My Life

Jenö Szervánszky wrote the following autobiographical note in 1982.
A translation follows.

I was born in 1906 in Cegléd where my father was a high-school teacher. Before I studied fine art, I obtained a diploma in interior design from the College of Applied Arts. Then at the College of Fine Arts my teacher was Oszkár Glatz. In my last year I became his assistant. From that time I had several exhibitions in Budapest and other towns throughout Hungary. In addition, mainly for financial reasons, I had to draw advertising graphics and I was a reporting artist for a Budapest newspaper for two years.* I also illustrated books of poems and other literature.

From 1951 I was a teacher at the College of Applied Arts and from that time I worked on some large-scale canvases including "Gardens in Vaci Street", "Harvest Festival", "Illegal Printers" and "Ship Building".** I had solo exhibitions in both Budapest and other towns. My pictures are mostly found in private collections in Hungary and abroad. As far as I am concerned, the visual enjoyment in painting is the prime factor. This applies even to my most abstract experiments. I try to bring these impressions into a structurally balanced and solid picture.
Jenö Szervánszky
Budapest, 1982, Summer

* at this time newspapers were illustrated by drawings rather than photographs.
** the whereabouts of all these pictures is at present unknown.

"A Happy Man"

A Birthday Conversation with the artist, Jenö Szervánszky

This article, written by Félix Lajos Fenyvesi, appeared in the magazine "Kultúra" on the 12th October, 2001
A translation follows.

12th October, 2001
The oldest Hungarian artist and the freshest thinking; an untiring worker who still stands in front of his easel in order, at last, to produce the perfect painting. “Autumn Forest,” I read on one of his paintings. And indeed, like the branch of an old tree supporting a nest, he is a custodian of beauty - of the morning sun, of birds, of riverbanks, of flowers and plants.

On an October morning, this is a conversation with the 95 year-old artist Jenö Szervánszky about his musical brothers and sisters, about the passing years, about joy and about regrets.

- What do you have to thank for keeping you so young?
- Perhaps because I have never counted the years: “Oh, I'm fifty, eighty, ninety…”, but I just did my job, even during the most difficult times I have always had my goals to keep me fresh, and that has always kept me in condition. The most important thing is that I paint everyday - serious, concentrated work… If I don't work, I feel that I'm not living! In the early morning I fiddle about down here, then I escape to the studio. Then, sitting in front of my pictures, I calm down and I can reflect in deep stillness.
- Your brothers and sisters, however, lived for music.
- There was only one or two years between each of the seven children and so we were really close. At that time we lived in Gömör where my father had bought a big estate; the house with shingle wooden tiles was on the top of a hill and I remember we formed a string quartet in which I was the cellist. The Trianon treaty (which shrank Hungary's territory by two-thirds) changed everything. Our home became part of Czechoslovakia and so we moved to Budapest and continued to study at the Balassa Music School.
Gradually we got back to making music at home - mostly guided by my younger brother Endre. He went on to become a composer, was awarded the Kossuth Prize (Hungary's highest cultural award) twice, was a friend of the poet Attila József, and wrote the music to “Dark Heaven” by the writer János Pilinszky. My other siblings were Péter who gave the Hungarian premiere of Bartók's Second Violin Concerto, my sister Sára was a violinist in the Radio Orchestra, and my other sister Judit was a viola player in the Hungarian State Opera.
- In 1933 you all played a concert in Rome. What made you decide to become an artist rather than a musician?
- I came back to Budapest and at that time I played in the Academy Youth Orchestra. It was then that I suddenly realised that this was not for me. I had to paint! In art I don't have to do anything other than reproduce my own thoughts. In 1939 I re-entered the College for Fine Arts and finished my studies.
- What memories do you have or your teacher Oszkár Glatz? Who were your colleagues and friends who helped you?
- My first master was a jovial, smiling little man, but very critical. I learned most from my fellow students. I look back with great affection on Akos Ecsödy, Gyulá Hincz, Vladimir Szabó and the fantastic Lajos Szalay… When we were young we took a lot of pleasure in each other's work. Until 1935 one could hardly sell anything and there was always a celebration if one of us managed to make a sale. I taught at the Applied Arts school and then, so that I could support my family, I worked as a designer at the College of Applied Arts. I paint with difficulty. Often a picture stands there for years while I think about it, wondering what it needs.
- How do you see the role of an artist?
- All the while artists were not painting landscapes, people couldn't take pleasure in them. All the while artist and sculptors didn't show the beauty of life, then it didn't exist. The works of the great masters possess the strength of the soul, give their opinions of the world, and help us to live.
- And the future of art?
- It's difficult to predict what the future holds. But I hope the present direction will exhaust itself. Maybe there will be a new realism. New things to say. Young people will be able to express new exciting, original thoughts; they will have originality and beauty in their pictures.
- Your table is piled with books, journals and old newspapers. Why are there so many works by Rudolf Steiner?
- Two years ago I took one of his books off the shelf and fell in love with it. I felt the same thing that one of his translators wrote in a foreword: “After forty years, it seems that from that October of 1956 a light began to shine down on Hungary.”
- What effect did the revolution have on your life?
- I feel that when I went into the streets in '56, I knew everybody. We were like brothers. The whole world was watching us, the 14-16 year-old boys who jumped up onto the tanks.
- Looking back, how do you see your path so far?
- The most important thing is that I haven't finished studying. I want to have a competition with time, to paint those things which the continual renewal of life produces from me. In other words, I want to continue, rather than close down my life, concentrate and marvel at every small miracle.
- Hearing you speak, I feel that I am meeting a happy man. God has blessed you with such a long life and good health.
- I usually pray. Mostly in the morning, when the world awakens, a new day begins, and I see the shining of the sparkling sun. I thank God that I am here, there's light, clean air, bread on my table, I have my loved ones, and that this small world exists. Fortunately, I feel free to do what I love. And that joy I can share with the people of my world.

Felix Lajos Fenyvesi

The photographs are of “Dömös Landscape” and the artist and his daughter.

Jenö Szervánszky - A Life

Early Years
- Having decided to pursue an artistic rather than musical career, Jenö Szervánszky studied with Oszkár Glatz at the College of Fine Arts in Budapest. He mentions in his autobiographical note that he eventually became Glatz's assistant, but does not add that this position was traditionally reserved for the most favoured and promising pupil.
- In 1940 he met and married Valeria Kremer, a pianist and piano teacher and young couple moved to Novisad where they both obtained employment in simple but rewarding positions.
The War Years
- They were both very happy there but the catastrophe of the Second World War inevitably brought extremely difficult times for the Szervánszky family and all Hungarians.
- Although the Hungarian government officially proclaimed neutrality, they demonstrated every sympathy with Nazi objectives and eventually declared war on the allies in 1941.
- As an artist, Jenö Szervánszky was at first exempt from serving in the army but in 1944 he too was called up and served near to the Austrian boarder. Without the slightest desire to fight for the fascist leanings of his country, later, he would take delight in telling how he would always shoot in the opposite direction rather than risk actually hitting anyone.
- After heavy losses on the Russian front, however, the government sued for peace but the country was occupied by the Germans in March, 1944. This led to an appalling reign of terror against all dissidents and Jews, many of who were either deported or executed. As the power of Germany waned, the Soviet army entered Hungary in the east on October 7th, 1944. Eventually, on April 4, 1945 Budapest was liberated.
- Szervánszky's regiment was disbanded and they began the long march back to their homes. It was on this journey that the Hungarians were stopped by a brigade of Soviet soldiers. Initially friendly, the men were offered food and shelter. In the morning, however, they found that they had been locked in and were prisoners. It became clear that they were to be route marched into the Soviet Union in order to work as slave-labour.
- The Soviet plans to transport the men appeared to require that they be held in captivity for several weeks before being sent away. Szervánszky observed that those who were obviously sick or too feeble to work were being allowed to leave. He realised that if he was transported to the East then he would in all probability never return. He decided on the desperate gamble of not eating in order to starve himself into a state of weakness. Over the course of a few weeks he eat less and less. His physical state rapidly deteriorated to the extent that he weighed only thirty-eight kilos. His plan worked. He was released by the Soviet troupes and found refuge with a Hungarian family who gave him shelter and fed him. After a few weeks, in August 1945 he walked back to Budapest when his wife was patiently waiting.
- The major events in the Szervánszkys' lives immediately following the war were the births of their two children, Attila in 1945 and Valeria in 1947. As he mentions, in order to support his family, between 1946 and 1951 Szervánszky did graphical work and drew pictures to illustrate news stories at a time when technology did not run to photographs in newspapers. In 1951 he began teaching at the College of Applied Arts.
The Hungarian Revolution
- After the defeat of Germany, elections were held on November 4, 1945. they were won by the Small Landholders' Party, led by Zoltán Tildy. A republic was proclaimed, and Tildy was elected President. A coalition cabinet was formed, with Ferenc Nagy, a prominent member of the Small Landholders' Party, as Premier and Mátyás Rákosi, the General Secretary of the Hungarian Communist party, as Vice-Premier.
- A period of political instability followed the war but the hardliner Mátyás Rákosi eventually became prime minister. The communists took power, supported by the Soviet Union, while opponents of the communist regime were sent to labour camps.
- After the death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953, however, the Soviets followed somewhat more liberal policies. This so-called “New Course” was support by Imre Nagy, who had become the Hungarian leader and, for a while, life in Hungary held the promise of being easier. By 1955, however, Nagy had been ousted by more hardline leaders such as Ernö Gerö.
- In the spring of 1956, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced the extremes Stalin's former regime. This encouraged dissidents in Hungarian to call for more freedom. Intellectuals and students demanded reforms and openly called for the withdrawal of the Soviet military from Hungarian territory. What began as massive demonstrations escalated on October 23 to riots with the police. Even though many of the communist supporters deserted the government, the Prime Minister, Gerö appealed to the Soviet Union for help.
- In the face of overwhelmingly superior forces, the dissidents in their turn appealed to the United Nations for assistance. Their call was ignored. The revolution was brutally crushed.
- Buildings in Budapest remain to this day, still riddled with the bullet marks from this dreadful event. Valeria, the Szervánszky's daughter, then nine years old, remembers little of the horror of the time, except that the children were allowed to miss school and that the whole family took refuge in the basement of the turn-of-the-century block of flats in Damjanich utca into which the family had moved in 1950.
- A new Communist dictatorship was set up, and János Kádár was installed as the head of government. Punishment of the dissidents, however, continued throughout 1957 and 1958, and thousands were deported to Soviet labour camps. Valeria remembers her father telling her not to look as, down the street, people were being forced into trucks.
- Kádár remained firmly in control of Hungary for the next thirty years and it was not until 1967 that he relaxed the firm control of the USSR and was able to give Hungary the reputation of the most relaxed and liberal of all the Soviet Union satellites.
- Although Jenö Szervánszky never actively fought for the dissidents cause, he certainly supported them. Although the official reason for his dismissal from the College of Applied Arts in 1957 was for some staff “re-structuring”, he believed he was simply dismissed because of his political beliefs. He never worked for any institution again.
The Latter Years
- For the last forty years of his life Jenö Szervánszky lived a life which was centred solely around his work and his family - his wife Vali (Valeria, whose piano teaching helped support the family), his son Attila, his daughter, (also Valeria, a pianist) and his son-in-law, Ronald Cavaye (also a pianist).
- Beginning his day with gymnastics and some shopping, he would go up to spend his time working in the huge studio in the family apartment at 32 Damjanich utca, in the seventh district of Budapest. Sometimes he would visit old friends, colleagues from the early days and more recent acquaintances such as the composer György Kurtág and his wife, Marta. But, as time went on the number of his former colleagues inevitably became fewer and fewer.
- Unfailingly kind, gentle and soft-spoken, Jenö Szervánszky was universally loved and respected not only by his old friends, but also by all the younger people who came into contact with him. To call his reading a “hobby” would not do justice either to its breadth or to the great part literature played in his overall outlook on life. This acquired knowledge and his natural quiet wisdom found him many new young friends. Inevitably, even people who met him only once would comment on his kindness and warmth.
- Mr. Szervánszky remained remarkably fit throughout his life, even travelling all the way to Japan, where his daughter and her husband were living, in order to help out at home around the birth of their son, Misha, in 1985. At that time Mr. Szervánszky was seventy-nine years old! Some of the more abstract pictures from that time were actually inspired by the night sky as seen from aeroplane windows.
- Jenö Szervánszky's wife died in 1992, but he visited his daughter and her family (by this time living in London) frequently. For most of the years he continued to live alone in Budapest but his son and other admiring helpers would check on him most days.
- During all this time he hardly sold a picture. Why?
- From the time of the Revolution, Jenö Szervánszky played almost no part in the public artistic community of his country. Totally devoid of ambition, he never sought to re-establish himself with the establishment, either as a teacher or an artist. He set his own goals and his own standards and, for him, the daily search for artistic truth was all the stimulus he needed. Alone with his ideals, he patiently trod his own path with no regard to material fame or fortune.
- Increasingly he spoke of his paintings as parts of himself that he could not simply sell off. That is not to say that he was so in love with his own work that he could not bare to let it go. Far from it. Not only did paintings sometime sit on his easels for (quite literally) years, but, like all really great artists, he was never satisfied with his work and was known to destroy paintings which, though to other eyes seemingly finished, did not satisfy him.
- The few people who did buy paintings from him during the last thirty years of his life did so primarily because they came to his studio through personal introductions. Even then, however, he was careful never to show potential buyers works with which he (or his family) could not bare to part. He was, however, unfailingly generous to friends and family and would often give away paintings to people who he loved and respected.
- Living alone in the Budapest apartment became increasingly difficult, and so for the last year of his life Jenö Szervánszky lived in London at the home of his daughter and her family. He turned 98 in September, 2004 and although he no longer painted, he continued to read his favourite literature and occasionally listened to music until the last months of his life. With all his family with him, he died at home at about 5.20 on the morning of March 20th, 2005. After a simple ceremony, he was cremated in London and his ashes were buried in the family grave in Budapest on May 31, 2005.

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