began working during the day to help support the family and attending painting classes at the School of Design in the evening, where Henrik Papp was one of his teachers.
He completed his studies in 1900. His work was at first in a post-Impressionistic style but from 1910 onward showed his increasing interest in German Expressionism and Futurism. This made it of little interest to the conservative Hungarian art establishment.
However, in 1915, he met the great Italian avant-gardist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and the two painters became close friends. Marinetti invited him to join the Futurist Movement. The uniquely modernist style that he developed was, however, closer to German Expressionism than to Futurism and eventually drifted toward an international art deco manner similar to Erté‘s. In 1919, he and his friend Béla Kádar held an exhibition at the Hevesy Salon in Vienna. It was a great success and at last caused the Budapest Art Museum to acquire some of Scheiber’s drawings. Encouraged, Scheiber came back to live in Vienna in 1920.
A turning point in Scheiber’s career came a year later, when Herwarth Walden, founder of Germany’s leading avant-garde periodical, Der Sturm, and of the Sturm Gallery in Berlin, became interested in Scheiber’s work. Scheiber moved to Berlin in 1922, and his paintings soon appeared regularly in Walden’s magazine and elsewhere. Exhibitions of his works followed in London, Rome, La Paz, and New York.
Scheiber’s move to Germany coincided with a significant exodus of Hungarian artists to Berlin, including László Moholy-Nagy and Sándor Bortnyik. There had been a major split in ideology among the Hungarian avant-garde. The Constructivist and leader of the Hungarian avantgarde, Lajos Kassák (painted by Hugó Scheiber in 1930) believed that art should relate to all the needs of contemporary humankind. Thus, he refused to compromise the purity of his style to reflect the demands of either the ruling class or socialists and communists. The other camp believed that an artist should be a figurehead for social and political change.
The fall out and factions that resulted from this politicisation resulted in most of the Hungarian avantgardists leaving Vienna for Berlin. Hungarian émigrés made up one of the largest minority groups in the German capital and the influx of their painters had a significant effect on Hungarian and international art. Apart from the political activists, there were independent Modernists such as Scheiber and Kádár, who hoped to find fertile ground for their aesthetic and social idealism. Hugó Scheiber, among others, suddenly found himself in the upper echelons of the dynamic Berlin art world. Another turning point of Scheiber’s career came in 1926, with the New York exhibition of the Société Anonyme. Scheiber and other important avantgarde artists from more than twenty-three countries were represented. In 1933, Scheiber was invited by Marinetti to participate in the great meeting of the Futurists held in Rome in late April 1933, Mostra Nazionale d’Arte Futurista where he was received with great enthusiasm. Gradually, the Hungarian artists began to return home, particularly with the rise of Nazism in Germany. Kádar went back from Berlin in about 1932 and Scheiber followed in 1934.
He was then at the peak of his powers and had a special flair in depicting café and cabaret life in vivid colors, sturdily abstracted forms and spontaneous brush strokes. Scheiber depicted cosmopolitan modern life using stylized shapes and expressive colors. His preferred subjects were cabaret and street scenes, jazz musicians, flappers, and a series of self-portraits (usually with a cigar). A highly prolific workman, he produced well over 1500 works, his principal media being gouache and oil. He was a member of the prestigious New Society of Artists (KUT—Képzőművészek Új Társasága) and seems to have weathered Hungary’s post–World War II transition to state-communism without difficulty. He continued to be well regarded, eventually even receiving the posthumous honor of having one of his images used for a Soviet postage stamp.